I just might have a new favorite European city.
Kara & I just spent eight days in Copenhagen. And we can’t wait to go back. Here’s why.
What We Loved About Copenhagen
It’s gorgeous. Plentiful greenspace and water, impressive and tasteful architecture.
It’s safe. At no point did I feel uneasy, and at no point was I aggressively panhandled or harassed.
It’s orderly. Drivers don’t block intersections, or roll through red lights, or park in crosswalks. Bikes are everywhere, but cyclists don’t bend the rules either. I didn’t hear a raised voice all week, and I don’t think I heard five honked horns. And it’s clean. (My fellow Chicagoans probably think I’m describing some unrealizable Valhalla, but I assure you, I saw it with my own eyes!)
It’s exceptionally walkable. Though we’re generally fans of public transportation, the only time we used it was to get to and from the airport. We logged about 115,000 steps in Copenhagen, a little more than 14,000 per day.
The people are real. Danes are often ranked among the happiest people on earth, but that doesn’t mean they’re bubbly. This suits us. It means your server isn’t abnormally enthusiastic when describing, for instance, an appetizer. They just give it to you straight. The people we met were friendly, but reserved. They seemed to appreciate the little bit of Danish I learned before the trip. And some of them have truly amazing beards.
Know Before You Go
We’d read that Copenhagen is an expensive city, but we found it in many ways less expensive than Chicago. Importantly, prices include tax & tip. (Of course, you have the option to leave an additional tip.) In Chicago, taxes are over 10%, and we typically tip 20% or more, which adds about a third to the list price in a bar or restaurant. So, a $20 entrée in Copenhagen ends up costing about the same as a $15 entrée in the States. On this basis, most food and drink were quite reasonable.
There are some world-famous, fancy-pants restaurants in Copenhagen. We didn’t go to any of these. We are simple people, and we have a travel rule that we’re not going to pack an extra outfit just for one meal. “Great food in a casual environment” is our sweet spot, and Copenhagen offers plenty of options. But if you’re a hardcore foodie and want to take it up a notch, Copenhagen has you covered.
Perhaps because servers don’t work for tips, the service can be a little all over the map. But on balance, we didn’t find it any worse than in the States.
Finally, pack an umbrella. Just sayin’.
From here, I’ll break the highlights down by area, which will cluster them into a potential daily itinerary for you. I’ll save the few things we didn’t love for a TripAdvisor review when I’m feeling crabby. I’ve included links wherever possible.
In & Around Vesterbro
Just west of the city center, this neighborhood gives off a hip but casual vibe. It includes the former Meatpacking District, so it’s a good choice for food, drink and nightlife.
Lidkoeb – On the day of our arrival, we discovered one of our favorite cocktail bars on earth. I loved my Østersø Cola, though it helps if you like the flavor of salty black licorice. The space is cozy, and the soundtrack included old-school classics like “Shoop” and “Sure Shot.” We arrived just after its 4pm opening time on a Saturday, when it was relatively quiet; based on the number of “reserved” signs on the tables, it picks up quite a bit as the night progresses.
Spuntino – For our first meal in Denmark, obviously we chose… Italian. Kara & I split the family-style menu of 6 antipasti plus a pizza. At the server’s recommendation, we added a second pizza, which turned out to be a little more food than we needed. All antipasti were terrific, though the pizzas were a little soggy in the middle. (I might recommend a secondo instead.) Spuntino is part of the Copenhagen Food Collective (“Cofoco”), and based on this and our visit to its sister restaurant, Høst, I’m inclined to trust anything they do.
Kødbyens Fiskebar – Our late, light lunch of fish & chips hit the spot, and the oysters are among the best I’ve had. This haven of creative seafood dishes is a little pricey, but we’d definitely go back, since there were so many appealing options. Kara described the complementary potato bread with seaweed butter as “life-changing.”
Mother – Of the three pizzas we had on this trip (I told you we’re simple people), Mother was our “favorite crust” winner for its sourdough recipe. The toppings, gorgonzola and ‘nduja, didn’t exactly suck either.
Smagsløget – This sandwich shop was recommended by my pal Jay Sukow, who had recently spent time working with Improv Comedy Copenhagen, and it did not disappoint. Giant sandwiches with a huge range of options; we split one for lunch and were full until dinner. Mostly carry-out, with limited seating. Fun fact: At this writing, Smagsløget is ranked #3 of the 2,292 restaurants in CPH on TripAdvisor.
