Dispatch from Copenhagen: It’s More Than Just Danish
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 30, 2018
When I say I’ve been to Copenhagen, Denmark, the typical response goes, “Oh, how is it? I’ve never made it there.” But, more and more, tourists are descending on the largest city in Scandinavia. Copenhagen’s maritime history reaches back more than a millennium, and the importance of its sea port dates back to the Middle Ages. Today, it’s a busy embarkment point for Baltic cruises — a popular way to cross St. Petersburg, Russia, off your bucket list.
With significant investment in infrastructure (since the year 2000, the massive Øresund Bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden, a state-of-the-art underground Metro, and brand new Kastrup Airport) and a deep cultural commitment to traditional values (like bicycles, family, and hygge, which translates roughly as coziness, but connotes so much more), Copenhagen is one of Europe’s most impressive destinations.
When you emerge from Copenhagen Central Station, the first thing you encounter is a sea of parked bicycles. Bikes are a way of life here, the primary form of transportation, part of the landscape. Right in the heart of the city, adjacent to the train station is Tivoli Gardens, inspiration for Disneyland. Early summer, twilight lingers into late evening, when the illuminated fairytale gate, the whirring of thrill rides, and sounds of glee beckon.
As you walk along the tactile, brick-lined sidewalks, the city vibrates with a mixture of old and new. Four dragon tails entwine fifty-four meters into the sky, forming the spire of Børgen, a 17th century stock exchange. The Black Diamond, a black granite and glass neo-modern prism from 1999 seems to float upon the waterfront. Game of Thrones meets Battlestar Gallactica. Rådhuspladsen is the city’s central plaza, where the imposing, Italionate City Hall presides over a lively slice of life. At night, it glows with neon billboards, hinting at Times Square. An anticipated Metro station is still under construction.
Copenhagen’s main artery is one of Europe’s most extensive pedestrianized corridors, Strøget. Chock-a-block with international shopping — including a flagship location of Denmark’s own LEGO brand — this meandering answer to Broadway boasts buskers on their accordions, and the 1642 Rundetårn (Round Tower). Originally an astronomical observatory, it’s worth visiting for the gently sloping ascent up a wide corridor leading to a panoramic view of the city’s tiled rooftops. The famous “walking street” stretches from Rådhuspladsen to Kongens Nytorv, the main square adjacent to Instagrammable Nyhavn, the Copenhagen of postcards. Stroll along this antique port lined with brightly colored 17th century townhouses, wooden ships, and jazz music, and settle into a café with a local Carlsberg pilsner, and people watch.
If you’re hungry, follow the crowd, beguiled by the scent of Copenhagen’s best bargain meal at the always busy pølsevogn, or hot dog stand. The pølse, is a masterpiece. A crisply toasted bun; a snappy, smoky frankfurter topped with a trio of ketchup, mustard, and creamy remoulade; sweet-sour pickled cucumbers; and the inspired combination of diced raw onions and fried onions. In Copenhagen, even fast food is exquisite. For the sweet tooth, find the nearest location of Lagkagehuset, a bakery where you can find a cinnamon and chocolate swirl pastry called a Snegle (that’s Danish for “snail”).
Continuing past Amalienborg Palace, home of the royal family, guarded ceremoniously by Royal Life Guards in their cartoonish bearskin headdresses, you will find the diminutive statue of Den Lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), perpetually assaulted by groups of tourists scoffing “That’s it?” The mermaid may underwhelm, but several other sculptures make the area worth exploring. There’s larger-than-life Nordic myth monument Gefion Fountain, and life-size, expressive After the Bath by Carl Arssleff, but this is all in the shadow of now-idyllic Kastellet (Citadel), one of the best preserved star-shaped 17th century military fortresses in northern Europe, adorned with a picturesque windmill.
