36 hours in Copenhagen

Modern Traveller's 36 hours in Copenhagen

With just one night in which to explore the Danish capital, we hopped on our bikes in search of pastries, palaces and pieces of the past.


There’s a Danish expression that just doesn’t translate. It alludes to the warm, fuzzy feeling of a thing just right.

As our walking tour guide explained, “for some it’s a winter night by the fire with friends. For others, a warm coffee on a frosty morning.”

The word: Hygge. For us? It’s Copenhagen. A city of culture, history and arresting architecture; eminently walkable and unfailingly friendly.

From driverless metro trains that take passengers to the heart of the city in a heartbeat, to cycle lanes that make biking (always) the better option, Copenhagen is a city designed for people.

For our briefest of visits to this spectacular settlement we were based in an AirBnB in Frederiksberg, a 10-minute metro ride from the middle of town and home to a host of quirky coffee shops (as is almost all of Copenhagen).

We started with a quick caffeine hit at Coffee No. 24, a cosy joint straight off the street that’s perfect for perching with a newspaper, before going underground to the Christianshavn stop, ready to explore Copenhagen’s famous free town.

Christiania, in large part a former military barracks, is a uniquely – and, at times, controversially – autonomous neighbourhood, founded in the hippie spirit in 1971 when squatters moved in after the military moved out. Nowadays, it continues to be a symbol of the liberal lifestyle –  replete with magnificent murals, green spaces and a relaxed attitude towards drug-taking – even if its future is uncertain.

Having had our fill of the easy-living quarter, we ventured back through Christianshavn, a merchant town-turned-happening district. From the river bridges to the beautiful buildings – both old and new – Christianshavn, like Copenhagen as a whole, is an architecture student’s dream.

For those who prefer something a little more thrilling than bricks, mortar and metal, it was then to the centre, strolling past the eclectic Tivoli Gardens. Opened in 1843, it’s the world’s second-busiest theme park – and, more impressively, was the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s own wonderland(s).

Regrettably, with such little time to spare, we weren’t able to venture inside and discover the delights of this age-old land of amusement – but it’s enough to hear the screams of joy and gales of laughter floating over its low perimeter to know that a day in the Gardens is a day well spent.

For us, then, it was past the imposing City Hall – or Radhus – before a stroll along Strøget, one of Europe’s longest shopping streets. Though its true length is disputed (the books say 1.1km, locals reckon on 1.5km), it’s undeniable that those with a retail weakness will struggle to save their Krone along here.

Winding along Fiolstræde, with less of a plan than perhaps was advisable, we ambled our way to Rosenberg Castle – or Slot – a 17th-century Renaissance palace not dissimilar from the archetypal French château, but for the high spires. Entry is a little expensive, though arguably worth it if you believe in its continued conservation.

Having walked many a mile (and, perhaps, more than we strictly needed to), we’d worked up quite a hunger, so it was back the way we’d come to the stylishly simple Cafe Norden, with its airy interior and sublime sunset setting, with views across the neighbouring Højbro Plads.

We devoured our dinner – what else could it be but smørrebrød, Denmark’s famously feisty open sandwich – before hopping aboard the metro back to the Forum, for the concert which explained our presence in the city.

Nip to next morning and, with aching legs, we were back in the heart of Copenhagen – and this time we had a plan. Admittedly, the plan was to follow a free walking tour, but it was a plan all the same – and it all worked out rather well.

Meeting in front of the Radhus, having swallowed a hearty brunch at Cafe Stella, we wound our way through the fascinating streets, learning about the numerous fires which in many ways founded the Copenhagen of today – or, at the very least, its architecture.

Passing by the house of one of the city’s most famous sons, Carl Jacobsen – he of Carlsberg fame – it was then along Magstræde, one of the Old Town’s oldest streets, to inhale the alluring aromas of its cafés and bakeries, before venturing into the National Museum for a free look at some of Copenhagen’s history, in archaeological form.

There’s enough in the Museum to spend a day winding through its web of cabinets and exhibits but, with time of the essence, we had to up sticks and continue. With the sun shining brightly and a beautiful blue sky painted above us, Christiansborg Palace beckoned.

Situated on a small island, Christiansborg Slot is the seat of both Denmark’s Parliament and its Supreme Court, as well as playing host, in part, to the Royal Family. It’s an imposing testament to the city’s architectural heritage, having suffered through two fires and several reimaginings – and one not to be missed.

Looking for an astounding panorama of Copenhagen? Get to the Palace early enough and beat the queue for the free trip to the top of its tower.

In need of a quick morning coffee, we dipped down into Højbro Plads Cafe, a tight, below-ground spot with just a couple of outside seats, before continuing on to Kongens Nytorv – King’s New Square – to marvel at the exterior of the Royal Theatre.

By now, time was truly ticking and, with an early evening flight booked and immovable, we had to make short work of the sights still on our to-see list. We decided to pencil The Little Mermaid sculpture (a tribute to Denmark’s own Hans Christian Andersen) in for another time, and headed straight for the technicolour Nyhavn.

Modern Traveller's 36 hours in Copenhagen

(Image © Chris Rowlands / Modern Traveller)

It’s on all the postcards and, rare as this is, the expectation was met by reality: with the weather playing ball, Copenhagen’s landlocked New Harbour was a delight of multi-coloured facades and captivating watercraft. Constructed in the 17th century, Nyhavn remains a museum of sorts for stranded ships – and a true tourist hotspot.

You can drink in the streets in Copenhagen, and New Harbour at sunset is the place to do it – or so we’re told, for the clock was not on our side. With midday bells tolling, we strolled with speed to Amalienborg Palace, home to the Danish royal family, to catch the changing of the guard. Far subtler and more open than many a European palace, it pays to remember that the guards are no less serious in their protective duties.

With mere minutes remaining, we squeezed in a quick ogle at Frederik’s Church, before grabbing a rapid lunch at the utterly bizarre Mormors – home to more kitsch than you can shake a stick at.

Whistle-stop doesn’t quite sum it up: reflecting at the airport on 36 hours well and truly spent, we’d have loved a day, or four, more in this magical city of culture, history, art and architecture – and we’d go back in a blink.

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