Is Copenhagen an overrated travel destination

The 15 most popular things to do in Copenhagen

It's easy to fall in love with Copenhagen, a city that is historic and modern, traditional and innovative at the same time. Known for its design scene, world-class cuisine, and hip, relaxed atmosphere, this Scandinavian capital is certainly not considered a budget destination.

Surprisingly, however, there are a variety of free experiences to be had, including some of the most iconic sights Copenhagen has to offer.

The picturesque 17th-century Nyhavn harbor, canal and entertainment district in Copenhagen © Kateryna Negoda / Getty Images

1. Explore nautical Nyhavn

Its bright colors and historic tall ships make Nyhavn Copenhagen the most famous travel destination. Stroll the less famous site for the best views and photos, and check out house number 20, where popular Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lived in 1835 when he published his first book of fairy tales.

To avoid the sky-high prices of harbor restaurants, grab a snack and a few beers like the locals do for a picnic by the water. Don't let the crowd stop you from visiting this picturesque harbor in high season. it's still worth a visit.

A view of Copenhagen from the tower of Christiansborg Palace © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

2. Marvel at the view from Christiansborg Palace

Christiansborg Palace houses the Danish Parliament and the Royal Reception Rooms. Although there is a fee to tour much of Christiansborg, entry to the tower is free. Christiansborg Tårnet is Copenhagen's highest lookout point with breathtaking views in all directions. From here you can enjoy the expansive cityscape and even look across the water to Sweden.

Behind the tower is the outdoor Royal Riding Ring, where you can often watch some of the Queen's 20 white horses enjoying warm weather or exercising for their royal duties.

3. There are more to the harbor than the little mermaid

Visitors from all over the world flock to Copenhagen's most famous resident, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The sculpture perched on its rock is much smaller than many expect, and some say it's an overrated attraction. However, the stroll along the harbor is worth it, as there are other sights to discover on your way to become the legendary mermaid.

Gefionsbrunnen and St. Albans Church along the harbor promenade © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

The Gefion Fountain with the mythical Gefion and her ox is an imposing creation that is overlooked by St. Alban's Church. Behind the fountain is Kastellet, a star-shaped fortress built in the 17th century to defend the city. Visitors can stroll around the grounds and the historic buildings and windmill.

4. Visit world class museums like the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Copenhagen is home to an impressive selection of historical and art museums. The formerly free Statens Museum für Kunst und Nationalmuseet unfortunately started charging admission fees for adults in the summer of 2016, even if children under the age of 18 still have free admission. You can still get fed up with amazing artwork without paying anything.

The sprawling Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is filled with sculptures and paintings by Rodin and Van Gogh, as well as historical artifacts, and is free to explore on Tuesdays. The more picturesque Thorvaldsens Museum next to Christiansborg Palace is exclusively dedicated to the works and collections of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Entry is free on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, the nearby Nikolaj Kunsthal, a contemporary art center housed in a former church with a magnificent tower overlooking the city, is also free.

5. Stroll through the picturesque old town

The pedestrian street Strøget is the focal point of the vibrant city center of Copenhagen. Strøget is one of the longest pedestrian streets in the world and, with its historic buildings, squares and fountains, is a shoppers paradise, especially for Danish design. Strøget is one of the most visited parts of the old town and welcomes up to 10,000 people a day in high season.

However, those who deviate from the busy shopping street will be rewarded with charming, quieter spots like Gråbrødretorv and some of the city's most picturesque streets like Magstræde, a curving cobblestone beauty lined with colorful old houses.

Jens Olsen's World Clock, a unique clock on display in the City Hall lobby © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

6. Explore Rådhuspladsen, home of the town hall

At the end of Strøget is Rådhuspladsen, home of the Italy-inspired Copenhagen City Hall, where visitors can admire the ornate lobby and marvel at Jens Olsen's world clock, an incredibly intricate piece of timekeeping. As you explore the square, you can spot the Gothic-style Dragon Fountain, the popular statue of Hans Christian Andersen, and the stone pillar that marks the former location of Vesterport, the western gate of the wall that used to surround the city.

Rosenborg Castle in the King's Garden © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

7. Get some fresh air in the King's Gardens

Copenhagen is full of green spaces, but the Royal Gardens are particularly beautiful. The gardens are the extensive grounds of Rosenborg Castle, which was built in the 17th century as a royal summer home and is now a museum.

The gardens are the perfect place for a quiet stroll to admire the flowers, tree-lined alleys and sculptures. It's also a popular spot for locals to enjoy a picnic in warmer weather. The nearby botanical garden is a 10 hectare oasis with 13,000 species of plants, flowers and trees, as well as a lake and a number of greenhouses.

