More background info: the city has a long history, stretching back about a thousand years. It had many a dark chapter throughout that time, from early wars with the Hanseatic League, the plague of the early 18th century, two devastating fires during the same century that destroyed large parts of the old architecture, and further destruction came in the form of attacks by the British Navy in the early 19th century.
Nevertheless the rest of the 19th century is often regarded as a “Golden Age” with lots of cultural activity, modernization, industrialization and expansion for a fast growing population.
remained neutral in WW1
, and even profited from trade with both sides of that conflict (esp. Britain
Copenhagen, like the rest of Denmark was occupied by Nazi
Germany beginning in April 1940. Initially Denmark was run as a “protectorate” and was able to administer most of its own affairs. But the collaboration of the Danish government in Copenhagen with the occupying authorities ceased from 1943 and the situation for the civilian population deteriorated, with shortages of supplies and increased repression, while at the same time the Danish Resistance grew stronger (see under Frihedsmuseet
). At that time the Nazis also began rounding up Danish Jews for deportation during the Holocaust
, but a large number of Jews could be evacuated to safety in Sweden
by boats crossing the Øresund strait.
The liberation from Nazi occupation came on 4 May 1945 with the surrender of the German occupying forces to the British days before the whole of Germany
unconditionally surrendered (see Reims
After WWII the controversial Danish Collaborator Trials were held in Copenhagen, in which over a hundred were sentenced to death. Less than half of these were actually executed, many of those at a site on the old ramparts of Copenhagen (see execution site
Like some other cities in Europe, Copenhagen experienced its share of the student protests of the late 1960s. In the wake of these a part of town in the former military area of Christianshavn was occupied by counterculture protesters and the “Freetown Christiana” was declared (see below
for more). This still exists, though periods of controversies with the government over the drug dealing nearly threatened the continued tolerance of the “enclave”. Today it’s peaceful and has even become an unusual tourist attraction in its own right.
Copenhagen has seen significant further modernization and expansion over the past few decades. The opening of the Øresund Bridge in the year 2000 has brought Copenhagen into close contact with the Swedish city of Malmö, with which it now forms a cross-border conurbation, the Øresund Region.
Copenhagen proper has about 650,000 inhabitants but the wider municipality brings this to ca. 1.4 million. Together with Malmö and surroundings the Øresund Region has over 4 million inhabitants.
What there is to see: quite a bit. From a dark-tourism perspective, the following sites are of particular interest:
In addition there’s also a War Museum
(Krigsmuseet) on Slotsholmen, which is said to have a section about the Cold War
too, as well as coverage of Danish participation in UN
missions – but I didn’t find the time to visit this museum on my short trip to Copenhagen in August 2023, so this will be one to do on another visit.
Some may also see a dark aspect in the quasi-autonomous “Freetown Christiania” with its open trade in cannabis. It came about in 1971 when squatters occupied parts of the Christianshavn district that had formerly been a military area, including several of the old ramparts of Copenhagen. Christiania developed into a kind of commune that claimed independence from the Danish state and is run on its own commune terms with elements of anarchy but also its own rules. These include, by the way, a ban on any hard drugs, i.e. allowed is only cannabis (and alcohol). Yet the open trade of this drug has caused problems, both in terms of friction with the state authorities (for whom cannabis is illegal) and also within Christiania. For a while biker gangs took over the drug dealing business and this also brought violence. The bikers were eventually driven out again, but that wasn’t the end of all the problems. There were clashes with police and more violent acts and eventually the open sale of cannabis at stalls in so-called Pusher Street was given up in 2016. The trade has died down significantly, but Christiania still promotes the legalization of cannabis. This is, however, only evident in the central part of Christiania, where there are also still large no-photography signs from the Pusher Street days. The “hinterland” of Christiania, so to speak, in between the old city ramparts to the east of the centre has a completely different, thoroughly idyllic character.
When exploring Copenhagen, also keep an eye out for street art and sculptures, some of which can also have dark aspects of some sort. For instance, I found the unusual group of submerged sculptures of mermen in the canal around Slotsholmen quite spooky. This is located just east of Gammel Strand next to Højbro bridge.
on the easternmost of the largest of Denmark
’s islands, Zealand, just across the Øresund strait from Sweden
and its eastern city of Malmö, which is just 30 miles (45 km) away to the south-east from Copenhagen. In contrast, Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, lies about a hundred miles (160 km) to the north-west.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; quite expensive.
Details: Copenhagen has Scandinavia’s biggest and busiest international airport with plenty of connections worldwide. The airport is just a 15-minute metro/train ride away from the centre and tickets for public transport are actually quite cheap (by Copenhagen’s standards).
