Copenhagen: The happiest city in the world?

The Danish capital has long been a style centre — it even has laws in place to keep its cafes looking cool. But beyond its chic stylings, this open-minded city is said to be the happiest city in the world

By Ben Lerwill
photographs by Ulf Svane
Published 3 Apr 2019, 15:39 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:41 BST
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

I'm standing in the middle of Copenhagen and there's a naked 70-year-old woman beaming at me. She's just emerged from one of the city's open-air harbour baths, stripped off her swimsuit and strolled across the decking to the outdoor shower, from where she's now addressing me in enthusiastic Danish.

I don't speak a word of Danish, but having just left the water myself, I reckon she's saying something like: "Well that was bloody cold, but it's woken me up."

Two decades ago, swimming in Copenhagen's then-murky harbour was only for the well immunised or the inebriated. Since then, the waters have been cleaned so comprehensively that there are now dedicated al fresco bathing areas dotting the harbourside, all of them fashioned in sleek, streamlined, Scandi style.

If you take the plunge — once you stop gasping at the water temperature — you can glance north and south along the harbour and see modernist cubes of glass, wood and steel moulded into opera houses, libraries and theatres. Copenhagen's waterfront proves just what can be achieved by city planners in a relatively short space of time. Pay serious attention to revamping a polluted harbour, and before long it's all prize-winning architecture and bare septuagenarian bottoms.

Denmark's capital has become the urban overlord of doing things the right way. They call it the happiest city in the world. The food's amazing (but you knew that), everyone cycles everywhere (but you knew that) and there's a sense of space that comes from being somewhere committed to keeping skyscrapers to a minimum. One of the few tall structures on the skyline is a new ultra-eco power plant designed to convert household waste into clean energy. Once fully open, its exterior will double as an all-weather ski slope. It's very Copenhagen.

So what's the secret? Image-wise, everything in recent years seems to have gone the city's way. The omnipresence of the Danish concept hygge has helped paint it as a place of candlelit good times, while Nordic noir series such as The Killing and The Bridge have lent it an edgy, cinematic quality. Its restaurants, residents and designers, for their part, have turned it into one of the world's coolest cities.

The first of my three nights here reflects well on contemporary Copenhagen. I'm having dinner at Gro Spiseri, a book-way-ahead restaurant in the Østerbro district. It's reached via a long set of spiral stairs, leading four floors up to a large rooftop allotment where fairy lights are strung above beds of greens and sunflowers. Here, I join a dozen or so other diners and we're led through the gardens to a communal table in a greenhouse-cum-restaurant.

I'm at one end of the table with three members of the same Danish family, who proceed to spend the rest of the night speaking in English for my benefit, even — and this is no word of a lie — when one of them informs the others she's pregnant. We eat a succession of enjoyable dishes (the standout: smoked organic pork neck, glazed in honey from the rooftop beehive) and share unfiltered pinot blanc.

I ask one of my companions what she makes of the 'world's happiest city' tag. "Well, it's true that people are comfortable," she explains, with annoyingly good second-language clarity. "We pay a lot of taxes — the basic rate is 39% — but it means public infrastructure and living standards are pretty high for everyone. We're lucky."

The evening stretches on, with the chef introducing each course as though it were about to step on stage. I question my neighbour about hygge, and the fact that the word has become so widely adopted. "People misunderstand it," she laughs. "For us, it's more than just 'cosy'. You don't need a woolly jumper. It's about fun, enjoyment, having a relaxed time with other people." She looks up and down the table, at the filled glasses and chattering locals. "It's this, in fact. We're good at it."

The rules of design

This isn't my first time in Copenhagen. That was almost 25 years ago, on an awkward, ill-judged reunion with a Danish pen pal I'd met on holiday. We went to look at the Little Mermaid statue, and I'm fairly sure we ate at McDonald's. Other than my being in a perpetual state of teenage woe, I don't remember much else.

