Copenhagen is the best of Europe distilled into one city, the continent at its most perfect.
From the airport, we take the metro, a clean, modern train, glass-walled to let in the pale sunlight. The airport was like this too, not the gray, military aesthetic of Reykjavik where we had a layover, but a space with curves and glass and white paint.
The ride reminds me that I’m back in Europe. Well-dressed people in coats and scarves and shoes that click against the ground step on and off. The train moves with an almost silent whir down tracks that look new but must be at least a century old. Outside, red-brick houses flash by that make me think of England: the same gabled, tiled roofs, the same compactness.
Our hostel is in the Nørrebro district, at the end of a long, connected row of 19th century red-brick buildings. On the way, we pass falafel and shawarma places, cool, dark bars in tiny storefronts, and well-lit cafes where people work on laptops. There’s at least one bike shop on every street so far, and special bike lanes separated from the road where the cyclists breeze by with enviable nonchalance.
The hostel is simultaneously hip and cozy: long wooden tables, old, circular metal lamps shining dark yellow light, and a bar that sells both coffee and beer. Large windows look out onto the quiet street, where a row of parked bikes points down to a 19th century building, mostly brick but renovated to include a glass elevator, and a church on the adjacent block looming against the gray sky.
We check in with the receptionist, who like everyone here looks at once elegant and casual, with blonde hair in a ponytail and the sleeves of her gray sweater rolled up to reveal forearm tattoos. Our room is in a separate building, and we get there by following a trail of sheep painted onto the sidewalk.
Out primal need is sleep, but after washing up, we head out to find food. Yelp suggests a “toast bar” which proves to be excellent, with dark, rich coffee and sandwiches smothered in various melted cheeses. The barista is a guy with a beanie, a beard, and tattoos who talks in a loud, echoing voice and looks like he runs a bike shop part-time. There are a few others in the cafe, but two are on laptops and the other two are a couple who aren’t talking, which gives the room a strange silence. We sit at the window, where a candle drips white wax onto the counter. Outside, bundled up pedestrians walk small dogs. In the building facing us, a guy stands at the window, having an intense cell-phone conversation. Across the street is another cafe, with a black exterior, a dark interior, and a small chalkboard sign advertising pricey lunch specials. To the left is a park with a modernist sculpture of twisted metal bars and a brick apartment building with the words “FREE GAZA” written in large, white block letters.
At one point, the two women working on their laptops go outside to smoke. They leave their jackets inside and stand huddled in their sweaters, breathing out a mix of smoke and cold breath.
From there, we walk down to what I at first think is a river or a canal but later learn is an artificial lake, created back in the Middle Ages. Across the water, the houses have that grand, 19th century look: mansard roofs, symmetrical windows, brick and stucco painted various shades of red and white. They go on endlessly down the bank and remind me of Budapest, but with warmer colors. People walk dogs and linger along the grass and feed the swans. A couple sits on a bench, talking about sex in Danish-accented and perfectly articulate English. I notice that everyone in Copenhagen is as young as we are, as if the city exists only for millennials. Los Angeles by contrast always feels slightly older, a city for tired people in their late thirties and early forties.
We cross the lake at a large embankment, along a pedestrian path separated from the busy street by trees and manicured shrubbery and past a large white pavilion, late 19th or early 20th century, situated along the water. On the other side of the lake, the street becomes H.C. Andersens Boulevard, and the buildings are bigger are more varied. Across the street is a brick building that’s an unfortunate mix of architectural styles — a neo-Gothic crenelated tower centered between two large, gabled roofs, like an orphanage from a Dickens’ novel, 19th century kitsch — and beyond it rise the flat roofs of the 20th century and the shining glass walls of the 21st. We walk leisurely down the sidewalk in these buildings’ shadows while everything breezes by us, the bikes and the cars and the pedestrians walking briskly in coats and scarves, all moving with a comforting urban indifference.
Traffic here is the densest we’ve seen in Denmark, as busy as Wilshire or Santa Monica Boulevard. Somehow, though, it all seems more orderly, less chaotic, as if like everything else here, it too is better regulated.
