1. The Danes know how to play
In contrast to the commercial clutter of most theme parks, Tivoli (tivoli.dk) has clung on to much of its 19th-century atmosphere. Alongside the modern rides and elegant restaurants, the gardens are dotted with antique dodgems, vintage Ferris wheels and twirling merry-go-rounds. The pagoda-style Pantomime Theatre, built in 1874, stages ballets and Pierrot pantomimes, while oompah bands serenade visitors from beneath the willow trees, and Chinese lanterns twinkle in the branches overhead.
2. There’s an urban beach
You might not think of Copenhagen as a beach destination, but three miles south of the centre is one of Denmark’s finest stretches of sand: Amager Strandpark, a vast white beach extending along a sheltered lagoon, backed by gentle dunes and marram grass. It’s popular all year round with cyclists and rollerbladers, and come summer it’s awash with sunbathers. Be warned, though: swimming is best left for the steely, as the water temperature is only ever bracing at best.
3. Food is a performance
Copenhagen’s gastronomic reputation has undergone a quiet renaissance over the last decade. At 1.th (the name means ‘first floor to the right’), lodged inside a luxurious apartment just off Copenhagen’s harbourfront, owner Mette Martinussen has created a dining experience halfway between a posh dinner party and a piece of live performance. Diners are sent their ‘invitation’ by email and mingle over drinks in the retro drawing room, before being ushered through to watch the head chef and his team at work in the kitchen-cum-dining room. The food is as flamboyant as the concept, taking in everything from pork with seaweed and horseradish foam to beetroot and liquorice ice cream.
4. The city lives for pastry
Copenhagen’s bakeries are piled high with pastries, but ask for a Danish and you’ll more than likely get a funny look. They’re known as wienerbrød in Denmark, a reminder that the nation’s most famous pastries were originally invented by Viennese chefs during a nationwide strike by Danish bakers in the mid-1850s. A century-and-a-half later, and the wienerbrød is still the sticky treat of choice for Copenhageners. You’ll see people queuing up at bakeries for a cup of coffee and freshly made wienerbrød throughout the morning. The city’s best are handmade at La Glace, where the wienerbrød recipe has hardly changed since the shop first opened its doors in 1870.
5. In the swim
Copenhageners don’t have to travel too far for a dip. Just south of the centre is the Islands Brygge Havnebadet, one of two outdoor swimming pools in Copenhagen. It’s a glorious place to experience an authentically Scandinavian swim in the sea; situated on the city’s harbour, the pool’s streamlined design has won architectural awards, and in summer the water temperature rarely falls below 20˚C.
6. Designed for life
Design in Denmark is both a way of life and a passion that teeters close to an obsession. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Copenhagen’s interior design store Illums Bolighus. The historic shop is like an art gallery: every item, from lamps to coffee tables, is displayed with the precision of a museum exhibit. If you’ve never fallen in love with a coat hanger or a piece of cutlery, you’ve clearly never been shopping at Illums Bolighus.
7. Hygge: the Danish way
Falling somewhere between cosy, friendly and chilled out, hygge is a word that’s difficult to translate. The best way to get your head around hygge is to see it in action. Copenhagen’s harbour district, Nyhavn, makes an ideal place to start. On sunny days, Copenhageners can be seen sprawling along the waterfront, sharing snacks at one of the bistros on the cobbled quayside. As dusk falls, they huddle together under patio heaters to escape the chill evening air, or duck into basement bars, with quintessentially hyggelig combinations of low ceilings, tightly-packed tables and crackling fires.
8. Bicycles rule
It’s hardly surprising that the city is often cited as the world’s most bike-friendly city. With cycle lanes and flat streets, the appeal is obvious, but the real joy of cycling here is the sheer variety of bikes on the streets. Copenhageners treat their bikes as an expression of their personalities: some weld trunks onto the front of their bikes to make a makeshift seat for passengers, while others transform their machines into delivery carts or mobile prams. Try rentabike.dk (from ￡15 per day) or Bycyklen (bycyklen.dk/en/), the city’s free bike scheme (£3.50 per hour). These electric ‘city bikes’ can be rented and returned from stations throughout the city by entering credit card details into the built-in tablet (which is also GPS-enabled).
9. A little Venice
Copenhagen looks at its best from the water. The city is criss-crossed by a network of canals, and though the clippers and tall ships have long since sailed into the sunset, the waterways are still an integral part of the city’s character. In the well-heeled canal quarter of Christianshavn, yachts, barges and houseboats jostle for space along the granite quays, while cruise-boats laden with sightseers putter past the elegant shuttered townhouses. As the afternoon light fades, the terraces of waterside restaurants such as Restaurant Kanalen fill up with evening diners, while buskers serenade them with traditional Danish folk songs.
Sliced rye bread (rugbrød) topped with cold meats, smoked fish, cheese or pate – this open-faced sandwich known as smørrebrød has been a lunchtime staple for the Danish for as long as anyone cares to remember. For connoisseurs, there’s only one address in town that cuts the mustard, and that’s Ida Davidsen. It retains a reassuringly old-world feel: diners cram into wooden booths lit by candles, while aproned waiters carry gleaming plates laden with sandwiches. In recent years, a new breed of cafe has sprung up, championing a modern twist on the traditional smørrebrød. One of the best is Aamanns, where you can pick up bento-style boxes if you’re in a hurry. Now that’s progress.
This article was first published in April 2013, and was updated by Caroline Hadamitzky in February 2017.