historic maps

topography, streetscape, historic maps


Sønder Boulevard, Vesterbro


In the second half of the 19th century, as the city grew, Vesterbro was one of the first areas that developed outside the city ramparts with new houses, apartment buildings, shops and churches built on either side of the roads running out from the old west gate to the royal palace and gardens on the hill at Frederiksberg. Construction work spread south from Vesterbrogade and streets and small squares and building plots were laid out on either side of what is now Istedgade. Many of the apartment buildings date from the 1880s and 1890s although the blocks along the railway are later. Many were poorly built and were divided up into small apartments and lodgings.  


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historic buildings, historic maps, streetscape

the Caritas Well

The Caritasbrønden or Caritas Well on Gammel Torv was constructed for the King, for Christian IV, in 1608 when a new city hall was built across the centre of this open space to replace a medieval city hall that had been on the east side of the square.

Just over a century later, that 17th-century building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1728 and a new city hall was built on the same site. When that building in turn was destroyed - in the fire of 1795 - a new city hall was built on the west side of Nytorv and the two squares were joined into a single open space. An outline of the 17th-century hall is marked with stones set into the cobbles of the square.

The group of figures in the centre of the basin of the fountain, representing the virtue of love or charity, was first carved in wood by the German artist Statius Otto before it was cast in bronze.

The fountain was not just ornamental but was part of a system supplying fresh water to the city.

This photograph was taken on the Queen’s birthday, on the 16th April, just after the royal carriage had progressed along Strøget to take the Queen from the palace to a reception at the city hall.

The Caritas Well and the city hall from the upper end of the square in the 18th century

historic buildings, historic maps, streetscape

every building tells a story

Buildings can give us some of the most substantial evidence from our past … evidence of how our ancestors lived and worked day to day and evidence for major events such as battles or major disasters such as fires that overtook settlements. Historic buildings can also show us how people responded to those disasters.

On a more positive note buildings clearly reflect periods of wealth and success for an individual or for a settlement ... people have always wanted to have more comfortable homes or wanted to have more fashionable homes so looking carefully at the buildings from each period you can begin to see what people then thought was comfortable or fashionable.

Maps, documents and, from our more recent history, photographs can tell us much about buildings that have been lost or altered but actually if you look up and look around there is often important physical evidence surviving that, if you are curious, can tell you much about our history or at the very least suggest that the history of a building and its development is far from straight forward.

historic buildings, historic maps, topography



Detail of a map by Christian Gedde from 1761 in Stadsarchiv Copenhagen

The citadel in Copenhagen, normally referred to as Kastellet, is a well-preserved, star-shaped fortress that was built in the 17th century to guard the approach to the harbour. 

It was well over a kilometre east of the east gate of the city with a clear view over the sound. Work started in 1626, in the reign of Christian IV, with the construction of St Anne’s Redoubt - Sankt Annæ Skanse - but work and ongoing alterations continued through to the 1660s, with major remodelling and improvements after the Swedish Army attacked the city in the war of 1658-60. The complex of defensive embankments, moats and military buildings were ostensibly complete by the 1720s in the arrangement that can still be seen today.

photographs and full text

historic maps, topography

Medieval Copenhagen


Reconstruction of Copenhagen about 1500 with the castle just off the shore and the lakes in an arc to the west and north. The dashed outline of the present harbour shows how much of the channel between the settlement and the island of Amager has been filled in and built across. Originally the north point of Amager was about 1500 metres from the wharves of the settlement on the line of what is now Gammel Strand.


Main streets and squares and the market place of the settlement would have been established relatively quickly as would the position of churches and the gate ways that were the only way to get in and out of the city on the land side. 

A monastery was founded in Copenhagen in 1296 but the earliest fabric identified dates from the second half of the 15th century. This survives as part of the Hospital of the House of the Holy Ghost. Streets, squares and in many cases historic plot boundaries do survive but the buildings themselves were enlarged, remodelled or demolished and rebuilt at regular intervals because no new plots were available for new buildings in the settlement that was completely constrained by the city wall. Wealthier citizens could combine plots to build more substantial houses but this must have caused even more overcrowding in some of the poorer blocks. 

Several major fires that destroyed large areas of the city also took their toll on historic buildings. Most of the houses were timber framed and because they were so closely packed together, with courts and gardens often built over, fires spread quickly and could be catastrophic … in the great fire of 1728 well over two thirds of the city was destroyed.

