7 Things for families to do on a short stay in Copenhagen - and why the Little Mermaid doesn’t make our list!
Copenhagen is a charming, friendly, and accessible city where your feet will get you most places that you want to go. Your family easily could spend two, three or four days here, immersing yourself in Danish hygge - the art of simple, cozy Danish living. You’ll soon discover that there’s a reason why Denmark regularly tops the list of happiest countries in the world.
Before giving you my recommendations, let me point out one place to skip: the Little Mermaid statue. Although it’s a landmark in Copenhagen, it’s small and most definitely overhyped. We encountered a hoard of tourists trying to get just the right photo, some acting like downright fools. It’s not worth making an effort to visit the statue which is difficult to reach. There’s so much to see and do in Copenhagen. Don’t waste your time with the statue.
Now, let’s get on with the more worthy attractions.
1/Hop on a canal cruise
A great way to get your bearings when you first arrive in Copenhagen is to hop aboard a canal tour. You’ll find several canal cruises and tour operators. We chose the 1-hour Grand Tour of Copenhagen offered by Canal Tours Copenhagen, which has been operating since 1904. Our English-speaking tour guide shared a lot of historical information about the city, pointing out the old buildings as well as more modern architecture. Some of the sights that you’ll see include the Opera House, Amalienborg Palace, and the Old Stock Exchange.
The boat tour is relatively inexpensive. Cost: Youth (under 6) Free; Youth (6-15) about $7 ; Adult about $14; Family (2 adults, 2 or 3 children) about $37, depending on the exchange rate.
KidTripster Tip: During the colder months, the boats are covered and heated.
KidTripster Tip: Consider purchasing the Copenhagen Card at the beginning of your trip. This card gives you access to 87 museums and attractions as well as free transportation. You can purchase the card for different lengths of time: 24, 48, 72 or 120 hours. The canal tour is one of the included attractions. Depending on what sights you want to see and how long you’ll be in town, you may find that you can save money using the Copenhagen Card. Cost: Starts at Youth (under 10) Free; Youth (10-15) about $29; Adult about $61, depending on the exchange rate.
Photo courtesy: Canal Tours Copenhagen
3/Pretend to be royal
There are several palaces located within Copenhagen, each with different offerings but all worthy of your time. It’s possible to visit all three palaces mentioned below in a single day. Just check the hours of each location and map out your visits accordingly.
One of the first things that my kids noticed upon arriving at the castle were the guards with machine guns, prompting the question, “what are they guarding?” Well, the guards protect not just the castle but also what’s underneath - the Danish Crown Jewels!
In a darkened basement room behind thick layers of glass, you can see the jewels on display with several crowns still used today for various royal functions. There’s also a large collection of Queen Sophie Magdalene’s jewelry including bracelets, broaches, and cameos. The basement also houses weapons and wine, plus a collection of ivory and amber.
The castle itself is fascinating. The 400-year-old structure was built as a summer castle for Christian IV. In 1710, the castle ceased to be used as a royal residence and became home to the royal collections which is why the rooms are so well preserved. You can walk through the private rooms of the King and Queen including the King’s toilet that drained into the castle’s moat. (Yep, this is the kind of history that always interests my kids!)
You get surprisingly close to royal artifacts here. In one instance, my son brushed up against a table in the center of one of the rooms and was quickly scolded by security. Without realizing it, he’d touched a centuries-old piece of furniture. He kept his hands in his pockets after that incident.
Plan to spend a few hours here. Cost: Youth (under 17) Free; Student about $11; Adults about $17, depending on exchange rate. This attraction is included in the Copenhagen Card. Large bags aren’t allowed inside, but there are storage lockers located at the ticket office.
Christiansborg Palace sits right in the middle of busy Copenhagen. This palace is used by the Danish government and is often the site of state functions hosted by the Royal Family.
Several areas are open to the public. Visitors can tour the Royal Reception Rooms. After purchasing your ticket, you’ll use the King’s Staircase to enter. Upstairs, you can wander through several grand rooms including the Throne Room. This room is used by the Queen to receive foreign ambassadors. You’ll also step inside the Great Hall, the setting for official banquets. The walls of the Great Hall are adorned with colorful tapestries which were commissioned as a gift for the Queen on her 50th birthday. The tapestries depict a thousand years of Danish history told through elaborate needlework. You’ll see interesting historical artifacts like the Flora Danica cabinet which holds tableware painted with flora from the Danish countryside and used for special occasions. There’s also the Queen’s Library. Many of the books date from the 18th century.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to look up as you tour the palace, as the ceilings are quite ornate.
