It was Monday morning in the old maritime city of Copenhagen. Smiling Danes walked briskly past us or whizzed by on their bicycles all looking like they had places to be and things to do. However, our big question on this Monday as tourists was, “What to do when many of the museums and tours of major attractions are closed?” The answer? Take a canal tour and view the city from the water. There are actually several different boat tour companies operating along the canal but the tickets for the hop-on, hop-off boat tour are good for 48 hours and can be combined with a land-lover’s hop-on hop-off bus trip of the old city. You can choose between a boat with a covered top (to protect you from Copenhagen’s unpredictable weather) or take an open air boat like we did and chance the cloud bursts. Some of the tours offered a guide but our boat had an audio tour where we could pick the language of our choice to learn more about what we were seeing. Since the audio that accompanied our cruise was scratchy, difficult to listen to and just plain distracting, we pulled the cheap earphones off and enjoyed the quiet ride of the boat’s electric motor, guessing our location from the free maps we’d been given.
We caught the boat at Gammel Strand which was about a five-minute walk from where we were staying and cruised along the wide canal for a bit, admiring the variety of very old and new buildings lining the canal. While motoring down a narrower canal, we instinctively ducked every once in a while as the tour boat navigated its way through centuries old, low and arched bridges. Gradually, as we entered the Nyhavn area, the 17th and 18th century homes became more colorful and vibrant, like something from a picture postcard. Once home to artists, ballet dancers, poets and writers like Copenhagen’s favorite son, Hans Christian Andersen who lived at #67, the 17th century waterfront also had pubs for thirsty sailors and ladies of the night to provide a little company. Translated as “New Harbor,” Nyhavn is in fact a canal that was excavated from 1671-1673 by Swedish war prisoners. For the next 300 years, ships brought their cargo into the city to King’s Square for unloading. With the decline in the importance of small ship transport, the area gradually faded but underwent an urban revitalization beginning in 1977. Now the trendy streets lining Nyhavn are filled with upscale restaurants, pubs, street food vendors, cafes with outside tables and specialty stores and the area is lively with both locals and tourists day and night. We hopped off our tour boat to stroll the streets, window shop and gobbled down a tasty Danish hotdog from a street vendor’s cart while we people watched. After our impromptu lunch, we jumped back on another boat belonging to the hop-on, hop-off Gray Line fleet to continue our cruise and admired the beautiful wooden boats, old schooners, yachts, and small vessels that filled the canal.
And then we were cruising by Copenhagen’s iconic statue, The Little Mermaid, by Danish sculptor Edward Ericksen who used his wife as a model for this life-size statue. Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the bronze sculpture was completed in 1913 and receives more than a million visitors a year. For some reasons not quite understood by us, the pretty and innocuous Little Mermaid seems to be a source of ire and controversy and has been beheaded three times, covered in paint twice, had an arm removed and knocked off her pedestal. She’s the most photographed statue in Denmark but unfortunately, when we had a chance to take her picture free of all those annoying tourists (besides us!) who insisted on posing with her, our photo turned out to be a blur of her backside. You can find a great photo here.
We drifted by and caught a rear view of Amalienborg Palace, the winter residence of the Danish royal family since 1794 and the Marble Church, officially named Frederik’s church, with its distinctive copper green dome. The church, begun in 1749 and finally completed in 1894 after many stops and starts, is open to the public daily and a popular site for weddings on Fridays and Saturdays. Amalienborg Palace is actually a complex of four identical separate palaces constructed in the 18th century and built around an octagonal courtyard. The stately residences were first occupied by noble families but bought by the Danish royal family in 1794 when their Christiansborg Palace burned down. Various kings and their families have occupied the four palaces over the years and the Amalienborg Museum is open daily, including Monday. We can highly recommend a leisurely visit to this area (we went the next day) to watch the ceremonial changing of the Royal Life Guards, view the inside of the Marble Church and take a tour of the Amalienborg Museum in one of the Palaces. The museum will show you how the rich and famous lived with rooms lavishly
overfurnished furnished in various styles, all reflecting the refined taste of former inhabitants that lots of money can buy. (Here’s a peek below.)
We made our way to Christianshavn Canal, founded in 1618 as a fortress city and home for merchants, later incorporated into Copenhagen. Here we admired beautifully refurbished houseboats and yachts.
Hopping out we wended our way through the lively neighborhood of residences, restaurants and 18th century warehouses to the Baroque-style, Our Savior’s Church, circa late 17th century. The exterior spiral stairway was added later in the mid-eighteenth century and contains a daunting 150 stairs up to a panoramic view. Topping it all is a golden globe with the figure of Christ wielding a banner.
With our canal boat tour approaching Gammel Strand once again, we passed by the Brygge Harbor Baths, open-air swimming pools right on the canals, that had us reflecting that the Danes are much hardier people than us. There were the swimmers basking in the Copenhagen summer weather while we glided by in our jeans and light jackets thinking about anything but a dip!
A canal cruise is a terrific way to begin your visit to Copenhagen, see many of the city’s highlights and tourist attractions and orient yourself to where the sights you want to see are. The trip takes about 65 minutes for the whole loop through the canals and boats run a regular circuit with intervals of about 10 to 15 minutes between pick-ups. And, lucky us, we liked cruising along Copenhagen’s canals so much that we did the circuit with its hop-on, hop-offs twice!
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash