In just over eight centuries, Copenhagen has endured numerous sieges, two devastating fires, flooding, and a round of the bubonic plague. Thankfully, things are a lot calmer these days. The modern city is a hip, eco-friendly destination that draws tourists eager to sample new Nordic cuisine, visit Renaissance castles, and ride bicycles along Copenhagen’s 250 miles of bike paths. And even if you know Tivoli Gardens from Bakken, or Christiana from Christianshavn, we’re willing to bet a few kroner there’s still a lot you don’t know about the capital city of Denmark.
1. It was originally a fishing village known as “Havn” or “harbor.” The herring was plentiful, but the village was vulnerable to attacks from pirates. In the late 12th century, Bishop Absalon, a no-nonsense advisor to Danish King Valdemar the Great, moved in and built fortifications on Slotsholmen, an island in the city’s inner harbor. As trade grew in the nascent city, it came to be known as Køpmannæhafn, or “merchant’s harbor,” which Germanic translations eventually shortened to København, or Copenhagen.
2. He was a hard drinker who burned suspected witches and recklessly led his country into the Thirty Years War. Nevertheless, King Christian IV, who ruled Denmark and Norway from 1588 to 1648, is remembered fondly for the iconic structures he built in Copenhagen, including the stock exchange Børsen, the Church of Holmen, and Rosenborg Castle. He also founded towns and cities throughout Scandinavia, including “Christiania,” which eventually became Oslo.
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Located ten minutes north of Copenhagen is the world’s oldest amusement park, Dyrehavsbakken, or “Bakken” for short. It dates all the way back to 1583, when residents discovered a natural spring in Dyrehaven Park that supposedly had curative properties. Crowds came, and so did performers and hawkers, who established a carnival-like atmosphere in the forest. Today, visitors can take in a cabaret, ride a rollercoaster, or knock back a few at the pub and watch Pjerrot the clown do his thing.
4. In 1711, the bubonic plague swept through Copenhagen. The city had been on guard following an outbreak the previous century, requiring all incoming travelers and ships to be certified by the health commission. Still, the illness managed to creep through the city gates, and quickly killed off a third of Copenhagen’s 60,000 citizens.
5. As if a devastating plague weren’t enough, in 1728 a fire destroyed nearly half of Copenhagen’s medieval structures, including the University of Copenhagen Library, where more than 35,000 books and manuscripts were held. Another fire in 1793 wiped out even more buildings. The devastation led to a building renaissance for Copenhagen, though today few remnants of the old city remain.
6. Since its founding, the city has endured attacks from Wendish pirates, British ships, Nazi tanks, and Swedish mercenaries. These days, the main invaders are tourists: approximately 9 million visited in 2014.
7. In 1416, Copenhagen became the capital of not just Denmark, but of Norway and Sweden as well. The three countries together formed the Kalmar Union, which lasted for 150 years as an alliance against German expansion until 1523, when Sweden decided to break away.
8. It’s one of the greenest cities in the world, with plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Over the past decade, Copenhagen has cut its emissions by nearly a third through the use of wind and solar power, as well as heating systems that recycle waste material. An offshore wind farm, visible to most visitors who fly into Copenhagen, currently supplies the city with 4 percent of its energy.
9. Copenhageners love their bicycles. More than half of the city’s residents, from hourly workers to members of Parliament, commute by bike along Copenhagen’s 250 miles of bike lanes. Recently, the city opened a cycling “super highway” connecting Copenhagen with the nearby suburb of Albertslund. The only problem: parking. Sidewalks and city squares are often jammed full of bicycles.
The water around Copenhagen Harbor is so clean, you can actually swim in it. Fifteen years ago officials decided to clean up its waterways, and now there are several swimming holes right in the center of town. Try doing that in New York City.
11. Founded in 1479, the University of Copenhagen had its own court system, laws, and even a prison. This model lasted all the way up to 1771, when the school incorporated into the city’s jurisdiction.
