Copenhagen balances the traditional and the modern with great ease. Sonia Nazareth explores how the capital of Denmark maintains its old, cobbled streets and ancient buildings bedecked with copper spires and decorative gables, with the same encouraging care that it puts into its contemporary design and architecture
Best time to visit: May-August
You need: 4-5 days
Mention Copenhagen to a traveller and the reaction is a happy smile. The city is not only a prefix for elegant, classical design but is also a capital that has the world’s happiest and environmentally-aware people. Since I’m visiting in winter, I’m curious about how I’ll feel. But there’s something appealing about catching a city off guard as it welcomes a new season.
The Royal Opera House, designed by Henning Larsen, is an architectural delight.
On a boat journey
If you’re looking for an overview of the city, the classic boat tour of Copenhagen is ideal. The light — alternating pearl-grey and blue-gold — slants off riverbanks honeycombed with churches, castles and old, listed houses that date back to the 18th century on one hand, and contemporary buildings on the other. The stringent lines of the Royal Danish Play House designed by Lene Tranberg, and the Opera House created by Henning Larsen that drips décor by celebrated artist Olafur Eliasson among others are the many creative manifestations of Copenhagen’s openness to the new. And that’s the reason this boat journey glitters for me in reverie. It’s my first glimpse into a society that balances the competing imperatives of the traditional and the modern.
Copenhagen boasts of pristine clear waters as the citizens are very eco-conscious. Pics/Sonia Nazareth
Stroget, the longest pedestrian shopping street that houses the largest flagship stores of some prominent Danish design brands — Georg Jensen, Royal Copenhagen, Illum’s Bolighus — is addictive. The furniture, lighting, silverware and porcelain available here are characterised by classic lightness, elegance, and durability, born out of meticulous method.
Tivoli Gardens is the world’s oldest pleasure garden
I see taps before me of every shape and size, colour and texture. Even the most mundane object has been reinterpreted.
Just like the slow food movement — which emerged in retaliation to the speed of modern life — design in general and the arts in particular, have benefited from the slow approach deliberately adopted here. The furniture that surrounds me in the Design Museum is the outcome of a long process of selection and preparation of wood. This, accompanied by careful craftsmanship has longevity written all over it.
A statue of Hans Christian Anderson
Design infiltrates everything. The interiors of the Royal Smushi Café, for instance, are designed by Danish design icons such as Holmegaard, Bang and Olufsen and Fritz Hansen. The Nordic kitchen, too, has its eye firmly set on the local. On the menu here are Danish classics such as Rod grod med flode — a red berry pudding with cream and aeblekage, which is similar to apple charlotte. These delicacies, just like the fresh seasonal vegetables, locally-caught fish and smoked meats, which are a staple on most menus, are a manifestation of the triumph of local culture.
Copenhagen is a treasure trove of Lego markets
Boundaries continue to be pushed. The exhibition on at the Design Museum titled Attractive Things Work Better is a perfect example. It examines why things with a functional purpose should be practical, aesthetic and also attractive. That explains the colours and the humorous twist the objects have.
Most appealing is that the creativity spills out of the museum and into the city, with its patches of green and pristinely-clean harbour. As a local wise man tells me at the Lego shop, “Lego derives from the Danish words ‘leg godt’, which means ‘play well’ and this is just what the Danes are accomplished at.” Several of the pieces are made with organic textiles or come from brands with an ethical profile.
In this part of the world, where the only reminders of the Vikings are young men and women helmeted on bicycles, pedal power is applauded. My guide tells me, “Bicycling is a majority lifestyle with 55 per cent of people using their bikes daily. It’s about building sustainable communities that are healthy, eco-friendly and fun.”
The renaissance-styled Rosenborg Slot, a 17th century castle with marbled and painted ceilings, gilded mirrors and silver lions, is striking. The Amalienborg Palace is barnacled with history and is best seen during the daily changing of the royal guard. Tivoli Gardens, the world’s oldest pleasure garden that opened in 1843, with its fairy lights and fountains may look like tourist spectacle, but is ferociously local. Thankfully that doesn’t stop it from integrating well-loved traditional rides with the latest in robust entertainment.
A melting pot of cultures
In many ways these attractions become the set to vibrant life unfolding, especially at the time of the music, food, and documentary festivals that pepper the active events calendar that has become synonymous with Copenhagen. That these festivals have acquired as many followers as the cities iconic Carlsberg beer is unsurprising. Because little can be compared to experiencing a place where creativity is encouraged.
Copenhagen has all the elements of a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The design experiments to make the kingdom a worthy paradise. The environmental dragons to be vanquished and slain by an army of ethical people. The importance of the tiniest detail to the overall script. Here, if anywhere, it’s easy to dip into a pocket of hope, to believe the earth can be saved — in a city that acts as invitation to think about what we can collectively do.
Go: Emirates operates daily flights to Copenhagen. If you want your trip to begin on the journey itself, opt for the local Scandinavian fare such as the smoked salmon and pickled herring on board
Stay: Kong Arthur, with its blend of rustic and chic is a good option. For more information, visit arthurhotels.dk. If it’s five-star luxury you’re after, then you can opt for D’ Angleterre. For more information, visit dangleterre.dk
Eat: Royal Smushi Café clubs Danish food and Danish design in a funky atmosphere. For more information, visit royalsmushicafe.dk. For dining, with a view of the Tivoli Gardens, the Nimb Brasserie works well. For more information, visit nimb.dk