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Copenhagen - Some old, much new, and just a bit of controversy (and watch out for those bicycles)

Are you old enough to remember the camper van tours of Europe back in the 70’s and 80’s? It was almost a rite of passage to take time off work, fly to Europe, rent a van, and head out with a hardcopy 'Planning Map of Europe' in the console. It was 1989 for us, and my only memory of Copenhagen was being colossally disappointed with the Little Mermaid statue; so I was ready to see the city anew as the final stop in our November travels in Scandinavia. And even if I don't remember many details, I can guarantee that Copenhagen has changed a lot in the past 35 years.

Before leaving for Scandinavia, my goal was to enjoy the new architecture. I did not know that Copenhagen has been named the UNESCO World Capital of Architecture for the period 2023 to 2026. I was delighted! This is not to downplay the historic palaces and churches that make Copenhagen feel like a traditional grand European city. Copenhagen has done a fine job of mixing the old and the new in the downtown, even connecting some structures (keep reading); but Copenhagen has some up and coming, funky neighbourhoods that would make a photographer drool. There’s really two sides to this city of about 670,000 on the east coast of Denmark.

You could definitely go to Copenhagen just for the history. It’s pretty much concentrated in the walkable downtown core. In fact, the City of Copenhagen has thoughtfully published a self-guided Royal Tour, a clockwise walk which takes you past 10 of the major old sights.

The royal walk takes you by:

1. The Amalienborg Palace, on the northeast edge of the city centre, is the royal family's main residence from the 18th century. It has four stately palace buildings that surround a large octagonal courtyard with a huge statue of King Frederik V on a horse in the middle.

2. The Marble Church, or Frederik's Church, from 1894 is just west, through the Amalienborg Palace Courtyard. It has a huge green dome that stands on 12 columns. Interestingly, the church was designed in the 1700's but sat empty and in ruins for 150 years before it was completed.

3. Straight south of the Marble Church is the The Royal Danish Theatre, used as the king's private theatre before becoming an all-purpose theatre in 1874 (the Queen has her own box seats).

4. The Holmen's Church lies southeast of the Royal Theatre. I can't believe I missed it as we walked about. The church dates to 1563 and was used as a forge before becoming a church. It became famous for the royal Danish wedding in 1967, and several prominent Danish naval heroes are buried there.

(Photo from 'Your Own Royal Tour of Copenhagen' brochure)

5. The Christiansborg Palace is to the southwest of Holmen's Church and is used by the Queen for state dinners, banquets, and receptions. It is the home of the Danish parliament. Interestingly, this is the third palace building built on this site since 1167. There is a beautiful courtyard in the middle, known as Show Grounds for the Royal Stables where horses are kept for ceremonial usage.

6. Several blocks to the northwest is The Caritas Well, the oldest fountain in Copenhagen from 1607. The figures on the well represent the virtues of faith, hope, love, and charity. Every year since the 18th century on the Queen's birthday, copper balls covered with gold (to resemble golden apples) are placed in the fountain and balance on the streams of water. That would be quite a sight.

7. The Church of Our Lady, or Copenhagen's Cathedral is just a block northwest of the fountain. The original church dates to the 1100's and the current to the early 1800's. The inside was simple but stunning, decorated with the 12 apostles, the Risen Christ, and a baptismal font in the shape of an angel. The interior was one of my favourites in all my travels.

8. The Round Tower from 1642 is northeast of the church, and some consider it to be built as a "prestige project" by the king. Interestingly, it has what is called an "equestrian staircase", a gently sloping spiral corridor that a horse could maneuver all the way to the observatory platform at the top, 34.8 meters above ground.

9. The King's Garden to the northeast is Denmark's oldest garden from the early 17th century. It surrounds Rosenborg Castle and is one of the most popular places in Copenhagen. Even in the fall, it was starkly beautiful. In the summer, it would be breathtaking.

