Taking a Boat Tour of Copenhagen

“Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen…” It was a Danny Kaye song from the movie Hans Christian Andersen, and talk about a hook! When I was a kid, the melody snuck in like an ear worm. So, in the way that travel dreams are born, I wanted to go to Copenhagen.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Copenhagen is a city of the sea, and it makes sense to see it that way.
  • The tour passes some of the city’s highlight palaces, public buildings, and historic sites.
  • Good for families, photo buffs, history and architecture buffs, tourists with tired feet.

Nyhavn is an outdoor museum showcasing historic boats.

One of the best ways to get oriented to its main landmarks is to take a canal and harbor tour. Canal Tours Copenhagen boats leave from the Nyhavn, the city’s most photographed street, where multi-colored houses dating from the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries overlook a canal chock full of historic sailing vessels. Don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble finding Nyhavn: It’s a sort of tourism epi-center right off the main harbor, and you’ll undoubtedty end up eating at least a few meals there or taking in the street scenes from one of the many bars and taverns. The canal, which runs down the middle of the street, is actually a museum, with the south side reserved for ships belonging to the Danish National Museum. The north side is managed by the Nyhavn Society, which allows privately-owned wooden ships to dock. Smack in the middle are the tourist boats.

You don’t need to reserve: The tours run throughout the day; just buy a ticket for the next available departure and hop on.

The Copenhagen Opera House is a public favorite — for its indoor presentations and its outdoor public space.

Copenhagen by Water

I hopped on and the boat left, floating past the beautiful old ships with their complex riggings and heavy sails. We headed across the harbor to get a close view of the Copenhagen Opera House, a public space beloved not only for its musical presentations, but for its outdoor space. Indeed, one of the things you can’t help but notice in Copenhagen is how much the locals love their outdoor spaces, whether traditional sidewalk cafes on treelined streets or parks under the shadows of cutting-edge architecture.

Boating past the The Royal Library

The tour continued on, making a loop around the harbor and then dipping into the canals. We passed Amalienborg Castle, the former naval base of Holmen, The Royal Library (The Black Diamond), Christiansborg (seat of the Danish Parliament), the Stock Exchange, and the striking twisted spire of Our Saviour’s Church. In the canals, we cheerfully ducked to avoid being decapitated by the low bridges and waved to coffee-sipping cafe-goers on land.

Mermen and Mermaids

The Little Mermaid is probably Copenhagen’s most famous landmark: The wistful 4-foot-tall bronze sculpture stares out to sea, more pensive and serious than a fairy tale character should ever be.  Created and installed in 1913, she has lived here her whole life, except for a brief sojourn to — of all places — China in 2010. When she was there, a life video screen hookup (placed on the rock where she usually lives) showed a live feed of her and her Chinese visitors to disappointed Copenhagen tourists.

Ducking to avoid the tunnels

Famous the Little Mermaid may be, but I found another Copenhagen sculpture on the tour to be more intriguing: “Agnete and the Merman” (”Agnete og Havmanden”) is a sculpture by Suste Bonnén created in 1992 and installed underwater. The sculpture tells the legend of a young girl who fell in love with a merman. She joined him at the bottom of the sea and had a family of seven sons. But one day, she heard the sound of churchbells and felt homesick. She left for church, promising to return, but never did. Here, by the bridge near Højbro Square, you can see the Merman and his sons, one of them an infant in this arms, reaching their hands to the surface, pleading with the unseen Agnete to come home.

You can’t get nearly as good a look at the merman as you can of the mermaid; he is, after all, submerged in the murky brown-green water. But his urgent gestures, and those of his seven small sons, reach out to the viewers. I can’t help but think that if he and the Little Mermaid could only meet, they could forget their human follies and sink back to the sea where they belong, leaving all that pain and yearning here in our earthbound world.


  • Canal Tours Copenhagen and Netto Boats are the two main companies. Tours last about an hour. Commentary is in Danish and English, and usually German; sometimes other languages are available.
  • This is a good activity for mid-day, when you might want to give your tired touring feet a rest.
  • Hop on – Hop off boat and bus tour tickets are also available from Canal Tours Copenhagen, and allow you to spend as much time as you lifke at any of the attractions en route.

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