After touring the modern day palace, go underneath to see the 800-year-old ruins of previous castles built on this site that burnt down. You’ll also see some of the structures that remain from the original buildings including “Absalon’s Secret.” What’s the secret? Spoiler: it’s an old-fashioned toilet. (More potty history!) There’s also the remnants of the Blue Tower which held political prisoners including Lenora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV, who was imprisoned for 22 years.
After visiting the Great Hall, you may be curious about just how the castle hosts such large banquets. The Royal Kitchen gives you some insight. It was completed in 1928, and over the years, it was used for preparing food for official gala dinners. Nowadays, when the Royal Family hosts guests, the food is prepared elsewhere. The kitchen houses one of Europe’s largest collections of copper kitchenware.
The Royal Stables are available to tour. Inside, you’ll find the Queen’s white horses and a large collection of royal carriages. During your visit, you may see the horses out for a trot.
Finally, there’s the Palace Chapel, which is used for ceremonies for members of the Danish Royal Family like baptisms and funerals.
You can visit any one of these sites or all of them, depending on the kind of ticket that you purchase. Lockers are available to store jackets and bags. You’ll be required to wear a pair of booties over your shoes while touring the palace. All-access ticket cost: Youth (under 18) Free; Student (with ID) about $21; Adult about $24, depending on exchange rate. The Royal Reception is included in the Copenhagen Card.
We had hoped to make it to Amalienborg, but at the time of our visit, the castle was only open for limited hours, and we were unable to make it there before closing.
Amalienborg is not just one palace but four, all of which surround Amalienborg Palace Square. The Royal Family resides here. A raised flag at the palace indicates when the Queen is home.
Only one of the palaces is accessible to the public. Christian VIII’s Palace is the site of the museum which details 150 years of the monarchy. Private chambers of previous kings and queens are preserved and available for viewing. During the summer months and on Saturdays during the rest of the year, additional rooms are open to tour.
The castle is famous for its Royal Guard. The changing of the guard takes place at noon daily in the Palace Square. While you’re there, you also can visit Amalie Garden. Cost: Youth (under 18) Free; Student (with ID) about $9; Adult about $14, depending on the exchange rate.
If you’re planning to visit both Amalienborg and Rosenborg, buy a combo ticket. Cost: Youth (under 18) Free; Adult about $24. Or use your Copenhagen Card.
2/Get your Instagram photo
If you’ve ever seen a photo of Copenhagen, there’s a good chance that it pictured of a row of colorful buildings lining the canal in Nyhavn. Originally a commercial port, it’s now an Instagram-famous, tourist hot spot. You’ll find plenty of places to snap great photos here and plenty of other tourists doing the same thing.
Once you’ve gotten your perfect picture, grab a bite to eat. Many of the restaurants have outdoor seating, perfect for people watching. It can be chilly in Copenhagen, but that doesn’t seem to deter people from dining al fresco. In fact, many restaurants provide blankets and heat lamps.
Fun fact about this area: Hans Christian Andersen, the famous fairytale writer, used to live in this neighborhood. He wrote The Princess and the Pea and other stories while living at Number 20.
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to seek out the trampoline sidewalk in Nyhavn. It’s a small strip of sidewalk with five trampolines built right into the ground. It was a huge hit with my kids who wanted to return daily. We saw lots of adults getting in on the action, too. If you simply type “trampoline” into Google maps, the location will appear. It’s along the water, just a few blocks from Nyhavn.
KidTripster Tip: When walking the streets of Copenhagen, watch out for bikes. Pay attention to crossing signals and be aware of bike lanes. Not all bike lanes are clearly marked; some may look different than the ones where you live. You may not realize that you’re in a bike lane until a bicyclist is bearing down on you. As one local told us, Copenhagen bicyclists don’t stop, even if they run you over in the street.
4/Spiral up to the top
There’s no elevator or stairs at Rundetaarn (Round Tower), so how do you get to the top? Just follow the spiral ramp. It twists seven times around the tower’s hollow core. The top of the tower is 114 feet above street level. Completed in 1642, it was originally built as an observatory that remained the center of Danish astronomy for decades. Today, it’s a popular tourist attraction. Once at the top, you can peek into Europe’s oldest functioning observatory, but the real treat is the 360-degree view of Copenhagen below.
