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Nyhavn Copenhagen: The charms of an iconic canal-side neighbourhood

Nyhavn Copenhagen

The fabled city of Copenhagen has long been known as a tourist mecca, and with good reason. This stunningly gorgeous and historical seaside city is legendary for its beaches, its amazing and generous green spaces, a forward-thinking culture that values green ecology, a bicycle culture that fills the canalside streets every rush hour with old and young alike, and a vibrant music and bar scene. 

Additionally, one of Copenhagen’s greatest gifts for the visitor is that the metropolis boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to dining options, being home to 17 Michelin-starred restaurants that collectively have been awarded 22 stars. And for locals and tourists alike, there’s no better place to dine out or just pass the time over a drink with some friends and take in the view than along the Nyhavn Canal.

Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Canal district not only offers a lovely view of the city’s harbour and a host of dining options, but the canalside neighbourhood itself is spectacular as well. Nyhavn Canal extends from the Kongens Nytorv (aka the King’s New Square) half a kilometer all the way to the harbour, ending at the spectacular Royal Playhouse along the waterside. Rows of gaily-painted 17th and 18th-century buildings watch over the canal and the historic wooden boats that are tied up along the canal walls, and in warm weather the outdoor seating at the waterside restaurants and bars can get pretty packed. Sunset at Nyhavn brings out crowds of people as well, who flock to the patio spaces at restaurants, or just sit on the canal wall with their feet dangling over the edge enjoying a beverage or two as the sun descends over the water.

So it goes without saying that any visit to Copenhagen is incomplete without spending some time at Nyhavn. Here’s everything you’ll need to know in order to get the most out of your visit to one of Copenhagen’s most celebrated spots.

Nyhavn Copenhagen

The history of Nyhavn, Copenhagen

While few would dispute the beauty and charm of the Nyhavn Canal neighbourhood today, the truth is that the canal’s origin story is a little grim. In the 1600s as Denmark’s status as a world power continued to grow, the tiny Scandinavian nation’s enjoyed an outsize strength as a trading giant as well. The influence of Danish traders was felt in countries all over the world, extending not only to England and the rest of Europe, but also across the Baltic Sea and even as far as Istanbul, then known by its Eastern Roman Empire name Constantinople.

King Christian V, seeing that the limited dockside space in the main harbor was hampering trade ships from loading and unloading their goods as quickly as possible, ordered a new canal to be dug beginning in 1670. However, lacking modern heavy equipment and tools, the job of doing the actual digging fell instead to Swedish slave labor. The King ordered Swedish prisoners of war captured during the Dano-Swedish War of 1658 to 1660 to dredge out the waterway, a massive undertaking at the time and one that surely brutalized hundreds of prisoners.

Originally called the Gyldenløves Kanal, Copenhagen residents just called it Nyhavn, or “New Harbor.” Nyhavn functioned as a working maritime port for over three centuries, playing host to ships loading and unloading cargo, fishermen unloading their catch and fishmongers selling the bounty along the quay — and other kinds of trade too. As is historically common in most port cities, the areas where sailors work and rent rooms when they’re not at sea are often host to ancillary and often shady businesses that spring up in an effort to separate sailors from their pay. Nyhavn Canal was known for centuries as a seedy and even a downright dangerous area frequented by prostitutes, cutthroats and thieves, and home to all manner of sailor’s grog shops and illicit trade of all kinds. Legend has it that in the early days of the canal neighborhood opening up, city fathers and locals managed to arrange it so that one side of Nyhavn was reserved for the less-reputable types of businesses, while the other side would be strictly for the above-board, respectable people and trade. Call it Nyhavn Naughty and Nice. When you consider that the first bridge over the canal only opened in 1874, it’s perhaps not so unreasonable to imagine that such a distinction could be enforced early on in the history of Nyhavn, Copenhagen, when it was the bustling maritime trade center for the city.

