Christmas in Copenhagen: The only guide you’ll need
The days are short and the nights are cold, but Copenhagen at Christmas time is as belly-warming as a cup of delicious Gløgg (Danish mulled wine — more on that later).
In fact, it’s arguably one of the best times of year to visit the Danish capital.
You can check out the famous Copenhagen Christmas markets, sample some traditional festive food and drink, catch all the fun at Tivoli Gardens, or just take a wander through the city’s beautifully decorated streets and harbour. Plus a whole lot more!
Yep, the Danes sure know how to celebrate Christmas. Check out our guide below so you can make the most of your time in Copenhagen during its most magical time of year.
All the Copenhagen Christmas traditions you need to know
When you’re visiting a country for the first time, it’s always handy to understand their cultural traditions, especially for something as significant as Christmas. So, first thing’s first, let’s take a look at the quirks and customs of the Danish holiday season:
Countdown through December
The whole month of December is a huge celebration in Denmark for children and adults alike. You can absolutely feel the anticipation build as each day goes by. Probably because the Danes are so adept at making every single day special with their many methods of counting down to Christmas.
Most families will gift the little ones with an advent calendar of treats, to be opened and enjoyed for every day leading up to the big Christmas finale. They might be something sweet and yummy, or even little presents.
On a less chocolatey note, families will also traditionally count down to Christmas with the Advent Wreath. Consisting of four candles, they’re lit on the four Sundays before Christmas, starting with just one, and adding one each week until they’re all lit in preparation for Christmas.
There’s also the Kalenderlys, which is a tall Christmas candle imprinted with a number for each day of December. It’s a charming little custom where you burn the candle just enough for each day of the month, creating even more hype down to Christmas Eve.
In Denmark, Christmas Eve is their highlight. While Christmas Day is still important, December 24th is when the magic really happens. This is when loved ones will usually get together for an intimate Christmas feast and celebration.
Roast duck, goose and pork are common at mealtime, usually accompanied by red cabbage and potatoes with gravy. This is usually followed by a traditional Danish dessert called Risalamande, which is a rice pudding covered in cherry sauce. This dish usually includes a whole almond hidden inside the pudding and whoever finds it gets a prize.
After dinner, it’s usually custom to dance around the Christmas tree while singing Christmas songs. Quickly followed by every Danish child’s favourite part of the festive season — present time!
Oh and you might even see a few people out and about gifting animals with treats. This is inspired by the old belief that animals could talk on Christmas Eve — and you definitely wouldn’t want your furry friends saying bad things behind your back!
On December 25th things are a little more relaxed, although the festivities will usually continue with more family gatherings. You might find yourself having lunch or dinner once again with loved ones, although it’s not the big event of the night before.
It’s less intense and more of a slowing down of the holiday season.
8 things to see, do and taste in Copenhagen at Christmas time
Christmas breaks in Copenhagen are popular for all types of travellers, including families, couples, backpackers and students. There’s truly something for everyone to enjoy in the lead up to everyone’s favourite holiday.
In no particular order of importance (because they’re all worth experiencing) here are some suggestions:
1. Don’t miss the annual lighting of the Copenhagen Christmas tree
This is an annual tradition that’s typically held on the first Sunday of December.
The 24-metre-high tree lit up in all its glory is an incredibly stunning sight in the cold Christmas night. Plus, it’s also usually attended by Santa himself, which is another reason why the event is a favourite for families with children.
2. Join in the festivities at Tivoli Gardens
Tivoli Gardens is a great place to visit in Copenhagen all year round, but at Christmas, it transforms into something truly special.
It’s actually the second oldest fully operating amusement park in the world, and as well as rides it also offers stunning scenery, architecture and entertainment.
During the festive season, the decorations, fake snow and twinkling Christmas lights make you feel like you’ve stepped right into the North Pole. If you’ve got little ones, they’ll be delighted to see Santa and his reindeer also make an appearance.
If that’s not enough, it also hosts its very own Tivoli Christmas markets for you to check out. There’s usually around 60 stalls, so you can browse, shop, eat, drink and fill your Santa stockings.
Plus, there’s often Christmas performances, parades and shows to check out.
3. Tease your senses with Copenhagen Christmas culinary delights
It might be cold out, but in Copenhagen’s many eateries and bars, the food, drink and festive energy is enough to warm the soul. Plus, everybody knows that the best way to get to know a city is over a plate of food and a cup of something tasty.
Check out our list of food and drink to get you in the Christmas spirit when you’re in Copenhagen:
Originating in Sweden, Gløgg is a warm drink that has several recipe variations, but usually contains a base of red wine. It also often has spices, raisins and almonds in the mix. A definite favourite for the locals around Christmas.
Akvavit — A distilled spirit also known as Schnapps.
