Freewheeling fun in Copenhagen
Written by Brian Johnston
Cities and cycling often make uncomfortable partners, but not in Copenhagen. Writer and frequent visitor Brian Johnston guides us through the pleasures of pedal power in the Danish capital.
Of Danish adults, 90% own a bike, and 40% of all trips in Copenhagen are made by bicycle. There’s no better way to get about, so join the locals and admire this waterfront city on two wheels.
Urban public transport is seldom the highlight of anyone’s holiday. Indeed, it can often be a source of stress. Next time you’re in Copenhagen, however, there’s a way to avoid bus-route headaches and overcrowded commuter trains: get on a bike. Quite apart from the workout and low-cost, low-pollution benefits, cycling allows you to explore back alleys, admire passing architecture, and get an intimate view of the Danish capital’s street life. Its only disadvantage may be the city’s unpredictable weather – though that certainly doesn’t stop the locals – and the cobblestones of the old town that are liable to give your body a drubbing.
Half of Copenhagen’s residents cycle daily, and even the Queen of Denmark has been spotted out and about on her bicycle. Residents pedal a combined 1.2 million kilometres every day. Around 300km of cycle lanes have their own parking bays and traffic signals, which are timed to match the speed of cyclists in order to reduce red-light waits. Trains and taxis have bicycle racks, and employers are offered tax incentives to install bike-friendly facilities such as showers and parking.
Yet although it has long been one of the world’s top cycle cities, Copenhagen isn’t resting on its laurels. It has made a concerted effort and spent considerable money over the last decade to make cycling an even more safe, convenient, and viable transport option. Recently the city set aside US$182 million to extend its network of cycling bridges and cross-city highways. And the little details aren’t overlooked either: you might spot raised footrests at traffic lights for cyclists’ convenience, and double-lane ‘conversation’ routes for those who want to pedal and chat.
Cycle infrastructure and cyclist-friendly laws are designed to get locals out of their cars and wheeling about the city, but visitors can make the most of it too. The city has barely an incline, making for easy riding, and cycle lanes are either completely independent from traffic lanes or separated from cars by a kerb. Nor do you even need special gear: there’s little sign of Lycra in Copenhagen, and a helmet isn’t compulsory. Few locals wear one.
Numerous guided cycling companies around town can take you on informative wheeled tours of the city, and there are plenty of commercial ventures that will rent you a bike in one of the world’s most cycle-friendly cities. Alternatively, you can also pedal off on one of many low-cost electric City Bikes, which have a touchscreen navigation system and GPS and can be picked up and dropped off at bike stations across the city. They were introduced in 2013 to replace an older public bicycle system, and a further 1,800 bikes are being added to the inventory.
A good place to start your cycle adventure might be Queen Louise Bridge, if only because it serves 40,000 bicycles daily and features spectacular shoals of bikes at rush hour – quite enough to give you confidence that this city is as cycle friendly as its reputation. From here it’s a short wheel down to Rosenborg Castle and on to the National Gallery of Denmark, though unfortunately bikes aren’t allowed in the surrounding botanic gardens. From here, head east around the star-shaped military fortress of Kastellet to the waterfront, where you’ll find the bemusingly famous Little Mermaid, a rather drab statue inspired by Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. Still, you’re now on one of Copenhagen’s many exhilarating waterfronts, with their salty tang and seagulls. Pedal south on the promenade, perhaps with sea breezes at your back helping you along, and you can take in Amalienborg, the baroque-era residence of the royal family. Almost directly across the water is the startling Danish Opera House.
Pedal on down the waterfront to Nyhavn, the 18th-century ‘New Harbour’ whose cafés make for a good place to rest your legs as you gaze at bobbing fishing boats and yachts. Resist the temptation to cycle on to nearby Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrianised main shopping street: it’s one of the few places in the city where cycling isn’t allowed. Instead, continue along the waterfront to admire the national library, housed in a minimalist granite building nicknamed the ‘Black Diamond’. Not far away is Christiansborg Palace, where you can inspect the grand reception rooms. It’s a short ride through Copenhagen University and back to your starting point at Queen Louise Bridge.
