10 Jul 2018

Copenhagen: Exploring My Roots

I had been looking forward to visiting Denmark for a long time because it’s the main portion of my heritage I know of and was excited that we were able to schedule 8 days in the area so we could really settle in and explore. My ancestors came from the northwest of Denmark, so quite far from Copenhagen, but it was still really interesting for me to get to spend some time in the country.

While we were amazed at the high prices for everything (driven by a 25% VAT and a high minimum wage, but offset by amazing social services for residents) we ended up having a really good time and actually under spending our budget because it was so nice to just be outdoors. We really lucked out with the weather, with every day except our departure being beautiful and warm–seven summer days in a city that averages only 6 of them a year (but has had 30+ this year)!

We also just happened to arrive in Copenhagen right as graduation weekend was starting up for all of the colleges and tradeschools in and around the city. The first time we saw a hay truck full of screaming, partying young adults go driving by we thought it was an extra-exuberant bachelor’s party, but it turns out that it is a graduation tradition instead: you and your class get together, rent a truck, and spend all day driving around to all of your parents’ houses, stopping for a drink and a snack at every one. At lunchtime the groups are already excited, and by nine or ten at night they are all drunk and having a wonderful, loud time. We were impressed at just how many of these trucks drove past us during the weekend, and then they completely stopped once Monday came around.

We stayed at an Airbnb in the Islands Brygge area, just across the “river” (actually a narrow strip of water connected on both ends to the Baltic Sea) from the core of downtown. We ended up with a lovely apartment and found the location pretty convenient, especially with the Bycyklen e-bikeshare that we easily signed up for and used throughout our time in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is extremely flat, so the electric assist wasn’t really necessary but it got us where we were going quickly. Our side of the water is also much less built-up, so it has a nice promenade for walking along the water and popular areas for you to jump in the water and cool off on hot days.

Left: Bycyklen bikes. Right: Islands Brygge Harbor Bath.

Getting to Copenhagen

Most people arrive to Copenhagen by plane, but since we were already going to be practically in the neighborhood in Berlin, we thought that sounded lame. Once again inspired by Seat61, we took a really unique train from Hamburg to Copenhagen that about halfway through the trip boards a ferry to cross the Baltic Sea between Germany and Denmark. Once on the ferry, we got off the train (leaving our bags onboard), spent about 40 minutes on deck enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, and then piled back on the train just before arrival to continue on our way. I was amazed at how well timed the whole thing was, with the ship departing while we were still unloading from the train and then the train pulling off the ship again within a minute of docking. Much more fun than a flight, though the journey did take up about half a day (though getting to/from airports takes up a ton of time too, so definitely worth it!).

Left: A duplicate of our boat, heading the other way. Center: Our train secured inside the ferry. Right: Onboard as we crossed into Danish territory.

What We Did in Copenhagen


Copenhagen is known for its fancy-dining food, having hosted the best restaurant in the world for years, but we found pretty good options that didn’t completely blow our budget:

Some of our scrumptious dinner at Bæst. Their homemade burrata is on the left, and was our favorite dish.

Bæst - We had seen Baest on the pizza episode of David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious and I got pretty excited about it after they talked through their homemade sourdough crust and fresh-made-daily local cheese. It’s not cheap, but at about 20 USD a pizza it’s actually not that much more expensive than random take-out pizza throughout Copenhagen. We loved their fresh burrata, served as a huge blob of flavorful cheese that is impossible to stop eating. We also really liked their garlic bread and lardo appetizer, which was soaked in flavorful oil and also addictive. The pizza was less exciting than expected, to be honest, since their sourdough was nowhere near as sour as I like it. We still enjoyed it, especially their ‘Nduja selection. We had trouble getting a reservation for a good time, but it also wasn’t full either time we went there, so you may be able to just walk in and be seated.

Kødbyens Høker and Gasoline Grill.

Kødbyens Høker - One of the things we were pleasantly surprised by was how many places there were with groups of stalls selling cheap food with lots of variety. Kødbyens Høker was just outside one of the newest areas, in what feels like a factory alleyway, and has amazing flæskestegssandwich (roast pork sandwiches) for less than 10 USD a meal.

