How to live like a local in Copenhagen

The thing that struck me after my first few days in Copenhagen is that the city feels, at once, foreign and familiar. Familiar, not because I’d been before, but because it feels livable and relatable. Foreign, because it’s dissimilar enough to be interesting.

Kastrup Søbad, Copenhagen

After spending a month digesting and absorbing life in the Danish capital, I’ve learned some of its norms, and more importantly, a few insights on what can help you feel a little more integrated as you’re settling into this fine city.

Getting Around: Biking is going to be your most efficient — and exhilarating — mode for getting around the city. Be mindful, however, of cycling etiquette and left-hand turns. Cyclists use hand signals here like they’re a new form of communication. Look for the upward raise of the left hand to signal one is stopping on the curb or shuffling to pedal up to make a left hand turn (what they call a box turn, or the “Copenhagen Left”). Refer to diagram below:

How to make a left hand turn on a bicycle in Copenhagen

It’s super confusing until you do it.

Catching the train or metro from the airport is easy, and takes just 13 minutes to arrive in the city center. Uber is also available, though I’ve found their estimated arrival times to be consistently inconsistent, so if you’re in a rush, better to hail a cab.

Dining: The Danes eat well, and by well, I mean flavor-forward and nutrient dense. Decent attention is being paid to sourcing ecologically and locally, though farmers markets are hard to come by. The closest example is the stalls at Torvehallerne. A few chefs are working to change this, but en masse, it’s slow.

Torvehallerne by night

There’s no shortage of delicious smørrebrød. A couple of my favorite establishments include Aamanns and Schønnemann’s. Aamanns is a bit more progressive; Schønnemann’s more traditional. They have an incredibly diverse selection of snaps, which is the classic accompaniment to a Danish lunch of smørrebrød.

traditional Danish smørrebrød

Christian Puglisi, one of the two most notable chefs in Copenhagen, owns an empire of four establishments: Relæ, Manfreds, Bæst, and Mirabelle, a bakery. His founding story between Relæe and Manfreds (originally published in Fool Magazine) is a fun one, and worth a read.

Dish from Relæ

And delighting nearly every palate, former Noma chef Rosio Sanchez, originally from Chicago and with Mexican roots, is upping the global taco game with her handmade tortillas and house made cheese, made with Danish milk and cheese cultures shipped in from Mexico. Her tacos are ridiculously good and unique in flavor.

tacos, Hija de Sanchez

Move that body: While you’re loading up on all the carbs from rye bread (rugbrød) and beer (øl), think about taking a jog or a dip in the ocean at Kastrup Søbad.

The Danes love their exercise. Jogging around The Lakes is popular, as is through the public park, Superkilen.

The Lakes, Copenhagen
Superkilen, Nørrebro

Danish design: Danes love usefulness, clean lines, minimal pigment, and natural materials. From wooden countertops and bathroom paneling, to slate and tile floors, brick and stone, the home is an expression of the natural resources of the region. As it gets dark early in the evening in the winter months, you’ll find the custom of large, round, warm sailing lamps in many establishments, especially low-hanging to emphasize contrast and focus on the activity at hand. Candles burn nearly everywhere. They provide warmth and the symbolism of energy, when all the world outside is oft grey, damp, and moody.

The design scene is incredible. Everywhere you turn — literally — you encounter beautiful, pragmatic design.

Lidkoeb for cocktails

Sights: Rundetårn is a remarkable monument to explore. The round tower, dating to the 17th century, was built as an astronomical observatory. Most notable is its equestrian staircase — and one of the best views above the city.

Rundetårn

A visit to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, just 30 minutes north of the city by train, is a must.

Yayoi Kusama exhibit, fall 2015

Fashion: In terms of fashion, CPH is the capital for the sharpest in Scandinavian style. Home to brands like Norse Projects, Wood Wood, Henrik Vibskov, Dansk, Libertine Libertine, Mads Nørgaard, Won Hundred, and Samsøe & Samsøe, it is the Scandinavian capital to compose your look.

Norse Projects; women’s store opened 12/2015

Hay House is a perennial must for lifestyle house and writing wares.

Where to stay: Airbnb is a great option for longer-term housing. If you want a place to simply crash for a few nights in style, I recommend the newly-opened boutique hotel, SP34, from the Brochner Group. They have a strong pillow game, and all of their furniture is custom.

Airbnb, Sankt Hans Torv, Nørrebro
Hotel SP34, København K

In terms of neighborhoods to call home in central Copenhagen, Vesterbro is up and coming. Quiet, mainly residential, it is home to the Meatpacking District with a small handful of restaurants, galleries, and clubs. Dyrehaven is popular among Danes and expats alike. There are also a few co-working spaces clustering and a burgeoning tech scene in this neighborhood.

