Canal boats, anarchist communities and sleek Danish design make for a uniquely chilled mix in watery Copenhagen. Lucy Fitzgeorge-Parker explores a city of wonderful contrasts
The tiny island of Slotsholmen is at the heart of Copenhagen, both literally and metaphorically, so it provides a natural jumping-off point for a tour of the city. It was here, in 1167, that the Archbishop of Roskilde – the Danish capital at the time – initiated the building of a castle to protect the local herring fishers from pirates. Bishop Absalon’s fortress has long since been destroyed and the primary building on the island is now Christiansborg, which houses the parliament, the high court and the prime minister’s office. (The current rather austere granite structure is the third of that name – the original palace was commissioned in 1730 by King Christian VI, but both it and its successor were destroyed by fire.)
2. Black Diamond
Visitors can easily waste valuable viewing time trying to negotiate the intricacies of Slotsholmen’s interior, so if in doubt stick to a wander round the exterior, which is a wonderful showcase of the wilder side of Danish architecture through the ages. On the west of the island, the old coach house of Christiansborg is today home to a collection of works by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (thorvaldsensmuseum.dk). The building itself is of more interest than the rather formal perfection of the Neoclassical sculptures inside – its cheerful colours add a welcome touch of warmth to the area, and its deliberately baffling perspective is positively squint-inducing. Further round to the south-east, the long, low structure of the old stock exchange looks more Hans Christian Andersen than Wall Street – its green copper roof is topped with a spire made of four intertwined dragons’ tails. (It was built on the water so that the “stock” could be unloaded into the building’s basement ready for sale.) The architectural high point of Slotsholmen, however, is the glittering black granite and glass structure known locally as the “Black Diamond”. This extension to the Royal Library was completed in 1999 and has quickly become a Danish icon – located on the harbour edge, its sleek, tilted design interacts beautifully with the play of light on the water.
3. Canal Tour
Just to the north of Slotsholmen, on pedestrianised Gammel Strand, is one of the embarkation points for the city’s famous canal tours. Even if you’ve been on enough boat trips to last a lifetime, it’s worth a ride on one of the elegant DFDS boats. Not only is this maritime city seen at its best from the water, but the boats themselves are a far cry from the usual battered tourist traps with blaring recorded commentaries. Wide, flat-bottomed and shallow enough to fit under the lowest of bridges (duck your head), these open-topped wooden vessels are equally at home winding through narrow canals and bouncing across the open water.
Highlights of the trip include drooling over the million-euro glass and wood apartments at the north end of the island of Christianhavn; admiring the soaring lines of the new opera house (see main picture); and wondering why everyone makes such a fuss about the Little Mermaid, who has her back to the water and is so small as to be barely noticeable (if it weren’t for the ten busloads of tourists taking pictures). Live commentary is provided in three languages (Danish, English and German) by friendly young Danes, with plenty of breaks to enjoy the stunning scenery in peace and quiet. Tours sail every half hour from both Gammel Strand and Nyhavn (mid-March to Christmas – glass-roofed and heated boats run during the winter months), cost DKR60 (£5.50). Visit canaltours.com.
If the sight of all that Danish design has made you want a piece to take home, then it’s time to hit the shops on StrÃ¸get. Pronounced “stroll”, this buzzing thoroughfare is actually a series of pedestrianised streets which winds north-west across the centre of Copenhagen. The ubiquitous global brands are well-represented but follow the locals and make a beeline for Illum Bolighus (royalshopping.com), a five-storey emporium showcasing the very best in local and international home design. Clean lines, bright colours and wild textures are the order of the day, but be warned that the prices match the ultra-smart exterior – if you’re on a budget, stick to the elegant kitchenware department on the ground floor, or head off down a side street and search out an up-and-coming designer’s base or one of the many second-hand shops.
When strolling starts to take its toll, head on over to Nyhavn and the waterside for a sit-down and a drink. Built in 1671, the narrow canal of the “New Harbour” was once the focus of Denmark’s maritime trade, and the surrounding streets were the haunt of polyglot sailors and prostitutes. With the advent of container ships in the 1960s the shipping traffic was transferred to the new port to the north of the city, and Nyhavn has since become one of the trendiest areas in Copenhagen. The tall, brightly painted buildings on the north side of the canal now house a succession of smart café and restaurants. Sit outside and soak up the sun with a chilled glass of Danish beer while enjoying the view of weather-beaten wooden boats and bustling tourists. (And don’t be put off if the weather’s inclement – all the café provide umbrellas, heaters and blankets when it rains.)
On the north-west corner of Christianhavn sits one of the strangest anomalies in Europe – the “free state” of Christiania. Back in 1971, a mixed bag of hippies, activists and the homeless started to move into a disused military base and set up an alternative community. They espoused anarchist ideals, refused to pay Danish taxes and set up their own micro-governments – and, remarkably, they’re still there more than 30 years later. The existence of Christiania has been hotly debated in mainstream Danish society over the intervening years, but the general population now seems to have settled for a somewhat bemused acceptance of, and even pride in, its home-grown social experiment. The main focus of the area is the infamous Pusherstreet, but wander off to either side and you’ll find yourself in a rural idyll of leafy lanes, blooming gardens and ramshackle, brightly painted wooden homes. And don’t be put off by the area’s druggy reputation – cannabis is indeed widely available (although hard drugs are strictly forbidden) but there is no obligation to indulge, and plenty of visitors come simply to soak up the relaxed atmosphere and “drop out” for an evening in the bars and restaurants.