Copenhagen is certainly not a place that comes to mind when you’re looking for an affordable vacation. Residents and travelers alike know the capital of Denmark is one of the world’s most expensive cities. I’ve even met San Francisco residents here complaining about the prices. So when I found out I’d be spending the summer in Copenhagen, my life savings flashed before my eyes.
Luckily, though, I’ve found that Copenhagen can be enjoyed for just about nothing — if you keep up an iron-clad will to avoid all the pastries. From walking the famous Nyhaven and swimming in the harbor to a peaceful afternoon in Assistens Cemetery, Copenhagen can offer a lot for those on a budget. Here are some of those great things to see and do.
Savor the bright colors of Nyhavn.
A trip to Copenhagen cannot truly begin without a stop at Nyhavn. Brightly colored buildings, cafes, and restaurants line the canal area. Hans Christian Anderson, author of many famous fairy tales — among them The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling — lived here for a time. Once a home for wild sailor nights, Nyhavn is a great spot to admire wooden boats and people watch, and it’s a great introduction to old Copenhagen.
One of the best times to check it out is later in the evening when the crowds have died down, the lights have turned on, and the sun is setting. That’s in summer; in winter, you’ll have fewer tourists overall but also darkness by 4:00 PM. From Nyhavn, start a tour of the other areas along Copenhagen’s harbor.
Walk the harbor.
The harbor waters run the length of the city and beyond, creating a mass of interconnected public space that brings together many different city neighborhoods. The water’s edge is lined with shops, cafés, an exercise park, and even a set of trampolines. The waters themselves are filled with sailboats, tour boats, fishing boats, incredibly massive cruise ships, and the odd billionaire’s yacht.
The least expensive way to tour the waters will be simply to stroll the waterside lanes. While walking, it’s possible to soak in all the sites like the Black Diamond, the home of the Danish Royal Library. Other places to check out along the water are the Copenhagen Opera House, Christiansborg Palace, and the spiral tower of the Church of Our Savior. Make a stop at the world famous Little Mermaid, if you must. Another popular free activity in the summer: diving into its waters for a refreshing swim.
Jump in the harbor baths.
It’s a relatively recent development that the harbor waters became clean enough to swim in, but now that they are, it’s too good of an opportunity to miss. While many locals seem content to jump in from any point near a ladder, sometimes in the nude (brrrr), there are a few places, known as the harbor baths, that are officially designated as swimming areas.
Islands Brygee is one of the most popular of these “baths.” Groups of locals gather together here with their massive speakers, tanning, picnicking, and swimming. There are also many restaurants and spots to grab a drink nearby, but bring your own food for a more affordable meal. The actual bath itself is great both for kids, with its small shallow water sections, and for the braver swimmers who want to jump from heights, as diving platform provides three different levels.
Other less busy swimming spots can be found all along the harbor. Just bring a suit.
There are several ways to get on the water in Copenhagen, from tourist-packed boat tour to private charters and kayaks — but only one of them is free. The Green Kayak program is a great way to take to the waters in Copenhagen and give back at the same time. Green Kayak is a program that allows renters to take out a kayak for two hours, for free, all in exchange for the promise that while out on the water you pick up some trash along the way. It’s a popular activity, so make sure to reserve a time in advance. There are four locations in the city that host the kayaks, but one of them is a bit outside the city center, so for the chance to row around the small boat filled canals, start from the “Friendships” location.
See Copenhagen from above.
Copenhagen is a beautiful city, and one of the best ways to see it is from above. Three towers provide great view points from which to gaze across the city. The highest of these points is the tower at Christiansborg, the home of Danish Parliament and former royal residence. The tower is free for a visit — although it’s closed for renovations until September 1, 2019.
A second great place for viewing the city is the Round Tower. The small charge to visit is only $0.75. Located right in the center of Copenhagen, just off the shopping streets of the Stroget, the round tower provides a 360-degree view of the city. To reach the top of the tower, visitors walk up a wide spiral path originally designed to allow horses pulling carts to bring astronomical equipment to the observatory at the top. The tower has a hollow core that, in one spot, you can step into to look down at the official center point of Denmark.
The final and most expensive option for a great view, at under $10 a person, is the unmistakable spiral tower at the top of the Church of Our Saviour in Christianshavn. Arrive early to beat the crowds and ascend the over-400 steps, both inside and out of the tower, as they spiral toward the pinnacle.
The tower was built in 1752 to house over 50 bells that were played for the residents of Christianshavn. Nowadays, this could be the best place to lookout over the city, but the climb can leave people weak in the knees as the steps towards the top become ever narrower,and the edge closer and closer.
Picnic in the King’s Garden.
Warm sunny days may be a little rarer here, so when the sun does come out, Copenhageners flock to their many beautiful parks. One of the best surrounds Rosenborg Castle, built in 1606 and home to the crown jewels of Denmark. Entrance to the castle, however, is not free (it’s $17 per person), but you will not need to go inside to enjoy the garden. Join the locals here for a bit of sunbathing and picnicking. Public drinking is allowed here, so why not bring a bottle of wine as well — or bring a lawn game and some friends.
Norrebro is many things: the densest neighborhood in the city, the most diverse, and seemingly the hipster center of Copenhagen. This neighborhood will reward anyone willing to throw out the maps — that is, turn of their phones — and simply wander its streets.
Norrebro is just to the west of the city center, across “The Lakes.” Stop at Banana Park where a large rock-climbing wall serves as a grand entrance to the small space. Visit the park to watch the climbers in action, or take a look at some of the best graphite art in the city. The small street Jaegersborggade is a favorite for antique shops and other locally owned shops. Norrebro is also home to one of the most peaceful, and popular, places in the city to escape: Assistens Kirkegård. More on that below.