12. In addition to serving as an impressive brewing museum, Carlsberg Brewery is home to the world’s largest collection of unopened beer bottles. Danish engineer Leif Sonne began collecting them in 1968, and moved his stash to Carlsberg in 1993 after it had become too big for his home. Beer lovers may question his decision to collect all that beer rather than drink it. And yet, Sonne continues to add to his collection, which now numbers more than 20,000 bottles.
13. Located in central Copenhagen, Strøget is one of the world’s longest pedestrian-only shopping avenues, and a major draw for tourists. But it wasn’t always so popular. Originally proposed in 1962, the plan to close five city streets to car traffic met with protests and vocal opposition from upscale shops along the route, who were convinced the proposal would be bad for business. (Some business owners even went so far as to send death threats to the mayor.) By the end of a two-year trial period, though, people changed their tune, and Strøget became a permanent fixture in the city.
14. In 2000, engineers completed the 10-mile long Øresund Bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmö, Sweden. It’s quite a drive, passing over the elevated bridge, across the artificial island of Pebrholm, then down into the Drogden Tunnel for the last stretch. Each year, thousands of railway passengers and more than 6 million vehicles make the traverse.
In 1971, a band of squatters took over an abandoned military base in the Christianshaven borough of Copenhagen and established their own commune. Freetown Christiania, as it's known these days, operates as a self-governing society within the city. Its 900 residents operate according to a common law, which outlaws hard drugs, weapons, theft, and private cars. The sale of marijuana is also outlawed, but as anyone who’s strolled down Pusher Street can attest, that regulation is lightly enforced.
16. Hungry? Try a 20-course meal at Noma, the restaurant rated world’s best for four out of the past six years. Chef Reneé Redzepi has helped pioneer “new Nordic” cuisine that focuses less on pickled herring, and more on local, seasonal ingredients. Popular dishes include hay-smoked quail eggs, foraged herbs, and sea urchin with hazelnuts.
17. The lively Tivoli Gardens amusement park, built in 1843, served as an inspiration for Disneyland. When Walt Disney visited in 1951, he spent hours jotting down notes about everything from the rides to the food to the lush gardens. He later said he wanted Disneyland to emulate the “happy, unbuttoned atmosphere of fun” he witnessed at Tivoli.
Over the past few years, Copenhagen has been converting small parcels of unused land into “pocket parks.” There’s the obvious goal of increasing people's access to green space, but there’s also a hidden benefit: flood prevention. The parks are low-lying, and built to serve as mini reservoirs during a deluge. They funnel water away from residential housing and into Copenhagen’s harbors.
19. Copenhageners adore soccer, of course, but they’re also crazy about the sport of handball. The city has several men’s professional teams, and in 2013 established their first women’s team.
20. One of Copenhagen’s most popular tourist attractions, the Little Mermaid statue, has taken some serious abuse in its more than 100 years on display. It’s been decapitated twice, coated in paint and graffiti, had an arm sawn off, been blasted into the water, and had a sex toy glued to its hand.
21. Visitors to Rosenborg Castle can marvel at King Christian IV’s love of beauty, visible in the grand Renaissance-style architecture and the verdant Kings Garden. They can also marvel at his craftiness, evident from the Winter Room peephole, which allowed the king to observe a guest before entering, and the hidden audio panels that piped in music being played from a secret room.
22. Copenhagen has a lively jazz scene, with dozens of clubs and a yearly festival that draws in a quarter of a million attendees. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk are just a few of the vaunted names who have played concerts in the past. This past year’s jazz festival included Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, as well as a soulful rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” sung by Lady Gaga.
23. Ever wanted to see a 1975 Bugatti take on a 1965 Porsche 911? You can at the Copenhagen Historic Grand Prix, where racecars of the past are displayed and then unleashed against one another.
24. In Copenhagen, cemeteries often double as park spaces, which means it’s not uncommon to see couples lounging next to tombstones, or a family having a picnic near a mausoleum. The best example is the expansive Assistens Cemetery, where writer Hans Christian Andersen and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard are buried.
25. If you’re looking for quintessential Danish home design, you can’t go wrong with the Egg chair. Designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1958 for Copenhagen’s Royal Hotel, it’s come back into fashion in an era that covets IKEA and Nordic design. At around $7000, though, the price is anything but IKEA.