Copenhagen’s most fabled resident, “The Little Mermaid,” still lounges on her harbour rock, luring thousands of photo-hungry visitors each day. The storybook pavilions of Tivoli Gardens continue to delight kids of all ages. And the historic townhouses of the Nyhavn neighbourhood remain as colourful as when Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote here 175 years ago.
But make no mistake: In recent years Copenhagen has become far more than a quaint destination. With the average age of its residents having dropped to 35 and a quarter of its population of non-Danish origin, a youthful energy and international spirit now animate this creative city that routinely lands on lists of the world’s happiest—and coolest—places to live.
Wander the interconnected islands cantered on a historic harbour and you’ll encounter the contrasts that make the city so exciting. Stately old churches stand near angular contemporary architecture. Restaurants like the famed Noma create wildly inventive New Nordic cuisine inside repurposed industrial buildings.
Visit in the summer when evening light lingers in the sky and life spills onto waterside squares, or in the colder, darker months when interiors turn hygge—Danish for a sense of cosy well-being—with glowing candles and shearling-draped chairs. Whatever the season, you’ll find a fairy-tale town that fully embraces the real world.
Rene Redzepi’s temple to New Nordic cuisine spawned a movement
Splashes of graffiti bring a shock of energy to the soaring concrete walls of ex-factory AMASS, a certified organic restaurant whose prix fixe menu focuses on seasonal dishes like dry-aged beef with smoked sea snails or a roasted-beet sherbet accompanied by sour cream, rhubarb, and a crumble of salted grains and pickled pine. Organic ingredients also inspire the inventive cooking at RADIO, where unfinished wood floors add a warm touch to the Scandinavian-modern dining room. Depending on the time of year, fork-tender lamb or langoustine (Nordic lobster) tartar spiked with radish and dill might appear on the three- or five-course tasting menus. Beverage pairings include a juice-only option with unusual concoctions like white grape tinged with chamomile. A pub-like vibe animates tiny MANFREDS, a basement-level wine bar in Nørrebro where an eclectic roster of natural vintages complements dishes such as trout with fennel cream and the popular tartare of beef served family style at the kitchen’s own pace.
Lunch like a local on open-face sandwiches
Amid the bustle of this food hall, Hallernes lunch counter dishes up traditional combos like roast beef topped with cucumber salad and horseradish. Sit at the small bar or at one of the tables dot-ting the hugely popular market.
Herring in all its guises (fried, marinated, smoked, pickled), plus roast pork and other classic toppings star at this old-school, lunch-only spot that’s a favourite of government officials who work nearby.
Among the innovative, seasonal selections at this restaurant and tiny deli are cold-smoked salmon with dill emulsion and pork rib with rhubarb compote. If tables are full, get take-out sandwiches for a picnic at the Botanical Garden.
From historic to hip, the city’s neighbourhoods are best seen by bike
A time-traveling spin around the inner harbour takes you from Nyhavn—where the old townhouses have sprouted street-level restaurants—to Christianshavn’s 21st-century Copenhagen Opera House, whose vast canopy roof has hosted world cliff-diving championships. Catch the changing of the guard at Amalienborg, residence of the queen, and visit Designmuseum Danmark to see Arne Jacobsen’s iconic 1958 Egg chair and other heritage objects.
On a ride through Vesterbro, you’ll witness first-hand the transformation of this once-rough district into one of Europe’s “it” neighbourhoods. On streets like Istedgade and Værnedamsvej, sample Danish microbrews before heading to the old meat-packing quarter—Kødbyen—now a thrumming nightlife hub. In the tony enclave of Frederiksberg, stroll the allées of Søndermarkenpark and visit its former underground reservoir, now an avant-garde art venue called Cisternerne.
A multicultural whirl of kebab shops, vintage fashion boutiques, Asian markets, and coffee houses, edgy Nørrebro reigns as the city’s emerging haven of hip. The Green Path cycling route cuts across this northern neighbourhood, passing through high-concept playgrounds like Superkilen, where kids frolic in a square paved in shades of red. Window-shop along gentrified Jægersborggade, and then pay your respects to Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard in Assistens Cemetery.
Fans of the hit Danish television drama Borgen—a nickname for Christiansborg Palace, Denmark’s seat of government—will recognise locations all around this district, where you can tour parliament or royal reception rooms. Treasures of the National Museum of Denmark-Copenhagen include medieval rune stones and Viking-era silver. Nearby Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek art museum claims 57 Paul Gauguin works plus a roof terrace overlooking thrill seekers at Tivoli amusement park.
Hand-hewn, 200-year-old Pomeranian pine beams provide a rustic foil for contemporary Danish furnishings at the newly renovated 71 Nyhavn Hotel. Filling a pair of historic spice warehouses, the harbour-side lodging offers water views from many of its 130 rooms and a new Thai restaurant, SEA, little sister to Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin (71nyhavnhotel.com). The vintage brick facade of Andersen Boutique Hotel presents a staid face to the world, but the interior of this 69-room, one-time block of flats in Vesterbro pops with contemporary design and colour—from the lobby’s clear plastic wingback chairs with fuchsia cushions to the black dot coat hooks by Norwegian designer Lars Tornøe that sprout from walls. In the evening, guests gather around a glowing glass bar for mix-your-own cocktails or complimentary wine (andersen-hotel.dk). Situated in a trio of renovated 1869 apartment buildings in the heart of town, Hotel Sanders evokes a posh private Danish residence from the 1940s, complete with a flickering fireplace in its drawing room-like lobby. Plush upholstered chairs, teak-toned wooden beds, and touches of rattan lend the 54 rooms a pared-down elegance with a colonial accent. Light floods the plant-filled, rooftop conservatory even on grey days, making it a prime spot for sipping tea, coffee, or the much-loved Scandinavian spirit akvavit (hotelsanders.com).
by Brooke Sabin
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
Danish painter Einar Wegener inspired this tale of one person’s gender transition. For the 2015 Oscar-winning movie, filming locations included the Town Hall, Royal Danish Theatre, and Nyhavn neighbourhood.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter HØeg
In this suspense novel turned film, Copenhagen makes a chilling setting for a mysterious death. Follow amateur sleuth Smilla from the snowy rooftops of Christianshavn to the icescapes of Greenland.
Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen
Best known as Dinesen, Karen Blixen also penned 11 imaginative short stories giving evocative descriptions of 19th-century Denmark. Her home, now a museum, is about 25 kilometres north of Copenhagen.