Urban ski slopes and rooftop farms: why Copenhagen is 2023's World Capital of Architecture

The Danish capital city is a model of sustainable urban living, a place whose thoughtful, stylish design has people at its heart.

Sheep grazing on the pastures of Kalvebod Fælled near the 8 House development.

Photograph by Astrid Maria Rasmussen 
By Anna Melville-James
Published 15 Mar 2023, 15:07 GMT

Highly strollable, reassuringly low-rise and reliably efficient: Copenhagen is built with people at its heart. And this architectural experience is being celebrated this year, with the city designated the World Capital of Architecture for 2023. The initiative, launched in 2020 by UNESCO and the International Union of Architects (UIA), aims to highlight the role of architecture, city planning and culture in shaping urban identity and sustainable development. In other words, it’s about reminding us how good, thoughtful design makes for a better life.

The city has been a crucible for ambitious urban planning and architecture since the 1930s, when Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen changed the landscape with buildings and furniture that merged functionality with aesthetic simplicity. This was followed a few decades later by the disruptive brilliance of Jan Gehl, who spearheaded the move from car-choked streets to pedestrianisation, sparking a period of urban development that prioritised residents’ wellbeing. Today, you can see the legacy of that innovative gear change all around the city, from the energy plant and urban ski slope CopenHill to the striking 8 House development and the sweeping, pedestrianised Israel Plads plaza.

Copenhagen’s tenure as World Capital of Architecture will focus on the ability of considerate design to help us respond to modern challenges, particularly those of meeting net-zero targets. A series of events, hosted with the Danish Association of Architects, will examine how urban design can contribute to meeting the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There will also be a programme of tours to initiatives such as the city’s first rooftop farm, the cooperative housing association of AB Skydebanen, and Sankt Kjelds, Copenhagen’s first climate-change-adapted neighbourhood. 

Other talks and tours will focus on the city’s architectural history, and Open House Copenhagen (25-26 March) will offer access to buildings, including the historic Brønnums Hus, usually closed to the public. 

Grundtvig’s Church, an example of expressionist architecture

Grundtvig’s Church, an example of expressionist architecture.

Photograph by Sophia Bergholm

Four tours of Copenhagen to try

1. Guided architecture bike tours
Take in the best of Copenhagen’s architecture on two wheels. Three-hour, four-hour, half-day and full-day guided bike tours from £66 per person, departing from beCopenhagen at Fortunstræde 1. 

2. Guided walk in Nordhaven
Explore quirky takes on sustainable living, including the man-made Kronløbsøen island and Konditaget Lüders, an exercise space atop a multi-storey carpark. Private tours cost £219 (minimum party of 10). 

3. Treasure hunt
Follow the clues on a free treasure hunt, taking in 12 historic locations. A padlock at each spot provides site details, plus a riddle to lead you onwards. Take a photo at each destination and submit them, along with your answers, for the chance to win a prize. 

4. Starchitect: Arne Jacobson
Denmark’s most famous designer left his mark on the seaside suburb of Klampenborg with an array of now-iconic buildings, including homes and lifeguard towers. Private tours cost £215 (minimum party of 10). 

Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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