Spaces of tranquility and nature abound throughout the city. Copenhagen’s answer to Central Park’s Sheep Meadow is Kongens Have (King’s Gardens), the manicured, spacious gardens of Rosenborg Castle. Head west, toward hipster Vesterbro, posh Frederiksberg, and multiethnic Nørrebro, and you’ll find a series of three man-made lakes (Søerne), home to swans, paddleboats shaped like swans, joggers, and carefully tended flocks of schoolchildren.
A different brand of relaxation can be sampled in the hippie enclave Freetown Christiania, full of colorful art, air redolent of cannabis, and a tucked away, peaceful lake. Be forewarned that photography is not allowed, and police raids are not unheard of. Nonetheless, it is a uniquely Danish place, a social experiment in the making, and a top stop on the tourist circuit. (The “hop on/hop off” sightseeing buses make regular drops.) Before venturing through Christiania’s bohemian gates, be sure to visit the beautiful, Baroque Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church), and climb a spiral staircase that narrows to nothing at the top. The journey up is something out of a fairytale, and the skyline view is spectacular.
Nearby, classic Danish cuisine is served in a charming setting at Christianshavn Færgecafé. We dined with locals on a canal boat, diving into traditional pickled herring, butter-fried plaice, gravlax, and smørrebrød — open-faced sandwiches. Available all over the city, they’re fanciful compositions atop slices of dense, whole-grain rye bread.
Copenhagen boasts several museums worth visiting, but Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is one of the most surprising, and one of my favorite, collections of art in the world. Nominally a sculpture museum, you will be mesmerized by mind-boggling artifacts from ancient Egypt and the ancient Mediterranean, as well as bracing Danish Romantic painting and a collection of Danish and French sculpture in a setting well worth the formidable price of admission, mandatory for art lovers. The old — gloriously preserved. So is a train ride to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a dynamic collection of post-World War II art located some 22 miles north of the city, on the Øresund coast. Louisiana is an acclaimed fusion of modern art, architecture, and landscaping overlooking the ocean. The new — very much alive.
Getting there is simple on the Øresundståg, a circuitous commuter train line that travels up the coast of Denmark, over to Sweden, then back to Copenhagen. Louisiana should be combined with a trip to Helsingør, home to the castle of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kronborg. Helsingør is undergoing a renaissance, with the newly opened, architecturally striking Danish Maritime Museum. Walking from the train station you’ll pass the dockyards, where a chrome male figure echoing the Little Mermaid, HAN (Danish for “him”), should catch your eye.
Back in Copenhagen, the ocean and the land, the past and future, are reflected in its vibrant food scene. Gastronomy is a top tourist draw, as the so-called New Nordic Cuisine has emerged as a cultural movement. Seasonal, ethical, local, and pure are examples of its tenets. In the center of the city, Marv & Ben (Danish for “marrow and bone”), is a welcoming dining room serving a sensational tasting menu in the New Nordic style. Each plate is a work of art. I didn’t think I would enjoy aged raw beef, yet I would have clamored for seconds. I fell in love with lovage, an intensely green herb, and I’ve never sunk my teeth into such juicy lamb. The highlight is a precious loaf of sourdough bread onto which is melted luscious bone marrow. Crust of life.
Copenhagen’s parallel to Manhattan’s Meatpacking District is its own resurgent meatpacking district, Kødbyen. Seafood is the focus at bustling Kødbyens Fiskebar. Sustainability is emphasized at Nose2Tail. One of the most successful craft breweries in the world, Denmark’s own Mikkeller is paired with Texas barbecue at Warpigs. Mikkeller beer is omnipresent these days, including at Torvelhallerne, a sprawling food hall near Nørreport train station, home to beloved taquería Hija de Sanchez.
Before departing for staler shores, savor the hygge and a bespoke cocktail at intimate Ruby in a 1740 townhouse, under the watchful eye of the copper-clad tower of Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen’s tallest. This former Viking fishing village feels timeless. Thriving, and ready for the future.
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Cover: Aerial view of Copenhagen; photo: Brian Taylor.