I had wanted to get to the land of Hans Christian Anderson for years, but it never quite worked out. Then I acquired a Danish friend, Karen, in graduate school. When she moved back to Copenhagen, you can bet the first thing I said after, “hope your flight was good!” was “hey, you got a couch??” This is something I love about the travel-focused life. As I have more experiences, I make more friends from more places, thus adding to my potential travel spots. Sure, I’d have gotten to Copenhagen eventually, but with somewhere to stay my poor-student self was able to do it then rather than later. And with a local! And, of course most importantly, a friend.
Now, one downside of RyanAir is that, while it does fly out of Gatwick (I’ve flown to both Dublin and Lisbon from there), most of their flights out of London require a trip to either Stansted or Luton. While these are technically considered London airports, they are…well, they are not. So even though my flight to Copenhagen was around 1pm, I had to wake up at 4am in order to get to Stansted in time. I had to get to Victoria Bus Station in central London for my 8:30am bus, and it’s over two hours from there to the airport. There is a train that would be much faster, at only 45 minutes, but it’s a bit more expensive (£11 versus £17, so not a huge difference but if you’re doing roundtrip that’s nearly $20 and, again, I was a poor student at the time so every penny mattered).
I finally landed in Copenhagen about 12 hours after I’d woken up, and got on the metro. Karen had sent me directions to her apartment, which required a station switch. As I got on the train, I was amused at the simplicity of the Copenhagen metro system - only a few lines, with only a few stops on each one. Part of me thought that this was too few stops to warrant the system’s existence, but most of me was happy that I didn’t have to take another bus ride.
Karen was waiting for me at the stop she told me to get off, and we walked a mere block to her apartment complex. Now, we had just finished our master’s programs and her boyfriend was just starting his. I was expecting a very student-housing level apartment, but we walked in and my jaw dropped. First off, the place was huge. Second, it was furnished with brand new everything – all the appliances were sparkling, the floors and walls were clearly new, and the bathroom was one of the biggest, nicest bathrooms I’ve ever seen in someone’s residence. They had a rain shower, for god’s sake! God damn, Scandinavia, you and your perfectness.
I dropped my bag off, and Karen and I went back outside, past the DR Byen St. metro station and into a very large park. This park is interesting because it's not marked on Google Maps as a park, but if you study the area on Maps, you will clearly see the park's trails. So, just so you know, there is a large park next to the DR Byen St. station. It was quite flat, with some trees, but mostly it was a large prairie-like field with wide paths where locals could enjoy nature. It was a rather gloomy day, so it wasn’t the nicest walking weather, but it was still a nice stroll. However, we didn’t stay out tremendously long because, well, who likes to stroll flatlands under low gray clouds for too long.
Karen’s boyfriend, Jakob, had prepared dinner for us while we were out. They had gone all out for my arrival, with a lovely and large meal of Danish favorites. It involved a lot of rye bread and various spreads, and all of it was absolutely amazing (except for the pâté, which I will never enjoy no matter how cultured I am trying to be).
Afterwards, Karen and I headed off to explore the neighborhood while Jakob cleaned up. All of the buildings nearby were quite new, with full glass, reflective exteriors alongside a lovely canal. We went into a grocery store, each bought a six-pack, and carried them over to a bench along the water. We sat there as the sun went down, chatting and having our beers. Around the fourth one, we decided the nighttime had brought with it enough cold air to migrate back inside. We finished our beers on the coach, talking and laughing, while Jakob played computer games in the corner. They then gave me an air-mattress, bade me goodnight, and I was asleep within minutes because, well, a 4am alarm and six cans of beer will do that to ya.
The next morning, Karen and I set an 8am alarm in order to ensure we had time to see everything. Jakob got up with us, and we had a Danish breakfast of rolls and butter. We then made sandwiches from the previous evening’s leftover rye bread and spreads, so that we would save money while exploring the city. We bade Jakob farewell and headed off. Karen wanted to take the metro, but I prefer walking as it both saves money and burns calories. As we went along, I marveled at the architecture. It was exactly what I expected Scandinavian architecture to look like, and I’m always a fan of stereotypes coming true.
Our first stop was Our Saviour’s Church, which is a 17th century church that has a really cool and unique spire (which was completed later, in the mid-18th century). The spire is literally a spiral, and is wrapped in gold as it makes its way upwards. We wanted to get a better look at it, and even climb the spire, but it was Sunday morning so church services obviously prevented that. Maybe next time!
We continued to the nearby Christiana neighborhood. I don’t have any pictures of the place because photographs are frowned upon. The reason? This community has actually declared its independence from Denmark (not that it’s legally acknowledged, but it gives you an idea as to the personality of the place). It’s a hippie commune, basically. The “no photographs’ rule come into play because marijuana is openly sold in stalls. Karen explained that the police typically leave the place alone, but at the same time the stalls are set up in a fashion that allows for a quick getaway just in case.
