As we get to know Copenhagen, we'll discover reminders of its Viking history and see reflections today of its proudly independent ways. We'll stroll down Europe's first great pedestrian boulevard, ogle crown jewels in the palace treasury, and take a bike ride through an inspirational hippie squatter community, finishing at Copenhagen's full-time carnival, Tivoli Gardens.
A charming Dane with a master's degree in history, Christian runs a walking tour on Saturday mornings that's time well spent for anyone with a serious interest in Danish history.
Focus on this museum's excellent and curiously enjoyable Danish collection — especially its prehistoric collection, the best of its kind in Scandinavia. Exhibits are laid out chronologically and described in English.
This finely furnished Dutch Renaissance–style castle was built by King Christian IV in the early 1600s as a summer residence. Rosenborg was his favorite residence and where he chose to die. Open to the public since 1838, it houses the Danish crown jewels and 500 years of royal knickknacks.
Copenhagen's Neoclassical cathedral feels like a pagan temple that now houses Christianity. Besides its masterpiece sculptures, the church also features marvelous acoustics, demonstrated in free organ concerts on Saturdays in summer.
The museum has intoxicating artifacts from Egypt, Greece, the Etruscan world, and Rome. The sober realism of 19th-century Danish Golden Age painting reflects the introspection of a once-powerful nation reduced to second-class status. The "French Wing" has Rodin statues, and a heady, if small, exhibit of 19th-century French paintings includes works by Géricault, Delacroix, Manet, Degas, Pissarro, and Gauguin before and after Tahiti. Linger with marble gods under the palm leaves and glass dome of the very soothing winter garden.
Tivoli doesn't try to be Disney. It's wonderfully and happily Danish. You pay one admission price and find yourself lost in a Hans Christian Andersen wonderland of rides, restaurants, games, marching bands, roulette wheels, and funny mirrors. It's a children's fantasyland midday, but it becomes more adult-oriented later on. Since it's is across from the train station, if you're catching a late train, this is the place to spend your last Copenhagen hours.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're tasting, pedaling, and cruising our way through Scandinavia's most fun-loving capital, Copenhagen.
Visiting Copenhagen, I'm struck by how well this society works — with an orderliness without rigidity, with its sleek sense of design, and a general calmness. It's balanced. It seems they've got a system that works and the good sense to enjoy it.
We'll go local and experience some Danish delights: Flirt with the mermaid, imagine tooting a 3,000 year old horn, check out the dazzling crown of Denmark's larger than life king, relax in the city's old sailors quarter, get face-to-face with art in the Glyptotech, kick back in one of the original alternative communes, and revel in Europe's queen of amusement parks.
The classic introduction to any Copenhagen visit is a canal boat ride. Since the word Copenhagen means "merchants' harbor," it's natural that many of the city's most impressive buildings, both new and old, are visible from the water.
Harbor tour boats come and go constantly, giving visitors a relaxing glide down canals and along the harbor front. Colorful merchants' houses and historic bridges recall an affluence stoked by trade.
Slotsholmen Island, the city's 12th-century birthplace, is lined with grand 17th-century Renaissance-style buildings, and this part of the tour reminds us of Denmark's powerful seafaring past.
While the town preserves its rich heritage, it's also building for the future. The harborfront, dotted with new landmarks, is a showcase for Danish architectural design. The Royal Library, nicknamed the "Black Diamond," uses shiny black granite to make its impression. The striking playhouse — with its copper roof matching the city's famous spires — feels integrated into the community — open, inviting, and bringing the arts to the people. Just across the harbor, Copenhagen's opera house is even bigger than it looks — much of it is underground.
And, as if to proudly show off the newest part of Copenhagen, sightseeing boats venture further from the center for a peek at once run-down industrial zones that have taken on new life. Former industrial buildings are transformed into high-end offices and condos, creating a playful new skyline. Glass seems to be the construction material of choice.
