As the date began to crowd June 21st, we set foot in Scandinavia for the first time. Thanks to the generosity of our friends Lori and Lars who gave us the use of their apartment in the heart of Copenhagen, we flew four hours north of our home in southern Italy and spent a week in this most wonderful city.
What’s so wonderful about it? Well, first of all, there are a lot of Danes there. And why is that a good thing? Well, because we found the Danish people to be very warm, welcoming and English-speaking, all of which attributes (especially the last one) made us feel extraordinarily comfortable as we walked from one neighborhood to another. The people of Copenhagen have also contributed a modern, clean and efficient public transportation system to us tourists, something that we availed ourselves of without difficulty or hesitation. Bicycling is yuge in Copenhagen and, if your destination is not too far away, the two-wheel option is a very viable one.
The apartment was perfectly located just a few meters from the Nyhavn Canal, a short canyon of water flanked by dozens of al fresco bars and restaurants. From this base, we launched our daily excursions that included the tourist requirements as well as an exploration of some “off the beaten path” sites. The apartment was just a few minutes’ walk from the Strøget (pronounced stroyet), the famous pedestrian (sort of) shopping street and we frequented the area finding the window shopping and the people watching to be irresistible. After having spent most of our time in southern Europe and, most recently, in Malaysia, I had gotten used to being able to pick the blonde-haired Jessica out even in the densest crowds. It was discomfiting to find that, in Denmark, I could lose her easily and, in fact, did on a couple of occasions as we strolled the Stroget, gaped at ornate architecture, got separated in a crowded museum or when Jessica would wander off to get that “perfect” shot, but I managed, despite her blending into the crowd, to find her.
One of our takeaways from Copenhagen is that it is not an inexpensive place to eat. We were quite surprised when we noticed that one of the admittedly “touristy” restaurants along the Nyhavn Canal charged us US$7.50 for a glass of soda water only to find that “aggressive” pricing was not at all unusual in the city. As a consequence, Copenhagenites (Copenhageners?) have made an artform out of the picnic. With a six-pack of Carlsberg and a takeaway pizza, they are perfectly comfortable plopping themselves down on the derelict hulk of a seemingly abandoned boat and take their meal in close proximity to the tourists who are paying US$7.50 for a glass of water.
We were impressed however with a little place called Café Oscar (58 Bredgade). We sat outside and had a very pleasant lunch—good food, accommodating service, excellent burger—not knowing that the price of the meal included entertainment until a young man came running by us on the sidewalk as though he were being chased by the police. A couple of seconds later, we discovered that he was being chased by the police when two plainclothes officers dashed by in pursuit of the young man. The show really got interesting when the three performers came back down the street, the culprit flanked by the officers one holding each arm, and the young man began to struggle. The cops threw him onto the ground, pulled his arms behind his back, and slapped the cuffs on him, just like on Hawaii 5-0. We tried to tip them for the performance, but they just walked on. Bravi!
Another eating option and one that won’t break the bank, is Copenhagen Street Food, a former warehouse located opposite Nyhavn on the inner harbor that is now home to dozens of street food and drink stalls. There a diner can find Thai, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Mexican and good ol’ ‘merican barbeque, along with many other cuisines at reasonable (for Copenhagen) prices. You can even find some great vegetarian food there if you really have to. On a nice day, you can dine al fresco while looking out over the inner harbor.
We also noticed that Danes love to be naked and we saw a number of them indulging their naturist inclinations. I thought that was a good thing.
As the calendar ticked down to the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, we could not help but recognize that we were damn far north of our home in Kuala Lumpur. We watched a number of gorgeous sunsets over the Nyhavn, though the sun didn’t so much set as it did cruise across the sky until the horizon swallowed it, but we had to stay up until nearly 11:00pm to see them. Then, when I got up at 3:30am to pee which has become an inevitability, I was surprised to see the sky lightening in the east.
We bade adieu to Copenhagen (since we didn’t know how to say good-bye in Danish) and departed, having fallen in love with this town, reluctant to leave and anxious to return as soon as our depleted coffers would allow.
Recommended things to do in Copenhagen
- Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek—This art museum was built by brewing magnate Carl Jacobsen when, after several expansions of his sprawling estate could still not provide the space to house his art collection, he gave up and made his art available to the public. The collection ranges from Greek sculpture to paintings by French and Danish masters. And admission is free on Tuesdays. Just across the street from this museum is
- Tivoli Gardens—More amusement park than gardens, it’s worth the price of admission to see this Ritalin-free zone where the hyperactives include both children and adults. Rides, food stops and even stage shows appear as you roam the grounds, kind of an old, quaint version of Disney World. And, if you want to escape the kinder, the adult beer garden will give you some respite. The admission to the grounds (rides not included) is about US$15, but it’s worth doing once.
