The Insider’s Guide to Copenhagen
Prepare to be charmed by neighborhoods full of fresh-faced bikers, exquisite architecture, and locals who speak English better than you.
Guide by Lisa Abend
Introduction by Helen Russell
Photographs by Carol Sachs
Illustrations by Louise Rosenkrands
THERE WAS something different about the Danes, I noticed from the saddle of my Jetsons-style city bike — complete with touchscreen — on my first visit to Copenhagen. The locals didn’t look like us, quite apart from the fact that they were all strapping individuals, towering above me. They looked more relaxed, and healthier. They walked more slowly. They took their time.
Having lived in London for 12 years, I relocated to Denmark when my husband was offered his dream job working for Lego, the iconic Danish toymaker. Denmark ranks among the happiest countries in the world in studies going back to the 1970s, so as a correspondent for the Guardian and an amateur anthropologist, I resolved to investigate the Danish happiness phenomenon firsthand, embarking on a year of “living Danishly” (I later published a book of the same name) to uncover the secrets of happy Danes. Copenhagen, regularly voted one of the world’s best cities, was top of the list for a pilgrimage.
Originally a Viking fishing hub, thanks to a natural harbor and an abundance of herring, Denmark’s understated capital has evolved into a cultural smorgasbord and an Instagrammer’s paradise. Only 29 percent of households in Copenhagen own a car, so the streets are picturesquely filled with stylish people on bikes.
Once in the saddle, I took in the colorful terraced houses of Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid statue before ending up in one of the city’s canal-side restaurants, dining on powdered mushrooms followed by peppered loin of venison. The pocket-size capital of just 583,000 people has enjoyed a culinary renaissance in recent years with the rise of New Nordic cuisine and its emphasis on simple ingredients, eating in micro seasons, and foraging.
And your average Dane actually has time to forage, as I discovered. They work far less than the rest of us, clocking in an average of 32.4 hours a week. This means they get to have a life, get on in life, and, crucially, make time for hygge — the guttural-sounding word used to describe Denmark’s national obsession with being cozy and relaxed. Candlelight is key, and fittingly, Danes burn the highest number of candles per head in the European Union.
While biking around town, I noticed a few babies sleeping outside cafés in prams, their parents lunching inside. I later learned that, according to one 2009 study, 79 percent of Danes trust “most people,” which is why they’re able to leave their kids outside without having a heart attack. And this calm, of course, makes Danes even happier: If you’re not anxious all the time, you’ve got the headspace to enjoy life more.
After just a few days in Copenhagen, I was a convert — and at the end of our year-long experiment, we decided to stay for good. But you don’t have to relocate to reap the benefits of living Danishly. Just a few days in the capital can act like a decompression chamber. Watching the sunset from a harborside bar, or strolling cobbled streets with no particular place to go, can imbue a feeling of calm so strong, you just might be able to bring the hygge back on the plane with you.
BEFORE YOU GO
City Hall is the setting for scenes in Nordic noir favorite The Killing, and the bridge in, well, The Bridge is near the airport. The Necco-wafer-colored facades of Nyhavn figure prominently in The Danish Girl, an Oscar-winning film about transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.
Set in Copenhagen and Greenland, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg, is both a gripping, atmospheric mystery and a pretty biting indictment of Denmark’s colonial past. The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth, is part humorous travelogue, part insightful cultural analysis, and amusingly expounds on the notion of hygge.
Stay near buzzy art galleries, gritty clubs, or somewhere quaint and quiet — choose your own adventure.
VESTERBRO: WHERE THE COOL KIDS HANG
Once — and, if we’re honest, still — the city’s red-light district, Vesterbro extends west from City Hall and includes the amusement park Tivoli Gardens. But thanks especially to the conversion of the old meat-packing area, it has also become hipster central, with craft breweries, small galleries, creative start-ups, and stylish restaurants galore.
ØSTERBRO: FOR THOSE WITH WEE ONES IN TOW
More upscale and sedate, this is where prosperous Copenhageners move when they start having kids. Streets here are a little broader, with fine apartment houses, tasteful shops, and a lot of embassies. On nice days, the lush Fælledparken fills with families (the park is also home to the national soccer stadium), as does the beach at Svanemolle.
NØRREBRO: WHERE THE ACTION IS
When the old demarcation line between city and country was eradicated in the mid-19th century, this neighborhood boomed with worker housing. Today, it’s the most culturally diverse and liveliest of the city’s districts. Home to Assistens cemetery (where Hans Christian Andersen is buried), it’s populated by tons of cafés, cocktail bars, and ethnic restaurants — including the (locally) famous Kebabistan.