The settlement was roughly D shaped with the stem of the D formed by the sea shore. Initially boats would have been pulled up onto the beach but presumably wooden wharves and jetties were constructed to make unloading and loading larger ships easier. Sheds and warehouses were built for storing goods, becoming semi-permanent structures, so silt and rubbish would have built up around the timber piles and the natural development would have been, over the years, to push these wharves and jetties further out.



This map dates from the middle of the 17th century but it records the main features and the street layout of the medieval city just as major changes were being made. 

What is now Gammel Strand (1) marks the line of the foreshore and the line of the wharves of the earliest medieval settlement. Absalon’s Castle (2) was built in the 12th century and was still obvious at the centre of what became Copenhagen Castle with its circular plan but by this stage it was no longer on a small island just off the shore but extensive infill had created a large area around the inner moat for parade yards, stables and army stores so, in modern terms, this is the power base for the king for the defence, control and expansion of the Danish State. The small area of streets immediately east of the castle above the new church - the cruciform building on the map on the other side of the canal to the castle - was the only new blocks of domestic buildings in this expansion of the city.

For the citizens of Copenhagen, in the 17th century, they were confined and still lived within the city defences whose medieval walls, ditches and towers had defined the extent of the early settlement - it was a tightly packed area less than a kilometre from the west gate to the east gate and only about 800 metres from the wharf at Gammel Strand to the north gate. Those medieval walls and towers had been rebuilt, heightened and improved but at this point, in the middle of the 17th century, more dramatic engineering works were in hand ... large new bastions and ditches had just been built out to the east to enclose a large new area of plots and gardens running out to the new Kastellet although the older ditches and bastions, hard against the east side of the old city, were still in place but were about to be removed. Immediately outside the old east gate can be seen the first form of Kongens Nytorv - the large public square that survives as a major feature of the modern city.

The core of the medieval city, in terms of daily life and certainly in terms of trade, was the market place, Amagertorv, a long triangular space (3) just in from the wharves and still at the centre of the shopping area of Copenhagen. From here roads ran out to the old East gate (4), the west gate and the road to Roskilde (5) and from the east end of the market place a street, now called Købmagergade, curved up to the north gate (6) - the site of Nørreport station now.

Copenhagen, with its narrow streets tightly packed with houses, depended on its water supply and this map shows clearly the line of fresh-water lakes running in a shallow arc around the west and north sides of the city. These maintained the level of the water in the moats and ditches, provided important defence, as armies would have to cross them to attack the city. They were a reservoir for water for drinking, for cooking and for crafts industries in the city. The lakes survive but now with straight, regular embankments. In the late medieval period, in the middle of the 16th century, water from a river about 5 kilometres to the west, that drained naturally into the bay, was dammed and diverted through to the lakes along an otherwise dry valley (7).  This river or cut survives in a culvert below Åboulevard.

The importance of water for other aspects of life in the city can also be seen with the separate channel running down from the lake to what was then the new house and extensive gardens for the king at Rosenborg that had been laid out just outside the medieval walls at the beginning of the 17th century. (8)

This map shows clearly the tightly packed streets of the medieval city with large prominent churches but otherwise few open spaces although the area immediately inside the walls was kept clear so that soldiers could be deployed rapidly if there was an attack. 

The other major secular building shown here was the city hall (9) with by then an open square on each side. This space survives as Gammeltorv and Nytorv. The late medieval hall was demolished after the fire of 1795, creating the present open space, with a new city hall built on the west side of the square that was completed in the early 19th century. The present city hall, even further west on the line of the outer ditch, was built between 1892 and 1905.  


topography, historic maps, historic buildings

the Copenhagen of Christian IV


Copenhagen in the early 17th century. The new Bourse is at the centre with the harbour to the left with the Arsenal and Provision Warehouse and to the right Holmens Church and further round the ship yards and the long building of the rope works. Beyond Christiansborg, the royal castle, the line of houses marks the line of the wharves and foreshore of the medieval city ... the street now called Gammel Strand. All the major churches in the city are identified.


A map of 1685. Here it has been turned deliberately so that it is orientated to compare directly with the view of the city. The castle of Christiansborg is relatively obvious - centre left. The new Borsen has a canal on both long sides and runs down to a bridge over the harbour. Nyhavn is towards the centre of the map with the rope works and ship yard to its left. Rosenborg with its garden is here at the top of the map within newly extended embankments and Kastellet begun in 1662 is shown on the far right of the map with the Nyboder houses as a regular grid of streets between. Christianshavn is the fortified settlement on the opposite side of the harbour to the Castle and the city. This map dates from before the new dockyards of Holmen were constructed.