The neighborhood itself was a sight to behold. It was full of brightly colored buildings and shacks, adorned with beautiful graffiti. There was an area with tables, which I believe were connected to a café but it was Sunday morning at 10am so not exactly bustling. We sat there for a few minutes while Karen smoked a cigarette. As I looked out at the scene, I reminisced about my days as a student in Freiburg, Germany. There, I lived right across the street from a similar place, and had to walk through it in order to get to the tram.
Once Karen was done with her cigarette, we climbed a small hill to walk alongside the edge of Christiana from above, and then continued onwards into the center of Copenhagen. Where my camera was back with a vengeance. Our next stop is probably Copenhagen’s most famous scene, or at least it’s most Instagrammed: Nyhavn. As a traveler who lives behind my camera, this canal was a dream. Some places are disappointing in person, but Nyhavn more than lived up to my Instagram expectations. The bright colors of the canal were absolutely eye-popping, and the abundance of boats and cafes made it all the more picturesque.
Next to the canal was a modern art installation with quite the political theme – it was thousands of life vests stacked upon one another, to represent those who have drowned in the Mediterranean because of strict European immigration policies. I have a personal connection with the Mediterranean crisis, as I was living in Senegal during the height of it and attended the funeral of someone who drowned. It was this experience that motivated me to study European immigration policies in graduate school, and this combined with my own very negative experiences with British immigration policies led me to pursue a career in immigrant rights. Thus, I appreciated the art installation and hope it made people think about the consequences of xenophobia. I currently live in China and can't connect my Medium account to this page (as Medium is blocked), but you'll find the link to it in my About page. I have written about this on there, if you're interested.
Following Nyhavn, we passed a very French-looking department store that Karen said was the most famous store in Denmark. I love how ubiquitous Paris is - there is no reason for that store to be in Copenhagen and yet there it was. It reminded me of a poster I had in my bedroom in high school that had Hemingway's "wherever you go, it sticks with you, for Paris is a moveable force" quote. C'est vrai.
Our next stop was Church of Our Lady, which is the city's cathedral. It was a bit of a snooze, if I'm being honest. It's only from 1829 and has a very neoclassical style which isn't really my thing (except in Austria, I actually appreciate the hell out of it in Austria. I think this is because I associate Austria with the artistic side of the Enlightenment/whatever the period after the Enlightenment was called. I'd make a self-deprecating comment about my BA in history, but Google wasn't helpful either so...it's fine...). Anyways, Church of Our Lady is Copenhagen's cathedral (which means the seat of the bishop is there), and due to it's neoclassic interior it's very white. And I don't like white. So I didn't really take any pictures. While we looked around, Karen told me that because it's the cathedral, it is where royal ceremonies occur. We then headed back out, and I was much more interested in the university next door to the cathedral. Not because the university was especially interesting, just because the cathedral was decidedly not so.
We then went on to explore the streets of the Indre By District, which just means city center. They were so beautiful, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never heard of Copenhagen as being a particularly pretty city before, but I would put it up there as one of the prettiest of European capitals. I loved the pointed architecture, and in this neighborhood in particular the colored buildings were just picture perfect. It was a lovely, peaceful stroll.
Our next stop was the Rundetårn, which offers a great bird's-eye view of Copenhagen, and was built in the 1600s as an astronomy tower by King Christian IV. For some quick facts about him: he reigned for nearly six decades, which is the longest of any Scandinavian ruler. He was a very influential leader, and embarked on a lot of projects in both Denmark and Norway (where he also ruled; Oslo was called Christiana until 1925, named after him). He also led Denmark in the Thirty Years War, one of the most devastating wars in history. Anyways, back to the tower: I somehow didn't get a picture of it but it's pretty cool looking. It's got windows all the way up the sides, for starters!
Usually, admission to Rundetårn costs 25 kroner (less than $4) to go up, but when we approached the ticket booth both Karen and the worker got mutually excited and chatted for a minute. He then waved us up. Apparently they went to high school together. It was especially kind that he let us go up for free, as Karen said that they never hung out in high school and hadn't spoken since. The climb itself was easy. Most towers in Europe require a skinny, tight spiral staircase but this was wide and flat aka a wheelchair could go up. Apparently it's called an equestrian staircase, as it's original concept was to help riders to bring their horses up.
Admittedly, Copenhagen isn't the world's most exciting city from above. The beauty on the ground is lost in the roofs, which aren't as cool to look at as are Parisian or Florentine ones. Nor are there many tall buildings to look at, with the result that we weren't up there for too long. And let me insert a little "Karen is an angel" comment, because I asked her about five billion questions while up there looking around and throughout the day in general, even though I knew she was getting a little annoyed with me. So a huge shout out to her for putting up with my curiosity!