CHRISTIANIA: WHERE THE HIPPIES ARE
A self-declared “free city” on the southern edge of the city center, Christiania began when hippies and other free spirits took over an abandoned military base in 1971 and began building homes there. (Alas, there are no Airbnbs in the neighborhood, but it’s still worth an afternoon.) Today, despite frequent police raids, it remains most famous for Pusher Street, where stalls (a lot of them run by gangs) openly sell pot and hash. But it’s also home to a thriving community, with schools, restaurants, theaters, and sometimes whimsical DIY homes and gardens.
SCANDISTYLE: DRESS LIKE A LOCAL
A certain minimalist aesthetic and Denmark’s comparatively small gene pool can sometimes make it seem like the streets are filled with tall blond people looking effortlessly great as they cycle around in black jeans, black coats, and massive scarves. And while there is something to the cliché — the prevailing street vibe, according to fashion blogger Marie My, translates into “sneakers with everything, no matter if you’re wearing a feminine floral dress or mom jeans” — designers are embracing bold colors and looking beyond their borders. The population is diversifying, and “everyone is wearing everything!” says My.
FASHION TIPS FROM LOCALS
ARMIN TEHRANI, art director
Tip: Always bring a light jacket with you, because the temperature will dip very quickly as soon as the sun sets!
My Outfit: This green jacket was my very first purchase when I moved to Copenhagen. It’s a very versatile piece for the summer and spring by Norse Projects.
LUISA ELVIRA TRAINA, creative consultant
Tip: Combine styles in an eclectic manner. If you’re wearing a super-fancy, sequined skintight dress, pair it with sneaks.
My Outfit: This is a piece from a collection I created with the Danish kids label Miniature. I decided the brand should create a few grown-up styles inspired by kidswear, and I always get girls stopping me on the street when I’m wearing it, asking me where it’s from.
Join the 41 percent — that’s how many locals bike each day. Mikael Colville-Andersen, founder and CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co., which advises cities on how to improve their cycling infrastructure, breaks down Danish biking basics.
1 / Dress for the destination.
In Copenhagen, cycling isn’t working out, and it isn’t recreation: It’s transportation. So wear whatever you would normally wear. You don’t dress specially to drive a car or sit on a bus!
2 / Learn by watching.
You can ride side by side with someone, but otherwise, stay to the right. And raise your hand when you’re about to stop — that’s unique to Copenhagen. And, you know, ride in a straight line.
3 / Wheels up!
There is no shortage of rental options, but the one I always recommend is Baisikeli, which collects used bikes in Denmark and sends them to Mozambique and Sierra Leone.
Where world-renowned local architect Bjarke Ingels sends visitors looking for design inspo.
1. Bagsværd Kirke: Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s church is inconspicuous from the outside, but inside the supremely peaceful space, the light is magical.
2. Eremitage castle: King Christian VI’s castle, where the entire dinner table was built like an elevator, to descend into the floor at will.
3. Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior Church): A baroque church famous for its outdoor winding staircase that goes right up to the spire.
4. Rundetårn: King Christian IV built this observatory with ramps, so in the past you could ride a horse all the way up to the roof, should that have been of interest.
5. 8 house: An entire city block designed by Ingels such that people can stroll, run, or bicycle all the way from the street to the roofscape and down again.
NEIGHBORHOOD TO WATCH: REFSHALEØEN
Copenhagen’s hottest new neighborhood isn’t really a neighborhood at all. For most of its existence, Refshaleøen, an island on the south side of the city’s harbor, was populated by nothing more than shipping warehouses. But a stint as the home to the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 — as well as some much-loved local music festivals like Distortion — drew attention to the area. Now creative entrepreneurs are grabbing up the abandoned warehouses as fast as they can, turning this once industrial wasteland into the city’s newest destination for food, sports, and all kinds of fun.
1 / Amager Bakke: Leave it to Copenhagen to make a power plant a thing of, if not exactly beauty, at least good design. The smokestack-topped structure, which incinerates the city’s trash and turns it into energy, is also about to become a sports and fitness park, complete with a climbing gym up the side of the building.
2 / Amass: Ex-Noma chef Matt Orlando opened this ambitious, utterly unique restaurant in an old warehouse. On the plate, his cooking looks refined and innovative, but it’s based on a profound dedication to sustainability, from the garden out back where they grow many of their own vegetables to his imaginative use of ingredients others might discard.
