Denmark’s capital through the eyes of someone who transformed from tourist to local…
Copenhagen is a city where rich history meets modern innovation, a growing tourist destination, and an emerging force in the culinary world. Millions of visitors flock here every year to tour the palaces, absorb the unique Scandinavian culture, shop for Danish designs and dine on New Nordic cuisine.
But there are so many layers to the city that as a visitor it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface. In becoming a local, though, I have discovered more to the city than I ever expected.
Having traveled the world working on cruise ships, many of my travel experiences were brief, just enough to absorb the feel of a place, eat some local food and take some nice photos. I longed to really experience a place, to discover hidden gems and local haunts. I ended up living in Copenhagen by chance, but I knew I would love it.
From day one, I was out exploring the city. The first thing I wanted to see, of course, was what all visitors to Copenhagen want to see: Nyhavn, the colorful row of restaurants and bars lining the canal filled with Tall Ships. Once the city’s main harbor, Nyhavn was a seedy area filled with sailors and prostitutes, but today it is the most popular tourist spot in the city. The Little Mermaid and the Strøget shopping area soon followed, both alive with eager tourists.
I made a point of getting to know the history of my new hometown and was fascinated. Settled by Vikings and founded by a warrior bishop, the city survived a plague, two devastating fires and a Nazi occupation. But Copenhagen persevered and rebuilt a city rich in architecture and culture, shaped by palaces, museums, churches and gardens built by the industrious minds of Denmark’s past, a constant reminder of its history while looking to the future.
What I was most eager to experience were the royal palaces, of which Copenhagen has several. Denmark is one of the oldest monarchies in the world and there have been many royal residences here. The current one is Amalienborg Palace, a complex of four identical mansions centered on a courtyard, linked by underground passageways. Protected by soldiers in uniforms dating to 1848, the daily Changing of the Guard is a huge draw. I marveled at the fact that I could come and see this regal display whenever I wanted, and I still do.
I visited the Parliament and Royal Reception Rooms at Christiansborg, the fifth palace to stand in its location since the first in 1167. My favorite, though, was Rosenborg Castle, originally built by King Christian IV as a summer palace and set in spacious gardens.
Bursting with stunning frescoes and fascinating artifacts, each room represents a former ruler of Denmark. The Throne Room boasts a throne crafted from narwhal tusk and the Treasury guards Christian’s ornate crown among other treasures.
Having covered the bulk of the main attractions, it was time to venture out of the city center and check out the real Copenhagen. I wandered through residential areas, amazed that there didn’t seem to be such a thing as a ‘bad’ neighborhood. Sure, some areas are more affluent than others, but they are all charming and clean, and even the red light district, with its strip clubs and sex shops, didn’t feel unsafe. Each area has its own vibe, from hipster-filled Vesterbro to upscale Frederiksberg to international Nørrebro.
The buildings are historic, the streets are filled with cafes and bakeries, and blank spaces come alive with colorful street art. Every borough of Copenhagen has its own green spaces teeming with life, especially when the warm weather appears after the long dark winters. Østerbrofælled has a skate park, water park and dog park, while Frederiksberg Have has a heron colony, a palace, a Chinese pagoda and elephants.
There’s a viewing area of their enclosure in the Copenhagen Zoo and park visitors can watch the antics of the elephants for free. There’s a series of man-made lakes running through three neighborhoods where locals walk, jog and cycle and it boasts the most spectacular sunsets.
Nørrebro is home to two unique parks, one of which isn’t really a park at all, but a cemetery. Assistens Kirkegårde is the resting place of some of Denmark’s greatest historical figures, including author Hans Christian Andersen and existentialist Søren Kirkegaard. Far from being the entirely morbid place many would expect of a cemetery, it’s actually quite lively and beautiful. The graves are spaciously arranged and decorated with sculptures, lanterns and keepsakes where Copenhageners stroll the grounds and have picnics in the sun – celebrating life.
The other is Superkilen – half a mile long with three distinct sections, each with its own defining color and feel. Away from the tourist areas in an ethnically diverse residential neighborhood, the park was designed in collaboration with Nørrebro residents. It contains an odd assortment of items from around the world: a fountain from Morocco, swing chairs from Baghdad, a slide from Chernobyl, even red dirt from Palestine. It’s a fascinating example of Danish creativity and ingenuity.
