Copenhagen has come a long way from its 10th-century origins as a Viking fishing village, but its maritime heritage remains deeply woven into its identity today. From the colourful 17th-century townhouses lining the photogenic Nyhavn waterfront to the string of rectangular lakes to the west of the city centre and the canals that carve through Christianshavn, water is never far away when exploring the Danish capital.
The star-shaped Kastellet fortress – one of the best preserved citadels in Northern Europe – is surrounded on all sides by a moat, while the Little Mermaid statue occupies a rock at the entrance to the city harbour at Langelinie Pier. In fact, the whole of Copenhagen is split between two main islands, Zealand and Amager, just across the Øresund strait from Sweden. Since the year 2000, it has been connected by bridge to Malmö, so you can easily take a day trip to Copenhagen’s closest Nordic neighbour – it takes just over half an hour on the train.
While it’s not a particularly big city, there’s an extraordinary amount of variety between Copenhagen’s various neighbourhoods. For first-time visitors, Indre By (the inner city) is a logical starting point, home to renowned attractions including Nyhavn canal, Tivoli Gardens amusement park, Strøget (the main shopping street), and Christiansborg Palace, the headquarters of the Danish Parliament. Just to the south is Vesterbro, once seen as one of the rougher parts of the city but now a bustling hub of cafes, restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops.
On the other side of the harbour, meanwhile, lies trendy Christianshavn – a collection of artificial islands criss-crossed by canals, somewhat akin to Amsterdam but with a distinctly Scandi vibe. West of the centre is Nørrebro, arguably Copenhagen’s coolest and most diverse neighbourhood, overflowing with hip coffee shops, artisan bakeries, craft beer bars and a dizzying array of restaurants. The leafy, tree-lined boulevards and parks of Frederiksberg and Østerbro are prime territory for laid-back strolls, while the gritty, former industrial district of Refshaleøen has morphed into a lively cultural hub, hosting music festivals, art exhibitions and an organic street food market.
Denmark might not automatically spring to mind when it comes to Europe’s most enticing foodie hotspots, but since the mid-2000s Copenhagen has catapulted itself into the international culinary spotlight – in no small part thanks to the influence of Noma, widely regarded as one of the world’s best restaurants.Today, Copenhagen has 15 Michelin star restaurants, including two with three Michelin stars; Noma and Geranium, both of which are pioneers of New Nordic cuisine, an approach based around seasonal, sustainably sourced ingredients from the region.
It’s not all ultra-fancy fine dining, though. As well as plenty of ‘hyggeligt’ (cosy) restaurants serving all kinds of smørrebrød, the classic Danish open sandwich, Copenhagen has some of the best Italian, Mexican and Japanese restaurants in Scandinavia, and of course, a plethora of bakeries producing irresistible pastries. Reffen (a buzzing street food court) and Torvehallerne (a more traditional covered market) are also great places to sample Copenhagen’s thriving food scene – as is the Meatpacking District in Vesterbro, another former industrial area which has been transformed into an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants and galleries with an offbeat, bohemian vibe.
Need to know
* Average time from London Gatwick to Copenhagen
A long weekend is a good amount of time to get a feel for Copenhagen and experience its main attractions. However, there’s so much to see and do that you could easily spend longer and not get bored. Either way, you’ll almost certainly want to come back again.