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City life: Copenhagen

When it comes to chic design stores, hipster bars and world-class restaurants reinventing the wheel, the Danish capital has nailed it. The epitome of urban cool, fall for its feel-good vibe, irresistable quirks and hoards of history

City life: Copenhagen
Copenhagen Street Food. Image: René Roslev

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It’s late afternoon in a Copenhagen backstreet, and my boyfriend is slumped in an old factory doorway. A couple of feet away a girl’s body lies sprawled on the cobbles, and three ‘detectives’ are scouring the scene for clues. It’s all earning a big thumbs up from Dieuwertje (‘D’) Visser, our Nordic Noir Tours guide, as she grabs a quick snap. “No one’s ever got quite so into the spirit of things before!” she grins.

It’s not that we’ve caused carnage in Copenhagen, you understand. Instead we’ve joined D on a walking tour that follows in the filmic footsteps of The Killing and The Bridge. We’ve seen where Sarah Lund chased a suspect into a meat warehouse, passed Nanna Birk Larsen’s school and picked up all sorts of Scandi crime trivia along the way.

Launched a couple of years back, the tours have added another attraction to a city that was already riding high on its recently acquired reputation as a foodie hotspot. But fictional crime and fine cuisine aside, there are plenty of other reasons to love the Danish capital. It’s not just the great culture, nightlife and shopping and the fact that nearly all the unnaturally good-looking locals seem to speak near-faultless English. It’s the little things, too — the roses that ramble round shop doorways; the red squirrels scampering around the parks; the bikes with big buckets on the front for carrying rosy-cheeked children and bags of shopping.

I love walking through Kongens Have in spring, when the cherry trees are in bloom, and around the lakes in autumn, stuffing my pockets with conkers. I love the feel-good vibe of summer, with cafes and restaurants spilling out onto the streets and people sunning themselves on the waterfront; and the charm of the festive season, when there are a gazillion fairy lights strung through the trees and braziers of hot coals on the streets.

Copenhagen is big enough to have all the attractions and facilities you look for in a city break yet small enough to explore easily. The quaint and cute sit happily alongside the cutting-edge and contemporary, from the pretty old houses, cobbled squares and palaces of the city centre to the striking modern architecture popping up alongside the revitalised harbour. The civic symbol may be a fairytale character, there are intertwining dragons on the Stock Exchange roof, and bearskin-wearing soldiers play marching tunes on their way through town for the changing of the guard — but there’s also no shortage of chic design and fashion stores, hipster bars and world-class restaurants. Oh, that all cities could be this good.

What to see & do

Copenhagen’s leading galleries can hold their own against those in other European capitals. At the National Gallery of Denmark, the country’s largest art museum, you’ll find a collection spanning seven centuries and a cafe with restful views over the surrounding park. Head to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and you can admire excellent displays of ancient sculpture and French art before pausing for coffee and cakes beneath the palm trees in the lovely Winter Garden cafe.

If big galleries are just too exhausting, seek out smaller gems such as the Hirschsprung Collection (a neo-classical villa housing a fine selection of paintings from the Danish Golden Age) and the David Collection, with its displays of Islamic art and artifacts. And it’s worth taking a train trip north of town to Humlebaek, where the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art — already home to an impressive collection of post-1945 artworks — recently acquired a donation that includes pieces by Picasso, Miró and Kandinsky.

The city’s most famous attraction, the Little Mermaid, comes in for a lot of stick for being, well, little (a tad unfair, given that the clue’s surely in the name) and slightly out of the way — but it’s an amiable stroll there and back, taking in other sights en route. Start off in photogenic Nyhavn, with its tall-masted boats and brightly-coloured townhouses, now home to busy bars and restaurants, then follow the waterfront walkway to the north. Stop off as you go to take in the royal palaces of Amalienborg Slotsplads, view the 2,000-strong collection of plaster casts of famous sculptures at the Royal Cast Collection, and pick up gourmet treats at Løgismose deli. Then, once you’ve taken the obligatory shot of the forlorn fairytale character sitting on her rock, cross over the moat into the star-shaped fortress of Kastellet for a stroll around the ramparts and a picnic lunch by the windmill.