One of my favorite areas of the city is Christianshavn, an island artificially created by King Christian IV in order to fortify Copenhagen against attacks by sea. He hired a Dutch architect and modeled the borough after Amsterdam, complete with its own scenic canal. The most famous area of Christianshavn is Christiania, a freetown created in the 1970s by squatters who took over a military barracks.I was nervous to go inside because of its notorious cannabis trade and political issues but was talked into it and was surprised to find it a unique and interesting place.
The residents of the area construct their own homes, run restaurants, hold concerts, build highly sought-after specialty bikes, and live by their own set of rules. It’s a fascinating look at an unorthodox way of life.
I soon became more comfortable in my new city and learned how things work. I got used to waiting for the green light to cross the street even if it’s 3am and there’s not a car in sight, and to watching out for the many bikes (do NOT stand in the bike lane). I gained insight into Danish culture, how they live and how they view life. The most essential element of Danish life is hygge. Hygge is something that can’t be translated.
It’s a feeling of coziness and happiness in the company of family and friends, accented with delicious food and glowing candles. This idea gives the outside world a glimpse of the priorities and values of Danish society. It’s focused on family, with emphasis on a strong work-life balance. Work hours are shorter, parental leaves are longer and men seem more involved in family life.
Then there’s the food. New Nordic cuisine is a rising star in the culinary world, and for good reason. It’s a unique concept, using traditional techniques combined with avant garde ideas to create spectacular dishes. The ingredients are fresh and local and sometimes bizarre with quirky components like ants and moss.
Copenhagen’s Noma is a well-known name in New Nordic, having been designated the best restaurant in the world four of the last five years, and diners pay hundreds of dollars each and wait up to six months just to experience it. Of course, there are many other outstanding places without the wait or the price tag, like Restaurant Radio, Kødbyens Fiskebar, and Manfred’s & Vin. There are other must-tries when in Copenhagen, like smørrebrød, a tasty open-faced sandwich with a variety of toppings piled high on dark rye bread, and pølser, a traditional hot dog sold from stands all over the city.
These pølser wagons sell about a dozen types of sausage and they make for a great bite on the go. Be sure to ask for my favorite topping, the delicious risted løg (crunchy dried roasted onions).
The other famous Danish snack and one I’m not as fond of is lakrids (black licorice). The Danes put licorice on everything: ice cream, cake, coffee, tea, chocolate, candy, syrup and mustard. You can even take a licorice tasting tour of the city. A great place to explore Danish food is Torvehallerne, a market and food hall in the heart of the city. It’s a foodie’s paradise with fresh meats, cheeses, produce and seafood, as well as gourmet coffees, jams, chocolates and spices.
It came time to explore outside the city center, and there was something to see in every direction. I went just south to the oceanfront promenade of Amager Strand and explored the tiny fishing village of Dragør. I headed further away, west to the former capital of Roskilde, where I visited the incredible cathedral – a resting place of thousands of years of Danish royalty.
Heading north, I visited the oldest amusement park in the world – Bakken, set in a wildlife sanctuary teeming with wild deer. I spent a fantastic day in the seaside town of Helsingør, home to Kronborg Castle, the inspiration for Hamlet’s castle in Shakespeare’s play. I even went east, across the Øresund Bridge to Malmö, Sweden. The possibilities felt endless.
I’ve lived here six months, and I’m still discovering. In many ways I still feel like a tourist in the sense that everything feels new, exciting and interesting, and there is always something to explore. But it’s a different kind of exploration, into the true colors of the city.
Last week, I headed out to a near- empty section of land behind a shopping mall in Sydhavn (South Harbor) to check out an incredible piece of street art I’d heard about – Evolution, a 170m mural illustrating time on Earth from the Big Bang to the Ice Age. I found not only the mural but an entire culture of street art and legal graffiti in a gritty industrial setting, a far cry from the pristine picture-perfect buildings of Nyhavn.
At the same time, I still love playing typical tourist: days after my Sydhavn adventure, I headed to the famous Tivoli Gardens for their Alpine Christmas where I browsed the market stalls, drank mulled wine and soaked in the magic of the place.
I felt wonderment and a sense of belonging all at once. When entering the park, I saw the ticket seller’s demeanor change entirely when we asked about buying a yearly pass rather than a one- time entry. We weren’t just passing through. We were locals.
Bio: Caroline is a passionate traveler, photographer and aspiring travel writer. From Canada, she recently settled in Copenhagen, Denmark after spending eight years working on cruise ships and nine months working at a boutique hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland. Caroline has launched a travel blog, LoveLiveTravel, based on her experiences around the world. It can be found at www.lovelivetravel.co.uk, and is also on Twitter at @lovelivetravel.