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A bicycle passes by Amalienborg Palace.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Copenhagen

A bicycle passes by Amalienborg Palace.
  • By Lisa Abend
  • Photos by Ulf Svane
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When Copenhagen’s urban planners realized that cyclists coming over the bridge from Norrebro were riding over the sidewalk to turn down a one-way street, they didn’t post police to stop them from making the illegal crossing; they installed a new bike lane to make it easier for the cyclists. It’s that kind of attention that makes the Danish capital the most livable of cities.

With ample green spaces, an inner-city harbor clean enough that anyone can — and does — swim in it, and laws that require all housing to be within 500 meters of public transportation, the municipal government takes its citizens’ well-being seriously. But so, it seems, does everyone else: Cafes brighten the long winter nights with candlelight; the summer is full of outdoor dance classes, movie screenings, and music festivals; and bars and cinemas hold “baby and me” happy hours, during which parents park their prams — and their infants, that’s how trusting everyone is — outside. And as Copenhagen consolidates its leadership in fields like cuisine, design and sustainability, it’s also becoming a more diverse and interesting place.

Meet Lisa Abend

Lisa has lived in Copenhagen since 2014 but still regularly gets asked by mystified Danes why she ever left her previous home in Madrid. The answer is complicated, but includes the thriving food scene, the extraordinarily high quality of life and a personal affinity for real weather.

