(Warning: this post is going to be provocative. Some may even call it blasphemous. But it is what it is, so pump up your bike tires and put on your crash helmet – it’s going to be a ride.)
Meeting Copenhagen was like meeting a distant cousin for the first time – one who you’ve always heard about and even seen in a few family photos. All your life, you’ve heard how brilliant, successful, and evolved he is – his achievements setting the bar impossibly high for the rest of the family, even the rest of the world. He, of course, looks flawlessly handsome in the few pictures you’ve seen (though none of them have been close ups). Mostly, you see him in the distance riding a bike, along with thousands of other people riding their bikes. You’re so excited to meet your cool cousin that you’ve anticipated it for months.
Then you finally meet him and he’s kind of a douche bag. He smokes, he’s rude and he hasn’t showered in days. He disappears a half hour after you arrive and you find him next to a canal, drunk with empty Carlsberg bottles strewn at his feet, looking a bit pathetic. And the filter on the camera has been generous – he’s just not that good looking and the years haven’t be kind. You consider bolting after about 2 hours and returning to Stockholm, but family is family, so you decide to gut it out, for 6 more days and 22 more hours.
Welcome to Copenhagen: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Let’s start with the obvious. If there’s one thing and only one thing you know about Copenhagen, it’s a city of bicycles. Easily the most preferred method for getting around, Danes are experts at navigating the bike lanes separated from the rest of the traffic, called cycle tracks. These lanes reduce conflicts with cars and pedestrians, and unlike the Dutch, the bikes will stop at red lights to allow pedestrians to cross the street safely. Rush hour in Copenhagen results in much more bike congestion than car traffic.
So it’s easy to see the city on two wheels. Check out the Visit Copenhagen site for a full list of where you can rent bikes for the day.
About a 40 minute train ride North of Copenhagen sits majestic Kronborg Castle, the home of Hamlet and arguably the best preserved castle of Shakespeare’s era. To get there, hop on a train at Copenhagen’s Central Station bound for Helsinger, the quaint city known to the English as Elsinore. Trains run about every 30 minutes.
Be prepared to walk a little over 1 km from Helsinger station to the castle, along the harbor that separates Denmark from Sweden. The train ride and museum admission are both free with a Copenhagen Card, a tourist pass that gets you access to over 70 museums, free local transportation, and discounts at several restaurants. There are four different options for purchasing the cards, depending on the length of your visit, from 24 hours – 120 hours, the latter being the best value.
What is now Kronborg Castle began as a fortress in the early 1400s and was transformed into a Renaissance castle beginning in 1574 by Frederick II. Wars with Sweden had begun about 60 years earlier and continued for almost 300 years until peace in 1814. Note that the decommissioned cannons are pointed at neighboring Sweden to this day.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Kronborg Castle has embraced its connection to Shakespeare, who reportedly visited the castle prior to writing Hamlet. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a rehearsal of the famous play during your visit. Perhaps it will confirm your suspicions that something is rotten in the State of Denmark.
Rosenborg Castle is another must see in Copenhagen. It’s located just across the street from the Botanical Garden in the city, about a 5 minute walk from the Norreport Metro Station. You swing by the garden for a short stroll, but be aware they forbid most everything including dogs, running and bicycling. You’ll just have to wait until you get to The Netherlands to tiptoe through the tulips with your pooch.
Back to Rosenborg, it’s not every day that you get to visit a fully furnished 400-year-old Renaissance Castle that houses the royal treasury.
Started in 1606 and completed in 1633 by Christian IV, Rosenborg Castle exhibits three floors of royal furniture and Danish artifacts from the 16th – 19th centuries. The great hall on the top floor includes the thrones for the kings and queens of Denmark.
In the basement, you’ll find the royal treasury and crown jewels of Denmark, along with some impressive coronation gear. The feathery plume makes it difficult to take this particular king very seriously in battle. I might just fall off of my horse from laughter.
3. Art Museums
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, one of the best modern art museums in the world, is about 25 minutes North of Copenhagen and reachable by the same train that runs to Kronborg Castle. The museum is located in a picturesque setting on the sound and admission is free with the Copenhagen Card. The grounds surrounding the museum are as impressive as the extensive collections themselves.
After browsing through the exhibits, you can stretch out on the grass and enjoy works by Calder and other artists.
The suburb around the Louisiana Museum is lovely – narrow street lanes, ample sidewalks, thatched roof homes and plenty of greenery.
