Impressions of Copenhagen


Astrid already alluded to the fact that, overall, we were not too impressed with Copenhagen.  There were some individually nice places, but our overall feeling was “what’s the big deal?” and the vibe we got wasn’t on our wavelength.

This was our terrible attempt at taking a picture together in central Copenhagen. Sorry about that, Astrid!

We spent a lot of time, both while we were there and since we’ve gotten home, thinking and talking about why this should be the case.  Did we have too high expectations?  Has the city gotten too much hype?  Did we miss the good bits?  Have our standards gotten too high?  I admit, I researched and prepared more for this trip than I have for others, for a couple of reasons – first, I was really excited about visiting Scandinavia, and second,  things are so expensive and time was so tight that I obsessed a little about trying to get the most out of everything and optimize the trip.  So that could have been a contributing factor, too.

One of the main ways we economized during this trip was by our eating habits. Instead of eating in restaurants, even cheap ones, we instead shopped at the grocery store. By buying a few rolls of bread, some cheese, and some salami, you can have a delightful meal for a lot less Krone.

You’ll have to allow me a moment to say what Copenhagen is – the capital and largest city of Denmark. It’s written as  København in Danish, and the name means “merchant’s harbor.”  The city proper has nearly 550,000 people, with just over 1.9 million in the metropolitan area.  Actually, though, it is the center of the Øresund region, which is comprised of greater Copenhagen plus neighboring Malmo (which is actually in Sweden), which all together has almost 3.8 million people.  Although it is at roughly the same latitude as Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, the Gulf Stream helps to keep the region pretty temperate; summer highs average just shy of 70F, while winter highs stay just above freezing with lows just slightly below.

Geographically, Denmark is Scandinavia’s link to the rest of Europe (as it has a land border with Germany, not all that far from Hamburg, although Copenhagen is actually located on two large islands), and its airport is the largest in Scandinavia and the main international hub for SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System) and culturally that probably applies too, as it is maybe the most European and outward of the Scandinavian capitals.

A few days in Copenhagen were really warm, while the evenings were chilly enough that I needed my jacket.

I’m sure that I’ve written before about my theory that good cities must have three key elements, in no special order – water, hills, and a skyline (leaving out, of course, the most important – public transport!).  Copenhagen has water, to be sure, and the canal at Nyhavn that Astrid posted about is a nice urban waterfront.  Copenhagen is adjacent to the Øresund (or Sound), the large strait separating Denmark and Sweden and linking the Baltic Sea to the south and east, and linking with the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean to the north and west.  However, the city centre isn’t on the Øresund directly, but rather on a series of canals and inland waterways that feel a bit manmade in places (and who knows, they probably are!).  So if I were giving my top three criteria a grade, the water gets a B.

We took one of these boat-taxis up and down the waterfront.

The whole place is flat as a pancake, so that’s an F for hills.  The skyline criteria has to be interpreted a bit, as in this case it’s more about distinctive buildings than towers per se.  I’d give Copenhagen a B there too; there are some interesting buildings, including both historic ones and quite stylish modern ones (many of which are featured in some of our other specific posts).  But as a whole, they didn’t seem to fit together in a way that is particularly appealing…the urban fabric is maybe a bit weak, I might say.

This was one of the most attractive buildings we saw - Astrid really liked the blue colour!

This cool tower was the Church of St. Nicholas from the early 13th century (which apparently only makes it the 3rd-oldest in Copenhagen), but is now the Nikolaj Kunsthal, or Contemprary Arts Center.

This is the base of the same building. This combination of tower and cool base attracted my attention and caused us to detour off the Strøget (see below) to see what it was.

One of the things we found most distressing about Copenhagen was that it doesn’t seem particularly well-suited for pedestrians. The street lighting was pretty atrocious at night – although there were lights in some places, many of them were not functioning.  The sidewalks were also a point of concern. Almost every sidewalk we walked on (and we covered a lot of ground) was not uniform – it had these funny stripes of brick running through them – so the sidewalk was cut into narrow pathways. This makes it really hard to walk and stay on the smooth bits – you always end up veering over and onto the cobblestones, which are much harder to walk on. Also, the edge along the left (where the buildings are) is entirely cobblestone, so is essentially a useless part of the sidewalk.  Don’t even think about pulling a rolling suitcase either!  If it was all nice and flat, the area of walking would be almost 30% bigger…

You can see here how the sidewalk is broken up into sections by the rough brick.