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IN THE ACTION
Vesterbro
Once considered seedy, Vesterbro is now Copenhagen’s hottest neighborhood. The prostitutes and kebab stands are still there, but they share space these days with indie design shops, artisanal taquerias, cutting-edge galleries and — from craft breweries to intimate cocktail bars to respected music venues — the city’s best nightlife. Find the neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Osterbro
With its broad, pretty streets, elegant shops and restaurants popular with the yummy mummy set, Osterbro is Copenhagen’s most family-friendly neighborhood. The park at its heart, and the neighboring swimming docks and beaches at its edge, only make it friendlier. Find the neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
At the Counter
This tiny newcomer from former Noma chef Emil Glaser serves up some of the same extraordinary pastries as his nearby Juno the Bakery, but complements them with memorably tweaked breakfast classics, like a nutty granola with tart gooseberries, a creamy porridge made from spelt, and a buttery egg-and-bacon brioche. The approach to coffee — sourced from some of Scandinavia’s best roasters and precisely brewed — is no less serious.
BTW: Don’t miss the ridiculously fragrant cinnamon buns.
At the Counter, Randersgade 45, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
Temporarily Closed
BREAKFAST
Moller Kaffe og Kokken
The small-plates trend meets the all-day breakfast menu at this beloved Norrebro spot. Diners are meant to choose a handful of dishes from the lengthy menu, which ranges from well-executed versions of spartan Nordic favorites, like rye bread with cheese and soft-boiled eggs with herby mushrooms, to more creative offerings, like cheeseburger dumplings with chile oil or rhubarb waffles with vanilla cream and violet. But pretty much everyone orders the Nutella toast with chocolate, peanut butter and a candied almond banana.
BTW: Weekend brunch is madness. Booking a table diminishes the chaos, but a better option is to go during the week.
Møller Kaffe & Køkken, Nørrebrogade, Copenhagen Municipality, Denmark
LUNCH
Gasoline Grill
Denmark is not the first place that comes to mind for a good burger, and a Danish gas station is perhaps even less likely. But the lines outside this stand, located beside functioning pumps, don’t lie: From the organic beef to the buttery brioche bun, this is one of the best burgers out there (and the fries with truffle salt are worth a wait of their own). The only downside — besides the fact that gas fumes occasionally waft over the outdoor-only seating — is the annoyingly unpredictable schedule: The place closes down whenever it runs out of burgers, which can be anywhere from 5 to 11 p.m.
BTW: Lines are usually shorter, and there’s indoor space (albeit standing-room-only) at two newer locations: one just off the shopping street Stroget, the other in Carlsberg Byen.
Gasoline Grill Landgreven 10, 1300 Copenhagen, Denmark
LUNCH
Aamaans 1921
Open-face sandwiches, or smorrebrod, are the quintessential Danish lunch food, and there are plenty of charming places, like Schonnemann, to try well-made versions of the classics. But in this chic spot near the Round Tower, chef Adam Aamaan has updated the old recipes with a new Nordic flair. The tiny, sweet fjord shrimp come dressed with chamomile blossoms and piled high on a thick slice of grilled brioche, and even a stalwart like pickled herring is enlivened with tart pickled mustard seeds and an evocative smoked cheese.
BTW: Don’t forgo the alcohol just because it’s the middle of the day. Aamanns has an impressive collection of artisanal schnapps.
Aamaans 1921, Niels Hemmingsens Gade 19-21, 1153 Copenhagen, Denmark
DINNER
Gro Spiseri
On a warm summer night illuminated by one of Copenhagen’s sunsets, there may be no more magical place in the city than this Osterbro restaurant set in the middle of a rooftop garden. But even on wintry ones, it’s exceedingly hygge. From its long, candlelit communal table, both views and convivial conversations are on offer, as well as delicious, vegetable-focused cooking. The six-course set menu features mostly simple but well-prepared Nordic dishes that draw heavily from what’s growing on the roof and from the chefs’ spontaneous inspiration.
BTW: On the first Monday of every month, the restaurant offers a special two-course vegetarian menu for just 175 Danish krone — one of the best deals in town.
Gro Spiseri, Aebelogade 4, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
DINNER
Baest
Chef Christian Puglisi is the force behind several of Copenhagen’s best restaurants, but none is closer to his half-Sicilian heart than Baest. The pizzas are the main attraction in this always-lively spot, with tangy sauce, toppings that change with the seasons and chewy sourdough crusts that emerge properly blistered from the wood-fired oven. But the luscious burrata and glistening charcuterie — all of it house-made with milk and meat from Puglisi’s own farm — are just as stellar.
BTW: Ordering bread with your pizza might seem like carb overkill anyplace else, but not when the dense sourdough loaves come from Puglisi’s Mirabelle bakery next door.
Baest, Guldbergsgade 29, 2200 Copenhagen, Denmark
LATE-NIGHT
Balderdash
Tucked into a 17th-century building in the city center, this cozy bar has a speakeasy’s clandestine feel. There’s nothing traditional about the cocktails, though, which include a potato chip-and-chocolate martini and a “Hot Chicken” Old-Fashioned, made with a bourbon fat washed with schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). The occasional theme night — like tiki nights, with tropical drinks served in flaming skull mugs, and ice cream “socials,” where the boozy libations double as desserts — give the innovative bartenders a chance to show off.
BTW: For a reliably great conversation, chat up Balderdash’s American owner, Geoffrey Canilao.
Balderdash, 1151 k, Valkendorfsgade 11, 1151 Copenhagen, Denmark
LATE-NIGHT
Barabba
One of the few places in Copenhagen that serves food late, Barabba keeps its kitchen open until 2 a.m. And what a kitchen it is: turning out vibrant Italian dishes like a plump curl of nicely charred octopus with bright grilled broccoli and a house-made spaghetti with lobster and fennel that is so good the restaurant can’t take it off the menu. The wines, selected by owner and master sommelier Riccardo Marcon, are all natural and are just the ticket after-hours, when the better part of the city’s restaurant-industry employees show up after work.
BTW: Don’t miss the black garlic ice cream for dessert — no matter how weird it sounds.
Barabba, Store Kongensgade 34, 1264 Copenhagen, Denmark
(Copenhagen illustrator Andreas Hansen for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. The only people who use those electric scooters now crowding the bike lanes and sidewalks are tourists and teenage boys. Everyone else thinks they’re lazy and silly at best, a menace at worst.
  2. That said, if you’re going to ride a bike (and you should), please learn the proper hand signals and use them.
  3. Smorrebrod is for lunch only.
(Copenhagen illustrator Andreas Hansen for The Washington Post)

