Worldwide: 48 hours in ... Copenhagen

Celebrated she may be, but the Little Mermaid is just one tiny part of Copenhagen's weird and wonderful attraction, discovers David Sandhu

Why go now?

The European air-fare price-war makes Copenhagen an affordable option for a weekend break. And, with the opening of the Kastrup airport rail- link, you and your hand luggage could be in Copenhagen's central station within two hours (an average 1hr 40min flight plus a short train ride) of leaving London.

Copenhagen is still not geared up for large numbers of visitors - accommodation is much easier to find outside the summer season.

Beam down

The arrival of BA's low-cost airline, Go (0845-60 54321), at Stansted has applied downward pressure to fares. Its pounds 100 return has triggered a similar offer from SAS (0845-607 2772; from Heathrow and Stansted).

Get your bearings

Detailed street maps are featured in Copenhagen This Week, available from Kastrup Airport's tourist information booth. The new rail-link will speed you into Central Station in 12 minutes.

Despite being the biggest city in Scandinavia (population: 1.5 million) and one of the world's great ports, Copenhagen is cyclist- and pedestrian- friendly, and easily negotiated without much resort to public transport.

Most tourist sights fall within a two-mile radius. If you want to follow the Danes' example, hire a bicycle (about pounds 4 per day; try Kobenhavns Cykler: 00 45 33338613), or use one of the city's free bikes (20kr/pounds 2 deposit): well advertised and spokeless, they are tricky to ride and epitomise the word "boneshaker".

Check in

If you get the chance, check into Room 606 at the SAS Radisson Royal (00 45 33426 000). This is the Arne Jacobsen suite, featuring the revered architect's original 1959-60 interior designs. Situated right in the centre of town, the hotel costs pounds 180-pounds 200 a night.

Mid-range hotels still fairly pricey, but much better value within a 10-minute walk of the twin tourist hubs of Kongens Nytorv and Radhuspladsen. On Bregade, for example, The Esplanaden (00 45 33913200) provides a standard room with friendly staff and an excellent breakfast buffet for about pounds 70 per night.

At the budget end, Cab-Inn (00 45 35361111; pounds 40) has quirky decor and clean, adequate rooms.

Take a ride

Until 18 October, you can take a 50-minute harbour and canal tour from Nyhavn for pounds 4 - look out for the Netto boats, which are even cheaper. The rush of speed is refreshing, and it's also a great way to get a sense of the city. But stay seated, as the bridges are low.

Take a hike

Start at Nyhavn, a canal originally dug 300 years ago for traders to enter the city. It is now lined by touristy bars and restaurants, including a house (No 67) once inhabited by Hans Christian Andersen. It's an obvious tourist mecca, but the atmosphere, particularly on a fine day is unbeatable. Don't linger too long, though. Take a walk up Bregade to see the Sankt Ansgars Kirke Roman Catholic church, then stroll through to the docks for the obligatory Little Mermaid photographs (emphasis on "Little"). From here, head inland to the Amalienborg Palace, home to Denmark's royal family since 1794. If the family is in residence, watch the change of the guard at noon. If there's still time, head back up Bregade to the Decorative Art museum, which looks at international design over the last 300 years - a real jewel in a city with many great museums.

Lunch on the run

You won't go far in Copenhagen without finding a Danish hot-dog stand. There are two basic kinds: "reds", the boiled, fun-fair version; and the more substantial fried variety, which comes with onions and pickles. As yet, there's no vegetarian option - but then there are always the numerous waffle stands.

Cultural afternoon

"From the Marquis De Sade to spanking today..." You shouldn't need an excuse to visit Museum Erotica (Kobmagergade 24), but if you insist - how about the museum's claim that Denmark was the first country to legalise pornography back in 1968, or the fact that a visit to this strange hybrid of peep show and serious anthropological exhibition isn't as seedy as you might expect? The "history of sex" takes us from Prehistoric cave paintings to early 20th-century French blue movies before climaxing with a jaw-dropping video-wall montage of modern porn. Some of the rather shabby exhibits could do with a passion injection of their own, and the dilapidated Punch & Judy-style recreation of a Copenhagen brothel, for instance, is hilarious. In addition, there's an entire room dedicated to the lurid details of famous people's sex lives, which make Clinton look positively virtuous.