In the center of the city and across from the train station sits Tivoli Gardens, an 1840s-era amusement park supposedly built to distract the country’s population from protesting the absolute monarchy, now bedecked with Christmas lights and related items: trees, gnomes, snowmen, a building lined with several austere Nutcrackers, a wooden reindeer that looks like a Trojan Horse, a strange mirrored wall mounted with polar bear heads wearing Santa hats. There are lots of children about, and the adults are mostly mothers in groups pushing strollers, or young couples enjoying the kitsch. The park is like Disneyland, and was in fact one of the inspirations, though it’s smaller and quainter and less corporate. There are different sections corresponding to regions of the world — some pagodas representing either China or Japan, domed mosques for the Middle East or India, a lighthouse and a pirate ship possibly signifying Europe. It’s only vaguely and benignly racist, and nothing out of the ordinary for the 19th century. Bronze statues from that era are sprinkled throughout the park, including one of the founder, Georg Carstensen, looking proud and dapper with his mustache and top hat.
We stroll leisurely through the crowds, past food stands and stores selling magnets and memorabilia. I buy a glogg, which tastes pleasantly warm on a day this cold, though the best part is getting to recycle the plastic cup in one of the futuristic red kiosks, which lowers my cup down into the void with a mechanical whir and then gives me back 5 kroner. It’s an extremely practical and efficient solution to incentivize recycling, which is probably why the United States would never use it.
In the middle of the park we find an octagonal glass theater, a replica of one built in the late 1800s, which Nazi sympathizers burned down in the 1940s. Out beyond the walls of Tivoli, meanwhile, rises city hall, red brick towers capped with green spires, built in the early 20th century but speaking much more of the 1600s.
In this moment, I feel very close to the past. Like the crenelations on city hall, it feels like a ring surrounding us. Take away the phones and the electric lights and make the coats longer and give everyone top hats and we might as well be in the 1800s when the park first opened. Take away the park and give everyone ruffled collars and we’d be in the 1600s. Only 600 years before that, and we’d all be Vikings in huts.
The National Gallery, or the Statens Museum for Kunst, is across the city, though still within walking distance. It’s colder now, so we pull our scarves tighter as we walk down the empty streets. Soon we reach the white stone of Christiansborg Palace, and across the canal from it, along Nybrogade, a row of picturesque 17th and 18th century houses, narrow and built against each other, painted red and white and dark-brown. The sunset above streaks the sky with wisps of purple and brings out the color of each building. Even the yellow construction crane is more vivid and seems a remnant of past centuries.
We reach a small bridge and cross it into a Christmas market selling gnome statues and wooden souvenirs, and food of course. I smell sausages and see mushrooms simmering in a vat of butter. Behind me, the sun dips behind two rows of houses on opposite sides of a canal, and paints the whole scene, including a distant bronze statue, in a cold, yellow light — a sunset-hued cityscape, postcard-perfect, on all sides colors like an artist’s palette.
The city darkens as we move across it, past contemporary shops and dark streets and cyclists. It’s only 4:00, but it feels much later. A languor settles over us, and I remember our lack of sleep.
We reach Rosenborg Slot, Christian IV’s 17th century palace, and we walk across the park behind it, down a path lined with trees whose bare branches meet overhead. The castle looks romantically sinister silhouetted through the trees, but also small, “like a toy castle” K______ says, especially next to the block-long 19th century houses stretching down the parallel street. The park and the castle remind me of Oxford — a small patch of the past preserved despite the various encroaching presents pushing in from all around.
Just past the park is the museum, a grand, 19th century building reminiscent of museums from Britain, built to reflect the glory of the nation, or whatever. We’re both tired and cold, but on the walk up the large steps I feel exhilaration.
Inside, we find familiar European art. There’s a Titian portrait of a gentleman staring thoughtfully off to the left, a painting by a follower of Bosch of tiny figures against a bleak brown landscape, and quite a few Lucas Cranachs — various women with big heads and weird chins, and one work titled Melancholy depicting three oddly shaped infants trying to push a stone ball through a hoop with sticks while a winged woman watches them wistfully and several witches ride goats in a distant corner. But the highlights of the museum are the Danish pieces, a tour through one of the lesser known traditions of European art. In the first room are portraits of Danish royals from the 17th century and 18th century, all painted by the same Swedish-born court painter, C.G. Pilo, and opposite them, portraits of the bourgeoisie by Jens Juel, the most prominent one of an odd-looking middle-class family standing before a plantation. The room’s juxtaposition is perfect, ingeniously displaying the fundamental change of the 18th century, the rise and triumph of the bourgeoisie in all their awkward glory.
