A Winter Visit to Copenhagen
Anna Maria journeys to Copenhagen and finds that Denmark’s capital of cool delights – even in winter
Copenhagen in winter? Surely not a good option? Several people seriously doubted my sanity when I mentioned I was planning a mid-winter visit to Copenhagen, but as I had it on good authority, from friends and tourist boards, that the city is great – even in January – I was not to be deterred.
The Danish capital has a lot going for it in winter – it’s cheaper to get here for a start and central hotels are offering plenty of good deals, particularly if booking online. When it snows, it doesn’t immediately turn into that slushy stuff, but instead, it stays quite pretty and pristine, while the roads and pavements are briskly salted and gritted to keep those hardy Copenhageners cycling throughout winter. The month of February is taken over by the Wondercool Festival, with cultural events covering architecture, design, food, fashion, music, and art. Most sights stay open year-round, with the exception of Tivoli Gardens that are only open April – September (and also for the annual Christmas market late Nov – late Dec). Everything looks very appealing under a blanket of snow, there’s free ice-skating and as long as you wrap up warm, Copenhagen can be extra hyggelig, or cozy, as the Danes would put it.
Walking tour of the center
Although cycling is definitely possible in winter, walking is perhaps the warmer option and the city is exceedingly stroller-friendly with many pedestrianized streets, known as Strøget, in the center. I decided to start my own walking tour in the heart of town, at Rådhuspladsen, or Town Hall Square, home to the impressive structure that is the capital’s town hall. Rådhuset, built in a national romantic style, is quite young compared to the city itself (first chronicled in the 11th century), only dating back as far as 1905, but in its time it’s been through the Nazi occupation during WWII and seen a number of changes in the city, most recently the building of the third metro line, set to open in 2018.
Danish lunch delights
One of the pedestrianized streets running through the center, Frederiksbergsgade, starts at Rådhuspladsen, so I ambled along it, into a busy area of shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. If you have a bit of a lie-in and start your sight-seeing late, you should hit Gammeltorv (Old Square), a short walk from Rådshuspladsen, around about lunchtime. This is great news, as it means you can stop at Cafe Gammeltorv for one of the best smørrebrød selections in town. These are traditional Danish open sandwiches, so expect eel, herring, smoked salmon, meatballs and a great many other options piled high on dark rye bread. There’s also a variety of schnapps to wash things down with, but I figured that might affect my sight-seeing abilities and so stuck to water.
Suitably refreshed, in fact bordering on stuffed, I continued my Copenhagen winter saunter. A short walk from Gammeltorv lies the city’s rather unassuming cathedral, Vår Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) and not far from there, Rundetårn (the Round Tower), one of the city’s must-sees. This 17th-century tower, complete with a ‘spiral walkway’ winding itself around the inside of the tower seven times, can be climbed for a small fee and visitors enjoy excellent views across the city from the top. From here, Købmagergade often considered Copenhagen’s best shopping street, runs down to Amagertorv, another picturesque square dating from the Middle Ages. A short hop east and you reach Nyhavn, perhaps the most photogenic part of the city. Nyhavn, with its brightly-painted 17th-century houses and lively entertainment scene, is probably the one area that is best visited in summer – this is after all the place for al fresco dining and summer evening drinks – but it’s still worth a peek in winter. Just a short one, mind you, as it gets very nippy this close to the water. Finding it a bit chilly even with my ‘winter-is-great’ attitude, I quickly turned the corner towards Amalienborg, a short walk east. Amalienborg Palace is actually four rococo palaces, where the Danish Royal family has lived since the late 18th century and right opposite lies Marmorkirken (The Marble Church), one of the prettiest sights in the city.
The city’s parks look beautiful under a fresh dusting of snow and a lot of them are within an easy walking distance of the city center – a few of them even come complete with palaces as well. After admiring the Marble Church I carried on, relentless in my day’s sight-seeing pursuits, to Kongens Have (the King’s Garden), home to Rosenborg Palace, open to the public if you need to warm up. Next door to the palace and garden, the Botanical Garden is another beautiful spot to admire the snowy landscape and there are plenty of greenhouses where visitors can thaw out amongst the orchids, palms, and cacti.
Further afield – heading north
The center of Copenhagen is fairly compact, but the city also stretches quite far afield, both inland and along the water. Although the metro network is not very extensive as yet, buses and overground trains serve most areas. It’s worth spending a couple of days exploring the many fun and quirky neighborhoods outside the center. Nørrebro, to the northwest, is an up and coming alternative neighborhood, particularly interesting for foodies with several Michelin-starred restaurants, organic bakeries, vegetarian cafes and quite a few bars of note, such as Pussy Galore’s Flying Circus in Sankt Hans Torv. Another good reason to visit is Assistens Cemetery, where many a famous Dane, including H.C. Andersen, is buried – again a place that looks beautiful in winter. Further west in Frederiksberg there’s free ice-skating at Genforeningspladsen and there’s also a smaller ice-rink at Frederiksberg’s Garden, home to Frederiksberg’s Palace, a former royal summer residence.
Further afield – heading south
To the south and east lies the canal district of Christianshavn, a historic area developed in the early 17thcentury. It has a quiet, laid-back vibe with plenty of historic buildings to admire, including Vår Frelsers Kirke (Church of Our Saviour) with its golden spiral spire and the bright-yellow Naval Museum building. The area has one other major attraction – although its residents might not always like being seen as such – the Freetown of Christiania. No visit to Copenhagen is complete without taking at least a sneak peek at this unique ‘town’, existing beyond and above the law. Christiania was set up in 1971 by a group of people taking over the empty army barracks on the site and although promptly declared illegal by the Danish government, no legal means have yet been able to shift said residents who currently number roughly 1,000. Over 40 years since its creation, Christiania lives on, like an alternative universe within the city limits. Rules, posted on walls throughout town, include no hard drugs (but plenty of soft ones), no weapons and no violence allowed. There are no cars or paved roads and the whole area has a vaguely lawless, if friendly, feel to it. Soft drugs are easily obtained; in fact, I found it quite hard to avoid getting high on the fumes alone, on a quiet Sunday morning. It’s non-threatening if the slightly bizarre place and an interesting end to my Copenhagen wanderings. Copenhagen is great in winter.