Nyhavn: #1 Thing to Do in Copenhagen, Denmark

Our first day in Copenhagen, Denmark we had two priorities on our itinerary: Tivoli Gardens, which we’ve already covered, and Nyhavn. I had seen photos of these vibrantly gabled town house facades that line the boat-filled canal, and wanted the chance to see and photograph this scene on a beautiful, sunny day.

We opted to walk from our hotel to Nyhavn canal, which was about 30 minutes. Copenhagen is a walkable city that’s very conducive to both pedestrians and cyclists. It didn’t hurt that we walked along Strøget, Europe’s longest pedestrian street, which was lovely. The entire stretch was filled with shops, restaurants, and an inordinate number of statues and fountains. Already, it was clear that Copenhagen oozed a sense of charm, and rich historical character.

When we arrived at Nyhavn, we stopped almost dead in our tracks. It had all the historic charm we had encountered along Strøget, but with splashes of color that felt less like Scandinavia and more like a port in the Caribbean. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it more whimsy and less of a proper European stuffiness. Plus, the facades really popped under the bright blue sky. We were immediately smitten with the area.

I didn’t have much time for photos before we impulsively purchased tickets for Canal Tours Copenhagen, which offered a one-hour boat tour of the canals. The tickets were ~$5 and the boat was about to leave, so we figured what the heck.

The tour was an excellent way to sightsee, and incredibly relaxing. Along the way, we learned some history of the area from our guide (corroborated by all-knowing Wikipedia). Nyhavn was constructed by King Christian V in 1670, dug by Swedish prisoners of war from the Dano-Swedish War.

It became a gateway from the sea to the old inner city at King’s Square, where ships arrived from all over the world with cargo. Nyhavn became notorious for heavy drinking among sailors, and a hotbed for prostitution. The area was lined with pubs and alehouses, and gained a reputation for its raucousness.

In the 1800s, author Hans Christian Andersen–famous for the Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen, both of which later became Disney animated films–lived at Nos. 67 and 18. Copenhagen is quite proud of this Danish author; in addition to the popular Little Mermaid statue along the Langelinie promenade, there are tributes to Hans Christian Andersen all over the city.

As ships grew larger, Nyhavn saw less large commercial traffic and transitioned towards small vessels. After World War II, small vessel traffic also disappeared from the Port of Copenhagen, leaving Nyhavn devoid of ships. Following this, efforts began to revitalize the area.

From the 1950s through 1980s, Nyhavn underwent many changes in character, with museums, restaurants, and xxx popping up. The area also became more pedestrian-friendly, and popular among tourists and locals for its relaxed atmosphere and great waterfront cafes. (There’s also a Christmas market that’s world-renowned.)

Several of the houses that exist today at Nyhavn are restorations of originals from dating back to the late 1600s. No. 9 is the oldest house, from 1681. The northern side of Nyhavn is lined with vibrant townhouses built with wood, bricks, and plaster; while both sides are pretty, this is the more photogenic side. In the other direction, there are mansions along the canal, including Charlottenborg Palace.

Once we were done with our boat tour of Copenhagen’s canals, we returned to Nyhavn and spent a good hour-plus just perusing the pedestrian area, taking photos and admiring the townhouses, their quirky signs, and intimate charm.

Along the route, our guide mentioned Copenhagen Street Food (now Reffen), a great place to eat with food trucks across the water. It was a cool place, with food stalls housed inside a bunch of repurposed spaces and packing containers. It was nice being able to grab some cheap, delicious food and sit along the waterfront.

After that, we wandered back towards Nyhavn and grabbed ice cream down a random side street. It was similarly delicious. Nyhavn is lined with cafes and bars, and all of these seemed busy with people wanting to get outdoors on what was a nice day.

Although it’s slightly beyond the scope of this post, one thing we noticed about Copenhagen in general is that it’s very walkable, has a lot of public spaces, and is conducive to active lifestyles.

This is exemplified by all of the parks and pedestrian areas around Nyhavn. This gave a certain authentic, lived-in energy to Nyhavn, which is a place that otherwise could’ve felt touristy. So that was nice.

Most of the rest of our afternoon in Copenhagen was spent simply wandering around. It was a beautiful weekend, a rarity in Scandinavia during that time of year. We mostly meandered around aimlessly, sitting random places in an effort to soak up the vibe of the city (and the sun!), and wandering into buildings that were open.

Nyhavn fit into our Copenhagen itinerary perfectly, which mostly consisted of aimless wandering, marveling at the beautiful architecture, and enjoying the atmosphere. It was unquestionably the most picturesque area of Copenhagen, which is no small feat as it’s a beautiful city. If you have the chance to visit, we’d highly recommend Nyhavn–as the title indicates, it was our favorite place in a city filled with great places. While Reffen was great for food, if we were to do our visit again, we’d probably stop at a random cafe in Nyhavn as well, giving us an excuse to linger even longer. It’s a really delightful area, and one we loved visiting!

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Nyhavn? What did you think of it? Where does it rank among the things you did in Copenhagen? If you haven’t been to Denmark, does Nyhavn interest you, or would you rather do other things? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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