I don’t know how anyone can read about “the happiest city in the world” and not want to visit. I, for one, am certainly not immune to the pull of a city so widely and consistently labelled as such. I’m talking, of course, about Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.
Located on the island of Zealand on the banks of the Øresund strait, Copenhagen has emerged in recent years as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cultural and economic hotspots. The city’s distinctive gardens and palaces capture the imaginations of millions of tourists per year, while its dazzling gastronomy scene, jam-packed with world-class restaurants, sits at the forefront of innovation in world cuisine.
Having said that, perhaps the biggest draw for me is the focus on simple pleasures that is so ingrained in the Danish capital and its inhabitants. Many visitors mark, as a highlight of their stay, the simple act of enjoying the fresh Nordic air as they take a walk on cobblestone streets or cycle along the picturesque waterfront, as the locals would. It’s no wonder they’re such happy folks.
Let’s start with the must-see Tivoli Gardens, the city’s famous amusement park and Denmark’s national treasure. Check out the rides, catch a musical or concert, or just relax and take in the architecture that looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a storybook.
Visit at night to catch the renowned fairytale lights that sprinkle the park with colour, or over the winter months when Tivoli’s Christmas market, a national favourite, sets up shop.
Many important sights can be visited in one walk or bike ride along the Copenhagen harbour. The Little Mermaid Statue, another tourist favourite, watches over the mouth of the harbour, having sat atop a rock at Langelinje Pier for over 100 years.
Then follow the harbour south until you reach Nyhavn (pronounced “new-hawn“), a canal dating back to the 17th century and home to those back-of-a-postcard colourful houses that line the quayside. Grab a bite at one of the many restaurants along the canal, or just enjoy a midmorning beer in true Danish style.
- 1 of 4
- 2 of 4
- 3 of 4
- 4 of 4
Cross the harbour from Nyhavn and arrive within a few minutes in the area of Copenhagen that I find most intriguing (I suspect I’m not alone in this regard): Freetown Christiania, an “autonomous neighbourhood” founded in 1971 when a group of hippies took over an abandoned military barracks.
The residents claimed autonomy from Danish rule and, despite the occasional scuffle with the state over the past 40 years, have largely lived in peace in their own little chunk of territory carved out of the capital.
Take your time to walk among the neighbourhood’s murals, glass houses, and organic food stands, get acquainted with the “local” way of life – cars aren’t allowed, for one – and open your eyes to this unique place that has come to universally embody the struggle of the alternative.
Culture & Food
Like any European capital, Copenhagen offers a wide range of sites and museums for the culturally inclined. Check out the National Museum (Nationalmuseet) to learn more about the nation of Denmark, or the Musuem of Copenhagen, which dates back to the 12th century, to brush up on local history.
The Kronborg Castle, 40 minutes to the north by train, is rich with stories as well, having served as the royal residences for much of Denmark’s history.
A few other highlights include touring the Carlsberg brewery, getting your shopping fix along the 1.1-kilometre Strøget pedestrian mall, and going for a dip in the brilliantly named Copencabana harbour bath.
I briefly mentioned Copenhagen’s gastronomy scene earlier, and with 16 Michelin starred restaurants – an impressive number to be packed into a city of about 86 sq km – there is no shortage of choice. Perhaps the most famous among them, Noma – the holy grail of Nordic cuisine and four-time winner of “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant magazine – recently closed its doors and will be reopening at a new location near Christiania at an unspecified date in mid-2017.
To get from place to place, rent a bike or make use the city’s bike-sharing scheme: with forty percent of residents using their bikes on a daily basis, Copenhagen’s streets are extremely cyclist-friendly.
Plan Your Travel
Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport (CPH) is conveniently located just 8 km south of the city centre and serves as one of the main hubs of SAS Scandinavian Airlines. SAS flies direct to many cities in the U.S., including Newark, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles, and Boston. Air Canada also flies direct from Toronto using the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, while low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle flies direct from Los Angeles, New York JFK, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando. If you’re looking for a deal, consider hunting for promotional fares on Norwegian.
Of course, if you’re really looking for a deal, you’ll know that redeeming Aeroplan miles for flights to Denmark costs 60,000 miles in Economy Class or 110,000 miles in Business Class. SAS’s business class product is an excellent way to get there, and there’s no carrier surcharges on SAS as well, which is always nice.
Combine your Copenhagen visit with a jaunt to Nordic neighbour Sweden’s third-largest city, Malmö, just 24 km to the east across the Øresund Bridge. Alternatively, catch an overnight ferry to Oslo, Norway, or continue overland to explore the rest of Denmark.
In terms of hotels, while I do like to write on the blog about redeeming points for snazzy hotel stays, no profile of Copenhagen is complete without mentioning the city’s timeless Hotel d’Angleterre, one of the world’s oldest luxury hotels. However, with rates starting at DKK 5,000 (C$954), you might need to have one or two backups on hand. The Marriott Copenhagen, steps from Tivoli, is a solid choice for that purpose, and as a Marriott Category 8 hotel you can get a free night there for 40,000 Marriott Rewards points. Lastly, as a Nordic destination, the city has a couple of very good Radisson Blu properties worth considering.
Considered one of the top “city break” destinations by many travellers, Copenhagen makes for an incredible few days’ worth of discovering the Danish way of life. Besides the famous colourful sights of Tivoli and Nyhavn, the endless assortment of gastronomic gems and the seemingly nationwide emphasis on life’s simple pleasures give Copenhagen a spot near the top of my personal travel to-do list.
If you’ve spent time in Copenhagen before, let me know in the comments what your favourite parts were, or if you think I’ve missed anything worth mentioning!