3 / CopenHot: It’s got its own sauna, with a glass wall facing the harbor, but the real draw is the boats, each of which comes equipped with a water-level Jacuzzi that seats five. Floating around the harbor in bubbling hot water on a cold day is one of Copenhagen’s unique pleasures — and an experience you’d be hard-pressed to find in many other cities.
4 / Mikkeller Baghaven: Cult brewer Mikkeller recently opened a brewery at New York’s Citi Field, but Baghaven acts as a reminder of its experimental roots. Here, new Master Blender Ehren Schmidt makes mostly sour beers from wild yeasts and ferments them in oak casks, producing delicious — and uniquely local — brews.
5 / La Banchina: Quite possibly the most pleasurable bar ever, La Banchina serves up food and drink from inside an old boathouse, but most take their glasses to the dock outside, to sip in between dips in the harbor. On a warm, sunny day, with women in bikinis all around, you’d think you were on the Mediterranean.
6 / Reffen: After losing its lease on Paper Island, Copenhagen Street Food has moved its much-loved food stalls to the edge of the city and is now bigger and better. In addition to stalls offering pulled-pork sandwiches, duck-fat fries, and the like, there are also performance spaces for creatives, plus co-working offices.
KNOW YOUR LUNCH
THE WORLD OF SMØRREBRØD
Danish open-faced sandwiches may look simple: Slap some stuff on bread and call it a day. But there is a complex, unspoken set of rules that govern not only when smørrebrød is eaten, but also how it’s made. Trine Hahnemann — the chef and author who literally wrote the book Open Sandwiches — schools us on building the perfect æggemad, or egg on rye.
WHERE AND WHEN
It’s typically lunch food, so you’ll mostly find it in restaurants during the day. However, Hahnemann admits that one of her favorite dinners is to lay out bread, butter, and a collection of simple toppings and let everyone build their own.
Each piece should have at least three colors, so use herbs, flowers (here, chive) or vegetables. “It’s all about balance,” says Hahnemann.
The range of suitable toppings is wide, from tiny hand-peeled shrimp to liver paste to egg. But whichever you choose, include a mix of flavors and textures: “You want at least three of the five flavors — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami — and to make sure that there’s creamy, crunchy, and soft.”
Smørrebrød literally means “buttered bread,” but Hahnemann says butter is negotiable: “I use it if it’s important for the flavor, or if the topping would soak the bread without it.” One thing is not up for discussion, however: “It must be salted.”
Danes love rye bread with a passion others reserve for football teams or their childhood pet, and most smørrebrød will start with a slice of the dark stuff. “But there are exceptions,” says Hahnemann. Shrimp and salmon can be overpowered by rye; then use white.
WHERE CHEFS — AND THEIR KIDS — EAT
Dad is famed Noma chef René, mom is cookbook author Nadine, and even the wee-est member has a perfect palate. Some must-eat recs for every age from the Redzepi clan.
Ro / age 4: My mom’s pasta with meat sauce. Because she makes it with pasta.
Genta / age 7: Ice cream from Dessertboden. Get the strawberry dipped in chocolate and dried raspberries on a stick.
Arwen / age 10: The dried fruits and shrimp at Noma. At first you think it’s just shrimp heads, and then you open it and you think it’s just the crispy chicken skin, and then you eat that and it’s the fruit and oil and raw shrimp.
Nadine / age 33: The schnitzel at Barr. They serve it with peas and horseradish cream, and you can add some caviar if you want. It’s the best I’ve ever had.
René / age 40: The dirty carnitas taco at Sánchez. That’s like medicine for me.
Grandma Bente / age 63: Arwen stole my answer! That’s the only dish that’s ever made me cry.
AFTER DARK: YOUR BEST NIGHT OUT
Natural wines, excellent dancing, and wee-hours-of-the-morning shawarma
5 P.M. Head to Queen Louise’s Bridge, where friends gather to drink and people-watch.
7 P.M. The city has one of the biggest natural-wine scenes in the world, and no shortage of wine bars specializing in the funky stuff. Check out Pompette, a new bare-bones space in Nørrebro with keenly knowledgeable staff.
9 P.M. Vega is one of the city’s great venues, drawing big names to its 1,500- person-capacity main hall.
11 P.M. Try Balderdash for its cozy room and whimsical concoctions, or Atze Peng for an artisanal post-show experience.
12 A.M. Jolene is the city’s quintessential club, despite the fact it has no cover, no cocktails, and no design to speak of. Just beer and excellent dancing.
1:30 A.M. You basically have two choices for food: Kebabistan, its three outlets offering shawarma to the inebriated masses, or Barabba, a restaurant that serves inventive Italian food so excellent you’d find it delicious even if you were stone cold sober. (Note: Last order’s at 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.)
