Northern exposure: Much more than just snow and Lego

'Wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen' - well it is rather lovely, actually, and terribly relaxing

Copenhagen's most famous sight - perhaps the only sight in Denmark that the average foreign tourist would be able to name - is the statue of the Little Mermaid. The heroine of the Hans Christian Andersen story, who was condemned to an unhappy life after her prince chose to marry someone else, now sits on a rock, gazing towards the city's visitors as they stroll along the waterfront.

With the possible exception of the Little Mermaid, however, part of Copenhagen's charm is that there are no compulsory sights to be fitted into a visit, as there are in most cities. There are palaces, churches, galleries: all the trappings that go with a capital city. But there is nothing around which an itinerary should be planned, so visitors are left free to browse along the canals, the pedestrianised streets and the waterfront of the inner harbour.

Denmark has always been a seafaring nation. Vikings from Sweden first invaded and conquered the Jutland peninsular at the end of the ninth century; as well as invading England, they waged war across most of the Baltic over the next few centuries. Jutland, stuck on to the northern tip of Germany and pointing up into the North Sea, is the country's largest region, but Denmark is made up of over 400 islands, and less than a quarter of them are inhabited.

The largest is Zealand, on which Copenhagen was founded in the 12th century. It is impossible to drive to Copenhagen from any other European country without at some point taking a boat, and the regular arrival of ferries from Sweden, Norway and Poland is part of the city's daily life. Passengers arriving by ship have only a few yards to walk into the picturesque harbour of Nyhavn, before they find the heart of city life.

Nyhavn was originally dug so goods from overseas could reach the city centre; now it is travellers from abroad who are loaded on and off the launches that take tourists on trips around the city. The network of waterways that threads through the city is the obvious way to explore; usually around the government buildings on the island of Slotsholmen, and the quaint district of Christianshavn, with its coloured houses and flower-covered barges.

Beside the water in Nyhavn - and on street corners all over the city - musicians play to entertain the crowds and stalls dispense cold beer. The gabled terraces on both sides of the water have been restored and the cafes that now occupy many of them set up outside tables at this time of year, to make the most of the southern Scandinavian summer. This relaxed atmosphere that spreads across the city attracts not just the tourists, but locals too.

Copenhagen has been treated kindly by the town planners; most buildings are no more than three or four storeys high, and many are painted in soft colours. The occasional spire or dome breaks the skyline, but there are few of the high-rise buildings that mar so many cities. Its main thoroughfare begins on the other side of Kongens Nytorv, the square at the top of Nyhavn, and continues through the city until it reaches the Town Hall Square.

Known to everyone as Stroget, this is not a name you will find on most maps. It is not one but four streets, individually named, that continue seamlessly from one to another. Stroget is pedestrianised, the exception being made for cyclists, and is an interesting place from which to watch the world go by. Many of Denmark's best-known shops are here, including a stylish building containing elegant displays of Royal Copenhagen porcelain and, further up, a store devoted to that other Danish export, Lego.

Many people spend their time window-shopping, or people-watching from one of the many cafes along the street. This is a good spot for Danish pastries (inexplicably known in their own country as wienerbrod), but don't sit there too long. Just opposite the far end of Stroget is one of the highlights of Danish nightlife.

The Tivoli Gardens, with its fairground attractions and candyfloss stalls, is the place that many Danish families head for, particularly at the weekends. But this is much more than a theme park. Within the walls of Tivoli are a lake, restaurants, shops, food kiosks and bandstands with live music.

Several times every week there is a magnificent firework display before the park closes at midnight. Unutterably tacky though this sounds, it is impossible not to get caught up in the general feeling of enjoyment that seems to be shared by everyone in the Gardens.

In the story of the Little Mermaid, her sisters were keen to visit the big city but decide eventually that they would rather return home. Maybe if you are a mermaid, any city has a limited appeal. But so relaxed and gentle is the pace of life in the Danish capital that Copenhagen is a city from which it would be quite easy never to go home.

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