Surprising, artistic, experimental and cosmopolitan, the Danish capital overflows with cafés, culture and history.
1. Art blooms in the city ‘Florist’ doesn’t do justice to Tage Andersen. Over a glittering 40-year career, the renowned Danish artist has carved out an international reputation through his ground-breaking garden sculptures, and a visit to his Copenhagen shop is like stepping straight into the pages of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Every inch of space is covered with Tage’s outlandish creations: exotic blooms, weird foliage, sinuous sculptures and twisted trees, while hidden away behind the shop is a secret courtyard, complete with a Gothic gazebo and tweeting songbirds. Genius is really not too strong a word for the mind behind it all. Tage Andersen (Ny Adelgade 12; tage-andersen.com)
2. The Danes know how to play Founded in 1843 by the entrepreneur Georg Carstensen, Tivoli Gardens remains one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, not to mention an integral feature of every Danish childhood. ‘Everyone in Denmark has been to Tivoli at least once,’ explains Maria Poulson, who works at Tivoli. ‘We get all from toddlers and teenagers right through to people in their 70s and 80s looking to recapture a little piece of their childhood.’ In contrast to the commercial clutter of most theme parks, Tivoli has clung on to much of its 19th-century atmosphere. Alongside the modern rides and Michelinstarred restaurants, the gardens are dotted with antique dodgems, vintage Ferris wheels (above) and twirling merry-gorounds. The oriental theatre, built in 1874, stages ballets and Pierrot pantomimes, while oompah bands serenade visitors from beneath the willow trees, and Chinese lanterns twinkle in the branches overhead. ‘Visitors are often surprised by how different Tivoli feels to other theme parks they have been to,’ continues Maria. ‘You only have to look at people’s faces as they walk through the gates to realise there’s something really magical about this place.’ Tivoli Gardens (Vesterbrogade 3; tivoli.dk)
3. There’s an urban beach You might not think of Copenhagen as a beach destination, but three miles south of the centre is one of Denmark’s finest stretches of sand: Amager Strandpark (right), a vast white beach extending along a sheltered lagoon, backed by gentle dunes and marram grass. It’s popular all year round with cyclists and rollerbladers, and come summer it’s awash with sunbathers. Be warned, though: swimming is best left for the steely, as the water temperature is only ever bracing at best. Amager Strandpark (amager-strand.dk)
4. Food is a performance Copenhagen’s gastronomic reputation has undergone a quiet renaissance over the last decade, a fact underscored in 2010 when Réné Redzepi’s Noma, in the canal quarter of Christianshavn, was named Best Restaurant In The World by the influential industry journal Restaurant Magazine. It’s now almost impossible to score a table at Noma, but it’s just one of many places pushing back the city’s culinary boundaries. At 1.th (the name means ‘first floor to the right’), lodged inside a luxurious apartment just off Copenhagen’s harbour front, owner Mette Martinussen has created a dining experience halfway between a posh dinner party and a piece of live performance. Diners are sent their ‘invitation’ by email and mingle over drinks in the retro drawing room, before being ushered through to watch the head chef and his team at work in the kitchencum- dining room (above). The food is as flamboyant as the concept, taking in everything from pork with seaweed and horseradish foam to beetroot and liquorice ice cream. ‘There’s a move towards a more adventurous, creative style of cooking,’ notes head chef Jonas Christensen. ‘It’s important to keep pushing to discover new ideas.’ l Noma (Strandgade 93; noma.dk), 1.th (Herluf Trollesgade 9; 1th.dk)
5. Life is free Copenhagen’s infamous ‘free state’, Christiania enjoys a love-it-or-hate-it status in the city. Established in 1971 by a group of hippies on the site of a disused military camp, the commune has been a thorn in Copenhagen’s side ever since. Covering 85 acres, the site is run according to its own codes and regulations. It’s a kind of city within a city, with a school, gallery, art centre, grocery store, jazz club and cafés; it even has a bike shop. Naturally, it’s also been a mecca for the city’s artists, musicians and dropouts for the last four decades. Christiania isn’t without its problems. Libertarians like to champion it as a symbol of Danish tolerance and community, while conservatives point out its ongoing problems with drugs, crime and disorder, and locals look on in envy at the rent-free, tax-exempt status in one of the city’s most desirable quarters. The site has survived repeated attempts to dismantle it over the years, but spiralling property prices and shifting public opinion mean that Christiania’s days could finally be numbered. See it while you still can. Christiania (christiania.org)