When you’re ready to return, head back along Bredgade, where you can browse antiques shops and galleries, view collections of furnishings and applied arts at Designmuseum Danmark, and admire the view from the Marble Church’s green copper dome.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Image: Ana Cecilia Gonzalez

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Image: Ana Cecilia Gonzalez

Shopping

Strøget, a series of linked pedestrianised streets and squares between Kongens Nytorv and Rådhuspladsen, tends to hog the retail limelight, but it’s crowded and, for much of its length, lined with the same chain stores, international luxury brands and tat shops you can find anywhere. That said, there’s the odd goodie in there, such as chic department store Illum, where you’ll find a range of Danish design labels gathered together under one roof, and the ever-tasteful Illums Bolighus, perfect for stocking up on desirable homeware.

More interesting, though, is to head into the side streets off the main drag in search of quirkier stores and independent boutiques. Try Læderstræde and Kompagnistræde for ceramics and other homewares; check out the vintage shops on Larsbjørnsstræde and Studiestræde; or explore Grønnegade and Kronprinsensgade for Danish fashion talent like Malene Birger, Wood Wood and Munthe Plus Simonsen.

The trendiest street in town is just north of the centre in Nørrebro, where the once seedy Jægersborggade began its transformation from dodgy to desirable when former Noma chef Christian F Puglisi opened his acclaimed restaurant Relæ here in 2011. Now it’s a mix of independent shops, eateries and cafes. Pick up organic bread and cakes at Meyers Bageri, chocolates at Ro Chokolade and handmade fudge and toffees at Karamelleriet. While you’re in the area, wander down to Elmegade, for boutiques, bars and cafes, and check out the antique and bric-a-brac shops on nearby Ravnsborggade.

On the other side of town, in Vesterbro, the short but sweet street of Værnedamsvej has some great little food and flower shops, cafes and interesting one-offs such as interior design shop Dora, and Playtype, a typographic concept store selling font-focused mugs, posters and other items. Head further west on Vesterbrogade and you’ll come to Designer Zoo, a design store that’s also home to artisans’ studios and exhibitions.

Deep-fried reindeer moss with ceps, Noma, Copenhagen. Image: Noma

Deep-fried reindeer moss with ceps, Noma, Copenhagen. Image: Noma

Where to eat

You may never get to eat at Noma (being branded the world’s best restaurant does tend to make tables hard to come by) but you’ll certainly benefit from the culinary renaissance  it’s sparked throughout the city. ‘There’s a new creative buzz on the Copenhagen food scene,” says Joakim Grundahl, food critic at Politiken, one of Denmark’s biggest newspapers. “The New Nordic movement started out as a reaction against the constraints of fine dining, then ended up as a very fine dining thing itself, but now the young chefs who trained at Noma and the like are opening their own places — relaxed, bistro-like places with high-quality food at low prices.”

That new, easy vibe is evident in the trend for restaurants specialising in small sharing plates and the growing number of places delivering gourmet fast food. Burger & Bun, owned by the Michelin-starred chef behind Kiin Kiin, serves up cut-above burgers, while pizza lovers make a beeline for the sourdough, thin-crust pizzas at Mother and the organic, creatively-topped versions at Neighbourhood. Meatpacking District favourite Kul’s dishes — prepared in a Josper grill oven — won it a Bistro of the Year award last year.

Other recent openings include Bæst — an Italian restaurant that makes its own charcuterie and mozzarella and serves it alongside wood-fired pizzas — and Lillebror, where a pair of former Noma chefs dish up coffee and sandwiches by day and a seasonal Scandinavian menu by night. If you’re keen to sample some of the New Nordic food that’s put Copenhagen in the culinary spotlight, try No.2, offshoot of the highly-rated AOC, which offers the same kind of food as its Michelin-starred sibling but at more affordable prices. Also great news for those on a budget was the opening of Copenhagen Street Food last May. Take your pick from the assorted food vans and stalls gathered together in an old warehouse at Papirøen, then wander outside to one of the many trestle tables to enjoy your food with a fantastic harbour view. Alternatively, head to Havnegade for super-fresh seafood snacks served on the deck of HM 800 Jammerbugt, a converted fishing trawler.

