Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of design and new technologies. This Scandinavian city where life is good (the inhabitants of Copenhagen are the inventors of the hygge lifestyle and the delicious smorrebrod) blends modernity, simplicity and originality to perfection; affirming its identity with pride through a Viking past and Nordic sagas. Combining courtesy, rigour and relaxation, the inhabitants benefit from an exemplary social policy system, even if they sometimes complain about it! Behind their legendary discretion lies a formidable efficiency. Peaceful Copenhagen, the one that once inspired the famous storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, unveils its typical Nyhavn port, Amalienborg Palace, Christiansborg Palace, Tivoli Gardens, National Museum and Glyptotek Museum, as well as bold architectural tours and the Carlsberg brewery. Enjoy the absence of traffic jams and lively cycle paths, admire the buildings of famous architects, go from festivals to underground evenings in Kodbyen and Vesterbro, cross bridges defying logic and imagination to reach Christianshavn and Freetown Christiania… So what makes the little mermaid so melancholic (at least her replica, the original being, after many assaults, hidden in a safe place) on her rock by the sea? A tourist guide to Copenhagen, a pretty chrysalis in the heart of the Baltic Sea, will help you discover its secrets.
Here are the best things to do in Copenhagen:
1. VOR FRUE KIRKE KØBENHAVNS DOMKIRKE
Raised in 1829 by the inevitable C. F. Hansen, Copenhagen Cathedral erects a neoclassical colonnaded facade on the square of the same name. No less than seven sanctuaries, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, had been built on the site since 1185, until the 1807 bombing forced the authorities to build a new edifice.
2. TIVOLI GARDENS
It was outside the ramparts that King Christian VIII had this amusement park built in 1843 on the model of the Vauxhall in London. According to the sovereign (who clung to the concept of absolute monarchy), the idea was to distract people so that they would not think of anything else, that is, of course, the growing desire for the establishment of a constitutional regime. The king therefore called on a show entrepreneur, Georg Carstensen, who entrusted the architect H. C. Stilling the layout of the park, which also included a concert hall that gave a definitive boost to Danish music. As for the name, it was borrowed from the Tivoli Gardens of Paris (name derived from the Tivoli Gardens near Rome).
3. SANKT FREDERIKS KIRKE – MARMORKIRKEN
The construction of this church was considered from the very beginning of the district for which it was to be the high point. The first project was by Nikolai Eigtved, and the first stone of this rococo style sanctuary was laid by King Frederik V on 30 September 1749: the building was to be made of Norwegian marble. But the architect died in 1754. His rival Lauritz de Thurah is scrambling to succeed him, except that… A French architect, Nicolas-Henri Jardin, has just arrived in Copenhagen, and he imports the new fashion of his country, classicism: the sovereign is seduced, the Frenchman is in charge of remodelling the project in the new style.
4. DEN LILLE HAVFRUE
Surrounded by tourists who want to take pictures of her and by boats that stop near her rock, the Little Mermaid is undoubtedly the symbol of Copenhagen. Admittedly, it is not very large but it emanates a charm imbued with melancholy. Even if most tourists are often disappointed, we must admit it. This monument was sculpted by Edvard Eriksen in 1913, at the request of Carl Jacobsen, the brewer from Carlsberg, founder of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The patron wanted to immortalize the features of his mistress Ellen Price, star dancer of the Royal Theatre, with whom he had fallen in love while she was participating in a ballet illustrating Andersen’s famous eponymous tale. Some claim that the young lady was subjected to modesty at the idea that her body could be revealed to all Copenhageners and, therefore, that only her face is sculpted after her – for the bust, it would have been modeled after Mrs. Eriksen’s. Nevertheless, Jacobsen offered the statue to the city, which installed it at the entrance to the port. On August 23, 2013, the Little Mermaid celebrated her 100th birthday.
5. ROSENBORG SLOT
If there are authentic guards at the entrance of the castle, it is because it is here that the Crown Jewels, displayed in the castle’s cellars, are found: some are still worn by the queen (except the crown) on a few occasions. Before entering through the safe door that gives access to the showcases, you can also admire the objects of the Green Cabinet, an amazing collection of tableware (ivory mugs, rock crystal) and gifts collected by the royal family until 1696, in the room (painted green) of a tower of the castle. Almost all of this small treasure (699 pieces) was found and displayed there, a testimony to Western and Eastern art of the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle itself was built by Christian IV between 1606 and 1633 by successive additions of wings and rooms. Unlike the other castles of the Builder King, it has not suffered any fire or bombardment. It was used as a second residence by the Danish rulers for a century, sheltered the court for a few years when Christiansborg was destroyed at the end of the 18th century. The interior has undergone some modifications, at the discretion of the successors of Christian IV. Home to the royal collections of jewellery and paintings, it was opened to the public in 1833. The visit is all the more pleasant as it is done in natural light, with only a few rooms being lit by electricity (hence the limited opening hours in winter, even if it is planned to electrify all the rooms). During the off-season, you have the impression of entering an inhabited castle… The large festival hall on the second floor, where the Coronation Chair has been installed, is quite impressive. All ivory and narwhal tusks, it is surrounded by three 17th century silver lions. This throne was used from 1871 to 1940. The rooms chronologically illustrate the different reigns of the country’s history (until Frederik VII, for the rest, you have to go to Amalienborg, to Christian VIII’s palace) with paintings and furniture, some of which have been saved from the fires of other royal residences. Feel free to take a walk in the King’s Garden (Kongens Have), the vast park that surrounds the castle. It is very popular with Copenhagen residents who come to undress at the slightest ray of sunshine: it is the most central park. And the view on the castle is splendid.
