Picturesque, compact Copenhagen is perfectly packaged for sightseeing

Picturesque Copenhagen seems tailor made for sightseeing. Neat and compact, its biggest landmarks are perfectly packaged and arranged around the harbor and inner city.

Of the many sightseeing tours of Copenhagen on offer, the best is surely a self-guided Canal Tour, an attraction in itself – nab the hop-on, hop-off option and fit in as many of the city’s waterfront landmarks as you can. This is an ideal way to see much-discussed icons like The Little Mermaid and the ultra-modern Opera House in the same trip; and while you won’t get up close enough to Amalienborg Palace to see the changing of the guard, sightseeing via the canals offers a completely new perspective on the city. Pick the tour up from Nyhavn – a bustling quayside popular with tourists and locals alike.   

Take a walk away from the harbor front to see two examples of Copenhagen’s splendid Renaissance architecture, Rosenborg Slot – home to Denmark’s crown jewels - and Rundetaarn, a still functioning observatory in a unique round tower from 1642. On the opposite side of the city in picturesque Christianshavn, Vor Frelsers Kirke, with its distinctive spire, is arguably Copenhagen’s most attractive church: All of these 17th-century architectural pearls were the vision of Christian IV (1577-1648), often referred to as the ‘Builder King’.

Sightseers shouldn’t miss out on Copenhagen’s two power bases: Parliament’s Christiansborg and City Hall Rådhuset are both impressive examples of quite different architectural styles. At Christiansborg, the layers of history are clear as not one but four previous castles were all built on this same site, the oldest dating back to the origins of Copenhagen.


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 Sightseeing 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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You don't have to be fan of opera to have heard of Copenhagen's opera house: Inaugurated amid much fanfare in 2005, the Henning Larsen-designed masterpiece is one of the most expensive opera houses ever built anywhere in the world, costing well over 500 million US dollars and arguably Denmark's greatest architectural sight of modern times. The interior of this harborfront landmark is no less impressive, with a foyer tiled with Sicilian marble and huge glass lamps designed by Olafur Eliasson; the auditorium ceiling meanwhile is made from no less than 105,000 sheets of gold leaf. Operaen is home to the Royal Danish Opera and also hosts visiting companies. Set directly on the waterfront in the Holmen district of Copenhagen, it can be seen from many parts of the city, and looks particularly fetching from Amalienborg across the harbor at dusk.

Local Expert tip: While guided tours are offered in Danish only most weekends, the lobby is also open to sightseers up until 7pm on concert days.

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City Centre
Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis

Nyhavn may be a tourist trap, but with good reason: On a sunny evening, it's one of the loveliest spots in Copenhagen. With its pretty painted houses clustered around the canalside (most of them restaurants and cafes), it's hard to imagine that Nyhavn was a notorious neighborhood of lowlifes, drunks and prostitutes right up until 1970, popular with sailors on shore leave and littered with all-night bars and tattoo parlors. Only one of those original tattooists now remains, along with seaman's' hostel Hotel Bethel; these days, prices at Nyhavn's eateries are some of the highest in Copenhagen. You could always follow the lead of the other sun worshippers, buy a bottle of beer or an ice cream from a nearby store and dangle your feet from the jetty.

Local Expert tip: Nyhavn has two sides: While its northern side is the busy one, its southern side (by Charlottenborg) is considerably quieter.

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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.

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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Vor Frelsers Kirke
Photo courtesy of Bjørn Giesenbauer

The twisting spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (The Church of Our Savior) is one of the clearest landmarks in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen, rising above the other buildings with its gold domed top. The large, baroque church dates from 1682-1696 and is the work of royal court builder Lambert van Haven; its famous spire was added later, around 1750 by Laurids de Thurah. Although an urban myth suggests de Thurah jumped from the tower when he discovered it twisted to the right, there is no truth to the tale. The church has a number of artefacts worth looking at, including Nicodemus Tessin's heavy marble altar from 1732 and the magnificent 17th-century organ, but it's the tower that draws in the visitors; climbing all 400 steps, however, is not for the faint-hearted.

Local Expert tip: Entrance to the church is free, but there is a small fee to climb the tower: The reward is a fantastic view of Copenhagen.

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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.

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 Sightseeing 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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A canal boat is a great way to get around Copenhagen as well as the perfect means to take in some sightseeing. Two companies offers boat tours in Copenhagen, Canal Tours Copenhagen and the blue Netto Boats. The sightseeing boats of Canal Tours Copenhagen depart at regular intervals from a number of stops, most notably Nyhavn, and offer both self-guided tours and ones with onboard tour guide (languages offered include Danish, English, Italian, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish). While the shortest tours take you around the city's harbor, a longer trip takes you out to the island of Trekroner Fort, part of Copenhagen's 19th-century defensive ramparts. Cultural collaborations are also offered, with jazz tours and opera tours during Copenhagen's numerous summertime cultural festivals.

Recommended for Sightseeing because: See Copenhagen from a quite different perspective with a sightseeing tour by water.

Local Expert tip: A hop-on, hop-off canal tour enables you to visit a number of sights around canals and harbor, all on the same ticket.

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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.

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

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Den Lille Havfrue
Photo courtesy of Erling A

The small, unassuming figure in bronze of Hans Christian Andersen's tragic heroine sits patiently on her rock, her head bowed, climbed on by tourists and buffetted by the waves. You might want to hate her, this rather over-rated tourist attraction that's been the icon of all things Danish since she was first unveiled back in 1913, but you may leave Langelinie feeling sorry for her, she who has falled victim to graffiti, politcal actions and even her own beheading in a famous artist's happening of the 60s. Still, the walk up here from Nyhavn is pleasant, and the nearby Amaliehaven Park looks lovely on a warm summer's day. Alternatively, many people take in the landmark as part of a canal tour.

Local Expert tip: Whilst here, don't miss the Little Mermaid's mutant siblings just a few minutes' walk away in Bjorn Norgaard's sculpture, 'Paradise Genetically Altered'.

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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