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Hygge and happiness in Copenhagen


I felt it and I observed it. Hygge (pronounced “hue-guh”). There is no one-word equivalent in English: it means to take time away from the daily rush to enjoy the good things in life. It’s a defining feature of the Danish identity and an integral part of the national DNA. It can happen when you’re alone reading a good book, taking a candlelit bath, or sitting at a sidewalk cafe watching the world go by. It can also happen when two or more Danes gather together for good conversation and friendly, warm companionship.

It was nice to spend some time with people who, according to the Happiness Research Institute, are ranked among the top three happiest people in the world. I was told by a wise man that they are happy simply because they are good to each other. And they trust one another, whether it be in business, government, or personal relationships. Of course, the high level of social equality and strong commitment to social welfare and the well-being of all people contributes. And Denmark with its very low crime rate is a safe place to live, raise children, and be a tourist.

Copenhagen Denmark

Staying in Nyhavn, the Best Place in Town

This is a colorful and appealing area of town, within walking distance of most of the tourist sights. My hotel was a five-minute walk from Nyhavn (pronounced “new-hown”) with its outdoor cafes and colorful gabled canal houses. Even in March, the outdoor cafes were warm and inviting both from the direct sunlight shining on them and from the overhead heaters. I enjoyed some hygge as I had an Irish coffee, a very popular drink here, and listened to the street musician up the way.

This area has long been the haunt of sailors and writers, including Hans Christian Anderson. He wrote “The Princess and the Pea” while he was living at number 20 (a red building across the canal from the sidewalk cafes) and he also spent time at numbers 18 and 67.

There are as Many Bicycles as There are Cars

Everyone seems to own one. There are bicycle lanes on every roadway, and riders follow the rules of the road. There are bicycle parking lots at the major metro station, Norreport, and you will find them parked on the sidewalks in front of stores, cafes, and homes. Many are left unlocked—in fact, sleeping babies are even left out on the sidewalk as the mother does some shopping, testament to the low crime rate and trust of others that prevail here.

Copenhagen Denmark

The Three “Slots” (Palaces)

I visited the three main palaces in Copenhagen, each with their own draw. Amalienborg Slot is known mainly for the daily changing of the guard ceremonies that occur every day at noontime. A band of musicians, a drum and fife corps, and the watch march through the streets from their barracks at Rosenborg Slot, drawing attention as they parade in their black, blue, and white uniforms. They arrive at the entrance leading up from the Marble Church, another must-see in Copenhagen with its large dome that was inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome. Here, in the center of the palace’s plaza, the watch is changed to much fanfare.

Rosenborg Slot is mainly known as the keeper of the crown jewels. It also has many other rooms which you can see with your entrance ticket. In one, there is rich wood paneling embedded with inlaid Dutch paintings, in another, King Christian IV’s bedroom, are the King’s nightgown and slippers as well as his bloodied clothing from a battle in 1644, and in another, are mirrors everywhere, on the ceiling, floors, and walls.

Christiansborg Slot has a free tour in English every day, a great way to see the many royal rooms in the palace. The library, the throne room, and the dining room with seating for over fifty people are amazing, but the main draw for most are the seventeen modern tapestries in the Great Hall. These depict 1,000 years of Danish history from the Viking Age to the year 2000, with scenes featuring World War II and the dark clouds hanging over Europe from the Third Reich, the first landing on the moon, the Beatles, world leaders, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are a riot of colorful, beautiful designs by Bjorn Norgaard and were commissioned by the Danish business community for Her Royal Highness the Queen Margrethe II on her 50th birthday in 2000. They were woven in Paris and finished and inaugurated ten years later on her 60th birthday.

Copenhagen Denmark

Danish Smorrebrod Every Day for Lunch (and Sometimes Dinner)

Danish smorrebrod is a traditional open-faced sandwich made from buttered dense, seeded dark rye bread topped with a variety of toppings including salmon, shrimp, pickled herring, thinly sliced roast beef, fried fish, egg, goose-liver pate, sliced potatoes, Danish remoulade, pickled vegetables, fried onions, and fresh herbs.

Typically these are eaten for the Danish lunch. The best place to find a large freshly-made assortment of these delicacies is in the Torvehallerne marketplace. Other outstanding places for smorrebrod are Etalier September, Tolds and Snaps, and Ida Davidson’s.