Christian IV succeeded his father in 1588 and died in 1648. In the course of his long reign he consolidated the power and wealth of Copenhagen as a city and instigated the construction of key buildings that survive today. These include a new royal palace and the king’s gardens of Rosenborg begun in 1606, Holmen’s Church of 1619, the construction of the Borsen (the Exchange) 1619-25. and the Round Tower of Trinitas Church 1637-56.

However, Christian IV was primarily a strategist and ambitious for the expansion of the both lands and the influence of Denmark and so the fortifications of the city were strengthened and the harbours and docks on either side of the Castle of Christiansborg were enlarged with the reclamation of land and the construction of moles or breakwaters. There was a new harbour basin flanked by long buildings where provisions were stored including beer for the sailors and gun powder, ropes and other provisions could be loaded onto the fighting ships safely and securely. The buildings survive although the enclosed harbour has been filled in and is now the garden behind the Royal Library. To the other side of the castle were yards for building naval vessels and a crucial rope walk.

Nor were the domestic needs of the naval personnel ignored … Christian instigated the construction of the Nyboder houses, which were begun in 1631, and Christianshavn, on the opposite side of the harbour to the castle was laid out as a new planned settlement with extensive fortifications, again for the navy and for new shipbuilding facilities which over the following century was expanded out towards the Oresund … the Arsenal, Holmen and Nyholm … which was the base for the Danish Navy through to the beginning of this century.

As the city prospered this was reflected in the construction of new mansions for the wealthiest merchants, for instance the house of Mayor Mattias Hansen from 1616, and churches in the city were improved or rebuilt.


The Royal palace and gardens of Rosenborg


The Brewhouse west of the castle from the west



The south door of Helligåndskirken


Borsen - the Bourse or Exchange - building work began in 1619

historic maps, topography

Copenhagen by the beginning of the 18th century

A number of early maps show how the city developed and record features that may subsequently have been altered or demolished. This map, published in 1705, is important because it shows the city at a point of change and major expansion.

The late medieval city was relatively compact and was protected by a city wall with three gateways and with intermediate towers to protect the land side. From the west gate to the east gate was just 1,000 metres and from the north gateway into the city to the wharves of the harbour, on the line of the street now called Gammel Strand, was about 800 metres. That early core of the city is shown on the map of 1705 coloured in red.

When work started in the early 17th century on a new royal house at Rosenborg the building and gardens, shown almost at the centre of the map, were outside the walls. A new castle or Kastellet (citadel) with its star-shaped defences was constructed to guard the north side of the city and to protect the entrance to the harbour. Work started in 1658 and in the late 17th century new embankments and moats were constructed to link Kastellet to the corner of the old city defences and at the same time the defences around the west and south side of the city were strengthened.

The map shows the new area enclosed by the embankments which more than doubled the size of the city. Within that new area by 1700 were the then relatively new rows of house ... the Nyboder houses ... for navy personnel. Over the succeeding decades, through the 18th century, the royal palace, the Marble Church and the grand houses of Frederiksstaden were built over the plots and gardens shown on this map.

Wharves and the harbour of the medieval city were defended by a castle that had been constructed in the 12th century on an island just off the shore. Over the following centuries it was enlarged but parts of that first castle survive below the palace and government buildings of Christiansborg.

By 1705, beyond the castle, on the other side of the harbour, was Christianshavn, begun in 1618 for Christian IV as an independent sea port that was also defended by embankments and bastions.

gardens + parks, historic maps, historic buildings, topography

17th-century embankments and moats

Historic maps can give a slightly distorted impression of the embankments and outer moats that were built in the late 17th century to defend Copenhagen - from plans and drawings it is difficult to appreciate the scale of the earthworks and to appreciate the extensive engineering work that was required for their construction.

Even walking through Østre Anlæg in the summer, the first impression is of a wooded valley with a wide lake, although this was in fact a section of the original outer moat, and the embankment here on the city side of the lake is one of the best preserved sections of the city defences.

However, if you look across the lake towards the city in the Winter, when the trees have lost their leaves, then you can see the full height of the embankment with two stages of slope rising to the top of the bastion. If you open the image file - to enlarge the photograph - you can see how small the figures of the runners are on the path on the far side of the lake. 


The Østre Anlæg lake in the summer ... this view is looking south down the moat with the city to the left.


The view in Winter from the Stockholmsgade side looking south towards the city. The figures of runners on the path on the edge of the lake give an indication of the height of the double embankment.

