Calling all culture lovers! This month, I’m thrilled to be launching a new series of city and country guides devoted to hands-on, immersive, enriching cultural experiences around the world.
My mission here is to inspire you to fill your travels with colour, culture and creativity – and I hope this new series does just that! Even if you’re not planning a trip, I know these guides can teach you something new about world cuisine, traditions and rituals, and global culture and heritage.
As well as writing about a few of my favourite cultural destinations, I’m calling on locals, expats and expert travellers alike to share their tips as well.
To kick things off, Copenhagener Derek Hartman is here to show us how the Danes do it with his in-depth guide to Copenhagen culture experiences.
Saunas, snaps, New Nordic Cuisine, bike riding, beers and castle hopping – get ready for a whirlwind cultural tour of Denmark’s capital.
This is a guest post by Derek Hartman, an American expat from Philadelphia who now calls Copenhagen home. He’s an avid traveler and has visited over 40 countries along with his partner, Mike. Together they share their travel experiences and resources for living abroad on their site Robe Trotting. You can also read more about Copenhagen on their newest project, Everything Copenhagen.
In This Post
- Understanding Danish culture
- 1. Taste Copenhagen culture through the city’s food scene
- 2. Try traditional Danish drinks
- 3. Visit Danish castles and cultural sites
- 4. Experience local Copenhagen culture
- 5. Join a Copenhagen Festival
Please note: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link (at no extra cost to you). Learn more.
Understanding Danish culture
Denmark is a small northern European country comprising a peninsula north of Germany and 406 islands. The Danish mainland is called Jutland and consists of flat, rural farmland, a few smaller cities, and coastal fishing villages.
Of the Danish islands, only about 70 are inhabited including the largest and most populous island, Zealand. That’s where you’ll discover the population and cultural centre of Denmark – Copenhagen. It’s also the capital city and known as the gateway to Scandinavia.
The city has a lot to offer visitors, but a few Copenhagen cultural experiences can enhance any trip to the Danish capital.
Copenhagen grew from modest beginnings. It started as a small fishing village founded in 1167 before it became the capital of Denmark in 1443. The rise of Copenhagen continued through the Danish Golden Age (1800-1850). During that period, Denmark controlled the North and Baltic seas and grew wealthy from maritime trade.
Today, the Danish culture of modern Copenhagen is rooted in the same humble nature of that small 12th-century fishing village. Danes take pride in maintaining a collective and equal society while living a simple, happy life.
You don’t immediately notice this when you walk out of Copenhagen airport or arrive at Central Station. But when you slow down to enjoy some classic Copenhagen cultural experiences, you’ll discover it.
1. Taste Copenhagen culture through the city’s food scene
You don’t know the culture of a country until you taste its food. This is true of all destinations, but especially Denmark, where the food culture perfectly reflects the nation’s history, culture and geography.
The Kingdom of Denmark never colonised spice islands or traded exotic crops. That’s one reason why the tastes of Copenhagen reflect the culture of simplicity. In both traditional meals and modern gourmet cuisine, local and simple ingredients are the stars.
For Danes, dining out is reserved for special occasions and with close friends and family. Casual restaurants are only found in tourist zones. That’s because in Danish culture, a night out to dinner should be an intimate, treasured experience.
It’s common for meals in Copenhagen restaurants to be drawn-out over several hours. There is usually a pre-set menu of three to five courses, with an optional wine pairing or the national drink, snaps, to accompany.
Here are two ways to best experience Danish food and enjoy one of Copenhagen’s best cultural experiences.
Traditional Danish food
Denmark’s geography has shaped the Danish diet, so traditional Danish meals often consist of fish like herring or salmon. In a Copenhagen kitchen, simple techniques are used to prepare fish. You can expect to see fish that is smoked, pickled or breaded and fried in butter or lard.
The other main protein is pork, which is the main livestock raised in Denmark. The national dish is stegt flæsk, a crispy pork served with parsley sauce and potatoes. Native herbs and root vegetables are used in traditional Danish cuisine as well as in the national dish.
You can taste traditional Danish food all over Copenhagen. One of the best restaurants to experience classic dishes is at Restaurant Puk, which is located in a historic building that was formerly the royal brewhouse.
If you visit Copenhagen in the fall and winter months, you can try the Danish Christmas meal here. Restaurant Puk offers a three and five-course set menu so you can dine the way locals do for the holidays.
New Nordic Cuisine
One of the best chefs in the world lives in Copenhagen. He launched a culinary movement, and has earned the distinction of owning the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ four times over.
But you’ve probably never heard of him.
On-point with Danish culture, he has no interest in being a celebrity or creating his own cooking show. His name is Rene Redzepi, and all he wants is to serve world-class food in Copenhagen and spread his techniques across Scandinavia.
In November 2004, Redzepi gathered chefs from all over the region at his restaurant, Noma. There, he announced his ‘New Nordic Manifesto’, a bold statement of how to redefine Nordic cuisine. The New Nordic approach to cooking involves fresh, simple and local ingredients to put a modern, gourmet spin on traditional dishes. He also decreed that restaurant menus should change along with the seasons.