The next room has allegorical and historical paintings, and the following room works from the Romantic Era inspired by Caspar David Friedrich. A late-19th century room has some vaguely orientalist paintings of reclining women by Elisabeth Baumann and a wonderful work by Carl Bloch, of a man and two women eating dinner at a table and staring in surprise back at the viewer, their wine carafes tellingly half-empty, a guilty look on the man’s face. I assume his wife must be the viewer, having just caught him in the early stages of what might have become a threesome.
There’s also a beautiful late-19th century piece by J.F. Willumsen, titled En bjergbestigerske (A Mountain Climber), of a woman in a white sweater standing in front of a mountain, her walking stick leaning casually behind her, her cloak hanging lightly off her shoulders, and her hip thrust to the side as she looks boldly into the distance. According to the plaque, Willumsen’s artistic movement was called vitalism, and vitality is exactly what the woman gives off. She is more alive than the inert, distant mountains, a triumph of humanity over nature, her fierce stare made bolder by the vaguely impressionistic style of the piece, the soft colors and the murky brush strokes.
Finally, there’s a room of paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi: cold, melancholy portraits of empty artist’s studios and solitary women, like sad Vermeers. Everything is cast over in a gray-blue pallor, all bleak, forlorn — how appropriate for the dawn of the 20th century.
We leave around 6:00 PM, very tired now, and buy falafel and shawarma from near our apartment. We eat in the hostel common room, quickly, not talking, plastic bags and foil strewn everywhere. Back in our rooms, we shower and are asleep by 8:00.
Biking in Copenhagen is exhilarating. We sail without much effort along cold winds, over bridges, down through old buildings, along wall-paved, separated bike lanes. Cold air whips at my face and nose and my poorly wrapped scarf comes untangled in the wind, but it all feels glorious moving among the herd of cyclists, not worrying about passing cars, feeling safety in numbers. We stop at an intersection behind a cluster of ten bikes, mostly young people like ourselves, some mothers with babies strapped into tiny seats, a few older men who look fitter than me, everyone leaning gracefully to one side as they wait for the light to change.
Christiansborg Palace, the old seat of the monarchy and the current seat of Parliament, is largely a lesser-Versailles, a 20th-century reconstruction of the site’s various older palaces which all burned down. But amidst the standard set of stately and filigreed reception rooms we find the Great Hall, a room whose expensive chandeliers and 18th century allegorical ceiling are belied by the floor tiles’ 20th-century black and white pattern and, the room’s highlight, the 17 ultra-modern tapestries. They chronicle Denmark’s history, from the Viking era to the 21st century, and are done in a self-consciously non-Western style, reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s murals in Mexico City, with vivid, wild colors, bright reds and dark greens and deep purples. We take our time before several of them, using the laminated guides to identify the various figures. Some names I know — the Viking Kings Ragnar Lothbrok and Harald Bluetooth, the Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan, Margaret “the Lady King” of the medieval Kalmar Union — but most are unrecognizable, a rush of history that swirls together in all the bright color.
There’s one tapestry titled “The Future” depicting two men in suits hovering in a nebula of blue and purple, surrounded by floating microbes and crystals and drawings of atoms and solar systems, “the bionic men” as K______ calls them. The irony of course is that Denmark already is the future: a country with safe bike lanes and universal healthcare and free higher education and a minimum wage twice as high as the United States and 5 weeks paid vacation and 32 weeks paid family leave and 85% voter turnout and overall some of the happiest people in the world.
The National Museum has an impressive collection of historical artifacts. We spend most of our time on the bottom floor, amidst the pre-Viking stuff, prehistoric arrowheads and cerated harpoons and burnt animals bones offered as ritual sacrifices. There are large skeletons of an aurochs and an elk, and a grave from 5000 BC with the bones of a 40-year-old woman and her 3-year-old child. The description tell us she survived several blows to the head.
