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Copenhagen Travel Guide, Pt. 1: My Top 5 things to do & how to do them

"I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world." - Mary Anne Radmacher


I've always had a case of wanderlust. While crisscrossing the United States at a pace of 20,000 miles a month as Miss America may have certified my frequent flyer status, my desire to see the world was first sparked on childhood road trips in the family van and one particularly memorable cross-country Amtrak ride with my mother and sister from North Carolina to Oregon. The summer after graduating from high school, I got my first taste of international travel when I was lucky enough to sing throughout halls and churches in 14 cities across Europe as a member of the Oregon Ambassadors of Music. In the decades since, I've brought home treasured experiences and memories from opportunities to see the world. My wanderlust has grown both wings to fly to new places and deep roots of appreciation and respect for the culture and diversity that makes our world beautiful.


It was a bucket-list check to spend just a little over two weeks in the scandi-sational city of Copenhagen this Spring. In a twist of fate (or rather omicron-closures), my trip was rescheduled from January to May. And it was ideal. Though my arriving flight may have landed in a storm, the fortnight that followed was abloom with flowers the size of my head, clear sunny skies and delicious coastal wind. While I can't speak to experiencing Copenhagen during other seasons, I'd venture to guess that the mild weather and nearly 15 hours of daylight in mid-May made for an ideal visit to the 855-year-old historic town.



Copenhagen is frequently listed as one of the top friendliest cities in the world, and I found this to be quite true. My friend and The Virtuosa Society partner Christine Eggert has called Copenhagen home since 2020 and I was fortunate to stay in her charming apartment complex in the Østerbro area within close distance to the things I wanted to see and do. She helped me curate a residents-AND-tourists fan favs list of places to go and things to see, and I'll be darned if I didn't get to almost everything on that list... even at risk of limb and life, holy moly (*more on that below in My Top 5 Helpful Tips). While I can't speak to which hotel or area to stay when visiting Copenhagen, I can say that it was helpful to stay with friends who knew the city very well and in a quiet neighborhood with easy access to public transportation and amenities.


Here are my TOP 5 favorite excursions in and around Copenhagen, grouped by area, interest or what's handy to see in a day, along with my TOP 5 Helpful Tips for how to get around...


 

MY TOP 5

Things to Do & See in Copenhagen

(aside from eating and shopping - more on that later!)


 

DANISH HISTORY: Rosenborg Castle



As an insatiably curious art + history buff, Rosenborg Castle is the iceburg-tip of my tops list for good reason. Built by one of the most infamous Danish kings, Christian IV, in the 17th century,

the beautiful castle features 400 years of royal treasures, including artwork, furniture, the Crown Jewels and Royal Regalia.


From the first moment I stepped into the Winter Room filled floor to ceiling with paintings, I was completely transfixed. Walking up the beautiful spiral steps, each room that followed was more incredible than the last. On the upper floor was the Knights’ Hall with the coronation thrones, decorated with narwhal tusks, and life-size silver lions standing guard. Tapestries on the walls and intricate stucco carvings commemorate battles and historic events. The interiors are incredibly well-preserved - like I was truly stepping back in time.


While it was hard to narrow my favorite things in the castle, I was heartily enamored with the collection of Flora Danica painted by beloved artist, botanist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian. She was born in Frankfurt and was taught painting and engraving by her stepfather, the painter and engraver Jacob Marrel, whose speciality was traditional Dutch flower pictures. Fifty of Merian’s drawings of flowers and insects are kept at Rosenborg which are assumed to have been created for her first book on garden flowers. Her capture of variegated tulips were my favorite and I now want to explore more of her works and books.




Absolutely not to be missed were the basement levels filled with the Crown Jewels, armament and astounding pieces of Danish royal historical significance - such as a controversial portraits of Johan Friedrich Struensee and Queen Caroline Mathilde. Caroline Mathilde was married to the mentally-ill King Christian VII and had a fatal love affair with Johan, the king's physician. When King Christian VII became too ill to govern, Struensee led the country for almost two years. He was arrested and executed in 1772. The doomed love affair was the subject of the award-winning 2012 film "A Royal Affair" starring Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander. I watched the film (via Netflix) on the flight home and was surprised to recognize so much of Rosenborg accurately portrayed!


My friend Christine also highly recommended the book Music and Silence by Rose Tremain which weaves a fictional tale between real-life royal characters set in Rosenborg. I'm reading it now and it is a joy to be able to imagine the story amidst the settings I saw in real life. The story tells of secret portals in the walls to pipe the music of live musicians throughout the castle at any time of day or night, and while I couldn't officially locate a secret portal, I was amazed to find so many music-themed objects, such as a music box the size of a large armoire! Such a thrill.


