By: Stephen Whitlock
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.
Two museums top the list of cultural must-sees. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Dantes Plads 7; 45/33-41-81-41), funded by the beer company and located near the 15-acre Tivoli Gardens amusement park, has a collection ranging from ancient Egypt to 20th-century Europe. Key pieces include Van Gogh's Pink Roses and works by Gauguin, Picasso, and Cézanne. Add to the experience by lunching on home-baked bread and cakes in the excellent café surrounded by statues and palm trees in the museum's indoor Winter Garden. For modern art, the Louisiana (Strandvej 13, 45/40-19-07-19; www.louisiana.dk) is one of the most beautiful museums in Europe. It's outside the city center but easily reached by a 36-minute train ride followed by a 10-minute walk though a pleasant residential area.
Who knows what the Louisiana would have been called if Alexander Brun, an 18th-century Dane, had married differently? As it was, he had three wives named Louise and so named his home after them. When a subsequent owner converted the property to a museum the name stuck, much to the confusion of American visitors for whom it conjures up images of New Orleans.
The Louisiana's permanent collection includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, but besides those and the great temporary exhibitions—which this year includes contemporary Chinese art—the museum is worth visiting for its glorious setting overlooking the ocean. On a summer day, you can have lunch outside, stroll the grounds, and see neighbors swimming from their jetty.
In addition to modern art, there's no shortage of modern architecture in this country. Denmark builds boldly and with the royal seal of approval, unlike its Swedish rival, Stockholm, which has a marked aversion to progressive buildings. Copenhagen's Royal Library, designed by the Danish firm of Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen and completed in 1999, is a striking black marble and glass structure known, unsurprisingly, as the Black Diamond (Soren Kirkegaards Plads; 45/33-47-47-47; www.kb.dk). It also contains one of the city's best restaurants, Søren K, named after the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.
In 2005, the Royal Opera House opened across the harbor from the heart of the city. (Danes seem to have an affinity for opera houses by the water. In 1957, a young Dane named Jørn Utzon designed Australia's Sydney Opera House, which overlooks that city's harbor.) The exterior of the building, by Henning Larsen, met with mixed reviews. One Danish paper compared the glass and metal facade to an automobile grill. But everyone agrees that Larsen's interior, inspired by a conch shell, is a triumph. Coming next: a new playhouse for the Royal Theatre, also on the water, and slated to open in early 2008.
Another harbor-side sight is the city's official symbol and the country's most-visited landmark: the bronze statue of the Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen's lovelorn character. Be warned, though, that she's a small and underwhelming little thing who suffers the indignity of being clambered upon by some tourists and endlessly photographed by others. Far more interesting is the nearby Museum of the Danish Resistance (Frihedsmusseet 86; 45/33-47-39-21; www.natmus.dk), which tells one of the most thrilling stories from World War II: In 1943, a German attaché leaked news of a plan to round up all the Jews in occupied Denmark. Word spread and, in just a few days, almost all of the country's 8,000 Jews were helped by their neighbors to escape to safety in neutral Sweden. It's a small, simple museum, which makes its story all the more poignant.
Copenhagen's luxury hotels are notable for excellent design and attentive (though never obsequious) service. Copenhagen's best hotel is the modern, fashionable First Hotel Skt. Petri (Krystalgade 22; 45/33-45-91-00; www.sktpetri.dk; from $290/night). With a lively bar, great bistro, quiet but central location, and rooms that are as comfortable as they are stylish, Skt. Petri sets a new standard for the city. It's expensive (doubles from $299), but when you stand on your balcony and gaze out over the spires of the city, you might just think it's worth it. Another smart splurge is the Radisson SAS Royal (Hammerichsgade 1; 45/38-15-65-00; www.radissonsas.com; from $262/night), an iconic five-star hotel designed by Arne Jacobsen, with fabulous views from the higher floors. To spend less, book at The Avenue (Åboulevard 29; 45/35-37-31-11; www.avenuehotel.dk; from $205/night), located in Nørrebro, a 20-minute walk from the city center. The Avenue has plain, pleasant rooms (from $205) and a comfortable, trendy lounge where you can sit by the fire and browse their art books.
Other standout Copenhagen hotels:
Copenhagen Island (Kalvebod Brygge 53; 45/33-38-96-00; www.copenhagenisland.com) is a harborside hotel designed by Kim Utzon—whose father designed the Sydney Opera House. Like that building, this is big, white, gleaming, and by the water. Great weekend rate and wonderful views.
The Square (Rådhuspladsen 14; 45/33-38-12-00; www.thesquarecopenhagen.com) is colorful, well-priced, and an easy walk from the central train station.
For a trendy design hotel perfectly located for antique shopping and the nightlife on Nyhavn, a famous strip of canal-side bars, try Front (Skt. Annæ Plads 21; 45/33-13-34-00; www.front.dk).
Bertrams (Vesterbrogade 107; 45/33-25-04-05; www.hotelguldsmeden.dk) is family-run, affordable, and perfect if you want to feel welcomed and don’t care about the lack of a bar or real restaurant; they do provide breakfast and, on request, lunch, and 90 percent of their food is organic.
The Hilton Copenhagen Airport (Adjoining Terminal 3; 45/32-50-15-01; www.hilton.dk) is an incredibly stylish airport hotel, and because of the fast and easy commuter rail, you’ll still feel totally connected to the city.
