Copenhagen Cool: where cute and cutting-edge combine
Written by Brian Johnston
With increased flights from Doha to Copenhagen, the Danish capital is easier to reach than ever. Repeat visitor Brian Johnston looks beyond its fairy-tale image to reveal a cultured, very contemporary city.
In the land of Hans Christian Andersen, Copenhagen’s mermaid and gingerbread-style old town are iconic. Yet this millennium-old city is also trendy and lively: small enough for cosiness, yet large enough to pack in first-class museums, restaurants, and entertainment.
If you grew up with The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and other characters from the imagination of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, you probably think of Copenhagen as a town of half-timbered houses encrusted in snow, like iced cakes. Indeed, if you visit in winter, the Danish capital is just like that: a gingerbread city whose quaint squares are graced with icicle-decorated statues, where locals pedal about by bicycle, well-wrapped in long woollen scarves. Danish hygge (cosiness) warms you with candlelit cafés and sparkling lights.
It doesn’t take long in Copenhagen, however, to realise that cuteness is only one part of the capital’s personality. Despite the city’s long history, it has a youthful vibe and an experimental edge. Copenhagen surprises with a fine reputation for cutting-edge design and top-class art, while restaurants such as Noma (often said to be the world’s best) reinvent and reinterpret Nordic cuisine for the contemporary age. It also has noted underground music and jazz scenes. You can take in some of the jazz at Vinterjazz Festival, which runs from February 6–22 and provides winter cheer from local and international artists at venues across the city, from local cafés to concert halls.
In short, Copenhagen is surely everyone’s kind of city: large enough to be interesting, small enough to mostly walk or cycle around. It has big-city assets without big-city stress, and plenty of small-town charm. To see some of the latter, start a visit at Nyhavn, the ‘new harbour’ that looks like a fishing village and reflects Copenhagen’s beginnings as a city that grew rich on Baltic trade. The 300-year-old stretch of restored houses in jaunty reds, blues, and yellows now houses restaurants and cafés. In summer, the cobbled quays outside are the place to dine and soak up the sun. Even in winter, hardy Scandinavians might be sitting outside – even if the yachts beyond are frozen into the canal.
Just around the corner, in the wonderful Copenhagen contrast that mixes the expected with the surprising, stands the minimalist Black Diamond of irregular polished granite, which houses the national library. Across the way, the new Copenhagen Opera House looks like an alien spaceship. Head towards the open sea and you’ll find something rather more predictable; the bemusingly famous Little Mermaid. In all honesty, she looks a bit drab and surprisingly small, but still brings smiles to onlookers, who like to pose for photos with the mythical aquatic creature.
Nearby is Amalienborg, principal residence of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. It’s actually four delightful mini-palaces facing off across a square. The only building with a clock on its front is set aside for Crown Prince Frederik and his family; if the royals are at home, a flag flies from the roof. You can visit one of the palaces and learn more about royal history, as well as admire its treasure-packed rooms. Try and time your visit to Amalienborg for the midday changing of the guard. Bands play and the Royal Danish Life Guards in blue uniforms march past, like children’s toy soldiers come to life.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Copenhagen is seriously cold in January and February. When Jack Frost starts nipping at your toes, however, the city provides plenty of warm interiors in which to defrost. You could admire the crown jewels at Rosenborg Castle before heading across the park to the terrific National Gallery for Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst – SMK), which runs SMK Fridays to enliven the long winter evenings with art talks, film screenings, and music. Several other museums are also worth the visit in cultured Copenhagen: the medieval and Renaissance era are showcased in the National Museum, which incorporates a hands-on Children’s Museum that will entrance the kids with life in the 1920s, the history of the Vikings, and a disorienting mirror room; while the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek combines modern French and Danish art with superb antiquities.
Copenhagen is a family-friendly city at any time of year, but its Winter Break, which runs the second and third weeks in February, is a particularly good time to come here with children. There are special events held in venues such as Copenhagen Zoo (where you can see polar bears) and Experimentarium City, which has all kinds of science-based activities, as well as winter sports such as curling and ice skating. The Danish Architecture Centre runs children’s workshops during Winter Break and, for adults, is a good place to get to grips with the Danish design ethos writ large, with exhibits on new architecture and urban development.
Time for some fresh air and less highbrow pastimes? Head to Strøget – which means ‘stroll’ in Danish – a pedestrian shopping street (actually five interconnecting streets, all with different names) that meanders through the old town. Strøget is lined with galleries, antiques stores, and the elegant shops of Danish designers. Stop at Illums Bolighus, which supplies the Danish royals with their homewares, and P. Hertz, official jewellery maker to the Danish court. If you really want to check out the latest in fashion, time your visit for Copenhagen Fashion Week (January 28–February 2), which is open to ordinary visitors as well as those in the fashion business. Expect exhibitions, concerts, and special discounts in the city’s boutiques.
At the top end of Strøget, you’ll emerge at Rådhuspladsen, a huge square with a gigantic red-brick town hall and a statue of Hans Christian Andersen. On the far side lies Tivoli Gardens, the famous, old-fashioned amusement park that also lures visitors with restaurants and live shows. Unfortunately, it closes during the first three months of the year. Then again, it might be just the excuse to return to Copenhagen during a different season, and enjoy another whole side to this very charming city.
If you want to see Copenhagen life away from the mainstream tourist sights, head to Vesterbro and Nørrebro beyond Tivoli Gardens. You won’t find any particular sights, but Vesterbro features great cafés and ethnic restaurants (especially around its main square, Halmtorvet) as well as street markets, delis, and interesting boutiques. The area around Ravnsborggade in Nørrebro is a bargain-hunter’s dream, for its flea markets, antique stores, and bric-a-brac emporiums. Incidentally, you’ll find the final resting place of Hans Christian Andersen in Assistens Kirkegård, Nørrebro’s rather lovely historic cemetery and public park.
Radisson Blu Royal Hotel
Copenhagen has always been noted for its design edge, and this modernist skyscraper near Tivoli, designed by influential Danish architect Arne Jacobsen, provides a taste of mid-20th-century style, right down to its geometric forms, aluminium profiles, and 1950s furnishings. If you’re a real retro aficionado, book room 606, the only one still with an original Arne Jacobsen interior.
Hammerichsgade 1, +45 3342 6000
Copenhagen is one of the world’s most cycle-friendly cities, and there’s no better way to visit like a local than by cycling. Most of Copenhagen’s residents cycle to work daily on some 300km of cycle lanes that have their own traffic signals and parking bays. Rent a bicycle for around DKK30 (US$5) for four hours. Helmets are not compulsory, and few people wear them.
Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov belongs to the ‘New Nordic’ movement that got its start among the region’s top chefs. New Nordic moves away from Scandinavian minimalism to a more playful, multicultural vision of design and cuisine, while still emphasising quality. Head to Vibskov’s flagship boutique to see his colourful, often folk-inspired, and unconventional fashion collection and accessories.
Krystalgade 6, +45 3314 6100,
Copenhagen is a top spot for dining, with a notable number of Michelin-starred restaurants, of which Noma is world famous. Head to Geranium for another superlative 2-star Michelin experience. Run by Rasmus Kofoed, voted world’s best chef in 2011, it offers light, innovative New Nordic cuisine notable for its seasonality, and top seafood. Geranium is regularly listed among the world’s top 50 restaurants.
Per Henrik Lings Allé 4, +45 6996 0020,
Distance: 4,748 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 45 minutes