It's easy to fall in love with Copenhagen, a city at once historic and modern, traditional and innovative. The Danish capital is known for its design scene, top-notch cuisine and hip, laid-back atmosphere, but Copenhagen is certainly not considered a budget destination.
Surprisingly, though, there are many experiences that you can enjoy for no cost at all, including some of the most famous sights that Copenhagen has to offer. Here's a guide to the best free things to do in Copenhagen.
1. Relive Copenhagen's seafaring past in Nyhavn
The vibrant colors and historic tall ships of nautical Nyhavn make it Copenhagen's most famous destination. Stroll down the southern side of the canal for the best views and photographs, and take a look at house number 20, where beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lived in 1835 when he published his first volume of fairy tales. Don't let the crowds discourage you from going to see this picturesque harbor in high season – it's still well worth a visit.
Planning tip: Rather than paying sky-high prices at the harborside restaurants, do as locals do and pick up a snack and some beers to enjoy picnic-style on the water's edge.
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2. Pay your respects to the Little Mermaid
Visitors from all over the world flock to see Copenhagen's most famous resident, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Perched on a rock just offshore along Langelinie Park, this celebrated sculpture is much smaller than many expect, and some say she is an overrated attraction. However, the walk up the harborside is rewarding as there are other sights to take in on your way to visit the city's iconic motif. Go early or late to avoid the worst of the crowds.
3. Soak up the views from Christiansborg Palace
For panoramic views of central Copenhagen and beyond, head to Christiansborg Palace, home to the Danish Parliament and the Royal Reception Rooms. Although there is a fee to tour most parts of the palace, entrance to its crowning tower is free. At 108m (354ft), Christiansborg Tårnet is Copenhagen's highest viewpoint, with stunning views in all directions. From here, you can take in sweeping views of the cityscape, and even see across the Øresund strait to Sweden.
Planning tip: Behind the tower is the outdoor Royal Riding Ring, where you can often spot some of the white royal horses enjoying training for their royal duties. It's a cheaper alternative to buying a ticket for the Royal Stables.
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4. Discover Danish sculpture at the Thorvaldsens Museum
The quaint Thorvaldsens Museum, next to Christiansborg Palace, is entirely dedicated to works and collections of Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and is free to enter on Wednesdays. Thorvaldsen spent four decades in Rome and drew his primary inspiration from classical mythology and sculpture. The museum contains hundreds of pieces of Thorvaldsen’s work – statues, drawings and molds – as well as many antiquities that the artist collected abroad.
5. Admire art for free at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
The sprawling Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is filled with sculptures and paintings by the likes of Rodin, Van Gogh, Gaugin and other 19th- and 20th-century European masters, as well as an outstanding collection of Mediterranean antiquities. Admission is free on Tuesdays. The museum building itself is as impressive as the works of art it houses, with a stunning plant-filled winter garden and a rooftop terrace with panoramic views.
Planning tip: While you're in the area, wander down the road to admire the exterior of the Copenhagen City Hall, a fine example of the National Romantic style, built by architect Martin Nyrop in 1905.
6. See a modern side to Copenhagen's art scene at Nikolaj Kunsthal
Free on Wednesdays, the Nikolaj Kunsthal is a contemporary arts center housed in a former church whose magnificent spire towers over the city. Exhibitions change regularly and represent a variety of media and styles; most focus on contemporary social, cultural or political issues.
7. Snap a photo of the Gefion Fountain and Kastellet
The Gefion Fountain, featuring the Norse goddess Gefion and her oxen, is an imposing creation overlooked by St Alban's Church. Behind the fountain is the Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress built in the 1600s to defend the city; visitors are free to stroll the grounds and investigate its historic buildings and windmill.
Planning tip: Combine a visit to the Kastellet with a stroll through the greenery of Langelinie Park, passing the Little Mermaid and the Maritime Monument.
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8. Soak up the atmosphere of Strøget and the Old Town
One of the longest pedestrian streets in the world, Strøget is the hub of Copenhagen's lively center and a shopping playground, particularly for fans of Danish design, but there's no charge to browse. Dotted with historic buildings, squares and fountains, it’s one of the most visited parts of the Old Town, welcoming up to 10,000 people a day in the high season.
Those who stray from the bustling main shopping street are rewarded with charming, quieter squares such as Gråbrødretorv and some of the most picturesque streets in the city. Keep your camera handy for a walk along Magstræde, a curved, cobblestone beauty lined with colorful old homes.
9. Appreciate the calm green spaces of Kongens Have
Copenhagen is full of green spaces, but Kongens Have (the King’s Garden) is especially lovely. The gardens serve as the grounds of Rosenborg Castle, which was built as the royal summer home in the 1600s and is now a museum (an entry fee applies). Intersecting tree-lined paths, an orchard, a rose garden and expansive lawns that are perfect for picnics make this a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike.
Planning tip: The gardens have a marionette theatre staging free performances for kids in the afternoons from mid-July to mid-August (Tuesday to Sunday).
10. Walk in the lush Botanisk Have gardens
Copenhagen’s historic Botanical Garden is a 10-hectare oasis, boasting 13,000 species of trees, flowers and other plants. Highlights include a perennial garden, a rhododendron garden and a rock garden with alpine plants. Walking paths wind through the flowerbeds and circle the lovely lake at the park’s heart, a remnant of the moat that protected the city for hundreds of years. There’s a fee to visit the 19th-century Palm House, which also includes a seasonal Butterfly House during the warm summer months, but the Botanical Garden itself is free of charge.
