Copenhagen, at least to me, has always seemed like one of those places that’s just far away enough to be on another planet. I know it’s there (and even where “there” is), but rarely do people I know travel to the city, and it’s almost never in the news. So, up until our recent trip, the capital city of Denmark had sort of occupied this weird place in my understanding of the world. The small bits of info I’d accumulated over time had little to give them context.
Let me start the recap with a public service message: when travelling on long flights, drink tons of water. (Bring your own, no airline I’ve ever flown ever has been willing to give me a full bottle of water…all the coke you want, though.) We had a really crummy flight over there, and I neglected to drink enough water, and paid for it the next three days. Hydration helps you kick off jet lag much more easily.
The Square Hotel
Once we were there, we stayed at The Square Hotel (Yelp), which turned out to be a great location. Standard for a European hotel, the rooms are small, the shower doesn’t work right and the air conditioning isn’t really true AC, but the staff were friendly and helpful.
Strøget & Copenhagen Urban Life
Invalid Displayed GalleryOn the afternoon we arrived, we set out to walk Strøget, one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in Europe. This was Saturday evening, so everything was in full swing. Music was happening on the square, shops were bustling and the cafes and bars lining the streets were all populated with residents and tourists basking the 65F weather.
One of the most interesting places I had found in my research was Brewpub Copenhagen (Yelp), so we stopped there for dinner. Know that European (or, at least, Scandanvian) brewpups aren’t going to be like U.S. ones, with a gajillion weird brews on tap, and Brewpub Copenhagen has just about five different (but very similar) selections.
Perhaps the most celebrated pastime in Europe is sitting outside a bar or cafe with a drink and watching life go by. After dinner, we were happy to take part, finding a spot outside Victoria Pub (Yelp) on Strøget and watching the activity in the square.
It was around 11 p.m. when we headed back to the hotel, and it was just getting dark. That’s one of the attractions of visiting during this time–the crazy amount of sunlight you get. It’s true, you literally don’t notice that you’re tired until it’s midnight and the sun’s finally gone down, but it still feels like 6 p.m.
Early Sunday morning, really the only morning I got out early with my camera, I strolled down Strøget again at about 5 a.m. I was struck by how many people were still out on the street, winding down from the previous night and looking for all the world like they’d narrowly survived a Scandinavian zombie attack. While dodging the zombies/drunks with camera gear in hand, I looked for some quieter streets to take advantage of the morning light. By 7 a.m., almost everyone had cleared out.
Copenhagen and Water
All that’s to say that the water is a natural part of the everyday life of Copenhagen, and the first thing to do as a tourist is take a bridge and canal tour. You’ll see some of the most interesting parts of the city, and you’ll get your bearings. We picked up our boat from the edge of the Nyhavn canal, and spent about the next hour and a half viewing some of Copenhagen’s most popular attractions from the water.
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens
Tivoli Gardens. As the second oldest amusement park in the world (believe it or not, the oldest amusement park in the world is also located in Denmark, but I’m not going try to pronounce or even type the name), Tivoli is known for it’s old-fashioned, innocent appeal and beautiful nighttime lighting.
In many ways, Tivoli is a reflection of the city outside the gates, but a more positive one. Georg Carstensen founded Tivoli after being granted 15 acres by King Christian VIII on the argument that, “when people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics.”
True to that perspective, Tivoli offers its visitors frivolous exploits such as rides and games, but also cafes, shops and parks. Today, as I suspect it did in the 1850s, Tivoli has a “more than the sum of its parts” effect on people, allowing them to enjoy their day-to-day lives a bit more than they can outside the gates.
And, please believe me when I say this: you should eat dinner at Tivoli. There are something like forty restaurants inside its gates, so use Yelp to guide you, but we found a sit down cafe that did not seem like the pale and pathetic imitation of such places we’ve come to expect in American amusement parks. For a truly relaxing experience, eat a late dinner and watch the lights of the park come up as the sun (ever so slowly) goes down.
Rosenborg Castle was our first stop, where the country’s crown jewels are housed. Despite its grand name and royal history, the castle and its artifacts have a degree of subtle pride. The Danish are proud of their history and their place in the modern world, but they are less showy about it than other countries. The castle and its artifacts certainly represent the royal history very well, but there is not the same feeling of excess that you’ll come across in some other castles and palaces.
Nyhvan, one of the most famous and picturesque spots in Europe. The 17th century stretch of waterfront is well-known for its brightly colored houses, old boats and famous authors. It is lovely, but incredibly touristy, much like Georgetown in DC.
Christiania (aka, Freetown)
Christiania. Also known as Freetown, this is enclave is quite literally a breakaway neighborhood in Copenhagen. The grounds of a former military installation, it evolved from a meeting place for squatters to an actual community that accepted people who simply couldn’t handle life in “normal” society. In the commune-like community, there is a heavy emphasis on individualism, art and creativity.
And pot. Lots and lots of pot.
