Charmed by Copenhagen’s history & hygge

Beyond Norway


Photos: Sandro Kradolfer
Copenhagen’s famous Nyhavn harbor.

David Nikel
Trondheim, Norway

If my last column about the failed ship, subway art, idyllic archipelago, crime fiction tours, and ABBA museum of Stockholm didn’t inspire you, perhaps Copenhagen will be more your scene.

A historical capital

If there’s one thing that Copenhagen has in abundance, it’s history. Founded as a small settlement in the 11th century, the city went on to become a center of trade in northern Europe and a genuine regional powerhouse. So much so that Copenhagen even served as the capital of what is now Norway for almost three centuries, from 1537 to 1814.

To learn more, the National Museum of Denmark chronicles the country’s long history through art, objects, and themed rooms. But the highlight is the free “Meet the Danes” guided tour, which gives visitors the opportunity to find out if the Danes really are so happy. I won’t spoil the surprise!

With so much shared history, you could be forgiven for thinking that Denmark offers a similar experience to Norway and Sweden. While that’s partly true in Copenhagen, it’s a different story elsewhere.

Beware of the cyclists!

The biggest difference is in the land itself. Denmark is one of the flattest countries in the world, with its highest point Ejer Bavnehøj sitting just 560 feet above sea level. There are molehills taller than that in Norway!

This dominance of flat land has led to an incredible number of people choosing to get around by bike. Without a doubt, this is the first thing you’ll notice about the city itself. Cycle lanes crisscross the city, and the sight in rush hour is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. You’ll only make the mistake of stepping into a cycle lane without looking once!

Party in the park, or by the canal

After you’ve got the hang of avoiding the cyclists, Copenhagen is a perfectly walkable city. If you’re visiting in the summer months, Tivoli Gardens is a must. The 19th-century pleasure gardens and amusement park has counted Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney among its fans, the latter using the gardens as inspiration for his own projects.

Attractions range from one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world to a virtual-reality ride in a fantasy version of a Chinese universe with fire-spitting dragons and exploding fireworks.

If that all sounds a bit too energetic, head instead to Nyhavn. One of the most iconic places in Scandinavia, the canal is lined with vivid 17th- and 18th-century townhouses and now functions as one of the city’s main entertainment districts. By day, the waterfront is a great place for a stroll and your obligatory photos for social media.

The quirkier side of the city

Cross the city’s main stretch of water at the open end of Nyhavn to discover the city’s main alternative and most controversial neighborhood. Once the area’s use as military barracks came to an end, homeless people and other squatters gradually took over, and the area was declared a “freetown.” Very quickly, Christiania became associated with the hippie and squatter movements and the concepts of collectivism and anarchism.

The people developed their own set of rules, independent of the Danish government, and in 2012 made their first payment on the land, giving more credibility to the community. Today, relations with the Danish government remain strained, partly because drug dealing is a known issue.

That said, the area is hugely popular with visitors, thanks to the curious homemade houses, artist workshops and galleries, music venues, and organic cafes all in an area that prioritizes nature. However, if you visit, it’s best not to take any photos or video.


Photo: Max Adulyanukosol
Cycling happens year-round come snow or shine!

The home of new Nordic cuisine

There are few more famous restaurants in the world than Noma. After a brief closure that included a pop-up restaurant in Mexico, chef Rene Redzepi has returned in new premises with the gastronomic concept of a world-class dining experience with some 20 courses.

Named world’s best restaurant no less than four times, Noma still sticks rigidly to its Nordic-only philosophy that restaurants all over the region duplicate. Menus are strictly seasonal: seafood in the winter, vegetarian focused in the spring, and game, mushrooms, and berries from the mountains later in the year.

The downside? If you want a taste of the original new Nordic experience, you’ll have to book months in advance and be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars.

Getting to Copenhagen

Copenhagen Airport is the biggest in the Nordic region with a superb range of dining and shopping opportunities.

It is a major hub for both SAS and Norwegian and is served by a long list of long-haul carriers, including Air Canada, Air France, British Airways, Emirates, KLM, Icelandair, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines. Many U.S. destinations offer direct flights to Copenhagen. Getting into the city from the airport is super easy, thanks to the fast, efficient metro system or the train, if you prefer.

Flying not your thing? DFDS Seaways runs a popular overnight ferry service from Oslo, featuring restaurants, bars, live entertainment, shops, a casino, and heated pools. It’s a unique opportunity to sail from Norway to Denmark while enjoying the Swedish coastline. The perfect Scandinavian experience.

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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David Nikel

David Nikel is a freelance writer based in Norway. He runs the popular website and podcast and is the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, available now in all good bookstores.