Some things are non-negotiable – first-timers really shouldn’t leave Copenhagen without at least once strolling along the waterfront at Nyhavn or succumbing to the twinkly charms of Tivoli amusement park. But there are plenty of other experiences to keep you happily busy too, from picnicking on board a little boat as you float through the city’s waterways to climbing the spire of a baroque church for impressive views. Telegraph Travel expert Suzanne King shares the best things to do in Copenhagen.
Explore the city on two wheels
Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when other cities started bending over backwards to cater for cars, the Danes made a conscious decision to encourage cycling instead. As a result, Copenhagen is the perfect city to explore on two wheels: the streets are (mostly) flat, there are proper dedicated bike lanes and pretty much all the hotels and hostels keep bikes for guests to borrow or hire.
Insider’s tip: To avoid infuriating the locals, ride on the right-hand side of the path (so faster cyclists can pass on your left), give way to passengers at bus stops, and always raise your right hand first if you want to stop.
Follow your nose at Torvehallerne market
The two glass-and-steel market halls at Torvehallerne are a must on any foodie tour of the city. There aren’t really any weak links among the 60-odd stalls (all are stocked with tempting displays of fresh produce and deli supplies) but highlights would have to include the duck confit baguettes at Ma Poule and the artisan Danish cheeses at Arla Unika. Many of the stalls have stools where you can perch for a bite to eat or drink.
Insider’s tip: Unsurprisingly, things get seriously busy over the peak lunchtime period. Time your visit for breakfast/brunch or mid-afternoon instead, when it’s easier to browse the stalls and you stand more chance of finding a spare stool or two.
Nearest metro: Nørreport
Watch the world go by on the quayside at Nyhavn
No wonder Nyhavn is one of the most popular, and most photographed, places in Copenhagen: there are boats bobbing at anchor, colourfully painted townhouses lining the cobbled quayside, and the bars and restaurants on the sunny side of the canal have plenty of alfresco tables, perfect for people watching. Come at Christmas and you’ll find festive market stalls dotted along the way as well.
Insider’s tip: Because Nyhavn is such a tourist magnet, many assume the restaurants won’t be up to much but there are some goodies in amongst them. Try Hummer for great shellfish and Kompasset for smørrebrød.
Nearest metro: Kongens Nytorv
Book tour tickets
Fall in love with the enchanting Tivoli Gardens
You’d need a heart of stone to remain uncharmed by Tivoli. To call it an amusement park doesn’t really do it justice – yes, it has rides (and some pretty hairy ones at that), along with fairground stalls and candyfloss, but it also has high-end restaurants, attractive flower gardens and live entertainment from major international artists.
Insider’s tip: The rides and restaurants are open all day but to get the full Tivoli magic you have to be there after dark. The park is lit up with endless strings of fairy lights, coloured bulbs and lanterns, turning it into a totally twinkly, cynic-defeating wonderland.
Join the party in the nightlife hub
Kødbyen, aka the Meatpacking District, is a complex of former meat warehouses turned nightlife central; the area has been a hotspot for a while, but it still shows no sign of cooling off. There’s pretty much something for everyone, with different foodie sights and scents tugging you this way and that, especially in summer, when the weekend food market adds dozens more street food stalls into the mix. At night, the clubs that look dead by day come alive and the place is jumping into the early hours.
Insider’s tip: If you’re more of an early morning bird than a night owl, check out tiny Prolog. They serve some of the best coffee in town – along with freshly baked croissants and cool lifestyle magazines – to a silky, sunny soundtrack of Brazilian/Cuban sounds.
Nearest metro: København H
Take a walk in Frederiksberg Have park
Frederiksberg Have is one of the city’s loveliest parks, with paths twining round lakes, lawns and woodlands and opening up into clearings where you might find a Chinese pavilion, a little grotto or a waterfall. Potential wildlife sightings include herons as fearless as pigeons, red squirrels scampering round the trees and even the elephants in next-door Copenhagen Zoo – you can get a good view of them (and their Norman Foster-designed home) from a couple of spots in the southwest corner of the park.
Insider’s tip: If you come in to the park through the Frederiksberg Runddel entrance, veer off left before the main gate to discover the crowd-free Haveselskabets Have (Garden Company’s Garden) – a tranquil series of garden rooms, designed for serenity and inspiration.
Nearest metro: Frederiksberg Allé
Go underground to experience a quirky art installation at Cisternerne
Two glass prisms jutting out of the ground at Søndermarken are the only external signs of Cisternerne, an exhibition space housed within the subterranean vaults that once stored the city’s water supply. Each year a different artist creates a site-specific installation, so what you see will depend on when you go; for 2023 (12 March-30 November), it will be the turn of South Korean conceptual artist Kimsooja, whose new installation will transform the space into a sea of light, split into every colour of the rainbow.
Insider’s tip: Wear something warm – even when it’s the height of summer outside, it’s chillier in this underground space.
Climb the spire of a baroque church for city views
For those untroubled by vertigo, Vor Frelsers Kirke in Christianshavn is one of the most exciting places to go for a view over the city skyline. It’s a 400-step climb to the golden globe at the top, with the final, hair-raising 150 of them taking you up a gilded oak staircase that spirals in ever-decreasing circles round the outside of the tower.
Insider’s tip: It’s not for the faint of heart – the railings round the external staircase are open and quite low, and if it’s windy, everything shakes slightly (indeed, if it’s too windy, it’s closed). If nerves fail you, just go as far as the base of the spire and enjoy the view from there.
Nearest metro: Christianshavn
Picnic on a solar-powered boat
There’s no shortage of options when it comes to exploring Copenhagen’s waterways, from canal tours and harbour ferries to pedalos and kayaks. Particularly popular right now is GoBoats’ little fleet of solar-powered vessels, moored up at Islands Brygge. No experience or qualifications necessary – anyone can hire one for a few hours and steer their own course along the harbour and through the canals.
Insider’s tip: Pack a picnic to take with you – each boat has a large table in the middle so you can graze as you go. If you forget, you can pick up drinks (including wines and beers) at the booking office.
Nearest metro: Islands Brygge
Indulge your inner boffin at Experimentarium
The idea of visiting a science museum might not be immediately appealing, but don’t be put off – the hands-on Experimentarium is stuffed full of interactive exhibits and is honestly enormous fun. You’ll come away eager to regale anyone who’ll listen with tales of lying on a bed of nails, encasing yourself in a giant soap bubble and playing a laser harp.
Insider’s tip: With so many exhibits vying for your attention, it’s surprisingly easy to miss one of the star attractions. Don’t leave the second floor without making sure you’ve experienced the entrancing displays of the Lys Labyrinten, or ‘labyrinth of light’.
Go skiing at CopenHill
This new urban mountain captured the world’s imagination when it opened in 2019, creating a ski slope and public park on top of a waste-to-energy power plant. It’s brought year-round winter sports to the Danish capital (hire gear from the shop at the base and you can then ski, snowboard or sledge your way down the slope) but there are activities for non-skiers, too. Experienced climbers can tackle the world’s highest climbing wall while walkers get to stretch their legs on a landscaped trail or along the stepped paths that run either side of the building.
Insider’s tip: Even if you’re not the active type, it’s still worth a visit: just take the lift to the top to visit the rooftop café and soak up stellar views over the city.
Price: Free entrance to the rooftop and café; extra charge for alpine sports/equipment hire