Three other important aspects of wandering around Copenhagen to mention – trash, graffiti, and bikes.  Astrid noticed lots of broken glass bits in between the cobblestones in those sidewalks, and we felt like the city just wasn’t all that clean (which I think clashed with our stereotypes or expectations of Scandinavia).  While not trash, it didn’t help that big parts of the city centre were under construction – roads, squares, etc. – which made things seem cluttered and messy.  The graffiti, which is apparently a pretty well-known phenomenon, really just gave us the same impression.

Supposedly Copenhagen has a unique style of graffiti. I don't know much about that, but I will grant that it did seem more artistic and expressionist and less defacing/vandalizing...

The bikes are actually a pretty big deal.  Treehugger.com calls it the best city in the world for cyclists, and apparently 36% of residents commute by bike!  The word “copenhagenization” has even been coined to refer to the city’s style and focus on biking.  This naturally makes me think of Amsterdam, another bike-is-king city, and I have to say that the bike scene seemed more ordered and easy-to-use there.  Despite all this praise, I found the cycling facilities in Copenhagen (at least from observing them, not using them) to be not nearly as nice as in Amsterdam – less structured, and possibly more disruptive of pedestrians (in many places there was more than enough room for bikes while we were huddled and congested on the small sidewalks with the cobblestone rows only making it worse!).

A view of the bikemania outside the back entrance to the Central Station (image from Streetsblog feature on Copenhagen cycling).

One of the things we did enjoy in the centre of Copenhagen was walking along the Strøget, which claims to be the oldest and longest pedestrianized street in the world at just about 2 miles long.  Strøget actually refers to both the main thoroughfare you see below plus the surrounding pedestrian zone and began in 1962.  This is the centre of the city, the tourist and shopping district, and is quite pleasant.  It starts at the Radhuspladsen (“city hall square”)  in the west, near Tivoli and Hovedbanegard (Central Station, if you prefer), where there are some tacky tourist shops and lower-end stores, and builds up to nicer and nicer spaces, shops, and buildings to Kongens Nytorv (“The King’s New Square”) at the east end, where there is a metro station deep underground and adjacent to the very nice Nyhavn canal area.

This is the tackier western part - certainly teeming with life (unlike sidewalks in most of the rest of the centre of Copenhagen).

Overall, it is quite a nice pedestrian space; if you had taken me to this two years ago I would have found it to be jaw-dropping amazing.  But, it is not so different from nice pedestrianised streets in other parts of the world, which doesn’t detract from it necessarily, but does make it less unique (see Foot Locker in the image above!).

Along the stroll we encountered mimes, Spanish-speaking gypsies (Romani), a wide variety of shops selling tacky crap to Louis Vitton, and some cool buildings that you saw above.  Our favourite find on the street, though, was the China Box!  There were several stands selling fast-food Chinese right on the street in convenient carry-with-you boxes for what seemed like a relative bargain (30 DKK = 3.60 GBP = 5.84 USD).  While we know the Chinese sell cheap (and greasy and wish-you-hadn’t-30-min-later) food almost everywhere, I don’t I’ve ever seen it done quite like this before (at least in the West).  Cool idea that could be useful elsewhere!

So, in sum, I’m glad we went – I wouldn’t go out of my way to go back, but wouldn’t turn it down either.  The city had a feel that perhaps combined bits of Amsterdam (canals, loads of bikes) and Berlin (graffiti and art scene, dirty, amount of smoking) – although, as Astrid said, not really doing those things quite as well.  The historic stuff had much less meaning to us than in Britain (or even France/Germany), but I think that’s more due to familiarity than anything else.  Our problem, if we have one at all, is a luxurious one – visiting so many great places that they don’t seem so great anymore!  To use a timely analogy, it is sort of like the Apple store; the first time I went to one it was so cool, and it was worth going somewhere that had one…now, it is no big deal.  Still cool, but nothing all that out of the ordinary.

Would I recommend Copenhagen?  I would say don’t make a special trip, but if you are in the area by all means stop by for a day or day-and-a-half.  With an overnight ferry to/from Oslo and a highish-speed train to/from Stockholm, Americans could probably do a pretty cool Scandinavian capitals tour in a week or so.

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Posted on 24/08/2011, in travel, Travel to Europe and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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