Do

Bike to Dyrehaven
Cycling is, of course, the best way to get around the city, but it also allows you to explore a little farther afield. A 10-mile ride up the coast to Dyrehaven will take you past the stately mansions of Hellerup, the swimming docks and beach at Bellevue, and an Arne Jacobsen-designed gas station that also functions as an ice cream parlor. And Dyrehaven itself makes an excellent destination: The former royal hunting grounds is today a sprawling reserve punctuated with forests, fields and a herd of wild deer. At its edge sits the charming Bakken, Europe’s oldest amusement park still in operation.
BTW: Copenhagen has both a public city bike program and a ton of start-up bike-sharing ones. But it’s almost always cheaper to rent from a local bike shop.
Dyrehaven, 2930 Klampenborg, Denmark
GoBoat
After a gawk at the “Little Mermaid” statue, an organized canal tour is probably the most touristy thing you can do in Copenhagen. Real Copenhageners like to float around the harbor as much as anyone; they just prefer to do it themselves. These solar-cell-powered motorboats can be rented by the hour, seat up to eight, and come equipped with a picnic table perfect for propping up those bottles of rosé. The boats are easy to steer, but the on-site crew offers instruction just in case.
BTW: Should you run out of wine mid-tour, you can sail right up to the dock at La Banchina, on the south side of the harbor, and restock.
Islands Brygge 10, 2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
Frederiksberg Gardens
Copenhagen has no shortage of green spaces where locals stroll regardless of the weather and strip down to their underwear to tan at the first sign of sun. Frederiksberg Have, on the northwestern edge of the city, is an especially lovely spot, marked by a canal that winds past hyacinth-carpeted, pagoda-style structures, and a hilltop castle. In addition to the normal park birds — ducks, geese, swans — it’s home to a flock of prehistoric-looking herons.
BTW: The park backs onto the Copenhagen Zoo, and from its western edge, you can get a direct view onto the elephant and flamingo enclosures.
Frederiksberg Gardens, Frederiksberg Runddel, Frederiksberg, Denmark
Torvehallerne
From the moment it opened in 2011, this indoor/outdoor market has functioned as the beating heart of much of the city’s social life. Many of the stalls sell prepared food of much higher quality than the other street-food markets around town (Ma Poule’s pulled duck sandwiches; Hahnemann Kokken’s salads, and Hija de Sánchez’s tacos are all among the best in the city), so it’s the perfect place for a relaxed lunch or drinks and snacks after work. But as the city’s sole produce market, it’s also a great place to pick up a basket of exquisite Danish strawberries (Rokkedysse), gorgeous bouquets (Stalks and Roots) and fresh pasta (Il Mattarello).
BTW: Most of the stalls don’t open until 10 a.m., but you can get one of Coffee Collective’s stellar cappuccinos (or any other coffee) at 8 a.m.
Torvehallerne, Frederiksborggade 21, 1362 Copenhagen, Denmark
DR Koncerthuset
Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and inaugurated in 2009, this concert hall manages to be both visually stunning — the terraced rows that rise from the central stage beneath warm, golden lighting seem more like sculpture than seating — and acoustically exquisite, which is why Gramophone magazine named it one of the top 10 auditoriums of the new millennium. The combination could make a middle-school chorus rehearsal sound (and look) good, but luckily the Koncerthuset pulls in far more interesting musicians, from intimate performers like Jason Isbell and Nick Cave to grand philharmonic orchestras.
BTW: Under a plan called U30, the hall offers a 50 percent discount to the house orchestra and chorus performances for anyone under 30.
DR Koncerthuset, Orestads Blvd. 13, 2300 Copenhagen, Denmark
Hay House
One of the few places on Copenhagen’s main shopping street that’s actually worth visiting, Hay is a wonderland of Danish design. Two sunny floors of an old apartment building are stocked with sleek-lined chairs, discreet lamps and crisply striped bed linens. But a perennial favorite — especially for those looking for easily portable gifts — is the area to the right of the cashier, where the shelves are lined with all sorts of artful small objects, such as tongue-in-cheek toys, blocky staplers and patterned notebooks.
BTW: Hay’s bright geometric trays make a recognizably Danish gift.
Hay House, Ostergade 61, 1100 Copenhagen, Denmark
Lisa Abend
Lisa has lived in Copenhagen since 2014 but still regularly gets asked by mystified Danes why she ever left her previous home in Madrid. The answer is complicated, but includes the thriving food scene, the extraordinarily high quality of life and a personal affinity for real weather.
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Ulf Svane
Ulf is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post. Born and raised in Copenhagen, Ulf is a firsthand witness to its transformation from a relatively poor part of Northern Europe to a booming gastronomical mecca. He loves South Harbor (a.k.a. Sydhavnen), which he thinks people should visit to see the city’s traditions — houseboats and cafes serving smorrebrod, to name a few — before it’s too late.
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