Budget Copenhagen: How to survive a trip to Denmark

Scandinavia has the reputation as being the most expensive corner of the world, but the true reality of day to day expenses don’t really kick you in the shin until you’re on the ground in Copenhagen. Bus fare on many routes costs more than cab fare across some developing countries. A double espresso can set a weary traveler back $6, $7 or even $8 in the most trafficked areas, while fine dining is almost comically expensive.

Budget travel just isn’t a well served market in Copenhagen. It’s traditionally a place where you go to have the best seafood of your life or stay in the nicest hotel that you’ve ever conceived, not a destination for wayward backpackers or travelers looking to save a penny.

It’s there though, in the thin small cracks between double-lacquered facades and woven into the threads of the ubiquitous Lyle and Scott sweaters. A small seam of budget centric activities weaves through the town of Copenhagen, and exploited correctly, it can even yield a fair amount of fun. Gadling Labs spent a long weekend sifting through the streets of the city and filed this report:

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Dining
Don’t even think about spending time down town or near the hallowed grounds of Noma if you want to survive the night with the contents of your pocketbook. Instead, consider spending time in the more residential, popular neighborhoods of Nørrebro and Vesterbro. Each of these districts has its own charm; Vesterbro used to be the heart of the red light district, and there are still a few shops and related “activities” in the area. Nørrebro, on the other hand, is home to a much more cross-cultural community, and has the cuisine and nightlife that goes in hand.

In our time in the city, recommendations for one particular budget restaurant came to us over and over: The Laundromat Cafe (Elmegade, 15). Perched on a welcoming corner in Nørrebro, the Laundromat is half burger bar and half (you guessed it) laundromat, though at this point, its clientele is there primarily for the good cheap eats and the community. Stop by here any time after seven in the evening and it’ll be packed, but stick around — turnover is high and space almost always opens up within a few minutes.

If you absolutely must stay near the city center, however, consider stopping by Madklubben (Kongensgade, 66) for the affordable gastrofare with a Danish spin. Their downtown bistro, is a subterranean low-lit, mecca for great food and community. Just make sure you call in for a reservation a week in advance — there’s little room for passers-by here.

Another great spot downtown is Paludan (Fiolstræde 10), a multi-level cafe and restaurant nestled inside shelves and floors of books. If you want atmosphere, this place has it — it’s a sprawling, mood-lit meeting place where one can go to be surrounded by books and to grab either a quick coffee or a make larger plans for dinner, drinks, friends and people watching.

When we stopped by Paludan last month there was a Banksy themed art exhibit on display on the upper floor, and the British proprietor personally offered to take us out into the city to show us the town. That’s a sort of class that we appreciate.

In the worst of cases, there’s always the street food. Like in the scenes in Stockholm and Helsinki, hot dogs take the throne for quick street munchies, especially after a night out at the bar. And like its Swedish neighbor, the Danish hot dog comes flush with toppings — most outstandingly, the crunchy onions. One can pick up a simple hot dog on the street for about 4USD.

Accommodations and getting around
With an unfavorable exchange rate and the hotel market fairly pricey, booking rooms is one of the most important tasks that one can resolve before planning too deeply for Copenhagen. Luckily, the budget options are fairly widespread. Airbnb yields over 160 results for vacation rooms, flats or homes in the Copenhagen area, while hostelworld lists over two dozen properties.

The key, however, is making sure that your location is ideal. The city center has the majority of tourist attractions, public transit hubs and activities for the visiting traveler, but can be more expensively. Our preference? Stay in Nørrebro for the Brooklyn style experience. It’s close. It’s full of bars and restaurants. It’s quaint. And it won’t nosedive your budget to the bottom of the ocean.

If you do end up staying outside of the city center, you’ll most definitely save a few dollars but on the flipside you’ll also have to deal with public transportation. Copenhagen’s bus system is surprisingly clean and well run (converse to its subway system which was littered with trash and broke down on the way to the airport) and a visitor should have no difficulty in navigating it’s simple system. If in doubt, a nearby Dane can give you directions on which bus to take, and they’re almost always willing to talk.

The problem, however, is that public transportation is astonishingly expensive. Fares can run as high as $4-$5 in each direction and with a few trips over a day that can really add up.

Your best bet is probably to get a tourist, weekend or multi punch card. All of those can be purchased at the airport on the way in or at numerous kiosks around the city. Copenhagen’s transportation website has more info for planning purposes.

Tourist Attractions
In a similar vein to bulk, public transport for tourists, there’s also a great way to explore some of the better sites in the city with one, massive tourist pass. It’s called the cOPENhagen Card, and it gives one free access to over sixty museums, ALL public transportation and several public attractions as well as discounts at a nice range of shops and restaurants. In short: it’s worth every penny. One can pick up a cOPENhagen Card at the airport upon arrival or at a few other spots in the city at about $45USD for a 24 hour pass or $90 for a 72 hour pass. Kids passes cost slightly less.

Without a cOPENhagen Card or a strong budget, however, there are still a few interesting spots to see in the city on a shoestring.

Freetown Christiania is probably the most surreal tourist experience than one can have in this city. Christiania is an autonomous neighborhood on the eastern edge of Copenhagen with a completely different infrastructure, building plan and residential profile. Visitors can navigate the network of misaligned and oft-unpaved streets to find residents milling about in groups, some gathered around flaming barrels keeping warm and others setting up shop and selling mixed goods, including no small amount of hash and hash-related paraphernalia. Restaurants, bars and cafes are set up in this strange ecosystem, and the residents are surprisingly friendly despite their contentious relationship with the Danish government. Christiana is definitely worth walking through for at least the contrast from everyday Copenhagen.

On nicer days, a visit to the Tivoli Gardens is also a great way to experience the city and not spend too much cash. Just south of Copenhagen University and smack dab in the center of the city, the gardens host hectares and hectares of beautiful local and foreign fauna, and a stroll through these grounds can set any mind at ease.

And if it’s rainy? As in most cities, Copehnagen has its fair share of museums — a fairly high density of them at that. There’s the design museum. There’s the history museum. There’s the pirate museum. In the city center, anywhere you look there’s a good museum, and in the cold winter months that dominate the year these are the places to which a budget traveler should flock for warmth. Us your cOPENhagen Card if you want to get good cheap access to a broad range of the museums, but if you want to hand select a few we’d suggest going with the DesignMuseum Danmark. Showcasing the best of Danish design in a well-lit, circular building, the DesignMuseum delivers a concise, appealing package of exhibits in an easy to digest, friendly manner.

Another great rainy day activity can be found in the Lego store (Vimmelskaftet 37). Originally created in Denmark, there’s still a fair volume of pride in ownership of the Lego brand here in Copenhagen, and one of the best places to see this is in one of their flagship stores. Here you can take part in all of the new brands and products that the company is unveiling, marvel at a few massive Lego creations and even build your own mix-n-match packet of Legos to bring back to your nephew (though we know its for you).

[Editor's note: Some of this content was researched under the supervision of Tourism Copenhagen, though their support had no effect on our experiences]