Wander through the cobblestoned, narrow streets of Copenhagen and you will find shops, venues and attractions that will tell you a thing or two about Danish culture and society. But, to truly get to grips with the Scandinavian city and learn more about its past, visit one of Copenhagen’s best museums.
Copenhagen is a small but fascinating city. From its history as a Viking settlement to its acclaimed Scandinavian architecture, the Danish capital has long been an important European location, and its selection of captivating museums help tell the story of both Copenhagen and Denmark’s evolution. Culture Trip spoke to curator Julija Balukevica about where to go in Copenhagen to find out about its fascinating history.
National Museum of Denmark
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The National Museum of Denmark is located in the 18th-century former Prince’s Mansion | Courtesy of National Museum of Denmark
Take a step back in time and head to the 18th-century Prince’s Mansion, which now houses the National Museum of Denmark, displaying anything from ethnographic collections to a coin and medal collection – and there’s even a toy museum. Baulkevica particularly recommends the museum’s “Meet the Danes” guided tour, saying: “[It] shows you how Vikings and mummies lived together under one roof right in the heart of Copenhagen.” Local volunteers give these tours for free, allowing visitors to hear their perspective on Danish history. Pro tip: Don’t pack a lunch when you visit, as the museum makes the best sandwiches in town.
The National Gallery of Denmark displays the most prestigious Danish royal collections, as well as holding special exhibitions and workshops. It’s Denmark’s largest art museum, and displays captivating art from the 1300s until the present day, making it a wonderful place to learn about the country itself as well as Western European culture. “Its weekly art talks are a perfect way to learn about how history has influenced Danish culture,” advises Balukevica. “Take time to lose yourself in each room, and make sure to end your journey with a glass of wine at Kafeteria.” The museum’s café has been elegantly designed by artist Danh Vo, who has combined classic Danish design with furniture by Italian designer Enzo Mari and light sculptures from Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi.
Take a deep breath as you enter The Black Diamond, a newly designed entrance to the library building, with Per Kirkeby’s impressive 200 square-metre (2,100 square-foot) painting on the ceiling. For Balukevica, the Royal Danish Library demonstrates “the Danish success of mixing old and new.” The design is particularly notable: “Mirroring the sea, the black shiny glass building is the home of treasures inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, such as a collection of about 2,000 books by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus or manuscripts and correspondence of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.” says Balukevica. “All the Danish knowledge you could possibly absorb is held here.”
Glyptoteket was designed as a Greco-Roman winter garden; a wild oasis of water fountains and tall palms, the museum’s greatness has more to do with how it was created than the art it exhibits. As Balukevica explains, “Carl Jacobsen, Carlsberg’s owner, dedicated his private art collection to the city in 1888,” giving rise to Glyptoteket. The move was also “an example of the Danish tradition of always giving something back to their country,” says Balukevica. Jacobsen was an antiquities art collector, and the museum exhibits sculptures and paintings from throughout the ages, including Danish Golden Age artworks and French Post-Impressionism, and there are even works by big-name artists such as Rodin, Monet and Renoir. The museum offers free entrance on Tuesdays, making it a great spot if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen during the week.
Taking a glimpse of Copenhagen from above is usually on many travellers’ to-do lists, so why not combine the experience with a light history lesson? Put on your walking shoes and get ready for a cultural workout by climbing the famous Round Tower in central Copenhagen. The 209-metre (686-foot) spiral walk up the 17th-century tower takes you to a panoramic view of the city. Commemorating Denmark’s astronomical achievements, the tower is still used as an observatory, “making it the oldest functioning observatory in Europe,” says Balukevica. On the way up, you’ll pass through the Library Hall, which houses changing exhibitions. Once at the top, perhaps share a victory kiss with your loved one on the kyssebænken (the kissing bench).
Combine your passion for music with knowledge by going back in time to learn about prominent Danish musical figures at the Danish Music Museum. Suitable for both kids and adults, visitors can practise playing everything from the harp to the xylophone, or quainter instruments, such as the ‘amoeba-shaped violin’, ‘the giraffe piano’, and the ‘sausage bassoon’. Then move from the past to the future at Flexspace, the museum’s new area that showcases instruments of the future, where you’ll be able to record your voice into an instrument called a Caleidoscope or become a DJ for a day on the museum’s own MashMachine.
Art can be found anywhere, and this unusual gallery space is proof of that. Dating back to the 13th century, St Nicolai Church hosts Copenhagen’s most innovative and engaging contemporary art hall. The immaculate architecture plays the role of a blank canvas for the always-changing futuristic exhibitions, showcasing the active role that art plays in Danes’ lives. Situated not far from the colourful Nyhavn neighbourhood, Nikolaj Kunsthal is a lively house with concerts, talks and performances. The venue is popular among locals, making it an ideal place to visit if you’re looking to get insight into Danish culture.
If world-class art and architecture is your niche, ARKEN is the ultimate destination for you. Hosting one of Scandinavia’s finest collections of contemporary art, it contains around 400 Danish, Nordic and international works from the 1990s on. Situated just 30 minutes by train from Copenhagen Central Station, the not-for-profit museum is surrounded by water and can only be accessed via a bridge that takes you to the manmade beachscape on which it sits.