Last weekend I saw Copenhagen as it’s meant to be seen: from a bicycle.
An excursion to the German embassy to apply for a residence permit turned into a weekend-long trip to Denmark’s capital city. Instead of my usual diary-style narrative, I’m going to write you a “listicle” (list + article) around a topic: Copenhagen on a budget.
Denmark is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and Copenhagen is the most expensive city in Denmark. It can be tough to enjoy your stay there if you’re constantly worrying about money, especially if you (like me) are on a shoestring student budget. So here are Alison’s Super Duper Handy Dandy Money-Saving Tips for Living in Copenhagen.
1. Move like a Dane
Sure, it’s got great infrastructure and public transit. Between the buses, metro, and regional trains passing through, it’s easy to quickly get where you need to go. But why would you do that, when you can travel in true Danish style – on a bicycle?
Don’t let the words “biggest city in Denmark” fool you. Although some have called it the capital of Scandinavia, Copenhagen is actually quite geographically small. Most places worth seeing can be reached by bicycle in 20 minutes or less. Assuming you’ve already got a bike in Europe, however, it’s probably best to leave it at home – it costs extra to bring your bike on the train, and not all trains take them. Instead, see if you can borrow a bike from a friend (read: Couchsurfing or AirBnB host), or in case of emergency, rent one. Even if renting a bike winds up costing the same as if you’d taken public transit, you’ll see so much more of the city. And best of all, you’ll feel super hip and cool, just like all those Danish students gracefully gliding around.
The previous weekend I’d met a French student who lives in Copenhagen and was visiting Aarhus. We met up again on Friday and he gave me a lovely bicycle tour of some of the neighborhoods of Copenhagen. Copenhagen has an actual bicycle highway – that is, a path just for bikes, it doesn’t even follow the motorways – going through all of the major neighborhoods. We cycled along it, stopping frequently so my friend could tell me about different community gardens, cultural centers and parts of the city. (Click on the photos to enlarge them).
2. Eat like a Dane
Maybe you’ve read about the famous smørrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) in your guidebook. They’re kind of the national dish of Denmark. Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be – it’s literally just a slice of bread with stuff on it. However, if you really want to have this cultural experience, I recommend not paying 100kr+ for one at a cafe, and instead making your own.
#ProTip: Buy the ingredients from a discount supermarket the night before and pack some sandwiches with you to eat throughout the day. If you want to be REALLY Danish, don’t use white bread. Danes love their rye bread. The darker, the better. This bread also fills you up better than white bread, though it is a bit of an acquired taste. Unfortunately there aren’t very many vegetarian styles of smørrebrod – you’re pretty much limited to bread and cheese. Still, it’s a great, cheap way to fill yourself up, though it may not be the most delectable option.
3. Stay with friends, couch surf, or use AirBnB
Obviously one of the more expensive parts of traveling is going to be accommodation, so the more money you can save with that, the better. I was fortunate in that Couch Surfing Thomas, who I’d met my very first night in Aarhus, now lives in Copenhagen and offered me a place to stay for one night. I was unlucky, however, in that he partied a little too hard the night before and was unable to answer his phone the entire day I was supposed to be staying with him, leaving me scrambling to find a place to stay. Luckily, Julia from the Train was traveling that weekend and renting out her apartment through AirBnB, where she let me stay at a discounted rate. It turns out she lived in a beautiful apartment on Nørrebrogade near the university. It was so nice, I wasn’t even mad that I had to pay for an extra night.
That’s one of my favorite things about traveling – it begets more traveling. The more people you meet, the more people you need to visit, and the more excuses you have to go to another city/country.
4. Do free stuff
There are plenty of attractions in Copenhagn you can do for free, so if budgeting is an issue, prioritize doing the free stuff before paying for something. The National Museum of Denmark and the Statens Museum for Kunst, for instance, are completely free, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is free on Sundays.
I would personally recommend the National Museum for a rainy day – it’s got tons of artifacts from Danish history, from ancient Viking relics to medieval Christian crosses to stuff from basically every decade of the 20th century.
Tempting as it is to go to Tivoli (Denmark’s oldest amusement park), bear in mind that entrance alone will set you back about 100kr, and each ride is about 100 more. Oh, and there are no student discounts.