Another museum of note is the National Museum, which contains an impressive collection of well-preserved artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age. If you’d like to see a 3,000 year old chariot, this is your kind of place. Nearby Tivoli Gardens is a must do if you are traveling with kids or your inner kid is demanding some youthful amusement. It’s Copenhagen’s answer to Disney Land.
While not exactly an art museum, the Worker’s Museum is worth a visit, particularly if you’re with someone who speaks Danish (not all of the exhibits are in English). It provides an interesting look at life during the industrial era through the eyes of the workers and their families. The halls are still used today for labor events and meetings.
The canals of Copenhagen are not only of of the most beautiful features of the city, they are also a major transportation link and a sailor’s delight.
Motorboats, sailboats, and houseboats of all sizes are moored along the canals, so a number of the city’s residents live on the water.
It’s worth doing a canal tour to see the city by water. Again, the Copenhagen Card will get you free admission with a couple of the companies for a one-hour tour.
From the water, you can get excellent views of the new opera house. Most tours will also take you by the famous Little Mermaid statue, which unfortunately loses her head every few years and is a popular target for vandalism.
5. Climate Action
Perhaps the brightest thing about Copenhagen is its forward thinking commitment to climate action. Aiming to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital, Copenhagen’s Climate Plan, CPH 2025, ambitiously lays out the city’s plan for carbon neutrality by 2025. For some perspective, Portland, Oregon, is aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.
So Copenhagen is, relative to climate change, light years ahead of anywhere in the US and most everywhere else in the world.
In order to achieve this goal, the city is committed to using substantially less energy in nine years than it does today and also moving toward producing (and purchasing) renewable energy. Energy efficient buildings, solar deployment, and digital infrastructure are all cornerstones of their plan. Coal is being phased out in favor of biomass to fuel district energy systems throughout the city.
Alisa and I paid a visit to the Coordinator of Partnerships and Innovation for CPH 2025 at the City of Copenhagen, Per Boesgaard. Per (pronounced Pear) gave us a tour of the city’s climate planning department and graciously spent a couple of hours briefing us on the climate plan and the city’s stormwater management efforts (called “cloudburst management” in Denmark).
Because the climate is already changing, Copenhagen recently adopted a climate adaptation plan that includes 300 projects in the next 20 years and will be the backbone of the city’s development. This plan means each time the city renovates a building or begins an infrastructure project, it will take a multi-functional look at the infrastructure and services around the project to see if adaptation improvements need to be made. The Copenhagen Solutions Lab is now home to this holistic plan and is now defining what it means to be a “smart city” worldwide.
Truly one of the highlights of our visit to Copenhagen was learning more the city’s work to tackle the greatest global challenge of our time.
It goes without saying that when in Denmark, eat a danish.
A couple of blocks from our apartment was a local bakery called Lagkagehuset, across the street from the Christhaven Metro Station. We encountered Lagkagehuset in a couple of other parts of the city as well and discovered its well-earned reputation for dangerously good pastries and baked goods.
On our second day in Copenhagen, we tried a pastry called a “Directorsnegl”, which can be best described as the unbelievably delicious offspring of a chocolate donut and a slightly under baked cinnamon roll. The Directorsnegl may have been responsible for brightening up otherwise dark days in Copenhagen.
Ok, this is cheating, since Malmo is actually located in Sweden, but it’s only a 25 minute train ride from Copenhagen over the famous Oresund Bridge. Trains run every 10-20 minutes from Copenhagen Airport to Malmo, so you don’t even need to check the schedule ahead of time. But do remember to bring your passports (you can ask Alisa for more on that story ;).
For a city with origins dating back to 1275, Malmo seamlessly brings together the old city with new innovations. Along the harbor, you can find an example of a sustainable ecodistrict started in 2001 called Bo01, a community powered by 100% renewable energy.
For a taste of the old, you can enjoy a cappuccino or lunch in Lilla Torg (Little Square) and take in the 400 year old buildings and cobblestone streets.
It’s definitely worth a day trip to enjoy the beauty and relative calm of the third largest city in Sweden.
1. The People
Something we’ve learned traveling around the world is that our enjoyment of a city rests primarily on three things: easy transportation options, weather and people. If all of those things are good, chances are we’re going to like it. If one of those is off, we never quite settle in. During our visit to Copenhagen, the weather was unseasonably beautiful and the transit options were good (but not great). The people, however, were another story altogether.
I’m just going to put it out there: Danish people are rude and inconsiderate (at least almost everyone we encountered over a 7 day period.) The only exceptions were our AirBnB host, who was a sweetheart (and also originally from Norway), and Per at the City of Copenhagen. That’s it. Otherwise, the concept of being considerate (or even just a little helpful) was not anything we encountered.
