Christianshavn, Copenhagen: Touring the heart of Danish seafaring history
The reputation of the three countries that are collectively known as Scandinavia for beauty, history, and the best that the modern world has to offer is well established by now. In terms of the the quality of life that Scandinavia is known for, all three nations—Norway, Sweden and Denmark—consistently rank in the top ten or even the top five in global surveys of happiness and satisfaction. Indeed, the World Happiness Report, a study commissioned by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network that has measured the happiness of the populations of nations around the world since 2006 based on factors like economics, psychological studies, population survey analysis, and other national statistics ranked Sweden at No. 7 and Norway at No. 4 in 2019.
But tiny Denmark, is still a global titan in so many ways despite its relatively minuscule geographic area. In 2019 Denmark came in at No. 2 on the Happiness Report, up from No. 3 in 2018 and down from No. 1 in 2016. And with good reason — small though it may be in land mass, Denmark is gargantuan in terms of what it has to offer people flocking there to visit and to live. Jutting into the North Sea on one side and the Baltic Sea on the other just north of EU titan Germany, wee Denmark nonetheless has an outsize impact on tourism in the region due to its diverse landscapes, natural beauty, and modern infrastructure. And that’s not to mention its world-class capital, Copenhagen, home to a whopping 17 Michelin-starred restaurants, a thumping nightlife, a vibrant and youthful energy, great arts and culture scene, and much more. And what many visitors find when they’re in Copenhagen is they will be drawn inexorably to the district known as Christianshavn.
Christianshavn is a historic area built up on artificial land out of the scraps of islands between the larger islands of Zealand and Amager, originally intended by King Christian IV as an exclusive enclave for the rich and powerful. Inspired by the then-Dutch model of cities deliberately separated along class lines in this way, the king initially envisioned Christianshavn as a village independent of the rest of Copenhagen, a refuge for the city’s wealthy merchants and traders. Although the area remains physically separated from the rest of Copenhagen by the Inner Harbour, that dream of maintaining a sort of watery gated community apart from the hoi polloi fell by the wayside soon enough and Christianshavn was absorbed into Copenhagen proper in short order.
These days the district offers visitors a glimpse of the Copenhagen of the 17th century with its charming cobblestone streets, prim, narrow houses, gorgeous canals and the old fortifications that King Christian IV and his successors added over decades and centuries to defend Copenhagen from attack.
But Christianshavn is also a huge draw for visitors interested in more modern sights and sounds in this neighbourhood, that was a nondescript, slightly rough around the edges working-class area for much of the late 20th century. These days Christianshavn has been transformed into a hip—if slightly scruffy—bohemian and eclectic region that is always bustling and full of life. While the 3.4 square km area is sliced and diced by canals and still hearkens back to its nautical roots, Christianshavn today offers a tremendous variety of activities, including top-notch restaurants, naval museums, Copenhagen’s world-renowned Opera House, the iconic Circle Bridge, and the intentional community Freetown Christiania. Here’s everything you need to know before embarking on your visit to Christianshavn, Copenhagen, including how to get there and what to do when you arrive. But first a little background into the fascinating history of Christianshavn, one of Copenhagen’s crown jewels.
On the defensive: A history of Christianshavn
Christianshavn’s history for the majority of its existence is completely intertwined with the history of Danish militarism, and its very existence has much to do with Denmark’s defensive posture and warlike past. Although Denmark, Sweden and Norway share a vast chronicle spanning centuries and even millennia, a history that hearkens back to the Viking conquests of parts of England and raids on countless other territories and countries, and despite the fact that their shared culture is so intertwined that their languages that are largely interchangeable, the trio of Scandinavian nations have long fought with each other. Control over territory and especially over regional trade has led to a variety of ever-shifting alliances and declarations of war among the three. At one point Denmark actually controlled Norway as more or less a vassal state, with the nominal Norwegian king based in Copenhagen.
So given Denmark’s history of conflict with not only its close neighbours Norway and Sweden as well as periodic squabbles over trade and territory with the rest of Europe, King Christian IV decreed in 1612 that the nation would commence on an ambitious program to fortify and defend the capital city of Copenhagen from outside attack. The highlight of the program of defensive build-up was to be the fortification of the area now known as Christianshavn. Between 1618 and 1623 the king ordered that embankments of earth and five bastions—angular structures projecting outward from the fortress wall—would be built in the swampy region that lay between the island of Amager and Copenhagen proper. These fortifications in Christianshavn were augmented by the addition of another six bastions by 1660, and over the centuries more were added and the walls periodically reinforced and extended, eventually encircling the core area of the original city of Copenhagen.
