When we arrived to Copenhagen in November the city felt like the Pleasantville of Christmas Villages. We walked into what seemed like a movie set of pastel-colored buildings, cobblestone walkways resembling the yellow-brick-road, bicycles with those soft tinker bells, and holiday markets opening up at every corner. Don’t even get me started with the majestic swans floating through the crystal canals.
However; I ALWAYS look past the initial facade of a new city to find everything behind the curtain.
After our week exploring the city of Copenhagen we discovered all the awesome grime and grit that the city has to offer. Copenhagen in all its’ sweet charm has some of the most unique rough edges I have ever discovered. From the pirates living in the commune of the Freetown Christiania to the homeless men roaming the old skid row of Vesterbro, I was wide-eyed and totally fascinated with their counterculture.
As a first time tourist to Copenhagen you should definitely start with the sweetest charm side to set the tone.
Here are the 10 absolute must-dos when you visit Copenhagen (that won’t break the bank)
Starting with the charming picturesque side…
1. Explore the canal neighborhood of Nyhavn
You know all those pictures you see of the multi-colored buildings and boats on the canal (above)? That is the neighborhood of Nyhavn. Many locals refer to this neighborhood as “tourist central” because IT IS. You know why? Because it’s SO incredibly beautiful and #instagramable. Just embrace being a tourist here and flock among em’ like the swans.
Even better; if you visit Copenhagen in November or December you can also experience the Nyhavn holiday markets selling all those sweet smelling treats and delicious mulled wine. Or, as they call it “Gløgg” which is mulled red wine with various spices, raisins and sliced almonds. This delicious drink can creep up on you with the highest sugar high buzz… so beware.
2. Take a boat ride through the canals with Hey Captain
There is no better way to see the city of Copenhagen than by the water way. If you only have a day or two in Copenhagen than a cruise with Hey Captain should be your top priority. You can see Christiansborg Palace, Church of Our Savior, the Royal Opera House, Amalienborg Castle, and pirates living in the Freetown Christiania from a unique open water view. Tickets are fairly priced and worth every single penny (we booked through airbnb experiences). The captain that guided us through the canals actually introduced us to Gløgg mulled wine #sograteful.
3. Stroll through Copenhagen’s shopping district Stroget and then relax at the King’s Garden Kongens Have where you can admire the Rosenberg Castle
Stroget is the first neighborhood we stumbled into during our visit to Copenhagen that felt like a movie set. Stroget is a no-cars-allowed neighborhood of cobblestone walkways and piles of bicycles– perfect for window shopping, coffee hopping, and of course tinkering on bikes if its warm enough. After your shopping fix and caffeine buzz head to the Kings Garden and admire the landscaping of 17th Century Rosenberg Castle – she’s a BEAUT. If you are here in the fall, the foliage is amazing.
4. Walk around the star-shaped Kastelett Park
The calmness and beauty of this park made me so freakin’ relaxed. Kastelett Park reminds me of a place where the Hobbit would live. You can see the mystical St Alban’s Church followed by a picturesque windmill; and if your heart admires the Disney classic the #LittleMermaid you can even start your walk at the Little Mermaid statue. You can see me living my 5 year old truth below #nostalgia.
5. After walking through Kastelett Park, keep walking north to explore the warm neighborhood of Norrebro
If I moved to Copenhagen (in my dreams) I would live in Norrebro in a heartbeat. For those of you who like to avoid flocking amongst other tourists Norrebro is the perfect place for you to hang out filled with trendy local cafes and bars. My favorite cocktail bar is in Norrebro called The Barking Dog 🐶 serving delicious and unique cocktails with a side of sarcasm. There is also a pretty lake walk on the southern cusp that has buildings with old-time florescent signs in the evening time.
Now for the awesome #GRIMEANDGRIT of Copenhagen
6. Adventure through the hip hood of Vesterbro
I say adventure because this neighborhood is an absolute TRIP. Vesterbro used to be the working class skid row of Copenhagen but has been majorly gentrified making it a hipsters paradise.
To experience the authentic #Vesterbro, walk by the Men’s Homeless shelter and then drop into a few local watering holes nearby. I witnessed a man walk down the street swigging a bottle of red wine followed by a man swigging an entire 12 pack of beer. In Copenhagen, they have mastered the “controlled environment” when it comes to the homeless community.
After you experience the authentic Vesterbro then you can experience the #gentrification by visiting a view organic restaurants or getting a tattoo.
7. Visit the hippies and pirates of The Freetown Christiania and their commune
#pirates do exist and they live in Copenhagen.
When we visited Freetown they were getting raided by the police which apparently happens every couple weeks ever since the infamous Green Light District. There are about ~900 people who share everything in this community and formed their own rules and regulations outside the government.
The “pirates” are those people who want to be part of the commune, but haven’t been accepted yet so they float on junk boats right outside on the waterways.
You’re not allowed to take photos within Freetown, but here is the entryway #trippy:
After those experiences you might want to go back to the charm of Copenhagen:
8. Hang out in Christianhavn and climb to the top of the Our Saviors Church (as long as you are not scared of heights)
Christianhavn maps across several artificial islands surrounded by scenic canals (yes, more canals).Christianhavn used to be the working class neighborhood; however, now Christianhavn is the super “trendy and artsy” hood.
The view from Christianhavn’s Our Saviors Church is breathtaking quite literally because you have to climb narrow flights of stairs and steep ladders to reach the top — and it takes some extreme patience to get back down especially during peak season. But here is the view during a winters day:
9. Spend a few hours at Paludan Bog and Cafe (Bookstore Cafe)
Located in Fiolstræde (the old Jewish quarter), Paludan “book store meets eatery” is my favorite place to hangout in Copenhagen to relax, eat, and get some work done. Paludan makes home-cooked style food that will warm you up as you lounge in between incredible literature.
10. Eat some grub at the outdoor Bridge Street Kitchen and then walk across the Inderhavnsbroen Bridge
The Bridge Street Kitchen is an outdoor food market offering a melting pot of cuisine from around the world. Bridge Street was inspired by some of the founders of world–renowned Noma and they often have surprise guest chef pop-ups. I recommend having a Kejser Sausage with an ice cold beer overlooking the new Inderhavnsbroen Bridge before walking over the bridge into Nyhavn.
Outside of those 10 “absolute must dos” – just soak up all the vibrant counterculture that Copenhagen has to offer!