Back on the ground, and after a quick wave to the high school friend, we continued onwards. Again, we mostly just explored for awhile. It was just so lovely, and we were lucky with the weather as well. Karen said that Danish weather is quite similar to the UK's, so the fact that I got to spend my day in Copenhagen in the sunshine was wonderful. Definitely thanking the travel gods for that one!
We stumbled upon the Rosenborg Gardens, which are attached to the Rosenborg Castle. This was a lovely park, and I was once again reminded of France with it's tree-lined, wide pathways. This is a lovely park not just because of its well manicured walkways, but it's also large, green, and full of statues of prominent Danes. It was a Sunday when we were there, so families were out enjoying the sunshine. I'm always a sucker for city parks, and it's also always fun watching families from different countries because it's a good reminder that humans are humans are humans. We all act the same, no matter where we're from.
We admired a few of the statues, and then made our way to the 18th century royal palace, Amalienborg. This was such a unique palace, I loved it (though Karen, ever the anti-monarchist, was less interested). I unfortunately didn't get a great picture of the whole thing, so here's a view from the interior courtyard instead (the domed building is the 18th century Frederik's Church, which we did not go in but a fun fact for you: the dome is the largest of all Scandinavian churches). Anyways, what makes this palace unique is that, rather than one large building, it is split into four buildings that circle this octagonal courtyard. The architecture itself is nothing special, but hey, neither is Buckingham's and the layout of Amalienborg's makes this one much more interesting. There were also royal guards à la Buckingham, which I wasn't expecting but it makes sense. If you're interested, every day at noon is the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
We continued onwards. As we left the city center and emerged into a more open space, we found ourselves next to St. Alban's Church, an Anglican church randomly in Denmark. It's only from the 19th century, but it's a sweet little thing.
We were also next to a hot dog cart, and Karen insisted that we each get one. Now, prior to this trip I had no idea that Copenhagen was so into hot dogs. But they are, and you know what, 14/10 would order a Danish hot dog over a New York one any day. They were so good. There were lots of topping options as well, and I got it with pickles, onion, and fried french onions, which oh my god what a concept. Amazing stuff. Karen also bought me a chocolate milk - the brand was Cocio - (my cash had run out after the hot dog purchase), because "it isn't right to eat one without drinking the milk." So if/when you go to Copenhagen, make sure you get a hot dog with Cocio. You won't be disappointed.
We were at the sea at this point, and we walked over to Copenhagen's most famous statue - the Little Mermaid. It's not a tremendously exciting statue in and of itself, though I did like the rock piling it was sitting on. But I like the sea, so no complaints from me. And as I said above, it was a spectacular fall day. We sat in the sunshine near the statue for about an hour, just chatting and people watching.
We wandered back to Nyhavn, where we decided to sit some more. Because, you know, it had just been such an exhausting mile-long walk. Mostly, it was just such a pretty spot. I love how colorful European buildings are, certainly much more than anything I've seen on any other continent. We sat there, our legs dangling over the edge of the barrier, for nearly another hour before leaving this lovely canal and crossing the water back to the part of Copenhagen that she lived in.
As we crossed the bridge, I made sure to stay in the pedestrian section of the walkway. Like much of northern Europe, Copenhagen is a biker's paradise, and they were out and about enjoying the weather. I have rarely seen so many bikers in one spot before!
We meandered back to Karen's apartment, taking the long way home so that we could walk next to canals along the way. Before going to Copenhagen, I had no idea there were so many canals! I just assumed Nyhavn was it. I'm so happy they were there, I loved seeing the Scandinavian architecture reflected in the calm waters, as locals pattered up and down in their boats.
At one point on the way home, we stopped in at a grocery store so that she could buy a couple of things. While in there, I couldn't resist buying a loaf of rye bread. As a child, I hated the stuff, but I love it now. And I've never had it taste so good as I had in Copenhagen. I unfortunately couldn't bring any of the delicious spreads back to London though, as I only had a carry-on and you can't bring food like that in a carry-on (which I actually only learned the following weekend - stay tuned for that blog coming soon. The reason I didn't buy any that time was because I didn't want them to be unrefrigerated for too long).
Upon arrival at her apartment, we made a dinner (well, first we sat. I was used to walking 30,000 steps a day, but Karen was not) of black noodle vegetarian pasta. We then whiled away the evening talking and playing Harry Potter trivia with Jakob (I won, mwaha).
All too soon, it was time for bed. I had to once again get up at 4am in order to be back to the airport in time for my flight, so with a couple of hugs and a huge thank you from me, they went into their room and I lay down on the air mattress. Too soon, it was the next morning. I groggily made myself another sandwich from Saturday's leftovers and then headed off to the metro. But hey, at least this flight was actually early and not just a long bus ride away! (To give you an idea of how early it was, I was back in my apartment by 11:45 - after a flight, a nearly four hour journey from Stansted, and a stop at the grocery store.)
My final note on Copenhagen is this: the men. are. gorgeous. You know Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones? He's Danish. They all look like him. Hubba freaking hubba.