What a child-friendly city Copenhagen appears to be! I kept telling people. Oh yes, they would say, it’s a very family-friendly place! My in-laws had even returned from their visit there last year with this helpful brochure, “Copenhagen With Kids,” chockablock with playgrounds and other things to do with kids in Copenhagen.
You know when is not a great time to take the kids to Copenhagen? When it’s cold and windy and rainy, and when it’s a random holiday you’re not aware of and all the shops are closed, and when there’s a big five-day music festival on. Our first day there had us thinking that maybe it wasn’t such a good family holiday destination, after all. (Spoiler alert: our opinion changed by the end of our trip. Read on.)
We arrived Wednesday evening and figured out how to get on a metro train from the airport to the city centre, but when we tried to change trains we accidentally ended up on the street level instead, and smack in the middle of a massive crowd of drunk/stoned college-age kids all standing around just drinking and smoking.
“It’s like they’re all coming from a music festival or something…” I said to M, “but I don’t hear any music?”
“I have never felt so old,” I muttered repeatedly as I pushed my stroller through the crowd, who were all wearing clothes that were in style (and every bit as unflattering) when I was their age in the ’90s. (Note to Kids These Days: Wearing a fanny pack/bum bag crossbody-style does not make it look cooler.)
“Call your mother, she worries,” I hissed at them under my breath as I elbowed my way through, clutching my children.
We finally found our hotel, the Scandic Copenhagen. It was past our kids’ bedtime, and trying to get them to sleep after the excitement of travel and in a new room was… challenging.
As I lay there, listening to my children quite audibly struggle to go to sleep for a very long time, I contemplated the mysteries of the universe; such as why we hadn’t booked a three-bedroom Airbnb, and why the mural on the wall above our beds spelled out POO.
Some mysteries will never be solved.
On Thursday morning, we went to the hotel’s chaotic breakfast room that reminded me a bit of the cafe in Ikea, if Ikea’s queuing system had dissolved in the midst of the Apocalypse. (Bible study discussion question: Will the four horsemen actually arrive on cruise ships? Discuss.)
There was a (very) small children’s playroom off the breakfast room, which our girls enjoyed, but it was inexplicably closed the third and fourth mornings we were there, which was disappointing to all of us.
It was chilly and windy and threatening rain, but most of the things we wanted to do were outdoors, and the indoor kid-focused things we could find in our guidebooks were either too far away or too expensive, so we headed out with our raincoats on and hoped for the best.
We took the metro to the Christianshavn neighborhood, home of the alternate-lifestyle “free town” commune called Christiania.
There was a fair amount of whining about being cold going on, so we stopped at an Ole & Steen Lagkagehuset bakery for coffee and a slice of Cinnamon Social, and they even gave each child a free bun. I’ve had the Cinnamon Social at an Ole & Steen in London before and it is to die for—think cinnamon roll made a bit gooey inside by a layer of vanilla custard. The Danish do good danish, it’s no lie.
I’d wanted to climb the spire of the beautiful Our Savior’s Church, which our guidebook said had the best views in the city, but it turned out to be closed for a service. But it was a gray morning anyway, so the view likely wouldn’t have been worth the 400-step ascent.
We continued on to Christiania. Founded in 1971 by 700 squatters, it is still home today to about 600 adults and 200 children. Part of its credo is to always stay open to the public, so you can just stroll on in (they even give guided tours every afternoon).
We walked down the main street, called Pusher Street, because it’s where they sell marijuana, but we didn’t see anyone selling anything.
Judging by a restaurant’s sign giving the opening time of 14:00 (an hour before the tour starts), this dozey, dazey commune doesn’t get going till later in the day.
We walked around a bit, but the girls were getting antsy so we headed on to a playground nearby.
After they played there for a good while, we went to a food market for lunch, Torvehallerne, which was an excellent choice. We even ended up going back there on Sunday.
Then we told the girls we could go to the big Lego store, which we figured would be a good thing to do on a cold and rainy afternoon. (Lego was invented in Denmark; the name comes from the Danish phrase “leg godt,” which means “play well.”)
We walked to the big pedestrian shopping street, Strøget, with excited kids eager to play with Legos.
That’s when we discovered that it was a holiday (Ascension Day) and most of the stores were closed.
Those were some disappointed kids standing with their noses pressed to the glass doors. At least we could scan our hands on the big video screen and find out which Lego character we are. Which entertained the girls for about 10 minutes or so.
In case you’re wondering, I got Catwoman.
So… we found another playground.
After we’d exhausted that one, we walked through the King’s Garden, which is a beautiful little park and gardens, and I’m sure we could spend hours there on a nice-weather day. It would be a perfect park for a picnic.
We checked out the Hans Christian Anderson statue, and the Rosenborg Castle.
And found another playground. The Copenhagen With Kids brochure didn’t lead us astray when it came to promising playgrounds. (Note to people planning a trip to Copenhagen with kids: There’s apparently an indoor “construction” playground that is open M-F, but we didn’t find out about it till Saturday, which did us no good.)
And then it was raining and cold and just plain miserable so we found a cosy coffee shop to warm up in. God bless ’em they had some toys in there, so we hung out a while.
Yes, it was May 30 and we were warming up with hot chocolates.
We headed back in the direction of our hotel to get some dinner. And lo and behold, we exited the metro and walked right into the music festival I suspected was happening the night before.
DISTORTION. Sponsored by Red Bull. That sounded promising.
Once again we had to push the kids through the madding crowd of drunk people swigging from bottles of wine (not judging) and engaging in public urination (judging a little), and inhaling something from balloons I suspect was not helium (please girls don’t ask for a balloon not today please no).