Today, Christiania is best known for Pusher Street, an open-air drug market in the heart of the neighborhood. Pusher street is lined with stalls covered in camouflage netting with signs that describe the varieties of weed available there. People in hoodies and dark sunglass, or even scarves wrapped around their faces to conceal identity, amble about and answer questions. A number of large, friendly dogs roam freely. Sign after sign requests “No foto in the Green Light District.”
It’s weird, it’s contradictory and it’s a bit intimidating, but it’s also a tourist destination (that, and how weirdly effective the community is at self-policing, are probably the only two reasons this place is tolerated). The locals here are used to wide-eyed tourist stumbling about, and pretty tolerant, if not downright friendly. We nearly caused a minor bike collision as I was putting away my camera gear, and no one was the least bit upset with us.
We didn’t stop for food (though I now regret that), but I have read you can get some of the best vegan food in the country in Christiania. With all that pot floating around, no surprise there. We climbed to a seating area overlooking the main “square” of the neighborhood and sat for a bit, and then decided to move on.
If you doubt the legitimacy of the tourist appeal (and the safety of going there as a tourist), you should know it’s listed on the official Visit Copenhagen website. It’s not our kind of place to hang out in for a long time, but it was absolutely worth a visit and walk, and probably would’ve been worth a longer stop for some lunch. If you’re nervous about visiting (and that’s fair), I would suggest you read the entire Wikipedia article, which is quite insightful, and then go read the Yelp or Tripadvisor reviews. But, from my perspective, everyone was perfectly polite and the place was covered in tourists, so I felt no more awkward than I did anywhere else.
Nørrebro Bryghus & Danish Beer
Danish beer is dominated by pale, light lagers, the speciality of their two largest breweries, Tuborg and Carlsberg. Craft brewing has been growing in popularity over the last ten year, but has not experienced anywhere near the explosion it has in the U.S., so the craft beers available here are still pretty limited in both variety and quality.
Of course, dining experiences encompass so much more than just the drink selection, and Nørrebro Bryghus (Yelp) really came through us on the overall experience part. It’s an American-style brewpub, and is striking partly because of the amount of space the restaurant occupies–far more than is normal for most European restaurants. The space is necessary for the brewing equipment, but it’s still a surprise to see three floors in a restaraunt.
The service was stellar, and they offer flights of beer; again, not something you find in most European establishments. The beer was excellent, and while you could still taste some of that “homebrew tang,” the quality and knowledge show well, especially in contrast to other craft brews in the city. I would speculate that that last quality hump for the brewery could be simply to use fresher ingredients, but I’m not sure of their process or or mash lists (i.e., I could be wrong). In any case, between the beer, food and personality of the place (and people who work there), I would gladly return.
Uber in Copenhagen
Nørrebro Bryghus is a off the beaten path, just a little, but enough for us to decide to try taking an Uber to the restaurant. So, let’s talk about that Uber experience for a moment.
First, it worked perfectly. Props to Uber, a service I use regularly in DC, for creating a consistent, location-agnostic experience. I pulled out my phone, requested Copenhagen’s version of an UberX, and plugged in the address. The driver showed up and professionally transported us to the restaurant, and I got an email shortly thereafter saying it cost me 55 kroner. Incredibly convenient and wonderfully cool. So easy!
Too easy. Integral to the experience of travel is negotiating one’s way through a foreign country successfully. Now, that concept means a little less in a place like Copenhagen, where everyone speaks phenomenal English…but, to be able to plug the request for a car and destination into my phone and literally not interact with the driver at all was a little jarring for me.
That first cab ride in another country is a learning experience, and a moment that ties travellers from all over the world together. It’s a right of passage. You’re a little vulnerable, and probably terrified, but ultimately successful and, if you’re lucky, you’ve got a driver who gives you a little info on the city. Your confidence level goes up and you’re a more culturally-fluent traveller.
The seamless Uber experience negated those challenges and opportunities. It was a convenient, bland and boring transaction. We did end up chatting with the driver, who was very nice and concerned that we were visiting when it was so hot (insert hearty laugh here). He got five stars.
Again, my dissatisfaction is not Uber’s fault, it’s just the nature of the service. But, I think I’ll limit my Uber use abroad to specific, high-leverage situations (like getting to the airport), and otherwise force myself to have those interactions that can be such great ways to learn about a city and culture.
Wrapping up Copenhagen
It’s a more “real” place now–instead of an ill-informed impression of a somewhat ephemeral location, I understand a lot more about the city and it’s people, and have concrete experience on which to recommend a visit.
And I do! The people there are wonderfully nice and polite, and unfailingly speak English (in fact, it’s mildly insulting to ask if they speak English, since pretty much everyone does). The city is beautiful and there’s more than enough for several days. If I could have, I would’ve tacked just one more day on to the trip, which would have allowed us to get out of the city center a bit more and a wider perspective.
In any case, just a reason to go back sometime in the future. Look for the next post on Stockholm soon.