By Athena and Annapurna Mellor
I’ve always felt that I must be a little bit Scandinavian, that somewhere down the line my ancestors had to have been amongst the Vikings who travelled to England from Norway, Sweden or Denmark and settled in my now home-county of Yorkshire. Of course, all I have to back this theory up is the blonder than blonde hair and above-average height of virtually my entire family. Despite this, it took twenty-three years for me to take my first trip to Scandinavia, filled with jittery excitement of heading to what I considered to be a far-off golden land across the Northern Sea; to a place where everything would be cleaner and more organised, where people wouldn’t treat me like a tourist but as a local – to the happiest city in the world, Copenhagen.
There was something instantly infectious about the city. From the clean white tiles of the arrivals lounge, to the hi-tech train that whizzed us from the airport to the city centre, to the wide, empty streets at 9pm as we carried our suitcases to our Air B&B in Nørrebro, a young and vibrant neighbourhood in the west of the city. Copenhagen had all the cool and chic style I had imagined; light and airy cafes serving rich Danish coffee, Scandi-design shops featuring lusted-after furniture, and effortlessly stylish locals riding basket-fronted bicycles down cobbled streets, wearing high-heels, crisp-white shirts, vintage jeans and designer sunglasses. The Copenhagen we discovered was the perfect combination of sleek style with a young and ‘edgy’ twist, held together by a rich history, elaborate architecture, and more bike-lanes, Michelin-star restaurants and hot-dog stands than you could ever dream of finding.
We spent five days in Copenhagen, splitting our time between the touristy centre and more local neighbourhoods. This guide will take you on a journey; through the historic City Centre and across the river to quirky Christianshavn, then west towards artsy Nørrebro before ending in hipster Vesterbro.
I will always maintain that the best way to explore a city is by bicycle, and there are no excuses in a city like Copenhagen where cyclists dominate the roads. Indeed, hiring a bicycle is easy from the city’s public bike-scheme or from one of the many private vendors. So get lost in the City Centre and admire Denmark’s incredible architecture; some of which announces itself in grand palaces and castles while others hides down quaint cobbled streets. Pedal along canals, over bridges and past tall, ancient houses painted pale pink or yellow, decorated with charming window-shutters and bikes perched casually and stylishly outside. Stop whenever an interesting design store catches your eye or you smell the rich scent of Danish coffee brewing in one of the many cafes that line the streets, like Far’s dreng which we stumbled upon down the little street of Ny Adelgade. Park your bicycle and wander down Strøget, the main shopping street in the city centre, or take a boat-trip from Nyhavn, through the canals and up to the famous Little Mermaid sculpture perched on a rock. Here’s a few more things in the City Centre that you definitely shouldn’t miss…
Search ‘Copenhagen’ on Google and the overwhelming majority of photos that appear will be of that distinct line of coloured houses standing at the edge of a narrow boat-filled canal; this is Nyhavn. There’s no denying that this place is heaving with tourists, but it’s certainly worth a visit even if just to take a quick photo and grab one of Copenhagen’s famous ice-creams at Vaffelbageren, topped with whipped cream and jam syrup and enjoyed under an umbrella beside the canal, whilst listening to jazzy street-musicians and soaking in the street’s infectious buzz.
The Round Tower
Whenever I go to a new city, one thing I always like to do is find a viewpoint. For me, seeing a city from above puts it into perspective and allows you to really understand the streets you’ve been walking, the landmarks, the canals and the architecture of a city. It costs 25 krone to climb the Round Tower, from the top of which you’ll find sweeping vistas of Copenhagen’s rooftops, Cathedral domes and tall towers. When you head back down make sure to visit døp, the hotdog truck parked at the base of the tower. Here you’ll find an organic take on the traditional Danish hotdog, with a selection of different sausages (even vegetarian) and an assortment of toppings, including onions, mustard and the special døp sauce.
Just when you think Copenhagen can’t get any more charming, make sure you visit Tivoli Gardens; the second oldest theme park in the world (opened in 1843). Situated right beside the train station, the park is quite literally in the middle of the city. But this isn’t your usual tacky theme park filled with squealing sticky-fingered children, trodden popcorn covering every floor-surface and gaudy-coloured cartoon-themed rides. Instead Tivoli Gardens transports you right back to the 19th century; with an elaborate palace resembling the Taj Mahal, striped deck-chairs on a grassy bank, and the tallest swing ride in the world. Admission is quite expensive, however, costing 110 DKK Monday to Thursday and 120 DKK Friday to Sunday, and you’ll have to pay extra for the rides! But Tivoli Gardens oozes class and is a fun place to spend an evening, especially on a Saturday when there is a firework display at 11.45pm.
Cross the river on the east of the city and you’ll find yourself in Christianshavn, one of the most interesting and contrasting areas of Copenhagen. Cycle across the newly opened bridge from Nyhavn and the first thing you’ll discover is one of the prettiest canals in the city, lined with beautiful houses and an array of boats whose lights twinkle on the water every night.
Delve deeper and you’ll find yourself in Christiania Freetown, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood of Copenhagen where cars are banned and hash is sold on every market-stall around the main square. Though, for us, the vibe seemed a little unwelcoming, Christiania Freetown is certainly one of the most interesting places to visit in Copenhagen. Be aware that photos aren’t allowed around the main street and you are likely to be approached even if you don’t have a lens-cap on your camera. Despite that, we did manage to find a delicious and cheap lunch at Morgenstedet; a cool cafe with garden-seating and an excellent selection of delicious vegetarian food.
