After touring Germany, we progressed northwards on a quest for Scandinavian culture. Already familiar with Copenhagen’s reputation as a pioneer of food, fashion and design, we knew the Danish capital would hold the potential to be one of our stand out destinations. Copenhagen delivers on culture, there’s no doubt about it- but through a combination of bad luck, strict budgets and some particularly potent space muffins, our stay in the city did not perhaps match our initial expectations.
Sitting on the coastal islands of Zealand and Amager, Copenhagen has fast become a strong urban and cultural hub over the last century. It’s stylish, creative temperament cements its status as the edgiest of Scandinavian cities, with its relaxed attitude to life offering sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of modern UK living. Placing emphasis on citizen focused design, it’s easy to navigate your way around the city; compact and tourist friendly, you can wind your way down romantic cobbled streets, or else join over fifty percent of its inhabitants by hiring a bike to explore the capital. Colourful, creative and a little bit bonkers, Copenhagen certainly offers more than your standard city break.
Our arrival did not however get off to the best of starts. Grumpy and sweaty from our journey (a general standard for travel days) we were nearly mugged at the Central Train station. Not in a horrendously traumatic way, but still. We were also feeling rather apprehensive about our Airbnb accommodation- having booked three apartments that fell through for various reasons, it was safe to say that we’d hit a bit of snag when it came to finding a place to stay in Copenhagen. We eventually decided to lodge with an Airbnb newbie who had a sofa than turned into a pull-out bed. Not the most luxurious by any means, but in my current delicate state, all I wanted was a place to sleep and possibly a pizza.
On the plus side, our host was very accommodating despite his lack of experience, and provided us with a really nice view of the culturally diverse neighbourhood. Staying in a close-knit community in Vesterbro, it was intriguing to gain an understanding of life for those who did not necessarily fall into the category of the wealthy creatives that Copenhagen has become associated with. Don’t be put off by staying in a less affluent area- you’ll find that people can actually be far more welcoming than expected. Just make sure you hire a bike so you don’t have to take the perilous bus journey into town. Cheaper, and a great way to get around the city.
For those who have a bit more cash to burn, there’s plenty of reasonable hotels and Airbnb apartments to suit all your requirements. The main strip of hotels can be found right next to Tivoli Gardens off H.C Andersen’s Boulevard, right at the heart of the city centre. Here you can enjoy some excellent upmarket eateries, including quaint cafes, modern Nordic restaurants (including the world-famous Michelin star restaurant Noma) and traditional brasseries. If you want to do Copenhagen properly, it’s worth heading to the pricier restaurants- with modern Nordic cooking inspiring something of a culinary revolution over the past decade, it’s a great way to not only treat yourself, but gain a great understanding of the ethos that underpins Scandinavian culture.
You can however still enjoy tasty food without breaking the bank. If you’re still looking to sample authentic cuisine, head down to eateries within Nyhavn harbour. Specialising in classical Danish open sandwiches known as smorrebrod, it’s a particularly picturesque spot that host the infamous sherbert-hued houses of Copenhagen. Prepare yourself for fresh fish, rye bread and an awful lot of pickled herbs.
If you’re looking to pack some culture into your stay, there’s plenty of options to explore. Copenhagen is home to several fantastic art galleries and museums; Staten’s Museum for Kunst, the National Museum of Denmark and Charlottenborg Palace are all worthy of a visit, and are so expansive you can literally spend an entire day here. The Kunst Museum is perhaps a little pricier at 110 DKK (equating to £13) but definitely worth the money- it works as a diverse space that offers more than your standard art gallery. Hosting a young people’s art lab that serves as a social and creative community for fifteen to twenty-five year olds, it looks to inspire its visitors through interactive exhibitions and workshops, as well as showcasing both classic and modern art.
For sightseeing destinations, grab a bike and spend the day touring the capital. Copenhagen is the world’s first Bike City, so its reassuringly safe to ride a bike without the added threat of being run down by angry motorists. Start in the lavish gardens of Rosenborg Castle, where you can admire majestic architecture as well the horticultural delights. Follow the cycle routes through the main city centre to visit the likes of the Round Tower, which combines church, library and observatory in one building, as well as the stunning Christianborg Palace. The most famous of all Copenhagen’s attractions, Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, can also be easily reached by bike from Nyhavn; follow the harbour side bike lanes to visit the little lady herself, who’s situated right next to the quaint church of St Albans.
A trip to Copenhagen wouldn’t however be complete without an obligatory visit to Tivoli Gardens. A beautifully rustic theme park and garden space, you’re guaranteed the find yourself enthralled by the picturesque surroundings. I’d recommend going in the evening, as there’s less crowds, and the entire park is decked out in lovely little fairy lights. Be careful when purchasing your tickets for the rides though; if you’re not buying a wristband, you can end up forking out over a tenner for just one roller coaster. Despite this, it’s still worth a visit just for a quaint stroll around the gardens; romantic and charming, there’s something for everyone here. Open-air theatres, roller coasters, concerts and amusements, it feels a bit like stepping into a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
Paradoxically, the Danish capital also holds a rather, erm, interesting community in the form of its free town of Christiana. A self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood known as Copenhagen’s ‘green light district’, (use your imagination) it offers a strange, hedonistic glimpse into the alternative lifestyles operating within Nordic culture. There are however some odd rules set in place by the inhabitants; you’re not allowed to take photographs, own a car, or even run around the town- apparently it causes panic. In the main square you’ll find a few bars and coffee shops, as well as over 30 different outlets openly selling hash. Shop owners are clad in balaclavas and thick woolly hats to obscure their identity, and aren’t perhaps the most welcoming of folk. Nevertheless, we were determined to embrace all aspects of our trip, so purchased some muffins from a particularly shifty looking gentleman who suggested one muffin each would suffice. Turns out he was right- how could one tiny little cake do so much damage?
After our surreal experience Christiana, we decided to take things at a slower pace on our final day in Denmark. Taking advantage of the good train connections, we ventured up to Kronborg Castle in Helsingor, about an hour’s ride from the Central Station. Perhaps more famously known as the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it now enjoys a status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and set against a stunning backdrop of North Zealand. Kronborg Castle offers daily guided tours where you can learn about the elaborate history of the establishment, as well as regular live performances of Shakespeare’s play itself. Whether you’re massively into Shakespeare or not, it’s still a great coastal trip that offers a pleasant change from the urban capital; take a walk on the pebbled beach, or else potter around the town for a Nordic take on the classic seaside fish and chips. Scenic and relaxed, it’s Denmark at its most authentic.
It would be foolish to not concede that there really are some remarkable aspects of Copenhagen- it’s impeccably high standards of art, food, and design certainly speak for themselves. At times though, it appears the city merely acts as a particularly polished veneer that lacks any substance underneath. I’ve visited Copenhagen, but I don’t feel like I’ve truly experienced it, or gained a detailed insight into Nordic life. There’s plenty of culture on offer, but it doesn’t always feel particularly accessible; to experience true Copenhagen, you need money. It’s still an enjoyable weekend, and you’ll have a great choice of activities, but if you don’t possess the funds to support stylish living, you might find that the Danish capital doesn’t quite match up to the hype.