Skål! IMBIBER’S PARADISE
Søren Krogh Sørensen, beloved cult bartender and local cocktail visionary, shares his favorite places to drink.
Ved Stranden 10: There’s no menu — the staff just asks questions about your preferences and suggests a glass from that. The bar itself has beautiful interiors filled with Danish Modern furniture, and in the warmer months, the outdoor service area along the canal is one of my all-time favorites.
Himmeriget: It’s at the perfect level of super nerdy beers and service that still makes you feel comfortable. You can ask for beers that will challenge you or that are right in your comfort zone. They also have a nice collection of amaro and whiskeys.
Atze Peng: When it comes to cocktails, I like places that stand out a little, places you would only find if you were a local. This spot offers a small, very personal take on what cocktails in Copenhagen can be. You’ll also have a fantastic conversation with the bartender on what you’ll be served.
PERFECT SOUVENIR: BRING THIS VASE BACK
Ceramicist Inge Vincents likes to work, as she puts it, “at the edge of the functional.” From her studio on the happening Jægersborggade, she shapes clay into daily objects — vases, bowls, and candleholders — that are so thin as to be literally translucent. The results are delicate works that push the boundaries of Scandinavian design and whose beauty has made them a favorite on restaurant tabletops throughout the city.
FORAGE YOUR NEXT MEAL
Copenhagen is ground zero for the foraging movement, launched in its modern form when chef René Redzepi of Noma began searching for local ingredients that would help him define a distinctly Nordic cuisine. His team still goes out regularly to forage for plants and ants, but there’s no need to trek far to find the flavor of the city.
A vast nature preserve in the city, Amager Fælled, has a mix of wild varieties and domesticated plants from people’s gardens, since parts of the preserve are built on a dump. “Some of them are really weird,” says Mikkel-Lau Mikkelsen, director of Vild Mad, a program that promotes foraging. “But you also have the expected ones, like sea buckthorn.” The latter, among the most typical of Nordic ingredients, are juicy berries that grow on spiky shrubs. “Each berry has the same amount of vitamin C as a whole orange,” he says.
Once part of the old city fortifications, today Østre Anlæg is a lovely park, located right behind the National Gallery. In the fall, the fruit on its apple trees will be ripe, and because these too are a mix of wild and domesticated trees, you can never tell what sort of flavor and texture they’ll have. “I’ve tasted some that were like eating a cantaloupe,” says Mikkelsen. Just northwest of the city is a deciduous forest, Hareskoven, where, in fall, you can find field mushrooms and hazelnut trees just coming into fruit. And at the city beach Amager strand, there is plenty of beach mustard growing on rocks along the water. It has the exact same flavor as regular mustard but is very crisp and light, with a saltiness it gets from the sea air. “Like everything from the beach, it pairs well with seafood,” says Mikkelsen. Hook some fish, and you can have yourself a nice little meal.
GET OUTTA TOWN: DAY TRIPS
Castles, culture, sunbathing, and famous falafel, just a short way away — we’re talking sometimes as short as a bike ride.
The imposing castle on a spit of land was supposedly the inspiration for Hamlet, and every August a Shakespeare festival, complete with performances by prominent international theater troupes, is held on its patio. Even without the Bard it’s a cool place to visit, with a museum, craft shops, and a coffee roastery inside the moat walls.
An impossibly adorable Danish village on the water, Dragør has narrow streets lined with red-tiled and thatch-roofed houses and neatly tended flower gardens. The center holds a handful of small galleries and charming restaurants. Note: Because it’s located just 13 kilometers from the center of Copenhagen, it makes for a great bike ride.
A posh, stately town up the coast that has become a bedroom community for the city, Humlebæk is home to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, one of the best — and most idiosyncratic — modern and contemporary art museums in Europe. Just up the road, the farm stand at Krogerup Avlsgaard sells excellent produce, flowers, and cider.
Malmö may be a country away, but it’s also an easy 35-minute train ride from Copenhagen. (Note of interest: You get there by crossing the bridge in the television show The Bridge.) With the exception of Santiago Calatrava’s stunning Turning Torso building and its new food hall, there’s not much in the way of sites, but the vibe in its urban streets is distinct, and its falafel is rightly famous.
About the authors:
Lisa Abend: Based in Copenhagen, Lisa Abend is a freelance journalist who writes frequently for TIME and The New York Times. She is also the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen of Ferran Adrià’s elBulli.
Helen Russell: Helen Russell’s new book, The Atlas of Happiness (Two Roads, 2018), will be available November 1.