The city can also easily be reached by train, either from nearby Sweden to the east or the rest of Denmark
from the west (trains from Hamburg
take just under five hours). The main station is bang in the centre of Copenhagen. Buses are another alternative to flying.
In theory you could also drive to Copenhagen, but within the city car traffic is quite restricted – and you’d also have the issue of parking. So this is not really recommended.
Getting around the city is largely possible on foot, as the centre is quite compact and very walkable indeed. It is also one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and indeed a majority of Copenhagen residents cycle to work and elsewhere most of the time. Public transport is also good, with four metro lines, local trains as well as buses and even water buses (Havnebussen), little passenger ferries that ply the main waterways in the city.
Copenhagen has a wide range of accommodation options at all price levels, though few really super-budget ones, and at the upper end of the scale prices can be very high.
With regard to food & drink
, Copenhagen is blessed with a staggering range of restaurants, including world-famous gourmet temples (the legendary Noma is just the best-known one), but also somewhat more affordable options. Prices are generally higher than in other European capitals, but what you can get is often superb. There are now also plenty of ethnic restaurants (especially in the district of Nørrebro north of the inner city). But if you want to go for iconic Danish cuisine the omnipresent smørrebrød
open sandwiches are a must. These are sold as simple snacks at markets and low-key restaurants but can also assume the status of works of art at more upmarket places (such as the venerable lunch restaurant Schønnemann, which offers close to a hundred different varieties of smørrebrød and other small dishes).
Over the past few decades Copenhagen has become a Mecca for craft beer
and boasts a larger number of craft beer bars than I have seen anywhere else in the world. And many local brews are of excellent quality, light years ahead of the big-name industrially produced lagers of well-known brands. The one big name in Danish craft beer is pretty omnipresent, but there are also many smaller, independent alternatives with a better atmosphere. It pays off to research ahead a bit. As you would expect in Scandinavia, price levels are very high (though not necessarily quite as steep as in Norway
or Finland). Obviously that also applies to wine, all of which is imported. The local spirit is called akvavit, often spiced with coriander and/or other seeds (and not cheap either).
The Danes are crazy about coffee and there’s a plethora of cafes in Copenhagen where to imbibe the stuff. The usual soft drinks are of course easily available as well – but the very best soft drink, water, can be had for free from the tap. Copenhagen’s tap water is safe to drink, though I remember it not being particularly tasty. Still, better than buying water in plastic bottles!
Time required: For the dark attractions listed above a long weekend might just about be enough. But if you want to do things at a leisurely pace and also see some of the non-dark sights, then a couple more days can easily be filled.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Denmark
– and Sweden
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Copenhagen is a wonderful city to explore on foot. It is architecturally interesting and very appealing, blending the old and the modern exceptionally well. No wonder the city is so highly regarded in terms of urban planning. What I found an especially nice aspect is how much of the city is by the water. This applies especially to the Christianshavn district with its many canals but also to parts of the inner city. It is also quite a green city – in general with its many parks; but the eastern parts of Christiania along the old ramparts are a watery green oasis that doesn’t feel like it’s in a city at all. It’s quiet, idyllic and 100% car-free.
The skyline of Copenhagen is quite “intact” in that high-rises are largely banned from the inner districts (another aspect of thoughtful urban planning) so that it’s the city’s old steeples and towers that dominate its skyline. The most iconic and unusual amongst these are the tower of the Church of Our Saviour (Vor Frelsers Kirke) in Christianshavn and the one atop the old stock exchange (Børsen) on Slotsholmen. The former has a spiral staircase on the outside of the steeple – and you can climb it to the very top (good views are said to be had from there; but since I didn’t climb it I can’t vouch for that). The Børsen tower is unique in that its steeple is formed from the intertwined tails of four stylized dragons.
As it’s the seat of the Danish monarchy you’d expect a Royal palace in Copenhagen … but the city boasts not just one but several palaces. The default residence of the queen is Amalienborg just to the north of the city centre. The prettiest of the castles, however, is the Rosenborg Slot, set within a large park, the Kongens Have. And the largest of the palaces is Christiansborg Slot occupying a significant proportion of Slotsholmen.
The most iconic sight of Copenhagen, however, is the Little Mermaid
sculpture. Every tourist in the city seems to want to see it … and I did too, but it was almost shocking what masses of tourists I had to fight my way through to get to it. Yet the name has to be taken literally, it really is a Little mermaid, barely life-sized (although I am of course aware that the sculpture was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale – see Assisstens Cemetery
). I’ve heard from other visitors that they were actually disappointed by the statue’s small size. Still, thousands of tourists are carted there by the coachload and on tourist boats cruising through the harbour.