But by the beginning of the 20th century, the need for the walls on the western side of Copenhagen had been rendered moot by the expansion of the city well beyond the fortifications and those walls had been torn down. However, the eastern side, or the Christianshavn side, butted up against the sea just across the island of Amager, and so they were retained. In fact, up until the early 1960s, parts of the fortifications were still in use by the Danish military as ammunition depots. But by the mid-1960s the Danish military had shuttered its last base in the area, and the fortifications were no longer in use as military installations. The walls however remain to this day, making up one side of the territory known as Christianshavn, Copenhagen.
These days Christianshavn, Copenhagen is largely a residential area, with some 10,000 full-time residents, but nonetheless boasts plenty of attractions for visitors, including tons of lively restaurants and cafes, the city’s legendary Opera House, fascinating architecture of both the historic and modern variety, and much more. The district is bordered on the south by Langebro St., to the north by the end of the island of Holmen, Copenhagen (which is often included informally as part of Christianshavn) on the west by the outer walls of the old city’s fortifications, and to the east by the city’s harbour. Christianshavn is bisected by the Christianshavn Canal running more or less north-south, and the main thoroughfare Torvegade which runs roughly east-west. Christianshavn is connected to the center of Copenhagen via Torvegade, which crosses the Knippelsbro Bridge, one of just two bridges that carries auto traffic across the harbor into the city center of Copenhagen, although the district of Christianshavn is served by its own metro station—conveniently named Christianshavn Metro—that emerges near the intersection of the canal and Torvegade.
To get a handle on the geography of Christianshavn, it helps to imagine the district as being roughly divided into quarters. The lower part of the region on the western side of the canal is the most developed and affluent part of Christianshavn, and is called Christiansbro. It’s been developed with upscale residential condos in the former warehouses that line the harbour, and is home to a number of corporate headquarters of large Danish companies and regional headquarters of a number of international companies.
Crossing to the east and the other side of the canal, or the Rampar Sidet, you’ll find the area dominated by historic residential houses as well as buildings housing a number of venerable institutions dating back centuries. There are of course Christianshavn walking tours available, but it’s great fun just to wander among the colourful, narrow houses on your own, many of which date back to the 18th and even the 17th century. Dominating the skyline to the north and west in this part of the district is the spectacular Church of our Savior with its twisting golden spire featuring 400 steps to reach the top for hardy visitors. The church is of course a fabulous tourist attraction, but it’s also closed during daily services for a few hours. The tower is open for sightseeing seven days a week, barring bad weather such as high winds, which can threaten the safety of visitors in the narrow spiralling steeple.
Just to the north and west of the church you’ll encounter the eclectic, self-liberated community of Freetown Christiania, a huge tourist attraction in its own right that dominates a good chunk of Christianshavn. The community is a fascinating case study in alternative living concepts brought to reality, stemming from a group of radical anarchist/hippie squatters who first occupied the space where the former Danish military base that was shuttered in the late 1960s. Starting around 1971, nearby residents pried open the fencing surrounding the disused base and began using the open areas as playgrounds for their kids. Soon enough, squatters were converting the military’s old buildings into music venues, bars, and shops, and building eclectic houses out of recovered scrap wood, sheet metal and whatever else they could lay their hands on. One famous Christiania house is even made almost entirely out of windows still in their frames.
The residents of Christiania declared an ethos of common support, community spirit, and independence from governmental oversight, invoking a list of just nine rules that residents and visitors must adhere to: no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no biker colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of firecrackers or other incendiary devices, and no stolen goods. While it may not be a formal rule anymore, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that “No Running” was once posted near the entrance, as a person running can be taken as an indication that a crime has been committed nearby and the police are in pursuit, potentially causing panic in an anarchistic enclave. You’ll want to stroll anyway, just to take in all the wonderfully weird and artistic architecture, designs and decorations.
Given the nature of the community’s founding, there have naturally been conflicts with authority over the decades. For instance, Freetown Christiania’s freewheeling openness led to the main street being known informally as Pusher Street for a long time (community founders preferred “The Green Light District”) as the community allowed marijuana and hash dealers to set up stalls and peddle their wares in the open. However, take care, because that policy was discontinued a few years ago following some unfortunate drug-related violence, and police periodically patrol, looking for tourists who didn’t get the memo.
These days the land claimed by the community that has grown to some 850 to 1000 full-time residents has been codified into a bona fide semi-independent “Freetown,” having entered into a legitimate formal agreement with the city and the state of Denmark to purchase the land in Christianshavn and live more or less how they choose. Around 500,000 tourists per year flock to Christiania, and it’s well worth your time to take at least half a day to explore the area’s eclectic houses, check out the music venues and street performers, and eat at some of the wonderful, quirky and unique restaurants. Just walking around is great too, but there are a wild variety of shows and events hosted there by community members, including outdoor street festivals, concerts, and an ongoing series of science lectures accompanied by libations called Science and Cocktails that is well worth checking out.
