Photos by Jane Bruce
You can get a sunburn in Copenhagen. I knew this, I think, before I went. But knowing is not the same as believing, and I didn’t yet believe that I could get a sunburn so close to the Arctic Circle when it wasn’t even fully summer, but burn I did; the straps of my jumpsuit leaving a very white X in the middle of my very pink back. The X is still there now, nine days after arriving back in Brooklyn, though it’s harder to see because the pink has faded to almost white, almost nothing at all.
But to begin with: I went to Copenhagen on an assignment, the assignment being to write about going to Copenhagen. I had an idea of how I would frame the piece, but then before leaving New York, my boss said, “What I’m interested in from you is something disjointed and rambling, an impressionistic take on the city.” I understood, but I told him I had a plan. “I’m going to write about how Copenhagen is like Brooklyn. The food, the design, the bikes. How the neighborhoods are like Brooklyn neighborhoods.” I had an outline of this already. It made sense. But if there’s one thing traveling will do to a person—at least any kind of person I want to be, the kind of person I can’t help but being—it’s change their minds.
There are things Copenhagen shares with Brooklyn, sure. It is possible to walk along the tree-lined, sun-dappled streets of Østerbro, home to Fælledparken (the city’s largest park), filled with people cavorting and exercising and relaxing in the early afternoon (this, on a weekday, because the Danish do not work the same hours that New Yorkers do, which is why Denmark is routinely ranked as one of the happiest places on Earth), and to see all the quaint homes and cafés and think of, I don’t know, Park Slope or Carroll Gardens. It’s possible to walk through the winding, pedestrian-friendly streets of the City Center, with its historic government buildings and churches, and think of Brooklyn Heights. It’s possible to visit Atelier September, what was described to me as “the most Instagrammed spot in Copenhagen,” and order a beautifully composed avocado toast and think you’re in one of any number of spots in Williamsburg. It’s possible to visit Tivoli Gardens and ride a 102-year-old wooden roller coaster, one of only a couple left in the world that has an actual person onboard manning the breaks, and think of Coney Island. All this is possible. But it’s not really the point and it wasn’t what I was thinking at all.
Rather, what I was thinking when I was in Copenhagen was how sui generis it was, and not just as a city, but as a travel destination. There was none of the disappointment—by turns mild or major—that I’ve experienced as a tourist in other places. Which, I should say, that disappointment rarely has anything to do with the places themselves, and rather has more to do with what I expected the places to do for me, e.g. inspire a new career path, change my life, save a relationship. There is a rapaciousness inherent to travelers, a grasping neediness and driving want; there’s a desire—a demand, even—to achieve internal transformation, all thanks to a change of scenery. It’s almost impossible for a place—even Paris! even Hawaii! maybe especially Paris and Hawaii!—not to fail when expectations are so high. And yet, Copenhagen didn’t. Perhaps this was because my expectations for it were, at least at first, to be like Brooklyn, which, ultimately, would have been disappointing. Not because Brooklyn is disappointing per se, but because, who wants to fly across an ocean only to find herself exactly where she’d started? Not me.
What I found instead when I got to Copenhagen was that I was someplace wholly different than any I’d ever been before despite its many recognizable elements—not least that everyone speaks English, down to the school-age children who asked me, unprompted, following a ride on a Tivoli Gardens attraction: “How are you? You are having a good trip?” Yes. Yes, I was.
It helped, to be sure, that I got to go on this trip with one of my best friends. That she happens to also be the photo director of this magazine is a happy coincidence. (Her position at the magazine came first; the friendship, happily, followed.) J. and I wouldn’t be on this trip alone, of course. We would be meeting K. on our first evening there; she would guide us around the city over the next few days, introducing us to people and places and food and drinks. Lots of food and lots of drinks. On the night J. and I flew over the northern Atlantic, she wondered if we were going to like K.: “What if she’s awful?” We had been drinking wine for some time and were watching the Anne Hathaway-Robert De Niro movie The Intern and generally feeling terrific about life and I said, “I’m sure she’ll be great; I think it’s almost her job to be great.” And the thing is, K. was great. Easy to talk to, easy to not talk to, a whiz on the clunky Danish bikes, in possession of a true love for undeniably great things like white russians and Brenda Walsh. (Apparently, Beverly Hills 90210 is one of the all-time most popular shows in Denmark.)