In between browsing stores and seeing sites, your day can easily be built around food. For too long, the country's most famous contribution to cuisine was the open-faced sandwich and Danish bacon. Then, three years ago, a group of chefs created an Århus Declaration (titled "Nordic Kitchen Manifesto") with the goal of boosting appreciation of local cuisine. Today, modern Nordic cooking is all the rage. It fuses French techniques with classic ingredients sourced from the farms, woodlands, and seas of Scandinavia. Suddenly foods once considered humble—berries, salt cod, barley—are starring on the best menus in the city.
A perfect day of feasting could start at Syrup (Læderstræde 32; 45/33-13-50-60; www.zirup.dk), a laid-back sidewalk café popular with locals recovering from the night before. Syrup serves a brunch tray of small dishes, including scrambled eggs, muesli, and bacon. At lunchtime, dine alfresco at Custom House (Havnegade 44; 45/33-11-01-30; www.customhouse.dk; entrées in the bar and grill from $21), which is actually three restaurants in one—a sushi bar, Italian restaurant, and American bar and grill—all housed in a converted hovercraft station overlooking the harbor. For a restorative afternoon tea and scones, go to the upstairs tearoom at A.C. Perch's Tea Shop (Kronprinsensgade 5; 45/33-15-35-62; www.perchs.dk; afternoon tea from $18). In Nørrebro, Nørrebro Bryghus (Ryesgade 3; 45/35-30-05-30; www.noerrebrobryghus.dk; entrées from $35) is an outstanding microbrewery whose founder was inspired by New York's Brooklyn Brewery. Don't miss the surprisingly delicious raspberry beer.
Be prepared to book dinner reservations well in advance if you want to eat at one of the hot spots—which include Noma (Strandgade 93; 45/32-96-32-97; www.noma.dk; 7-course menu including wine $250) and Formel B (Vesterbrogade 182; 45/33-25-10-66; www.formel-b.dk; 6-course menu with wine $270). Both are headed by young chefs who consistently design adventurous menus. Dinner at Noma, conceived by chef Rene Redzepi, might begin with langoustines from the Faeroe Islands in an oyster emulsion, followed by lobster with celery and elderberries. At Formel B, Rune Jochumsen and Kristian Møller serve turbot with braised tail of veal and a dessert of poached rhubarb with fragrant tonka beans. At either place, expect a dinner for two with wine to cost around $500. Both are fantastic, but if you have to choose, you may want to check out Noma, which just received two stars in the 2007 Michelin Guide.
Other standout Copenhagen restaurants:
Café Victor (Ny Østergade 8; 45/33-13-36-13; www.cafevictor.dk) is a classic Paris-style bistro that’s perfect for lunch when you need a break from city-center shopping.
Koriander (Store Kongensgade 34; 45/33-15-03-15; www.restaurantkoriander.dk) is an unusual thing in Scandinavia: a gourmet Indian restaurant housed in a gleaming white futuristic space—a sort of Stanley Kubrick–curry house.
Kalaset (Vendersgade 16; 45/33-33-00-35) is a brunch place on Nansensgade, a bohemian street worth exploring.
Café Europa (Amagertorv 1; 45/33-14-28-89) is a bustling café in the center of town, just opposite Georg Jensen and Royal Copenhagen that's great for breakfast.
Café Gglyptoteket (The Winter Garden, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; 45/33-41-81-28; www.glyptoteket.dk) is a fantastic little café with home-baked bread and cakes in the Glyptoteket museum. You have to pay the museum’s entry fee, but it’s worth it.
Beyond its own charms, Copenhagen also serves as a great gateway to the rest of the Nordic region. The train from the central station to Kastrup Airport is fast, frequent, and cheap. Even the airport defies normal travel drudgery: it's flooded with light and exceptionally well designed.
From Kastrup, it's a 70-minute flight to Stockholm, which is arguably more elegant than Denmark but far less lively. A similar flight gets you to the Norwegian capital, Oslo, so you could easily make a daytrip to see the two versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream, at the Munch Museum and the National Gallery. Helsinki is 90 minutes away by air, and St. Petersburg is just 2 hours. If you make one of these side trips, you'll find that as easy as it is to leave Copenhagen, it's always a pleasure to come back.
From the city it's easy to reach excellent beaches. One of the best is Bellevue, a 20-minute train ride via the S-train to Klampenborg. Bellevue is part of the Bellavista estate, a seaside development designed by Arne Jacobsen in the 1930s.
It's a 30-minute train ride over the bridge to Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden, which is now, in effect, a suburb of Copenhagen. Stroll the cobbled streets and see one of the most stunning skyscrapers in Europe: Santiago Calatrava's Turning Torso.
When To Go
Unless you are a fan of long, dark nights, avoid winter. The return of the sunshine inspires a kind of euphoria in the Danes. Anytime between May and September is perfect. In July, many Danish businesses close for the month, so hotels that rely on business travelers lower their prices.
Kastrup Airport is a major European hub, and there's direct service from the U.S. with SAS, Delta, and Continental. Other carriers, including British Airways, KLM, and Lufthansa offer one-stop routes. With SAS, the Scandinavian carrier, it's around 8 hours from New York, Washington, and Chicago, give or take half an hour, and nine-and-a-half hours from Seattle. Prices in summer (high season) from New York start at around $975; from Washington, $1,100; Chicago, $1,200; and Seattle, $1,300.