Amsterdam and Copenhagen are both fantastic holiday destinations if you’re after a cultural city break but don’t want to give up on cozy vibes and outdoor activities.
Located just a train ride apart (even if it is a 14-hour train), it’s not surprising that these two Northern European capital cities have a lot in common. They’ve both developed international reputations for their canals, cyclists, and culture and both are exceptionally clean cities with fantastic public transport systems.
There are, however, subtle differences between the two. On the whole, Amsterdam is a more accommodating go-getting city with something to offer everyone, while Copenhagen offers a laid-back take on a capital city with a strong contemporary twist.
Both cities are certainly worth a visit but, if you can only visit one for now, it’s definitely worth taking some time to find out which one of these magnificent cities is the right choice for you. That’s why here we’ve pointed out some key similarities and differences between the two countries, so you can stop humming and ahhing and get those flights booked!
Amsterdam and Copenhagen are the top two bicycle-friendly cities in the world. In fact, in the Netherlands, there are actually more bikes than people! Although cycling around is a lovely way to soak up the scenery, the locals use them primarily as a mode of transport. This means that they take the rules of the road seriously, and you’ll be expected to keep up a decent pace as you’re exploring (no one wants to be later for work because they were stuck behind a tourist taking photos, after all).
Both cities feature designated cycle lanes to help you with your two-wheeled endeavors, and cycling is a great way to make sure you cram in as many sights as possible in short time periods. As well as using bicycles to get from A to B in the inner city, there are some excellent cycle routes in elsewhere too – Amsterdamse Bos forest is a great place to cycle around and keen cyclists can head further afield and explore nearby villages too such as Dragør, situated just half an hour away from Copenhagen.
You can rent bikes everywhere but, for longer stays, it might be worth investing in buying a second-hand bike and then selling it on before you head back home. Either way, make sure you don’t miss out on the freedom of exploring these fantastic cities via bike.
When it comes to weather, both cities experience frosty winters but things heat up considerably during the summer months. As Copenhagen is situated approximately 4 degrees of latitude north of Amsterdam, it’s winters are decidedly colder, with averages of 3-5°C across December-February compared to averages of 6-7°C in Amsterdam. Copenhagen weather is also less predictable, and surprisingly cold patches can occur year-round.
Amsterdam, on the other hand, is fairly reliable in terms of its seasons, and you can expect temperatures ranging from 20 °C to 25 °C in summer, whereas in Copenhagen things rarely heat up beyond 22). Copenhagen does experience slightly less rain than Amsterdam, which is definitely a plus, but, overall, we’d take a couple more showers for a generally more agreeable climate.
With some serious winters to deal with, it’s not surprising that both cities have excelled in creating cozy indoor spaces where you can take a much-deserved break from battling the elements. Both cities are renowned for their love of coffee shops, although some of Amsterdam’s coffee shops certainly take on a different take to those in most Western countries… (but more on that later).
Denmark, however, is home of the cultural phenomenon known as ‘hygge’, which has experienced a recent boom in popularity across the globe. Hygge essential refers to the concept of taking some time out of your day to relax and enjoy the simple things in life, alone or with loved ones (no wonder the Danes are generally considered the happiest people on Earth). Despite being a capital city, Copenhagen is a hygge haven.
Ambient lighting, communal blankets, and heartwarming drinks are all central to creating hygge, and Copenhagen’s coffee shops, bars, and pubs are the perfect place to experience it. Don’t get us wrong, Amsterdam is littered with cute paces to hide from the weather too but, perhaps due to its slightly colder weather, Copenhagen puts a little more emphasis on it.
On top of that, Copenhagen is slightly smaller and less populous than Amsterdam, and this contributes towards making it the more laid-back city of the two, further increasing its cozy vibes.
Both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are cultural hotspots and are high on the holiday hit lists of most avid art fans. Amsterdam is home to the world-famous Van Gogh Museum, which celebrates the life and works of the French painter Van Gogh, who rose to international fame years after his death in 1890.
Just a short walk from this museum, you’ll find the Rijksmuseum, which focuses primarily on Dutch works of art, and includes various timeless masterpieces, such as Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’. There are tonnes of other places where you can get your fix of art in the capital of the Netherlands and, fortunately, many of them are free to enter, such as the Reflex New Art Gallery.