Other highlights inside the tower include an opportunity to stand on a small glass floor and look 82 feet below. The tower’s core was once used as Denmark’s geographical point zero. There are a few more holes in the tower. When it was constructed, there were only two toilets: one at the top for the astronomers and the other located halfway down. Although no longer in use, visitors can step in and take a seat. You’ll be sitting on the same toilet used by the fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen! (Again with the toilet history! What’s with my family?!)
The climb to the top is easy to manage. The pathway is wide and stroller-friendly. It’s worth the visit, but you won’t need much time here. Expect to spend less than an hour. Cost: Youth (under 5) Free; Youth (5-15) less than $1; Adult about $4. Or use your Copenhagen Card.
Photo courtesy: Morten Jerichau
5/Hang on tight
Opened in 1843, Tivoli Gardens is one of Europe’s oldest amusement parks. It was an inspiration for Walt Disney who visited many times before building Disneyland. Tivoli Gardens is a highlight for many visitors to Copenhagen. One of its main attractions is a 109-year-old wooden roller coaster. There are many other classic amusement park rides, as well, all set within a lovely garden.
Tivoli is open most of the year except for a few months during the winter. Unfortunately, we were in Copenhagen during its closure. We did walk around the exterior and peek inside the gates, vowing to return one day.
The Tivoli Food Hall is open year-round. We ducked in here for dinner one night. We found something for everyone including gluten-free options for me.
Tivoli is centrally-located within Copenhagen. Admission is required to enter; rides are an additional cost. Prices vary, but to save money, buy your tickets online in advance. You can use your Copenhagen Card for entrance into the park, just not for rides.
If your kids are LEGO fanatics, Billund is the place to pay homage to the interlocking bricks, perhaps Denmark’s greatest export. It’s about 2-1/2 hours from Copenhagen and involves taking both a train and a bus. If that sounds like too much for one day, there are hotel accommodations at LEGOLAND.
LEGOLAND is the main draw in Billund. If you’ve visited LEGOLANDs in other countries, you’ll find that this park has many of the same attractions including Mainland which showcases the world in miniature. Cost varies, but discounts are available online with advance purchase.
LEGO House opened in Billund just a few years ago. It’s all about creative play. The house is filled with millions of LEGOs and several zones. Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (3-12) about $35; Adult about $35; discounts available online. Even without a ticket, guests can enjoy the playground, terraces, and gift shop.
If you want the extreme LEGO experience, you can take the Inside Lego Tour, which includes two nights’ accommodation, food, and a ticket to LEGOLAND along with the behind-the-scenes factory tour and a unique LEGO set. However, this tour is crazy expensive, like $2188 per person crazy expensive!
Sweden is a short drive from Copenhagen. Since we were “in the neighborhood,” we decided to book the Hamlet & Sweden Tour offered by Enjoy The Tours.
You board a bus for a ride up the coast to Elsinore. Once you arrive, you’re given a few hours to explore. Some passengers chose to visit the picturesque old town, but we headed to Kronborg Castle, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The castle was built in 1420 along the Øresund Sound. It hasn’t been used as a permanent royal residence since the late 1600s. Today, it’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many of the interior rooms as well as surrounding grounds are open to the public. By the time we got inside the grounds, we had just about 90 minutes to walk around. We managed to see everything except the tower.
After the stop in Elsinore, it’s back on the bus to catch a ferry which transports you over the sound into Sweden. We sat on the top deck for the short, 20-minute ride. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we could see Denmark behind us and Sweden before us.
The tour drops you off outside of the historic cathedral in the ancient city of Lund. The cathedral was built in 1145 and is surrounded by narrow streets and old houses dating back hundreds of years. We enjoyed exploring the shops and cafes in this neighborhood.
Back on the bus, you head to Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. The city is a contrast of old squares and modern architecture. We had about an hour to walk in the area of the Big Square and Little Square. Because it was early evening, many of the shops were closing, but the bars and restaurants in the Little Square were packed with people.
Before crossing the bridge back into Denmark, the bus stops at one of Malmö’s newest attractions, a building called the Turning Torso. We hopped off and snapped a photo of Scandinavia’s tallest building. The bus stops again on the Sweden side of the Øresund Bridge. The 5-mile-long bridge connects Sweden and Denmark.
The bus drops you off back in Copenhagen. In all, the tour lasts about 8-1/2 hours. Cost for family of four: about $400, depending on exchange rate.
KyAnn Lewis is a Portland, Oregon-based journalist, mom, and travel junkie. She’s the CVO (Chief Vacation Officer) for her family, always on the lookout for a good deal and a new destination to explore. She believes one of the most important things that you can give your kid is a passport.