If the slopes were bare of undergrowth, as on the embankments of the Kastellet now, you can begin to see just how daunting it would have appeared to a soldier in an army attacking the city. In the 17th century, the grass on the embankments would not have been this well kept but even if you got across the moat somehow, then you still had to climb up that bank, loaded down with your own weapons and kit, and, presumably, against heavy defending fire.

Note the windmill on the embankment in the distance - historic maps show a large number of mills on the circuit of the bastions and embankments through the 18th and early 19th centuries.

A lower embankment but wider expanse of water, the Stadsgraven, survives around Christianshavn and Holmen. These defences were constructed in the 17th century to protect the south side of the city.

historic buildings, drawings + documents, historic maps, streetscape

the City gates


Vesterport, the West gate, in 1857

The embankments, bastions and moats that defended Copenhagen were extended and rebuilt in the late 17th century. To enter or leave the city there were four gates that were built or rebuilt as part of that work. 

Vesterport, the west gate, was at the end of what is now Frederiksberggade - the position of the gate was in the centre of what is now Rådhuspladsen, the large square in front of the present city hall, but then was a much smaller open area that was the Hay Market. The north gate, Nørreport, was at the end of Frederiksborggade, close to the present Nørreport station, and the east gate, Østerport, was then just beyond the Nyboder houses, close to what is now the open area at the entrance to Østerport railway station. All three gateways were demolished in 1857.

Embankments and bastions around the south side of the city survive although the south gate, Amagerport, was also removed in the 1850s.

Although the gateways do not survive there are prints and drawings of the gates and some very early photographs. The engravings show that the outer sides of the gates were ornate with pilasters, niches, pediments and carved stonework including coats of arms and dates.

The gateways were approached by timber bridges so, presumably they could be destroyed before an attack. The bridges were also set at an angle and there was a break on the approach on an intermediate island bastion so that attackers would not have a direct line of fire through the archway of the gates.


A drawing of Vesterport showing the outer and inward facing arches and the plan showing the tunnel through the embakment 

Each gate had a long internal barrel-vaulted tunnel through the earth embankment with an inner gateway facing the approach from the city. These inward facing archways were all much simpler in design.

All the gateways had guard houses both inside and on the outer side beyond the moat.


A view of Halm Torv, the Hay Market, from the south with Vesterport and the guard house. This was probably the busiest gate into and out of the city ... the road here was the route to Roskilde.


This view of Nørreport, the North gate, shows the sloping paths on either side of the gate that went up to the top of the embankment. Clearly, citizens used this to promenade and presumably to cut around the city quickly by avoiding the bustle and crowds of the city streets. Note also the form of the guard house. There was a reasonable amount of space between the embankment and the fronts of the nearest houses so that soldiers could be deployed rapidly to any part of the defences when there was an attack.

Old maps provide crucial evidence about the position of the gateways and for the form of less substantial structures such as the bridges and the guard houses. A series of surveys completed by Christian Gedde in the 1760s is particularly important for the map he produced is given the appearance of an aerial view. Below is a detail of his map showing the Amagerport or south gate.


On the east side of Torvegade, just inside the south embankment, is the Customs House built in 1724 on the city side of Amagerport.

Although the city gates were demolished more than 150 years ago, it is still possible to get a strong impression of how they worked and what they looked like from the two surviving gates at the Kastellet, the fortress that was constructed in the 1660s to defend both the north part of the city and the approach to the harbour.


The bridge from the city to Kastellet and the Zealand Gate


The Zealand or South gate from inside the Kastel. Note the guard house and the sloping path set at an angle to reach the top of the embankment,


The North or Norway Gate from the inner side. Again note the form of the two guard houses and there are pathways up to the top of the embankment on each side.


Leaving the Kastel by the Zealand or South Gate


The slightly later gate to the fortress of Kronborg at Helsingør gives a very good idea of just how grand and how imposing the gates of Copenhagen must have been in the 18th century.

historic maps

Copenhagen by the early 19th century

This map of 1837 shows the extent of the city with the line of embankments, bastions and moats that had been constructed around the west side of the city in the late 17th century. These defences ran from the Kastellet, still standing and here shaded in red, at the north end and returned down to the harbour at the south end through what is now the Tivoli Gardens ... the lake in the garden is a surviving section of the moat.

To control access into the city there were four gateways all with a single archway and guard houses on the inner side and there were pathways angled up the inner slope of the embankment to reach the top to look out over the moat to the countryside beyond. There were timber bridges over the moat and further guard houses at the outer end of the bridges presumably where custom payments and papers were checked. 