Tour a cemetery or two.
Copenhagen is home to two deeply peaceful and beautiful cemeteries. While locals and tourists alike fill the cemetery grounds, they remain serene escapes in the city. The fact that they are fully functioning cemeteries, as well as popular spots for relaxation and contemplation, make them a truly unique experience.
Assistens Kirkegård, tucked into the bustling streets of Norrebro, is the final resting place of several world famous Danes — among them Hans Christian Andersen, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and Nobel prize winning physicist Niehls Bohr. Inside the walls you would never know you were seconds away from some of the most densely populated blocks in Europe. It’s an oasis of peace, filled with well-kept paths, trees, flowers, and chirping birds. Just outside the walls of the cemetery, the best chocolate croissant in the city can be found at Andersen & Maillard.
Vestre Kirkegård is another refuge in the city well worth a visit. The massive, extremely well manicured grounds easily give the botanical gardens a run for their money. In fact, for nature enthusiasts, this cemetery is the superior of the two. A visit to Vestre can be combined with a picnic in the spectacular Frederiksberg Gardens and a walk through the massive Carlsberg facilities.
Window shop the Stroget.
Right in the center of the city is one of the first pedestrian shopping streets in the world. Packed with people during summer days, the Stroget is where to folks shop at some of Denmark’s major brands, as well as worldwide chains. Check out the fashion forward shoes at Arkk, the silver master works at Georg Jensen, the world-famous Royal Copenhagen Porcelain, and don’t miss the flagship Lego store. While you are here, stop at the DOP (Den Økologiske Pølsemand) hotdog stand by the Round Tower for a traditional Danish hot dog.
Day trip to Deer Park, Bakken, and Bellevue Beach.
Just a few rail stops, or 20 minutes, outside the center of Copenhagen, it’s possible to get lost in an old royal hunting forest, take in the oldest amusement park in the world, and hit the beach all in one short trip.
Jægersborg Dyrehave was once a royal hunting ground for Danish nobility and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as the home to the oldest amusement park in the world, Bakken. The forest is often referred to as Deer Park as it boasts hundreds of deer roaming its grounds. At the center of it all is the Hermitage, a grand hunting lodge formerly used by the king.
The Hermitage has a view of much of the hunting grounds, hundreds of deer, and the Oresund Sound in the distance. Rent a bike just after getting off the rail, at the Klampenborg stop, and take a spin around the park. (Baisikeli has the best bike rental deals in Copenhagen, with budget bikes only costing $7.50 for six hours.) On the way out take a short walk through the Bakken Amusement park. (Tivoli will be a better choice for anyone wanting to hit the rides, though at a cost.)
Just a few minutes from the forest, Bellevue Beach has been a refuge for residents of Copenhagen since 1932. On a hot summer day, this is a great place to cool off in the water. The two blue-and-white-striped lifeguard towers were designed by the famous Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, though they are not in use these days.
Bike back into Copenhagen through Hellerup and take in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Denmark, with ample opportunity for drooling over prime real estate and luxury cars.
Visit Dragor, a centuries-old fishing village.
Just south of the airport is the small fishing village of Dragor. It’s possible to get here by taking a bus from just behind the famous Magasin Du Nord shopping center or an eight-mile bike ride. The village itself has been in its place for centuries and is now a quaint, beautiful fishing village filled with cozy lanes lined with thatched roof houses. Dragor’s harbor provides one of the best spots for viewing the Oresund Bridge as well as watching the many ships as they head out to the Baltic Sea. This is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon.
Bike the city.
While walking is a great and easy way to see the city, to see Copenhagen like a local, a bicycle is a must. On a bike, almost anywhere in the city is within a 20-minute ride. The bike lanes are wide and often set apart from the rest of the traffic. At first, the bike traffic is likely to look intimidating, but it runs like a well-oiled machine that moves thousands of people through the city hourly. The one thing you will want to watch out for will actually be the other tourists who don’t often pay attention to the bike lane and are likely to pop out in front of you. Don’t be one of these people.
Just remember to get a refresher on hand signals and etiquette because nothing will upset a resident more than inappropriate use of the bike lane. There are shops to rent bicycles all around the city, but if you have a working data plan and a smart phone, Donkey Bikes, a bike-sharing program, is available all over the city and a great option — just download the app and get riding.
Eat inexpensively — and (kind of) splurge on New Nordic cuisine.
Eating out in Copenhagen can easily break any budget in 10 seconds flat. A filter coffee can run $6 and a craft beer $10. That’s why most of the local skips the bars and take to the streets with a Carlsburg. With access to a kitchen, using the grocery stores will be the best bet. When the weather is nice, picnicking will always be a great option, and the city has so many great places to take a meal. The King’s Garden, Frederiksberg Gardens, or anywhere along the harbor are great options.
A few moderately priced sandwich and pizza shops are available throughout the city. Pizza Husset, a take-out place just off Kongens Nytrov, has some great small pizzas at a reasonable price. For a local treat, head to the market at Torvehallerne — a must see in itself — and pick up a Fisk Frikadeller, a type of fried fish ball reminiscent of a crab cake.
Of course, budgets are relative, and with the whole world going crazy for New Nordic cuisine, eating a meal like this could be an opportunity of a lifetime. However, Noma and its ilk will run you $1,000 or more for two. Høst, however, offers an amazing meal at, for its style, a slightly stomach-able price. It offers a three-course menu that usually comes with a few extras that will cost just above $100 for two people. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of meal.