Finally we found the pizza restaurant we were looking for and, though the outside sidewalk was swarming with festival goers, the restaurant inside was fairly calm (I heard the bartender tell a girl sorry, they don’t sell shots). After dinner we pushed our way back out (this felt more like Pusher Street than Pusher Street had) and made it back to the hotel.
Also, our pizza dinner (three crispy pizzas, one salad, and two beers) was delicious, but cost about US$100. How have I not mentioned yet how expensive this country is? All Scandinavian countries are, but this is my first time visiting one, and the sticker shock is, well, shocking.
Things turned around on Day 2, when the sun came out and everything seemed a lot more pleasant. We spent the entire day at Tivoli Gardens, which was utterly delightful.
It’s an amusement park that’s been around for ages, and it’s lovely. There were flowers blooming and fountains everywhere, the lines weren’t very long, the food options were high quality, and there were plenty of rides that even little 2.5-year-old R could go on.
We bought three entrance tickets (under 3 are free) and two children’s unlimited ride wristbands with companion passes, which meant we could ride with them.
We introduced E (she’ll be 6 in a couple weeks) to her first real rollercoaster and she LOVED it. She went six times.
And we were also really impressed by the quality of the food on offer at the main Food Hall.
We ended up eating both lunch and dinner there, from different food stalls. Plus, of course, ice cream.
They do concerts and laser shows and fireworks displays there in the summer evenings, but the entertainment doesn’t get going till 22:00 (it does stay light really late this time of year), and that was just a bit past our kids’ bedtime.
We had such a fabulous day on Friday that it made up for the slow start our trip had on Thursday.
Saturday wasn’t quite as nice, weather-wise, but after partaking in the feeding frenzy that was our hotel’s breakfast, we rented a cargo bike and a regular adult bike and took ourselves out on a bike tour.
Copenhagen is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. It’s very flat, and the bike lane infrastructure is top-notch. Several of the biggest cargo bike makers are Danish, including the Nihola we have at home in London and Christiania, which is what we rented from our hotel on Saturday.
We rode out to an area of Copenhagen called Amager, which is an island with beaches.
Two playgrounds later, we decided to have a picnic lunch on the beach. Unfortunately, it was really windy on the beach, and the sun had gone behind the clouds, which didn’t make for the most pleasant picnicking atmosphere, especially as the sand was blowing into our food. We did get why they have so many wind turbines offshore there, though.
Back on our wheels, we rode away from the blustery beach and back into town. We cycled through Christiania, and got a better idea of what it’s really like there, after 2 p.m. There were a lot more people wandering around, many of them tourists, and quite a lot of tables and stands set up to sell things to said tourists.
We parked our bikes along the waterfront in Nyhavn, which means “New Harbour” (but it is actually quite old). This is the picturesque part of Copenhagen you see on postcards, featuring candy-colored houses lining the canals. And the tourists are there to see them.We took a 1-hour boat tour from there, which was a good way to see the area and learn more about the city. Tip: Our guidebook said there are two 1-hour boat tour companies there, and one is much more expensive (Canal Tours of Copenhagen), and to go for the cheaper option, which is called Netto.The highlight of the narration was when the guide pointed out a permanently docked naval ship that some years ago had accidentally fired off a missile into some holiday homes, and it is known there as the “Whoopsie-Doopsie Missile.” Do yourself a favor and say this out loud in your best faux Scandinavian accent. Go on and give it some spastic Swedish Chef finger waggles when you do it.
We walked around the Nyhavn area some more, and back over to the Strøget for a second attempt at the Lego store. This time the girls were not disappointed.We spent most of our time there creating our own Lego mini-figures, digging through bins of yellow heads and other parts, looking for the right expressions and hairstyles.I know what you’re thinking: wow, it’s been a while since they have been to a playground! Not to worry, we came across this stretch along the canal with trampolines built into the ground.The girls couldn’t be torn away, so I nipped into the bar across the way, and brought out a glass of wine to enjoy while the children jumped and jumped.M and I were remarking on how European cities just get public spaces right. The cities were built for people, not cars, and in general, people in European cities have small living spaces, so they have to go outside for more space. The pedestrian zones, the squares and plazas, the little playgrounds and parks dotted throughout the city streets, the sidewalk cafes… it’s one of the many things we love about Europe.
We walked over the “Kissing Bridge” to have dinner at yet another food market, Copenhagen Street Food. This place felt a lot like a Portland food cart pod to me. Food stalls selling various global cuisines, bars selling drinks, and people socializing at picnic tables, enjoying the Scandinavian summer’s long-lingering daylight.On Sunday, our last day, we visited the National Museum, which has a children’s museum inside it, which we unfortunately had not realized on our first day, the day with the worst weather. “THIS is what we should have done on Thursday,” we kept saying to each other, which helped absolutely nothing at all.The girls had a great time in there, and the cost for the four of us to go was roughly US$24, vs. $75 for the Experimentarium, which is the science museum we had decided not to go to on Thursday because of the price (and that was with R being free as she’s under 3).
If you are coming for several days and want to pack in the sights and sites, it’s worth looking into the Copenhagen Card, which we did not buy because we didn’t know about it until partway through our trip, when we’d already purchased some things individually.
But had we known about it before our trip, I think we would have purchased it, because it covers most things you’d want to do in Copenhagen, as well as all public transit. It’s about 100 Euro per adult. Steep, but if you plan it right, you can really get your money’s worth out of it.
In general, of the places we’ve been, M and I agreed Copenhagen looked and felt like a combination of Amsterdam and Vienna. The canals and bicycles and hippie culture of Amsterdam, the grand church spires and royal palaces of Vienna.
And all in all, Copenhagen is, in fact, a child-friendly city. You just have to be prepared with a rainy day plan, and maybe check the city’s calendar of events for public holidays and music festivals. And keep an eye on that Danish kroner exchange rate.