Gasoline Grill - A small burger shack, we really enjoyed their cheeseburger (me) and veggie burger (Amy), enough that we ended up having a second helping at a different location. The burgers actually really reminded me of In-N-Out in California, but bigger and more filling.

Kanelsnelge and Smørrebrød.

Andersen’s Bakery - Right near our apartment, we became easily addicted to their kanelsnelge (cinnamon buns). They came highly recommended in a blog post we read and since they were only a couple minutes away we ended up snacking on them more than one afternoon. Our walking tour guide also told us how Denmark had to object in the EU government to prevent them from declaring the amount of cinnamon in each roll as dangerous - yum!!

Lillian’s Smørrebrød - Smørrebrød, the open-faced sandwiches ubiquitous for Danish lunch, are made with a super-dense rye bread and surprisingly filling. We we went to Lillian’s because they’re the cheapest spot anywhere convenient, though their smørrebrød are definitely on the lighter side. We paid ~15 USD for five of them and were both pretty well filled up, while at many restaurants a single smørrebrød costs that much!

Restaurant Klubben's stegt flæsk med persillesovs, before and after.

Restaurant Klubben - In 2014, Denmark voted on their national dish Stegt flæsk med persillesovs (crispy pork with parsley sauce and potatoes) was the clear winner, so we had to try it while we were in Copenhagen. For reasons we never discovered, it is traditionally only served as a lunch special on Mondays, and we decided to go for it at Klubben because some locals recommended their version as particularly good. What we did not understand was just how much food was included in the lunch special. It was delicious, but we could only eat about half of it even when completely stuffing ourselves. The waiter said about a third of people who order it finish the whole thing, which seems insane.

Torvehallerne Market - The most popular, and fanciest, of the food stall markets, Torvehallerne is recommended by everything you read about Copenhagen and is a great place to stop. We found the deals weren’t quite as good as less popular places, but we did really enjoy a couple of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches we picked up.

Tourist Sites

Bycyklen - Copenhagen’s bikeshare service, which is made up of all e-bikes and has lots of docking stations around downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Everyone bikes in Copenhagen, so it was great to be able to buy a package of minutes and be really mobile the whole time we were there. It was my first time on an e-bike and I was pretty surprised just how much of an assist it gave: we barely had to pedal! It would have been nice to have our own bikes for the full time, since we could have taken them to parks more easily (rather than having to find a docking station) but we saved 100+ USD by just using the bikeshare, so it was definitely worth it.

The Queen's yacht, and the Queen herself going aboard.

Free Walking Tour Copenhagen - As we have done in a lot of cities, we kicked off our first full day by joining a free walking tour of central Copenhagen. This was one of the longer ones we’ve done, and covered a lot of ground, which we appreciated. We also really lucked out, stumbling across the Queen of Denmark boarding her yacht as we walked by the harbor! Amazing how little security she had, and apparently the rest of the royal family has even less and is often seen biking around Copenhagen with their small children.

Left: Bakken's water flume. Right: Heading into the Dyrehaven.

Bakken - Originally built in 1583, it is the world’s oldest amusement park, and sits about 30 minutes outside of Copenhagen by train. We ventured out here for two reasons: first, unlike downtown hotspot Tivoli Gardens, it is free to enter and walk around (the rides and games cost plenty); and second, it is adjacent to a huge park that is popular for picnicking, deer spotting, and generally getting some good outdoor time. We only spent about 20 minutes in Bakken itself, walking around the (pretty-small) rides and carnival games before heading into the woods for a long walk.

Jægersborg Dyrehaven

Jægersborg Dyrehaven - The huge area of woods adajacent to Bakken, the dyrehaven used to be a royal hunting retreat and hosts 2,000+ deer within its boundaries. It was fun for me to see this Danish word out in the wild, as it is also what my family has always called the kids play pen at the summer Camp we go to–what difference does a few thousand more acres make?! We had a nice time wandering around the endless paths, managing to startle a few deer, and enjoying a nice picnic we had put together at the grocery store back in the city. To really explore it you would need a bike, which we didn’t have with us, but walking around was pleasant enough.