You usually drink it from a small shot glass and it is typically served alongside food. Its signature spice is caraway, although you might also taste dill, coriander and anise. If you toast with it, don’t forget to say “Skål” for a proper Danish cheers.
Æbleskiver — pancake balls served with icing sugar and/or jam.
If you love doughnuts or just pastries in general, you’ll love these. They’re always popular with the kids, but beware, they’ll definitely want seconds. Fun fact — the name of this treat is actually Danish for ‘apple slices’, which can be a tad misleading for foreigners.
It’s a bit like a porridge, with a base of rice and milk, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. It’s a traditional dish that is often made and eaten on December 23, with the leftovers used for the foundations of another dish called Risalamande.
Risalamande — a rice pudding dessert served with Christmas dinner.
This delicious dessert mixes traditional rice pudding with whipped cream and chopped almonds, serving it with a warm cherry sauce on top. One whole almond is also usually hidden in the batch, making it a fun game to see who gets served the almond.
Pølsevogn — means “sausage wagon” and is where you’ll find their famous hot dogs.
If you’re looking for street food you can enjoy on the go, you definitely need to check out one of Copenhagen’s many street vendors selling hot dogs — a staple for the people of this charming city. While it’s not technically a Christmas dish, it’s a must-try any time you’re in the Danish capital.
These cookies are small, but they sure pack a punch, usually spiced with things like pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. With roots dating back to the 1400s, these cookies are well and truly embedded into Denmark’s Christmas traditions.
Starting in early November, for just a few weeks each year, the Danes can enjoy their own seasonal Christmas beer. The day it’s released is fondly known as J-Day and is highly anticipated by beer lovers and Christmas enthusiasts alike.
Also known as Danish honey hearts, these traditional Christmas goodies can be found in most bakeries around Copenhagen. You’ll know them by their distinctive look — heart-shaped treats that are usually covered in dark chocolate icing.
While there are a huge range of restaurants, cafes and bars you can visit around the city, you can also usually find the Danish delicacies mentioned above at the famous Christmas markets.
4. Tick off your gift list at the Copenhagen Christmas markets
Whether you’re keen to fill your belly, do some Christmas shopping or enjoy in the spectacle of Copenhagen’s gloriously decorated streets, the Christmas markets are a must-do.
They’re full of all sorts of wonderful gift ideas, trinkets, knick-knacks, hand-made goods and tasty treats. Actually, the cool thing about the Christmas markets is they’re something the whole family can enjoy because there is so much on offer.
But put your best walking shoes on, because there are quite a few Christmas markets scattered around Copenhagen and you could hit a few if you’ve got time.
Wondering where all the best Christmas markets are held? It really depends where you’re staying and what you’re in the mood for, but here are five that are usually quite popular:
Nyhavn Christmas Market: Located along the canal, so it has a great view of one of Copenhagen’s most popular tourist hotspots.
Højbro Plads Christmas Market: It’s not far from Strøget(one of Copenhagen’s best shopping streets) so you can check out both and get all your shopping done in the one trip.
Tivoli Gardens Christmas Market: If you’re visiting the amusement park, this one’s a no-brainer. You can enjoy all the entertainment and tick-off your gift list at the same time.
Jægersborggade Christmas Market: Held in the hip neighbourhood of Nørrebro, it’s worth a visit, but this one’s usually only open for a couple of days, so check your itinerary first.
Hans Christian Andersen Christmas Market: This one is held in Nytorv and is obviously named after the famous Danish storyteller so it’s great if you’ve got kids.
5. Witness the marvel of Copenhagen’s festival of St Lucia
On December 13 many people celebrate Santa Lucia Day, a Christian tradition that pays homage to a third-century martyr. It’s a custom that was borrowed from the Swedes and has been a big thing in Copenhagen since 1944.
Traditionally on Santa Lucia Day people commemorate it by holding a procession, led by a young girl who wears a crown of candles (signifying the saint herself) followed by a parade of people wearing white, all carrying candles.
While several celebrations are held around the city, the one that attracts the most attention from visitors and travellers is probably the event at the Nyhavn canal.
This spectacle of light is a little different from the rest, in that it’s made up of hundreds of brightly lit and decorated kayaks. You can watch on from the streets and bridges as the canal is illuminated and the air fills with the singing of the kayakers and spectators.
Even if you’re not particularly religious, this procession is quite stunning to behold and a beautiful show of community spirit.
6. Try to score an invite to a Julefrokost
Just in case you get invited to a Julefrokost, it’s best you know what it is so you say “Ja!”
This is the king of all Christmas parties (usually a lunch or dinner) and is usually held by family, friends and workplaces. They can run anywhere from late November to just before Christmas and are a great way to really get into the swing of the festive season.
It’s also handy to know that they can go for hours and there’s definitely alcohol involved, so be prepared to writ off the rest of the day and night. Not that you’ll be complaining — these get-togethers are just the kind of Danish fun you want to soak up.