But beyond being great, K. was also patient. There were times when J. and I were running late to meet her at a restaurant or at a party or even in our own hotel lobby. There was the time we forgot our bikes and went to the wrong meeting spot and messed up the schedule for the evening, maybe or maybe not resulting in K. leaving her bike unlocked and unattended for several hours on a crowded street on a Friday night. (Don’t worry; it wasn’t stolen. This isn’t Brooklyn.) But I’d like to think that overall we were not bad to hang out with, in that we drank a lot and so were very lively (“You have a very good tolerance for alcohol!” said K. “Yes. Thank you” J. said), greatly appreciated a photo of K. dressed up as Brenda Walsh from that episode of 90210 when Brenda lost her virginity, and couldn’t stop exclaiming about how much we loved this city she was proudly showing off.
And about that city. In the five days I was there, I saw many things. Some of those things were: Sleeping babies in carriages, left alone outside of restaurants while their parents ate inside. (“I wish more people in Brooklyn would do that!” said J.) So many Yankees hats, far more than are in New York. One Oakland A’s hat on the head of a 6’7” man. So many tall people. (“Will I be the shortest person in Denmark?” J. asked before we left. “No,” I answered. “Think of the children.”) Bright blue skies, the blue of the Swedish flag. (Upon seeing a Swedish flag flying off the back of a boat in the harbor, K. commented, “I hope another boat will follow that and throw tomatoes at it.” The Danes and Swedes do not get along so well.) The dark blue of the harbor, the color of cold. Wild orange poppies coming out of the sidewalks, balancing their blossoms on the edge of a bright yellow building. 7-11s everywhere. (More per capita than anywhere else in the world other than Japan.) J. mournfully hugging goodbye the beautiful Brooks saddle on the bike she’d rented for the duration of our stay. A long winding “bike highway” colloquially called the “bike snake” whose architectural grace brought tears to my eyes and my arms into the air as I coasted down its gentle curves. René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of highly acclaimed restaurant Noma, watering the garden in front of said restaurant on one of the days it was closed. He was shirtless and in small shorts. So many beautiful men and women. The most beautiful men and women, all with impressively good posture. Once, walking through a street thronged with Danes, I watched as J. shoved a business card in her mouth and started chewing it. (“I don’t know what else to do. They’re all so… beautiful.”) Four baby peacocks. A lawn mower that operated like a Roomba and looked like a rabbit. Lots of signs for a company called Dong Energy. A taxi’s meter settling on the fare of 69 krone. A sticker on the dashboard that said “BroTaxi.” Groups of bike riders navigating the city’s streets with the ease and grace of a flock of birds. The sun setting at 10:30pm. The sun rising at 3:30am.But I never saw phones on dinner tables. I never saw them in people’s hands as they walked down the street. Not a single dinner companion asked me what it is I do. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, so I don’t know how else to start a conversation, but they do. I never had a cross word with anyone. (Well, there was one person, but she was American and had terrible political opinions. So.)
It would seem, maybe, that Copenhagen would be a hard place to leave. It was. It took J. and me till the last minute to return our bikes to and get our bags from the hotel and leave for the airport. (This wasn’t because of having slept less than three hours on our last night, but it wasn’t not because of that.) But leave we did. K. had said goodbye to us earlier. She was off to show another journalist around the city. We asked her to promise us that she wouldn’t like this person as much as she liked us. She laughed, and promised nothing.
Our taxi driver back to the airport was excited to learn we were from America. He was Kurdish and steered us through the streets that we’d just been riding our grandma bikes on. We arrived at the airport. J. only misplaced her passport and boarding pass once. (Her boarding pass had been in my bag. Her passport was in the check-in machine. It was all fine.) We had already decided to re-watch The Intern. We also wound up re-watching Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. And we watched Monte Carlo because have you really flown first class if you haven’t spent time with Selena Gomez while drinking multiple mini bottles of Baileys on ice? No. (Maybe.) The sky was a spotless cerulean dome when we departed Copenhagen; there were thunderstorms in Brooklyn. Our plane almost had to land in Newburgh, 60 miles up the Hudson, because JFK shut down for an hour. But we were eventually able to come back to New York, which seemed as reluctant to accept us as we were to return. ♦
Where to Eat and Drink
Granola: This charming cafe is the perfect spot for a Danish breakfast; the coffee is strong and good, the eggs, whether in frittata-form or simply scrambled, are fresh and delicious, and there’s plenty of good brown bread and creamy, salty Danish butter.
