10 Best of Copenhagen's historic sites throw light on city's past

Copenhagen is a city rich in history, and this is reflected in its buildings. Many of Copenhagen's most impressive historic sites date from the 16th and 17th centuries and were built during the reign of King Christian 4, a renaissance ruler often referred to as the 'builder king' for his ambitious vision of a Copenhagen filled with tall spires. Today, these can be seen on the Round Tower of the Latin Quarter, the old stock exchange Børsen and King Christian's former summer residence, Rosenborg Slot, now well within the city limits.

A large proportion of Copenhagen's historic sites can be found on the small 'museum island' of Slotsholmen, ringed by canals and connected to the Indre Byen by a total of nine bridges. Denmark's parliament, Christiansborg - and the original ruins of Absalon's castle beneath it - is located here, along with the magnificent Thorvaldsens Museum, Christiansborg Slotskirke and the Royal Riding Stables.

Out of the city, two castles are worth a visit: Kronborg Slot, the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet, in Elsinore and Frederiksborg Slot and its surrounding baroque gardens, a stunning example of renaissance architecture and home to Denmark's Museum of Natural History.

Copenhagen's oldest surviving church is the German Sankt Petri Kirke, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The City Hall dates from 1905, and was inspired by a similar building in Siena, Italy. Finally, take a walk through the city's brewing heritage on the old Carlsberg grounds; with production having moved elsewhere, this is now open to the public as visitor center.


Photo courtesy of Ib Rasmussen via Wikimedia Commons

Copenhagen's city hall was inaugurated in 1905, designed by architect Martin Nyrup and inspired by the city hall of Siena, Italy. (The previous city hall had been located in the old court house building, 'Domhuset'). While its red brick facade is imposing it's nowhere near as memorable as its Italian inspiration; to make the most out of a visit, take a walk up the tower - one of the highest in the city - and check out Jens Olsen's Verdensur, an elaborate mechanical astronomical clock containing 14,000 parts that took 20 years to make, being completed after clockmaker Olsen's death. The City Hall is a popular spot for weddings and its square (when not overtaken by the current construction site for the new Metro line) a popular meeting spot, particularly for New Year's Eve celebrations. As well as ringing in the New Year, the clock can be heard every day at noon on national radio DR.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: It may not be the oldest of Copenhagen's landmarks, but the City Hall remains a striking feature on Copenhagen's skyline.

Local Expert tip: Take a guided tour of the tower, including the super-accurate world clock.

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Medieval Sankt Petri Kirke, a German Lutheran church in Copenhagen's Latin Quarter, is Copenhagen's oldest surviving church and was built as a single-nave church in the mid 1400s; its noticeable spire was added in the 17th-century, when it was also substantially expanded to serve its rapidly growing congregation. Like much of inner Copenhagen the church suffered in the great fire of 1728, but survived: It was less than successful keeping its support during the Schleswig War of the 1800s, tense times between Denmark and Germany. Since 1994, the church has been under the care of the state-run Palaces and Properties Agency and completely restored, though it is still used by Copenhagen's German-speaking congregation. A school, Sankt Petri Skole, is also attached to the church.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: One of Copenhagen's oldest buildings, Sankt Petri Kirke is a walk back into medieval times.

Local Expert tip: A visit to the 17th-century sepulchral chapels costs DKK 25.

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Børsen (The Old Stock Exchange)
Photo courtesy of Brian Murphy via Wikimedia Commons

Located on Slotsholmen's embankments, Copenhagen's old stock exchange is one of the city's finest examples of renaissance architecture. Its placing was intended to impress foreign merchants arriving in Copenhagen by sea, as an example of the city's new-found wealth and power. Along with the Round Tower and Rosenborg Slot, it was built during the reign of King Christian 4 (1577-1648) and was home to the Danish stock exchange until 1974; in its glory days, however, it would have appeared as a real market place, with merchants selling grain and other wares from its exchange hall (added in 1858) - today used occasionally as a venue for banquets and conferences. The building's twisting spire rises almost 200 feet above the Copenhagen skyline, and is made up of four dragons, their tails twisting upwards, culminating in a spear and three crowns to represent the Kalmar Union.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Borsen survived Copenhagen's two major fires and continues today to be one of the city's most impressive buildings.

Local Expert tip: While Borsen is not open to the public, you're welcome to admire its elaborate design from outside.

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Carlsberg Visitor Centre is basically a 90-minute self-guided tour through two centuries of brewing history in 10,000 sq.m of former production halls and includes a visit to the stables--though the dray horses only pull the brewery carts for show these days--as well as to the peaceful Jacobsen's Garden, with its collection of sculptures. It ends on the first floor of the Jacobsen brewhouse in the centre's bar, where you can exchange the vouchers handed to you at the beginning of the tour for a beer or soft drink of your choice. Worth visiting even if you're not interested in beer, simply to learn more about fascinating arts patron and entrepreneur Carl Jacobsen. With the exception of the small Jacobsen brewhouse, brewing no longer takes place on the premises, and instead Carlsberg Byen is being developed as a cultural quarter. Children are welcome when accompanied by an adult.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Carl Jacobsen and Carlsberg played a huge role in the city's history: The story is told at The Carlsberg Visitors Centre.

Local Expert tip: A fascinating tour that comprises far more than just beer, including magical old architecture and even the brewery's drayhorses.