And if they mention there’ll be a Pakkeleg(translation: parcel game) then make sure you bring a small gift of some kind and be ready for some deadly dicing competition.
Don’t know any Danish friends and sad to know you’ll miss out on one of the most fun parts of the Danish festive season? Get yourself to a bar and start schmoozing.
7. Make the most of this winter wonderland and go ice-skating
If you’re celebrating Christmas in Copenhagen, you’ll likely spend a lot of time trying to stay warm with cosy winter coats, hot drinks and festive food, but don’t forget to embrace the icy conditions and do as the Danes do — go ice-skating.
The Frederiksberg Runddel is a popular choice. It has free entry, and you can either bring your own ice-skates or rent them.
For families with children, ice-skating in Copenhagen is a great Christmas activity and the perfect prelude to a delicious dinner out.
8. Get lost in the streets and check out some stunning Christmas displays
Christmas in Copenhagen is a feast for the eyes, so it’s the perfect city to just rug yourself up, pop on some comfortable shoes and take an evening stroll to see the sights.
As the night descends, the city lights up with many bars, restaurants, businesses and department stores adorning their facades and shopfronts with twinkling lights and decorations. Many of the streets themselves have Christmas lights hanging between the laneways, beckoning you along.
If you’re feeling a bit lost and need a starting point, it’s always worth a look at:
Tivoli Gardens: Mentioned many times already in this article, but that’s because it really is the ultimate Christmas wonderland. If you want to be dazzled, the Christmas lights here are a must.
Nyhavn: The canal is always a beautiful sight all year long, but at Christmas time it looks truly magical. If you’re around on Santa Lucia Day, the canal literally lights up with hundreds of kayaks decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.
Kronprinsensgade: This is Copenhagen’s fashion street and it lights up at Christmas.
Hotel d’Angleterre: This is a bit of a historic landmark in Copenhagen and it puts up a special Christmas façade every year, which always draws a crowd. If you’ve walked up an appetite, you can always head inside the hotel’s restaurant afterwards for some of its famous Gløgg.
Copenhagen Christmas markets: If you’re looking for a place to walk and enjoy the sights, any of the Christmas markets would make a great destination. Some have music and entertainment too, which adds to the atmosphere.
Weather in Copenhagen at Christmas time
You know that it’s going to be cold, but to be more specific, expect temperatures of anything from 3 or 4 degrees on a warmer day, to barely above freezing on a colder day. So you’ll obviously need to dress the part.
The days are also very short. You can expect the sun to go down around 4pm, so if you’re planning on doing any sight-seeing that requires sunlight, plan ahead.
But don’t be disheartened by the looming night, because the city comes alive with twinkling Christmas lights that will make you feel like you’ve stepped into a postcard. Plus, the many restaurants and bars are often lit up with candles and fireplaces that’ll warm the mood.
Oh and everyone’s favourite question: will it snow in Copenhagen at Christmas?
While there is the chance of snow, and you might get lucky, it’s probably more likely to rain than snow.
And if it does snow, it’s unlikely to be a blizzard or last very long. So, if you’re only coming for a few days, don’t get your hopes up as there’s no guarantee.
A few fun facts about Christmas in Denmark
In Denmark, Santa is called Julemanden, which translates to ‘the Yule man’ and his little helpers are called Nisse.
On December 23rd (sometimes known as Little Christmas Eve) people will traditionally make and eat Risengrød.
Children in Denmark traditionally leave out rice pudding for Santa and his elves to eat.
The Danes are fond of a special Christmas decoration called the ‘Christmas Heart’ which is usually made of red and white paper (the colours of the national flag) and hung on the Christmas tree.
For Denmark, celebrations in December go back even further than the arrival of Christianity. With the winter solstice on December 21, this time of year has been a time of celebration, tradition and ritual for the people of this region for potentially thousands of years.
Wishing you a hygge Christmas in Copenhagen
If you’re lucky enough to be in Copenhagen for Christmas, you might hear a word get thrown around a fair bit: “hygge”.
It’s a Danish word that doesn’t properly translate to English, but it kind of means ‘cosy’. Although this is a loose translation as hygge can’t really be defined with just one word, because it’s packed full of meaning. But we’ll do our best to describe it:
To experience a moment of hygge at Christmas, you might be enjoying a warm meal by the fireplace, drinking mulled wine, feeling completely content with the people you love. Or it could be as simple as wearing a snuggly pair of socks while decorating the Christmas tree.
That’s hygge. And to be honest, that sounds like the most authentically Danish Christmas you could ask for.
Oh and speaking of language, if you want to wish your new friends in Copenhagen a Merry Christmas, just put on your best Danish accent and say “Glaedelig Jul”.
Scandification: Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.