While you’re visiting this unique and often beautiful community of freethinkers during your trip to Christianshavn, make sure you cross the moat to the Amager side and check out the old outer fortifications dominated by redans, or triangular defensive points along the wall. This tranquil side of the water is not only where many residents of Christiania have built their homes, but it is also a beautiful reclaimed natural area, featuring lovely paths through the trees and publicly accessible platforms built out over the water, perfect for a picnic or just taking a quietly relaxing moment away from the hubbub of the city.
Turning west in our tour of Christianshavn, Copenhagen, you’ll find yourself in the Upper City Side, which runs from Torvegade and is bisected by Strandgade St. This section of Christianshavn is home to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the North Atlantic House. There you’ll find a lovely quay that is used as an exhibition space as well as a literal jumping-off point for bold Copenhagen swimmers to get their exercise in right in the heart of the city, especially given that the water here is rated at a “blue” level of cleanliness. There are a variety of restaurants with outdoor seating offering all kinds of choices for a nice midday break in the sunshine during your visit to Christianshavn here as well, or just grab a beverage and do some people-watching. There are also several companies nearby that offer boat hires and canal tours, so you can take a cruise around the harbour and the surrounding area and see Christianshavn from a watery perspective.
Another nice break from the shops and busy streets is the lovely green space to the west, as you are entering the Holmen part of Christianshavn. The park is home to a wild and woolly dirt bike ramp track, a sports complex and a rugby club. Heading north into Holmen proper you’ll pass near the Holmen Naval Base. It’s closed to the public but the ships berthed there are visible from a distance. And fans of all things military and naval will get a kick out of visiting the Ubåden Sælen, a decommissioned submarine that is open to tourists. It’s located north of the naval base and just across from the naval museum, another must-see. There’s also the Peder Skram, a cold war-era naval museum with a destroyer vessel open to the public.
What to do in Christianshavn
Hopefully the above gave you some ideas about the wonderful variety of activities available in Christianshavn, but here is a breakdown of a few of them just in case.
Christianshavn is home to a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including Kadeau, Era Ora and 108, but for the true foodie, remember that this is where you can also find the world-renowned Noma, which was named the world’s best restaurant four times. But for those traveling on more of a budget, don’t worry, because there are plenty of lower-cost options around, the bulk of which are concentrated in and around the Christianshavn station and along Torvegade St. Strolling along the canalside areas you’re sure to find every kind of food and price point you could imagine for waterside dining or just having a drink and taking in the scenery. And don’t forget about dining in Freetown Christiania, where you can find vegan, vegetarian and even carnivorous food options as well, all served in fully accredited and government-inspected restaurants. Veggie options include the well-known Morgenstedet and Cafe Loppen, and if you want to know more about life in Christiania try Manefiskeren, which features long, communal outdoor dining tables where you can easily strike up a chat with a local.
The aforementioned Church of our Savior is probably the best-known tourist attraction in the area, but there are a host of museums and other great sightseeing destinations. Top marks to North Atlantic House for great art installations, exhibitions and events, as well as a lovely quayside area for hanging out on a warm day. Freetown Christiania could take up an entire day or more if you wanted, with all the sights and events within the enclave, but at the very least it’s well worth a wander through its streets. You can also find tour guides at the entrance willing to give you the inside scoop on this unique community. And don’t forget, there are Christianshavn walking tours available as well, including this free tour every day offered in either English or Spanish.
While Christianshavn may not be the type of place considered an all-night hotbed of partying and clubbing, there are plenty of options for having some libations and enjoying good company. Woodstock is one of the oldest venues in Christiania, an eclectic bar featuring live music, bar games, and, as one reviewer put it, “out of the box, square pegs in established round holes.” Eiffel Bar is a classic, retro-style bar, a staple of Copenhagen and Christianshavn, filled with smoke and conversation inside, but also featuring outdoor seating and great times all around. For the traveler interested in a more sedate experience, Vinwerck is a cozy basement wine shop attached to Designwerck, a showroom for contemporary Scandinavian design. This hidden gem of a wine shop features a service counter and a friendly owner catering to locals as well as visitors.
Directions to Christianshavn
The easiest way to get to Christianshavn in in fact the easiest way to get around in the majority of Copenhagen: the metro and public bus system. If you’re setting out from the city center, find Norreport Metro and grab the M1 or M2 to the Christianshavn station, just two stops down. If you’re coming directly from the airport, you’ll also want to look for the M2 metro, which is just a 14-minute ride away from the Christenshavn metro. Walking or biking from city center, you can pass by some major tourist attractions along the way if you set out southeast and get on Kobmagergade. You’ll pass by the Rundetaarn (Round Tower), Christiansborg Slot, and Borsen before crossing over the Knippelsbro bridge and ending up on Torvegade. If you must drive, the easiest directions to Christianshavn will likely be via Gothersgade.
Whichever way you go, you’re sure to have fun and learn a lot about Danish and Scandinavian history and modern life if you spend some time in Christianshavn!
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