Building immediately outside the defences was not permitted but beyond the lakes and along the road to Roskilde there were small groups of houses. At the top left corner of the map is the royal palace and gardens at Frederiksberg.

historic maps

the Seidelin Plan for Copenhagen

Although it was clear, after the attack on Copenhagen in 1807, that the 17th-century fortifications had failed to protect the city, the old embankments and moats were retained and through the first half of the 19th century the area inside the old defensive walls and gates became increasingly overcrowded. In 1700 there were about 65,000 people living in the city but this had risen to 100,000 by 1800 and 120,000 by 1840.

There were still restrictions on building immediately beyond the outer ditches to maintain clear ground so that there was no cover for attacking forces and to ensure that there were sight lines for defending fire if the city was ever attacked from the land side 

However, everything came to a crisis point in 1853 when there was an outbreak of cholera and 5,000 citizens died over 4 months that summer. It was clear that overcrowding and poor sanitation were the cause of the cholera spreading and it was equally clear that little could be achieved without a substantial number of people moving out of the tightly-packed and overcrowded houses within the gates.

In 1857, in anticipation of the removal of the defensive walls and ditches, a plan for new areas of streets, squares and apartment buildings was drawn up by the architect Conrad Seidelin. His plan shows the then existing core of the city in pale grey and a great ark of new development in dark grey between the old city and the lakes to the west and there was also an area of new buildings immediately south of Kongens Nytorv, the large square beyond the site of the old east gate. Key reference points, when looking at the map, are the outer lakes that are little different now and the Royal Palace and Marble Church but this proposal involved not just levelling all the embankments, gates and ditches but also building across the Kastellet, building right across to a new formal garden, close to what is now Nordhavn, shown at the top right of his plan. The area of Holmen, on the seaward side of the harbour is shown as clear of buildings although there were naval yards there. The canals and the arrangement of the streets of Christianhavn, bottom centre on the map, were to be left unaltered and have changed little in the intervening 150 years.

Seidelin’s plan was rational and elegant with a number of new squares and an area of large new public buildings beyond Rosenborg but clearly using the 17th-century building as the central focus of one side of a new square … this is the area that was to become within a decade the Botanic Gardens. One obvious criticism of the proposed plan is that it seems to ignore topography … the plan would have required major engineering works to level the Kastellet and the embankments.

Military advisors opposed the plan … they were keen to expropriate all the land outside the embankments and then to resell the plots to finance new outer defences beyond the lakes. A demolition committee rejected this and produced a new plan in 1865 with dense blocks of new buildings but for the first time proposed a new Botanical Garden extending outwards the open space of the King’s Garden with a clear formal relationship with the new hospital, completed in 1863, beyond that. Unlike Seidelin, they proposed that the Tivoli Garden should be retained.

There was an intermediate plan of 1866 that went as far as to propose a complete arc of open parks on the line of the moats but the final or “ratified” plan of 1872 kept Tivoli Garden and established three large parks on the line of the moat … Ørstedsparken, the Botanical Gardens and Østre Anlaeg. 

Work on removing the walls and some of the defensive ditches did not, therefore, start in earnest until the 1870s. and the layout of new streets was, in the end, very different from Sedelin’s scheme, retaining not just the Katellet but also some of the ditches. A phenominal number of new apartment buildings were constructed establishing a basic form, with courtyards, communal staircases and relatively mixed accommodation with, in many buildings, relatively large apartments on the first and second floors over, in many cases, shops or offices. There was clearly some, to use modern terms, social zoning with working-class apartments for instance east of Israels Plads, many with a single room and much grander blocks along Grønningen and then later along Dag Hammarskjölds Allé where there were some apartments with 12 or more large rooms and complex arrangements for servants. 

What is interesting about the plan, as it evolved, is that in the end there were substantially more open areas and public buildings than Seidelin proposed. Sections of the defensive ditch were retained as lakes at the centre of large new public parks and gardens and some of the finest and most important public buildings in the city were constructed on the land opened up by clearing the city walls including a new city hall, a new national art gallery, the Glyptotek museum and gallery, libraries, academic institutions and the botanic gardens.

Building work progressed rapidly and by the last years of the 19th century blocks of apartments were being built well beyond the lakes as the new areas of Vesterbro, Fredriksberg, Nørrebro and Østerbro developed rapidly.

Many of the apartment buildings within the lakes were incredibly grand and had bravado shows of craftsmanship in the brickwork, stonework and plasterwork of their facades. There must have been an amazing army of skilled brick layers, masons and plasterers in the city. Above all, this must have been the time when the furniture and other design trades in Copenhagen really became established on a commercial scale to decorate and furnish all those new apartments.