Updated September 2023
Denmark is expensive. But luckily, you don’t need to pay or even go inside to enjoy some of the top sights in Copenhagen. Don’t get me wrong – I love museums, but in this time of Corona virus and shut doors – that’s not possible. Instead, you can discover the free and outdoor sights in Copenhagen. I’m a Copenhagen’er, and I’ve selected a few of my own favourites.
A secret garden, a church tower, a citadel, 3 lakes and a classic top sight. Here’s my guide on how to enjoy the capital of Denmark without spending a dime, while getting fresh air.
6 free outdoor sights in Copenhagen
THE WRONG TOWER
400 years ago, the king asked an architect to build a huge church in his splendid new part of Copenhagen. A city in a city. When the architect was finished, he realized that he had built the spiral going the wrong way: counter-clockwise. In despair, he flung himself from the tower and died. There’s even some blood left on a stone on the ground.
Well, that’s the story I heard going to school next to the church. It’s not true though.
So what happened? Well, he died seven years later from illness. He did not kill himself. Further more, the main inspiration was the spiral tower on Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome – and it also spirals this way. But a great story it is.
The maginificent spire is designed by one of Denmark’s most famous architects, who just came back from Rome full of new ideas. Originally, it was supposed to be a (boring) baroque square, but the church took so long to built, that now the design was 50 years old and times had changed. Of course, the finished design ended up being a lot more expensive, but the architect wanted it to be modern and as tall as possible. Lucky, for us.
Our Saviour’s church (Vor Frelsers Kirke in Danish) has a golden savoir standing on top of the iconic tower. You can climb the church tower when the church is open and for small fee, but trust me: it’s not for everyone. For the last 150 steps of the trip, you walk on the outside of the tower. The bannister is not that high and at the top, only one persona can fit on the stairs, so you have to squeze pass each other. But the view from 90 m above is great. In 2007, the local’s voted it the best viewing spot in the city.
I grew up next to the church and was married here, so the building holds a special place. If you’re lucky, you can hear the bells ringing. As a special treat, they don’t just ring, but play melodies.
A SECRET GARDEN
A secret garden? Well, I live here, and I didn’t discover this hidden green spot for 20 years. The Garden of the Royal Library is behind the old library and is definitely one of my favourite free isghts in Copenhagen.
In the middle of the garden is fountain spying water every hour to honour the written word. What is even more interesting is that it used to be a harbour! And not only any harbour – a place for war ships 400 years ago. One of the pictures in the slideshow show a metal ring for mooring still in place, but now beneath a bench. And that’s were you should sit. Watch the ducks and enjoy the calm. Maybe with a book!
Speaking of the written word: For the cultural traveller, there is something more interesting than the statue of fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen on the Town Square. And that’s a statue of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Even if you haven’t read him, you’ve have probably heard of a “leap of faith” or “not to dare is to lose oneself”. He is just full of bonmots – try google quotes by him. But more appropriately on a travel blog, he also said: “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
The Royal Library Garden is hidden behind fences and walls between the old library and the entrance to the Danish Parliament. But if you head for the entrance of the Jewish Museum, you’ll find it.
GUNS & GREENS
Built by a Dutch specialist during the Renaissance, Kastellet is one of the best preserved fortified citadels in Northern Europe. Today, it’s one of the best green spaces in Copenhagen, and it’s free!
January 1 1671:
On this first day of the year 1671, 27 canon shots are fired as a welcome to the new year. Real canon balls are used. From now on, shots will be fired every year on the same day.
Boom, boom, boom, booom, boom, boom. 6 shots alltogether. The earth trembled. The officer noted the canon balls a s lost in his books. But they have value. If a citizen finds one, he can claim a small reward.
The old mill is not so old – only a 150 years – but it’s still Copenhagen’s oldest mill. Two older mills use to be here making flower for the solider’s daily bread in the 1700s. Every year (except this corona one) on the third Sunday in June, you can visit old mills all over in Denmark. Also this one.
Denmark is country surrounded by water, and this also goes for the capital. Copenhagen has many canals as well as 3 large lakes and their all excellent free sights. But I’ve chosen the Inner Lakes of Copenhagen. (I had no idea this was their real names! I just discovered this now researching for this article.) Well, everybody calls them The Lakes.
By walking all, you pass through 3 different parts of Copenhagen: Østerbro, Nørrebro and Frederiksberg.
Back in the old days this was 1 stream in a natural low area created during the Ice Age. The first lake was constructed in the Middle Ages to power mills. The second and the third lakes was meant as a fortification of Copenhagen against attacks from the Swedes. Later, they were used as drinking water reservoir (yes, really). Now, you can skte on them in the wintertime, have lunch in summer and some even fish.
In the 60’s some crazy politician suggested a 4-lane road circulating them. Instead, it became a protected area. Phew… But that’s not the only crazy thing: on one of the lakes is a tiny island called Bird Island. In 1967, activists liberated Bird Island and named it a free state. You might smile, but freetown Christiania was “liberated” in 1971.
If you take a tour around all 3 lakes and back again, it’ll be 6,4 km added to your daily exercise. On a sunny day, buy something cold and head for the Dronning Louises Bridge with a cold drink and some loud music. If you feel energetic, you can rent a swan from Kaffesalonen.
A TRUE CLASSIC
Recognize her? It’s the famous little mermaid from the fairytale by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. If often hear and read from travellers, that she’s a disappointment. Especially, the size of the statue is mentioned. But I don’t get. I like her! She has to be #1 top free sight in Copenhagen.
The artist behind was very skilled, won a gold medal at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and even made sculptures for the king’s funeral monument – including a figure called “the mermaid’s sister”. Of course, you need to know the story (not the Disney one) to understand this national icon. No one notices her sacrifice and hence the artwork must be of insignificant size.
But most of all: size doesn’t matter. It’s not: the bigger – the more important. And Denmark is a tiny country, so I think she’s just the right size. She might not be the best work of art in the world, but give her a chance. Well, the defence rests.
ELEPHANTS IN DENMARK?
So this is one that shows how great my hometown is. You can visit a part of the zoo – for free.
The trick is to go into the fantastic and charming park of Frederiksberg Have. Finding the right corner, you see part of the adjacent Zoo park and right into the area of the elephants.
The elephant House is designed by famous architect Norman Foster and from 2008. Everytime I pass it, the elephants are out in the 3350 m2large outdoor area pulling on chains or playing.