I've been back to the city three or four times since, in more agreeable circumstances, and on every visit the extent to which it's morphed and modernised becomes clearer. It's almost easy to forget quite how much history the place has.

What's now known as Copenhagen was first settled some time in the 11th century. It quickly swelled in size and importance, thanks in part to the copious quantities of herring found just offshore — the fish, which filled many a Viking belly, continues to be a menu staple today. The settlement subsequently grew so powerful that it replaced Roskilde as the national capital in 1443, then enjoyed a golden period under King Christian IV between 1588 and 1648, an era when many of the city's landmark buildings were erected.

Since then? A few nasty fires, a couple of full-blooded foreign attacks — including a 19th-century bombardment from the British — a Nazi occupation and, more recently, a gradual evolution into the kind of laid-back, liberal-minded city that's become very good at just being itself. "Two things are really valued above all else here," I'm told by a bartender in the busy Meatpacking District, "culture and people."

Predictably, I spend much of my time in the city on two wheels. It's deeply agreeable to buzz around Copenhagen on a crisp autumn day, joining waves of jolly scarfed cyclists zooming along comfortably wide bike lanes that skirt lakes, cross bridges and funnel you from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. I do a loop of the harbour area, freewheel alongside the rectangular lakes and pedal through the poplar-lined Assistens Kirkegård cemetery — a space that jogging, snack-chomping locals treat as a public park that just happens to have graves in.

The cemetery sits in Nørrebro, which is these days the most fashionable inner-city area of the lot. Its terraces of high townhouses look down on streets of craft beer bars and vinyl stores. I walk up one, Jægersborggade, and stop at a place named — aptly, as it turns out — Damn Good Coffee.

"We actually have laws against the crap you find in some cities," the barista explains. "In Copenhagen you're not allowed to use white plastic furniture or branded ashtrays, and you won't find a Carlsberg umbrella anywhere. At Christmas, it's white fairy lights only. Personally, I just like the fact that someone in power cares enough."

There are various emblems of Copenhagen — the tastefully twinkling Tivoli Gardens theme park, the photogenic row of coloured quay houses on Nyhavn, the green-copper spires of the churches and palaces — but none have done as much to push the city forward as the restaurant often lauded as the world's best. It has two syllables, a bonkers menu and a reputation that straddles two decades. Step forward Noma.

By the time you read this, Noma 2.0 will have opened, complete with its own urban farm, after the original was closed voluntarily in early 2017 in order to 'continue progress'. You'll probably have to vault through flaming hoops to get a table, but that's not the point. Noma as a phenomenon has influenced Copenhagen's dining scene to profound effect. Alumni of its kitchens now work in design-conscious restaurants across the city, ensuring no mushroom remains unforaged and no plum unfermented.

It's easy — hefty Scandinavian prices notwithstanding — to get swept up in it all. I eat at Restaurant Barr, which occupies the space where Noma used to be. It's all artisan beers, dry-aged beef and wild green strawberries — the kind of meal that leaves you thinking about what you've eaten. I also have dinner at Brus, a Nørrebro brewpub where the menu is in English only, despite the bar being packed with Danes. The fried bone marrow with Brussels sprouts is best described as infinitely nicer than it sounds.

Even when I lunch at one of the most traditional restaurants in the city, Aamanns 1921, the open-faced rye sandwiches arrive on the table with herring that's been marinated for nine months and every last herb garnish has been tousled into place. The homemade schnapps is potent, and the salt and pepper shakers (of all things) have me cooing at the fluidity of their design. If it sounds as if I'm getting carried away, then I'm guilty as charged. But Copenhagen can do that to you.

Only freedom is holy

With a weaving network of lakes and canals feeding into the long inlet of the harbour, water is never far away in this city. It seems appropriate, then, to spend a morning taking a guided tour by kayak. It's a paid-for tour, although in an initiative that's as quintessentially Copenhagen as they come, it's also possible to arrange a free two-hour kayak rental if you agree to collect any rubbish you pass.