Farther down we reach the Bronze Age, where we find more bodies and objects preserved in bogs or unearthed from barrows: swords, helmets, shields, jewelry, a wooden folding chair from 1400 BC, a tree-trunk coffin from 1370 with the remains of the Egtved Girl, her ragged clothing, bits of her skin and teeth, and a large bronze belt. Later, in the Iron Age we find a metal carriage pulled up from a bog, with large wheels and small decorative details, and following that the Gundestrup cauldron, a large silver bowl decorated with strange non-Viking figures and animal imagery, evidence of Denmark’s early connections with the wider world. Beyond them, finally, is the Viking era, where we find shining swords and shields, drinking horns of various sizes, large rune stones etched with unfamiliar letters, and the remnants of a wooden longboat.
The museum’s most interesting item, though, is the Trundholm sun chariot, from 1800 BC: a bronze statue of the sun pulled along in a chariot by a small horse. The sun is still gilded on one side and shines brightly in the dark museum gallery
I find this evidence of Bronze Age spirituality particularly fascinating. In our modern world the word “religion” has developed such negative connotations, dogmatism, stupidity, intolerance. But everything in this museum, from this chariot to the Early Modern allegorical ceilings on the floor above us to the animal bones in the Paleolithic room, show the need for some kind of religion — perhaps not the ones we have today, that speak of abstract principles of righteousness and morality, but ones like these, of people who viewed the afterlife and the supernatural in the literal terms of their own small worlds, who buried themselves with the physical objects they imagined they might need in whatever awaited them hereafter.
What would we be buried with, I wonder? Our phones perhaps?
Later, at the Christiansborg Palace stables, I notice how similar the royal carriages look to the iron age wagon pulled up from the bog.
We walk back along Rantzausgade, looking for a place to eat. Signs of Danish coziness are everyone, people visible in windows seated around a table, not bundled up like we are, candles before them, all eating and drinking slowly while relaxing and talking, signs of community, of warmth, inviting from the cold. We see one such group in a well-lit interior, drinking wine around half-empty plates, and I can’t tell if it’s a restaurant or just young people having dinner at home. Because of all the glass walls and big windows, at night every interior becomes so well lit, so easy to see from the street. The lack of privacy feels deliberate, as if as if projecting this image of coziness is part of the charm of the city.
We find a small place, run by a woman who both cooks and takes orders. We sit at the well-lit window, next to the dark street and split a hummus sandwich, vegan chili, and a nice, fruity Danish IPA. Afterwards, K______ goes to sleep, but I stay up in hostel with a pilsner and write. Around me is the same atmosphere I saw in all the windows. A group of Spanish tourists are chatting at my long table, everyone in sweaters rolled up at the sleeves, their scarves and jackets piled on a chair in the corner. A candle flickers in a holder amidst their beers, and mellow music plays from overhead. I feel a pleasant warmth from the outside cold.
The buildings on the canal-side streets of Christianshavn are nicer, richer — some are older, painted red and ochre, and some are made of brick, and along the waterfront are a few modern apartments, red stone reinforced with black metal.
Nearby is an 18th century warehouse, a long, beige, brick building, bland, unassuming, rectangular. Now it houses an art gallery and the Michelin-starred restaurant Noma, supposedly the best in the world. Dinner there would have been 2000 KR (roughly 250 dollars) each, for 6 courses. Another tourist couple are taking pictures under the sign. It’s not yet open, and the inside is mostly dark, save for the candles flickering in the window. A white shape, probably a waiter, moves in the shadows beyond the yellow flames.
Beside the warehouse is an old wooden, ship, tied to the dock and resting silently in the water. A man sits on it, eyes closed, so still he’s almost part of the boat. Against the contemporary black steel of the apartment behind it, the ship looks particularly ancient.
The warehouse’s art gallery features an Icelandic artist, whose work deals with water and climate change and methods of measurement. One of the sculptures on the second floor is a ticking clock, which echoes through the bright and empty room.
Because of the new light wood flooring and the white, newly painted walls, it’s hard to imagine this gallery as a warehouse. I try to see the sacks of grain and barrels of herring that would have lined the walls, ready to load onto merchant ships like the one outside — but I can’t. The space seems like it was built not in 1767 but in 2015, as an artistic aperitif for the haute-bourgeois diners of Noma.