Mikkeller Bar – You’re going to see the Mikkeller name several times in this write-up. The Vesterbro outpost of this burgeoning empire is a cozy basement bar, designed for relaxed conversation. 20 taps.
Warpigs – Mikkeller’s partnership with Indiana’s revered Three Floyds Brewing is a gathering spot for folks of all stripes. Warpigs claims to have the largest barbecue smokers in Europe, and though we didn’t try them, the ribs looked terrific. Classic rock is your soundtrack here. About two dozen taps.
In & Around Rosenborg Castle
I’m playing a little loosey-goosey with the definition of the next three “neighborhoods.” They’re all in the City Center (or “Indre By”), but the technical definition of this area is too broad to be useful when planning an itinerary. So this is my attempt to cluster them in a sensible way.
Torvehallerne – This food hall, spread over two buildings, is an ideal spot for a late breakfast or lunch before exploring the area. We loved the brown sugar cinnamon roll (or “brunsvigersnegl,” which I somehow pronounced correctly. Ten points for me!) at Laura’s Bakery. When the rain started coming down hard, we camped out at Le Petit Vinbar, where they feature a small, well-selected and well-priced list of primarily Italian and French wines.
Botanical Garden – A delightful oasis with two museums, a massive greenhouse, a rock garden and a pond. Grab food from Torvehallerne and enjoy it on a bench here, or just stroll the walking paths with your beloved one and enjoy the calm.
Rosenborg Castle – Highlights include the coronation thrones, guarded by three silver lions, and of course the crown jewels. It’s adjacent to the King’s Garden, which is another lovely place for a stroll. Tip: Your ticket also gets you into five other museums, including the National History Museum and National Gallery of Denmark.
Høst – Quite simply, one of the best meals of my life. This Modern Scandinavian restaurant offers seasonal 3- and 5-course menus; we opted for the 5-course, though the bonus courses made it more like eight. Weeks later, I can conjure up the plates from memory: brown crab salad, scallops with horseradish, grilled lobster with tomato, baked hake, blueberry sorbet. All featured fresh, nuanced flavor combinations and a light touch from the kitchen. The wine pairing was perfect and the service was the best of our trip. An exceptional value and not to be missed.
In & Around Nyhavn
Nyhavn may be the most-photographed area of Copenhagen. It’s a narrow port lined by colorful buildings, and there’s plenty to love in the surrounding area.
Kastellet – Formerly the site of a five-pointed fortress, the Kastellet is now a sizable public park. You can walk the perimeter or view the historic buildings and war memorials.
Designmuseum Danmark – A must-do. The Danes do design very well, and if that’s your bag at all, you could easily spend four hours here. There was a Bauhaus exhibit on our trip, but we particularly loved the exhibit featuring chairs and chairs only.
Amelienborg Palace – We wouldn’t recommend the museum, unless you’re really into the day-to-day life of royals, but definitely visit the grand plaza, flanked by four identical buildings. At noon daily you can view the changing of the Royal Guard.
Frederiks Kirke – A beautiful marble church, featuring the largest church dome in Scandinavia. Very close to Amelienborg.
Union Kitchen – We had one lunch and one dinner here. The service is a little indifferent and the food a little pricey, but it’s also very tasty. A good choice for groups who like to share plates, particularly at dinner.
District Tonkin – Vietnamese. I ordered a banh mi and Kara had a rice noodle salad. Both were fresh and sizable. A good choice for a quick, filling lunch.
Nebbiolo Winebar – A little slice of Italy in a basement wine bar. Here’s the concept: Glasses of wine are available at three price points – 75, 100, and 125 kroner (about $11, $15 and $19, respectively). Give your server some clues as to what you’d like to drink, and he’ll make a recommendation and give you a taste before you commit. You’ll also get a small plate of charcuterie on the house. It’s a relaxed spot that appeared to be popular with the locals.
In & Around City Hall
This is our catch-all for the remaining areas of the City Center. Unsurprisingly, it’s Tourist Central, but there are plenty of gems to be found.
Strøget – We don’t go on vacation to shop, but it was hard to ignore the pull of this lengthy, pedestrian-only shopping street and the surrounding area. The Danish design sense of course extends to clothing, and we loved much of what we saw at shops like Mads Nørgaard, Samsøe & Samsøe and & Other Stories.