Rosenborg Castle sits in the center of the city - easily accessed by foot, bike or public transit and close to other sites. I recommend a solid 3-4 hours to explore the upper floors of the castle, take in the lower floors of Crown Jewels collection, roam through the immaculate and sprawling garden grounds and visit the gorgeous gift shop.


 

FUN FOR ALL AGES: Tivoli Gardens & Amusement Park


Just when I thought Disneyland had cornered the market on Happiest Place on Earth, I was completely enchanted by Tivoli! Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that Tivoli was what inspired Walt Disney to build his Disney parks. And I completely understand why.



Tivoli Gardens was founded in 1843 and has become a national treasure and an international attraction. Not only did Disney find Tivoli inspiring but so did Fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen who loved to walk the gardens, to feel like a kid again. To this day, it is one of the most popular attractions in Copenhagen, open year-round with special themes each season. It is also located in the heart of the city, right next to Central Station.


Part of Tivoli Gardens' secret is that there is something for everyone. The scenery is beautiful with exotic architecture, historic buildings, and lush gardens. The tulips this time of year were so vibrant and enormous! At night, thousands of colored lights create a fairytale atmosphere that is completely dream-like.



A major bonus for me as a musician is that Tivoli features live music every single day, in numerous locations throughout the park. I had the great fortune of seeing the opening concert of Tivoli's Summer Concert Series with Copenhagen Philharmonic, which featured the incomparable Barbara Hannigan, who conducted the orchestra WHILE SINGING. It was magical, especially when tucked in Tivoli's concert hall, nestled within the park at dusk.


Tivoli is perfect for all ages, any time of day and all-year long. Not too many destinations can boast this trifecta!


 

UNIQUE MUSEUMS:

[Museum Day 1] Glyptoteket & Thorvaldsens


Just a stone's throw from Tivoli are two of the most fascinating museums I've encountered. Both were established by celebrated Danish figures - Carlsberg Jacobsen and Bertel Thorvaldsen - and remain centerpieces in the unique Danish art scene.


Carlsberg Jacobsen (1842-1914) was an industrial magnate of the 19th century, as well as a tremendous art patron and passionate collector. From the profits generated by his brewery Ny Carlsberg, he built a rich collection of art and cultural artifacts. In 1888 Jacobsen gave his collection to the public and built the Glyptoteket to house it. Open to the public since 1897, the museum holds over 10,000 works primarily divided between ancient antiquities and Danish and French sculpture & painting from the 19th century.



One of my favorite features of the museum is it's beautiful building! A gorgeous atrium is the centerpiece, brimming with tropical greenery and soft filtered light. I also loved the collection of distinctly Danish art. I took my time browsing every nook of the museum, as well as enjoyed a coffee and pastry at the café overlooking the atrium. It was incredibly lovely and peaceful.



Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844) was a Danish sculptor of international fame. While he spent most of his life in Italy, he returned to Denmark in 1838 as a national hero. The Thorvaldsen Museum was built next to Christiansborg Palace to house his comprehensive collection of works in marble and plaster, as well as art and artifacts collected over his lifetime, including paintings, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiques, drawings, prints and personal belongings that he used in his work and everyday life.



The museum was beautifully organized and grouped in themes centered around his most famous works, and Thorvaldsen's work itself was stunning. I never thought marble and plaster could be so expressive! I was also enamored with his extensive collection of signet rings, which were so well preserved and numbered in the thousands.




[Museum Day 2] Stroll through The Lakes & Østre Anlæg Park en route to Statens Museum for Kunst


The Statens Museum for Kunst (the National Gallery of Denmark and largest state-sponsored museum) offers SMK Fridays, a series of informal art experiences outside the usual museum opening hours. For seven Fridays throughout Spring/Summer, a new program and theme each week blends art, music, art talks, film screenings with drinks and street food. Entry to SMK Fridays is FREE without prior reservations and all are welcome! I was fortunate to partake in one of the SMK Friday experiences on my trip and it was delightful to take in a techo-pop concert in a stepped open area overlooking the Østre Anlæg Park while also wandering the diverse exhibits ranging from traditional Danish art to modern exhibits. The local food and drink offerings were quite good too - think "food cart" type with a twist. It made for a fun evening overlapped with a day wandering the nearby greenspaces: Østre Anlæg Park and The Lakes.



 

WATERFRONT WANDERING:

Nyhavn + The Black Diamond (King's Library) & Garden + Opera House Tour


Copenhagen's most famous waterfront is Nyhavn, which was originally a commercial port where ships from all over the world would dock, packing the colorful row of restaurants and houses with sailors. Restaurants still dominate the old port and boats of all kinds now line the canal. As the sun sets, the colors of the buildings reflect vibrantly in the water and the glow is magical. Hans Christian Andersen lived along the canal for over twenty years, and wrote some of his most famous tales during that time, including "The Princess and the Pea." I thoroughly enjoyed walking along the canal and stopping for a leisurely late-afternoon meal after shopping nearby.