10. And, finally, The Rosenborg Castle from 1606 was the king's summerhouse. It is a true castle as we imagined as children, a magnificent building with high green-topped spires that was expanded over centuries and now contains 400 years of royal treasures and jewels. Brochures show the inside to be absolutely opulent - and indulgent.

But walk just a bit off that royal path, and you can easily see many of the other centuries-old structures and sites.

A few of our favourites:

The Church of our Saviour in Christianshavn has an amazing spiral staircase that can be climbed to the top of the spire. It also has a carillon which plays every hour throughout the day. This church was stunning inside and out.

The Royal Library Garden was a hidden gem (a tip from a smart young fellow at our hotel) - keep reading to find out more about the library. The garden is tucked between the library, a museum, and the Christiansborg Palace. It has a shallow water pool, flower beds, and trees. It is known as one of the most tranquil spots in Copenhagen.

The Kastellet citadel area north of the city centre, one of the best preserved fortresses in Europe, is in the shape of a pentagon and is surrounded by a moat. The beautiful St. Alban's Church (or the English Church) and the Gefion Fountain sit at the edge of the pentagon. The church is beautiful from any angle - street side or silhouetted in the adjacent moat. The Gefion Fountain is the largest monument in Copenhagen. It is a group of oxen pulling a plow driven by a Norse goddess. The old yellow Citadel church and a windmill sit within the Kastellet. The grounds and barracks are immaculate. It's a great area for strolling.

The National Gallery of Denmark, the Natural History Museum, and the Botanic Garden sit just to the west of the Rosenborg Castle. Both the Natural History Museum and parts of the Botanic Garden are under construction. The Botanic Garden would be one sight that is better seen in the summer months, although we did get a glimpse of the diversity of plants (some 13,000) that are grown and shown there and the beautifully domed Palm House which apparently has a 16 meter tall, narrow, cast iron spiral staircase inside.

The National Gallery and the Botanical Garden.

We did miss the Frederiksberg area of Copenhagen (which was actually walking distance to our hotel), and I would definitely check it out 'next time'. It was the summer retreat of King Frederik IV, and his palace is perched on a hill in a 64 hectare green area, described as the largest and most attractive park in Copenhagen with an English garden landscape. (Those kings really liked to treat themselves.)

As I said, you could focus a trip just on historical sites alone, especially taking a more in-depth look which would be something I would do on a future visit, especially climbing that Round Tower and the spiral staircase of the Church of Our Saviour. We completed the Royal Tour walk and saw the off-the-path sites in just a day and a half - and they were all amazing.

But it's the 'new' Copenhagen that stole my heart. So, why was Copenhagen named the UNESCO Capital of World Architecture? Apparently, the title is given to a city to honour the manner in which it plans and builds structures that help to shape identity and is environmentally friendly and sustainable for everyone. Creativity breeds more creativity, and it is as if architects are challenged to 'out-do' their colleagues.

We managed to see several not-to-miss buildings in the city core alone that simply blend in with the old.

The Axel Towers is made of five large silo-shaped buildings near City Hall. It is a swirly blend of residences, offices, restaurants, and gardens. It's a little dizzying standing inside looking up.

Then there is the Blox, or the Danish Architecture Centre, on the waterfront, all glass and boxy. It was part of Copenhagen's efforts to change an old parking lot into a desirable space.

Not to be missed is the Black Diamond, or The Royal Danish Library, a huge black granite slanted box right next to the Blox, with the amazing foyer and elevator. So intent were they to mesh the old and new that they connected the modern library with the old traditional one by a walkway. Such a contrast walking from one to the other. The young fellow at the hotel told us that the Black Diamond has drawn criticism because of its stark shape. I thought it was beautiful. The view from the top floor facing the harbour is exquisite.

Bridges are considered part of the architecture that promotes safe cities and a healthy culture. There are two wonderful pedestrian/cycling bridges in the central area that are both worth researching for their design (they can both be opened for boats to pass).