The Olive – Warm service at this small, family-run restaurant. We were crazy about the salmon tartar, the seasonal risotto and the panko parmesan chicken.
Ruby – From the owners of Lidkoeb, this is a more upscale (but not pretentious) cocktail bar in a building dating to 1740, right across the canal from Christiansborg Palace. A great choice for a post-dinner drink.
Café Halvvejen – Sometimes you’re on your way to dinner, with a little time on your hands, and you spontaneously pop into an authentic-looking pub below street level, only to find it’s been a pub since 1789. That’s Café Halvvejen. Fewer than 30 seats, most of them occupied by locals. Reminiscent of the “brown bars” of Amsterdam.
Ved Stranden 10 – So nice we went there twice. There’s no list at this wine bar – simply tell your server what you’re interested in, or let them recommend something. You’ll struggle to find many of their wines in the States, which is part of the appeal. Light snacks are available; the burrata was yummy.
In & Around Nørrebro
Touted as Copenhagen’s most culturally diverse neighborhood, it’s less touristy and a little rougher around the edges than the other spots we visited. Lots of boutiques, bodegas and vintage shops. Seems to be the hip up-and-comer.
Assistens Cemetery – A nice place for a walk, and not nearly as creepy as it might sound. Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kirkegaard are buried here. Surrounded on all sides by shops, pubs and restaurants, so passing through the grounds often makes good logistical sense.
Jaegersboggade – This is a cobblestone shopping street just northwest of Assistens, where you’ll find some higher-end options. We were impressed by the handmade hats at Wilgart and the delicate, geometric ceramics at Keramiker Inge Vincents.
Bæst – Winner of our “most creative pizza of the trip” award for the pumpkin and blue cheese combo. Friendly service, fresh ingredients (they make their own mozzarella) and well-mixed drinks (we recommend both the Negroni and the house special, the Spritz’ino). They should look into bottling & selling the aroma of the wood-fired oven.
Mikkeller & Friends – The original Mikkeller bar, and with 40 taps, you’ll find something you like. Plenty of seating and, again, designed for conversation, not raging.
Kølsters Tolv Haner – Seriously, how many cozy beer bars can one city have? Tolv Haner means “twelve taps,” and these rotate regularly. A go-to spot for craft beer drinkers, but with a decidedly local feel. Had we not had a dinner reservation nearby, we easily could have made a night of it here.
In & Around Refshaleøen
Part of the appeal of Refshaleøen is the walk to get there (about an hour from City Hall), which takes you behind the Opera House and through a design school. Once there, you’ll find yourself in a former shipyard that’s being transformed to host restaurants, new businesses and cultural events.
Reffen – Billed as “Copenhagen Street Food,” this outdoor food market houses 40+ stalls where you’ll find anything your heart and stomach desire. There’s a large beer tent where you can enjoy it all.
Mikkeller Baghaven – Adjacent to Reffen, this Mikkeller outpost features a bonkers lineup of saisons, farmhouse ales, fruit-enhanced brews and beers casked in wine barrels. If you don’t find something new to you here, you may wish to seek counseling for your drinking problem.
What We’d Do Next Time
Despite a pretty packed agenda, there are still a number of things we didn’t get to, including:
Christiansborg Palace – We viewed the grounds but would do the tour next time, based on recommendations.
Church of Our Savior – There are 400 steps to the top, the last 150 of them outside the spire, where you are granted some of the best views of Copenhagen.
Museums – Statens Museum for Kunst, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, and the National Gallery, just for starters.
Day trips – Malmö is just across the bridge, and Elsinore (home of “Hamlet’s castle,” Kronborg) and Odense are a short train ride away.
For a city that, population-wise, is about the size of Baltimore, the sheer volume of options in Copenhagen is a bit staggering. And that’s another reason we plan to return, and soon.
If you’re considering a trip to Copenhagen, drop me a line. I’ll be happy to help you make some tough choices within this gorgeous, charming, underrated city.
Shout-out to Greg Zimmer, whose own Copenhagen itinerary was useful for planning ours. Greg’s a partner at Cincinnati’s Coho Creative, where they do great work.
About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win. Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.” His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation. Contact Matthew here. He calls Chicago home.
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