And the harbor's cover girl, the most-photographed citizen of Copenhagen, is the Little Mermaid. In the much-loved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, she saves the life of a shipwrecked prince and sets off on a futile quest to win his love.
The vibrant square fronting the imposing City Hall is the busy heart of Copenhagen. It's a crossroads where everything seems to converge. While central today, this was once the edge of town.
This boulevard marks what was the city walls. For seven centuries, Copenhagen was contained within these walls. By the mid-1800s, over 100,000 people were packed inside. All this congestion led to hygiene problems. After a cholera outbreak killed thousands, it was clear: The city walls had to come down…and they did.
Today, only their echoes remain. Remnants of moats and ramparts now form a delightful greenbelt…a string of tranquil lakes and people-friendly parks.
From the City Hall, the Strøget — a series of lively streets and inviting squares — stretches through the old town. Established in 1962, it was Europe's first major pedestrian boulevard. A traffic-free street was an experimental notion at the time. Though merchants were initially skeptical, it's a hit now, and the Strøget has inspired city planners throughout the world.
And as shopkeepers on neighboring streets see the benefits of traffic-free zones, other downtown streets are also being pedestrianized. Now, streets like this add to Copenhagen's thriving café and restaurant scene.
As you stroll, realize that the commercial success of a historic street like the Strøget drives up the land value. This results in the replacement of old store fronts with new ones, and brings in the chains. Look above the street-level advertising to discover bits of the 19th-century character that still survive. Above the crowds, attractive pieces of old Copenhagen hide out.
So we'll better understand what we're discovering, we're joined by my Danish friend and fellow tour guide, Christian Donatzky.
Rick: So this is an old house here.
Christian: This is an old house from the 18th century. Let's step inside. You can get a really, really good feeling for old Copenhagen here. If you walk off the main streets and walk into the backyards, then you get a completely different impression compared to how it used to look.
Rick: Oh look at this!
Christian: This is really how much of Copenhagen looked in the 18th century.
Rick: So people lived within the safety of the ramparts in the 1700s.
Christian: Well actually they had to live inside the ramparts, because outside of the ramparts there was military area and they weren't allowed to live there.
Rick: That's why you get this congested feeling.
Christian: So that's why you get the congested feeling. And after the fire in 1795 they couldn't build half-timbered buildings, so if you, when you see half-timbered buildings, you'll know they're old. You'll know they're…
Rick: So you know when you see this half-timber it's before…
Christian: Before 1795.
As you explore you're bound to pass windows lined with enticing open-faced sandwiches. While these tempting beauties are less expensive in take-away street-corner sandwich shops, Christian's taking me to a restaurant to explain this tasty Danish tradition in style.
Rick: Here we go. OK. So this is a complete variety. Thank you.
Waitress: Yeah. There you are. Enjoy.
Rick: Takk. Thank you.
Christian: Takk. So this is really what the Danish cuisine has to offer: our famous lunch. And we have here three courses — herring, meat, cheese—always on rye bread.
Rick: Always on rye and in that order, then? Herring…
Christian: Always on rye bread. Herring, roast pork, and then the cheese.
Rick: First of all, smørrebrød?
Christian: Smørrebrød, yeah, that's the name. Smørrebrød, which means actually just "butter on bread."
Rick: Butter on bread. OK, this is a little more than butter on bread. Now it's evolved, huh? So the herring course, on a piece of rye bread. Nice, look at that.
Christian: So with the herring you have to have an akvavit. Akvavit is perfect for herring.
Rick: So this is the Danish schnapps, basically.
Christian: This is the Danish schnapps—that's what they call it, yeah.
Rick: Akvavit. What does that mean?
Christian: That means the "water of life." And it tastes like that when it goes with herring. So Rick, this is how we drink schnapps in Denmark. You have to empty the whole glass.
Rick: OK, well this is the learner's dose here. But I'll give it a go, Danish style. Yes.
Christian: Yeah, there you are.