The Latin Quarter

This quarter gets its name from the old university housed there, Kobenhavns Universitet, where Latin was universally spoken at one time. This is an atmospheric and old district, with historic pastel-hued buildings and quiet nooks. Besides the old university buildings, sights of interest include the Round Tower, a former astronomical observatory with views of the city from the top, and two churches, Sankt Petri Kirke and Vor Frue Kirke.

The Danes Love Hotdogs

You will find many carts selling hotdogs throughout the city. One near Round Tower (called DOP) is supposed to have the best, but I tried them elsewhere and they were excellent. What makes them Danish are the many toppings to choose from—traditional mustard but also ketchup, mayo, Danish remoulade (mainly made from cabbage, pickled cucumber, and mayo), fried onions or finely sliced raw onions, and slices of pickled cucumbers, all on homemade hotdog bread.

Copenhagen Denmark

Danish Design

The Designmuseum Danmark is one of Copenhagen’s top tourist sites, displaying excellent design and craftsmanship in furniture, clothing, bicycles, and accessories. Don’t miss the exhibit, “The Danish Chair—An International Affair” which showcases a diverse selection of chairs and tells the story of how Danish design became an international brand. There are also exhibits on crafts of the 20th century, fashion and fabric, and porcelain. I was surprised and pleased to find an exhibit of my Royal Copenhagen china on display here!

The best department stores for Danish design are Hay and Ullums Boglihus with its prestigious designation, “by appointment to the Royal Danish Court”. Both are located in the central shopping street of Stroget. The furniture, textiles, and accessories are both works of art and functional. Famous designers such as Arne Jacobsen are well represented.

Courtyard and Impressionists in Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

This beautiful museum showcases 19th century Danish and French artists including an enormous holding of Rodin sculptures and Gauguin paintings as well as Monet, Manet, Degas, and others. There are two main buildings—one contains a collection of antiquities and the other has the modern works. In the center, connecting the two buildings, is the Winter Garden, a plant- and tree-filled courtyard with a glass ceiling, marble sculptures, and water features. Also in the courtyard is the museum cafe, Picnic, where you can relax with an elegant lunch and enjoy this serene place.

Copenhagen Denmark

Nimb Hotel in Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli is an amusement park and pleasure garden that was the inspiration for none-other than Walt Disney. Since 1843, it has been eliciting shrieks and shrills from its rides, enchanting pavilions, stage-shows, and fireworks. Tivoli is closed four times a year to get ready for the next season, and it happened that while I was here, it was closed in preparation for the spring/summer season.

So instead I went to the five-star Nimb Hotel located on the grounds. This was not closed and provided a way to peek around. The Nimb is a white cream-puff of a palace outlined in white and colored lights and is a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea and a dessert.

The “Black Diamond”

Its official name is Det Kongelige Bibliotek and it is Scandinavia’s largest library. There are two vastly different sections connected by an overpass over the street. The new section is a modern shiny black granite parallelogram with smoked-glass windows and is appropriately called the “Black Diamond”. It contains an appealing cafe and gift shop on the main floor, a wall of windows overlooking the canal that separates it from Christianshavn across the way, meeting rooms, and floors of books. The old section is a lovely 19th century red brick building with a Hogwarts-style reading room with granite columns, mahogany bookcases filled with old volumes, and vintage green lamps over each desk.

The “Underbelly” of Copenhagen

I took a walking tour of the Copenhagen that most tourists do not see. We started at the main square where the city hall is located. In the back streets not far from where tourists roam are prostitutes, drug addicts, fixing houses, and homeless shelters. Social justice and caring for the underprivileged are central tenets of Danish culture and the country’s pride and joy. Our guide Martin was a proud advocate of what his city has to offer to these unfortunates.

Copenhagen Denmark

Christiania is a child of the sixties, an alternative community and “free town” in the Christianshaven borough of Copenhagen. About 850 to 1,000 residents live here self-sufficiently. It has its own land, buildings, homes, shops, and government and is located in a former military base on the shores of a lovely canal. Christiania is picturesque with moats, leafy ramparts, historic streets, and colorful DIY architecture. To emphasize their independence, there is a sign labeled “Christiania” as you enter the commune, and on the other side, it says “You are now entering the EU”. Within the community is “pusher street” where dealers sell cannabis; police have generally looked the other way. You can walk through this area safely—in fact, they offer tours of Christiania—but put your camera away near Pusher Street for obvious reasons.

