Are you too old for fairy tales? If you think so, Copenhagen is sure to change your mind.
See the city first from the water. In the harbor sits Denmark's best-known landmark: the Little Mermaid. Remember her? She left the world of the Sea People in search of a human soul in one of Hans Christian Andersen's beloved fantasies. From the harbor you can get a feel for the attractive "city of green spires." At twilight or in cloudy weather, the copper-covered spires of old castles and churches lend the city a dream-like atmosphere. You'll think you've stepped into a watercolor painting.
Copenhagen is a city on a human scale. You don't have to hurry to walk the city's center in less than an hour. Exploring it will take much longer. But that's easy. Copenhagen was the first city to declare a street for pedestrians only. The city has less traffic noise and pollution than any other European capital.
Stroll away from the harbor along the riverbanks. You'll see the modest Amalienborg Palace first. Completed in the mid-18th century, it still houses the royal family. The Danish Royal Guard is on duty. At noon, watch the changing of the guard. The guards are not just for show, however. Danes will always remember their heroism on April 9, 1940. When the Nazis invaded Denmark, the guards, outnumbered 30 to 1, aimed their guns and fired. Soldiers fell on both sides. The guards would all have been killed if the king hadn't ordered them to surrender.
Churches and castles are almost all that remain of the original city. Copenhagen became the capital of Denmark in 1445. During the late 16th century, trade grew, and so did the city. But fires in 1728 and 1795 destroyed the old wooden structures. Much of what we see today dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
See one of the spires up close-really close-at the 17th-century Church of Our Savior. Brave souls may climb the 150 stairs winding outside the spire to its top. If you're afraid of heights, or if it's a windy day, you can forget the climb. But then you'll miss the magnificent view.
Once the earth is firmly under your feet again (you'll enjoy the feeling), cross the nearest bridge to Castle Island. The curious yet majestic-looking spire ahead tops the oldest stock exchange in Europe, built in 1619. Its spire is formed from the entwined tails of three dragons. They represent Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
Keep going, to the Christiansborg Palace. The town of Copenhagen began here. Stop and visit the medieval castle. Parliament and the Royal Reception Chambers are open, too. Then continue to Nyhavn, a narrow waterway dug by soldiers in 1673. You'll understand why Hans Christian Andersen made this charming waterway his home. A specially-built mirror outside his apartment window allowed him to peek unseen at the world outside.
Nyhavn is peaceful, an ideal place for lingering and people-watching. You'll usually see them dressed casually, though they are among Europe's affluent people. Danes are taught not to stand out in a crowd. But they do know how to party, especially during holidays.
To see them having fun, and to have some fun yourself, cross Andersens Boulevard and enter Tivoli Gardens. You won't be alone. More than five million people a year come here. They come to dance, dine, take in outdoor and indoor concerts, see ballets and laugh at the mimes. One tip: Bring a lot of money. Some of the more than 20 restaurants are among the city's most expensive. Even without money, you can still enjoy the proud old trees, the colored night lights and the beautiful gardens. You might feel as if you are in a fairy tale.