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Frederiksborg Slot
Photo courtesy of Palaces and Properties Agency

A masterpiece of elaborate baroque architecture, Frederiksborg Slot was built in the early 1600s on the orders of King Christian 4. The castle - located near Hillerød north of Copenhagen - has been home to Denmark's National Museum of Natural History since 1878, and the lavish oil paintings of Danish kings, queens and other nobility merge wonderfully with the ornate grandeur of the palace setting. With its fairytale turrets, Frederiksborg Slot is made all the more wondrous by its lake and gardens, a kind of 'Nordic Versailles' with elaborate, box- tree monograms and fountain. Both the Romantic and Baroque Gardens - 'Frederiksborg Slotshave' - are located on the other side of the lake north of the castle.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Both gardens and castle have been wonderfully preserved as superb examples of the opulence of renaissance architecture.

Local Expert tip: From mid-May to mid-Sept, it's possible to go boating on the castle lake.

Read more about Frederiksborg Slot →

Outside the city
Kronborg Slot
Photo courtesy of Thomas Rahbek /SLKE

One of the best preserved renaissance castles in northern Europe, Kronborg Slot in Elsinore, north of Copenhagen is visited every year by thousands of tourists who want to see inside the real-life location of Shakespeare's fictional tragic prince, Hamlet. To Danes, this 16th-century castle is equally famous for the life-size statue of Holger the Dane that sits on his throne in the castle casemates. Should Denmark ever need him, so the legend goes, Holger the Dane will rise and come to his countrymen's aid. The castle's strategic importance in the 1500s and 1600s was immense, as it was built on the narrowest part of the sound between Denmark and Sweden, where the Danish kings became rich on 'Sound Dues' paid by all vessels that passed through. More than 200 feet long, Kronborg's banqueting hall is the largest in northern Europe and has been wonderfully restored, its walls rich in 17th-century paintings.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Kronborg is worth the day trip north: A stunning location and a truly memorable castle.

Local Expert tip: Daily guided tours in English June-Aug free with ticket price.

Read more about Kronborg Slot →

Amalienborg Slotsplads
Photo courtesy of Klaus Bentzen

Amalienborg is actually a group of four Rococo palaces built around an octagonal square by royal architect Nicolai Eigtved in the 1750s. Of these, Queen Margrethe lives in Christian IV's palace with her husband, Prince Consort Henrik while Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary have lived in Frederik VIII's Palace since 2010, together with their children. Part of Christian VIII's Palace is open to the public as a museum (Amalienborg Museum). In the center of the square is the imposing statue of Frederik V on horseback, a costly commssion by French artist Jacques Saly. The public are free to walk around the square, though respect is expected; no sitting on the palace steps, for example. Changing of the guards takes place daily at noon.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: You can't miss the royal residence of Denmark's reigning queen off the list, particularly when Amalienborg is so accessible.

Local Expert tip: For best savings, buy a combined ticket for both Amalienborg Museum and Rosenborg Slot.

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Rundetaarn (The Round Tower)
Photo courtesy of Morten Jerichau

The Rundetaarn dates back to 1642 and is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. Built on the orders of Christian IV, it forms one-third of the scholarly Trinitatis Complex, the other two being the university library and church, Trinitatis. As well as providing its visitors with a great view over the old city from its top, the tower possesses one unique feature: its spiral walkway. This lack of stairs provides the backdrop for one of Copenhagen's most well-known stories; in 1716, Catherine the Great was said to have ridden to the top of the tower in a horse-drawn carriage with her husband leading on horseback. There is a small admission charge for visiting the tower; whilst here, take a breather in the museum cafe and look at the changing exhibitions located the former university library. The Round Tower makes a great venue for wintertime star-gazing as well as chamber music concerts.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: With its unique spiral walkway, functioning observatory Rundetaarn is an exceptional building with great views at the top.

Local Expert tip: Kids will love the very old privy hidden in the wall halfway up the tower.

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City Centre
Rosenborg Slot
Photo courtesy of

There aren't many castles that actually look like the trademark Disney one, with fairytale turrets raised high over Copenhagen's other rooftops, but Rosenborg does, and stone lions guarding the entrance, too. This castle was built as the summer residence of 'builder king' Christian IV in the 1600s, back when this part of the city was still considered countryside. The last king to live here was Christian IV's successor Frederik IV; instead, it has acted as a museum since 1838, making it one of the world's earliest. Its most viewed exhibits are the crown jewels, located in the basement, but don't miss out on other attractions, including the splendidly Baroque Marble Hall, a celebration of the era of Absolute Monarchy began in 1660. Surrounding Rosenborg is stately Kongens Have (King's Gardens), one of Copenhagen's most attractive parks.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Rosenborg Slot is a beautiful castle with lots to see beside the crown jewels.

Local Expert tip: Check out the ingenious speaking tubes in the Winter Room.

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Christiansborg Palace dominates Slotsholmen, where it all started back in the 12th century when Bishop Absalon built a castle in the midst of bogland and herring fishermen. Christiansborg is shared equally by the Danish state and its monarchy and is the seat of Denmark's Parliament, Folketing. Within its walls are the remains of four other castles: two were destroyed by fire in 1794 and 1884 respectively; the present Christiansborg dates from 1907-28. In the vaults, the ruins have now been completely excavated and are open to the public. For those more interested in recent history, it's possible to take guided tours of Folketing as well as the Royal Reception Rooms. Surrounding Christiansborg are a number of other museums, including the Royal Arsenal, Danish-Jewish Museum and the Royal Carriages.

Recommended for Historic Sites because: Christiansborg has acted as Denmark's power base for almost one thousand years.

Local Expert tip: During certain months, it's possible to buy a Slotsholmen card that saves money with combined entrance to all the museums on the island.

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Meet Jane Graham

After touring most of Europe in her twenties, Jane was charmed by Copenhagen's relaxed tempo and moved there from her native northern England in 1999. Four young children at home has meant...  More About Jane