Every time I go to Copenhagen, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the same thing: It doesn't take very long to get there. Okay, yes, Denmark is about a seven-hour flight from New York City, but that's not all that much longer than the flight to Los Angeles, for example, and yet you'll find yourself in what feels like an entirely different world. And what a world it is, one full of extremely tall and good-looking people, incredible food, dreamy designs, a bike-friendly and easy-to-explore landscape, and did I mention all those good-looking people yet?
Danish culture has gotten pretty trendy in the last few years, what with the renewed focus on Danish modern design and Scandinavian cuisine, as well as that current word-of-the-moment, hygge (pronounced "hue-geh," it means, basically, "cozy"). And while Copenhagen is definitely full of zeitgeisty, eminently Instagrammable moments, a visit there will be fulfilling on an entirely different level than just how many likes you'll get when you post a photo of a perfectly composed plate of food. (Although, as to that: There will be a lot.)
Rather, there's also the simple fact that it is the kind of place where it is possible to instantly feel at home. Oh, sure, part of the reason for this is that English is spoken very well just about everywhere you go (which is a nice feature not just for mostly monolingual Americans, but really for anyone; Danish is not the easiest language to learn or even pronounce phonetically—think: hyyge), but more than that, there is a pervasive sense of welcome here, an instant sense of belonging and comfort, which makes it all the more possible to feel a freedom when it comes to wandering around at will.
Plus, since Copenhagen is relatively small, it's totally possible to explore it all in just a few days, allowing visitors the acute pleasure of feeling like they've really gotten to know a place when it's time to say goodbye. This isn't to say you won't want to come back to Copenhagen—you almost certainly will—but just that you'll feel like you'll be returning to visit an old friend, and, in a sense, you will.
Things to Do
There's no shortage of activities in Copenhagen; it's tons of fun to just hop on a bike and explore with no real direction in mind. But if you absolutely must have some destination in mind, here are some things that are really worth putting on your itinerary.
La Banchina: Set on the waterfront in a former industrial area at the very northern tip of Copenhagen, La Banchina is a definite must-see as far as I'm concerned. The little cafe that's set on the dock serves immaculate riffs on classic comfort fare. Think, the best bowl of muesli you'll ever have, thanks to the granola being soaked in apple cider, a tangy slump of yogurt, glugs of grassy green olive oil, crunchy pumpkin seeds, and luscious candied Sicilian oranges. And then either after or before eating, head down to the dock for a little swimming in the crystal clear waters (just watch out for the many swans; apparently, they can be aggressive). Now, I know what you're thinking: What a pleasant summertime experience! And this is true; La Banchina is overflowing with people in the summer. But also, as I can attest from personal experience, it's a fun (if insane) thing to do in the winter. Yes, your "swim" will last approximately five seconds as you dunk yourself and then hurriedly make your way back up the ladder to the dock where a toasty bonfire (pictured above) will be waiting for you. Then go grab a cappuccino inside and a croissant for good measure, and feel more alive than you've felt in a very long time.
Distortion: This electronic music-centered festival takes place on the streets of Copenhagen every night for five nights, turning the city into one big dance party. The atmosphere and energy are unrivaled and infectious, and even if electronic music isn't your thing, it's still a super fun to be a part of.
Tivoli Gardens: This 175-year-old amusement park right in the center of Copenhagen is a magical place to walk around and feel like you've been transported back to a different, full of simple pleasures time. (Well, there are some high-tech pleasures: There's a self-operating lawn mower shaped like a rabbit! I love it.) Do go on some of the rides, like the antique Ferris wheel, the 102-year-old roller coaster, and a very strange mining-themed ride that will have you wondering if you ate mushrooms before you got on board because it's, like, really trippy. Don't forget to get some soft serve ice cream covered liberally with salty licorice sprinkles. It sounds weird, and it is weird, but it's also delicious.