We have lunch at Copenhagen Street Food — a hipster food market located in a former paper factory — and then bike farther north towards Refshaleøen, an old industrial area that our guidebook recommended, now mostly used for warehouse parties. The ride up takes us off the main road and along a smaller bike path that winds between broad, grassy plains, and past varied and interesting buildings, some contemporary glass and steel, some pre-industrial brick and stone. We cross a small bridge, and a large fluttering Danish flag comes into view, and below it a statue of what looks like a merman holding aloft a smaller Danish flag, angled forward, like he’s carrying it into battle. In the distance is a strange-shaped factory, a square metal hulk with a rounded top, sending darkish-white smoke up into the grey sky. The sun is still hidden, as it has been all day, and the air is bitterly cold, but the sense of adventure is enough to keep us going. Wind whips at my face, my nose is numb, my cheeks stinging, and I can feel the cold through my gloves as they’re stretched across the handlebars — but we’re moving so quickly, flying around concrete roads, bouncing across gravel, following the memory of a Google Map through an unfamiliar landscape, past signs we can’t read, the grey warehouses growing larger ahead of us. Only a few cars pass us, one or two vans, one bus, a handful of cyclists, and so it feels to us as though the landscape is all ours, Denmark a private playground.
We reach the end of a gravel road, where it meets the water. Behind us is the Mikkeler warehouse. Cinder blocks lie stacked outside the sheds and a few old cars sit empty and rusting. Everything is quiet now, and the warehouse windows dark, and no one is about expect the solitary biker who’d pulled up to a building somewhere behind us. We walk our bikes across old metal tracks which run along the gravel next to the concrete barrier separating us from the water. It’s quiet, peaceful, and majestic, to look out across the water at the row of brick buildings, now the familiar skyline of Copenhagen, the grey sky bringing out their pre-modern red. Behind us, the word “Refshaleøen” looms, written in big black letters across a gray factory building.
We take in the landscape for several long moments, our hearts still beating from our bike ride. Evidence of history stands all around us, the 18th and 19th centuries in brick out across the water, the 20th in metal stretching out behind us — but right now, it feels emphatically like the present, nothing else but 21st century, and I don’t wish we were anytime else.
After a moment, a white car turns a corner to our right and approaches us with bright headlights. The spell broken, we mount our bikes and ride back into the city.
From there we bike to Nyhavn then up to Amalienborg Palace, where the queen lives. We watch the guards in blue and black doing a march, which makes me think of England and Buckingham Palace. The idea of monarchy seems even more absurd up here.
From there we go inside the large church we’d seen from across the canal. It’s big and grand, but I don’t feel impressed, perhaps because Christianity hasn’t figured so prominently here. It may be the country’s Protestantism, but also probably that the religion in general only reached Scandinavia in the late 900s. It’s been Protestant almost as long as it’s been Catholic, and it was pagan up until almost the Crusades. A thousand years of Church history and tradition don’t even exist here. Warehouses seem better symbols of Copenhagen than churches.
From there, we go to the Danish Design Museum, where we find among other things an exhibit on chairs. “The chair is one of the most culture-bearing objects we ever invented,” the description says. “It reveals everything about the age and society in which it was created.” A folding chair from the 20th century makes me think of the folding chair from the bog we saw yesterday at the history museum — as with the carriages, a consistency from past to present.
From there, we bike up to the Little Mermaid Statue. The sun has almost set now, and to our right over green hills rises a stone church, beautifully backlit against the fading day. We pass though the Kastellet, a star fortress from the 1600s, the walls now mostly crumbling stone. We walk our bikes between quaint red buildings and watch three soldiers conduct a flag ceremony. They look like Boy Scouts rather than grown men.
The Mermaid is naked, like a Greek statue, and very sad, sitting atop a pile of rocks and looking longingly out across the water. It’s 4:30 now, and practically dark. Across the canal, we can see Refshaleøen, where we just were, the black letters written on the gray building. It seems so far to have come in just half a day.
