As winter starts to bite, it’s a toss-up between fleeing the cold by heading to exotic climes or embracing it by heading somewhere as cold if not colder than home. Last year we decided to do the latter, with a family city break in the Danish capital Copenhagen.
We timed our visit with the opening of the Tivoli Garden’s Christmas festivities in mid November. The world’s second-oldest amusement park, dating back to 1843, is open for much of the year (April–Sept, Halloween and Christmas) but really comes into its own in winter, when the whole place becomes a riot of twinkling fairy lights, and the rides and attractions are surrounded by a Christmas market with stalls selling all manner of crafts and treats, from hot dogs and hot chocolate to traditional Danish and Russian festive delicacies. Hence, at this time of year, it’s best to wait until after dark to visit Tivoli, when the lights are all ablaze and it's at its most atmospheric.
There was plenty for all our family at the Gardens, from brilliantly original carousels and a reindeer coaster to thrill rides including include Daemonen, a rollercoaster that goes upside-down three times. Other favourites were the illuminated dragon boats, the wooden Rutschbanen rollercoaster and the drop-tower, and there was a fabulous illuminated fountains show accompanied by classical music.
The most festive place to stay in Copenhagen is the Tivoli Hotel, which offers family packages including entrance to the Tivoli Gardens. Its interconnecting family rooms sleep up to five including a baby or toddler in a cot, or there are tastefully themed Tivoli rooms sleeping four in a double and a sofabed. We found the rooms cosy, size-wise, but this was more than compensated for by the other amenities, which include a brilliant playroom with all kinds of imaginative games, an outdoor play area, and an excellent pool with a big square shallow area for play and a long narrow deep area for lap swimming. There are also two restaurants, including a brasserie with a good kids’ menu and goodie bags with puzzles and drawing materials, plus a relaxed bar and lounge also serving food.
The hotel offers babysitting, which we took advantage of, leaving our youngest two behind with a lovely elderly Danish lady while we treated our eldest son, aged 10, to the most expensive lunch of his (and our) life, at Noma – no less than the world’s best restaurant for four years according to Restaurant magazine, and holder of two Michelin stars. It was great knowing that the boys and babysitter wouldn’t be confined to the room during our four-hour lunch extravaganza and could make use of some of the hotel’s family facilities.
Adding to the festive spirit that had started as soon as we landed in Copenhagen and spotted a sparkling Christmas tree beside the runway, Santa was in attendance in the hotel lobby at certain times of the day, handing out chocolates beside a giant gingerbread house that guests can start tucking into on Christmas Eve. The hotel also hosts children’s activities at Christmas and certain other times of year.
But Copenhagen isn’t all about Christmas, of course, and we also made time to explore the city, including some of its fascinating neighbourhoods, from upmarket Frederiksberg (home to the city zoo) to the rough-and-ready former meatpacking district of Vesterbro. Overall, Copenhagen was perhaps grittier than I imagined – less picture-postcard-perfect that the cliché images of the Nyhavn canal district portray, but all the more interesting for that.
We tried, to some degree, to live like locals do, spending the second half of our stay in an apart-hotel, Charlottehaven (charlottehaven.com), a couple of local train stops north of the city centre, in Nordhavn, a harbour area from which you can watch ferries set sail for other parts of Scandinavia. Charlottehaven also boasts a pool and health club (with classes including yoga and Pilates), a great café that attracts scores of local families for its weekend brunches in particular, and opening out from the café a fantastic enclosed playground featuring a wooden dragon to ride and surrounded by tall grasses that make it fun to get lost in. The airy, minimalist apartments sleep up to five in two bedrooms, or there are smaller apartments.
On Sunday afternoon we made like local families and headed a couple of stops further north for the affluent suburb of Hellerup, home to the Experimentarium in a former warehouse. This huge interactive kids' museum might not be heaven for parents (I find them exhausting), but for my kids it was the highlight of our stay, with its temporary animatronic dinosaurs and permanent displays including a surf simulator, a bed of nails and the chance to navigate a bulk carrier into Copenhagen harbour, surpassing even the magic of the Tivoli.
Copenhagen is of course famous for its bikes, with most hotels and apartments offering loan or hire, including bakfiets (bikes with boxes or trailers on the front for kids), and wide cycle lanes absolutely everywhere. The efficient local train service also has special carriages for bikes and buggies, and stations have narrow ramps beside the steps so that you can easily wheel bikes down. Transport here as a whole is remarkably easy and hassle-free, putting us Brits to shame. We made ample use of our 72-hour cOPENhagen CARD for getting around, including to the airport; it also offers free entry to the majority of sights and attractions, including the Tivoli Gardens (a ride pass is extra).
I loved taking my kids to Copenhagen, and they loved Copenhagen. The one thing I did find frustrating was not having the time to shop here – except, that is, in the world’s largest LEGO store, which was an essential stop-off for my boys. Danish design is world-renowned for a reason, and it was torture not to have time to browse the homewares in the department store Magasin or the cute design and vintage stores of Frederiksberg or some of Copenhagen’s other funky neighbourhoods.
So while I’m sure I will return to Copenhagen with my family before too long, I’m already plotting a Christmas shopping trip, next year, without them.
Read more about family holidays and breaks in Denmark.