(I share more about my meal and shopping in Parts 2 & 3 of my Copenhagen Travel Guide!)



Two awe-inspiring architectural marvels along the waterfront, easy strolls on either side of the Nyhan area, were The Black Diamond, aka: The King's Library, and Copenhagen Opera House. Both were distinctly-Danish modern structures with fascinating history and artwork inside.



My friend Christine and I spent a morning at The Black Diamond to conduct research on female composers for The Virtuosa Society. It was not only a gorgeous location to study but filled with a comprehensive collection of books in many languages. If I had my druthers (and weeks more time), I could have easily spent every day discovering a new corner of the library to read and dream. Behind the library was an exquisite fountain and garden, too... another location to easily lose ones-self in a book.




Taking part in a guided tour of Copenhagen Opera House was one of the top must-dos on my list, for good reason! It is quintessentially Danish in design and completely unique from any other opera house in the world... and the most expensive, costing over 2.5 billion DKK. The immense building measures 440,000 square feet, and five of it's fourteen floors are subterranean. It sits directly across the water from Amalienborg Palace, the Queen's residence.



Although the tour was entirely in Danish, a kind fellow patron translated for me as we strolled along. The tour took place a few hours before the evening's performance of Tosca, and began in the lobby under the stunning Olafur Eliasson's light sculptures and views of Copenhagen Harbour. We were taken within a shiny maple shell that houses the Main Stage, as well as backstage to spy all of the current show's sets and the six huge, movable stage areas that make it possible to perform and rehearse several different productions on the same day. I was amused to learn that the opera house is also the official location for the Red Bull Cliff Diving Competition from the roof. What a view that must be!


 

JUST OUTSIDE OF COPENHAGEN: Town of Helsingør + Kronborg Castle + Louisiana Modern Art Museum


A scenic 30-ish minute train ride north from Copenhagen, to the top of the island of Zealand, is the town of Helsingør, most notable for Kronborg Castle. Immortalized as Elsinore in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Kronborg is one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe. The castle's history dates back to the 1400s. It was famously the “party castle” for King Christian IV and where King Christian VII banished Queen Caroline Mathilde until she was exiled to northern Germany. In 1658, Kronborg was besieged and captured by the Swedes who took many of its valuable art treasures. In 1785 the castle was no longer a royal residence and converted into Army barracks. The Army left the castle in 1923, and after a thorough renovation it was opened to the public. The renovation is still underway today, in fact!




After departing the train, walking through the charming town of Helsingør en route to the castle was one of my favorite parts of the day! It had an idyllic, pastoral simplicity. There was even a marching band from the local girl's school parading through the streets. The narrow cobbled streets were lined with delightful eateries and shops. (I happened upon a terrific designer consignment shop where I found a vintage Gucci belt! More on that in Part 3.)


Once I walked through the gates of Kronborg, I instantly felt transported to a time gone by. Kronborg was completely different than the opulent, art-filled Rosenborg due to it's age and sordid history. However the structure had been lovingly preserved and many rooms were beautifully staged with period wardrobe and furnishings. The delicate tapestries were original and some of the oldest on record. My favorite rooms were the guest chambers (staged so that visitors could sit on the bed) and the vast throne hall. Ah, if those walls could talk, the stories they'd tell! The ornate chapel and creepy catacombs were intriguing.



A 20-min walk from the train station in the opposite direction of Kronborg, through the town of Humlebæk, is the Louisiana Modern Art Museum, one of the foremost modern art museums in the world. Opened in 1958, the museum was intended to only house Danish modern art but quickly expanded to be a desirable exhibition venue for international artists.



It is far-and-away one of my favorite destinations. I absolutely fell in love with the lush grounds peppered with modern sculptures, and the way in which each structure of the museum was thoughtfully situated within it's natural surroundings rather than atop it. The exhibits were so well curated and the pieces were intriguing. I was especially transfixed with the exhibits of Sonya Delaunay, a Ukrainian-French artist who founded the boldly colorful geometric Orphism art movement, as well as a large-scale retrospective of daring American photographer Diane Arbus, whose images were simultaneously raw and dazzling. I'm thankful to have spent nearly five hours roaming the museum and enjoying a delicious lunch.



This truly is a perfect day trip outside of Copenhagen! I recommend getting an early start on the train and grabbing coffee and pastry in Helsingør at one of the little cafés before spending the late morning wandering through Kronborg Castle and grounds. Walk back past the train station through Humlebæk to the Louisiana Modern Art Museum, first enjoying late-lunch at the terrific on-site restaurant and then spending the remainder of your day at the museum, ambling through the garden sculptures and weaving through the exhibit structures. Your train ride back into the city will especially lovely at golden hour!


