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When You Visit Denmark…and You Will

Written by Don Pogreba

It’s possible that some people might find the idea of racing to Europe, enduring two 16 hour layovers (one on either end) and spending a week in Denmark to be the opposite of a restful spring break, but those people are wrong. Just wrong. Sitting here in the Copenhagen Airport after an excellent seven nights in this interesting, beautiful country, I find myself incredibly rejuvenated for the rest of the school year and already looking for another quick getaway.

After a week of averaging just over twelve miles on foot each day, plus a lot more travel on train, tram, bus, and ferry, I feel much more rested and ready for the return to school than if I had stayed home and caught up on some rest and television binging. I did manage to watch The OA during evenings here, which might have cured my desire to binge TV for awhile, anyway, but that’s another story.

My initial impression of Copenhagen was a bit cold. When I got off the metro from the airport near my room, I was confronted by one of those ubiquitous European business streets, loaded with small shops and restaurants, the kind of street that looks the same everywhere you go. The weather was a bit grim, and despite the forecast of decent weather for the week, I was nervous that the trip would be a soggy mess.

Don’t let the weather get you down or slow your plans. While every morning started with the same overcast, gray skies, almost every afternoon ended with glorious blue skies. You’ll certainly want to be prepared for rain and chill, but the same kind of skies that portend heavy rain back in Montana just don’t seem to mean the same thing here. I carefully packed my new raincoat for the trip and am excited to report that it never left my duffle the entire trip, though I did have to borrow an umbrella for a few minutes in Seattle.

When you land at the airport, buy a City Pass for as long as you plan to stay. You’ll likely need a ticket to get from the airport to town and the public transportation network is excellent, even by European standards. There’s another reason to make the purchase at the airport: for some reason, like in many cities, the machine at the airport was happy to take my American credit card without a pin, but when I tried at stations in town, it didn’t work. Uber is set to vanish within a few weeks across Denmark, anyway, so why not explore what life in a city with decent public transportation can be like?

The coffee was less excellent, though. I’ve always wondered how my Norwegian grandmother drank two pots of coffee a day and I think I’ve found my answer: she was likely drinking some of the same Scandinavian brown water I had in Copenhagen. I tried a number of local and regional chains, but most served a weak brew. One notable exception was The Coffee Collective. I was told, too, that the coffee shops in the Latin Quarter were better, but didn’t have a chance to try any down there.

Concerns about the coffee aside, the food in Denmark was excellent. I sampled some excellent Smørrebrød, Danish open-faced sandwiches, across the city and was never disappointed. At their core, Smørrebrød are a piece of buttered, heavy rye bread with layers of vegetables, meat and cheese on top. The variations seem endless, from the traditional fish sandwiches to the liverwurst, bacon, beet, and berry sandwich I had at one of the markets. Another shop had tapas style Smørrebrød with ingredients like chorizo and egg. Bien!

The best places to eat food in Copenhagen were two areas with food stalls. Copenhagen Street Food, located at PapirØen warehouse, offered food from all over the world, including some excellent Korean steamed buns. It’s right on the waterfront and has some outdoor seating for a great picnic spot. A bit more upscale and centrally located is the Torvehallerne (market halls), which includes two buildings, one for sweets, coffee, and shops and another for savory treats. The food there is a bit more traditionally Danish fare, but no less excellent.

And you should probably have a hot dog, too. While the Danish version includes the nice touch of sliced pickles to go along with the fried and fresh onions, the remoulade on Danish hot dogs doesn’t quite measure up to Icelandic brown sauce. Nevertheless, while I can’t imagine eating a street vendor hot dog in the States, those in Denmark were delicious and a reasonably cheap food option in the expensive city.

While you’re in Copenhagen, you’re going to want to walk, despite the public transport. The center of the city is quite small and trisected by three long pedestrian shopping streets. Unless you see yourself buying a lot of goods, feel free to jump off those main, busy streets. Often, you’ll find yourself in a quiet square or parallel street that feels like an entirely different world. One note, though. Jaywalking is apparently treated quite seriously in Copenhagen.

As always, I started my Copenhagen experience with a “free” walking tour, one of the tours run for tips. It (and the subsequent one I wandered into the next day) offered excellent overviews of the city and the guides were very knowledgeable about places to visit and eat.

Don’t just walk, though. If only to experience the feeling of being on the aggressive side of biking vikings who dominate the city, use one of the many shops to rent a bike. The bike lanes are incredible, with a huge section timed so that a rider maintaining a speed of 20 kilometers per hour will never need to stop at a light. It’s been a long time since I have ridden much, but after a period of adjustment to the huge number of cyclists around me, found the experience to be an incredible way to see the city. Many shops will even rent bikes with GPS built in, making the city tour even easier. Watch out for bikes, though, when you are on foot.

In Copenhagen, I visited and really enjoyed the National Museum (filled with the entire history of Denmark and cultural artifacts from all over the world, the Carlsberg Glyptotek, and the Thorvaldsen’s Museum, dedicated entirely to the work of Bertel Thorvaldsen, an Icelandic/Danish sculptor who is famed for having produced the only work by a non-Catholic in St. Peter’s Basilica. Museums are mostly closed on Mondays, but many offer free days or those with extended hours. Make sure to catch the view of the city from Christiansborg Palace, the highest tower in town. Although there is a short line and a brief security screening, it offers panoramic views of the entire city center.

A few other spots I’d recommend in Copenhagen include the Assistens Cemetery, which is a lovely park filled with famous Danish dead like Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, as well as a huge number of recreating people from the city. It’s an odd combination of an active cemetery and public park, but it seems to match the practical nature of the people here. You’ll also want to visit Freetown Christiania, which is a self-proclaimed autonomous region of about 80 acres and 1,000 people in the Christianshavn neighborhood. While the area was both a testament to creative experience and perhaps the dangers of substance abuse, it’s a fascinating haven in the midst of the bustling, loud city.

Get out of Copenhagen, too. I took a two-day trip to Aarhus, and found its museums odd and enjoyable. The city also featured excellent food, and as a college town, a very different vibe from Copenhagen. Another great stop was in Dragør , a seaside town about 40 minutes by bus from the city center. It was the kind of town where you could buy fresh fish right from the dock, enjoy beer in a sailor’s bar, and wander through one of the best-preserved villages in the country. Finally, the trip to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art was another worthwhile half-day trip from the center.

One caveat about all of Denmark has to be fashion. While I am a rounded, schlumpy fellow with little fashion sense almost anywhere, Copenhagen will make even the best-dressed person feel a bit like they need to seriously up their fashion game. That being said, after a week here, it is easy to understand why the traditional look for Hamlet is all black dress. It’s practically the national uniform.

Copenhagen is certainly an expensive city. Housing, even in March, was relatively expensive, but the efficiency of the public transportation and a wide array of accommodations make the city more affordable than you might guess.

More photos and thoughts to come.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate. In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.