A Winter Break in Copenhagan
Updated: Jun 10
Copenhagen is cool. Really cool. I fell in love with it instantly, helped no end by the blanket of snow which enveloped the city over night, creating one of the most picture-perfect landscapes I’d ever seen. I should preface this by saying I’m obsessed with all things Scandinavian: design, architecture, clothes and of course those dark and depressing but completely compelling TV series such as Borgen and The Killing. So naturally I was going to love it.
It has a lot going for it: great bars and restaurants, edgy and exciting architecture, fantastic galleries and museums, and really friendly people. It is incredibly hip and everyone looks so effortlessly cool. Its streets are spotlessly clean, everyone cycles everywhere (apparently only 29% of Danes own a car) so there is a fantastic network of bike tracks, and most of its key attractions are within walking distance of each other. And of course everyone speaks perfect English. Here's what you need to know:
Museums and Galleries
Copenhagen is a wonderful city for art lovers and its museums and galleries are second to none, catering to all tastes. Here are four of the best.
This has to be up there with the coolest museums in the world. Located about 40 kilometers from the city (there's a good train connection from Copenhagen’s Central Station), the building is perfectly integrated into the natural environment and all the more impressive for it. It’s situated right on the coast (you can see Sweden in the distance), and the grounds are dotted with diverse sculpture from artists such as Miró, Calder and Dan Graham. It's well worth the trip.
The architects really made the best possible use of the site: the glass corridor walls and huge windows frame the spectacular natural environment and sculpture beyond: there is always something to see, no matter which way you turn.
The museum has an incredible permanent collection of work from 1945 to present day showcasing all art forms but with a particular emphasis on painting and sculpture. Check out the work of Danish artists Per Kirkeby and Asger Jorn - it's terrific. It also hosts approximately six to ten exhibitions annually. If you take a look at the past shows on their website, you’ll see the international standard of this museum. They’ve had shows by Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Lucien Freud, William Kentridge, Barnett Newman… Need I go on.
We were lucky enough to catch American artist Tara Donovan’s outstanding first European show. Tara uses simple everyday objects like straws, toothpicks and buttons to create monumental works of great intrigue and beauty. The way she experiments with materials challenges the viewer’s interpretation of what they are seeing. What looks soft and fluffy from a distance is sharp and spiky up close. What looks like a wall of snow is actually an undulating wall of drinking straws. In the hands of a lesser artist it could have been gimmicky, but instead it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It’s an outstanding museum and one to write off an entire day for. There is a restaurant and café on site when you need a break. One to enjoy at your leisure.
Worth visiting for its excellent collection of Danish and international art. Look out for paintings by Ejnar Nielsen, and the other Scandinavian greats such as Asger Jorn, Carl Henning-Pedersen, Vilhelm Hammershoi, Per Kirkeby and Jens Ferdinand Willumsen. They also have a terrific international collection including works by Modigliani, Dufy, Picasso, Braque, and two beautiful paintings by Matisse. .
Arken's striking ship-like structure was inspired by its maritime surroundings and has an excellent collection of Danish, Nordic and international modern and contemporary art. It also housed one of the best temporary exhibitions I’d seen in years: a retrospective of the work of Carl Henning-Pedersen, one of the key members of the COBRA group.
The Glyptoteket collection consists of works of art and artifacts from Egypt, ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as French and Danish art of the 19th century. It also houses 47 paintings by Paul Gauguin covering his entire career, one of the largest collections of his work to be found anywhere. It’s well worth a visit. Another draw is the wonderful winter garden located in the centre of the museum, which houses the café – a lovely place to while away an afternoon.
Food and drink
Bankeråt: here's a weird and wonderful introduction to Copenhagen: a little bit dark, on the verge of dingy, but really cosy, especially on a cold winter’s night. It has a great selection of unusual beers and some nice wines by the glass. It may also be one of the strangest places I’ve ever had a drink. There are taxidermy animals everywhere, dressed in very strange outfits. One almost gave me a heart attack at the bottom of the stairs. Needless to say it’s one of the more memorable bars I’ve ever been to.