This huge museum occupies a whole block of houses framed by Vester Voldgade and Frederiksholms Kanal, Stormgade and Ny Vestergade where the entrance is located. It opens onto a large atrium surrounded by two floors of galleries. On the left of this first hall, Egmont Hall is dedicated to temporary exhibitions, the surrounding rooms being dedicated to ethnographic collections. On the right, the palace gardens, crossed by a glass corridor, are surrounded by three levels of galleries. In short, there is enough to spend a great day exploring this museum and its richness, and the variety of collections is such that it is better to visit it several times or choose according to your interests.
7. CARLSBERG BREWERY
The Jacobsen family temple. A former brewer in central Copenhagen, J. C. Jacobsen bought this land in 1847, then in the countryside, to set up his new brewery. His little boy seeing Frederiksberg Hill asked him if it was a mountain (a normal question from a child of the flat Copenhagen!) and Carl’s mountain, “Carlsberg”, was mentioned. That’s to impress your friends at the café terraces on the way home. The place, very 19th century, is in any case superb: Florentine Renaissance tunes, with some figures of Nordic mythology on the roofs. The Jacobsens, great art lovers, were generous patrons. They welcomed artists (Vilhelm Dahlerup, author of these sculpted elephants that you will see in the middle of the street, supporting a building, but also architect of the Glyptotek), and scientists (Pasteur did important work there, and the Dane Emil Christian Hansen completed them, developing a yeast that was used directly in Carlsberg and is now used by most brewers on the planet). In addition to the modern facilities and richly decorated old rooms, you will discover stables: Carlsberg still has its beer crates delivered by twenty-two horses in Copenhagen (which can be crossed in the early morning to Strøget). An effective mix of tradition and marketing! Since 2008, production has been entirely relocated to a state-of-the-art factory in Fredericia, with only the administrative services and management remaining at the Valby site.
8. CHRISTIANSBORG SLOT
Since the 12th century, the castle has been destroyed several times: in 1367, then in 1730 for the good pleasure of Christian VI who wanted a more comfortable residence, then in 1794 by a fire that forced the royal family and the court to settle in Amalienborg, finally, in 1884 by a new fire. The site as it stands today was completed in 1928. The walls are covered with granite except for the main facade, made of pebbles donated by 750 municipalities in the kingdom. From the first royal baroque castle built in 1730, only the marble bridge, which leads to the main entrance of Christiansborg, the stables (with marble stelae and superb horses, take a look!), the carousel and the court theatre remain. The castle chapel was built in 1826.
9. AMALIENBORG PALACE
When the fire destroyed Christiansborg Palace in the heart of Copenhagen, the royal family found themselves on the street. They rented part of the four houses in Amalienborg Square that belonged to a family of aristocrats. These four simple buildings were designed by Niels Eigtved, based on plans by Nicolas Jardin, and their diagonal layout on the square forms an ensemble of rare simplicity and elegance for royal residences. Because, since the end of the 18th century, the royal family has settled here definitively. The king lives in one palace, his descendants in another. Part of this palace (called Christian VIII’s palace) has been open to visitors since 1994. Eleven pieces have been reconstructed from period photographs.
10. DEN FRIE UDSTILLING
This is a very curious building, unexpected, at least in this place since it is a wooden pavilion with a false air of an ancient temple, decorated with a brightly coloured portico. The building was designed by architect Tyge Hvass (1885-1963) in 1954 to house the exhibitions of the Free Artists Association. To keep up with current exhibitions, visit the website.
Founded in 1479, it has been housed since 1836 in this sad building designed by Peter Malling (1781-1865), next to the cathedral. The facade is preceded by busts of doctes representatives of the local intelligentsia: six on either side of the university entrance, and three on the cathedral side. Among these, the most famous is undoubtedly the scientist Niels Bohr (1885-1962).
