They say you can’t go to Denmark without trying smorrebrod, or an open-face sandwich. I’ve only had smorrebrod once in my life, whilst celebrating Christmas with the Danish community in Singapore, and it came with some wilted lettuce and a few slices of questionable-looking salmon in radioactive pink, all arranged neatly atop a piece of generic white bread.
In short, it was f*cking miserable and I never yearned for another smorrebrod again.
When I arrived in Copenhagen however, I saw that I was greatly mistaken.
The Danish smorrebrods are the Heidi Klum of sandwiches. From luscious baby shrimps to sauce-drenched meatballs, these ‘sandwiches’ – if you can call them that since they consist of no more than a thin layer of sourdough rye bread – are piled high with a litany of beautiful, glistening ingredients.
How sexy do we look? they seem to shout. Eat us. But don’t forget to take a goddamn picture first.
Naturally, I did what any sophisticated foodie would do and followed the advice of Tripadvisor, who directed me to Ida Davidsen for what was apparently ‘the best smorrebrod in town.’ Ida Davidsen is a family-run joint that specializes in smorrebrod – they make over 250 hot and cold types – since 1888.
The restaurant was a lot posher than I expected – all candle lights and smartly garbed waitresses. We had to shush our kids every ten seconds because everyone was speaking in hushed tones.
The food itself arrived looking like works of art. And then the bill arrived and we were stumped. For that price, I expected the sandwiches to be mind-blowing but they weren’t.
The eateries at Torverhallerne food market seemed a lot more promising. Toverhallerne is a local institution filled with more than 60 food stands, hawking everything from fresh produce to artisanal chocolate to, yes, food other than smorrebrod.
We got some bite-sized snacks – they call it pinxos in Spanish – from Tapa del Toro and these were slightly better than our hundred-dollar sandwiches (yeah, I’m very bitter about that). Frankly, I’d love to sit by the bar, sip on a dry sherry, as I slowly work my way through all the different pinxos while my kids wait quietly in their stroller but we all know it’s easier to score a date with the Pope.
Just as I thought about how blissful it was strolling around in a city that was free of tour groups, we ran into a mob of Asians tourists at Nyhavn, a buzzy waterfront area flanked by colorful 17th and 18th century townhouses that have been converted into cafes, bars and restaurants. Of course, the atmosphere was partially ruined by Instagrammers who, gathered on the bridges and outside Hans Christian Anderson’s former home, were snapping pictures with a vengeance.
And then as if the situation couldn’t get any bleaker, it began to drizzle. Right when we were supposed to go canal cruisin’ with Stromma Canal Tours. We scurried into the boat, hoping to keep warm and dry.
Unfortunately, the only thing that was dry was the guide’s narration.
The seats, meanwhile, were damp and the floors were filled with puddles. And it didn’t help that it was getting very dark, and we could barely make out the landmarks he was referring to. Even the Little Mermaid statue – which is the de facto symbol of Copenhagen and perhaps the world’s most overrated tourist attraction – looked like a blurry black blob surrounded camera flashes by the harbor.
It is said that she is tiny – smaller than the Statue of Liberty’s index finger – as far as landmark statues go.
“That’s it, mommy?” asked my son, incredulous. “That’s the little mermaid?”
“Yep, that’s it,” I said, not quite believing myself.
I had zero expectations of Tivoli Gardens after the disappointing episode with the cruise and smorrebrod. So we went to one of the oldest theme parks in the world to discover that, while it isn’t Disneyland, it was a lot more picturesque and entertaining than we’d hoped for.
Make no mistake: the park is small. But it was atmospheric, with lots of little deck chairs for you to relax, and it had all the requisite rides for visitors of all ages. And it also had a FUN HOUSE. And a most adorable ride called The Flying Trunk, which takes you past Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular fairytales (our 2-year-old bawled his eyes out on this ride, but I’m sure it’s because he had to leave his popcorn outside with the ride attendants).
Since it’s also Tivoli’s 175th anniversary, they also had a parade, where people dress up as friggin’ cutlery, to promote the many culinary delights the park has to offer.
Yes, unlike Disneyland, Tivoli has 43 eateries and restaurants – 43! – making it the go-to place in Copenhagen to stuff your face.
From upscale, Michelin-starred Cortina D’Amprezzo and The Paul to casual steak joints like Bryggeriet Apollo, Tivoli has one of the best selection of restaurants anywhere in the city.
We ate at Wagamama, a noodle bar, because after days of dining on local cuisine, we craved for something that didn’t arrive in courses. Or maybe because we’re Asian and we could spontaneously self-combust if we ever go three days without rice / noodles.
The park looked even more magical in the evenings, when it is lit by a thousand fairy lights. There were shows over the weekends, but not the high-tech action performances you get at other parks. Think traditional mime acts and swing nights with the resident big band. Friday evenings always end in fireworks.
After that, we couldn’t resist stopping by a sausage wagon, or polsevogn, for some Danish sausages. Served by a sweaty, rotund Danish onkle, the polser is a long, anorexic-looking sausage served with or without a bun, and drizzled with ketchup, mustard and / or remoulade, which is just like Tartare sauce but better.
As we stand by the road, stamping our feet in the cold and munching on our hot, salty ‘dogs like generations of Danes before us, we are reminded that one doesn’t always need to have expensive and elaborate smorrebrod to be happy.
Sometimes, a cheap, ubiquitous polser is good enough.
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. $$$
Clarion Hotel Copenhagen Airport Sleek, modern rooms a short, indoor walk from the arrivals hall and copious breakfast make this place a great bet for those staying two nights or less. Also located less than a five minute indoor walk to the train station, where regular train takes you right to the city centre in just ten minutes. Early check-ins possible. $$
- Canal cruises is a major highlight in Copenhagen, but are only recommended during the day. There are several companies that ply the waters, ranging from personalized tours on smaller boats (Hey Captain) and even one that lets you steer your own solar-powered boat (GoBoat). Larger boats offer standard one-hour cruises, but there might be specialty jazz and opera cruises on certain days. It is not necessary to book ahead unless you are interested in a specialty cruise.
- There are several different types of day tickets for Tivoli but they generally fall into two categories: an admission ticket (for one or two days or an annual pass) and an unlimited ride ticket. Passes for individual rides can be easily purchased throughout the park, and may be a good option if you’re a young family who don’t plan on taking all the rides. Children under 3 can enter for free but require a ticket for the rides.
- Check out the Visit Denmark website for the best smorrebrod joints in town. Alternatively, there’s a polsevogn on every corner for a quick, cheap snack.