You know when you are walking down a sidewalk in New York City and a New Yorker is coming toward you…you think you’re about to get run over, but that person always drops a shoulder at the last moment to avoid a collision (while muttering under their breath). Well, in Copenhagen, the Danes seem to possess a complete lack of spacial awareness about themselves in public places. They don’t understand the concept of you walk on your side, I’ll walk on mine. Instead, they’d prefer to walk down both sides of a narrow sidewalk and run you off the road, often with a stroller. We discovered that there is no Danish phrase for “excuse me” and if there is, no one ever bothered to use it.
Dark, rainy and decaying architecturally, Copenhagen reminds me a bit of London without manners.
The Danes should take a page from France’s playbook. The French were notoriously rude to tourists, particularly Americans, until they realized how crappy their economy was without American tourists. Even though they may not care for us, at least we now warrant fake pleasantries like ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, and ‘merci.’ Denmark would do well to dial down the attitudes and take a moment to appreciate that tourists help to fund their free college educations.
2. Street Drinking
I never completely understood the policy reasons for outlawing street drinking until I came to Denmark. In most places in the world, if you would like to drink outdoors, you need to ensure your booze is covered by a paper bag or hidden in another opaque receptacle. But in Copenhagen, you can walk down the street with beers or liquor in hand anytime of the day.
The social cost of street drinking was evident every night when we came home. Mostly young (but some older) people were completely sloshed out on the streets and sidewalks, often being loud and boisterous. Countless times we walked by people urinating outdoors, on buildings and in shrubs (and I think they were mainly students and locals.) It meant that there were usually drunk people making a lot of noise around 1 a.m. almost every night. The next morning, walking along the lovely canals, we had to step carefully around the broken glass of beer bottles from the night before.
If you’re into late-night partying, you might actually enjoy Copenhagen’s rowdy night life. For 40-something travelers like us, we were over that experience about 20 years ago.
3. The Metro’s Diminutive Size
In a city known for transportation, Copenhagen’s Metro system is barely functional in the central city. While there is a high-speed airport connection at the end of one line, the Metro services the close-in suburbs only stopping in a handful of locations in the city. Its most notorious fault is that it doesn’t actually connect to the Central Train Station. For anyone used to these ease of traveling in Europe, this is one of the seven deadly transportation sins. So you can take the Metro to the airport, but you will need to walk or take a bus to reach the train station.
4. It’s Expensive
Visitors to Europe know that it’s not a cheap to travel, but a visit to Copenhagen makes almost everywhere else seem like a bargain. A beer in the business district will run you between $8-$10. Lunch in a restaurant will run you between $22-$25 (without beer). Alisa bravely navigated a laundromat across the street, where nothing was in English, and ended up spending about $20 for 2 loads of laundry ($5 may have been as a result of pushing buttons hoping for something to happen.) With the exception of buying a couple of supremely awesome veggie dogs from a food cart (and the pastries pictured above), we avoided restaurants altogether and prepared our own meals for the week.
The only person who would use words like gritty and grungy to describe Copenhagen is likely one who has just come from Stockholm. By all accounts, Copenhagen is a jewel not only of Scandinavia, but Europe. So for a city with such a sophisticated waste management system, I began to wonder, “why is there so much garbage everywhere?” Walking down the canals at night near Christhavn involves not only dodging empty beer bottles on the street, but stepping over hundreds of cigarette butts. Even with a garbage can next to a bench, someone has inevitably left part of their mostly eaten dinner behind in a paper bag. Get it together, people.
2. The City’s Layout
I am not a planner, but I live with one, so I’m stepping up on a soap box by marriage. Copenhagen is not a pretty city. There are certainly pretty parts of it (see canals, museums, gardens, etc.), but it doesn’t even come close aesthetically to its rival, Stockholm. In the downtown core, the streets are wide and the boulevards are not particularly green.
In other areas, like Islands Brygge, the city seemed ill-planned and looked more like an American suburb than an old European city.
The buildings themselves lack the architectural details of houses in Amsterdam and don’t appear to be as well maintained.
I know other cities have it, but in Copenhagen graffiti is pervasive. It makes sense given the garbage, vandalism and lack of pride in public spaces, but still it’s not doing much for the city.
So that’s it for my cool cousin, Copenhagen. I’d be interested in others’ impressions of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I invite you to post your comments or send me a message directly.
Overall, Copenhagen has a lot going for it, but a deep cleaning, some community pride, and a sobering station would certainly help.