Copenhagen: One Great Dane

Copenhagen is an exciting mix of contrastingly cool neighbourhoods.

By Norman Miller
Published 6 Apr 2011, 16:39 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:13 BST

The weekend: European city break with great food, culture and an atmospheric setting

Requirements: Singles or couples looking for a mix of urban pleasures and scenic vistas

Fits the bill: Copenhagen and environs in four days

Budget: £500 per person

DESPITE her perfect English, my Danish friend is struggling with a translation: "Umm, this song is about sucking, not biting," she laughs, as we watch cabaret veterans flashing cleavage while belting out risqué songs.

We're at Hvile, a tiny 19th-century theatre in the middle of a royal deer park near Copenhagen, where the muted glow of vintage lamps glimmer across chorus women doing what they've been doing for the last 150 years, for a crowd of boisterous locals.

Hvile is just one colourful part of Bakken, the world's oldest amusement park, 20 minutes by train from the tourist throng of genteel 19th-century 'pleasure garden' Tivoli but a world away in spirit. Bakken's roots go back to 1583, when the discovery of a pure spring in seaside woods brought a rush of thirsty folk from Copenhagen, where water was so filthy locals called it 'eel soup'. Enterprising types soon set up entertainment to cash in on the crowds and people eventually began coming just for the fun, which remains endearingly old-fashioned.

I whoop round the clattering wooden rollercoaster from the 1920s, its sides painted by noted Danish artist Jeppe Eisner, revel in the straight-shooting guns at Bonanza and get stuck in at the 1940s-built Faldgruben, where a man on a high beam hurls insults as I throw balls at a lever to try and knock him off his perch.

If you mentioned 'eel soup' in Copenhagen today, of course, people would assume it was on the menu somewhere in this city that's home to more Michelin stars per head than any other on the planet. Copenhagen's pinnacle of foodie pilgrimage is Noma, René Redzepi's calm space carved from an 18th-century dockside warehouse and since 2010 rated as 'the world's best restaurant'.

I'm as smitten by the modernist Danish decor as the mouth-watering Nordic menu. It's unique, featuring foraged novelties like sea buckthorn, transformations of humble ingredients like chicken skin and the lighthearted inventiveness of dishes with names like Soil (crushed malt, hazelnuts and beer, if you want to try and recreate it at home from the restaurant's cookbook). After three hours and seven courses, I skip dessert to scour retro gems among the vintage shops of Vesterbro.

An influx of quirky outlets and idiosyncratic watering holes in the last decade has seen this former red light district replace hookers with hipsters; it's just one of a trio of contrastingly cool neighbourhoods wrapped around the canals, cultural shrines and upmarket stores of Copenhagen's historic Indre By (Inner City) — think Amsterdam but with fairytale flourishes.

The multicultural Nørrebro district overlays a gritty sheen on its burgeoning alternative scene, complementing the boho-grunge of Freetown Christiania in Christianshavn on the opposite side of Indre By.

I do my capitalist duty strolling along the central artery Strøget, Europe's longest pedestrianised street. I dip into high-profile outlets like homestore Illums Bolighus and silver sellers Georg Jensen — though I prefer the smaller, more individual places on Studiestrade and Larsbjornsstrade. Kompagnistræde also has its  fair share of outlets and is a hunting ground for antiques, from Persian rugs to ancient plates.

Having sated my shopping impulses, I'm keen to see dazzling stuff I can't take away — first at the fabulous Danish Museum of Art & Design, with its collections of textiles, posters and interior adornments, then the glories of Viking, medieval and Renaissance Denmark at the grand 18th-century National Museum of Denmark.

Appetite sharpened by all of this cultural concentration, I try, and fail, to bag a table at Geranium — even more difficult now that chef Rasmus Kofoed can also claim world champion status after winning the 2011 Bocuse d'Or, aka the culinary Olympics. This being a civilised nation, though, he and rival René Redzepi of Noma are more likely to trade recipes than blows.

I swallow my disappointment and head for one of René's off-duty favourites, the historic Schønnemann, to treat my wallet and tastebuds with delicious herring and eel dishes. Bowled over by the affordable pleasures of traditional Danish nosh, I lunch the next day at equally venerable Ida Davidsen. Here, around 250 variations of delicious things to put on rye bread make this Copenhagen's shrine to smørrebrød.

Copenhagen matches wonderful dining with characterful drinking dens, some of the best jostling for attention together in the city's so-called Meatpacking District, Kødbyen, which tops its New York namesake by still having butchers doing their thing amid the area's chic new hangouts and hot-spots.

After eyeing up contemporary art on Flæsketorvet — superb photography at DASK, pieces hanging in former meat freezers at V1 Gallery — I embark on a bar crawl high on style. Karriere fuses art and alcohol in a converted abattoir boasting stupendous lighting by Olafur Eliasson, whose giant sun installation warmed London's Tate Modern in 2003, along with leftfield design touches such as a bar that moves slowly from side-to-side — even before you've had a drink.

