Living in Britain, little is often heard from Scandinavia. The countries appear to peacefully coexist in their own blissful utopia, seldom drawing attention to themselves. Despite their lack of prominence on the global stage, Scandinavian countries continually rank the highest on lists of the best countries for living standards and social equality.
My curiosity to venture into Denmark was recently sparked when Copenhagen was voted ‘The Most Liveable City’ of 2013 by travel magazine ‘Monocle’. This is also the year that Danish people were found to be the ‘Happiest People in the World’ by the ‘World Happiness Report’.
Curious to ascertain the secret to Danish happiness, I booked a trip to Copenhagen and packed my suitcase. Return flights from London Gatwick to Copenhagen were a budget friendly £60 with Easy Jet and I was accommodated at the affordable ‘Danhostel Copenhagen’- Europe’s largest hostel. The hostel, a towering block in the centre of the city was five minutes from the central station and fantastically located within walking distance of many Copenhagen attractions.
Although the hostel was reasonably priced Copenhagen on a whole is unashamedly expensive. Denmark has the highest tax obligation in the world and although Danes wear the smile of socialism, as a Londoner I found the prices astronomical in comparison. It certainly is possible to enjoy Copenhagen on a budget but I would advise future visitors to be fully aware of any potential costs before travelling.
Prior to my visit, my understanding of Danish culture and history was limited. My knowledge was restricted to the world famous godfather of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen, Carlsberg beers and Danish pastries.
What I found from my brief stay is as follows:
1.) Copenhagen is a quiet, compact, pretty city.
Although not possessing the ancient mystery of Rome, or the romance of Paris, Copenhagen is characterised by a very quaint, charming atmosphere. The canals of the city are flanked by a mixture of modern and fairy tale architecture, all easily reached by foot. It is also unique in being the only city I have visited to boast an amusement park situated in the centre. A short walk from the city centre is Tivoli Gardens- the second oldest amusement park in the world and open to the public seasonally.
2.) The Danish adore their monarchy.
Similar to the Brits, the Danish cherish their royal family. Some of Copenhagen’s most famous buildings are the royal palaces. A great way to learn history about the city and see the sights is by going on one of the ‘Copenhagen Free Walking Tours’. The tours run daily and the knowledgeable guides escort you on a three hour walking tour around the centre of the city. Absolutely free but tipping is advisable.
While the Italians live ‘La Dolce Vita’ and the French enjoy their ‘Joie de Vivre’, one of the fundamental aspects of Danish living is ‘Hygge’. With no literal translation, Hygge can only be described as the Danish love of ‘cosiness’ or nesting. During the arctic winter months, Danes love to come together with loved ones in warm surroundings. Good food, candles, baking bread and drinking beer in the warmth are all examples of ‘Hygge’. The Danish are in essence a traditional, patriotic nation. From my brief stay I observed how polite and welcoming they are to tourists but their specific culture is of paramount importance to them. They fiercely guard it and live safely within the realms of their treasured traditions.
4.) Copenhageners love Cycling!
If exploring by foot isn’t for you, then grab a bicycle as the Danish love to cycle. Copenhagen is a bicycle friendly city with cycling lanes throughout. Just be wary that the usual Danish manners and sophistication seem to evaporate when they get on a bike. Unwitting pedestrians beware!
For all the fairy-tale romance and charm that is waxed lyrical about Copenhagen, the Freetown of Christiania is the antithesis- a rebellious, alternative, hippy commune. Christiania is an autonomous neighbourhood with unique status and regulated by its own laws. With over 850 residents, Christiania is often shrouded in mystery due to the ban on taking photos within the commune. It is infamous as the centre of the drug world in Copenhagen. ‘Pusher Street’ within the ‘Green Light District’ is where visitors can openly purchase weed, hash and skunk. Reminiscent of the liberal Amsterdam vibe- Christiania’s pure individuality is not to be missed!
6.) Visit the Little Mermaid….and more
The sculpture of the Little Mermaid is an iconic symbol of Copenhagen. Perched on a rock by Langelinie promenade, the statue unites two famous Danish icons in history. The Little Mermaid sculpture (based on the fairy-tale of well-loved Hans Christian Andersen) was commissioned by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg. Although The Little Mermaid has become the most famous tourist attraction, the harbour front has an array of other dazzling sights and monuments such as the beautiful, imperious Gefion Fountain. Take time to walk around and explore them all.
7.) 7/11 Heaven
You are never in short distance of a 7/11 convenience store! This popular chain has monopolised the city and will service you for all your basic necessities. As a student on a budget it was very convenient for some quick, tasty snacks and picking up a bottle of Faxe Kondi- Denmark’s favourite lemonade.
8.) All You Can Drink? “Skål!”
If you can hold your drink then you’re in luck. Copenhagen has a number bars and clubs that for a fixed price allow you to drink an unlimited amount of beer or cider. An economical option for those on a budget and a dangerous option for all the lightweights! Beer is cheap in the supermarkets and drinking in public is thankfully acceptable so it is easy to warm up en route to a bar or club. Clubs open around midnight and stay open until at least 6/7am, allowing plenty of time to party. Say cheers in Danish Viking style- “Skål!”
9.) The 3 S’s- Simple, Structured, Stylish
I could summarise the Scandinavian way of living by three S’s- simple, structured, stylish. Copenhagen runs like a dream –although sleepy compared to London it runs efficiently and smoothly. The progressive socialist standard of living is evident by how structured and clean everything is. People are well taken care of due to the welfare state and Copenhagen is a people watching paradise. The Copenhagen locals look as if they have stepped off the Zara catwalk. This is not the city for flamboyant or edgy fashion but the Danes are well dressed, smart and stylish.
10.) Economic growth…The one to watch
With many European countries still suffering from the recession and economic decline, Denmark’s economy continues to happily grow and has been relatively unaffected. As a result it has become the destination for many highly skilled professionals across Europe in search of employment. Opportunities are opening up in Copenhagen and coupled with the high standards of living, it is becoming the one European city to watch.
So what is it that makes the Danish so happy?
As a Londoner, I must confess that Copenhagen seemed humdrum at worst and twee at best. It certainly lacks the dynamism of other quintessential European cities like the quirkiness of Berlin or the pure naughtiness of Amsterdam. However this is exactly where the appeal of the city lies for the Danish. United through their peaceful, helpful nature- Copenhagen is charming, safe and picturesque. Although arguably very insular in character it is a pleasant city to amble away and familiarise yourself with the quaint Danish way of life.