The Lille Langebro (or Little Long Bridge) is a twisty and curvy narrow bridge used by about 10,000 cyclists per day. It is next to the Blox building and is considered part of the Blox. The Lille Langebro apparently looks like a twisted ribbon when lit in the dark.

The Circle Bridge is another pedestrian/cycling bridge considered unique architecture. It is used by about 5,000 people per day and is built in the shape of several circles touching each other. It looks like sailing ships docked side by side.

A little further along the water is the Royal Danish Playhouse. It has three stages. The building was constructed to resemble houses and old towers in the central city. It has a lovely blue and green glass mosaic all around the top. 40% of the building projects across the water.

Across the water from the playhouse is the magnificent Copenhagen Opera House, one of the most expensive opera houses in the world, estimated at about $370,000,000 US. It's built of limestone and surrounded by canals to make it look like an island. The lobby has three chandeliers filled with hundreds (thousands?) of lights. We were able to warm up in the foyer, under the chandeliers, all by ourselves as we got there on a Sunday morning just at opening time. This is another interesting building to read about as, apparently, one of the architects wrote a book criticizing the final result, calling it a "mausoleum".

And outside the Opera House is The Opera Park. It has six different gardens representing various parts of the world and a greenhouse with a cafe - all on top of a parking garage for the Opera House. The park was meant to be used in all seasons and a haven within the city. We nurtured coffee and hot water in the greenhouse cafe on a particularly rainy, cold day - definitely a safe haven for us that day.

The Christianshavn neighbourhood, just across the canal to the east of central Copenhagen, is lined with modern office buildings and apartments, many of glass. We were told by the young fellow at the hotel that this is the ‘cool’ neighbourhood with its cafes and restaurants and modern buildings.

But it was two areas that really stood out for me for next-world architecture, one in the south and one in the north of the city. A metro ride took us to Orestad in the south. Orestad is barely 20 years old, built along a large, 3,500 hectare nature reserve. It's a small area about five kilometres by half kilometre wide, packed with the latest in design that some people think might be more for aesthetics than function. And one person said they felt they were living in an experiment. I imagine this area is under constant study by architects, engineers, and city planners for inspiration for the next great idea. Here, there are truly leading-edge housing and office spaces, a designer hotel, and a magnificent school.

The Marriott Hotel in Orestad has two towers leaning at angles steeper than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.They share the same base, and the two towers are connected at the top by a skybridge.

Some children very proudly told us, "It's our public school." It's a beautiful, round, silver and glass building that looks nothing like our childhood schools.

The 8 House is listed in pretty much all the articles on Copenhagen's new architecture. It's in the shape of a 'V' and has 400 apartments and business spaces. There is apparently a one kilometre path that leads all the way to the top for a great view of the nature reserve (I did not know this at the time, or you just know I'd have been checking it out).

This is apartment living in Orestad.

The Den Bla Planet or Blue Planet aquarium was built a little north east of Orestad to resemble a whirlpool from above and is the largest aquarium in Europe. It apparently contains seven million litres of water.

Then there is the Norhavn area in the northern part of central Copenhagen that is known for new design. Here, as opposed to the Orestad area where the construction is all new, many of the structures are being built out of former industrial buildings.

The United Nations offices (or UN City) is an eight-point star-shaped building sitting on the water. It has an open centre symbolizing interaction between the different UN agencies. It was magnificent.

The Kondiget Luders is a wonderful idea. It's a full-fledged playground and work-out area - but it's 24 metres above ground on the top of a parking garage accessed by way of a steep staircase up the side of the garage. It's a brilliant space. The stairs alone are a workout.

The Portland Towers office complex is made of two silos previously used to store concrete. They look like two huge mushrooms.

Thrown in the middle were countless apartments of every configuration. One of the most popular is the Silo apartment block with jutting balconies, made from a former grain silo.

Again, it seemed as if the architects used every trick they learned to outdo the previous project.