A lot of Christianshavn is made up of industrial buildings which are now being transformed into a lively, urban neighbourhood; cafes, restaurants, apartments and creative businesses are occupying old factories along the harbour-front. One of the most interesting transformations is Paper Island, an old paper mill on the banks of the river which is now the biggest and most popular food-market in the city, serving everything from Polish hotdogs to Japanese sushi. Luminous signs light up the interior and 100 different scents fill the air, each stall alluring you in to sample the cuisine. Choose wisely and then sit outside on one of the many deck-chairs or dangle your feet from the edge of the docks.
For a true local experience of a city, venture outside the centre and explore the areas where locals actually live. Nørrebro was the perfect place for that; an artsy and cool quarter of Copenhagen centred around the street of Nørrebrogade. Wander down pretty streets laced with bicycle after bicycle and stumble across boutique stores, airy cafes and delicious bakeries. Head to to Jægarsborggade, a quirky street filled with handicraft stores and friendly locals sipping coffee and reading their morning newspapers al fresco. Visit Meyers Bageri for a delicious Danish pastry then hop across the street to Coffee Collective for some of Copenhagen’s silkiest coffee. For quirky handicrafts take a look in Vanishing Point, or if plants are more your thing KAKTUS will certainly steal your heart. Here’s a couple more places you should try…
In the last few years, that staple breakfast dish of oats and milk has somehow become ‘cool’ and porridge bars have been appearing in some of Europe’s hippest neighbourhoods. Copenhagen’s GRØD may well be where it all began, a branch of which can be found on Nørrebro’s Jægarsborggade. Choose from a range of oats and seeds – from quinoa to chia – laced with fruit, nuts and the chocolate toppings of your choice. With four shops throughout Copenhagen, GRØD is one of the most popular breakfast spots in the city. I wish they’d bring one to the UK…
After breakfast, keep wandering down Jægarsborggade until you reach Assistens Cemetery, a large, tree covered cemetery where the grave of Hans Christian Andersen can be found. Indeed, more like a park than a graveyard, cycle down tree-lined paths that make you forget that you are in fact in the middle of a city. For me, Assistens Cemetery felt like the perfect place to find a quiet corner and sit with a book in the summertime, but one that would really find itself in the winter when covered in frost and snow.
While we loved the quaint and arty feel of Nørrebro, it was Vesterbro’s quirky contrasts that really stole our hearts. Once the home of Copenhagen’s meat and fish markets, Vesterbro is today known as the ‘Meatpacking District’; some of best eateries in the city can be found inside the old market, while street-food and vintage clothing markets occupy the outside areas where vendors used to flog their produce. Vesterbro is also one of Copenhagen’s best places to shop, filled with quirky design stores, vintage clothing shops and antique flea markets. Head to Prag on Vesterbrogade – the best and biggest vintage clothing store we found in the city – then drink coffee and browse vinyls in Kaffe og Vinyl. Lust after Danish design in DANSK Made for Rooms then stroll down the quaint and cobbled street of Værnedamsvej before dinner.
While street-food and hot-dog stands can be found on virtually every corner of Copenhagen, there is also a surprisingly large amount of Michelin star restaurants. In fact, you might be surprised to hear that Copenhagen is a real ‘foodie’ city, and I’d certainly recommend splurging a little on at least one meal while you’re there. We were advised to try Paté Paté in Vesterbro, just around the corner from our hotel. Located in a section of the old meat market, Paté Paté is light and airy with a young, trendy vibe and incredibly friendly staff. Choose from a selection of small plates (tapas-style) or main meals, and make sure you leave a little space for their delicious deserts. There were plenty of vegetarian options, and though the meal was expensive it was certainly worth it for the experience and the exceptional flavours.
With incredible restaurants, cool cafes and boutique stores a-plenty, Copenhagen really is a very alluring city. Add to that a rich history, beautiful architecture and relaxed, friendly vibe and it’s easy to see why Copenhagen is, indeed, the happiest city in the world. I certainly could imagine myself living there; in a quiet quarter of the Vesterbro district with a basket-fronted bicycle, sitting casually in cafes and trying out new restaurants in the evenings. Not only that but it is a city with canals, green-spaces and more bicycles than you could possibly imagine. Perhaps it’s time to dig-deep into my blonde-haired ancestry and find some Danish heritage after all…
Transport: there is a direct train from the airport to Copenhagen’s central train station, and an excellent bus service all throughout the city. I’d highly recommend hiring a bicycle though to experience true local life.
Money: Denmark’s currency is the Danish Krone (DKK), one of which is equivalent to roughly £0.10 GBP. Copenhagen is an expensive city! A meal in a restaurant will usually cost around 200 DKK each while a coffee might be around 35 DKK. There are plenty of street-food options however if you’re travelling on a budget.
Stay: We split our time in Copenhagen between an Air B&B in Nørrebro and the Andersen Boutique Hotel in Vesterbro. I would highly recommend the hotel for it’s delicious breakfast, light and stylish rooms and incredibly friendly staff. Air B&B is also great in the city whether you’re looking for a more local experience or you’re travelling on a budget, and there are plenty of hostels too (I’d recommend Urban House which was just up the road from our hotel).
Head to the Visit Copenhagen site for loads more useful information on the city.
Athena Mellor is a writer, linguist and co-founder of ROAM Magazine. Her passion for travel lies in that which keeps you on the move – hiking, cycle-touring, road-tripping. After graduating from University College London with a degree in Modern Languages, Athena decided to spend 4 months solo cycle-touring around parts of the USA and New Zealand, before returning to the USA to explore more of California, Oregon and Washington. She shoots on a Pentax MX 35mm film camera and is constantly trying to learn new languages on her travels, also working as a freelance translator. She is based in Yorkshire, England.