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Copenhagen by Design

Denmark's gorgeous capital is in the midst of a happy renaissance

By Stephen Whitlock

June 14th, 2007

Back in 1947, English novelist Evelyn Waugh was dispatched by the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post to tour Scandinavia. He immediately fell in love with Copenhagen. "Flat, open, clean, gay, and decorous," he wrote, "[it is] encircled by palaces, where ancient quays and sailor-streets lead straight into rococo squares." And the Danes? "More civilized than the Norwegians, more humorous and imaginative than the Swedes, they are a people for whom the Englishman feels a spontaneous, reciprocated sympathy."

Sixty years later, the only flaw in his description is that the appeal of the Danish people and their capital isn't limited to the English. Copenhagen is a fascinating jumble of qualities with broad appeal: a low skyline of medieval towers and church spires makes it storybook pretty, yet it is known for leading-edge modern design. Citizens are fiercely proud of their government's egalitarianism, yet adore the royal family. The Danes are modest and unassuming, which is hard to believe when you see how unfairly good-looking they are. And right now, Copenhagen is booming, thanks to a revitalized design scene and some of the most thrilling dining in Europe.

Once upon a time, Denmark was known as a land of Vikings, and it has existed as an independent country for more than a thousand years. After Japan, it has the world's second-oldest monarchy. In terms of personality and identity, Denmark is closely allied with Sweden and Norway, its neighbors to the north, but its only land border is with Germany to the south. Roughly twice the size of Massachusetts, the country is made up of a peninsula and many islands, with the North Sea to one side and the Baltic to the other. Danish winters are dark and damp, but summers are idyllic, with extremely long sunny days. Around a quarter of the country's population of five-and-a-half million lives in the greater Copenhagen area, though the heart of the city has just over 500,000 inhabitants.

The city's most famous historical figure is Hans Christian Andersen, whose books and characters are everywhere. This seems appropriate as Copenhagen has all the ingredients of a fairy tale: cobbled streets, flower stalls, redbrick buildings with mullioned windows, and church bells that chime the hour. Even the Danish currency, the krone, is decorated with images of mythical creatures, including basilisks and centaurs.

Today, the modern and medieval successfully co-exist. The beloved queen, Margrethe II, is a thoroughly contemporary monarch: a chain-smoking artist who speaks four languages, studied at the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics, illustrated an edition of The Lord of the Rings, and translated the works of Simone de Beauvoir.

For the first-time visitor, Copenhagen is one of the easiest capitals in Europe to navigate and explore. Even though the throaty, flat sound of Danish is totally impenetrable to most English speakers, visitors benefit from a quirk of the Nordic languages. Danes understand Swedish, but Swedes can't understand Danish. Danes and Swedes can both understand a bit of Norwegian, but absolutely no one can make head or tail of Finnish. So in order to communicate, these neighboring people speak to each other in English. Virtually all Danes are effortlessly bilingual, if not trilingual. Nowhere else in Europe can a visitor feel more at ease chatting in English: the average Dane is easier to understand, in fact, than the average London cab driver.

The city itself is safe, friendly, and compact. If you don't mind walking, you can get almost everywhere on foot. If you do mind walking, there's excellent public transport, abundant cabs (which take credit cards), and—if you are feeling fit—plenty of cycle lanes plus 1,300 free city bikes (a 20 kroner coin—about $3.70—unlocks a free bike from its stand; the coin is returned with the return of the bike).

Topographically, the town's center is bracketed by water, with a line of lakes to the northwest and the harbor to the southeast. (Copenhagen's name is derived from Kjøbmandehavn, meaning "the merchants' harbor.") To the north are the largely residential areas of Nørrebro and Østerbro, which have quiet streets, great restaurants, and shops patronized more by locals than visitors. Vesterbro, to the west, is the city's former red-light district and known for being funkier and more exuberant. Though still a bit gritty, it's far from dangerous. On the other side of the harbor is Christianshavn, which is notable for three reasons: the Royal Opera House; Noma restaurant; and the colorful hippie commune of Christiania, which is in constant disagreement with the rest of the city over its claim to be a self-governing enclave and its reluctance to pay taxes. This bit of mild anarchy makes you realize how cheerfully conformist the rest of the town is. After all, this is a city where pedestrians always wait for the walk sign—even in the middle of the night, with no oncoming traffic.

When you stroll around the city, watching locals cycle past with their children carried in big wooden boxes fixed to the front wheels of their bikes, you get the impression that Copenhagen is a city that likes itself. Without being smug, people here are proud. Right now, they have every reason to be. The revival of interest in mid-century modern antiques means that Denmark is again acknowledged as one of the world capitals for impeccable taste. And thanks to a crop of adventurous young chefs, the restaurant scene is the best in Scandinavia.

In April of this year, the Daily Telegraph—the same British newspaper that sent Eveyln Waugh to Scandinavia in 1947—published research that identified who, in all of Europe, was happiest and most content. Denmark topped both lists. And no one was the least bit surprised.

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