6. The city lives for pastry Copenhagen’s bakeries are piled high with pastries, but ask for a Danish and you’ll more than likely get a funny look. They’re known as wienerbrød in Denmark, a reminder that the nation’s most famous pastries were originally invented by Viennese chefs during a nationwide strike by Danish bakers in the mid-1850s. A century-and-a half later, and the wienerbrød is still the sticky treat of choice for Copenhageners. You’ll see people queuing up at bakeries for a cup of coffee and freshly made wienerbrød throughout the morning. The classic version is filled with custard and topped with a crust of icing, but they come in a myriad of different forms: shaped into spirals, curls or figure of eights; dusted with almonds and pecans; or, best of all, glazed with an indulgent swirl of dark chocolate. The city’s best are handmade at La Glace, one of Copenhagen’s oldest konditori (cake shops). With its brass fittings and bone-china plates, it makes for a gloriously old-fashioned place for coffee and cake – and the wienerbrød recipe has hardly changed since the shop first opened its doors in 1870. La Glace (3-5 Skoubogade; laglace.dk)
7. Art pushes the boundaries Inside Arken, Copenhagen’s top contemporary art museum (right), piles of rubble are heaped against the walls. Strange fibreglass forms jut out at angles along the exhibition space, while every surface is streaked with spray paint. Created by the German artist Katharina Grosse, it’s an impressive spectacle: it’s also the latest in a series of adventurous exhibitions underlining Arken’s artistic ambitions. ‘When people think about contemporary art, they tend not to think about Denmark,’ smiles curator Stine Høholt. ‘We hope to change that. We want art to become an essential part of the life and soul of the city.’ Opened in 1996 in the seaside suburb of Ishøj, Arken means ‘ship’ in Danish, and its curving walls are reminiscent of a gigantic ocean liner. And it isn’t the only world-class art museum. In Humlebæk, 25 miles away, Denmark’s leading collection of post-1945 art can be found at Louisiana. The highlight is the outdoor sculpture park, set against the backdrop of the Øresund Sea. Arken (Skovvej 1, Ishøj; arken.dk), Louisiana (Gl. Strandvej 13; Humlebæk, louisiana.dk)
8. In the swim Copenhageners don’t have to travel too far for a dip. Just south of the centre is the Islands Brygge Havnebadet, one of two outdoor swimming pools in Copenhagen. It’s a glorious place to experience an authentically Scandinavian swim; situated on one of the city’s main canals, the pool’s streamlined design has won architectural awards, and in summer the water temperature rarely falls below 20˚C. ‘It’s a bit like having our own private playground right in the city,’ notes Jacob Schrøder (left), the man in charge of Copenhagen’s public pools. ‘When the pool’s packed, there’s a real carnival atmosphere. In summer, there’s really nowhere I’d rather be.’ Islands Brygge Havnebadet (kubik.kk.dk/islandsbryggebad)
9. Designed for life Design in Denmark is both a way of life and a passion that teeters close to an obsession. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Copenhagen’s interior design store Illums Bolighus. The historic shop is like an art gallery: every item, from lamps to coffee tables, is displayed with the precision of a museum exhibit. If you’ve never fallen in love with a coat hanger or a piece of cutlery, you’ve clearly never been shopping at Illums Bolighus. ‘Good design is incredibly important to the Danish,’ explains retail assistant Michael Thyrring. ‘We grow up in a culture that celebrates the values of good design. Being surrounded by beautiful things makes us happy.’ For a historical perspective, head to the Dansk Design Center, with work by Denmark’s groundbreaking designers, including Arne Jacobsen (famous for his ‘Ant’ chair, left, the world’s first mass-produced piece of plywood furniture) and Poul Henningsen (whose PH5 lamp is thought to reside in one in every two Danish homes). You’ll even find Denmark’s best-known design export, Lego, whose company motto (‘Only the best is good enough’) encapsulates the Danes’ pursuit of design perfection. Illums Bolighus (Amagertorv 10; illumsbolighus.dk).Dansk Design Center (HC Andersens Blvd 27; ddc.dk)
10. The Danish way Hygge is a concept you’ll soon become familiar with in Copenhagen. Falling somewhere between cosy, friendly and chilled-out, it’s a word that’s difficult to translate: every Dane instinctively understands it, but they’ll struggle to explain it. The best way to get your head around hygge is to see it in action. Copenhagen’s harbour district, Nyhavn, makes an ideal place to start. On sunny days, Copenhageners can be seen sprawling along the waterfront, sharing snacks at one of the bistros on the cobbled quayside. As dusk falls, they huddle together under patio heaters to escape the chill evening air, or duck into basement bars, with quintessentially hygge combinations of low ceilings, tightly-packed tables and crackling fires.