Ahlefeldtsgade 27, 1359 København
Dag H: great for brunch. The decor is slick and minimalist, the staff friendly, and the food outstanding.
Dag Hammarskjölds Allé 38, 2100 København
Temporada Tapasbodega: one of the highlights of our trip, firstly for the fabulous food, but more importantly due to the incredibly warm host and owner Elo. He had a real pride in his produce and such a passion for what he was doing. He gave us some complimentary glasses of wine and ended up joining us at our table at the end of the evening. A wonderful experience and a restaurant we would return to on our next trip.
Åboulevard 23, 1960 Frederiksberg
Other things to do and see in Copenhagen
One of the most photographed areas of Copenhagen is Nyhavn, with its picturesque harbour and symmetrical facade of multicoloured gabled houses and buildings. It's postcard-pretty, especially against a bright blue wintry sky. It’s a perfect area for wandering with any number of decentrestaurants and bars. Nyhavn has a history of housing prominent Danish artists in its time, but even more famously the Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen used to live in no. 20. He also lived for a time in no. 67 and in no. 18. Nyhavn is one of the departure points for a canal tour, which I couldn’t recommend enough. Coming up next...
Canal Tours Copenhagen:
This is a fantastic way to experience the city from a different perspective and one of the departure points is from Nyhavn above. As so much of this city is built around its canals network, it follows that many of its sights can be best seen from the water. It offers a terrific viewpoint of some really cutting edge Scandinavian architecture including the Royal Danish Opera House, with its sleek limestone and glass facade; the Black Diamond (National Library) whose shiny, black frontage reflects wonderfully the sea and sky at the harbour front; The Royal Danish Playhouse Theatre, and the classically beautiful Amalienborg Palace, home of Denmark’s royal family.
A word of advice: if you’re going on a canal tour in winter or early spring, wrap up warmly. We were there in March and it was snowing most of the time. To say the tour was invigorating was putting it mildly.
We were short on time so didn’t make it inside for a tour, but the grounds alone of this 17th century castle are worth a trip. The covering of snow made it even more magical.
One for the fans of Danish drama Borgen, the political thriller about fictional Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg. This is the parliament building which features so prominently in the show, in real life. The fountain below was the setting for a particularly emotional scene but you’ll not find any spoilers here. Just watch the show – I promise it’ll be the best TV you’ve seen in years.
Freetown Christiania is the alternative and self-proclaimed autonomous region of Copenhagen, established in 1971 as a society within a society, independent of the Danish government. Within its walls it hosts a series of artists’ workshops, art galleries, music venues, cafés, bars and restaurants. But it’s probably best known for its liberal attitude to drugs: cannabis is openly consumed here and sold on the infamous Pusher Street, despite being illegal in Denmark. Visitors are not allowed to film or take any photographs for this reason. We had a great meal here with Danish friends in Café Loppen Impossible to find unless you know where you’re going. Looks really dingy on the way up the stairs with graffiti everywhere but it’s a really cool place once inside the door. Really big and spacious with a vibey atmosphere and great food.
The Little Mermaid
And yes she’s very little. I’m not sure if it’s worth the trip for this alone, but the Little Mermaid, a character from one of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories, is a very iconic symbol of the city, and quite a pretty sculpture by Edvard Eriksen. If you find yourself at Amalienborg Slot, it’s a short walk along the quayside through the lovely Langelinie Park to see her.
Where to stay:
We were really happy with this hotel during our stay, which incidentally I should mention is right beside Temporada Tapasbodega, the restaurant I mentioned above. Décor is muted and slick with classic Danish design and furniture.
Rooms aren't exactly huge but comfortable, clean and modern in neutral colours with colourful soft furnishings. It's well located less than 2kms from the city centre and with good access to transport links both from the airport and across the city. Forum sub-way station is just a few minutes' walk away. It's located in Frederiksberg which is a pretty happening part of the city.
Brownie points for breakfast: they offer an excellent buffet of bread, cheeses, meats, yoghurt, fresh fruit, pancakes and great coffee.