9 Things I Adored in Copenhagen and What the City Taught Me About Different Travel Styles
I adore watching trends develop in the cities and countries my friends and acquaintances choose to visit and observing how word-of-mouth can really boost visitors to a very specific set of destinations. I’m sure the specific destinations must vary by social circle, but the concept must prevail in all walks of life. Do you agree? For example, in the last couple of years I’ve noticed that the people around me (generally London-based professionals in their mid- to late-twenties) have already “done” traditionally popular countries like France, Germany, Spain and Italy (the only places we could afford in our student years thanks to the budget airlines!). Post-graduation we’ve now got a bit more disposable income to splash out on more unusual and further afield locations, in particular Istanbul, Marrakech, Reykjavik and St Petersburg. I swear everyone I know has visited these three cities in the last 12 months! I also think my age group are travelling more long-haul than we ever have before, a definite by-product of our careers beginning to take off, meaning more spending money and trips to Cape Town, Australia, New Zealand and India. In the same vein it also appears that Scandinavia has exploded as a destination for twenty-something Londoners in the last year, and I’ve lost count of the number of my friends and other bloggers who have recently headed for cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen. Scandinavia is having its moment.
For my 25th birthday last year in July I travelled north from Madrid to the Basque city of San Sebastián and my boyfriend flew there from London to meet me for a long weekend on the coast. I’m very appreciative of my summer birthday – it’s something I’d definitely want to bestow upon my children as well. The weather was gorgeously sunny, we dined exceptionally well on pintxos and relaxed on beaches sheltered by the bay, climbed hills for their superb views and explored the old city centre surrounding our B&B. it’s a fantastic city so I recommend you read my blog post on San Sebastián. As one of many birthday presents from my boyfriend, he also gave me a small guidebook to Copenhagen, containing an invitation to a weekend away in the Danish city! I had never before visited anywhere in Scandinavia so was really excited to see a completely new country and region that so many people rave about.
So in early February this year I landed in Copenhagen Airport, again arriving separately from my boyfriend, who if you can believe it manages to travel even more than I do (maybe he should set up his own travel blog?), as he had been in the south of France for a week. He had planned the entire weekend himself, which is unusual as I’m usually all over any travel arrangements, so I was sent blindly to the address of an Airbnb he had booked, where he joined me an hour or so later. The whole weekend was just brilliant and all credit where it’s due – I had no hand in planning it. I absolutely adored our three days in Copenhagen and here are 9 reasons why:
1. Unbelievably cool Scandi design and our amazing Airbnb
Copenhagen was my first Airbnb stay and it literally couldn’t be topped – I’m now an enormous advocate of Airbnb. Tom had managed to pick this apartment in Vesterbro, right next to the regenerated Meatpacking District. It belongs to two creatives, meaning that of course their flat was impossibly cool, with minimalist, bespoke features that gave me the impression of living inside a glossy interior design magazine. Having a kitchen for breakfast and a gorgeous lounge for pre-dinner champagne and nibbles just made our trip, and although the bedroom looks small, the bed is enormous and sleeping in it feels like sleeping in a cot – the best sleep you’ll ever have. The owner Anja is wonderful and also left a long list of her favourite cafés, bars, restaurants and take-away places on the blackboard in the kitchen.
2. Cycling everywhere
The Airbnb he’d picked also turned out to be a winner as the owners lent us their two bikes during our trip, which was lucky as cycling is undoubtedly the best way to see Copenhagen. The city’s small and the cycle lanes are a bit confusing but eventually you figure them out, and you blend in as a local. If only London were also small enough to be truly cycle-able.
3. Tasting menus galore
Denmark is renowned for its food and although I’m no foodie, I can completely vouch for its reputation. Tasting menus appear to be omni-present and we devoured two delicious tasting menus at Höst (make sure to go for the matching wines too!) and Spuntino. Book before you travel though, as the best ones will be full if you’re not careful. Other good ones we didn’t have time to try include: Gorilla, Mother, Paté Paté, Foderbraettet and Madklubben.
4. Danish pastries
Breakfasts turned out to also be tasting menus as we made it our mission to try as many of the infamous Danish pastries as possible. Whether in our apartment, or in a café while sheltering from the snowfall one day alongside a big cup of hot chocolate, or even in the afternoon as a pit-stop after a stroll through the free-state Christiana, the pastries never failed to please.
5. Sauna and swimming in the freezing harbour
On the Friday night after dinner we went bar-hopping with friends and in a drunken stupor excitedly committed ourselves to a winter swim in the harbour the following day. Our horrendous liquorice-vodka-induced hangover in the morning seriously threatened to derail that plan, but somehow we mustered the courage to leave our lovely apartment and cycle to Islands Brygge to meet our friends at a sauna trailer, where we proceeded to shake off our heavy heads. Swimming in the 1°C harbour water felt incredible! First you spend 10 minutes in a 70°C sauna with a window looking out onto the river, then you run outside and dip yourself ever so briefly into the flipping freezing water! All the blood rushes to your vital organs and you literally feel like your body’s going to stop functioning, then as you re-enter the sauna for another 10-minute stint you feel the blood return to your extremities and my god do you feel alive! You repeat it three times, taking half an hour in total. I can’t really think of a similar sensation to compare it to, so you’ll just to try if yourself. You need to be a member of Vinterbad Bryggen to do it or find a friendly local who’s happy to sneak you in. But it was one of the best bits of the whole weekend so definitely don’t be put off by the prospect of turning into an ice statue.
