Canals lined with colorful houses, cafés oozing with hygge, and the beating heart of the happiest nation on Earth: Copenhagen just breathes with life.
Travelers from around the world flock to admire Copenhagen’s colorful architecture around the city center – and not just Nyhavn, its most famous row of candy-colored houses. We found beautiful houses nearly everywhere we turned – whether it was a random street in our friend’s neighborhood of Amagerbro, a used clothing store, or a random side street off the main drag. There’s no need to try to get the same Insta-famous shots as everyone else, so feel free to wander around Copenhagen and follow your eyes and see where it leads you.
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If you have to make the most of Copenhagen in one day, you have two choices: tick off all the touristy “musts” and spend half your day in line… or follow this alternative Copenhagen itinerary. This one-day Copenhagen guide will show you the city through a slightly off the beaten path lens, while being sure to take you to a few can’t-miss popular Copenhagen musts. This is my favorite way to travel: a blend of a few of the tourist top 10, with a heavy dash of the offbeat to see how the locals live in their city.
Here’s what you won’t find on this Copenhagen itinerary: The Little Mermaid sculpture (it’s tiny and completely overrated), Tivoli Gardens (if you have one day in Copenhagen, you probably shouldn’t spend it in a theme park), and the Copenhagen Zoo (zoos are nearly always unethical and the same basically everywhere).
Instead, this alternative Copenhagen itinerary will bring you to some cool street art, delicious food halls, bottle shops of renegade Danish brewers, authentic ethnic restaurants, colorful houses in scenic harbors, cool canals to hang out by in the summer, and fun pubs where you can rub elbows with local Danes — who are really quite chatty once they’ve got a drink in them.
So, buckle up if you’ve got one day in Copenhagen: you’re in for a busy, boozy 24 hours.
Your One Day Copenhagen Itinerary
Explore the anarchist Freetown Christiania
Founded in 1971, by people squatting in former military barracks in the borough of Christianshavn, Freetown Christiania is no stranger to controversy.
Some 1,000 residents – some temporary, some permanent – have formed a community in the heart of Copenhagen with its own self-governing set of rules, separate from Danish law. Freetown Christiania views itself as a separate entity from Copenhagen, Denmark, or even the EU, for that matter.
This quirky neighborhood reminded me of Vilnius’ utopian Užupis, but with a bit more edginess to it.
There is quite a bit of clutter, dilapidated houses, DIY skate parks, and street art lining the walls of this former military area.
Christiania has a reputation for drug use – which is a bit overstated, in my opinion. While there is some sale of soft drugs such as marijuana, there is a hard prohibition against the use or sale of any hard drugs. I spent about an hour walking around taking photos and exploring, and I didn’t get harassed or asked to buy anything.
The reality is that Christiania is the fourth-most visited site in Copenhagen, and it’s hardly ‘off the beaten path’. Still, it’s well worth a visit, despite being firmly on the tourist trail. Be respectful of the people who live there, and enjoy your exploration of a social experiment that has thrived and survived for some nearly five decades.
If you prefer some context and guidance, you can take a 90-minute guided walking tour of Christiania. Click to read reviews and see prices.
Enjoy the colorful houses in Nyhavn, then go for a canal tour
Touristy, yes – but Copenhagen is famous for its beautiful canals with their colorful houses lining the harbor, and there are some things you just shouldn’t miss, even if you’re aiming for a more alternative Copenhagen itinerary. Nyhavn is just one of those places.
After taking some photos of gorgeous Nyhavn, embrace your inner tourist (you do have only one day in Copenhagen, after all) by taking a quick canal boat ride through its neighborhoods. Canal boat tours take about one hour and leave frequently from Nyhavn. Purchase a ticket online to skip the line and save time.
If you’re a victim of the frequently finicky Danish weather, a canal boat tour is also a great way to pass time if the weather is not on your side. Most of the canal boats have a glass roof, which keeps rain, cold, and other unpleasantness away while still allowing you a good view and to snap some photos.
Stop for a coffee
The Nordic countries love their coffee and Denmark is no exception. In fact, Denmark is the 4th largest consumer of coffee in the world, trailing Finland, Norway, and Iceland. Hey – you’d drink a lot of coffee too if your winter days were that short and cold!
Like everything in Denmark, you’ll find coffee to be a bit more expensive than you’re used to, whether you’re stopping at a touristy café, a trendy coffee shop that specializes in single-origin beans, or at a boring chain like Espresso House. Since you’ll be paying a premium on your coffee anyway, you might as well enjoy one of Denmark’s finest cups of coffee.
Some of Copenhagen’s best coffee – and best Danish design – can be had at Copenhagen Coffee Lab in Amagerbro, but there are plenty of places you can find a good cup of coffee around the city if that’s out of the way.
