After a very uncomfortable flight (I swear airlines are making their seats smaller–in fact I KNOW they are), we arrived in Copenhagen and my first impression was that it’s such a cool, walkable city with lots of little alleyways and cobblestoned streets to wander. Immediately I wanted to just have the day to myself to explore the neighborhoods and streets filled with cute cafes, restaurants, and shops. (I was traveling with my parents, and I had to be basically their tour guide for the entire trip, so a lot of aimless taking-it-all-in wasn’t really possible for this trip.)
As tourists, the first thing we did was join a free walking tour, which I really recommend for the first day you’re in a totally new place. I know what you may be thinking, because I used to think the same thing: booo-ring. But walking tours can be a great introduction and very helpful for giving you a sense of geographic orientation as well. I also think that by learning some history and general background info about the country and its people, it gives you a greater appreciation for the culture. Our tour guide was Magnus with Copenhagen Free Walking Tours. He was hilarious, very engaging, and I would highly recommend trying to do a tour with him if you ever find yourself in Copenhagen.
One of the little nuggets of knowledge Magnus dropped on us is that Denmark has the world’s happiest people, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report in 2013, 2014, and 2016– which truly is something to be proud of. Big ups to Denmark for having great work-life balance, incredible social benefits, and extremely low crime. It kind of makes you wonder why anyone moves to America…
We also learned that one of the concepts important –central even–to Danish culture is hygge (pronounced hoo-guh, sort of). It translates to something close to relaxation and comfort and coziness all rolled up into one. It’s about enjoying the moment without an agenda and making connections. Or, as the Visit Denmark website says, “enjoying the good things in life with good people.” What an amazing concept! Hygge is my life mantra that I never knew was. In practice, it basically means Danes really love to get their chill on and hang hard with friends, which is a societal concept that I can really get behind. (Whyyyy do I live in a city whose central unifying characteristic is hustle and work, the literal opposite of chill?)
Copenhagen, like so many other Scandinavian cities, is built on a bunch of islands. Canals lined with boats run through the whole downtown area, making it feel very nautical. I’ve always thought that happiness is closely tied to being by the water, and Copenhagen is no exception. It seems like all over the city people are hanging out by the water, or on the water in their boats, having a drink, enjoying each other’s company. There is also a genius company called Go Boat that rents out small motor boats (solar-powered and made of recycled materials!) with a picnic table and benches installed in them, that you can take for cruising the canals while drinking with your friends. Perfect summer activity!
The one exception to the Danes’ chillness, however, is when it comes to biking. Danes have literally NO CHILL about pedestrians getting in their way. They would rather run you over than have to diverge from their path (i.e. they don’t feel that they should steer out of the pedestrian’s path; you should be the one playing dodge-the-biker). They will actually yell at you, give you dirty looks, and throw you serious shade as they quickly pedal away. One of the very first things I learned on the mean streets of Copenhagen was to watch out for bikers, especially because bike lanes are not clearly marked–they mostly look like the sidewalk. My mom, innocent and sweet, and just a bit slower on the uptake, incurred the wrath of many a Danish biker. (Seriously, heed this PSA: Danish bikers are no joke–even though they are all riding cute bikes with baskets and mostly wearing cutesy hipster outfits. Don’t mess.)
If you stay out of the bike lane, however, Danes are generally quite nice (not as nice as the Swedes or the Norwegians–but we’ll get to that later). They also really know how to make a good danish (danishes ARE Danish! who knew!). I, for one, got my hygge on by eating a lot of delicious baked goods, so much more than I ever eat at home (because American bread really, truly sucks, but I digress.) Meyers Bageri was a bakery by the apartment we stayed in, and I am very glad there isn’t one of these by where I live because otherwise I would be 300 pounds from eating way too many of the fluffiest, pillowiest, clouds of sugary-cinnamon pastries you’ll ever put in your mouth. (Aaand of course as I just searched for a link to put in this blog post, I just found out that they do indeed have a pop-up shop in Williamsburg. But of course.)
We also partook in the typical lunch food called smørrebrød, which is basically an open-faced sandwich usually topped with herring, salmon, beef tartare, chicken salad, egg salad, shrimp cocktail–you get the idea. They are adorable, neat, efficient little packages of food. Very Scandinavian, in fact. The best ones we had were at a tiny little shop called Aamanns. In addition to being delicious, they are truly beautiful to look at.
One of the things we had heard about Scandinavia before going, although still weren’t totally prepared for, was how expensive it is. Everything from transportation (public and taxis alike), to eating out, to drinks was super expensive, even by New York standards. This poses a problem for someone not made of money like myself. But one of the very cool places we went to eat at was actually quite reasonably-priced, and was a great place to just soak in the vibe of Copenhagen. Papiroen, on the Christianshavn island of Copenhagen, is an indoor food market with lots of stalls selling all types of food, from typical Danish, to Korean, to Italian, to Moroccan, as well as cocktails and beers. The concept seems to be very international, as everything is written in English. But locals love the place as much as tourists, and the best part is the outdoor patio where you can enjoy your food and drinks and look out onto the water of Copenhagen.
Our final stop in Copenhagen before we headed on was the very hip neighborhood of Vesterbro, which exuded hygge. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend that much time here, but I found myself wishing I could come back and just live for a month or two (location independence! the dream!), work from the cafes, have wine with some beautiful Danish people after work, and eat pickled herring (and then not talk to anyone for the rest of the day ha). We passed an organic salad shop that reminded me a lot of Sweetgreen, kitschy bars, posh bars, hipster butcher shops (they literally call it the meatpacking district), a seafood restaurant by the water with cool chalkboard art, and a grocery store very reminiscent of Whole Foods because it had its own brand that looked almost exactly the same as the 365 brand. I also observed lots of flannel, slim-fit pants, beards and undercut hairstyles. Basically, it was a cleaner, prettier, less crowded version of Brooklyn.
All in all, my impression of Copenhagen was that hygge was alive and well and I could see why people here were so happy. I only wish Americans pursued hygge in every day life as much as the Danes! Copenhagen is definitely a city that I could easily see myself spending more time in and want to go back to explore more. Who’s coming with me? 🙂