8. Have a proper royal time at Amalienborg Palace

Amalienborg Palace is the official city residence of Queen Margrethe II and the Danish royal family. It is unique that the palace consists of four former villas that face a central square. The best time to visit Amalienborg is around noon to see the changing of the guard. Daily members of the Royal Life Guard march from their barracks to the palace through the city to take the guard.

The changing of the guard in Amalienborg Palace, residence of the Danish royal family © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

It is a fascinating spectacle to see these soldiers marching around the courtyard in their midnight blue uniforms and distinctive bearskin helmets. This is even more true when the queen is at home and then she is accompanied by a marching band.

Fresh products on the Torvehallerne market © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

9. Taste the flavors of the Torvehallerne market

Torvehallerne is a food wonderland, a place where chefs and professional chefs source fresh, local produce. In the complex of two glass halls and many outdoor stalls, you can buy high-quality ingredients for a dinner at home, buy delicacies such as wines, teas and chocolates or take a seat in one of the many cafes.

If you want to try some of the local cuisine, try an open face smørrebrød Sandwich from Hallernes or a fiskefrikadelle (Fish cakes) with remoulade by Boutique Fisk.

The central hall of the Black Diamond in the Royal Library © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

10. Explore both sides of the Royal Library

Slotsholmen Island, seat of the Danish government, is home to a lot more and is well worth taking the time to explore. A special feature is the Royal Library, which consists of two parts: the original building founded in 1648 and the modern extension completed in 1999. The newer part of the library shines on the shores of Copenhagen Harbor known as the Black Diamond because of its shiny marble exterior.

The library houses almost every book ever printed in Danish, dating from 1482. The interior is a fascinating piece of architecture, the central hall of which is open to the public. However, the books must be reserved in advance and accessed in one of the reading rooms.

Between the charming historical side of the library and the entrance to the Danish Parliament is a peaceful, hidden garden where you can sit by the fountain and take a break from your busy day of exploration.

A colorful home in the free city of Christiania © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

11. Discover an unusual life at Christiania

Located on the island municipality of Christianshavn, the Free City of Christiania is a unique and somewhat controversial part of Copenhagen. It was founded in 1971 when squatters took over an abandoned military base amid a housing shortage and started an alternative society.

Christiania is known for its green light district, which is filled with marijuana dealers and smokers. The vast area extends over 34 hectares and includes nature trails and a lake. The Free City also has restaurants and bars, a market, artist workshops and concert venues. There's plenty of street art to admire here, and residents live in converted army barracks or unique handcrafted houses.

Copenhagen's Marble Church © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

12. Tour Christiansborg Slotskirke and other historic churches

Copenhagen isn't the first city to think of churches, but there are many beautiful places of worship that are worth visiting. Denmark's churches are mostly Lutheran, so they are usually an understatement, and the skylights let in natural light. White is the predominant color with accents of gold, and there are often impressive, detailed sculptures.

Royal baptisms and funerals have been held in Christiansborg Slotskirke for centuries, while Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) has hosted many royal weddings, most recently that of Crown Prince Frederik and Mary Donaldson in 2004. Overlooking Amalienborg Palace, Marmorkirken (The Marble Church) is an impressive limestone domed church; It is the largest of its kind in Scandinavia.

One of the many vendors who offer delicious dishes in street food and art restaurants. Reefing © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

13. Enjoy street food at Reffen Harbor

Copenhagen Street Food's newest company is Reffen, which opened in spring 2017 and quickly won over locals and tourists alike. Reffen is not only a place for delicious meals, it is also home to artist workshops and hosts events such as concerts. Reffen is located on the former industrial island of Refshaløen and is a sign of the region's development.

Despite the somewhat remote location, getting there with the harbor bus is only half as fun. Reffen is open daily during the high season and on weekends for most of the rest of the year.

14. Window shopping in Jægersborggade

Visit the trendy Nørrebro district and stroll down Jægersborggade, one of Copenhagen's best streets with independent shops and local cafes. Browse artist studios, vintage boutiques, and stores selling everything from chocolates to cacti. Visit the renowned Coffee Collective and treat yourself to a coffee or a warming bowl of gourmet porridge in fantastic Grød to discover more.

The harbor baths on the Brygge Islands in Copenhagen are ideal for a refreshing swim. © Martin Llado / Lonely Planet

15. Take a swim at Brygge Havnebadet

Yes, you read that right! While Copenhagen is certainly not a beach destination, it is surrounded by water and the harbor is clean enough to swim in. Even in the summer months, the port of Copenhagen is a popular place for a swim in the warm (and sometimes cold) weather. Islands Brygge's harbor baths are free to use, although many locals get on directly from the docks.