Copenhagen boasts an impressive National Gallery, which is home to 260,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings from Denmark and further afield. Copenhagen is, however, best known for its contemporary art thanks to museums such as the Kunsthal Charloteenborg, one of Europe’s largest contemporary art exhibitions, Nikolaj Kunsthal, held in a quirky refurbished curch, and Copenhagen Contemporary, showcasing work from rising stars in the sector.
Although both cities offer a broad range of artwork for visitors to pour over, traditional art lovers should head for Amsterdam while Copenhagen is the best bet for those enamored by contemporary art.
It would be wrong to do a side-by-side comparison of Amsterdam and Copenhagen and not acknowledge the elephant in the room… the cost. Although neither city is a particularly cheap holiday destination, especially compared to many other famous cities in Europe, Amsterdam is hands-down the most affordable option of the two.
VAT is far less in Amsterdam than in Copenhagen (19% versus 25%), which means that your money will get you a lot further. On top of that, Amsterdam is winning in terms of free attractions, and you can wile away entre days there without reaching for your wallet. It’s more reasonable prices make Amsterdam a more inclusive city, and you’ll find a mixture of students, young professionals, and older people visiting from a range of countries.
It’s worth noting, however, that you do get what you pay for to a certain extent, and standards in Copenhagen are very high. Thanks to its high taxes, the city is clean, its people are healthy (and happy), and the public transport is excellent (although Amsterdam certainly isn’t lacking in these departments either). You’re more likely to encounter retirees and high flyers from affluent countries in this costly city, with younger people and those on lesser salaries often priced out.
Overall, if you don’t want to spend your holiday counting dollars, then Amsterdam is definitely the better choice… but it will still set you back a bit compared to elsewhere in Europe.
For thriving capital cities with fairly cool climates, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen feature an impressive amount of outdoor spaces where you escape the hustle and bustle of city life and unwind in nature.
If you’re in Amsterdam and feeling a little overwhelmed with city life, then head on over to Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest park located centrally, not far from the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museums. This park is great for families, runners, and avid picnic-ers, and in summer you can catch bands playing in the open-air theatre while you unwind. Over in the East of the city (about a quarter of an hour’s cycle away) is another much-loved public park, Oosterpark.
This park is surrounded by tasty international cuisines and is a great place to head with a takeaway. Copenhagen also has some impressive parks to offer, and its most-visited park is King’s Garden, which features some seriously impressive landscaping as well as monuments and a sculpture garden.
As well as parks, there are tonnes of other spaces to explore in both cities. Our favorites include IJburh ‘Beach’ in Amsterdam, in case you need you’re in need of some vitamin sea, and Amsterdamse Bos (technically located just outside Amsterdam but owned by Amsterdam city council), the latter of which includes a swimming pool, a goat farm, and even suspension bridges for your little ones to play on.
Copenhagen does feature some cool outdoor spaces, with a super cool skate park known as Superkilen located in Nørrebro as well as tonnes of outdoor eateries that are awesome in summer, but, in terms of more ‘natural’ spots, Amsterdam has a little more to offer.
Both cities offer spectacular canal-side walks through their centers and, whichever one you visit, you’re going to be blown away by the scenery as you wander down the streets soaking it all in. Nothing quite beats spending some time on the water though, and there are tonnes of canal tours you can take in either Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Plus, if you’re a sport type, stand up paddle boarding is becoming increasingly common too – but make sure you pick up a wetsuit as the water is extremely crisp if you happen to take a tumble!
We were hard-pushed to chose a favorite of the two but, in the end, Copenhagen takes the waterfront gold medal thanks to the 17th-century harbor, Nyhavn. This picturesque harbor, with its multicolored houses, is like something out of an old-fashioned fairytale. There are some fantastic seafood restaurants in and around Nyhaven too, and it’s particularly spectacular at night when the illuminated streets really come alive. An evening spent here dining and wandering around will definitely be one that you will remember for years to come.