Among those who frequented the canalside neighborhood in those early days was Denmark’s most famous native son, Hans Christian Andersen. He kept rooms at Nyhavn Canal for over 18 years, and wrote his first published fairy tale while he was living at No. 20. The author of such works as “Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling” not only lived there nearly two decades, he also died two doors down along the Nyhavn Canal, at No. 18. While Andersen isn’t known to have resided there, the house at No. 9 is also worth noting, as it remains much as it was when it was built in 1681, having undergone no major structural alterations in all that time.

As shipping technology developed, and ocean-going ships grew larger and larger, Nyhavn’s focus of trade shifted to smaller ships used for domestic shipping. By the end of World War II, however, trucking and overland transport of goods had developed to the point where shipping was in steep decline, leaving formerly bustling Nyhavn a ghost of its former self.

But by the mid-1960s a group of citizens formed the Nyhavn Society to pressure the government to take up the task of revitalizing the area. By 1977 Nyhavn was declared a veteran ship and museum harbor, and in 1980 the quay-side area was opened up as a pedestrian-friendly walkway, instead of a discarded, rough parking area as it had been used for decades following the decline of the port activity. Today, the north side of the canal is lined with colorful plaster and wood houses dating back to the 17th century, while the south side is dominated by sprawling mansions like the Charlottenborg Palace which is at the head of the canal near Kongens Nytorv. Bars and restaurants line the canal, and it is abuzz with activity night and day, offering fantastic views and a plethora of dining options, as well as being simply a great place to take a stroll.

Nyhavn Copenhagen

Ten fun facts about Nyhavn

  1. Let’s start with the basics: how the heck do you say Nyhavn? The pronunciation of Nyhavn for non-native Danish speakers is something of a bone of contention, but most resources say it’s something like NEE-hawn or NUE-hawn. Here’s some links that show the variation you’ll come across when you start to research this. (If you don’t speak Danish, don’t worry. Most Copenhagen residents speak English, with some speaking French and German as well. And anyway if you manage to splutter out something approximating “Nyhavn Canal” literally everyone will be able to point you in the right direction.)
  2. Nyhavn means “New Port” or “New Harbor.”
  3. In addition to the historically “naughty and nice” sides of the canal from back in the days when it was a rough-and-tumble port, the two sides of Nyhavn today are still known as the “Sunny Side,” or northern side where the majority of the colorful bars and restaurants are, and the “Shady Side,” or southern side of the canal.
  4. Hans Christian Andersen lived in three different houses along the Nyhavn Canal, spending nearly 20 years of his life there, first at No. 20, followed by No. 67, and finally at No. 18 where he died. No. 18 is now home to a souvenir shop dedicated to the author of “The Little Mermaid” and more. 
  5. No. 9 along the Nyhavn Canal is the oldest surviving structure there, having undergone no structural modification since it was first built in 1681.
  6. The area was a famous red-light district overrun with crime right up until the 1960s when a neighborhood group called for revitalization.
  7. Nyhavn is sometimes referred to as the longest bar in Scandinavia due to the strip of pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars that line the waterfront.
  8. Appropriately enough for an area that was once frequented by sailors, Nyhavn is home to the oldest continually operational tattoo parlor in the world in the basement of No. 17. It has been in operation since 1884, and counts among its famous clientele King Frederik IX.
  9. But it’s not all (formerly) seedy enterprises along the Nyhavn Canal. At one end of the strip stands a genuine palace dating back to the 17th century, the Charlottenborg Palace. Today the palace is home to the Royal Danish Academy of Art.
  10. Nyhavn’s picturesque setting has attracted filmmakers of all kinds, most famous is 2015’s “The Danish Girl” the Oscar-nominated film starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander and Amber Heard that shot several scenes there.
Nyhavn Copenhagen

What to do at Nyhavn, Copenhagen

Dining: The options for dining in Nyhavn, Copenhagen are nearly limitless, ranging from fine-dining to casual fare to snacking while listening to some jazz or rock. You can chose from fancy multi-course meals to on-the-go snacking, but be aware as a heavily trafficked tourist hub, most of the prices in Nyhavn are going to lean toward the high side. There are bargains to be found, however, if you just check out the outdoor menus before you go inside. Here are a few of the most popular choices among tourists and locals alike.