As a result of the New Nordic Manifesto, Nordic cuisine has grown in popularity around the globe. Copenhagen now boasts the most Michelin stars of any city in Scandinavia.
The Nordic Council’s agricultural food ministers have provided support and investment for their nations’ food production around the concept. Redzepi changed the way people eat in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland – as well as how they cook for the world.
Noma is pricey and has a long waiting list, but there are other places you can try New Nordic around Copenhagen. One of the best restaurants to experience a New Nordic meal is Restaurant Mes. Run by a former Noma chef, it offers a three and five-course New Nordic menu for under 40 euro.
During a New Nordic dining experience, expect elaborate presentation and a chance to try new ingredients, herbs and flavours. You cannot customise the courses, as food is served as the chef prepares the menu.
2. Try traditional Danish drinks
Copenhagen is where the rest of Scandinavia comes to party. But like all things Danish, the nightlight scene remains understated.
Cities like Amsterdam, Bangkok and New Orleans flaunt their party-town status – but not the Danish capital. In fact, there’s a name for the Danish way of remaining overtly understated: They call it Janteloven.
Janteloven (or ‘The Law of Jante’) is more of a code of conduct where you don’t want to stand out, be known as overly ambitious or do anything out of the ordinary. Even so, Copenhagen is an extraordinary destination if you like to party all night, or even just imbibe in a classy and understated way.
Culturally, Danes are a beer-with-a-shot kind of people. The climate and clay soil isn’t suited for wine production, but malt and hops do just fine. In Copenhagen, it’s common to see people drinking a beer in their office, or while walking down the street or on the harbour.
If you visit a bar in Copenhagen, you can often find shot specials served 10 at a time for 15 euro. They’re sometimes used to wager in dice games, a common sight in any Copenhagen pub. Danes love playing games in bars so much that the city is home to many board game bars.
Lastly, be warned that in Copenhagen, there is no set closing time for bars and pubs. Some establish their own, but the night often roars on until the next morning. Some bars are open 24 hours.
Denmark is famous for Carlsberg beer, which used to be brewed right here in Copenhagen. You can try Carlsberg beers in any bar or restaurant. To fully immerse yourself in the culture and history of Carlsberg, visit the Carlsberg Visitors Center, located at the original brewery on the outskirts of Copenhagen and easily reached by train. You can tour the original factory, which is now a museum, and combine it with a beer tasting.
On site, they still raise a special breed of horse that once delivered all the beer in Copenhagen. It’s fascinating to learn about the history of the factory and the workers’ rights that Carlsberg pioneered in Denmark.
The laboratory is also open to the public. This is where Carlsberg founder, J.C. Jacobsen discovered brewers yeast, which he shared with other European brewers instead of seeking a patent so that the global reputation of beer could be improved.
Jacobsen had a lasting impact on Copenhagen, Denmark, and the world. He was an art collector and donated his private collection to establish The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen. He also refurbished the historic Frederiksborg Castle after a fire in 1859 and found many ways to give back to Copenhagen through Carlsbergfondet (the Carlsberg Foundation).
Carlsberg is a Danish beer that’s popular around the world – but the family behind the beer is not only a major part of Danish culture, they’ve helped preserve it inside and outside of Denmark.
You don’t need to down 10 shots in a Copenhagen bar to enjoy the shot culture. Go back to basics with snaps. Snaps is a liquor infused with dill or carraway and sipped slowly throughout a meal. It’s a strong drink and best when served cold in a v-shaped shot glass.
Akvavit is the type of snaps that most Danes drink, and it’s their national shot of choice. Snaps is a crucial part of the aforementioned Danish Christmas meal and also enjoyed during special occasions, including Midsummer and Easter celebrations.
To experience Copenhagen culture, a snaps tasting is something you should try. There are many bars and restaurants that offer such experiences – in fact, if you have a good server and they know you’re visiting from abroad, they will usually recommend that you try the drink.
3. Visit Danish castles and cultural sites
Copenhagen has its share of castles, but they’re a little different than castles in other parts of Europe. This is because the rise of Denmark coincided with the Renaissance period. Due to advances in siege warfare, citadels and fortified castles were unnecessary.
Here are the most culturally important castles in and around Copenhagen.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet we learn that ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ – and that famous scene happens about 40 minutes’ north of Copenhagen at Kronborg Castle. The castle was used to control the flow of merchant ships in and out of the Danish Sea, but is most famous as Hamlet’s Castle.
In the summer months, there are Shakespearean actors performing on the grounds as well as guided tours. Back in the day, the Danish court was visited by acting troupes from London, so it’s possible that Shakespeare himself performed at the castle.
Underneath the castle is said to be the resting place of Denmark’s legendary defender, Ogier the Dane (Holger Danske). You can look for him yourself while touring the dungeons under Kronborg Castle.