The old, infamous sailors’ district has changed a lot. On the sunny shore (odd numbers), forbidden to cars, there is almost one coffee shop per house. There are still a few tattoo shops left, but their signs are now written in English.
13. KØBENHAVNS MUSEUM
Dedicated to the history of the Danish capital, this museum is housed in a small palace dating from 1782, the former headquarters of the Royal Copenhagen Shooting Society, on the left of Vesterbrogade.
14. ALLEGADE & PILE ALLÉ
Along the Frederiksberg park, Allegade (which becomes Pile Allé by crossing Frederiksberg Allé) is bordered in its upper part by villas, some preceded by a garden and painted with this characteristic Copenhagen yellow, so bright when the sun wants to be part of it. Others, more recent, have a neoclassical style with pediments and colonnades. Some have very popular restaurants with large terraces.
15. KONGENS NYTORV
The Strøget leads to this noble and vast square, created from 1688 onwards to link the historic city with the new districts built outside the city walls. The place had then remained in a state of wasteland until Christian V decided to make it a royal place. The statue of the sovereign, made by Abraham-César Lamoureux, was then installed on the site. In addition to the usual allegorical figures, Lamoureux placed a naked man under the legs of the horse, which seems to be trampling on his feet. For the record, this poor boy came to symbolize Envy in order to help the sculptor to make a rather unstable equestrian group stand upright… to the point that the statue had to be rebuilt in 1944 to ensure its durability. Simply called by the people of Copenhagen “the horse”, the monument is one of the highlights of the end-of-year student celebrations: the “dance around the horse” is a great moment in the life of every student. Recently refurbished, the square is now partly dedicated to pedestrians. All around, several buildings are interesting.
16. KUNSTHALLEN NIKOLAJ
Although its square tower dates from the 16th century, this church, which had been burned in 1795, was not rebuilt until 1915. Completed in 1917, it was not used for religious services for long. Disused, it has been converted into a place for exhibitions of contemporary art, often remarkable. Only the presence of an organ or the shape of the windows (no stained glass windows here, we are in Protestant soil) remind us that we are in a church… A café (Cafeen in Nikolaj) has even been set up in the sacristy. As you walk around the church, you can see a bust of the painter Svend Aage Tauscher (1911-1982) who seems to have been a happy man and in any case one of the figures of Bohemian Copenhagen: it was his drinking companions who contributed to immortalize him in this way.
17. BOTANISK HAVE
Separated from Rosenborg Palace by Øster Voldgade Avenue, this garden occupies a vast quadrilateral between Øster Farimagsgade, Gothersgade and Sølvgade, bordering the Østerbro district. In this large garden, with a romantic lake, to which a small “alpine garden” descends, you can admire more than 20,000 different plant species (all identified, of course) spread over 10 hectares. Some of them, obviously the most tropical, are located in a vast heated greenhouse (Palmehuset) which offers, as soon as it is a little cold, a real change of scenery! This superb glass and metal structure (1874) has a beautiful rotunda and passageways where you can walk over the tropical forest almost at the height of the tops of palm trees and other banana trees (access by a spiral metal staircase). But it is of course during the summer months that the garden takes all its interest. You will discover rare trees (ginkgo biloba), roses that only existed in the Middle Ages, carnivorous plants…
Leading from Kongens Nytorv to Churchill Park, brushing Amalienborg Square and the Marble Church, this straight road is lined with small palaces and noble residences (Nos. 28, 42 and 54 in particular), most of them built in the 18th century. There are art galleries and showrooms of designer furniture and some luxury shops and restaurants, a Russian and a Catholic church, as well as the exciting museum of applied arts. Of course, the place is rather deserted at the end of the day, the animation is concentrated on a parallel road, Store Kongensgade where there are many cafés and restaurants.
19. SANKT ALEKSANDER NEVSKIJ KIRKE
You can’t miss it, you can see from Kongens Nytorv the golden bulbs of its bell tower. A Russian look? Well yes! because it is an Orthodox church, built at the end of the 19th century at the request of Princess Dagmar (1847-1928), daughter of the Danish king Christian IX. Marrying the future tsar Alexander III, she converted to the Orthodox religion, took the name of Maria Feodorovna, and wished for an appropriate place of prayer during her frequent visits to her family in Copenhagen.
In the past, cisterns were used to supply Copenhagen with water. The excavation began in 1856, and the factory was completed three years later. In the mid-1800s, the capital needed large quantities of water and it would have to be stored in order to be delivered under pressure to Copenhagen homes. The water was pumped from these tanks. Originally this huge water tank was open, then it was covered with a concrete structure for hygiene and sanitary reasons. The drinking water tank ceased to operate in 1933. The cisterns now host Denmark’s only stalactite cave. These are impressive in terms of size and diversity. Some stalactites are even hundreds of thousands of years old.