Copenhagen is unlike other European cities. It was apparent the moment when, exhausted after a 12 hour plane ride and turned away from our hotel for arriving too early, we decided to brave a nippy morning for a stroll around the city.
It was past 8am but the Radshuspladsen, or City Hall Square and “bustling heart of Copenhagen”, and the Stroget, a pedestrian street in the old city, is still eerily empty.
Where are the tenacious tourists? In fact, where is everyone? Are we in the right place?
One of the few souls we saw were these guys standing in the middle of a square, turning a decapitated cow on a spit.
Freezing, we gravitated to the warmth of the open fire like a bunch of hobos.
“That is the biggest lamb I’ve seen,” said the husband, whose brains have obviously stopped functioning in the cold.
“Oh, its a cow…and it will only be ready in a few hours,” says the blond-hair, blue-eyed one casually, like it’s perfectly normal to be roasting a whole cow out on the streets like this. “I’ve been up since last night getting this thing ready so, yeah, it’s just a few more hours to go.”
We might have missed a fine Viking feast but we did end up in Holm’s Bager, an ugly modern bakery which serves perhaps the most exquisite takeout sandwiches in the world. It was also our first time trying tebirkes, or Danish poppy seed rolls.
By this time, the city was coming slowly to life and, with freshly made sandwiches in hand, we continued to Slotholmen, or Castle Island, where the Christiansborg Palace, the Parliament, the Supreme Court, Ministry of Finance and the Borsen – the former World Trade Centre of Scandinavia – all reside. We were content with admiring these fine collection of buildings from the outside (although all we really wanted to do at this point was to go back to our hotel room and hibernate).
Standing there shivering in my cardigan and boots however, I saw more badassery… namely, a bunch of Viking descendants swimming competitively in the river in nothing more than swimsuits and trunks in 12 °C weather.
#WTF I ain’t messing with these guys.
The Andersen Hotel was a fine place to crash, if not for its flawed check-in process. We were treated to a free wine hour after emerging from a good long nap, and played chess in the lobby while the weather continued to suck.
It was also close to the Skydebanehaven, a public park filled with climbing frames, a sand pit, a wading pool as well as stuff that would’ve been stolen / destroyed a long time ago if this had been another country, like balls and trikes. It was not just better than the city parks in Europe, it was free.
Copenhagen has several castles you can visit, but we decided on Rosenborg Castle because it was supposed to be the most captivating of the lot. And I totally understood why: its owner, King Christian IV, was a lover and fighter par excellence, with his hipster braid and Roman toga.
At his finest hour at the age of 67, after being injured by shrapnel during a naval battle against Sweden, he bounced right back up and continued waging war as if nothing happened. Not only that: he also had the shrapnel pieces removed from his eye and forehead later and made into earrings as a gift for his mistress.
The castle is infused with the personality of its owner: There was the room of mirrors – not to be mistaken for the less hedonistic Hall of Mirrors in Versailles – where he dunked the dingus in; there was the room where he reclined on a throne carved entirely from narwhal tusk; there was the room where he breathed in his last breath at the ripe old age of 70, after fathering 25 kids (with two wives and three mistresses).
Then, there was also the treasury, which looked like P. Diddy or Jay-Z’s personal wardrobe, where you can ogle at his golden crown and various other objects dripping in jewels.
It was hard not to walk out of the Rosenborg without wondering who, really, are these people? Why do they make Chuck Norris look like a pansy? And what do they eat, apart from whole headless animals?
Some of these questions were answered during our visit to the National Museum – which should be renamed the House of Horrors for its macabre exhibitions (see below). It started out innocently enough: we began with stuff left behind by their long dead – but no doubt, once strapping – Viking ancestors, like horned helmets and rune stones proclaiming heroic deeds.
And once you walk further in thinking what a nice, family-friendly museum this is, the museum delivers its sucker punch: bones animals and humans, mummified corpses, the head of a little girl who met a gruesome end – no doubt a victim of sacrifice. Further proof that you don’t wanna mess with these guys.
Then, as if wandering through halls containing dead bodies and decapitated heads weren’t creepy enough, there was also a charming area devoted entirely to old-fashioned doll houses. And a scary Hitler puppet for effect.