Ride a Bike!: This is just a general command. Do it! There are tons of places to rent bikes, and it's by far the best way to get around the city, no matter the weather. I've ridden bikes in Copenhagen in snowy weather and on gloriously sunshine-filled days, and while I won't lie and say there's no difference (there is, and wear gloves if it's at all cold), it's actually still really my favorite way to get around. Just pay attention to the rules of the road, and stick to the right so that more proficient Danish cyclists can scoot past you without too much trouble.
Where to Shop
From beautifully designed furniture and ceramics with a modern spin to stylish clothes and accessories to organic chocolates and culinary treats, there's an infinite way to spend your money in Copenhagen. Make sure to bring an empty suitcase with you when you go; you're sure to fill it on your way back home.
Torvehallerne: This gourmet food market is an excellent place to grab a bite to eat—many stalls offer food ranging from traditional Danish smørrebrød to sushi (which, by the way, is delicious, inventive, and ultra-fresh)—but it's also a great place to stock up on goodies to bring home. Don't sleep on the Summerbird organic chocolate stall, which has some of the most delicious confections we've ever tried.
Wood Wood: This store is well-stocked with internationally renowned street wear brands but also has its own house collection, which is not to be missed. Perfect for suiting up in something much cooler than typical athleisure chic when flying back home.
Designer Zoo: This gorgeous design lover's paradise is a two-story concept shop housing the best of Danish design, crafts, and art. It can be treated as a destination in a gallery-like sense, but it's also eminently shoppable, filled as it is with tons of covetable goods.
Stilleben: Home to beautiful Danish ceramics and art prints among other home decor items, Stilleben is the perfect place to visit if you want to bring home a souvenir that everyone will comment upon when they see it in your home.
Flea Markets: Copenhagen is home to a variety of flea markets (a full list can be found here) that are full of treasures, both large and small, and fun to wander around in, even if you're just browsing.
Where to Eat
Obviously, Scandinavian cuisine is having a real moment (well, a moment that's lasted several years by now), but it's well-deserved. I've really never had a bad meal in Copenhagen, which, I'm sure it's possible to do so, but it's also totally possible to have some of the best food of your life while there. Here are some of my favorite spots. It was genuinely hard to narrow it down.
Restaurant Spontan: This excellent spot is situated in a brewery, meaning that the beauty of the food you'll be eating (and it is beautiful, each dish in the multi-course tasting menu is spectacularly composed) can be paired with a correspondingly excellent beer or, for that matter, wine. I had one of my favorite meals of my life here, and a cool added bonus is that there's a grocery store at the front of the restaurant, so you can stock up on Danish beer and other food stuff, like my favorite hot sauce.
Brød: Make time for a trip to this bakery in Vesterbro; you'll know you're close when the incredible smell of fresh-baked bread and pastries fills the air, and your mouth starts watering. The breads are all incredible but don't miss out on the pastries. Try a berry-flecked financier or an exquisite cannelle, or perhaps a Danish treat like a poppy seed-riddled tebirke or, you know, a Danish.
Coffee Collective: This beloved coffee shop has several locations throughout Copenhagen; do try and stop by one (or all?). Danes love and know their coffee, and this place has some of the finest brews we've ever tried.
Kødbyens Fiskebar: Nestled in the heart of Copenhagen's Meatpacking District, this seafood-forward spot is always bustling, and for good reason. Its cuisine is inventive without feeling too intellectualized, and it has some of the freshest, most varied seafood options around. Start with oysters and then move on to, well, just about anything. The scallop crudo is fantastic, as is a tangle of squid and roasted celeriac in an inky romesco-like sauce. Don't forget dessert, though; they do it well here. Recently I had a beetroot cake with brown cheese ice cream and hazelnut crunch that was out of this world.
Hija de Sanchez: Tacos in Denmark? Yes! Also, located in the Meatpacking District, this tiny hole-in-the-wall spot offers incredible tacos, from a simple but impeccable barbacoa to a sensational crispy cod skin version. For dessert here, the paletas are always inventive flavor combinations and shouldn't be missed.
