I’ve just returned from a week spent not quite in Copenhagen. I could see the city from my hotel room on the 18th floor of a conference centre a couple of kilometres from the heart of the city, but Copenhagen itself remained tantalisingly out of reach. I was eager to have some time to explore a city that I last visited in 1988. A thirty year gap between visits is way too long for a city that is renowned as being one of Europe’s most liveable, and which comes with an enviable cultural life and a world-class reputation for good food.
This comes with a singular and notorious downside: the cost of living. Arriving late at night I checked the in-room dining options, a burst of hollow laughter rang out of me at the prospect of ordering a €23 cheese burger. I don’t care how good Danish medical, education or social welfare systems might be, or that Copenhagen is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable cities, any country that has taxes so high as to produce a €23 burger clearly has issues to work through.
When I finally had the opportunity to escape to the city, all that remained to me was an afternoon. The sunny weather of the previous few days had turned to wind and cloud with a threat of rain. Winter was in the air and I regretted not having the sense to bring gloves with me. Still, it was invigorating to wander through the historic centre, which is small enough to allow you to get a feel for the city, and gave me plenty of reasons why a return visit shouldn’t wait another thirty years.
The metro deposited me in Kongens Nytorv, an attractive square surrounded by stylish buildings, including the Royal Danish Theatre. The square is currently a building site, so I made my way to one of Copenhagen’s most famous sights, Nyhavn. Probably the most photographed area of town, Nyhavn is both surprisingly small and wonderfully pretty. The picturesque canal is lined with brightly coloured houses (now cafes, shops and restaurants) and historic sailing boats.
It may be the epicentre of tourism in the city, but it’s well worth a visit. If for no other reason than when he was living here, Hans Christian Andersen wrote several of his most famous works, including The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus and The Princess and the Pea. The houses date to the 1680s and, on another day, I’d have been tempted to hop on a boat tour around the city’s waterways. You can cross over the water here to Christiania, or Freetown as the more whimsically delusional call it.
I visited Christiania in 1988. It had a strongly alternative peace and love culture then, but everything I’ve read about it recently makes it seem like it’s become an anarcho-drug haven. Perhaps I should have visited to see it with my own eyes, but I just find that stuff tedious, and it’s not like Berlin is short of anarcho-drug culture. Instead, I headed to the complex of 18th-century rococo palaces surrounding the Amalienborg square, dominated by a statue of King Frederik V riding a horse.
A pleasant walk along the nearby waterfront brings you to one of Copenhagen’s iconic sights, Den Lille Havfrue or The Little Mermaid. Based on the story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen, I only remembered the sense of disappointment from my first sighting of it all those years ago – like the Mona Lisa, it’s smaller than its reputation would lead you to believe. Close to the shore, it’s easy to reach from land and has been a victim of vandalism and political protest as a consequence. In 1964, it was beheaded. No one knows why.
I headed back through Kastellet, a remarkably well preserved 17th-century fortress, and then to Nyboder, a district of 17th and 18th century naval barracks. The distinctive rows of yellow houses reminded me of Almshouses, many seemed to be undergoing renovation or rebuilding. A short walk brought me to the King’s Garden park. This is a city of parks, but this one is home to a remarkable 17th century Dutch Renaissance-style castle, and formerly the favoured home of King Christian IV, Rosenborg Slot.
As I strolled the sun disappeared behind gathering clouds and with it the temperature took a nosedive. Time to find somewhere warm to while away an hour or two before going to the airport. I’d passed a cosy-looking gastro-pub in Nyboder and made my way back to sample some Danish micro-brewery beers. It seemed like a good way to end my almost visit to Copenhagen.