 

MY TOP 5

Helpful Tips for planning a day trip

around Copenhagen



[1] BE MINDFUL OF BUSINESS HOURS

The majority of sites + businesses open between 10-11am and close around 5-6pm accordingly. Be sure to keep this in mind as you're planning out what can be seen/done in a day. It was helpful for me to determine what the priorities where for the day and which locations I could comfortably get to and enjoy without time-stress within that 8-ish hour window. I found that this type of planning allowed for leisurely breakfast and dinner, or in some cases evening activities like a fun movie, symphony or opera performance and most importantly time to chat and catch-up with friends.


[2] FREE ADMISSION DAYS

Research when the museums offer FREE days. Most if not all of the major state-sponsored museums offer a free admissions day! I was able to schedule my visits around free days and it was not only helpful on my wallet but handy for planning. By centering the museum visit on a particular day, I then planned the rest of my sightseeing, eating, shopping, travel, etc around it. Also, if you plan to be in Copenhagen long enough with the intent of major sightseeing, a Copenhagen Card is a very economical choice! You get free admission to Tivoli and over 80 attractions as well as free public transportation in the whole capital region. (Full disclosure: I didn't get a Copenhagen Card because I pre-planned visits to museums on free days and my friends already had yearly resident passes for Tivoli... but if I were to go with my family, we would heavily consider the card!)


[3] ENJOY LIVE MUSIC AFTER SIGHTSEEING

If you want to experience music concerts or shows, you're in the perfect city to do so! Copenhagen has a wealth of music culture, ranging from classical to jazz to electro-pop, with magnificent professional opera, ballet and musical theater companies. Be sure to check out the special FREE concert days offered in some of the major venues like Tivoli, along with special festivals that are ideal for the long-light nights. Plan to partake in shows in the evenings. After a day of sightseeing and a leisurely dinner, a show is a great way to cap off the day. SMK's Free Friday series was an example of an ideal and economical way to enjoy music, food and art afterhours!



[4] TRANSPORTATION: BIKE, WALK, METRO, BUS, TRAIN

Copenhagen is easiest navigated by bike. Although the bike and I shared a tumultuous relationship (I fell twice and banged up both knees pretty badly), I saw for myself how the Copenhagen lifestyle centers around the ease of zipping around by bike. The city is built for biking as a priority, and bike lanes are fairly identifiable and easy to follow. I recommend researching the city's Biking Rules beforehand and also finding a reputable rental business who can help you adjust your bike for comfort, especially if you'll be using it for your entire trip. I used Isak Cykelservice and HIGHLY recommend for quality bike selection and truly helpful and friendly service. Isak was wonderful to work with and I was so grateful, especially since I hadn't been on a bike in over 10 years! Isak also hooked me up with a sweet wicker bike basket which was a lifesaver for hauling goodies.



On days when I wanted a more leisurely pace to sightsee (or when I needed a break from the bike), it was just as convenient and easy to walk to most places within the city. While it did double my travel time to/from locations, I didn't mind the chance to stroll rather than zip, especially when many things were within close proximity.


Additionally, when I wasn't using the bike or was traveling beyond the city, it was very easy to use public transportation via the metro, bus or train. There are underground stations for the metro, above-ground stations for buses and a combination of both for the regional trains. The metro was my preferred way to get around because ticketing was very clear on the DOT app, plus video monitors and maps were everywhere. According to my friends who live in Copenhagen, public transport is prone to delays on occasion so it was good to keep that in mind, plus it's an additional fee to bring your bike on the metro or bus, so it's more economical to either bike or ride rather than combine.


When traveling outside of Copenhagen, I rode the regional trains which operated much in the same efficient manner as the metro. Food is not allowed on the trains though (or any public transport) which keeps them neat and tidy. The 30-min train ride to Helsingør from Copenhagen was scenic and enjoyable. It was also fairly fast considering the distance, too.



[5] DOWNLOAD THE GOOGLE MAPS APP

I cannot recommend the Google Maps app enough for both trip planning as well as directions to/from locations on all of the aforementioned modes of transportation! I was able to create and save lists for specific destinations, which made it so much easier to plan my day trips... and was able to discover new destinations based on suggested locations from the app. (Particularly helpful when trying to find vintage clothes shops!) Switching between modes of transportation on the app was extremely easy too, as I could toggle between symbols that indicated either walking, biking, metro, bus, train or boat (yes, boat!) and the directions were reliable. I love that I could also share my location through the app when trying to meet up with my friends... which came in particularly handy when I got a little lost. Full disclosure: I have an iPhone and do not recommend the Apple Maps app. It wasn't user friendly or accurate. I plan to use the Google Maps app on other large travel trips from this point forward, too!



 

Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3 & 4 of my Copenhagen Travel Guide where I share what to eat and where to find it, where to shop and what to pack!


Vi ses! (Danish for "see you then")




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