It’s not where Ikea comes from and it’s not where the Fjords are but it IS where Hamlet comes from. Denmark is in fact part of Scandinavian but for an American it actually might be difficult to place on map because it’s not so obviously disconnected from continental Europe. It’s the one above Germany that sticks out into the North Sea. Its flag is also easily confused with Switzerland’s and no they don’t speak Dutch in Denmark. They speak Danish but every single person I spoke to during my trip spoke perfect English with barely a trace of an accent.
Copenhagen is famous for its modern design and its very pretty canals. In the past few years it’s become the center of “new Nordic” cuisine and a trailblazer in city planning for its numerous bike lanes. The single most talked about tourist attraction in Copenhagen is Rene Redzepi’s restaurant Noma, named by some arbitrary awards thing sponsored by Pellegrino as the best restaurant in the world. It’s 1500 Danish Kroner for a meal, roughly $275 dollars without wine per person. As a poor editor making about as much as a store manager at Burger King (a fact), Noma wasn’t really in the cards for me. If you do want to go, you need to reserve months in advance. But I did end up at a delicious (still pricey) sushi place nearby called Damindra.
If you visit Copenhagen you need two things: a lot of Kroner and a bicycle! Denmark has not elected to adopt the Euro and like most of Scandinavia has the Krone. It’s strong against the Euro and the British Pound so be prepared to spend a lot while you are there. I think in dollars and based my purchases off the logic that 100 Kroner equals 18 dollars. Most sit-down meals will cost you about 20 dollars.
Hopefully your hotel or apartment has a bicycle you can rent because you are going to want to explore the city on two wheels. Even if you are not the cycling type (I am certainly not), you MUST at least try to ride around. Almost every single street in the city has a bike lane and it’s wide and separated very clearly from the road and pedestrian side walks. The bike lanes are truly idiot-proof. Not only are the lanes easy to follow but they also include adorable little bike traffic lights to let you know when you can cross major intersections. Even if you are iffy about getting on a bike, I highly recommend you try in Copenhagen.
It’s a small city and there’s not THAT much to do. There’s some great shopping, great bars and great food. There’s Tivoli, which is like Coney Island stripped of all character and cleaned up. This I can only assume, I’ve never been.
This might come off as snobby, but I’m willing to take the risk. You can pretty much cover Copenhagen in 36 hours. It’s a lovely European city but there just isn’t THAT much to see. It’s got lovely everything but if you’ve been to Paris, London or Barcelona you might be flipping desperately to the back of the guidebook for something else to do. So what should you do? Get outta town. Take the very efficient and clean Danish railway out of the city and up north. The rest of Denmark is beautiful countryside (there are even reindeer) so rent a car and drive along one of the coasts. There are lots of islands as well.
Also can we talk about how sexy crown prince Frederick is? To think of all the time I’ve wasted with William and Harry!
Limited by time, I decided to head just an hour outside the city to Helsingør. You might know it as Elsinor, or the place that young Hamlet spoke to a skull and asked the ultimate existential question. That’s right, Shakespeare set his most famous tragedy in Kronberg castle, a short train ride away from the center of Copenhagen. Kronberg itself is pretty impressive, especially if you love Shakespeare. I’m more of a Macbeth girl myself but as far as historical sights go, Kronberg is one I’d highly recommend.
The town of Helsingør is surprisingly adorable. It has beautiful cobblestone streets, great shopping and a pretty square that feels almost more Italian or Spanish than Danish. There are lots of places to eat around the square. I ended up at a forgettable Italian place, but it was more about the experience.
If you have a full day, I’m told that the Louisiana art museum is a gem. Sadly, my free day was a Monday and the museum was closed. But I’m told by multiple people that it’s one of the best modern art places in the world and in a beautiful setting. It’s in the town of Humlebæk which is just a few stops south of Helsingør. Ambitious? If you leave Copenhagen before 10am, you should be able to hit Kronberg castle first, then lunch in the town square of Helsingør and hit the Louisiana Art museum on your way back to Copenhagen in the afternoon.
Your time in Copenhagen should be spent wandering around the pretty streets, shopping a bit and eating. Andersen Bakery has the best hot dog EVER. It was started by a Japanese chef who came to Copenhagen and perfected Danish cuisine. For about 50 Kroner, you can have the most delicious dog with gourmet fried onions, homemade pickles and about 4 different gourmet sauces. If you can stomach it, grab one in the morning before your train journey up to Helsingør, it’s literally across the street from the station.
Literally next door to Andersen Bakery is the new and chic Nimb hotel. Did you ever read that children’s story about the cloud named Nimby? It reminded me of that. The Nimb hotel has a few restaurants that seemed pretty pricey but it’s got two gorgeous places for drinking. There’s a beautifully grand, yet quirky cocktail bar in a ballroom upstairs that looks like the setting of some fabulous wedding that you wont be invited to between two very well-connected people. There’s also the courtyard. Great for a quiet and well-made tipple after your day of shopping. I’d recommend the rum punch. It comes with one of those slimy black currants that are all the rage in cocktail culture these days.
So, with about 48 hours of free time in Copenhagen I suggest you spend a full day biking around the city. Hit the city center neighborhood of IndreBy and visit Copenhagen’s famous department store, Illums. There are two locations, one called Illums Bolighus which specializes in home furnishings.
The other is just Illums and it’s a huge emporium of everything luxurious. Sort of like a cross between London’s Liberty and Tokyo’s Takashimaya. While you’re around Illums, stop into the Royal Smushi Café for a modern take on the classic Danish open-faced sandwich. They claim it’s a cross between a sandwich and sushi but I didn’t really get the sushi reference.
