Our daughter, Taylor, visited in January and wanted to go “someplace new”. She’s a well travelled 20 year old – and unfortunately, the south of Europe was largely in the “been there, done that” category. “What about Copenhagen?” In the pros column were the 59 euro plane tickets. The cons involved 30 minutes of daylight and potential death by hypothermia. “Let’s go!”
One of the kicks of living in Europe, and specifically Central Europe, is the proximity to a United Nations selection of culture, language and cuisine – and most accessible in under two hours by plane. Vienna to Copenhagen was a 90 minute flight. Getting to and from most any European airport by public transport is a breeze – and Copenhagen was no exception. We left Bratislava after work and had a late dinner in Copenhagen.
We stayed in the centrally located tourist nest of Nyhavn (the “new” canal). The location is fairly equidistant from the key sites – so practical for a short visit. Restaurants on and near the canal are, in general, over priced and mediocre. Wander a bit afield and the number and quality of the options improve. I’m not sure I would pick this location again, but for an inaugural visit, it served us well.
We divided our three days into three regions; North Copenhagen (from Nyhavn to the Little Mermaid), Central Copenhagen (from Nyhavn to Tivoli), and Christianshavn. The city is a walkers dream. Once in the city, we relied solely on our feet to get around.
Ticking off where we walked and what we saw won’t be terribly interesting. Let me summarize. It’s a monarchy – so obviously pick a palace. Our palace of choice was Christiansborg Slot. We toured it virtually alone. I enjoyed the bold colored 20th century tapestries which depict the history of Denmark and were commissioned for the queen’s 50th birthday in 1990. Our ticket included the stables and the underground relics of prior castles – neither of which compared to the palace. Amalienborg Slot or Rosenborg Slot would have filled in equally well, I’m sure. We enjoyed Christiansborg.
In spite of dire mermaid warnings from the tourist guides, we walked north along the harbor to visit the little statue on the edge of the harbor. Granted, the mermaid won’t blow you away. But, you are in Copenhagen, so suck it up. The peninsula near the statue is dominated by the Kastellet (Citadel) military fortress. The network of canals, fields and a lone rogue windmill of this area made up for any mermaid let down. There’s also a selection of tempting restaurants and coffee shops. By luck, we meandered this area on the best weather day of the three. In the future, we will plan it that way as this isn’t a walk to take on a dismal day.
The neighborhood between Nyhavn and Tivoli Gardens is the old city. I love the ancient neighborhoods of old European cities and particularly like spending a day with no planned agenda – meandering somewhat aimlessly. We stopped in almost every church we passed – as I am inclined to do. And while none were particularly compelling, each was charming in their own way. This part of Europe, like neighboring Germany, adorns their churches with fine wood carvings versus masterpiece paintings or Sainte Chapelle inspired stained glass windows. If nothing else, come in and sit a spell out of the cold and reflect. If you are lucky – as we were – the organist will be practicing for an upcoming service and you can enjoy a private concert.
Our final day we wandered the Christianshavn canal. This neighborhood felt a bit more homey and residential. For a future visit, I would stay near this canal. We succumbed to the window temptations of two different bakeries (including the perennially “best bakery in Copenhagen” – Lagkagehuset). While most bakeries offer more style than substance, these did not disappoint,. We sat for a long while eating a danish, nursing a coffee, and watching the bicycle commuters bundled up against the sub freezing dawn. Children, grandparents, office workers, babies in carriers – all were riding their bikes in one of the most amazing feats of human stamina I have witnessed. Miraculously, the Danes are the friendliest people we have run into in our travels – in spite of their most miserable work commutes. Further, their English is across the board impeccable. If you are a bit hesitant about a vacation in a non-English speaking country, Copenhagen is certainly a place which will put your mind at rest.
One evening, we watched a movie at the Danish Film Institute. Given the film school status; it screens critically acclaimed independent European films. The lobby shop contains a most interesting selection of classic American and European films. We saw a Russian film, Elena, which was subtitled in English. We all enjoyed it – one of those movies which provided dinner and lunch conversation fodder for a few days. We also marvelled at the comparisons to life in Bratislava which the movie triggered for both Pat and me.
Winter vacations aren’t for everyone. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest a family fly from the United States to spend a week in Copenhagen during January. That said, the varied pace of an off-season vacation actually feels like a vacation. In the summer, the long days and warm weather compel me to run thru the city like an Ethiopian marathoner. I visit every site leaving no tourist stone unturned. It is fun – and I certainly feel I got my money’s worth. But I return to work, more often than not, exhausted.
Winter vacations reset those expectations. As a concession to the short, cold days of winter, I might take a nap or sit in a café for a few hours reading. We might catch a Russian movie (admittedly, that was a first). Our winter vacations often don’t follow a script and frequently flow at a pretty slow pace. This was one of those vacations – which suited us just fine. That said, we feel the call of a warmer Copenhagen experience. This morning my husband mentioned, “Copenhagen was fun, let’s return this summer.”
Hotel Bethel: On the Nyhavn canal – fairly spartan rooms, friendly staff, and a nice breakfast buffet of meats and cheese, boiled eggs, cereal, juice, pastries, tea and coffee. You pay for the location – not deluxe rooms. That said, I would stay here again.
Cap Horn: The restaurant is charming and cozy, the staff extremely friendly, and the food a cut above average given it’s location right on Nyhavn. We ate here twice – to some degree for the convenience. It was a good place to try the typical Danish sandwiches called “smorrebrod”. We ordered to the waitress’ recommendation: the classic pickled herring, fish cake, and chicken smorrebrod.
General Restaurant Advice: Denmark has one of the worlds great foodie reputations. In January 2013, Jeppe Foldager of Søllerød Kro Holte won the silver boscue d’or. Two years ago, Rasmus Kofoed, the chef and owner of Geranium in Copenhagen, took home the gold. Noma has been named the “best restaurant in the world” on some lists and requires a 3 month advanced booking.
All our meals were fine – but nothing in these leagues. I suggest you stop into anything which appears interesting – as long as you aren’t on the Nyhavn canal.
If you are a foodie with some money to spend on a dinner of a lifetime, Copenhagen might satisfy. Plan ahead. I’m told people book their table at Noma and then their airline tickets to accommodate that booking.
General Travel Information:
Warning – every credit card machine requires a PIN – and most waitresses did not know how to override this option (a challenge we have never experienced in Europe – though I have read others issues with this). Plan to bring a credit card with a PIN or pay in cash (ATM withdrawals were no problem).
Denmark is not on the euro. We withdrew money from the ATM at the airport.
In the center of the airport – as you follow the signs to the metro stop – watch for the metro ticket windows. Stop here. They are very helpful and will sell you exactly what you need to get to and from the city center. The self-service machines at the metro stop in the airport all require a PIN code for your credit card and do not take cash. You also can’t get any personalized support of what options are best for you.
Once you have your tickets, go to the metro stop, stamp your ticket the number of times advised by the attendant and board the next subway (right or left is all the same as all trains go to the city center).