11. Bicycles rule A recent poll suggested that more than 35 per cent of Copenhagen’s residents regularly cycle in to work, hurtling across the city’s bridges from the suburbs, a figure that the powers-that-be are looking to push above 50 per cent by 2015. It’s hardly surprising that the city is often cited as the world’s most bike-friendly city. With cycle lanes and flat streets, the appeal is obvious, but the real joy of cycling here is the sheer variety of bikes on the streets. Copenhageners treat their bikes as an expression of their personalities: some weld trunks onto the front of their bikes to make a makeshift seat for passengers, while others transform their machines into delivery carts or mobile prams. Try rentabike.dk (from £10 per day) or the city’s free bike scheme.
12. A little Venice Copenhagen looks at its best from the water. The city is criss-crossed by a network of canals, laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries when the city’s wealth was founded on its maritime trade. Though the clippers and tall ships have long since sailed into the sunset, the waterways are still an integral part of the city’s character. In the well-heeled canal quarter of Christianshavn, yachts, barges and houseboats jostle for space along the granite quays, while cruise-boats laden with sightseers putter past the elegant shuttered townhouses lining the water. As the afternoon light fades, the terraces of waterside restaurants such as Restaurant Kanalen fill up with evening diners, while buskers serenade them with traditional Danish folk songs, and the lights of the city shimmer across the surface of the water. Restaurant Kanalen (Wilders Plads 2; restaurant-kanalen.dk)
13. The smørrebrød tradition Sliced rye bread (rugbrød) topped with cold meats, smoked fish, cheese or paté – this open-faced sandwich known as smørrebrød has been a lunchtime staple for the Danish for as long as anyone cares to remember. For connoisseurs, there’s only one address in town that cuts the mustard, and that’s Ida Davidsen. The restaurant has been serving the city’s finest smørrebrød for over a century, having passed through four generations of the Davidsen family since it was founded in 1888. It retains a reassuringly old-world feel: diners cram into wooden booths lit by candles and overhead lanterns, while aproned waiters bustle from the kitchen, carrying gleaming plates laden with sandwiches. In recent years, a new breed of café has sprung up, championing a modern twist on the traditional smørrebrød. One of the best is Aamanns, a pared-back place run by up-and-coming young chef Adam Aamann. Rather than pork paste and pungent fish, you’ll find yourself tucking into smoked chicken with salsify or halibut pickled in elderflower. If you’re in a hurry, you can pick up bento-style boxes to go. Now that’s progress. Ida Davidsen (Store Kongensgade 70; idadavidsen.dk), Aamanns (Øster Farimagsgade 10; aamanns.dk)
14. The city takes its beer seriously ‘If there’s one thing the Danish are passionate about, it’s beer,’ chuckles Kasper Larsen (below) as he pours a draft from the taps at Nørrebro Bryghus, the Copenhagen microbrewery that’s elevated beermaking to an art form. ‘There’s a long tradition of home brewing in Denmark,’ he explains, ‘but a decade ago, the only beers you’d find would be Carlsberg and Tuborg. We want to show people that there is a whole world of different Danish beers to explore.’ Nørrebro Bryghus offers 35 seasonal ales, from pale IPAs to fruit beers. As early evening drinkers mull over the menu, massive stainless steel vats chug and hiss, ready to churn out their awardwinning brews. ‘We wanted the Danish to be proud of their beerbrewing heritage,’ says Kasper. ‘I think we’ve done that, and that’s so exciting to see.’ Nørrebro Bryghus (Ryesgade 3; norrebrobryghus.dk)
15. Panoramic views Built as an astronomical observatory in 1642, the Rundetaarn is one of the city’s iconic landmarks, and offers an unmissable panorama across Copenhagen’s red-tiled rooftops (below). From street level, a cobbled ramp circles up through the centre of the tower, spiralling gradually upwards in order to reduce the gradient. The reward for the climb is reached 35 metres up, where the viewing platform unfolds a 360° view. From here, you can tick off all the city’s major landmarks, including the funfair rides of Tivoli. Better still, the tower’s observatory opens on certain nights during winter. The canopy of stars overhead is memorable enough, but it’s the view across the twinkling lights of night-time Copenhagen that’ll stay with you long after you leave for home. Rundetaarn (Købmagergade 52A; rundetaarn.dk)
The article '15 reasons to love Copenhagen' was published in partnership with Lonley Planet Magazine.