Abstract High purity, mirror-polished polycrystalline Cu surface was treated with single picosecond laser pulses at fluence levels close to the single-pulse modification threshold. The induced surface topography and sub-surface changes were examined with scanning and transmission electron microscopy, respectively. The analysis showed an increased absorption of laser energy on the microscopic surface topography inhomogeneities, even at a fluence level below the modification threshold. Many features, like spikes, bubbles, spheres, as well as small periodic ripples at the bottom of scratches, reveal a significant influence of melting and eruptive relaxation of the absorbed laser energy on the final appearance of the surface. Further, it was found that thermal stresses result in twinning to a depth of few tens of nanometers under the surface. Voids at this depth have been observed as well. The results of the observations provide new insights into the early stages of the picosecond laser pulse modification of metals, especially metals with a weak electron–phonon coupling.