The idea for my trip to Copenhagen came about the way a lot of ideas for trips do: in a bar over the third pitcher of beer. But somehow, clumsily, the next day I found myself actually booking a ticket, and researching the weather in Copenhagen in March.
We were out celebrating my friend’s birthday, and she happily told me that she found an excellent deal on a direct flight from Los Angeles to CPH—something in the realm of $300 round trip. For me, someone with the heart of a vagabond but the wallet of a college freshman, that seemed too good to be true. My friend said she had already booked her ticket and was planning on doing a solo trip, but if the deal was still out there, I could come with her, if I wanted to.
I did, so I did.
“It’s going to be cold,” I remember her saying that night in the bar. I also vaguely remember myself rambling on about how the cold would certainly not be a problem; the trip was in early March, which is basically late spring here in my home climate of Southern California. In my mind, I understood that it was “going to be cold,” like 60º F, so I would bring my heaviest jacket!
Look, I get how this sounds to anyone who grew up anywhere remotely familiar with winter weather. Yes, I know Denmark is cold. And yes, I’ve been in the snow and know how cold that feels. The thing was, I didn’t understand that early March was still winter for a lot of the world. The next day, after I booked my ticket, I looked at the weather in Copenhagen. It would be hovering right around 0º celsius, which was, in American…*counts on fingers*….freezing. Legitimately, absolutely freezing. Say what now?
Luckily, my travel buddy is originally from Pennsylvania, so she helped me prepare all the keep-warm garments I’d need to be comfortable on our adventure. She explained that freezing isn’t so bad, as long as you’re dressed for it. With her help, I packed up my backpack with a parka, some long underwear, good-ass socks and boots, and basically felt like Lief Erikson on my way to chill in the Nordic snow.
Somehow, I was still surprised when our plane began its descent into Copenhagen’s airport and I saw ice—in the ocean! I couldn’t believe it, and this is still one of the coolest things about my trip for me. Seeing frozen ocean water with my own two eyes was such a foreign, captivating experience. This feeling continued when later in the trip, I went up the Danish coast to a museum on the Kattegat Straight, a section of ocean between Denmark and Sweden that connects the North and Baltic Seas. There were icebergs! Descending into Copenhagen, I was in awe, but I was also horrified that the trip was about to be much, much colder than I anticipated.
We emerged into the cold Danish night air from our metro stop—my first time breathing in the Scandinavian cold. Honestly, it felt just like regular cold. Who knew?! It was around 10pm when we arrived, but we were fresh off a 10-hour plane ride that we slept right through, so we were ready to take on Copenhagen. We took the short walk from our hostel to the famous Nyhavn canal, which you may know from the many bright, sunny, warm-looking pictures of it:
Isn’t that precious? For us, it didn’t look like that at all. That night when we first came upon it, it looked something like this:
I remember looking around the cold empty streets, wondering where we would board the boat for a canal tour the next day when the canal thawed out after the sun came up. I was still so unfamiliar with the cold—the only frozen bodies of water I’ve ever seen have been puddles in my backyard after a cold night, and those thawed in the morning light just as the Nyhavn would the next day, I presumed. I remarked this out loud to my Pennsylvanian counterpart, and she laughed. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and presumably has still not stopped laughing. The next day, during a lovely blizzard, we came to the Nyhavn once again, and were greeted by this gorgeous sight:
Beautiful, light, fluffy snow fell around us on our first day in Copenhagen, creating a quiet, soft blanket of white around the city. It was on this day that I finally understood what March in Copenhagen meant: yes, it was truly winter, and yes, as my friend had told me, it wasn’t that bad. The canals would be frozen solid for the duration of our trip, no boats took off from any dock, and instead we treated The Lakes in Copenhagen as a sidewalk (which still freaked me out, as I considered it extremely likely that the “thin” ice would inevitably break beneath me—it was at least a foot thick, and it didn’t).
While the weather in Copenhagen was somewhat of a surprise to me, there were some distinct benefits of going to visit this city before the thaw and hoards of tourists come in. There were also some things we weren’t able to see because of the time of year, however. Here is my non-exhaustive list of pros and cons of going to Copenhagen in the winter.
The cost of your visit goes way down.
Scandinavia in general, and Copenhagen in particular, are very expensive places to visit. Your average food items, like a sandwich, coffee or a cocktail are about $5 more on average than what you’re used to paying in the U.S., and flights and hotels are incredibly steep during the peak months. Our hostel was exactly half the price per night that it charges during the warm months, and our flight was almost a quarter of the price. So, go when it’s cheap and save your money for drinks—a cocktail will set you back about $20 USD in the magical land of Denmark.
The famous Little Mermaid statue usually has throngs of tourists around it, with people waiting in line for hours to take a picture with it. We went and saw Ariel during a freakin’ snowstorm and there were still quite a few people around waiting to take pictures! Seeing the famous statue commemorating the timeless Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is a must-do when you’re in Copenhagen in my opinion, but waiting to see a hunk of bronze for as long as you’d wait to go on Space Mountain would probably put a damper on the experience. Same goes for Nyhavn: the famous, colorful canal is probably the most recognized part of Copenhagen, so naturally, the most popular among tourists. While we were there, we had the run of the place, and were among the only patrons in the bars lining the water, which is fun if you don’t like waiting for beer.
It’s cold in Copenhagen, but the Danish have the cure for it: hygge. I don’t know how to pronounce that word, but I couldn’t stop saying it my entire trip. Hygge is a Danish word, or concept, really, that describes “coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.” Like yoga, hygge is a practice, and dammit are the Danish good at it. Every bar, restaurant, or shop you enter will be outstandingly comfortable: warm, well-styled, inviting, comforting, clean, simplistic. There’s nothing like coming out of the cold and into hygge—something the warmer temperatures would interfere with.
Some things are closed.
One of my Copenhagen must-dos was hopping on a boat and taking a water tour of the city and paddling about the Nyhavn. Alas, boat tours don’t run at all when the water is frozen, they’re closed completely from about November to May. There are also a lot of beautiful gardens in Copenhagen, like the King’s Garden, which was still asleep and dormant for the winter. Hubs of rose bushes stuck up out of the earth, shriveled and waiting for spring to come. I noticed the patterns of the plants and decided these gardens must be a holy sight to see in full bloom. If you go in the winter, you’ll also find Tivoli Gardens, the world’s first amusement park, closed for the season.
Apparently, we were extremely lucky to be in Copenhagen during a lovely snowfall. A bartender remarked that it only snows about 5 days a year—the rest of the time, it rains and sleets, and if it does snow, it doesn’t stick. Our last day in Copenhagen, we were treated to sleet—and for as unfamiliar as I was with snow, I was even more so with sleet, and far less impressed by it.
It’s still expensive.
Even in the offseason, the price of food, drinks and souvenirs are appalling to the American wallet. A great local pint will set you back about $7 USD, which isn’t so bad considering American craft brew prices, but terrible considering that same beer just over the border in Germany costs about $2. The Danish don’t use the euro, they have their own currency, krones, and it’s about $6.50 USD to 1 krone these days. Due to all the math required, I started ignoring the prices on menus and such, and was about to order my second cocktail until my friend stopped me, pointed to the price on the menu and asked, “Do you know how much that is?” I didn’t, but good ole Google let me know that it was $22. My drink was $22.
Despite the weather, or because of it, Copenhagen is a magical place. It’s no wonder the father of fairytales is from there, or that such a place spawned the world’s first amusement park. The Danish are among the happiest people in the world, and a short time in Copenhagen at any time of year will surely show you why.