Another tourist hotspot is Nyhavn canal in the northern part of the city centre. Almost all of the pretty painted buildings that line the northern promenade of the waterway seem to house tourist restaurants at street level, with plenty of outdoor seating in summer.
I preferred the quieter and classy atmosphere of a restaurant in the Nordatlantens Brygge
on the other side of the main canal that bisects Copenhagen. This is also the home of a cultural centre of other Nordic countries such as Iceland
and Greenland, but also houses a bar-restaurant simply called Barr, which also doubles up as a craft beer bar. This space used to be the original home of the legendary Noma
restaurant that so pioneered New Nordic Cuisine and was repeatedly voted best restaurant in the world. Its present location, however, has for some years been a new compound just north of the eastern end of Christiania by the old ramparts and is surrounded by the restaurant’s own greenhouses. I’ve not eaten there, though, as their tasting menu sets patrons back something like 450 euros per person. I’ve read, though, that Noma’s days are apparently numbered, with closure of the restaurant announced for 2024, when the business is to be drastically reorganized.
A major mainstream attraction for both locals and tourists is the Tivoli amusement park right in the centre next to the main train station. This is in fact the third-oldest amusement park in the world (after another one in Denmark and Vienna’s Prater). So if roller coasters and more modern crazy rides are your thing, then this is where to get it.
One thing that has to be unique in the world is that Copenhagen has – I’m not kidding – a “Happiness Museum”. This alludes to the finding in polls a few years ago that Danes regard themselves as the happiest people in the world. They even have a special word for it in Danish, “hygge”, a concept that involves contentment, cosiness, friendliness and, well, happiness.
As a proper capital city, Copenhagen obviously has a plethora of more serious cultural institutions such as the opera in its super-modern large structure by the water, or the Playhouse theatre in a similarly stunning modern building. There are yet more theatres as well as more museums and galleries than could possibly be listed here. That’s the job of mainstream tourism websites and guidebooks. So I’ll leave at at this.
Here I’d just like to state that I was really quite smitten with Copenhagen when I visited it in August 2023. That was actually my first visit to the city and I don’t know what kept me from visiting for so long. It was in fact the last major European capital city I hadn’t yet visited (otherwise there’s only Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands, Andorra la Vella and San Marino that I’ve not been to yet). Now I can’t wait to go on another trip to Copenhagen and hope I can indeed do so before too long. There’d also still be enough to see, including in terms of dark tourism (see above
), so it could be justified.
When I visited in August 2023 I noticed a lot of Ukraine
flags all over the city, obviously hung out in solidarity with the country in the war that Putin’s Russia
is waging against it. Ukraine flags even flew off the Børsen tower instead of Danish ones. And I spotted a “Ukraine House” on the waterfront, apparently a kind of cultural centre with exhibitions and talks, also serving as a meeting place for Ukrainian refugees. I just hope that when I next get to Copenhagen, the reason for all this Ukraine solidarity will no longer be applicable …
- Copenhagen 01 - the famous but very small Little Mermaid
- Copenhagen 02 - disproportionate throngs of tourists at the Little Mermaid
- Copenhagen 03 - war monument by the Citadel
- Copenhagen 04 - submerged sculptures
- Copenhagen 05 - there be dragons
- Copenhagen 06 - counterculture in Christiania
- Copenhagen 07 - rusty statue of liberty
- Copenhagen 08 - suspended motorbike
- Copenhagen 09 - idyllic part of Christiania
- Copenhagen 10 - the iconic tower of the Our Saviour Church
- Copenhagen 11 - Ukraine solidarity flags at the iconic spire of the Børsen
- Copenhagen 12 - Ukraine House
- Copenhagen 13 - military compound
- Copenhagen 14 - waterfront
- Copenhagen 15 - old and new architecture
- Copenhagen 16 - thoughtful new architecture
- Copenhagen 17 - architectural reflections
- Copenhagen 18 - Nyhavn
- Copenhagen 19 - Pistolstraede
- Copenhagen 20 - city centre square
- Copenhagen 21 - city centre church
- Copenhagen 22 - domed church
- Copenhagen 23 - round tower church
- Copenhagen 24 - Rosenborg Castle
- Copenhagen 25 - Christiansborg Castle
- Copenhagen 26 - Busby-hat-wearing guard at Amalienborg
- Copenhagen 27 - Opera House
- Copenhagen 28 - converted old warehouse
- Copenhagen 29 - lake
- Copenhagen 30 - canal
- Copenhagen 31 - sailing boat in Danish colours
- Copenhagen 32 - even a public toilet can be a design work of art in Denmark
- Copenhagen 33 - smørrebrød
- Copenhagen 34 - New Nordic cuisine
- Copenhagen 35 - only in Denmark