When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?  Well with soaring airfares, I have started to get more creative with our annual trip to visit family in Europe – after all, if you are going to hop all over the map with layovers, you might as well step outside the airport now and again to see the world.  This year, my mastermind late-night fare searching landed us a layover in Copenhagen with our kids.

1 – Tivoli Gardens

We stepped out of the Copenhagen train station and were greeted by Tivoli Gardens – one of the world’s oldest amusement parks and inspiration for the Disney parks.  Beautifully arranged with restaurants, rides, theaters and shops, the park offered an enjoyable evening respite after a day of travel.  The kids let off steam in the pirate-ship themed play area and then we headed to Groften, the park’s oldest restaurant, for a traditional Danish meal (they had a kid’s menu – my son had “chicken sticks” – which were quite literally strips of chicken on wooden brochettes!).  We enjoyed a nighttime stroll amid jewel-toned magically-lit rides and ice cream at Vaffelbageriet (My daughter loved the berry ice creams).

2 – Boat Tour of Copenhagen

The next day we geared up for a day of sight-seeing in the city.  Copenhagen is walkable, but if you would rather save the shoe leather, the public transport system is easy to navigate and affordable (and free with a Copenhagen Card).  Many Copenhagen natives bike around the city and a number of places offer bike rentals.  A few companies offer bus and boat tours.  We went on the one-hour Canals Tour boat trip, which offered a unique view of the city and hits many of the highlights – including a float by the Little Mermaid statue (really the best way to see her if you must).

3 – Nationalmuseet Children’s Wing

Copenhagen has a number of world-class museums for just about anyone’s cultural and historic interests among them the Rosenberg Palace, the Danish Design Museum, the National Gallery of Art (Statens Museet for Kunst), and the Danish Jewish Museum.   We started our day at the free-entry National Museum of Denmark, which offers exhibits on over 10,000 years of Danish history – a great way to capture a quick overview of the course of Danish history.  The pre-historic rooms covering 2 A.D. through the Viking age display a number of artifacts that evidence an interesting range of cultural influences from trade and military conquests over the millennia.  The children have their own wing, with five rooms of interactive exhibits, dress-up and manipulative play covering periods of Danish history from the Vikings to the present day.

4 – Shopping in the Stroget

The Stroget, the main pedestrian street from the town hall square to the royal palace, is lined with shops and restaurants and a great way to explore the city as it ambles by many of the historic sites.  Illum offered great design gifts for any budget and has a storefront at the airport for those last-minute gift purchases.  Our family trip would not have been complete without a visit to the official Lego store in Copenhagen (YES – they can look up your Lego membership club card!).  After building up an appetite from our morning sight-seeing, we enjoyed generous smorrebrod platters(open-faced sandwiches on rye bread) at Café Nordic near the Nikolaj Plads.  The kids had their own generous children’s plates arranged with fresh fruit and vegetables and garnished with a sparkly berry merengue.  We wrapped up our day with a stroll through the Nyhavn district to the Amalienborg Palace.

5 – Eco-friendly Design for Living

While the traditional sights of Copenhagen offer plenty of exciting things to see and do, there are also lots of opportunities to experience the vibrant daily life of the world’s most-livable city.  Denmark is one of the world leaders in environmentally sustainable practices.   Since our son participates in an environmental club at school, we made an extra effort to find out what the forward-thinking Earth-conscious Danes do.  In addition to wind generators and the omnipresence of bicycles, there are notable signs of a vibrant recycling program – including disposable cup recycling machines at Tivoli Garden (where you get your 5DKK cup deposit returned to you.).   Functional design is another core value of Danish life.  Walking through the city streets you encounter a myriad of unique and aesthetic design solutions to common every-day activities like bike racks, cross walks and shopping carts.  Functional re-use of space is most notable in the meatpacking district where industrial buildings have transformed into a vibrant social scene with unique restaurants and businesses, like BioMio and Mother, where we engaged in our customary family pizza night (even while traveling!).

6 – Day Trip to Helsingor

Day trips are a great way to explore outside the city and easily accessible by the local train system.  We took a day trip to visit Helsingor– where you can visit the royal renaissance castle that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The castle offers a range of tour options (including self-guided) and provides a glimpse of Danish life in the court of King Frederick II and Queen Sophie.  Helsingor is also a ferry point to Sweden, and with some minimal planning, you can a loop back to Copenhagen through Sweden’s Helsingborg and Malmo.  We opted instead to return the way we came and stop in Humblebaek to visit the Louisiana Art Museum.  In addition to a temporary art exhibit space (we viewed Architecture, Culture, Identity: Africa), the museum boasts a splendid outdoor sculpture garden beautifully integrated into the seaside landscape and a three-story art experience for kids where they can make art projects in several different media.

Family Travel Tip – Include the Kids in the Planning Process

We engaged the kids in the trip planning, including where to stay.  We settled on the Hotel Tivoli, a conference space still under construction (we had a room away from the building activity) but near the water and decorated with images and lighting to evoke the amusement park experience.  Although at a higher cost than other options, it came with a play room and an indoor salt-water infinity pool that was a huge selling point for the kids. Also, for picky eaters, the main restaurant has an American-oriented menu (though the rooftop Sticks-n-Sushi offers terrific Asian and international fare).  Instead of breakfast at the hotel we opted for coffee and danishes at Lagkagehuset or smoothies at Joe and The Juice.  The budget hotels and the bed and breakfasts we saw all looked like affordable and viable options.

Getting Around Copenhagen

The Copenhagen Card, a multi-day travel pass, was worth getting for our itinerary: it included over 70 sites, public transportation (including the train trip to Helsingor) and the boat tour.  Kids 10 and under are free.

Copenhagen is a great family destination.  The kid-friendly Danish culture, the ease of transportation and the wide range of activities – rain or shine – both within the walkable city center and within a day’s journey make this a fun-filled trip even a mother can love.  After all, what is there not to love about a city with an amusement park across from the train station?