Copenhagen, Denmark

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Copenhagen. Holy crap. The crown gem of Scandinavia, and maybe Europe. To start: easily the best bicycle infrastructure I've seen; stunningly well dressed (and the girls have perfectly-sculpted bodies from biking year-round) and picture-perfect people; top-notch, highly innovative Michelin Star-laden culinary scene and talent that prides itself on quality ingredients, including the world's best restaurant; and heaps of stunning architecture in both contemporary and Old World styles, including some of the best regarded buildings of the past decade. Dare I say it: is Copenhagen the most livable city I have visited? I am inclined to say yes.

The bicycle culture, though, has to be seen to be believed. Quite simply: there is nothing like it. I have never seen a city where EVERYBODY rode their bikes, not just fringe types and minorities. The bike is to Copenhagen as the car is to America. The numbers are impressive: 90% of city residents own a bike, while 60% bike on a daily basis, and another 37% use the bike to commute to work*. Walking to my apartment on my first night in town, the streets appeared to be filled with fireflies, for all I saw in the winter darkness was the dim flicker of white and red bicycle lights. For people in Copenhagen, the bicycle isn't a political statement, or a trend, or a form of transit utilized when impoverished. Rather, it is a cost-effective and year-round means of getting from point A to point B.

And it goes on: ambitious overhauling and redevelopment of industrial and waterfront areas into livable, human-scaled communities; intact and expansive historic core that is not overrun with tourists, nor marred by modernist edifices; heaps of local, organic clothiers and brands. The city works, and is as functional as any I've seen. People don't live in fear of the government, and the government pulls out all stops in making the city as livable as possible. Benefits like an impressive 52 week paid maternity leave, to this American, seem like the stuff of dreams. There is a spirit of first world optimism that I rarely feel back home in the States. New, driverless Metros, ridiculously extensive and generous state benefits, bridges to Sweden, bicycle highways, over the top opera houses and civic buildings, and WiFi-equipped trains and buses. It is refreshing to see such a useful leverage and application of taxpayers’ dollars.

Copenhagen is also known for its rich and vibrant street style and fashion sense. As such, most Danes have an impeccable sense of style. I have never seen so many Acne scarves, Pennfield jackets and Red Wing boots. There is a slew of quality, locally-manufactured brands and stores: some of my favorites were Han Kjøbenhavn, Wood Wood, and the pricey Norse Projects. Acne, though not a Danish brand (Swedish), also had a big presence in the city. That reminds me: Copenhagen had a rather pleasant downtown. Instead of being completely surrendered to tourists, chains, and corporate interests, despite all of those being present, I found a number of cool, locals-only pedestrianized streets, often filled with the aforementioned boutiques, along with coffee shops and restaurants. Pilestærde and Studiestræde both fit this bill.

We stayed in Nørrebro, a multicultural (though, to be fair, it seemed mostly hipster and creative) borough immediately west of downtown. One AirBnB ad listed is as a “Little Berlin.” Smack dab in middle of the neighborhood is the Assistens Kirkegård, a cemetery that serves as the resting place for many famous and celebrated Danes; poet and children’s author Hans Christian Andersen and poet and existentialist Søren Kierkegaard are the most well-known of these. Formerly a bastion of Copenhagen’s primarily Middle Eastern immigrant community, these days it is the hangout of students, creative professionals, and artisanal foodies. A two-block stretch of Jægersborggade confirms this. The block has an all-star lineup of restaurants, cafés, and boutiques. Coffee Collective, the beloved Copenhagen coffee roaster, is one of such businesses. Meyers Bageri, with its delicious breads and chocolate scones, was another. Michelin-starred Relæ, opened by a former chef at Noma – the world’s best restaurant – is another one of the places. Copenhagen is fairly unique in that it has a wealth of Michelin starred restaurants outside of its downtown and city center areas, sometimes in surprisingly rough and gritty environments.

Copenhagen is a serious food town. As the center of the New Nordic food scene and movement, it has an abundance of quality restaurants. I enjoyed Mother, a Danish-Italian pizzeria in the city’s meatpacking district (where, despite its newfound fame and popularity, they still pack meat), with the motto is “really good simple food”. The sourdough pizzas, of both the meatball (porcini mushrooms, sausage, mozzarella, and tilsto) and prosciutto (prosciutto di norcia, arugula tomato, mozzarella, and pesto) varieties, were excellent, as was the curated microlist of Italian wines, selected from wineries in Italy that the owners know personally. Lyst, with its cozy interior and generous brunches, often served with Danish rye bread, was another standout. As was the popular and hyped Café Granola, with its fresh-squeezed juices and Americana-style breakfast menu and interior. I really threw down there. 

Overall, there is a Mediterranean-like socially-oriented culture that values food, drinks, and social outings. The people, many of whom can pass for models, fashion bloggers, or VIP party-type showgirls, have a good sense of humor and appreciate the finer things in life. Most are well-traveled, speak native-level English, and are reasonably well educated. I came here expecting Copenhagen to be a larger, grander Oslo. Boy, was I wrong. It feels like a good-sized, world-class metropolis, and has the urbane city amenities and overall depth that one would assume comes with such. Part of the charm comes from hygge, an untranslatable world that roughly corresponds to “coziness”. A quick Google search described it as: “a state of comfort, peace and warmth while in the company of loved ones.” The combination of hygge and Scandinavian sophistication makes the city a very special and unique place. And one of my favorites. Whatever the Danes are doing, they are doing it right: the UN (full report here) recently said that the Danes are the world's happiest people.


A smart-looking biker along Elmegade.
Classy buildings outside of Sort Kaffe og Vinyl (Black coffee and vinyl), a hybrid coffee shop and record store.
Americano/Cappuccino at Sort Kaffe og Vinyl.
A bike-heavy scene along Åboulevard.
The "life after humans" feel of Ørestad, a former landfill and rural area recently redeveloped into modern condominiums, workplaces, and schools.
Brunch at Lyst.
The Mountain Dwellings, a residential building in Ørestad designed by famed Danish architecture group BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group).
The interior of Dyrehaven, which means "animal zoo" in Danish, a former blue collar corner bar that has since been converted into a buzzing Vesterbro hangout.
Statue outside of the Vor Frue Kirke. Downtown.
Silje. Lyst.
Looking down Jægersborggade. Nørrebro. 
The new Ørestad Library. 
The attractive interior of the Han Kjøbenhavn store.
New offices in Ørestad.
Typical Copenhagen street scene. Every available wall in the city is covered with locked bicycles.
A Christmas-y scene along Strøget, in the city's center.
A late afternoon along one of the Lakes of Copenhagen, a series of five, small lakes that separate the city center from the surrounding boroughs (neighborhoods).
A spectacular Christmas light display at Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest amusement park is located nearby, in a suburb of Copenhagen. Tivoli was magical. All of the lights, Christmas vendors, and rides collectively summed up how I, as a kid, imagined Christmas in Europe to be.

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