Llama: It might seem strange to recommend a South American restaurant to anyone visiting Denmark, but Llama offers a unique take on cuisine from Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. The food is all hyper-fresh (a Copenhagen trademark) and the drinks are excellent. Plus, the award-winning interior features beautiful tile floors just begging for you to Instagram a foot-selfie. (F-elfie?)
Restaurant Radio: A lovely example of an elevated spin on traditional Danish cuisine, Radio incorporates local and seasonal ingredients to great effect. A particular favorite of mine was smoked mackerel with charred cabbage, and brown Danish cheese simply served with a rhubarb jelly.
Kul: Located in the trendy Meatpacking District (which is genuinely cool, unlike the one in Manhattan), Kul’s cuisine has a slight Asian inflection, which means you’ll enjoy dishes like gently cooked Norwegian lobster, highlighted by a ginger foam, or tikka-spiced sweetbreads, served over the freshest tomatoes imaginable.
Copenhagen Street Food Market: Not far from the world-acclaimed Noma is the Copenhagen Street Food Market, which offers an abundance of food from all around the world. That said, I can’t help but recommend this as the perfect place to try smørrebrød, the classic Danish open-faced sandwich. Try it with fish cakes or just a simple potato version. Then take it outside and eat by the harbor.
Hija de Sanchez: Ok! Tacos and paletas might seem like a strange choice for Copenhagen fare, but this little spot is run by a former Noma pastry chef and it turns out truly delectable Mexican food. I’m still thinking rapturously about a mezcal-hibiscus paleta edged in chili-salt that I inhaled on a hot June afternoon.
Manfreds and Vin: This vegetable-forward restaurant is perhaps best known for its steak tartare which would be weird if the tartare wasn’t the best one I’ve ever eaten. (No, really.) Still, the vegetables are equally incredible; I still think regularly of the white asparagus cream topped by a beautifully coddled egg. Plus, Manfreds specializes in natural wine, which is the perfect funky complement to all the great food.
Five and Dime: This pop-up dinner party took place on a roof overlooking Copenhagen’s Jewish cemetery though its location rotates regularly; luckily, though, the food stays the same, and was a mouth-watering multi-course meal centering around grilled food. Think: A grilled peach and burrata salad; lamb ribs; and asparagus basted with lamb fat. The accompanying cocktail pairing was delightful, though I won’t lie: I also had several glasses of wine too. I was on vacation! So will you be.
Spontan at Brus: A newcomer to the Danish dining scene, Spontan was one of my favorite meals of the whole trip. The cuisine is experimental, but substantial, with highlights including a rhubarb granita and pork belly topped with curls of diakon. A multi-course meal can come with a wine or beer tasting, and since the restaurant exists inside a brewery, it’s possible to buy some of the beer you’re sipping on your way home.
Stedsans ØsterGro: Ok, so I know I’ve said that Copenhagen isn’t really like Brooklyn, but this greenhouse restaurant—situated right in the middle of Copenhagen’s first rooftop garden (which was, naturally, inspired by Brooklyn Grange)—calls to mind a few similarities. It’s pretty hard to get seats at this dinner, but do it if at all possible, because every moment of this meal was perfect. Part of the fun comes just from finding the location: Stedsans is nestled atop a Fitness World, and diners need to enter a courtyard shared with a biker hangout,and then climb a spiraling metal staircase four stories to the roof. The meal itself is wildly fresh and delicious, and served family-style, all the better to get to know your fellow diners.
I loved every minute—and mouthful—of it.