Cap Horn: This is a favorite for visitors to Nyhavn Copenhagen, with its quirky nautically-themed décor and focus on the freshest and most innovative seafood dishes. Features both indoor and outdoor seating in case the Sunny Side of the canal isn’t so sunny on the day you visit.   

Leonora Christine: Here you’ll find a casual, cozy dining experience featuring a great way to try traditional Danish “open sandwiches” among other local favorites. Leonora Christine is also a great place for grabbing a beer and people-watching while you dine out on the patio.

Barock: If burgers are more your taste, Barrock is a good choice for casual fare that won’t break the bank (any more than any other casual place along Nyhavn.) It’s a quieter place but still has indoor/outdoor seating so you can enjoy watching the people make their way to Nyhavn at the head of the canal.

Bars: Again, the entire canal is lined with restaurants, cafes and bars of all sorts, and the adjoining neighborhood is loaded with options as well, so it’s really all about your taste in atmosphere and music. However, here are a few top choices.

Nyhavn 17: This venerable spot has been open since 1936, and is a favourite among locals and visitors alike, offering a great variety of beers on tap as well as a wonderful selection of whiskies. Live music shows and casual dining are featured as well. 

Fisken Pub: Another great casual pub for enjoying a beer along the canal as well as excellent live music most nights.

Tipsy Mermaid: The name of this unique spot takes on a double meaning when you realize it’s located on a docked boat right on the harbor. Fun atmosphere, great craft beers, and incredible views in a one-of-a-kind location looking across the harbor.

Nyhavn Hotels: There are a number of excellent choices for staying right near the heart of things along the canal, ranging from the low-cost Bedwood Hostel to the mid-range Hotel Bethel and many more. But special mention must be given to 71 Nyhavn. It’s a grand old hotel built in a renovated warehouse originally built in 1805 and sitting right at the corner of the canal entrance on the harbor. The family of the original owner retained control of the building until it was sold in 1970 and converted into one of the most arresting and beautiful hotels in the world. With unmatched views and sleek décor that fits nicely with the building’s original brick and timber construction, the hotel is worth at least a visit as you stroll up and down Nyhavn, Copenhagen.

Nyhavn Copenhagen

Other highlights

Take a canal tour: As the story of Nyhavn is of course intertwined with the sea and shipping, it makes sense that the area celebrates all things maritime. Among the best ways for viewing some of the must-see sights for visitors hoping to get the most out of Nyhavn, Copenhagen, there are numerous companies offering boat tours of the area that launch from Nyhavn. The tours will give you a boat’s-eye view of some of Nyhavn and Copenhagen’s most recognized sites, including Christianshavn and the Copenhagen Opera House.

Christmas in Nyhavn: Christmas holidays in Nyhavn are spectacular, with lights up and down the canal, a market along the cobblestones featuring all kinds of Danish treats and traditional crafts, as well as Christmas-themed performances and other holiday delights. Restaurants in the area feature Christmas-themed menus as well, offering traditional Danish delicacies and an all-around charming ambience to bring out the Christmas-loving kid in even the most cynical Scrooge.

Sunset: Sunsets are unbeatable in Nyhavn, but if you want to enjoy them to the fullest, be sure to scout out a good outdoor cafe or spot along the canal early and stake out a spot, as people flock to the area every evening.

How to get there

With Copenhagen’s spectacular pubic transportation system, getting to Nyhavn without driving couldn’t be easier. From Norreport take the 350S bus to the Kronprinsessegade stop, just four stops down. From there walk about ten minutes along Gothersgade until you pass the Kongens Nytorv and see the canal ahead. Other options include taking the No. 66 bus to the Nyhavnsbroen stop which is just a few steps away from the canal.

If you’re coming from the airport, it’s just a simple 22-minute ride on the M2 metro to the Kongens Nytorv stop and then you’re just steps away from the beginning of the canal. 

However you pronounce it, Nyhavn is a jewel in the crown that is Copenhagen. Located at the juncture of the city’s history and its unique path toward the future, Nyhavn Copenhagen is a must-see for anyone who wants to get to know this amazing city!

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