On Gammeltorv, the old town square, the fountain, which is the oldest in Copenhagen, is named for the figure of Charity on top.
Rick: Quite a fountain.
Christian: Yeah, the fountain is really an old well from the 16th century supplying water to the Copenhageners. The statue of Charity was from the 17th century, but in the 19th century, the middle of the 19th century, in the Victorian Age, it was too much, so they corked the holes.
Rick: They corked it? So before the Victorian Age no problem. And then too risqué.
Christian: Yeah, but today with our open-mindedness water can spring freely once again.
Rick: Alright. Progressive Danes: Let the fountain flow!
Every sight we're featuring on this visit is within a 15-minute stroll of here, and Denmark's greatest museum is just around the corner.
The National Museum traces the story of this land from its prehistoric beginnings.
Denmark's Bronze Age civilization dates back to 1500 years before Christ. This elderly woman — whose coffin carved out of an oak tree was preserved in a peaty bog — must have believed in an afterlife. She took her precious possessions with her. Still wearing her original wool blouse, she packed a finely carved horn comb, bronze jewelry, and a dagger.
Like her Mediterranean contemporaries, she would have worshipped the sun. The Chariot of the Sun illustrates that she believed the sun was dragged across the sky by a divine horse. This daily journey of the sun dominated Bronze Age religion.
And these Horned Helmets were worn about 500 years later — around 1000 B.C. Contrary to popular belief, these helmets were not worn by the Vikings. It was their Bronze Age predecessors who wore them, for ceremonial purposes, 2,000 years before Eric the Red.
Horned-helmeted priests would have played these lur horns. These distinctive Nordic wind instruments — found in bogs all over Denmark — added atmosphere to Bronze Age ritual. While 3,000 years old — as old as the Iliad and the Odyssey — they still play. Even back then, the Danes had a flair for design. The ornamental disc is a sun symbol — perhaps as if these horns played the magical music of the sun.
Getting around Copenhagen is easy, especially if you can ride a bike. Today's city is designed for cyclists. Many locals find pedaling around town is more efficient than driving. Cyclists get respect, and generous bike lanes give bikes all the legitimacy of cars. Like many hotels, ours rents bikes to guests. On my bike I can get most anywhere in town in 10 to 15 minutes.
Copenhagen has lots of idyllic parks. Its most royal is the king's garden surrounding the Rosenborg Castle. We're here in July, and sun-loving Danes are getting the most out of the long days of their short summer.
Once upon a time, this was the king's garden. That king, Christian IV is the most memorable character in Danish history. Ruling from 1588 until 1648, he was Denmark's Renaissance king.
Rosenborg Castle was the king's summer residence. For anyone entering the audience room, all eyes were on Christian IV. Check this guy out — often depicted as a Roman emperor, he was a big personality.
Christian IV was dynamism in the flesh — earring, fashionable braid, hard drinker, hard lover, big spender, energetic statesman, warrior king. During his reign of over 50 years, the size of Copenhagen doubled.
His study was small…cozy, easy to heat. Like any good king, Christian did a lot of corresponding. Historians know a lot about his rule because 3,000 of his handwritten letters survive. He was eight years old when his father died…still too young to rule without a regent. A portrait shows his mother. And this one shows the king in his prime.
In another room a case displays the blood-stained clothing Christian wore when wounded in battle. Riddled with shrapnel, he lost an eye. No problem for Denmark's warrior king. He fashioned these earrings — made from the shrapnel yanked out of his eye and forehead — and gave them to his mistress. The king died after half a century on the Danish throne, leaving a colorful legacy.
Christian lived to be 70 years old. He had two wives, three mistresses, and fathered roughly 25 children. After Christian, three more kings used this palace.
Here in the long hall, tapestries celebrate glorious Danish military victories over Sweden — but not the losses — and the king's throne is surrounded by symbols of royal power.
