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The Little Mermaid: the statue symbol of Copenhagen

by Paola Bertoni
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The Little Mermaid statue is the symbol of Copenhagen. Although it attracts millions of visitors every year, it is not always appreciated by tourists or by the Danes themselves who have vandalised it several times over the years. To find out if it is an overrated attraction or worth the trip, read this article.

The Little Mermaid: how she become the symbol of Copenhagen

The symbol of Copenhagen is a bronze statue just over a metre high depicting the Little Mermaid. She was the protagonist of the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s most influential writer. Carl Jacobsen, founder of the Carlsberg Brewery, commissioned the sculpture after witnessing a ballet adaptation of the fairy tale. The installation at the harbour entrance took place in 1913.

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The statue has a sad expression and looks out to sea in the vain hope of seeing her Prince Charming again. The face is a portrait of the dancer Ellen Price, famous for portraying the Little Mermaid in the theatre. The body is from sculptor Edward Eriksen’s wife because Ellen Price refused to pose nude.

Now, it’s a symbol of Copenhagen, but the Little Mermaid statue gained popularity thanks to some photos in American newspapers. Until then, it was just a sculpture of one of Denmark’s best-known fairy tales.

The fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen

First published in 1837, The Little Mermaid is a fairy tale about the impossible love between a sea creature and a land prince. The story begins during a storm when a young prince falls from his ship. The Little Mermaid rescues him and falls in love with him so much that she wants to leave the sea to live on land.

Her desire leads her to an arrangement with the Sea Witch. In exchange for a pair of human legs, the witch asks the Little Mermaid for her voice, the only thing by which the prince can recognise her. The spell stipulates a maximum time to receive a kiss of love. Still, the prince does not recognise the Little Mermaid and marries another woman. With a broken heart, the Little Mermaid throws herself off a cliff, becoming sea foam.

Despite its profound sadness, The Little Mermaid is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous works. This fairy tale has inspired countless theatre, film, and art adaptations. 

The vandalism

Since its installation, vandals have subjected the Little Mermaid statue to numerous acts of vandalism, sometimes for political reasons. The statue was rebuilt several times and eventually replaced with an identical new one. Here is a chronological account of what has happened to the statue over the years:

  • 1961: Little Mermaid’s hair, bra and underwear painted red
  • 1963: Little Mermaid entirely covered in red paint
  • 1964: activists from the situationist movement, including Jørgen Nash, beheaded the Little Mermaid. The head was never found, and a copy replaced it
  • 1976: Little Mermaid covered in paint again
  • 1984: two vandals amputated the Little Mermaid’s right arm and returned it two days later
  • 1990: a new attempt to decapitate the Little Mermaid resulted in a cut 18 centimetres deep in her neck. Because of the damage, authorities replaced the statue with a copy crafted from a single machined metal block
  • 1998: Little Mermaid beheaded again by radical artists. Head returned anonymously and put back
  • 2003: after an attempt to blow it up, the Little Mermaid fell off into the sea from her rock
  • 2004: Little Mermaid wrapped in a burqa to express opposition to Turkey’s application to join the European Union
  • 2007: Little Mermaid painted entirely in pink
  • 2010: Little Mermaid temporarily moved to China to represent Denmark at the Shanghai EXPO. During that time, a screen projected live images of the Little Mermaid in Shanghai.

Despite the numerous acts of vandalism, the Little Mermaid, called Lille Havfrue in Danish, is loved by most Danes. Every year, on 23 August, hundreds of people gather in front of the statue to celebrate her birthday.

The Little Mermaid statue symbol of Copenhagen
The Little Mermaid statue symbol of Copenhagen

Where is the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, and how to get there

The Little Mermaid statue is in Copenhagen harbour, outside the centre and further from the other attractions in the city. You can reach it easily by bicycle.

However, if you travel on foot or public transport, it is more complicated. No buses or trains stop nearby, so consider a half-hour walk from the nearest station. The best option is the Copenhagen hop-on hop-off tourist bus, which has a stop dedicated to the Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid
Langelinie, 2100 København Ø

What to see around The Little Mermaid

There are no other tourist attractions around the Little Mermaid, apart from the old fortress of Kastellet. Since it is difficult to reach the statue, if you have enough time, you can explore the area around the fortress, a picturesque landscape of trees, bridges and old mills. For a breathtaking view of the harbour, you can climb one of the five bastions of the fortress.

If you are interested in visiting museums, inside Kastellet is the Resistance Museum and the prison where the pirate Norcross was imprisoned for 30 years. In summer, the fortress hosts open-air concerts by the Military Band. Also nearby are St. Alban’s Church, the city’s only Anglican church, and the impressive Gefion fountain depicting the legend of the birth of Copenhagen’s island.

Where to stay in Copenhagen

There are plenty of options for a Scandinavian-style stay in Copenhagen, including boutique hotels and designer flats. I stayed at Hotel Danmark by Brøchner Hotels, offering city views from its rooftop terrace. The 25hours Hotel Indre By is another recommended stylish hotel with a restaurant, bar, and sauna. If you’re on a budget, consider staying at Generator Copenhagen, a hostel with private rooms and dormitories, a late-night bar, and free Wi-Fi.

Seeing the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen: YES or NO

The Little Mermaid is a much smaller statue than a tourist imagines and is quite a distance from the centre, so it can take up to 40 minutes to get there. On the other hand, the average time tourists spend in front of the statue is 15 minutes, most of which is climbing down onto the nearest rock and trying to take a picture without other people.

Yet it is one of the symbols of Copenhagen, and if you visit the Danish capital for the first time, you cannot miss it. Precisely like the Colosseum in Rome or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, despite being decidedly less majestic. Honestly, though, I can’t say it’s worth the trip, so I would only recommend going to see it if you’re taking a tour on the sightseeing bus or are also interested in visiting the nearby Kastellet fortress. Feel free to share your thoughts about the Little Mermaid in the comments.

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