I follow Kirsten, my guide, as she paddles past the angular, modern landmarks of the Royal Danish Playhouse and the Copenhagen Opera House. She steers under a 590ft-long retractable bridge, which opened in 2016 purely for cyclists and pedestrians, then points out an old naval dock reinvented as a cutting-edge apartment block. From the water, the city seems, if anything, even sleeker.

I ask Kirsten what she loves most about living in Copenhagen, and she adjusts her kayak to face me. "Honestly?" she grins, as I ready myself for yet another reason to envy the place. "If you want the truth, I don't like living here. It's too crowded for me — I grew up in the countryside. I can't wait to leave."

City life may not be for everyone, but with a population density less than half that of London, Copenhagen can't help but feel less crowded, less hectic — and friendlier too. After all, the thought of chatting to (and publicly getting naked with) strangers would be beyond the pale for many Londoners.

Yet, if you still find yourself wanting to escape Copenhagen for a few hours, you'll find the perfect place just 25 miles away, reached by a predictably punctual half-hour train ride from Central Station. I arrive at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art one morning at opening time and head straight out to its sculpture gardens, which give wide-open views across the water of the Øresund Sound. Sweden is just visible on the horizon.

The museum gets praised for its finely calibrated combination of art, architecture and landscape, and rightly so; in one gorgeous room a Giacometti sculpture and a Francis Bacon painting stand by a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto a lake. The near silence of the rolling lawns and gallery spaces stands in contrast to the chatter-filled bars of the capital.

The more we hear about Copenhagen being a model city, the more it feels as if the urban planners responsible for its future are striving for true perfection. There's an aim for it to become the first carbon-neutral capital on the planet by 2025, and already around 90% of the food served at its schools and nursing homes is organic. That said, if you come here expecting everything to be eco-initiatives, sharp design and New Nordic cuisine, the city still holds some surprises.

In Freetown Christiania, part of the central Christianshavn district, walls are spray-painted with one-world slogans, while semi-legal stalls heaped with bags of weed attract a steady stream of tourists and locals. A sign reads: 'Only Freedom Is Holy'.

This one-time military base, situated within the city but famously a self-declared autonomous district, isn't the Copenhagen you see in the adverts, but once you venture beyond the crowds and the sound systems, it's an almost serene community of canalside woodland and quirky, tucked-away houses.

Approximately 1,000 people live here in Freetown Christiania. It has a dodgy reputation in some quarters — mainly because of the drugs — but there's a jazz club, a bike hire outlet and a great metalwork gallery-cum-workshop. The district emphasises its individuality as you leave with a placard that states: 'You are now entering the EU'. "[Christiania] has more in common with Copenhagen than people think," I'm told later by an Irish expat working in Nørrebro. "They're both open-minded. You think somewhere like that would be allowed to exist in Dublin or London?"
Perhaps Copenhagen's secret is simply that it works. Creating something bold and cohesive from a jumble of ingredients isn't just a trait of its chefs or designers — it applies to the city as a whole.


Getting there & around
SAS flies to Copenhagen from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Newcastle and Manchester; Ryanair from Stansted and Luton; British Airways from Heathrow; EasyJet from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; and Norwegian from Edinburgh and Gatwick.

Bike hire is widely available, with many hotels offering their own rental bikes. Elsewhere, trains, buses, water buses and a metro system make getting around straightforward.
When to go
Copenhagen is a year-round destination. The city can get very crowded during the peak months of July and August. Spring and autumn are quieter, so make for a more relaxed break. If you visit during the winter, wear plenty of layers.

Where to stay
Absalon Hotel.
Hotel Danmark.

How to do it
SuperBreak has two nights' accommodation, room only, at the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers with return flights from Stansted from
£225 per person.

Kirker Holidays has three nights' B&B at the five-star Nimb with flights from Heathrow, private transfers and guide notes, from £1,498 per person.

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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