One morning I woke up early. The sun is out from about 4:30am to 11:30 pm so your days will be long and sunny. I hopped on my bike and rode about 30 minutes to see the famous Little Mermaid statue. Danes are very proud of Hans Christian Andersen and have immortalized him with this statue. It’s not very impressive and I’d recommend skipping it all-together.
However, at 7:30 in the morning with no tourists around, some locals had decided to have a bit of fun with the mermaid. As I got closer to the statue I realized there two men, completely naked, posing in rude ways with the poor half-fish girl. Definitely worth the trip 😉
I never made it to the newest trendy neighborhood of Nørrebro, where the best (and cheapest) ethnic food is to be found and where all the young creative beautiful people live. Though I walked right past it, I never made it to Ruby, an amazing cocktail bar right beside a canal and near the central shopping district. On my one night out I did make it to The Log Lady Café, a vaguely Twin Peaks themed bar where an impressive DJ spun records for the hippest group of people I’ve ever seen. Perfect blondes in sweatshirts and mini skirts and boys in button down shirts with all the buttons done up. Lot’s of baseball caps, beanies and blue eyes. I so longed to enter their conversation and invite them back to party in my hilariously large loft hotel. But the beers were expensive so I stuck to my corner and occasionally smiled at the DJ.
On my last morning with a few hours to kill without a hotel room before my flight, I decided to walk up to the lawless hippie enclave of Christiania. It’s a “freetown” that declared its independence from the city in 1976 and is a haven for hippies and dope smokers.
It’s become a tourist attraction so instead of feeling like a revolutionary commune aiming to escape the hustle of city life, it felt like Venice beach without the Pacific Ocean in the background. That is, the sad worn out, tattooed people clearly at the end of their ropes trying to eek a living out of selling puka shell necklaces and palm readings. In Christiania the main currency is weed, reefer, ganja, whatever you want to call it. And it’s sold in little makeshift stalls in “The Greenlight District” where signs threaten no photography and no cell phones. I think my first mistake was to come so early in the morning. It was 10 am and the residents were just removing the sleep from their eyes. Showers don’t seem to be a regular occurrence for the inhabitants of Christiania. I don’t mean to be so judgmental but the picture I saw was pretty damn bleak. As I wandered through the concrete park I saw lots of people, mostly men, nursing a beer alone on a bench at 10 in the morning. Deeper in the park there is a stage set up with the banner of NemoLand. Several eateries and bars in a semicircle reminded me very oddly of the Astro Café outside of Space Mountain at Disneyland where every half hour Buzz Lightyear gets on stage to entertain the kiddies. This was no Disneyland, but it did feel very much a theme park. But instead of fairy tales, the theme was seventies post-war Hanoi after all the American soldiers left. In a corner of the food court, a bar served the ten or so men scattered about on the picnic tables. A shwarma cart was just firing up a grill that smelled pretty good. The whole scene was set to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” which blasted from the bar speakers even though no one seemed to be listening. I’d like to go back at night when the music is good and everyone is looking to have a good time (myself included).
Now a bit about lodging. I stayed in an apartment hotel called STAY and was upgraded to the most insane loft penthouse I’ve seen.
Let’s assume you want to spend less than $150 a night and you don’t have the lady luck upgrade fairy with you, I’d go for AirBnB. Copenhagen is a VERY safe place and there are lots of beautiful apartments. I loved the picturesque canal-side scape of Islands Byrgge, so I’d try and swing a rented apartment on the top floor of one of the water-side condo buildings. I did try and get some work done while I was there, but it was hard with all the parties on the roof and this setting.
Since this is a food blog, I’ll say a bit about food. As mentioned above, food is extremely expensive here so do what the locals do and have the Danish equivalent of bagel and schmer. Buy some knækbrød (translation: crispbread), cream cheese and smoked salmon at the start of your stay and you’ll have a delicious, nutritious breakfast each day.
Do I need to spell it out for you? Take a piece of knækbrød, spread about 1 Tablespoon of cream cheese on it and add a piece of smoked salmon. I prefer gravlax cured with dill. There are lots of little markets throughout the city and I had great luck at Irma’s.
In my very last moments in Copenhagen, I had a panic attack. I hadn’t had fish and chips! It’s sort of their thing since there’s lots of great fishing in Denmark so I ran around Islands Byrgge looking for it. A stumbled upon a fish monger with a sign that read Fiskfevit 59 Kroner. By now I had learned that that means fish and chips. And my god, these were some of the best fish and chips I’d ever had. I ate them by the water, completely satisfied.
What you NEED to know that guidebooks don’t tell you:
- Most places will accept your credit card but you need to tell the cashier or server that you have a “swipe” card and that it has a signature with NO pin. Almost all Danish debit cards have a pin so if you want to use your American credit card, give them advance warning.
- Staying near the city center is great but there are so many beautiful and more interesting neighborhoods to lodge in. I stayed in the beautiful, if slightly out of the way, Islands Byrgge and I’ve heard that Norrebro is young and hip.
- Let’s assume you don’t want to shell out for the big foreign data plan on your smart phone. Did you know that google maps is able to find your location remotely without even being connected to the internet? Yes, that’s right! Keep your iPhone in Airplane mode at all times and you’re little blue dot will move when you do. Don’t worry, as long as data roaming is OFF it won’t charge you. So, find a café with free wifi and map your walking or cycling route to the next location. Then, when you leave the wifi zone, you will still be able to follow the prescribed route and track your location.
- The bus system is incredibly easy to use. It’s 24 kroner to most zones within the city and Google maps will show you the way.