- The Little Mermaid—Hans Christian Andersen seems to be revered as a demi-god in Copenhagen. His likeness is everywhere and on the Nyhavn canal there is a store across the canal from where Andersen lived and wrote dedicated to the author of such stories as The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Little Mermaid. Carl Jacbosen (he of Carlsberg beer fame) was so taken by the story of the Little Mermaid, that in 1913 he commissioned a sculpture of the title character which he then donated to the city of Copenhagen. It sits on a rock in the harbor and, after a walk through a beautiful park named for Winston Churchill, you will come upon it.
- Christiania—A visit to Copenhagen would not be complete without a stop in Christiania, the former military base that became one of the world’s most famous hippie havens. The colorful, free-style life of the 850 residents of this flowerchild commune have become counter-culture’s beacon and its free flow of cannabis and hashish draw tourists and locals alike to wander Pusher Street, the community’s main drag and the route into the Green Zone where pot is on offer to anyone interested in partaking. The area features graffiti-like paintings throughout but the strictly-enforced “no photo” policy hampers the sharing of the sites.
- Canal Boat Tour—It was a perfect, sun-drenched day in Copenhagen when Jessica and I decided to do one of the canal boat tours. There are a couple of companies that offer the service operating out of the Nyhavn Canal, some with hop-on/hop-off options, and we picked the less expensive one because, well, it was stupid not to. The tour provides a sampler of things to see in Copenhagen and is a pleasant introduction to the array of houseboats that line the canals. Well worth doing.
- Rosenborg Castle—This was the palace for a number of Danish kings and displays some of the important accouterment of the Danish monarchies including the royal thrones and the crown jewels. The regalia exhibit features Danish arms over the centuries. At about US$15, this castle is well worth the visit.
- Design Museum Danmark—We are all familiar with Danish design, even if we don’t realize its origin. Take a stroll through this museum and see just how influential Danish designers have been.
- Carlsberg Brewery—Even if you’re not a beer drinker (neither Jessica nor I are), plan to spend an afternoon at the Carlsberg brewery, at least, it used to be. The site now serves as a museum, tasting center, entertainment venue and horse stable. A guided tour of the complex, including J. C. Jacobsen’s original old brewhouse, is a must. You can also do a tasting of some of the specialty beers still produced on site. A guide will talk you through the different brews, describing how it is made and what differentiates it from the others. The pours are generous and the beers are truly artisanal. Now, the day there is not cheap. The entrance fee, guided tour and tasting set us back DKK390 (around US$60), but it was a fun experience and we learned some things about Copenhagen, beer making, and how much beer we could drink and still remain standing.
- Frederiksborg Slot—Another castle build by yet another Danish monarch (Christian IV, to be specific) is a bit outside of Copenhagen in the town of Hillerød, about a thirty-minute train ride from the center of the city. It was spectacularly restored after a fire severely damaged the castle in 1859, thanks in large part to J. C. Jacobsen, he of Carlsberg Brewery fame. Like Versailles outside of Paris, Frederiksborg Slot includes restorations of many of the castle’s rooms to the way they would have looked when Christian IV resided there. A free audio tour of the castle is available and is an excellent way to enhance your walk. The island setting and surrounding gardens are the focal point of Hillerød, but the town itself is quaint and quirky making the walk from the train station to the castle and entertaining one.
- The Viking Ship Museum—In 1962, the remains of five Viking ships that were intentionally sunk to reduce navigability into the harbor of Roskilde around 1070, were found and salvaged. The Viking Ship Museum was established to both commemorate and to provide research facilities for the study of Viking ship building. It is a fascinating trip back in time especially if you happen to be a viewer of the television series The Vikings or are a Viking yourself.
- Amalienborg—A large equestrian statue of King Frederick V presides over the square bounded by the buildings of Amalienborg, the home of the Danish royalty. The four palaces that make up the complex include one for visiting dignitaries and a museum but the other two buildings are residences of the King and Queen and the Crown Prince and his family, respectively. Each afternoon, there is a ceremonial changing of the guard. Local police keep the onlookers back from the parade of Danish military guards leading some to joke that it is the only army in the world that needs police protection. The spectacle is free of charge.
- Louisiana Museum of Modern Art—It takes about a half-hour by train to cover the 40 km between central Copenhagen and Humlebæk but the trip is well worth it to visit Denmark’s premiere modern art museum. A walk through the museum is more like a stroll through a park as the setting on the coast comprises various buildings and galleries as well as a significant number of pieces and installations on the grounds. If you have an interest in modern art, this place is not to be missed.
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