There can’t be many capitals where you can kayak in front of the opera house, rent a hot-tub boat or floating dining room, swim in its canals, and cycle a tranquil waterside harbour circuit. But this is Copenhagen, a city that specialises in using its imagination.
Over the past few decades its ever-cleaner canals have been almost entirely given over to pleasure. Here are some of the best water-based adventures to be had in and around the city.
Cycling the Harbour Circle
Quality of life and clever design are what it’s all about in people-centred Copenhagen. With the recent addition of two new cycle bridges, it’s now possible to walk, run and bike your way around the full, breeze-in-your-hair, 13km-long Harbour Circle route (visitcopenhagen.com/harbourcircle).
Another great cycle route winds through the Christianshavn neighbourhood – in minutes, you’re out of the urban landscape, and plunged into an almost rural escape, where swans dot reed-fringed waters, and the DIY houses make it feel as though Hansel & Gretel’s witch decided to up sticks and create a commune here.
Copenhagen’s Harbour Buses (visitcopenhagen.com/copenhagen/harbour-bus) are a handy and scenic way to get around, chugging up and down the canal from the Black Diamond (Royal Library) to the Little Mermaid.
You can also explore Copenhagen on a canal boat tour. The low boat squeezes through the city bridges with just centimetres to spare. The route slides past the candy-bright 17th-century houses of Nyhaven – where Hans Christian Andersen once lived and what was, at one time, the city’s Red Light district – and the waterways of colourful Christianshavn which was (also in the 17th century) built on artificial islands.
Locals love a hyggelig picnic on a solar-powered Duffy Boat (duffyboats.dk), with seating and dining tables. You can pootle yourself or employ a captain to steer you around. Go Boat also offer solar-powered boats and provide picnic tables and bench seating – ideal for a balmy afternoon.
But if you like your boat trips with a little more steam, you’re in luck. Floating Jacuzzis are available for hire too, via Copenhot (copenhot.com).
If Copenhagen’s canals look clean enough to dive into, that’s because they are, and there are three harbour baths that fill up quickly in summer (members only in winter). Most popular is the central Islands Brygge, with multiple pools and a see-and-be-seen vibe. Nearby the Olympic-sized pool at Fisketorvet attracts serious swimmers, and the latest of the harbour baths is the floating Coral Bath, which is less busy and a firm family favourite.
There’s even a beach accessible by metro: Amager Strand, to the north of Copenhagen harbour, has shallow, family-friendly lagoons, an artificial sandbank, and a carnival atmosphere come summer.
Gliding by kayak
Serene yet adventurous, kayaking reaches the backwaters that other activities cannot. Kayak Republic offer tours and courses, plus they have a laid back waterside bar, as well as their own floating beach. KajakOle (kajakole.dk) also offer kayak tours; feel the adrenaline rush of kayak polo, or the tranquillity of a stand-up paddle boarding tour on the lagoons at Amager Strand.
Wow-factor waters-edge sights
The canalside Thorvaldsens Museum contains the gleaming plaster casts of classical sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsens, set against geometric-tiled floors and walls of royal blue, golden mustard and earthy maroon. Close by, the National Museum harbours extraordinary treasures, many related to the sea. You’ll see items thrown into bogs over 3000 years ago, such as the pure gold Sun Chariot that now appears on the Danish 1000 kroner note.
The building that kicked off Copenhagen’s waterfront renaissance was the modernist wing to the Royal Library, the Black Diamond, a cut-glass mothership-like monolith built in 1999. Further along the main waterfront there is the Royal Cast Collection (www.smk.dk) where thousands of plaster-cast classical and Renaissance figures crowd into a former sugar and rum warehouse. A copy of Michelangelo’s David stands sentinel outside.
Farther still is the famous Little Mermaid statue, forlornly perched at the outer echelons of the harbour. She has twice lost her head – the first time, in 1964, it was taken so seriously the crime was investigated by the homicide squad.
Southeast of the city, Den Blå Planet, Copenhagen’s aquarium, is worth visiting as much for its sleekly curved metallic shell, almost melting into the surface of the water, as for its shimmering sealife. Further afield the Louisiana and Arken Museum of Modern Art both have ice-blue Baltic views. For the ultimate view of Sweden, take the train from from Copenhagen Central to Malmö across the Øresund Bridge, architectural star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge.
When it opens again in its new location in summer 2017, Noma (noma.dk) – the multi-Michelin-starred innovator that is considered among the world’s best restaurants – will include an organic farm with floating fields at the edge of Christianshavn.
A ship-shaped former customs house is home to the Standard (thestandardcph.dk), a collection of waterside eateries. There’s the Michelin-starred Studio restaurant upstairs, and the Haven Bar with Mikkeller beers downstairs (try the tartly beguiling sour cherry), while at Almanac you can eat deliciously well – it serves the best smørrebrød in town. These open sandwiches are the Danes' favourite lunch; try their take on herring, sweetly sour and topped by flowers.
Great for families and with plenty of waterside atmosphere is Christianshavn garden restaurant Ravelin (ravelinen.dk), with Danish favourites such as pork and herring.
Rooms with a view
There are houseboats for hire from private owners, or you can opt for the floating hotel CPH Living, a converted barge with 12 rooms, all with floor-to-ceiling water-facing views. A more conventional waterside option is the Admiral Hotel, in a historic warehouse, where refurbished rooms feel sparklingly fresh. Up a few notches in price are the fabulous boutique rooms at 71 Nyhavn, with views of the periwinkle-blue harbour: the finishing touch to a water-themed stay.
Make it happen
International airlines, including low-cost carriers such as Ryanair (ryanair.com) and easyJet (easyjet.com), serve Copenhagen’s airport, from where it’s around 15 minutes by train/metro into central Copenhagen.
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