Where to Stay
Hotel SP34: Tucked away on a cozy street in a bustling part of the city’s center, Hotel SP34 has spacious (particularly by European standards) rooms,
a beautifully appointed lobby, lounge, and bar area (do not fail to take advantage of the cocktail hour, which features a complimentary glass of wine for hotel guests), as well as a gorgeous, plant-filled restaurant. And about the breakfast: Never have I seen such a spectacular array of breads, cheeses, meats, fresh fruits, yogurts, compotes, juices in my life. A photo I took of my breakfast was the most liked Instagram of my whole trip. So, you know, it’s special.
Central Café and Hotel: Billed as the smallest hotel in the world, the entire establishment is a cozy room perched on top of a quaint coffee shop. Simply because its small in size doesn’t mean it isn’t immaculately designed and filled with thoughtful amenities like an iPhone for guest use, a smartly stocked minibar, and—my favorite part—a complimentary Marvis toothbrush and tube of toothpaste for each guest. Plus, there’s a gratis breakfast at the excellent nearby café Granola, which is owned by the owner of the hotel.
Hotel Alexandra: No place better exemplifies Danish design than the Hotel Alexandra, where each room is themed according either to an era of design (I stayed in a 50s-room) or a Danish designer (the Arne Jacobsen room is incredible). The staff are uniformly charming (and charmingly uniformed!) and there’s a convivial late night gathering (complete with a free glass of wine) in the lobby. Be prepared: The water pressure on the shower is strong. I loved it.
Where to Visit
Copenhagen Botanical Garden and Kongens Have: Admittedly, I was at the Botanical Gardens during a very special time of year: Penis Flower time! Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the corpse flower (it is beautiful, but has an atrocious smell; “people say that about me all the time,” said J.), is a more than five-foot tall bloom that only surfaces once every few years and then only lasts a few days. And guess what? J. and I must’ve brought a special something to the air around us because we got to Copenhagen just in time to see it bloom. It was glorious. And it stank. But even if you’re not lucky enough to visit Copenhagen during Penis Flower time, the garden is truly lovely, full of secluded spots and a verdant magic. It’s also right near Kogens Have, the King’s Park, which is a lovely oasis in the city center, and home to gorgeous beds of perennials and pathways lined with statuesque lime trees. Danish garden expert Signe Wenneberg showed us around the park before taking us to see the Penis Flower, a trip for which her excitement and enthusiasm were palpable.
Tivoli Gardens: This amusement park, more than a century old, has little of the chaos associated with American amusement parks, but all of the fun. Plus it has peacocks! Even baby ones! Admittedly, J. and I were informed in no uncertain terms by Ellen Dahl, who works as a press communique there, that at least half the baby peacocks we’d seen would soon be eaten by crows and magpies, but no matter. The Danish are not sentimental about those things. Tivoli also has a sort of Roomba-esque lawn mower that looks like a rabbit. We enjoyed that. And then there’s the rides. The Ferris wheel is fetchingly antique, the 102-year-old roller coaster is genuinely thrilling, and there’s a bizarre, super-trippy mining-themed ride that I would travel back to Copenhagen solely to ride again and again and again. Just don’t forget to treat yourself to a soft-serve cone, dipped in the salty licorice sprinkles that Scandinavians love.
Distortion: Upon arrival in the Copenhagen airport, I was asked by no less a person than the 70-plus-year-old border guard if I was in Denmark “to party.” He wanted to know if I was ready to take in Distortion, the fifteen-year-old dance party that takes over Copenhagen’s streets nightly for several days each June. I told him that I was, and he stamped my passport approvingly. The days are long in Denmark at this time of year, so it behooves you to take in some live music and party in the streets alongside all the beautiful Danish women and men, most of whom are sporting man-buns, and look like literal Norse gods as they avail themselves of the many available pissoirs, aka standing public pee stalls. Fun!
Vega: And if you don’t happen to be in Copenhagen for Distortion, you can still catch some great music at Vega, situated in a building originally designed by Danish architect Vilhelm Lauritzen as a Labor movement headquarters in the 1956, but which was repurposed into a music venue in 1996, It’s played host to luminaries like David Bowie, Prince, Björk, and more. Its Danish modern design touches, replete with warm woods and geometrically stunning chandeliers, make it one of the most beautiful nightclubs I’ve ever visited.