Map of Vesterbro

Adjacent is the town of Frederiksburg. Technically it’s a town surrounded by Copenhagen, but it’s literally in the middle of the city. Today the neighborhood is primarily residential, though it is home to a few great cafés and green spaces. One of the notable boulevards for taking in the scenery is Frederiksberg Allé.

Nørrebro is my preferred neighborhood, primarily due to its proximity to Christian Puglisi’s empire (Bæst, Mirabelle, Relæ, Manfred’s), Superkilen and the famous cemetery Assistens Kirkegården, the center of the city, and one of the best bars — The Barking Dog (and its accompanying shop which sells rare liquors by the 100g).

You, of course, have the city center, Københaven K. Tons of shopping, cafés, cobblestone streets, and palaces. Lastly, a few small neighborhoods linger to the east, namely Christianshavn, which encompasses a few smaller neighborhoods, including the rapidly evolving area where the future Noma will be located.

With the grey, brisk autumn days, you might fancy a coffee to keep you warm and awake. I recommend Coffee Collective, Enghave Kaffe, Democratic Coffee, and Koppi.

Democratic Coffee — come for the coffee, stay for the curated magazine selection inside the Public Library

Rules to Live By

  1. Gain access to a bike. I used the electric bike system Bycyklen (don’t recommend it — extremely clunky and the system was often down). Several shops rent bikes by the day, or you can purchase one from the many bike shops.
  2. People have very specific times they get things done. Shops often close at 5-6pm during the week, and earlier on the weekends. Per northern European tradition, most are closed on Sundays. Happy hour and open house events are often in the 4–6pm range, and people eat dinner around 730/8pm. They get to work early and don’t stay late, thanks to the mandated 37-hour work week by the Danish government. You might say it’s easy to get a 9:30pm dinner reservation at a top place.
  3. When you enter a store or café, say, “Hi (hej), hey, or good day (god dag).” When you leave, say, “Hi hi (hej hej) or farewell (farvel).” Tak is thank you.
  4. Wine (and most alcohol) is expensive in Denmark. That said, some people throw down close to 60.000KR for a bottle of Scotch at Juul’s, the largest spirits selection in all of Denmark. It all depends on your budget, I suppose.
  5. Parents leave their babies outside in cold weather. Intentionally. It improves their lung capacity.
  6. Did I mention bike etiquette? And more etiquette? Let’s not forget the etiquette. For all directions — left, right, stop, and I’m going to turn left ahead — one must execute proper hand signals.
  7. Danish breakfast typically consists of coffee, bread, jam, butter, hard cheese, soft boiled eggs, meusli, yogurt, and fruit. Sometimes you’ll see cured meats. It’s hearty.
  8. Two men rule the city — René and Christian. René arguably brought about the revolution in the local restaurant scene that we’ve seen over the past ten years. He’s been a catalyst for the farm-to-table movement. That, in turn, has catalyzed the hotel and service industries, boutique shops, and piqued greater international interest for tourism. In a sense, he reigns over the eastern portion of the city with Noma, and Christian mans the western half, with his concepts in Nørrebro.
  9. Purchase a SIM card for your phone from most 711’s, or one of the local telephone companies, like Telia or Lebara (vending machine at airport baggage claim). Data is insanely reasonable, so plan on getting a local number.
  10. Tipping is not required, but appreciated when service is exceptional. 10% is the standard.
  11. Tech is thriving — if a little slower than the Bay Area — and people are very excited about it. I anticipate greater investment in Copenhagen in the next few years.
  12. Upon arrival into Copenhagen, download the CPH transit app to buy public transportation tickets on your phone (most/all ticket machines won’t accept your chip and signature card) — it can be a hassle to set up but once you add a credit card it’s super simple to buy tickets. You can also buy for multiple people, so only one of you needs to download it.
  13. Feel free to grab some cash, but no need for much. It’s a very card-friendly city (other than the metro/train tickets) — it’s common to use a card even for a single coffee at a cafe.
  14. Bring running shoes — there are stunning green spaces and waterways in and around Copenhagen.
  15. Finally, nearly everything is on-brand and thoroughly considered. So if an encounter is experienced a certain way, it was likely designed as such. Copenhagen is a very practical city, yet it doesn’t give up any joys or conveniences as a byproduct. It’s this attention to detail, intention, and quality of life that truly distinguishes the city.