While it might not be considered a classic party destination, Copenhagen has a vibrant nightlife that centers around its many prestigious cocktail bars. If you’re ready for a night on the town, you should definitely hit up Nørrebro, an ultra-trendy neighborhood with tonnes to offer. Highlights include Gefährlich, a restaurant-meets-nightclub that serves up tunes as tasty as its dinners and, in case you weren’t cold enough already, Reflections Ice Bar, designed by specialist ice sculptors and one of the most Instagram-famous spot in the city (the cocktails are super expensive but they’ll be some of the best you ever have).
Amsterdam, however, takes the biscuit when it comes to nightlife. As well as fancy cocktail bars (our favorite is Door 74, a speakeasy-style bar that feels like you’ve gone back in time), its also home to some legendary nightclubs, including AIR Amsterdam, an international club that’s partial to a mixture of reggae, hip-hop, techno, and house and will serve up some great drinks straight to your table.
Club Church is a firm favorite among the gay community, further highlighting Amsterdam’s inclusivity,thanks to its themed nights and great DJs. IT is, however, probably best-well known for its techno, and there are heaps of techno clubs you can check out, as well as the annual Dekmantel Festival, an electro festival that attracts festival-goers from around the world. There are also more affordable watering holes in Amsterdam than in Copenhagen, making bar crawling a little easier on the wallet.
Although both cities are extremely tolerant, as are the Netherlands and Denmark in general, Amsterdam really does go out of its way to make people from all walks of life feel right at home. Amsterdam has long championed LGBT+ rights and has a flourishing gay scene, centered around Reguliersdwarsstraat street, which is home to tonnes of bars, clubs, and restaurants aimed at making everyone feel at home, regardless of their sexual orientation. Gay Pride is held here annually and has been running since 1996 – if you’re in Amsterdam in August (August 7th to be precise) then you’re guaranteed to have heaps of fun there.
Don’t get us wrong, Copenhagen is also extremely inclusive, and has tonnes of LGBTQ venues too, but Amsterdam wins overall in terms of inclusivity thanks to its added liberalism. It has a famously tolerant drugs policy and is littered with coffee shops where you can smoke, eat, and, purchase recreational marijuana without fear of repercussion. Furthermore, while the Dutch generally frown upon prostitution, it is legal across the Netherlands, as are brothels.
De Wallen is Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District and, while many people simply look out of curiosity, it is fully operational. The Dutch government made such acts legal in order to protect those who work in such establishments by giving them official work permits rather than forcing them deeper underground.
Finally, although both cities are family-friendly, we reckon Amsterdam is the best shout if you’re taking a family vacation. It has tonnes of activities for little ones and, on top of that, many of its tourist attractions are free for kids, winning.
And finally, flowers. This might seem like an odd category, but it felt wrong to not give these cities a shout out for their floral efforts – something often overlooked in capital cities. Tulips are the national flower of the Dutch and, if you’re there at the start of spring, you’ll bear witness to the blooming of the thousands of tulips lining practically every street. It also features a cool floating flower market, Bloemenmarkt, where you can pick up some bulbs for your garden back home.
Copenhagen’s Botanical Gardens are linked to the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, and the greenhouses themselves are a spectacular piece of history, with many of the impressive complexes dating back to 1874. Home to over 13,000 species and featuring some awesome collections, such as succulents, orchids, and even a space that creates Arctic conditions to allow plants from the far North to thrive, you can easily spend an entire day here.
Clearly, both Amsterdam and Copenhagen have heaps to offer anyone fortunate to take a trip there. They both offer beautiful canal-side strolls, outdoor spaces, and are loads of fun to explore on two wheels. Plus, they’re both crammed full of cultural attractions, such as museums, art galleries, and excellent architecture. There are, however, some fundamental differences between the two destinations.
Amsterdam is a fun-filled city that really does have something for everyone. It has more outdoor spaces than Copenhagen, more free attractions, and the overall costs are considerably lower, making it more accessible to families and people on a budget. It also boasts a thriving nightlife, including a vibrant gay scene and even a notorious red-light district.
Copenhagen may have slightly less to offer visitors than Amsterdam, but what it does have is of the top-most quality (although you will have to shell out for it). It’s a mecca of contemporary art and high-brow bars and restaurants, and we love that it’s remained fairly laid back despite being a capital city. Plus, what better place to go for a cozy winter break than the heart of the land of hygge.
Whichever city you visit, don’t be surprised if one trip isn’t enough… you might find yourself heading back there sooner than you think!
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.