Rosenborg Palace is dark and poorly lit, as expected in a 17th century building, and outside the latticed windows rain falls from a gray sky. But inside, the various royal treasures sparkle: gilded chests, fine wooden cabinets, small objects of ivory and amber, paintings ranging from humble landscapes to wild allegories to austere portraits of men, women, and horses, all in all an impressive collection that takes us from the castle’s construction in 1606 under Christian IV to the end of Denmark’s absolute monarchy in 1848. On the top floor is the throne room with antechambers holding the King’s collections of glass and porcelain, and in the basement is the royal treasury, with crowns and scepters and gold rings. The palace’s most interesting object, though, is tucked away in a small glass case against a wall of one of the 19th century rooms: the pen King Frederick VII used to sign the 1849 constitution.
Afterwards, we go to the Worker’s Museum where instead of rooms glorifying individual Kings we find a space honoring the nameless millions of the 20th century. In the central hall where union leaders once met hang the flags of various labor organizations, most of them a vivid, socialist red against the beige walls. In one of the exhibits in the basement, several old union flags have been stitched together into a single red banner, now reading “HOPE NOT FEAR”.
One of the rooms has a small exhibit on Thorvald Stauning, Denmark’s first social democratic prime minister, elected in 1924, and the country’s longest serving PM of the 20th century. He came from a working class background and trained as a cigar sorter before getting involved in politics. We stare at his big, bearded face in some surprise. As we’d just learned, Denmark had still been an absolute monarchy only 74 years before. And now, 90 years after, it’s one of the world’s preeminent social democracies.
If Denmark can change that much so quickly, then why can’t we, the United States, already born as a republic?
The only thing that frustrates us here in Denmark is the small window for lunch. It’s 3:00 and we’re wandering Kødbyen, the former meatpacking district in Vesterbro, going warehouse to warehouse only to find that most of the bourgeois restaurants are closed until dinner at 6:00. The fish place our guidebook recommended is open till 3:30, but it looks too expensive. The Indian restaurant does take-out only. A pub serving beer and burgers is open all day, but it looks like something we could find in Los Angeles. Eventually, at 3:30, we sit down in a packed Italian place. Neither of us particularly wants Italian food, but we’re both hungry. After ten minutes, though, the waiters still haven’t brought us menus, so we get up and leave. The waitress gives us an irritated look as we button up our coats.
We eat ultimately at Øl & Brød, a slightly upscale lunch place attached to the Mikkeller bar we were at earlier, open till 4:00. The tables have white tablecloths and the clientele is mostly older, except for a group of six posh guys in their early 20s, all wearing sweaters over button-downs and with the same expensive haircut, like some Danish version of the Bullingdon Club. We’re too hungry to bother converting the prices on the menu until after we order. The food is delicious: 3 open faced sandwiches (smørrebrød) and a savory chicken tartelet filled with gravy.
When the bill comes, we have just enough cash to cover it.
One our final day, we wait on the empty platform for our mid-morning train to Stockholm. It was warmer earlier, and even a little sunny — but now the sky is gray again and the temperature dropping.
Now and then a train passes with the smooth sound of sliding metal, and the occasional bundled up pedestrian or cyclist moves by on the street above. But for the most part everything is quiet and almost desolate. The tracks would be abandoned-looking if they weren’t so pristine and well-maintained. But this ghost-town quality is an appropriate way to bid farewell to Copenhagen, as we felt it several times over the last few days, from Nørrebro to Refshaleøen to Kødbyen. As always, everyone must be inside now, staying warm behind the yellow lights.
In looking at all the buildings, I can’t help, of course, but note the mix of centuries: the brick train station of the early 20th century in the foreground, the elegant mansard roofs of the 19th century repeating down along the street, the distant concrete of the late 20th century, and out beyond the floating glass and steel of today.
Dominating the horizon is the ugly SAS hotel, a Le-Corbusier-inspired tower of misguided modernity. There was a brief section on it in the Design Museum, about how when it was constructed in the 1950s, the architect Arne Jacobsen sincerely believed it would be the pinnacle of architectural form, functionalism perfected. It looks even worse here than similar buildings do in the United States, too clumsy next to the elegant brick or the floating glass. But considering everything else we saw, its imperfection is forgivable.