Copenhagen Street Food. Image: René Roslev

Copenhagen Street Food. Image: René Roslev

Nightlife

The city’s cocktail bar scene kicked off a few years back, pioneered by the likes of K-Bar, and it shows no signs of flagging. “Copenhagen has a big cocktail culture,” confirms René Hedeland Larsen, a manager at Ruby, “and it’s still growing. We’ve had three or four quality new bars open up in the past year alone, which is a good for a city of this size.”

Ruby, hidden behind a discreetly signed door on Nybrogade, remains a favourite, with its cosy rooms, welcoming vibe and bartenders who really know their stuff. Turn left as you leave, and a short stroll brings you to Gammel Strand, where a string of cocktail haunts makes for the easiest of bar crawls. Or head across to Vesterbro, home to some of the coolest recent openings, including the retro-styled and moodily lit Duck and Cover, and Lidkoeb, with cheerful bar staff and a different feel to each of its three floors, from the light and airy ground level to the cosy whisky bar two storeys up.

This part of town has turned into a nightlife hotspot in recent years, especially around Kødbyen, the Meatpacking District, where an ever-growing number of buzzing bars, restaurants and clubs are colonising the former slaughterhouses and butcher shops. There’s still a gritty edge to this once notoriously sleazy area, and the hipsters haven’t yet totally displaced the hookers and sex shops, but it’s only a matter of time, as gentrification proceeds at a rate of knots.

Less cool, but a must on any Copenhagen to-do list, is an after-dark visit to Tivoli, the endearingly old-fashioned amusement park that sits between the town hall and the central train station — it’s at its magical, twinkly best after dark, when the trees and buildings are strung with thousands of fairy lights, lanterns and multi-coloured light bulbs.

Suite, D’Angleterre. Image: D’Angleterre

Suite, D’Angleterre. Image: D’Angleterre

Where to stay

If it’s your first visit, opt for a hotel in the Nyhavn area, where you’ll be near all the main city centre attractions. 71 Nyhavn is a characterful conversion of a 19th-century warehouse — some of the rooms are tiny but there’s no knocking the waterfront location. Nearby, and also with a prime harbour-front setting, the Copenhagen Admiral Hotel is another former warehouse with rustic decor (hefty timbers and bare brick in the rooms) and views to the Opera House.

There are hotels a go-go behind the main station. Yes, it’s a grittier area, but you’re just a short stroll from trains, buses and Tivoli in one direction, and the buzzing nightlife of the Meatpacking District in the other. Helgolandsgade has two good and reasonably priced options: the Green Globe-certified Axel Guldsmeden, where you get Balinese-inspired design and organic food, and the Andersen Hotel, with bright, modern rooms and a nightly wine hour for guests. Just over the road, the owners of the Andersen are renovating the Absalon Hotel in a similar style, ready to reopen in May.

If money’s no object, the recently refurbished D’Angleterre, in the heart of town, is the obvious choice, although work on the city’s new Metro line means the views over the normally handsome square of Kongens Nytorv aren’t at their best right now. Another posh option is Nimb Hotel in Tivoli, with its Moorish palace-inspired exterior and 17 sleekly styled rooms, most of which have open fireplaces and overlook the gardens.

At the other end of the price scale, design-conscious budget hotel Wakeup Copenhagen opened a second outpost in the city centre last summer, while the nearby Generator hostel offers fun communal areas and a choice of private or shared rooms.

Essentials

Getting there
Scandinavian Airlines has direct flights from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle; EasyJet from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Stansted; 
British Airways from Heathrow; and Norwegian from Gatwick and Edinburgh.
Average flight time: 2h.

 

Getting around
The compact centre can be explored on foot, although buses, Metro, water buses and trains integrate very well. The Copenhagen Card, which gives free entry to many sights and attractions, also entitles you to free public transport. Bike hire is easy, or you can pick up an electric smart bikes (with in-built GPS) from docking stations around the city. 

 

When to go
July is the warmest month with average temperatures around 18C, but any time between spring and autumn is good. 

 

Need to know
Currency: Danish krone (DKK). £1 = DKK 9.7.
International dial code: 00 45.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

More info
visitcopenhagen.com
visitdenmark.com 

 

How to do it
Sunvil Discovery has three nights B&B at Ibsens Hotel from £498pp, including SAS flights from Heathrow.
Kirker Holidays has three nights B&B at the D’Angleterre from £1,199pp, including flights, private transfers and the services of the Kirker Concierge.

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)