Enjoy a smørrebrød for lunch
The Danish open-faced sandwich is a classic must-eat when in Copenhagen. As you’d expect with the Nordics, the sandwiches are as aesthetically pleasing as they are delicious. Danes don’t mess around when it comes to design.
Hilariously, you’ll find signs advertising smørrebrød to go – I can’t think of a less pedestrian-friendly lunch than an open-faced sandwich piled high with gravity-defying toppings. But hey, what do I know?
A smørrebrød is typically a piece of dense rye bread with your choice of toppings. Usual toppings include some variation of fish or seafood- herring, mackerel, smoked salmon, and tiny shrimp being the most common choices. For those who don’t like fish, pâté, roast beef, and roast pork are also popular options, and Denmark is getting better at also including vegetarian options as well.
Alternately, you could opt for a 2.5-hour food walking tour that covers five tastes of Danish cuisine plus a beer tasting. These tours run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2:30 PM, and prices are reasonable for Copenhagen! Check reviews and availability here.
Wander past the city center
This is where you’ll find tourists swarming to see the most popular sights, such as the Round Tower (Rundetaarn) and Helligaandskirken church. Wander through it at leisure, but don’t get distracted by all the souvenir shops and long queues for the popular central attractions.
There’s some deliciousness on the other side of the tourist-packed madness for you, so keep your eyes on the prize and make your way over to Torvehallerne!
Drool over Copenhagen’s best food hall
Food halls are quite popular in Scandinavia – probably because the weather is not kind enough to permit open-air markets, but the people still love their fresh foods. Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne food hall is a great place to stop, whether you need to shop for “obscure” ingredients at the Asian food stall (we were ecstatic to pick up some much-needed packs of kimchi ramen) or just grab something to eat on the go for an affordable (but still Danish) price.
While a typical meal in Denmark is quite expensive, you’ll find that food halls are a great deal. For example, a Vietnamese banh mi at the food hall will run you about 80 DKK, about $12 – a far cry from what you’d pay at a sit-down restaurant.
Stop to shop beer (or just gawk at the labels) at Mikkeller
If you’re a fan of craft beer, you probably already have heard of Mikkeller. If not – here’s a little crash course. Mikkeller is one of the foremost microbreweries in the world, a so-called “phantom brewery” as the company has no official brewery and instead works collaboratively with other brewers or does experimental beers. Founded by two Danish home brewers, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller, the name ‘Mikkeller’ is a blend of the two men’s first and last names, respectively.
Mikkeller specializes in creative beers inspired by homebrewing traditions and you can find a Mikkeller bottle shop in Torvehallerne. Even if you are not a big fan of beer, it’s worth checking out this little bottle shop while you’re in the market – I always love Mikkeller’s bottle designs, which are just as creative as the brews inside them. Pick up some beers to enjoy on the canal later, or take it outside to enjoy now.
Wander around Nørrebro
Just across the canal from Torvehallerne, you’ll find the hip and trendy neighborhood of Nørrebro, one of Copenhagen’s most densely diverse and interesting places.
Be sure to check out Superkilen, a self-described ‘diversity park’ featuring fixtures from around the world, whether it be Japanese sculptures or Moroccan fountains. It’s a common place for locals to hang out during the summer as well as a popular photo spot. The Assistens cemetery is also a calm green oasis and it’s not uncommon to see bicyclists passing through the cemetery: a peaceful place of life as well as death.
While I loved exploring Norrebro independently, if you want to dive deeper into the neighborhood with a local guide, you can do so! Urban Adventures, one of my favorite walking tour companies in Europe, runs tours at 12:30 PM Tuesday through Saturday (which means you may want to shuffle around the activities on this itinerary if you do the tour). Check reviews and availability here.
Grab international food in Nørrebro
Copenhagen has become an increasingly diverse city over the years and it reflects in the cuisine. While I love a smørrebrød or two, there’s only so much pickled herring a girl can take. So, thank god for immigration.
Nørrebro is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of Copenhagen and it’s where you can find delicious international cuisine from all over the globe. But with only one day in Copenhagen planned on this trip before heading off to the Faroe Islands, I could only fit so much in my stomach.
My friend Megan and I are total ramen fiends, and so we opted for Ramen to Bíiru, the best-rated ramen restaurant in town where you can actually get Mikkeller beer specially crafted to be paired with your ramen. And the extra fun part: you get to order your ramen with a vending machine just like you do in Japan!
Our ramens were both excellent. Megan went for the spicy miso ramen and I went for the classic shoyu ramen as my stomach is no longer to take spicy food the way it used to! Prices are reasonable for Copenhagen, around 120 DKK ($18) for a huge bowl of ramen.