The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is Not in Louisiana

No, it’s not in Louisiana in the U.S.A. It’s in Humlebaek, Denmark, a 40-minute train ride from the center of Copenhagen. It was founded in 1958 by Knud W. Jensen (1916-2000) who named it after the three(!) Louise’s that he married during his lifetime. When you leave the train, the museum is an easy one-mile walk from the station—just follow the well-marked signs and the crowds.

This is one of very few museums in the world that have achieved an agreeable interplay between nature, art, and architecture. It is located on the shore of Oresund Sound, right across the water from Sweden. The two-story older white villa is the main building. The newer buildings are low, consisting of three buildings connected by glass corridors and all in a circular shape. In the center is the art-filled sculpture garden with works by the likes of Miro and Calder.

This is not a museum that has one or a few works of art that are “must see’s”. While it does have a permanent collection that includes works by Picasso, Warhol, and Pollock, most of the museum is devoted to special exhibits. While I was there, a special exhibit of the woodcut works of Dea Trier Morch caught my eye. A humanist and social realist known especially for her writing, these works were gathered from private collections. She portrays with dignity and respect the childbearing mother, the newborn child, the senior citizen, the worker, and the young soldier.

Copenhagen Denmark

The Charming District of Osterbro

This is a very special place. It’s only two stops north of Norreport in downtown Copenhagen and has a lot to offer. Anchored by Black Dam Lake (Sortedams So) on the southwesterly side of town, I strolled through lovely Rosenvaenget, a quiet 19th century suburban development where the birds were chirping and the trees were just starting to show signs of new spring growth. I passed #46, a brick house designed by the designer of the Glyptotek and in the process of renovation.

Brumleby is a development of homes built by the Danish Medical Association to house the poor affected by the 1853 cholera epidemic. It is an early example of social housing and has become the model for future developments. Clotheslines, playgrounds, and buildings housing laundry facilities and gardening equipment are located across the narrow street from the apartments. The people who live here are very friendly. An older woman riding in on her bicycle stopped to talk and tell me about the neighborhood, and a woman hanging her laundry welcomed me into her apartment on the second floor so I could see what these living quarters look like. Rents are still cheap and the apartments are tiny. There is a thirty-year waiting list to get in.

The neighborhood on the street parallel to Brumleby is Olufsvej. This is more upscale, with cars parked along the street and lots of bicycles leaning up against the buildings. Picnic tables are conveniently placed so as to foster hygge among neighbors, and the buildings are 19th century workers’ housing in all colors of the rainbow from blue to orange to red and gold. They are upscale three-story townhouses and home to many well-known journalists.

I also visited Obro-Hallen bath, a Roman bath turned YMCA but very nice in an old building that has been remodeled to show off the elegant glass ceiling over the pool. And upscale and expensive design store Normann Copenhagen housed in a building that once used to be a cinema. I ended my day at boho Pixie cafe, another hyggelig opportunity for a glass of wine before going over to Souls for a vegan dinner.

Copenhagen Denmark

* * *
If you go:
• Best Western Plus Hotel City Copenhagen, Peder Skrams Gade 24, Copenhagen, 1054 Denmark (This is not your typical Best Western; it is a lovely small old house near the canal with a great breakfast buffet and excellent customer service. I highly recommend it.)
• Told & Snaps (restaurant for Dansk smorrebrod), Toldbodgade 2, 1253 Kobenhavn; info@toldogsnaps.dk. Open to 4:00pm.
• Atelier September, Gothersgade 30, Kobenhavn; www.atelierseptember.dk. Open to 4:00pm.
• Torvehallerne KBH (marketplace), www.torvehallernekbh.dk
• Hallernes Smorrebrod in Torvehallerne KBH, Hall 1, stalls G4-H4; www.hallernes.dk
• Pixie cafe, Logstorgade 2, Kobenhavn; www.cafepixie.dk
• Souls (voted best vegan restaurant in Copenhagen), Melchiors Plads 3, 2100 Kobenhavn; www.soulscph.dk
• John’s Hot Dog Deli, in the warehouse district at Flaesketorvet 39, 1711 Kobenhavn. One of Anthony Bourdain’s episodes was filmed here.

About the author: Elizabeth von Pier loves to travel. After she retired from her lifetime career in banking, she has been traveling the world, photographing, and writing. She has been published in the Los Angeles Times, In the Know Traveler, Go Nomad, Wave Journey, Hackwriters, Travelmag—The Independent Spirit, and Travel Thru History. She also has recently published her first book, “Where to Find Peace and Quiet in London”. Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, MA.

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