Copenhagen - Capital of cool
Written by Kate Johnson
From the moment you make your way through Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport, you’ll get an immediate sense of the city that awaits you. Everything, from the signage to the passport control desks, is functional but stylish; and the demeanour of those you encounter is relaxed and unflustered, exemplifying the approach best adopted by visitors to Copenhagen.
This is because, though the city is home to a plethora of museums, galleries, and monuments, Copenhagen isn’t about dawn starts and to-do lists. It’s about wandering cobbled streets, sitting in cafes, gently wheeling along on a bicycle, and discovering independent stores piled with innovative fashion and design pieces.
One of the most leisurely ways to explore Copenhagen is to leave the itinerary-plotting to Sine Schmidt, self-confessed ‘design nerd’ and co-founder of boutique tour guides Cph:cool. She launched the company with college friend Kristine Pedersen because “tourists would go to the Little Mermaid and Tivoli, when Copenhagen is about just ‘being’ in the city.” They’ve been showing groups around since 2005 – without umbrellas or pennants held aloft – and although their loosely set routes adapt to the interests of their charges, in true Copenhagen style, a coffee and a chat in a favourite cafe is always included.
It’s no surprise, then, that two of Cph:cool’s tours focus on the creative history of the city; Cph:design claims to introduce visitors to the best of Danish design, while Cph:architecture is about ‘bad and beautiful buildings in the city of Absalon and Arne Jacobsen’. Of course, Arne Jacobsen’s buildings, chairs, and interior elements are everywhere here, both to see and buy. In fact most of the city’s visitors unwittingly encounter him well before laying eyes on an Egg chair, as his Radisson Blu Royal Hotel (Hammerichsgade 1, www.radissonblu.com) is visible above Copenha-gen’s low-rise skyline from the Hovedbaneg?rd (Central Station), where trains from Kastrup terminate.
Built in 1960, this clean-lined building was designed by Jacobsen inside and out, right down to the last light switch. Today only the grey-green Room 606 remains true to his original vision and, provided it’s vacant, the keys are availa-ble to those interested in stepping into the past. Although the rest of the hotel has undergone several renovations, everywhere you look there are groups of instantly familiar chairs, including several curvy Egg and Swan chairs in the straight-lined glassy lobby.
Jacobsen’s products and chairs can be bought all over Copenhagen, but if time is short, head for Illums Bolighus (Amagertorv 10, www.illumsbolighus.com), a department store on the famous Str?get (or ‘walking street’) that is a short walk from the Radisson. Here you’ll find the best in design and homeware, as well as a doorway to neighbouring Royal Copenhagen (www.royalcopenhagen.com), purveyor of conservative Danish porcelain and glassware. For homeware that has that pre-loved finish, head northwest and across Dronning Louises Bridge, to the hip neighbourhood of N?rrebro, where ‘antique street’ Ravnsborggade is a treasure trove of retro finds. Back in the city – and firmly in the present – the most contemporary, cutting-edge pieces are found at HAY (Pilestr?de 29-31, www.hay.dk), a store whose aim is to ‘encourage Danish furniture design’s return to the innovative greatness of the 1950s and 1960s, but in a contemporary context’. Think inflatable stools, lace-effect chairs, and eye-popping colour – and you get the idea.
If HAY’s collection champions bold colour palettes and playful design (while celebrating the quality of the Danish tradition), then Hotel Fox (Jarmers Plads 3, www.hotelfox.dk) in the nearby Latin Quarter is doing the same for Copenhagen’s ‘bed and board’ scene. First opened to promote the Volkswagen Fox, each of its 61 rooms has been decorated floor-to-ceiling by one of 21 different artists. Each, whether playful or whimsical, is unexpected. Cph:cool are big fans of Fox, and Schmidt admits it’s on every design tour they do: “We go to two or three different rooms. We love that, in contrast to the beauty and functionality of Danish design, Hotel Fox is more enfant terrible. But at the same time it’s so Copenhagen.”
Another stop that is always made on the Cph:design tour is at Sogreni (Sankt Peders Staede 30A, www.sogreni.dk), just around the corner from Hotel Fox. Established in 1981, the store showcases the hand-made bicycles of award-winning Danish designer Soren Sogreni, who applies an innovative approach to the Danes’ most beloved me-thod of transport. Naturally, it’s here that Cph:cool explain Copenhagen’s bike culture.
Schmidt is reluctant to give away much more of what the tour could include (“if I tell you too much, people will expect things and we like to stay fluid!”), though of course she notes that anyone interested in design should visit the Dansk Design Center (HC Andersens Boulevard 27, www.ddc.dk) for an informed history and cutting-edge revolving exhibi-tions. What Schmidt will reveal is that the Cph:architecture tour takes in the harbour front, while in the same breath explaining that, despite its modern architectural jewels, the harbour front is the one part of the city that she feels is less in keeping with the amiable accessibility of the rest.