The treasury is safely stored in the basement. Christian IV's coronation crown dates from 1596. With seven pounds of gold and precious stones, many consider this the finest Renaissance crown in Europe. Its six gables radiate symbolism: There's justice (the sword and scales), charity (a woman nursing — promising that the king will love his people as a mother loves her child), and the pelican, which in legend pecks its own flesh to feed its young, just as the king would make great sacrifices for his people. The shields of various Danish provinces lining the inside remind the king that he's surrounded by his realms.
Cases of treasures dazzle visitors.
Today's royal jewels were made in 1840 of diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and pearls from earlier royal jewelry. Imagine these on the dance floor. The crown jewels are still worn by the queen on special occasions.
Denmark's kings embraced Lutheranism as the state religion during the Reformation, back in the 16th century. This memorial celebrates Denmark's break from the Roman Catholic Church.
Across the street stands Copenhagen's very Lutheran cathedral. Rebuilt in the early 1800s, the facade mimics a Greek temple. At that time, Golden Age Copenhagen fancied itself as a Nordic Athens. John the Baptist stands where you'd expect to see some Greek god.
He welcomes worshippers into a world of Neoclassical serenity. Statues of the 12 apostles line the nave — carved by the great Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Inspired by the famous Italian sculptor Canova, his art complements the relative austerity and comforting simplicity of Lutheran worship.
The apostles lead to Thorvaldsen's masterpiece: a statue of the risen Christ. Thorvaldsen was a master at showing both heavenly and human characteristics. Wearing his burial shroud, Jesus opens his arms and says, "Come to me."
From the reverent tranquility of the cathedral, it's just a few steps to Copenhagen's happy-go-lucky "new harbor," or Nyhavn. Nyhavn — formerly a sleazy sailors' quarter — is now a colorful scene, with both locals and tourists lounging contentedly along its canal. Old sailboats fill the harbor. Any traditional all-wood ship is welcome to moor here, joining the fleet that makes up Copenhagen's ever-changing boat show…a scene of modern-day Vikings gone soft.
The scene here is the best free show in town. Take some time to enjoy it.
For young and old, rich and poor, beer's the beverage of choice — with the comfortable crowd looking on from cafés while the younger crowd roughs it on the dock.
Rick: So this is a budget tip really. If you want to drink a beer in Denmark without going broke, sit on a curb.
Christian: Then you go to a kiosk. If you go to a kiosk to buy beer there it costs a third of the price that it costs in bars or restaurants.
Rick: 'Cause a lot of Americans, they see all the young people drinking beer outside and they think, "Oh, beer's everywhere," but really, it's just…the kids are not in the pubs drinking because it's too expensive. Young people are drinking beer on the curb.
Christian: It's a matter of saving money, Rick.
Copenhagen's Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek — named for Denmark's leading brewery — is one of Scandinavia's top art galleries.
This is a great example of corporate money — in this case all that beer money — put to good use. In about 1900 the family behind the Carlsberg brewery donated its extensive collection of art, and a fine building to house it, to Copenhagen. Now, over a century later, the creative vision of that wealthy brewer still brings lots of people lots of joy.
To lure garden-loving Danes, the museum sets sculpture among Mediterranean plants in its famous winter garden. The classical statues and lush trees transport visitors into a scene straight out of some exotic Roman myth. From this delightful hub you can explore the museum's fortes: ancient Mediterranean art and 19th- and 20th-century French and Danish art.
The ancient collection is artfully lit and displayed. Each hall was designed for the art it would showcase — all done with that special Danish knack for design. A chorus of ancient Roman busts — thoughtfully placed at eye level — welcomes you into their world. And, with this small but fine Egyptian collection, the power of the pharaoh reaches all the way to Denmark.
The early 19th century was the Danish Golden Age — when painters, writers, and Danes in general were celebrating the roots and values of their Danish-ness.
Here, the leading Danish painter, Købke, paints a scene at the ramparts of Copenhagen as if we were there — with a romantic yet realistic flair.