Søndermarken, Botanisk Have, and Kongens Have.

Frederiksberg Gardens & Søndermarken - Two large gardens surrounding the zoo in northwest Copenhagen, we enjoyed spending time in both of them on some of the beautiful afternoons we were in town. From Frederiksberg there is a nice viewing area into the elephant enclosure at the (expensive) zoo, which was fun for a few minutes. At every park we went to, including these two, there were countless Danes taking advantage of the good weather by sunbathing during their lunch or afternoon break. They would cycle up, strip down to a swimsuit, tan for half an hour, get dressed again, and then bike back to their office. Seems like a nice way to prepare for the rest of the day!

Botanisk Have (Botanical Garden) & Kongens Have (The King’s Garden) - Next to each other in the heart of downtown, these gardens are a lot smaller than the other green spaces we visited in Copenhagen, but were still fun to walk around and full of locals enjoying the good weather. We even caught a glimpse of the daily afternoon puppet show at the King’s Garden. It’s really more for the 2-5 year old crowd but we stopped for a couple of minutes anyway.

Glyptotek Museum: french painting and Eqyptian mummies.

Glyptotek Museum - We visited on Tuesday, when the museum grants free entry, but didn’t end up staying very long. Their Egypt exhibit, complete with a simulated tomb and a couple of mummies was very unique for the places we’ve been, but the rest was too similar to all the museums we visited in Italy to warrant much exploration for us. Amy was insistent on working our way through their exhibit of French paintings, even though we are heading to Paris soon and will certainly get our (or at least my) fill.

Christiansborg Palace, and the view from its tower.

Tårnet (Tower) - While we have a strict policy of not paying money to see a view from up high, the tower at Christiansborg Palace is free for the public and only required we wait about 10 minutes in line before taking the elevator up. The view was definitely nice, and much better than anywhere else in Copenhagen, but probably still not worth it if the line is any longer than that. You can see the bridge that turns into a tunnel and connects Denmark and Sweden on a clear day, as well.

The Little Mermaid & Kastellet - At the northern tip of Copenhagen’s waterfront is the famous sculpture of The Little Mermaid sitting atop a rock in the water a few feet offshore. We biked there and knew we were getting close when we saw the long line of tourbuses pulled to the side of the road. The sculpture is really just that, and not worth a trip. Our walking tour guide did warn us that it was voted the second most disappointing monument in Europe (sorry Manneken Pis, someone had to be the most disappointing). We did, however, enjoy walking around Kastellet, the old fort adjacent to the area that has been converted into a mostly-public area with walking and running trails. We strolled atop the ramparts looking out over the harbor before heading back downtown.

The Little Mermaid, and (10:00pm) sunset near Bæst.

Christiania - On Christianshavn, the northeast island just across the narrow “river” from downtown Copenhagen sits Christiania, a commune that took over abandoned military land decades ago and occupies it to this day. It has become a popular tourist attraction, supposedly because of their free-living lifestyle you can learn about, but it seems like most tourists were going there to buy some marijauna. We took a quick walk through the area, weren’t excited about staying any longer, and continued on our way.

How We Did with Our Budget in Copenhagen

For our time in Copenhagen, the most expensive city we’re paying a visit to in Europe (Basel, Switzerland is comparable, but luckily we got to stay with Amy’s parents!), we had budgeted 85 USD a night for accommodations. We ended up spending 94 USD per night for our Airbnb in Islands Brygge, and feel we got really lucky getting such a good deal compared to the other available options.

We had also budgeted 15 USD per day per person for food and 20 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 70 USD total, we ended up spending only 63 USD per day on average since stuck almost entirely to free sightseeing activities (47 USD on Bycycklen bikeshare, 16 USD on the walking tour, and 31 USD to get to/from Bakken were all we spent on entertainment) and didn’t have many restaurant meals (though we did average 75 USD on two trips to Baest, which we don’t regret!). Overall we ended up just barely underspending our total Copenhagen budget, which we were surprised at being able to accomplish.

The Royal Guard, marching from Palace to barracks. Just like everything else in Copenhagen, they stopped properly for all red lights while marching down the traffic lane.