Looking is also free. There are several parts of the city that are really pleasant to just walk around. The first time I went to Copenhagen, I stayed almost exclusively in the main train station area, which was actually really boring. This time, my home base was in the colorful international neighborhood of Nørrebro, with streets full of ethnic restaurants and hip cafes, partially due to its proximity to the university. A really gorgeous walk for a sunny day is from Nyhavn to the Little Mermaid – you’ll pass the marble church, the palace gardens, see the opera from across the harbor and watch the ships go by. That said, the waterfront is not a pleasant place to be on a rainy day, so plan this accordingly.
#ProTip: The public restrooms located beneath the canal tours at Nyhavn are super swanky, well-maintained, and don’t cost any money.
5. Skip The Little Mermaid
Widely considered to be a symbol of Copenhagen, the Little Mermaid statue is located a bit northeast of the city center. It is a monument to the most famous Dane who ever lived, good old Hans Christian Anderson. Unfortunately, it will take you a good distance away from the other attractions to see it, the parks surrounding it are only really nice when the weather’s nice (read: never), and it’s exactly as underwhelming as you would expect a statue would be. When I went, it was cold, there was a heavy mist in the air, and it was surrounded by tourists taking selfies. This is definitely an attraction for a sunny day, and not to be prioritized if you’ve only got a day or two in Copenhagen. That said, the walk from Nyhavn along the harbor past the marble church and the palace gardens is quite lovely, unless of course it is cold and miserable outside, in which case you will also be cold and miserable by the time you reach the darn thing.
6. Shop like a Dane
If you know anything about Copenhagen, you’ve probably heard of the Free City of Christiania, an independent community living in the centrally-located Christianshavn in the middle of Copenhagen. I’ve written about it before so I won’t go into detail here. But just know that it’s definitely worth a visit.
Now, marijuana is illegal in Denmark, which means it’s technically illegal in Christiania. However, the Free Citizens of Christiania tolerate (if not outright support) the buying, selling, possession of this controlled substance, though they have a zero-tolerance policy for anything more. It is so tolerated, in fact, that there is a section of Christiania known as Pusher Street, where you can (illegally) buy hash and weed from these sketchy little kiosks. For obvious reasons, photography is not permitted in this area, so I have no pictures to share with you.
Because there is so much competition among the drug dealers in Christiania, and because the industry is so well-organized (not in the least due to the fact it is controlled by biker gangs, specifically the Hell’s Angels), I am told it is actually the cheapest place to get the highest-quality products in Denmark. Now, I myself would never do anything illegal, but I understand that if you approach a kiosk, you will be approached by a man in a hooded sweatshirt with a scarf pulled up over his face, he will ask what you’re looking for and make an offer, and you may just be able to walk away with what you were looking for. Or so I’m told. I don’t do illegal things.
7. Eat at the best cafe in all of Denmark
Forget the Michelin-starred restaurants. The best food in Denmark is actually right there in Christiania at Cafe Morgenstedet. Be sure to stop there on your way out, even if you don’t have the munchies. The food is delicious, cheap, and vegan (something rare to find in Denmark). The cafe is cozy, and it’s really cheap – I got a bowl of hearty vegetable soup with bread for just 50kr, a price essentially unheard of in Denmark.
8. Find a Folkekøkken
A Folkekokken, or People’s Kitchen, is a place where people get together and cook together. This saves a lot of money, as well as builds communities and forms friendships. Unfortunately, most of the Folkekøkken I’ve heard about in Copenhagen tend to be rather tight, closed communities, however there’s one in Aarhus that is completely free and open to the public. I recently wrote an article about it for The Local. If you’ve got time and want to spend your Sunday afternoon hanging out with awesome people and cooking delicious vegan food, I’d highly recommend it.
9. Choose your bars wisely
If you just want to barhopping and walk into whatever place looks nice, be prepared to cough up for it. A half liter of beer at a typical bar can cost upwards of 50kr. If you’re a student, Friday bars and the Student House are great for drinking on the cheap. If not, Cafe Retro, which is run mostly by volunteers, is also a good place to drink cheap.
10. Live in a container
As with many major cities, housing in Copenhagen is extremely expensive. Affordable housing is a hot commodity, and as the demand is currently larger than the supply, extremely difficult to find. So some people have taken matters into their own hands and brought the micro-housing trend to Copenhagen. The previous weekend, Copenhagen’s one and only Containerby (Container City) had celebrated its opening.
This housing is meant to be sustainable and affordable. Besides being built largely from recycled and reclaimed materials, the ‘city’ also has rain barrels, compost, a vegetable garden, chickens, and a sustainable rainwater handwashing station.