Capturing the zeitgeist is not an easy science. But Copenhagen has cracked it, both by chance and design, to emerge as one of Europe’s hottest city breaks.
The Danish capital is on a gastronomic roll. Noma, voted the World’s Best Restaurant for three years running, has spearheaded a mouth-watering reinvention of Nordic cuisine. Cult dramas like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have drawn a global TV audience. The city’s design flair, handsome citizens and healthy lifestyle – 55% of residents cycle a bike every day – have made it a sexy and salubrious place simply to sit back and watch the world go by.
Taken together, and allied with the fact that three airlines now connect directly from Dublin Airport, it’s plain to see: Copenhagen’s time is now.
My first port of call, both to get my bearings and sup a chilled Danish beer, is Nyhavn. ‘The New Harbour’ was once a commercial port teeming with sailors and ladies of pleasure, but today is experiencing something of a second coming, with vintage wooden ships and 17th century houses forming the backdrop to a long line of al fresco eateries.
It’s not cheap (in fact, that rider applies to Copenhagen as a whole), and clarinet-toting buskers strike a decidedly cheesy note, but it is a plum spot to let the city sink in before going walkabout, or taking a hop-on/hop-off canal tour (stromma.dk; DK75/€10).
Another place to get an overview of the city is Our Saviour’s Church (vorfrelserskirke.dk), one of the few baroque buildings in Denmark. Dating from the 1680s, the highlight here is a surreal tower made from oak and circled by a spiralling external staircase. Climbing the steps to touch the golden globe at the top is an unofficial test of manhood in Copenhagen – and one I fail miserably. The tower shakes in a strong breeze, so I quickly beat a retreat…
The Little Mermaid is of course Copenhagen’s most famous visitor attraction, but it’s also the most ridiculous. Just four feet tall, moping on an underwhelming rock overlooking the harbour, it looks to me like a Danish Darby O’Gill. Skip it, I’d suggest, and read a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale at Nyhavn, where the author lived, instead.
The 2013 Michelin Guide has sprinkled 15 stars around Copenhagen – a record for the city, and a total that makes it Scandinavia’s undisputed gastro capital.
You don’t have to pay stellar prices to eat well, however. Noma (noma.dk) will set you back the guts of €200 euro for its breathtakingly ambitious 20-course set menu, but the city also holds a rash of Bib Gourmands – awarded for good food at reasonable prices.
One of the hottest affordable restaurants is Manfreds & Vin (manfreds.dk). The focus here is on hip rustic food, with a seven-course chef’s menu dishing up surprises like charred carrots with smoked beef fat and parsley sauce, or tartar of ox with cress and rye bread, from DK250/€33.50. I liked the wacky wine list and the Jaegersborggade location – it’s one of the hippest streets in Nørrebro – but you need to be in experimental form to enjoy it.
For a similar price (DK275/€37), the three-course menu at Höst (cofoco.dk) offers a gentler introduction to Nordic cuisine, with dishes like cod with oyster cream and kohlrabi, or pork belly with purple-sprouting broccoli, served in a beautifully pared-back dining room.
If you really want to get under the skin of the modern city, and don’t mind mixing with the night-owls to do it, then make a beeline for the Meatpacking District (Kødbyen). This emerging Vesterbro neighbourhood offers both elegance and edge, with foodie stops like Fiskebaren (fiskebaren.dk) and gritty joints like Bakken (bakkenkbh.dk), splashed with graffiti and subway tiles, keeping the bar-hopping going well into the wee hours.
Another space synonymous with chilling-out is Christiania, a collectively run ‘freetown’ within Copenhagen. Though it sounds romantic, however, I found the reality to be more than a little intimidating, with rules warning visitors not to run (“it cause panic”) or take photos. Buying and selling drugs is tolerated here, and the pong of dope, volume of stoners and the odd pit-bull didn’t make me feel particularly free. Fascinating, but frightening too.
I stayed at Hotel Admiral (admiralhotel.dk; doubles from DK1255/€168), a four-star set in a converted 18th century warehouse near Nyhavn. It’s a cool, central base overlooking the waterfront, with a restaurant – Salt – designed by (Terence) Conran & Partners. Ask for a room with a harbour view… and watch your head on the wooden beams!
If you’re a lady travelling alone or with a group, the Bella Donna offering at the Bella Sky Comwell Hotel (bellaskycomwell.dk) may appeal. The 17th floor is women-only, with rooms featuring Bang & Olufsen TVs, extra hangers, women’s magazines and queen-size beds. Only women with key cards can access the floor, and the hotel has a Tivoli package bundling B&B, entrance to the gardens and a 24-hour metro ticket from DK647/€87pp.
There are several great daytrip options within easy reach of Copenhagen, not least the opportunity to cross the famous Oresund Bridge to Malmö. This is the longest combined rail and road bridge in Europe, and trips to Malmö (malmotown.com), which Lonely Planet dubs the most “continental” of Swedish cities, take about 35 minutes by train.
The world’s oldest amusement park is also just a short suburban train ride away. Bakken (bakken.dk; not to be confused with the Meatpacking District bar!) first opened in Dyrehavsbakken in1583, and today includes a kitschy collection of ghost trains, wooden rollercoasters, gaming halls, restaurants and carousels. You can get into the park for free – though there is of course a price for the rides themselves.
The Tivoli Gardens (tivoli.dk) are the most famous space in Copenhagen, dating from 1843 and said to have given Walt Disney his idea for a certain park in California. Entry costs DK95/€12.75 for everyone over eight years of age, with multi-ride tickets a further DK199/€27.
You’ll find pretty much everything here – from restaurants to bandstands, fountains to hotels, greens spaces to dragon boats, but the rides and rollercoasters rule the roost. Star Flyer is the world’s tallest carousel; The Demon is a floorless ‘coaster that hits three loops at 80kmph, and new additions for 2013 include Aquila (‘Eagle’), which flings you upside-down above the cityscape at breakneck speed. And you thought Danes were boring?
15 minutes by bus from the city, you’ll also find the Experimentarium (experimentarium.dk), a 4,000-square-metre series of hands-on fun and challenges that works like a combination of Belfast’s W5 and Dublin’s Imaginosity… on steroids. Tickets cost DK165/105 or €22/€14.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com); SAS (flysas.com/en) and Norwegian (Norwegian.com) fly direct from Dublin to Copenhagen. A taxi to the city takes about 20 minutes (€35-€40).
In terms of packages, ebookers.ie has flights plus two nights at the 4-star Hotel Osterport from €259pp departing July 5th, or flights plus three nights at the 3-star Cabin Express Hotel from €270pp with a July 4th departure.
Copenhagen is an expensive city break, but the Copenhagen Card (copenhagencard.com) includes free entry to 75 museums and attractions, as well as unlimited public transport. Prices range from €42 for 24 hours, to €75 for 72 hours.
For more info, see visitcopenhagen.com.
This feature originally appeared in The Irish Independent.