Window shopping

The Storget, Europe's longest pedestrian street, is worth the lengthy detour - you are bound to find yourself here at some point anyway. The best (window) shopping opportunities are for furniture and glassware: try Illums Bolighus for modern Danish design. It's also conveniently situated next to the Royal Copenhagen shop, specialising in porcelain, glass, crystal and silver.

An aperitif

There are dozens of trendy bars in nearby areas like Vesterbro, Norrebro and Christianshavn as well as central Copenhagen. But for location (just off the Storget), modern interiors and a hip crowd, Europa (Amagertorv 1) proves a great introduction to Danish cafe society. Just don't choke on your Tuborg Classic when the bill arrives - pounds 4-pounds 5 per pint is standard.

Demure dinner

A herring buffet is not to everybody's taste. Nor, in many cases, are the inflated restaurant prices.

Centrally, Riz Raz, on Kompagnistrde 0 (00 45 33 150575), has been the saviour of many a backpacker. This white-washed oasis does a superb vegetarian buffet for around pounds 7 a head. Along the length of Kompagnistrde are a collection of fashionable cafes and bars frequented by Copenhagen's smart set - you're less likely to meet elderly Americans just off the boat here.

Built on the site of Denmark's oldest monastery (1238), Peder Oxe's Vinkaelder (00 45 33110077) is a beer-cellar in the secluded Gra Bra Torv square, where people sit wrapped in wool blankets. Always lively, this bar and restaurant (great for meat and fish) plays host to Copenhagen trendies and foodies alike.

For industrial-design addicts, there's the metal lighthouse of the Rotundin (00 45 39612696), situated next to the deserted Tuborg brewery three miles north of the city centre in Hellerup. From the top of this post-modern marvel you can see over the prosperous suburbs to small sandy inlets.

Sunday service

Located in the heart of the Christianshavn area (at Sankt Anna Gade 29) is the 17th-century Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Saviours church), with its saintly baroque interior. There's a great view from the recently reopened gold-tipped steeple. But the low railing is not for the faint-hearted - the last steps along the outside of the tower narrow right up to the tip.

Bracing brunch

As you're already in the Christianshavn area, take a 15-minute stroll down Holmen (the deserted naval docks) to Base Camp, a cavernous nightclub renowned for its Sunday brunch. For pounds 7 a head you can fill your army boots from an eclectic buffet alongside weary clubbers, noisy families and chilled- out Christiania hippies to a soundtrack of amiable live jazz.

A walk in the park

Welcome to the "Free State of Christiania". What now appears to be a permanent Glastonbury festival was once an abandoned military camp. In 1971, the 41 hectares of land were taken over by an unholy alliance of squatters and hippies, who designated it a "free state". During the last 27 years, the government has tried to close it down many times, and its free-law approach has been tempered (hard drugs, for example, have been totally outlawed).

Ignore the large dogs and "unconventional" characters at the entrance - Christiania is quite safe, especially during the day - and a few hundred yards later you'll arrive at the aptly named Pusher Street (photographs forbidden), where hash, weed and accessories are openly displayed (smoking joints is not strictly legal). Further on, there are restaurants, a couple of bars (cheap, tax- free beer) and enclaves of architecturally challenging housing.

Police raids on Christiania are routine - the last took place in August - but things were back to "normal" within hours.

The icing on the cake

Ascend the Rundetarn (Kobmagergade 52), a 35m-high tower, built by King Christian IV in 1642, and now Europe's oldest functioning observatory. Wind your way up the whitewashed spiral walkway (which Russia's Peter the Great once rode up on horseback) and reflect on the splendour of Copenhagen's old town and, no doubt, a wonderful weekend.

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