On a city break to Copenhagen, Liz Ratcliffe discovers hygge might be the real secret to Danish happiness.
I decided to book a city break for my partner’s birthday and wanted to go somewhere that neither of us had been to before. A Copenhagen city break seemed just the ticket.
Denmark is supposed to be the happiest nation on the planet, and I am partial to a good Danish beer – so I booked flights (only 1 hr 40 min) and after a quick search of hotel recommendations, landed us a room at the quirky CitizenM hotel for three nights.
A quick 30 min Metro ride from the airport and we were in central Copenhagen, and a 10 in walk got us to our hotel, close to Tivoli Gardens. We were immediately impressed by the wonderful architecture of the city – with wide roads, imposing buildings, parks and green space everywhere. That said, crossing roads are a challenge, having to navigate both car and cycle lanes – a Dane on a bike will stop for no one!
The CitizenM hotel is a funky, boutique hotel with Danish furniture throughout the lobby-restaurant-bar area. A bookcase runs the length of the room packed with quirky statues, pictures and ornaments including the obligatory bits of Lego art. Our room was compact but super-clean and with an iPad to control the blinds, the temperature and the lighting – we took full effect of the disco lighting in the shower!
Originally a Viking fishing village established in the 10th century, Copenhagen became the capital of Denmark in the early 15th century. It is located on the eastern shore of the island of Zealand, partly on the island of Amager and on a number of natural and artificial islets between the two. Copenhagen faces the Øresund to the east, the strait of water that separates Denmark from Sweden, and which connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea.
Copenhagen is a compact city and it is possible to walk everywhere (once you have realised that bikes seem to take precedence over pedestrians and cars!). The first day we walked and walked! We walked to the Slotsholmen area, surrounded by harbours and canals and home to the Christianborg Slot, the modern day parliament building, and Borsen, the oldest stock exchange in the Europe. This area is comprised of stunning historic buildings dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, with restaurants and bars seating areas spilling out onto the cobbled streets. We arrived during the week-long, Copenhagen Jazz festival, which meant we were greeted by live music around every corner.
Lunch was a chance to sample the ‘New Nordic’ food movement, a new way of eating, with an aim to ‘express the purity and freshness, simplicity and ethics’ of Scandinavian cooking, and which promotes Nordic produce (especially root veg, grains, fish, soft cheese, wild berries and herbs). Our food was absolutely delicious.
A canal cruise is a brilliant way to see a lot of the area on a Copenhagen city break. The city was in the middle of a heat wave when we were there, so it was a glorious journey along the canals, with an English guide pointing out the various buildings old and new enroute. The architecture changes dramatically from multicoloured gabled houses, to new architecture along the water – such as the very modern Opera House.
The boat took us out to the home of Copenhagen’s reluctant city symbol, the Little Mermaid, sitting slumped on a rock just beyond the Kastellet, the city’s historic citadel. I felt sorry for the Little Mermaid, having found out that she’d been painted red twice, lost an arm, and had her head blown off by a bomb! I’m pleased to report she was intact when we saw her!
Perhaps the most unexpected part of the boat trip was passing the shore of Christiania (more on that later) to see their pirate ships, and then the lido, where we both did a double take when we realised that people were bathing stark naked!
Back on shore, we walked to Nytorv canal, which is one of Copenhagen’s most beautiful places (and usually on the cover of Copenhagen travel books) and home to some of its finest buildings. Being a Friday night, Nytorv was packed with people – tourists and locals in one heady mix.
Hans Christian Andersen lived in three different addresses along this canal, at the time that the area was a red-light district of the city. There were hundreds of tables on the quayside pouring from the numerous cafes and restaurants, where we had a beer or two, people watched and enjoyed some of the wonderful jazz performances on the stage nearby.
Having experienced a little of what Christiania had to offer on the boat trip, we ventured there the next day on the hop-on, hop-off bus. Christiania, or of the Freetown of Christiania to give it its full title, is a self-declared independent state, founded by hippies in the 1970s. The area is a combination of historic military buildings, makeshift housing and ramshackle businesses. It was a unique experience, very enjoyable, and no naked people – I absolutely loved it.
The street art is fantastic, as are the street food stalls. The atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly, apart from ‘Pusher’ street where there are stalls selling marijuana and people really don’t like you taking photos! Close by is a peaceful spot with a beautiful lake, although now and then you might find a sleeping person who has indulged a little too much in the Pusher street offerings. There is a market there too where you can buy souvenirs, hippy clothing and a jewellery. There is a stage surrounded by street food stalls and a bar, and on Sundays they are regular concerts for visitors. The place is full of people of every age (prams and mobility scooters in abundance) and nationality – all happily enjoying the afternoon together.
Back at the hotel, after freshening up in our disco shower we were ready to hit the town. Denmark has long been a great place for the LGBT community and has a number of friendly bars and clubs. We stopped off at the Masken for a drink, with its giant mural of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler on the wall, playing some great 80s music. We then stopped in at G*A*Y Copenhagen which was packed by midnight. It’s a quirky club, with bizarre murals on the wall – but we danced the night away until the early hours with a mainly local and super-friendly crowd, with a DJ playing great tunes throughout the night.
Having got back late and probably over-indulged in the local beer, I was regretting my decision to book us all-day passes to the rides at Tivoli gardens the next day. Tivoli is a glitzy blend of escapist, fairy-tale gaiety and defiant traditionalism. This is Copenhagen’s No 1 tourist attraction (even beating Legoland), with its picturesque lake, wide range of rides, copy restaurants and stunning flowerbeds. It is a marvel how they have squeezed all this into a relatively small 82,000 square metres of land. It is part beer garden, part Victorian pleasure pack and part Disney land. Disney tried to buy it, so did Michael Jackson, but the Danes refused – the idea of their beloved Tivoli falling into the hands of the Americans horrified the nation.
We did a couple of nice, quiet rides. Thankfully not all the rides were scary. We decided against the Golden Tower which is a terrifying 63 metre vertical drop, but were tempted by the gorgeous Ferris Wheel with its hot-air balloon seats, dating from 1943. On another ride we sat in a car, the shape of a treasure chest, and were taken through the world of Hans Christian Andersen’s creations in the form of animatronic puppets, which was lovely – although we giggled all the way around and were told to hush by the lady in front! Next stop, a street food stall for mouth-watering fish and chips, which we ate beside the lake, complete with pirate ship, massive Koi Carp in the water and baby ducklings swimming after their mother.
The gardens are a sight to behold – with 850 trees (lime, chestnut, weeping willows and elms) and stunning flower displays. There are stages with shows happening throughout the day, including a theatre whose curtain is made of peacock’s tail features, which fold back to reveal the stage.
We had a truly wonderful time on our Copenhagen city break. It is an incredibly romantic place for couples, and I wish that we had gone to Tivoli at night, when the 100,000 specially made soft-glow lights, and over a million standard blubs are switched on and the scenery is said to become a kaleidoscope of diffused colour. I am tempted to book another trip for Gay Pride in August where we can take this in and the LGBT celebrations.
Finally, and most importantly – did my partner enjoy the trip too? Yes – she absolutely loved it and we have both agreed we are going back very soon. We loved the feeling of Hygge throughout the weekend, which is all about focusing on the small things that really matter, including spending more quality time with friends and enjoying the good things in life.