Copenhagen: From a palace to a commune

Colourful Nyhavn

Copenhagen has much in common with London – drunks, litter, too many homeless people, and old men who don’t think twice about peeing up against a wall in front of passers-by.

But it’s also a relaxed, vibrant and welcoming city. It’s easily walkable, is packed with history and has some fine modern architecture as a contrast to the old. Despite that, it’s not the handsomest of places and I can’t put my finger on why.

At least our third day, Easter Sunday, dawned sunny. The crowds were out in force at the Tivoli Gardens as we popped out for a quick breakfast at the visitor centre opposite. Locals mixed with visitors from France and the Americas, China and Britain and many other places too judging by the number of tongues being used.

The modern tapestries in Christiansborg Palace
The modern tapestries in Christiansborg Palace

The sunshine helped lift the city out of its drabness. The red brick of many of its finest buildings was transformed and the many church spires gleamed.

We walked to Christiansborg Palace on Slotsholmen, the little island in the harbour named after the many palaces and castles that have stood on the site over the years.

Today’s palace is a rather intimidating affair and home to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Supreme Court and various royal reception rooms used for the monarch’s official engagements.

Copenhagen's cityscape
Copenhagen’s cityscape

They are, of course, typically grand and designed to impress, full of glittering chandeliers, extravagant marble and gilding by the acre, but the highlight for me was the Great Hall, home to a collection of modern tapestries that were commissioned to mark Queen Margrethe’s 50th birthday in 1990.

Designed by the artist Bjørn Nørgaard, they feature 1,000 years of Danish history from the Vikings through to the present. They’re a riot of colour and full of fascinating vignettes, and I can’t imagine anything like them ever appearing in a British royal residence.

Looking across the water to Christiania
Looking across the water to Christiania

From the reception rooms, we took the lift up the palace tower for some grand views of the city before walking across the water to the less grand Christianshavn district. The canals there were lined with fancy yachts and apartments, while Vor Frelsers Kirke sported a fine helix spire with an external winding staircase that visitors were climbing to the top. The queues were too long for us so we went in search of the legendary Copenhagen hippy commune of Christiania.

It was founded in the early 70s when squatters moved into disused military buildings, and it continues to exist one way or another today. The closer we got, the stronger the smell of cannabis and the more prevalent and colourful became the graffiti.

The spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke
The spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke

We walked around the edge of the district, amongst the dereliction and numerous homes built out of recycled bits and pieces. This was tatty DIY architecture at its most imaginative and resourceful.

It was all very atmospheric but I felt like a voyeur when we stumbled across a few families who’d gathered on a communal green in the sunshine to play with their kids. Some of our fellow tourists hung around with cameras poised like visitors at a zoo, which was far too embarrassing for me so we left.

Crossing the water again, we took the path between more self-built homes and past the point on the old military site where a number of Nazi war criminals were executed in the years immediately after the Second World War.

Christiansborg Palace
Christiansborg Palace

Desperate for lunch and failing to find anything at Christianshavn, we missed the chance to visit the throbbing heart of Christiania and took the footbridge to historic and colourful Nyhavn, where the crowds were out in force and the restaurants on the waterfront were charging the earth. So we went to one of the backstreets and had open sandwiches and an Easter ale or two while the owners had a blazing row.

Then it was up to the Kastellet, a fortress built in the shape of a star with steep slopes, a moat and various ditches to deter invaders. These days it makes for a pleasant park and we walked around the ramparts, past a windmill, soaking up the sunshine and enjoying the views. Next to it stood Denmark’s only Anglican Church, looking every bit like a refugee from an English village.

The windmill at the old fort
The windmill at the old fort

Beyond we could see the crowds and the boats gathered to view the Little Mermaid and I wondered why anyone would bother.

We took the bus back to the hotel, and had a few beers and a nap before walking over to the Studiestræde for the evening. This time we popped into a gay bar, the curiously named Kiss Kiss Bear Bar, where artworks a granny would’ve enjoyed hung on the wall and equally granny cushions gave the place the weirdest look for a bear bar. Even more bizarrely in this day and age, smoking was allowed and so we gave up after one beer.

With so many places closed on a Sunday, our choices were limited but we eventually ate well in a typical French bistro, l’Education Nationale, where the skate was delicious and the staff friendly. I ended up being the oldest person downstairs at Torst Bar on Vestergade, but the atmosphere was great, the crowd young and the vodka flowed. They even played my type of music…