You can see most of Copenhagen’s chief sights from a saddle, the main exception being Christiania, the counter-culture district founded in the early 1970s in the inner city, where it’s strictly walking only. However, you might also take the opportunity to cycle around some of the city’s other distinctive neighbourhoods, which will give you a flavour of local life. Newly fashionable, multicultural, and adjoining Vesterbro and Nørrebro are particularly cycle-friendly thanks to many green spaces, and are known for their street markets, antiques stores, vintage clothing shops, and evening live-music venues. From here, a green cycle path leads to Frederiksberg, where you’ll find a sprawling zoo and Italianate palace.
Just about any waterfront also makes for a pleasant ride: cafés spill onto the footpaths and trendy ‘beach’ clubs pop up during the summer months. If you’ve really got into the freewheeling spirit, you can always pedal right out of the city on multi-lane ‘cycle superhighways’ used by commuters from suburbs such as Albertslund and Furesø. Beyond, Denmark has 11 national cycling routes that cover 4,000km of the country: follow the white route numbers on red squares and off you go. By the way, Copenhagen sits about halfway along the EuroVelo 7 cycle route that runs all the way from northern Norway to the toe of Italy. That’s 6,000-odd km through eight countries: quite enough to get you into a serious spin.
Wheels of fortune
Bicycle design in Denmark is constantly evolving and often trendsetting. It began in 1893 with the high-framed Pedersen bicycle and its distinctive hammock seat – a model still produced today. In the 1970s, Christiania bikes, named for Copenhagen’s hippy district, came with a still-popular front trailer to transport goods or children. Classic bicycles are constantly refined by Danish designers such as Biomega, Sögreni, and Rasmus Gjesing. Like much in Denmark, they’re characterised by quality, sustainability, and function, and feature harmonious, simple lines. Incidentally, all bicycles sold in Denmark have a unique identifying number stamped into the frame.
A floating barge on the harbour with a stylish Danish-design interior, Viva provides not only great views and live music for summer evening lingering, but a menu that blends Danish and French influences, with a particular focus on seafood. Order the likes of crab with fried capers, blinis with trout roe, or monkfish à la carte, or try your luck with the kitchen’s four-course menu.
Langebrogade Kaj 570, +45 2725 0505
This illustrious store on Copenhagen’s main pedestrian shopping street has an appointment to the Queen of Denmark and offers four floors of top-notch, gorgeous Danish furniture, homeware, and fashion. It’s the perfect one-stop shop for goods such as silverware by Georg Jensen, porcelain from Royal Copenhagen, Stelton tableware, and sofas from Erik Jørgensen, among many other notable Danish and international products.
Amagertov 10, +45 3314 1941
Copenhagen Admiral Hotel
Two huge warehouses built in 1781 to store grain have been imaginatively transformed into a hotel that effortlessly combines history, industrial minimalism (exposed beams, brickwork), and quirky contemporary style. Its SALT restaurant provides modern Danish cuisine. You can rent bicycles at the reception desk; the hotel sits on the waterfront – a quick pedal to Amalienborg Palace and the Little Mermaid.
Toldbodgade 24–28, +45 3374 1414
This science centre appeals to both adults and children with its hands-on approach to explaining science. Kids can test their sense of smell, ride a reverse-steering bicycle, and see if they can roar louder than lions. A current exhibition on the brain runs until May 15 and challenges kids with a mental workout that trains the brain to learn faster and remember better. There are also outdoor activities on the harbour.
Opened in 1843, Tivoli is much like the rest of Copenhagen: it combines old-fashioned amusements with more modern thrills. Some visitors ride sedate carousels, others shriek on rollercoasters. But this famous downtown destination is more than just an amusement park: the kids will love the live music, street-stall snacks, trees strung with fairy lights, regular stage performances, and Petzi’s World, which features slides, crawl tubes, and other activities.
Children’s Traffic Playground
Those with very young children nervous about hitting the roads in Copenhagen should start off in this playground, laid out like a section of city with downsized intersections, traffic lights, road signs, and cycle paths. Kids between five and 15 years old can take to bicycles, tricycles, rollerskates, or go-karts and learn the road rules while having fun. There are also picnic lawns and a paddling pool.
Distance: 4,748 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 45 minutes