Nearby, the cosy Mesteren & Lærlingen is a one-time butcher's still frequented by local meat merchants as well as devotees of the bar's soulful sounds, while Jolene's charmingly ramshackle decor provides an unconventional backdrop to throw a few late-night dance shapes. As I drift out in the early hours, I find myself part of a quirky shift as I amble past butchers just clocking in.

I ease my hangover with a stroll along the picture-postcard quayside at Nyhavn and on to the manicured gardens surrounding Rosenborg Castle, where I loll in the lee of a moated Renaissance palace that looks like something Hans Christian Andersen dreamt up while drinking at the neighbouring Café A Porta on Kongens Nytorv. Nearby, the Rococo Amalienborg Palace, principal residence of Danish royalty since 1794, shimmers with further fairytale echoes. I round off my visual recharging at the nearby Statens Museum for Kunst, sweeping my eyes across five centuries of painting from Titian to modern Danish master Asger Jorn.

While most visitors come in the warmer months, Copenhagen has winter beauty too as the northern light shifts through muted tones illuminating the city like a classic black-and-white movie. This is also a time when Danes most fervently celebrate their national passion for hygge (pronounced 'hoo-ga') — roughly summed up as 'the art of cosy tranquility'.

I search for this element of Denmark's DNA on Copenhagen's cafe circuit, celebrating damn fine coffee at Ricco's on Istedgade, shabby chic at Kaffeladen on Nordre Frihavnsgade and Musiksmag on Jægersborggade before putting my waist on the line with the well-to-do at La Glace on Skoubogade, supplier since the 1870s of the city's finest pastries under the slogan 'Cakes, art and love make hardship go away' (it rhymes in Danish). Getting away from the city is something more visitors to Copenhagen should do.

You don't need to travel far — just head up the Zealand coast, ticking off the spectacular Renaissance Frederiksborg Castle, with its magnificent lake and museum, the parkland-shrouded Fredensborg Palace and 16th-century Kronborg Castle at Helsingør — famously the dramatic backdrop for Hamlet.

Back by Bakken, I take in the green serenity of its setting in the early morning hush before the rides begin, wandering into densely wooded corners bearing names such as Troll Wood. Rather than making the popular trek to the grand Eremitage Palace, a royal hunting lodge, I opt for a simple venison lunch at the 19th-century thatch-roofed Peter Lieps Hus (Peter Liep's House) before walking towards the seashore and Bellevue.

Pretty as its stretch of sand is, for design aficionados, Bellevue's draw is the mark left by Danish design legend Arne Jacobsen. Around this Copenhagen beach getaway he scattered landmarks large and small — a theatre epitomising Danish functional cool, charming blue-striped lifeguard towers, modernist housing and, just a 15-minute stroll from this very beach, arguably the world's coolest ever petrol station at Skovshoved, its futuristic design as high-octane as anything you'll get from its pumps.

Jumping back on the train at Klampenborg, it's just a few minutes further to Humlebæk and a stroll to the gorgeous Louisiana gallery, named after the wife of its founder rather than the US state, surrounded by sculpture-filled gardens by the cool waters of the Oresund. After exploring its bright interiors and post-war collection, I look to the air again to watch the wind play with a giant Alexander Calder mobile against a blue backdrop of sky and sea. I have a good feeling: hygge, with soul.


Getting there
Fly BMI, BA, EasyJet, SAS, Norwegian, Cathay Pacific and Cimber Sterling from London. From Manchester, BMI, SAS and EasyJet. From Scotland, BMI (Glasgow and Edinburgh) and Norwegian (Edinburgh). From Birmingham, BMI and SAS. From Aberdeen, SAS. From Newcastle, Cimber Sterling.

Average flight time: 2h from London, 3h from Birmingham and Manchester.

All trains arrive in Central Station via international services such as Eurostar

Getting around
Trains and buses link the centre with the hinterland. In the city, most places are walking distance, the award-winning Metro offers back-up. The Copenhagen Card — 24hr: from DKK229 (£26), 72hr: from DKK459 (£53) — provides free transport in and around Copenhagen plus entry to around 60 attractions.

When to go
May to September for the best weather and temperatures — unless you're a fan of winter cool.

Need to know
Currency: Danish krone (DKK). £1 = 8.8DKK.
International dial code: 00 45.
Time difference: GMT +1.

More info
Rough Guide to Copenhagen. RRP: £12.99.
Finally, don't forget to take Danish krone, not euros!

How to do it
71 Nyhavn is a hotel converted from a 19th-century spice trading warehouse overlooking the harbour and Nyhavn canal. Direct Line has three nights' B&B including return flights from Stansted from £240 per person, based on two sharing. 

Published in the May/June issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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