The museum's founder was both a friend and a major patron of the French artist Rodin — Europe's greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. Here, where sunlight is so plentiful in the summer and so rare in the winter, the light reveals the art in a loving way. Enjoying Rodin's famous Kiss, you sense the artist himself would appreciate the play of the light.
Copenhagen is a thriving commercial center, and the economy is greased by a fine public-transit system. Their metro is state of the art, tunneling under water to connect major neighborhoods. The Danes vote for high taxes with high expectations — including a transportation system that works.
We emerge in the charming district of Christianshavn, once Copenhagen's port. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, these buildings were warehouses. This remained Copenhagen's commercial center until the 1920s, when a modern harbor was built further out. As the port's economy collapsed, the place became a slum. Cheap prices attracted artsy types, it became trendy, and now those old warehouses are upmarket condos.
The centerpiece of Christianshavn is Our Savior's Church, with its beloved steeple…a landmark that can be seen from all over town. Its unique exterior spiral staircase rewards those who climb it with commanding views of the city.
Just down the street is the famous commune, Christiania. In 1971, several hundred squatters took over an abandoned military barracks and attempted to create their own utopia. Two generations later, those idealists are still here, defending their right to enjoy life on their terms.
Back then, city officials allowed the squatters' take-over because no one cared about the land. Now, this area is becoming some of the priciest real estate in town. Developers have their sights set on this land, and the very existence of the Christiania community is threatened.
Depending on your perspective, this is either a shanty town of scruffy buildings, soft drugs, and dazed people…or a do-your-own-thing haven of creativity, peace and freedom. While the main drag — nicknamed Pusher Street for its marijuana stalls — may be a bit off putting, wander deeper into the community, and you find the real soul of Christiania.
This family has been content to live on this idyllic spot for 30 years — their daughter was born and raised right here. Many families share this building — and there's always someone to play with just outside the front door.
Rick: How long have you lived in Christiania?
Resident: I lived in Christiania 15 years.
Rick: Now you could live in a fancy condominium but you choose to live here. Why do you live here?
Resident: Because I have an enormous freedom.
Rick: It's all about freedom?
Resident: Yes. It is.
Rick: So we look at here we have 800 people living here, making some compromises but still being free.
Resident: Yes exactly.
Rick: A complicated challenge.
Resident: It is — and we have a, we have our bad experience and good experience, so — but the good thing about it that we — we learn.
After four decades the Christiana community has evolved, but it is still anchored in its original concept of personal freedom.
Resident: And there is something else I think is very important: We don't have commercial in here.
Rick: No commercials.
Resident: Have you seen, it's no signs or no one "buy this, buy that."
Rick: No commercials, I wondered why I —
Resident: It's illegal in here.
Even in this informal community there still are rules. While marijuana is tolerated, no hard drugs or weapons are allowed.
Resident: It's so important for a playground also for grownups.
Copenhagen offers playgrounds for every taste. Tivoli is Europe's most famous amusement park. Throughout the summer, Tivoli Gardens offers a festival of entertainment — 20 acres, 100,000 lanterns, and countless calories of fun. It's a joy to get lost in this wonderland of rides, restaurants, and games.
Upon arrival, sort through the schedule of free events. There's something for everyone all day long. Tonight, it's rock out Friday — a chance to check out some rising Danish talent…
This granddaddy of amusement parks recently celebrated its 150th birthday. I find it worth the admission just to see Danes — young and old — at play. Tivoli, so comfortable with its identity, is happily Danish and wonderfully Copenhagen.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you've enjoyed our look at Copenhagen. A city with a knack for enjoying life that's distinctly Danish and where harmony is integral to the culture. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
Woman: You want a cold Danish beer?
Christian: Rick, you drink schnapps like a woman.
And those Danes man they just love their royal family [laugh].
Man: …the kid at her leg, who wasn't getting any. What does that mean?
Rick: That's the Swede.