If you’re not a fan of ramen or you want to try something a little more unusual, you could go for Ethiopian at Ma’ed, Eritrean at Asmara, or Michelin-starred Thai at Kiin Kiin.
Watch the sunset (or take a dip) at Islands Brygge
How many cities have water clean enough that you can swim right in the city center? Coming from New York, I wouldn’t take a dip in the East River if you paid me (well, maybe if you paid me the equivalent of six months’ rent).
The Islands Brygge are close to the Langebro bridge, which connects central Copenhagen to its eastern neighborhood, Amagerbro.
Copenhagen rarely gets truly “hot,” but if you happen to be there on a rare warm day in the summer as we did, you may want to cool off in the canal like the locals do!
If the weather is too cold for you to get in, or you’re just a baby like me who hates cold water no matter how hot it is outside, it’s also common to sit with a beer, cider, or wine and enjoy the sunset over the canal.
End the night at one of Copenhagen’s craft beer bars
Denmark is on the cutting edge of craft beer and WarPigs is one of the best-loved bars for beer lovers in town, as certified by my Copenhagen travel buddy and craft beer expert Megan Starr (check out her awesome beer guides here).
Yes, going out for a few beers in Copenhagen will be pricy – expect to pay around 60-90 DKK for a beer, with the most common price being around 80 DKK ($12) for a beer. But you’ll be getting to sample of Denmark’s most creative brewers and support local entrepreneurs. Megan particularly enjoyed the New England IPA by WarPigs called ‘Opposite Optimist’ – it was delicious.
If none of the 22 taps at WarPigs suit your fancy, you’ll be in the heart of Copenhagen’s Meatpacking District (Kødbyen) so there’s plenty of other bars to hop around afterward! Alternately, you could take an organized pub crawl if you prefer to find some new drinking buddies.
Where to Stay in Copenhagen
Copenhagen hotels are pricy, that’s for sure. I’ve been lucky enough to get to stay with friends the last two times I’ve visited Copenhagen – the perks of having friends all over the world!
While I don’t have any firsthand recommendations, here’s what I’ve culled from my research.
Budget: Hostels in Copenhagen are not cheap by any means and a simple bed in a dorm will likely set you back $30 USD a night at a minimum. The cheapest, best hostels book up quickly so you want to book in advance if you are traveling on a budget. The best-reviewed value hostel in Copenhagen is Steel House, which is located in central Copenhagen near the trendy Kødbyen neighborhood. With a perfect location, excellent Danish design, and nearly 6,000 positive reviews, it’s an easy choice. Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Mid-range: If you prefer a little more privacy than a hostel offers, but don’t have much of a budget to spend on accommodations, I recommend SleepCPH. It’s a bit outside the center but still walking distance (40 minutes, or faster with the metro) from Nyhavn, the heart of central Copenhagen. It’s located close to the airport so it’s extra convenient if you have an early or late flight. While it’s not the most exciting neighborhood, the price is great and it is very convenient! Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Luxury: Big money to spend in Copenhagen? You’ve got plenty of choices. For a quirky but quietly upscale choice, Babette Guldsmeden has gorgeous design, is super eco-friendly, and has a rooftop terrace and sauna to enjoy. The price is quite reasonable for expensive Copenhagen as well, especially if you are traveling outside of peak season. Check reviews, prices, and availability here.
Getting to Copenhagen
Copenhagen is well-connected by a variety of airlines. However, when I was trying to get to Copenhagen, I was coming from Kiev, Ukraine, where there are not a lot of flights between the two cities. I partnered with airBaltic, one of my preferred European airlines, in order to get to Copenhagen, as they offered the best prices and schedules between Kiev and Copenhagen during peak summer season.
airBaltic has several flights between Kiev and Copenhagen daily, each with a connection in Riga. I’ve flown with airBaltic a few times and I’m always pleasantly surprised by how easy and quick the connection in Riga is, even for non-Schengen flights. Still, I was initially a little worried about my short layover time – a little over an hour – because I have massive flight anxiety and am always convinced something will go wrong. I’m the kind of person who usually arrives at the airport more than two hours before my flight and book myself longer layovers rather than rush between flights. I know, I’m lots of fun.
However, airBaltic is rated the #1 most punctual airline in the world, so I chanced the short layover. Sure enough, my flight from Kiev to Riga arrived on time (early, in fact). I whizzed through Schengen passport control (as I was coming from outside the EU) and passed through a small security checkpoint in just 20 minutes, giving myself enough time to get a sandwich and a coffee before my Riga to Copenhagen flight. It was a super seamless flying experience, so I’d recommend connecting via Riga with airBaltic if you’re on the way to Copenhagen and airBaltic is an option!
* Note: Thank you to airBaltic for sponsoring my flight between Kiev and Copenhagen in exchange for an honest review. All other expenses in Copenhagen were my own. All opinions are my own.