Absalon: Located in a former church, this big communal dinner is one of the best deals in Copenhagen, costing just 50 kroner, or $8. You arrive to buy a ticket at about 5pm on a Saturday, and the food begins to be served to you and your scores of dinner companions at 6pm. While always healthy, vegetarian, and delicious, the food isn't the only reason to come here; it's genuinely a wonderful thing to get to hang out with friendly strangers who are looking to make connections with one another at the end of the day. Lots of families attend, as do groups of friends, but even if you go alone, you're bound to meet some new mates by the end of the evening.
Where to Stay
It's all about location, location, location. Here are some spots we love and think you will too.
Central Café and Hotel: Billed as "the smallest hotel in the world," this charming spot consists of literally one room. But it's a beautifully appointed room, with every amenity, and a charm all its own. It's also ideally located, and a stay here puts you on top of an excellent coffee shop (try the banana split... really!) and guarantees a delightful breakfast at the nearby Granola, which serves a mean omelet.
Hotel Alexandra: This hotel is elegantly appointed with authentic Danish modern furniture; rooms are themed either by designer or by decade, and all are super Instagram-friendly. Take advantage of the central location by renting a bike from the front desk; it's a great way to set off and explore the city, and the bikes are big cruisers which are super comfortable to ride. The hotel offers a complimentary glass of wine in the lobby at night, which is a great way to unwind after a long day of bike-riding; just don't skip out on the breakfast buffet in the morning. Danes really know how to do breakfast, and the array of fruits, meats, cheeses, eggs, salads, and breads is truly impressive. Oh, and there's make-your-own-waffle station, because, of course, there is.
Hotel Absalon: Located in trendy Vesterbro, this design-forward hotel is newly renovated and full of bright colors and covetable furniture. The staff is really friendly and helpful with regard to all your traveling needs, including arranging for separate luggage transport to and from the airport. And the lobby, with its well-stocked bar, is a great place to spend cocktail hour before you head out to experience Copenhagen nightlife.
While there is plenty to do in Copenhagen itself to keep you fully occupied, in case you feel like getting out of the city, here are some places to go.
Louisiana Museum: A quick hour-long train (and bus) ride north of Copenhagen, the Louisiana museum is a must-see for culture-lovers—and, really, just for everyone visiting Denmark. Situated on the Danish coast, Louisiana has a spectacular outdoor sculpture garden, which offers stunning settings year-round for massive works; it's definitely worth checking out no matter the season, as the weather can really recontextualize the art. There's an impressive array of work in the permanent collection, and Louisiana also hosts excellent temporary exhibits. Currently, Louise Bourgeois and Barnett Newman shows are up, both well worth traveling for.
Roskilde Festival: Okay, so you might want to spend more than a day at the Roskilde Festival, but this annual music fest is definitely worth leaving Copenhagen to check out, and you can get a day-pass if you only feel like dropping into the gorgeous Danish countryside campground venue. Roskilde attracts the biggest names in music (the 2017 lineup includes Lorde, Solange, Arcade Fire, The Weeknd, and A Tribe Called Quest, among many others) and boasts many other cultural and culinary attractions as well. Plus, it's held during peak sunlight hours in Denmark, so the sun won't set till about 11 at night, and it will rise again at around 3:30am. Heaven.
So extra, so good.
Copenhagen Botanical Garden and Kongens Have: Okay, so this could just be one more "thing to do," and, truly, you should; particularly if the weather is nice, go visit the Botanical Gardens and "King's Garden," which are verdant jewels in the center of the city. And definitely go if you are as lucky as I was last June when the corpse aka penis flower has decided to bloom. As seen above (at least in part), this majestic flower is enormous (about six feet tall), super phallic, and emits an odor not dissimilar to that of rotten garbage. It's incredible! Check it out if you can.