The children’s section – supposedly excellent – was closed while we were there but we managed to quell our disappointment by having a go at dressing up in the height of 17th century Danish fashion. Our littlest one, unfortunately, refused to humiliate himself, so here’s the three of us.
We eventually made our way to Christiana, a “free city” that sprung up in 1971, when 700 free-spirited Danes established a squatters’ colony in abandoned military barracks just a stone’s throw away from the parliament. They have survived multiple police crackdowns and skyrocketing property prices to remain standing today, several decades later, as a ragtag community of idealists, hippies, potheads, and artists who formed their own rules and built their own homes.
I was, however, rather skeptical: descendants of possibly the most fearsome people on earth, now enlightened new-age hipsters? Who believe in free love? And who would rather go vegan than a-pillaging?
I NEED TO SEE THESE PEOPLE FOR MYSELF.
And so we went – the kids mesmerized by all the rainbow colors and recycled art around them.
Down Pusher Street we went too, although we didn’t realize until we saw a bags of grass on a cart staffed by a shifty-eyed man.
We went to Nemoland, hoping to get some falafel and hummus but was put off by all the cigarette smoke. So we had Thai food at the beautiful Cafeloppen where the waitress was high-as-a-kite but the food was great.
And then we explored some more. We saw plenty of tourists; other families with young children; a guy, in handcuffs, getting escorted away by three policemen. I was especially delighted to come across a smoky little tavern where a bunch of old Asian grandpas and grandmas sat around, smoking hashish and being all ‘Whats Upppp’ instead of tending to the grandchildren like they do over here. That just made my day.
We ended up in a derelict-looking building that would’ve made any sane person nervous, but was actually home to a really great little art gallery. A group of musicians were inside, playing folk music.
My kids started flailing their arms and stomping around to the tune and, before I could rush over and restrain them like a panicked nurse at a mental hospital, a lady stopped me with a nod and a smile.
“It’s ok. Just let them be.”
And she handed them a cookie each.
She didn’t look like she was ready to take me on with an axe or something. She just seemed very kind, which was so unlike the Parisian lady in Montmartre who burned my son’s cheek with her cigarette and snapped at my husband for not being careful, or the Norwegian ladies who glared at us as our kids jumped around in the back of a stationary car during a ferry crossing.
I felt, at that moment, that we came to the right place. Even if we did see someone being arrested, we came to the right place.
And you know what? Copenhagen may not win a beauty or popularity contest anytime soon, but the people here are something else.
Andersen Hotel Generous, good quality breakfast (think smoked salmon, jamon iberico and amazing croissants), free wine hours, comfortable rooms and excellent location in the middle of the city. Unfortunately however, the CONCEPT24, which is unique to the hotel and means that your room is available for 24 hours after check-in, is absolutely useless, especially during peak tourist season. $$$
Clarion Hotel Copenhagen Airport Sleek, modern rooms a short, indoor walk from the arrivals hall and copious breakfast make this place a great bet for those staying two nights or less. Also located less than a five minute indoor walk to the train station, where regular train takes you right to the city centre in just ten minutes. Early check-ins possible. $$
- Consider getting a Copenhagen Card, which allows you free entry into the city’s museums and attractions and free travel on all transportation. Do note, however, that a number of attractions are already free for children below 18, including the National Museum, Rosenborg Castle and open-air museum.
- Copenhagen deserves at least two nights, or even more with kids. There are 120 playgrounds in the city – and a few of these are staffed by childcare specialists. In the summer, the harbor baths, a string of recreational bathing facilities along the waterfront, are open to the public.
- Rosenborg Castle’ sprawling park, Kongens Have, is a popular picnic spot for Danes. It also has a playground and marionette theatre (open June – August) nearby.
- Christiana, with its skate park and playgrounds, is best experienced during the day, especially with kids. Wander off the main tourist drag that is Pusher Street to experience to catch a real glimpse of this lil’ commune. If dining alfresco surrounded by smoke isn’t your thing, Cafeloppen is a wonderful restaurant that serves great Thai food (including non-spicy versions) and also has a little play area to keep your children entertained.