11. See how the royals live at Amalienborg Palace
Comprising four outwardly identical palaces set around a central courtyard, Amalienborg Palace is the official city residence of Queen Margrethe II and the Danish Royal Family. There's an entry fee to see the palace rooms but there's no charge to watch the Changing of the Guard. Every day at noon, members of the Royal Life Guard march through the city from their barracks at Rosenborg Palace to Amalienborg to take over the watch. The soldiers march around the courtyard in distinctive bearskin helmets and midnight-blue uniforms (or red uniforms on special occasions); when the Queen is in residence they are accompanied by a marching band.
Planning tip: Close to the palace, the free-to-visit Ameliehavn gardens flank the harbor, dotted with sculptures by Italian artist, Arnaldo Pomodoro.
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12. Enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of Torvehallerne Market
The Torvehallerne market is a foodie wonderland, where home cooks and professional chefs alike come to source fresh, local produce. Within the complex of two glass halls and many outdoor stands, you can shop for quality ingredients for picnics, pick up take-home goodies such as wines, teas and chocolates, sit and people-watch in one of the many cafes. or just wander for free investigating the stalls.
Planning tip: If you're keen to sample some of the local cuisine, try a smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) from Hallernes, or a fiskefrikadelle (fish cake) with remoulade from Boutique Fisk.
13. Marvel at the architecture of the Royal Library
The Royal Library, on the island of Slotsholmen, is made up of two sections: the original building, founded in 1648, and the modern extension, completed in 1999. The newer part of the library sits gleaming on the shores of Copenhagen harbor; it's known as the Black Diamond due to its shiny marble exterior.
The library holds almost every book ever printed in the Danish language, with some titles dating back as far as 1482. The interior is a fascinating piece of architecture and the central hall is accessible to the public, but books must be reserved in advance and accessed in one of the reading rooms.
Planning tip: Between the charming historic side of the library and the entrance to the Danish Parliament you'll find a peaceful hidden garden where you can sit by the fountain and take a break from a busy day of exploring.
14. Drop by some historic churches
Many Copenhagen churches can be visited for free. Christiansborg Slotskirke has been the site of royal christenings and funerals for centuries, while Vor Frue Kirke (The Church of Our Lady) has hosted many royal weddings, most recently the nuptials of Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Donaldson in 2004.
Overlooking the grounds of Amalienborg Palace, Marmorkirken (The Marble Church) is an impressive domed church built from limestone; it’s the largest church of its kind in Scandinavia. Another distinctive church is the baroque Vår Frelsers Kirke (The Church of Our Savior), most famous for its spire, which has an external spiral staircase that can be climbed for a fee.
15. Discover bohemian Copenhagen in Freetown Christiania
Located on the island borough of Christianshavn, Freetown Christiania is a unique and somewhat controversial part of Copenhagen. This autonomous settlement was established during a housing shortage in 1971 when squatters took over an abandoned military base and founded an alternative enclave in the city.
Best known for its Green Light District, a gritty central quarter filled with marijuana dealers and smokers, Christiania is an expansive area that also includes nature trails and a lake. The Freetown is also home to restaurants and bars, a market, artist workshops and concert venues. There is plenty of street art to admire, and many residents live in imaginatively converted army barracks buildings or unique, hand-built homes.
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16. Enjoy an arty lunch or snack at Reffen
Established in 2017, the Reffen food market quickly won over locals and tourists alike as the place to go for delicious street food in Copenhagen. Located on the former industrial island of Refshaleøen, it’s home to more than 30 vendors selling multicultural food from converted shipping containers. The idea is to help new entrepreneurs establish businesses and encourage sustainable practices.
It's not just a place for delicious eats. Reffen is also home to artists’ workshops and hosts frequent free concerts, art festivals and other events. The market is open daily in the high season, and at weekends for most of the rest of the year.
Planning tip: The location of Reffen is rather isolated but getting here is half the fun on the yellow "harbor bus" boat.
17. Swim in the harbor
Yes, you read that right! While not known as a beach destination, Copenhagen is surrounded by water, and its harbor is clean enough to swim in. Though chilly, even in the summer months, its harbor is a popular spot for a dip in warm (and sometimes cold) weather. The city has three harbor bath facilities that are free to use (Islands Brygge is the most central) but many locals just jump in straight from the docks.
18. Take a beachside stroll at Amager Strand
To make the best of a warm summer day in Copenhagen, take the Metro to Amager Strand for a day at the beach. Many come to the long, sandy shoreline to enjoy the sun and waves, and the waterfront promenade is a great place for a stroll or bike ride. There are impressive views of the Øresund strait, including the famous bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden, visible in the distance.
19. Explore the Rådhuspladsen
At the end of Strøget sits Rådhuspladsen, home of Copenhagen's Italian-inspired City Hall, where visitors can admire the ornate lobby and marvel at Jens Olsen's World Clock, an incredibly intricate timepiece. As you explore the square, pause to admire the Gothic-style Dragon Fountain, the popular statue of Hans Christian Andersen and the stone pillar marking the former site of Vesterport, the western gate of the wall that used to surround the city.
20. Feel Copenhagen's hipster vibes on Jægersborggade
Head to the hip neighborhood of Nørrebro for a stroll on Jægersborggade, one of Copenhagen’s best streets for independent shops and local cafes. Browse artists' studios, vintage clothing boutiques, and shops selling everything from chocolates to cactuses.
Planning tip: For a recharge while exploring Jægersborggade, stop for coffee at the acclaimed Coffee Collective, or a warming bowl of gourmet porridge at the fantastic Grød.