There is more to Copenhagen than first meets the eye.
When traveling I am always trying to discover what a city is really all about; call it a search for the hidden essence. Copenhagen is the perfect place for such a exploration.
Forget about the tourist trips that will bring you to obvious places like the Little Mermaid (I warn you: she is very small!), Nyhavn and Tivoli. The city has a hidden perspective that will keep on surprising you. Let’s do something crazy and look at Copenhagen as a layer cake… A cake of which each layer is totally different but as a whole it’s perfectly in balance.
Weekend in Copenhagen
So we booked ourselves a weekend in Copenhagen where we discovered the multiple layers that this city has to offer: (1) Historical, (2) Alternative, (3) Design. Each layer is enhancing the previous one and all seem to exist in perfect harmony. Let me take you through some examples of each of them.
I start with the most obvious one: the Historical layer. It’s history all around you when you walk the city center. The first settlement of Copenhagen goes back more than 1000 years. Around 1600 the famous Rosenborg castle and the Round Tower (Rundetårn) were built. The Royal Danish Theatre (at Kongens Nytorv) and Amalienborg Royal Palace were established in 1748. Enough beautiful places to keep history lovers busy!
All these places can be visited on foot. Walk from Amalienborg and the Frederik’s Church to Nyhavn, close to the Kongens Nytorv square. If you have time don’t forget to make a short detour to see the yellow houses of Nyboder (dating back to the 1600s)!
Amalienborg and St Frederik’s or Marble Church
Yellow houses of Nyboder
Walk the Strøget shopping street and make sure to visit the Round Tower and the nearby cosy Grey Friars square. This area is particular nice with small alternative shops and lovely houses. Don’t forget to look up!
Round Tower or Rundetårn
Højbro Plads near Strøget
Grey Friars square
Grundtvig Church (outside city center)
After the first day we could tick the first box on our layer checklist. Done and dusted. We were ready to dive a bit deeper into the urban spirit of Copenhagen. We searched and quickly found the Alternative layer: a way of living were people want to move away from what is common and traditional.
Good example is the trendy Meatpacking district. A place for hipsters with restaurants and a vibrant nightlife alongside the city’s slaughterhouses. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Old slaugtherhouses have been renovated to house bars and restaurants with names like WarPig, Jolene, Bakken and Butcher’s Lab. The buildings from the 1930s still look gloomy and industrial, but in the evening (especially weekends) it’s packed with (young) people!
Another cultural melting pot is Christiania, a freetown in Christianshavn inhabited by artists, hippies and alike. People who want to live differently, who do not want to confirm to government rules.
Pusher street is the main road in this community and is known as the biggest hash/drug market around! Around 900 people live in Christiania, some third generation. Due to the drug selling it is not really appreciated when you take pictures. Probably people don’t want to be a tourist attraction, although I think they passed that stage long time ago already.
Superkilen is alternative in it’s way that it tries to upgrade a neighborhood that was not doing very well. It’s an urban improvement plan intended to celebrate diversity. Not many visitors know about it and I personally feel it’s great to bring color and art into a city’s neighborhoods. Part of Superkilen is called the Black Market with the remarkable white lining. Another part is called the Red Square. It’s not as red as it used to be in the beginning, where street and walls were all perfectly red, but you can still see some of the red vibe!
Papirøen: a colorful and cheap street food market in Copenhagen’s harbour. Here you can buy a meal from a wide selection of international street food. Dishes from all over the world are available for a very reasonable price! Highly recommended.
Like the meat district described in part 1, Papirøen gets packed in weekends. It is popular, fun and a good alternative to the more expensive restaurants in town. When the weather is fine people sit outside, enjoying a good conversation and the lovely views on the skyline of Copenhagen.
[Update 2019]: Papirøen is closed due to new plans for the area. An alternative seems to be Reffen (have not checked it out myself).
So much for the history and the alternative scene. Next up: Design and Architecture!
Copenhagen is first of all the capital of Scandinavian design. Lots of interior design shops will make the design lovers happy: Normann, Royal Copenhagen and especially HAY at Strøget. And why not also visit the Design Museum?
Hay at Strøget
Situated in Christianshavn and designed by a Danish architect, the Royal Danish Opera House dates from 2004. It’s one of the most modern opera houses in the world and can be seen from everywhere around the harbour. You can get to the Opera by Harbour Bus, a nice alternative way to get around.
But for some real architectural wonders you have to take the metro to Ørestad, a new city development. If you are curious to see award-winning architecture, go there. Do like I did: travel with the metro to Vestamager station and walk back until you reach the Bella Sky hotel (near Bella Center metro station).
Don’t walk the main road but randomly go left, right and up to experience this part of the city. A strange part still if you ask me. It totally lacks the urban atmosphere of Copenhagen. It’s a bit artificial like Dubai. But again, great architecture and worth a visit!
When you arrive at the Bella Sky hotel, go up to the Sky bar on the 23rd floor; it’s not only for hotel residents. Great views on the city and the sea. Of course the hotel itself is one piece of great architecture with its two assymetrical towers that tilt sixteen degrees in opposite directions.
Bella Sky hotel
For die hards yet another place to visit: Denmark’s National Aquarium Blue Planet (Den Blå Planet). Situated close to the airport, it’s another beautiful piece of architecture. I just enjoyed the outside view and didn’t have time to go have a look inside.
Blue Planet aquarium
Now tell me, how do you like the urban atmosphere of Copenhagen? Next to history, alternative living and design the city is just an overall great place to visit. Totally bike-friendly you can reach all places on your bike easily. It seems people love to be outside. When the weather is just a little bit acceptable, citizens of Copenhagen hop on boats or populate the small pavement cafes. Enjoy!