It’s easy to see where she’s coming from. These modern structures, though awesome forms, dot an otherwise bland waterside scene. The Opera House (www.kglteater.dk) sits on the Holmen side of the harbour, opposite the Amalien-borg Palace and the Marble Church, and has attracted much controversy since opening in 2004 thanks to rumours that the original design of famed Danish architect Henning Larsen was overruled by clients M?rsk Mc-Kinney M?ller at several key points. Conversely, the Royal Danish Playhouse (www.kglteater.dk), which sits across the water from The Opera House, and towards the mouth of Nyhavn, is widely adored by the city’s inhabitants. It offers a beau-tiful caf? and dramatically lit platform, inviting people to stroll, congregate, and spend time here. The minimalist feel of the structure is a triumph of glass, timber, and copper. Similarly admired is The National Library (www.kb.dk) – or Black Diamond – which is located south of the Playhouse at Slotsholmen and boasts a black marble and glass exterior that tilts outward as the building rises.
There’s plenty more in terms of art, architecture, and design – and even more beyond the bounds of the city. Make a half-hour train journey either north or south and you arrive at two equally gratifying museums of modern art – Louisiana (www.louisiana.dk) to the north, whose art-meets-nature setting, innovative children’s education area, and beau-tifully curated exhibitions make for a worthwhile trip. All that and a caf? (of course!), which enjoys a view across the resund to Sweden. Heading south there is Arken (www.arken.dk), a stark but striking structure likened to a ship run aground, where the permanent collection includes a room of works by British artist Damien Hirst, with the cafe hanging off its side like a lifeboat.
Back in Copenhagen, Schmidt is finishing her cup of coffee and hurriedly summing up what she loves best about the city, “It’s sort of provincial, but with that urban feeling of having things available to you.” She believes people love it for the same reason she and Pedersen do: “because of its size, you can overcome it. It’s easy to walk from one side to the other. You feel you’re getting under its skin very quickly.” And just you wait, by the time you reach Arrivals it’ll already be getting under yours.
Mention Danish food to most and they’re likely to imagine stews and stodge. But while this may have been close to the truth some years ago, nowadays food is one of the top reasons to visit the city. Copenhagen’s Nordic cuisine movement has taken off, and at the helm is chef Rene Redzepi of Noma (Strandgade 93, www.noma.dk), the only two-starred Michelin restaurant in Denmark. With Scandinavian-sourced ingredients such as wild birds, seaweed, herbs, and berries, the waterside warehouse setting and clean interior exemplify that where he has led, others have followed.
If you can’t get a booking, try Geranium (Kronprinsessegade 13, www.restaurantgeranium.dk) or MR (5 Kultorvet, www.mr-restaurant.dk). For more casual fare, a traditional must-try is sm?rrebr?d. Meaning ‘butter and bread’, these ‘open-faced sandwiches’ consist of ingredients stacked atop slices of dark rye bread. A popular, homely place to try them is Restaurant Ida Davidsen (Store Kongensgade 70, www.idadavidsen.dk), where Ida herself dishes up 250 varieties daily. Alternatively, try Aamanns (Oster Farimagsgade 10, www.aamanns.dk) for a fresh take on this lunch staple.
If you need a sugar fix, sampling some of the sticky-sweet Danish pastries at Lagkagehuset (Torvegade 45, www.lagkagehuset.dk) should be high on your list. Although not the cheapest bakery in town, many locals claim it’s the best in the city. Worth a try is the ‘chocolate potato’.
Butchers Block Kodbyen
Forget New York’s Meatpacking District – Copenhagen’s version is where it’s at; and unlike the Big Apple, the butch-ers are still in residence here. Off the beaten track on the edge of trendy Vesterbro, just west of the city’s main station, K?dbyen was once famous for having more butchers per square kilometre than anywhere else in Europe. Now, sprinkled between the refrigeration units, innovative, hip galleries and bars are opening their doors.
Karriere (Flaesketorvet 57, ?www.karrierebar.com) started the influx, and is at once a caf?, bar, restaurant, and gen-eral wow-palace. With lighting by Olafur Eliasson and a hall-of-mirrors powder room (in which only five of its 25 doors open), it transforms from relaxed restaurant to gorgeous DJ’d cocktail bar for the wee hours. Other artistic upstarts include V1 (at 69); photography gallery DASK (at 24, www.daskgallery.com); and Hans Alf (at 26-28, www.hansalf.com), which is housed in a former refrigeration unit. Having migrated from the city centre last year to join them, Galleri Bo Bjerggaard is at 85A (www.bjerggaard.com).
Food-wise there’s very fresh fish at Kodbyens Fiskebar (at 100, www.fiskebaren.dk), organic canteen fare at BioMio (Halmtorvet 19, www.biomio.dk), and at Pate Pate (Slagterboderne 1), tapas, and deli treats.