Guided option: Kings, Castles and Countryside Tour, including a guided walk through historic Kronborg Castle.
Rosenborg Castle & Amalienborg Castle
In the city centre there are two culturally important Danish castles that rank among the best things to do in Copenhagen.
The first, Rosenborg, is a museum of Danish history. Each room in the brilliant Renaissance castle is curated with artifacts from a different era. The walk through Rosenborg concludes with the modern-day coronation thrones of the Danish royal family. You will also see the crown jewels as well as other royal crowns from over the centuries.
The second castle to visit is Amalienborg, the winter residence of Queen Margarethe II of Denmark and her family. The structure consists of four separate palaces with a common courtyard. If you visit the castle at the right time, you can also witness the ceremonial changing of the guards at noon each day.
The Danish Royal family is the world’s oldest monarchy. Queen Margarethe II can trace her lineage to a king believed to be born around the year 900. The family is beloved, so visiting these castles and learning their history is an important part of Copenhagen culture.
4. Experience local Copenhagen culture
There are a few things about local life in Copenhagen that you can work into your visit. Simple they may be, these cultural experiences will make you feel like a Dane when you’re visiting the city.
Rent a bike
Copenhagen is the most bike-friendly city in Europe. In downtown Copenhagen, you will see more bikes than cars – it’s how most locals get around.
The city has invested enormously in sustainability and cycling infrastructure, so take advantage and rent a bike to get around.
Most Copenhagen hotels have bikes available for a small deposit, and bike tours are the most popular way to see the city. It’s environmentally friendly and good exercise, two common parts of Danish culture.
Copenhagen bike hire: Reserve a Velorbis bicycle online (booking for as little as 3 hours or as long as 3 days) and pick it up when you arrive.
Or a boat
Denmark has some beautiful canals and a stunning harbour. You can learn some history on a canal boat, but locals love to captain their own tour around the waterways.
Companies like GoBoat offer you the chance to rent an electric boat and take to the water. It’s a great way to see the city from a different angle and pay homage to the maritime and viking history of Denmark.
Tour option: 1-Hour Canal Cruise with city sightseeing.
The Viking Museum
Another short day trip from Copenhagen is to take the train to Roskilde, the historic Danish viking capital.
Visiting the Viking Ship Museum is a great way to spend a few hours. Viking longboats have been recovered from the surrounding fjord and are on display for visitors. Other exhibits explain life in the Viking Era, and in the summer, you can ride on a replica of a viking longboat. It’s so much more than a museum.
One of the best new additions to Copenhagen Harbor is CopenHot. It’s a structure on the water that includes wood-burning hot tubs, hot rock saunas and a cold tub. There is also a dock for you to include a harbor plunge.
CopenHot is open all year long and gives you a glimpse into the sauna culture of Denmark. It’s common to see locals swimming in the harbour in the depths of winter, and you can safely experiment with the idea at CopenHot.
5. Join a Copenhagen Festival
Danes love to celebrate, and it’s common for every festival to become a full-on street party.
Visiting the city during a festival is a great way to enjoy the culture of Copenhagen. Here are a few of the best ones.
Sankt Hans Aften (Saint John’s Night)
This is the Midsummer celebration that occurs on the last Saturday of June every year. The whole city revels in the long hours of daylight and a bonfire is lit at sundown, usually around 9pm.
Like many aspects of religion in the region, it mixes old pagan traditions with Christianity. The celebration of Saint John is used as a way to keep the pagan tradition of burning bonfires on the beaches or lakefronts during the summer solstice. In pagan tradition, midsummer was a time of great good and great evil, and the fires were used to ward off bad spirits for the coming dark months. The Christian tradition added the element of burning witches and heretics.
Copenhagen’s LGBT Pride Festival falls on the last Saturday of August every year. It’s a massive parade, street party, and a whole week of events leading up to the big festival.
The celebration in Copenhagen is a huge event and attended by far more people than just the LGBT community. Families of all kinds, old and young, take part in the parade, watch the performances, and celebrate together.
Unlike many pride events around the world, Copenhagen Pride is a matter of civic pride. It’s celebrated to honour the acceptance Denmark has always displayed for the LGBT community, and the country’s strong cultural drive towards equality.
Copenhagen performed the world’s first gay marriage at City Hall in 1989. A beloved local couple wanted to make it official, and the rest is history. A rainbow flag flies at the hall year-round to commemorate the event, and there’s an exhibit dedicated to the groundbreaking nuptials inside the National Museum as well.
Copenhagen Culture Night
For over 25 years, Copenhagen has hosted a large cultural festival on the first Friday in October. For about 15 euro ,you can buy a pass to enter every museum, attraction and historical site in the city. Everything is open for extended hours, and the city is packed with visitors there to take advantage of the opportunity.
Copenhagen Culture Night involves over 100 activities, performances and exhibitions. Many attractions in the city that aren’t normally open to the public also participate, making it a very special night in Copenhagen indeed.