6. Cruising the canals and water
In Copenhagen you’re never too far from the water. We took a boat trip around the harbour departing from scenic Nyhavn (the port where you’ll no doubt recognise the brightly coloured townhouses which seem to be the official symbol of the city). The boat is thankfully mainly indoors and heated, although I imagine they can take off the glass roof in summer. A guide explains a bit about Danish history and the relevant buildings you pass on the trip, taking you up to see the Little Mermaid statue perched on a rock. You cruise along some of the city’s canals too, admiring the moored yachts and imposing neoclassical architecture and gothic churches that compose the grand city centre, hinting at Denmark’s long lost far-flung empire. The boat trip takes just over an hour and costs 75 kr (currently about £7).
7. Running around the Søerne lakes
On the Sunday morning I needed to run 14km – I was a slave to my rigorous half marathon training plan! We headed up to the ice-covered Søerne lakes north-west of the city centre on an impossibly sunny, crisp and quiet Sunday morning. Overlooked by grand residential buildings, the lakes are pretty big so they would be ideal for either a long walk or a shorter run.
8. Relative lack of tourist attractions – more about the lifestyle
I also loved how we explored Copenhagen at a much more relaxed pace than normal. In Istanbul for example there was far much I wanted to see so we rushed around a bit too much. But Copenhagen has fewer attractions so we decided not to bother with the museums and focus on emulating the Danish lifestyle: good food, cycling around, running, taking saunas, seeing friends (Tom happens to have friends living in Copenhagen) and long lie-ins in our stunning Airbnb. And to be honest I didn’t mind that we deviated from the typical tourist itinerary. The Tivoli Gardens were closed at the time (however they looked a bit tacky from outside…) and the museums/galleries didn’t hold any masterpieces I was simply dying to see. It was an idyllic break from full-time culture.
9. The view from the Taarnet tower of Christiansborg Palace
I had been angling for a view over the city, as I’m used to the ever present medieval city towers of Spain and Italy. By chance, just an hour before we were due to say goodbye to Copenhagen and head to the airport, we stumbled upon the Christiansborg Palace, former royal palace and now seat of the Danish Parliament, which since 2014 now allows visitors to visit its 106-metre high tower via a lift. The views from the Taarnet don’t extend across the entire city but we did catch a glimpse of Sweden on the other side of the Oresund Strait!
The nine things above were what made Copenhagen such a fantastic place for me, but as with everything, nothing’s ever perfect. Here are three things I didn’t like quite so much:
The hippy, lawless freetown of Christiana
Nestled inside the city is a small district that was colonised by hippies in the 1970s and which has declared autonomy from Denmark. There’s no formal border checkpoint but signs do inform you that are now leaving the EU. Inside the 85 acres of Christiana live about 900 people in all sorts of different structures, portacabins, military barracks, cottages, treehouses, etc. Christiana’s economy is dependant on one main export: weed, which you see customers and tourists queuing up to buy from scary balaclava-clad men hid behind netting or beside fires in metal bins. Perhaps it was just the cold weather, but the entire place had a sinister feel and unnerved me – it did not look a happy place to live. It looked more like a large squatters den, with graffiti and junk in every direction you look. Apparently they have their own laws, postal service and worryingly there’s even a primary school. The psychological state of the poor children subjected to live there is a real worry. I just couldn’t get over how such a beautiful and sophisticated city in every other respect could have such an enormous blemish. And I suppose that’s the problem with tourism – you’re supposed to only see the very best that a destination has to offer and you rarely get under the skin to see the reality. For example, visitors to London will probably only see the most stunning parts (and with good reason), remaining totally oblivious to some of the very dangerous and downright hellish parts of the city in which the unluckiest of the capital’s inhabitants are forced to reside. To be honest, I don’t believe that Christiana is the “reality” of Copenhagen. Far from it. But I am interested in the appeal that its depravity commands to visitors and tourists, as we were by no means the only tourists there. In short, interesting but I didn’t like it.
Copenhagen is expensive
To be fair, my boyfriend generously treated me to the vast majority of the weekend so I’m really not one to complain, but it lives up to the reputation of expensive Scandinavia. Restaurants, supermarkets and bars were all pretty pricey and as I’m not a fan of giant splurges, it was something that slightly put me off. But what do you expect from such a well-run, functioning, democratic, small nation? It’s definitely not enough to dissuade anyone from going to Denmark, but students – don’t bother visiting yet.
Cycling in the cold & surviving a snow blizzard
We originally wanted to visit in autumn or spring but other commitments interrupted that plan and we ended up visiting in winter. Not the end of the world, although fitting lots of layers into hand luggage was challenging! Cold toes seemed to be a recurrent theme while cylcing and it would have been wonderful to visit in warmer weather, with more hours of daylight and without having to battle a snow blizzard at one point! One of the friends we met up with is a Copenhagener who assured us that it’s idyllic in summer, and I imagine that summer day trips to surrounding islands would be heavenly!
Overall I adored our long weekend in the Danish capital and it was so refreshing to visit a completely new country for me – I don’t get to do that nearly often enough! Just remembering it now makes me miss it, as it was such an unusual trip and travel style for me. Staying in a real apartment and taking everything at a more relaxed pace was exactly the right travel style for a city like Copenhagen, and I think I’ll try to adopt it again in future too. And I really recommend you add Copenhagen to your wishlist as well.