One other structure that we viewed from afar and is worth reading about is the Anger Bakke (or Amager Slope or Copenhill), a modern environmentally-friendly incinerator plant that was aimed to help Copenhagen become the first carbon-neutral city by 2025. It is unique because it has a recreational area containing a dry ski slope, hiking trail, and climbing wall on it's steep roof. It's a great design but has it's critics, too, suggesting it is too large and difficult to maintain.

In short, there are so many modern-art buildings in Copenhagen - and the skyline remains dotted with cranes and the air is filled with the noise of construction. I can't imagine what it will look like in a few years. The new architecture, the philosophies behind it, what is to come, and even the criticism is really worth researching.

But Copenhagen is a city just like any other with neighbourhoods that don’t quite fit into the classic stately old or the new modern design. Norrbro is Copenhagen's most ethnically diverse neighbourhood just to the northwest of downtown. In an attempt to blend ethnicities and harbour a sense of belonging and pleasure and safety, they have designed and built an almost kilometre long park space known as Superkillen, divided into three sections to ride bicycles, picnic, play, work out, or just to visit - and this is noted as an innovative architectural solution in Copenhagen. The interesting fact is that each item, be it a picnic table or a lamppost, or even a manhole cover, was donated from another country with a plaque stating which country it was from so each resident of this area feels they have a part of their homeland with them. I thought this was just a genius attempt at community building. There are also plenty of cranes and the sound of construction in this neighbourhood. Enjoy this collage of this innovative area.

And, finally, the young fellow at the hotel told us (he was just full of information) we should check out Freetown Christiania. This is a little area to the east, tucked across the canal in Chistianshavn that used to be warehouses and military barracks. In the early 1970’s, some folks started to transition it to their own housing and business area, apart from city control and laws. Marijuana sales from stalls on aptly named Pusher Street became part of the package, despite Denmark's laws against sales and possession of any form of illegal drug. Apparently, the drug stalls have been shut down, but police warn that the area around Pusher Street is still controlled by organized criminal groups. There are about 1,000 residents in Freetown. The area is full of graffiti, little shops, decrepit houses, and food outlets, and I am quite sure those fellows standing around weren't selling trinkets. It was much larger than we had thought and it felt like stepping way back in time. I can guarantee we did not visit here in 1989 because I would have remembered it. This area remains highly controversial. There is suggestion that the true residents of Freetown just want to live a life free of government control and without violence or drug use. The young fellow at the hotel told us that we were lucky we had seen it as the police were to shut it down the next day. He said, however, “It won’t happen” - they’ve been through this many times. Although photos are allowed it's maybe not the wisest choice. Freetown Christiania is definitely worth some reading.

Of course, there are some other ‘must sees’ in Copenhagen. No visit would be complete without walking the canals, Nyhavyn being the most popular and the one you see on all the travel promotions for Copenhagen. This is a particularly touristy area, but we returned on a rainy day (rainy days are just so good for travelling) and were able to snap some great photos. It is truly breathtaking.

Christmas markets are also popular from mid November through December in Copenhagen. In fact, we found that Christmas time was very popular, and we commented that stores must spend hours on their elaborate, classy decorations. We stopped at several markets. One of the most popular is probably at the Kongens Nytorv Square (or the King's New Square), the central square in Copenhagen where the Danish Royal Theatre and the historic 1755, palatial, 5-star, Hotel D’Angleterre stand. The hotel was dressed accordingly with its front all a winter wonderland. As the young fellow at the hotel said, it is the most ‘instagramable’ Christmas market. We found the markets to be well-ordered, all with matching little shacks (usually red) to sell what we thought were quite quality goods and food. But those prices . . . one small glass of glog (mulled wine), maybe five ounces at most, would be about $12.00 Canadian.

And who goes to Copenhagen twice without seeing the famous Tivoli? It was closed when we went in 1989 and it just wasn't on our wish list this time, even though it was just a few blocks from our hotel. But the crowds were flocking in to admire the Christmas light display. I do love the statue of writer Hans Christian Andersen gazing whimsically at Tivoli from across the street.