(Photo: Martin Heiberg)
(Photo: Martin Heiberg)

Denmark Delights

Hovering 200 feet in the air atop Tivoli Gardens’ Golden Tower ride, I see central Copenhagen laid out before me. I spot a few landmarks—the copper-spired city hall, the blue screens of Pritzker Prize–winner Jean Nouvel’s Danish Radio Hall—before the platform lurches and drops straight down, the cityscape swallowed by rooftops amid the gleeful screams of my fellow riders.

Established in 1843, Tivoli has delighted generations of locals and visitors, and every time I come to Copenhagen I find myself lured back here. I love to ride the century-old wooden rollercoaster, controlled, terrifyingly, by an attendant who stands on the car, pulling a lever. Today, as I dig into pork belly with lingonberry inside the Victorian greenhouse–inspired dining room at Gemyse’s, a parade passes by outside, and I see the park’s white-faced mascot, Pjerrot, dancing and waving to the crowds.

Copenhagen harbor front (Photo: Martin Heiberg)
Copenhagen harbor front (Photo: Martin Heiberg)

There’s a magic to Copenhagen that has survived the march of urban development, and as I explore its interconnected tiny islands by bicycle or boat, I’m constantly struck by how seamlessly the city’s 850-year history is layered with urban development.

Nowhere is this more apparent than from the zero-emission, skipper-it-yourself GoBoat, cruising up the middle of the Øresund—the stretch of water separating Denmark from Sweden. Looking left, I can see Nyhavn (new harbor), where fishing boats and handsome masted ships have docked between ochre, blue, and red canal houses to unload spices and textiles since 1629. To the right, the grill-like, glass-and-steel façade of Henning Larsen’s Opera House—nicknamed brødristeren (the toaster)—gleams in the sun.

Just beyond, there’s another odd pairing: “free town” Christiana, established by hippies on ancient fortifications in 1971 and a hub for arts and culture (and smoking weed in shaded cubbies, out of sight of the police); and its neighbor, chef René Redzepi’s lauded New Nordic restaurant Noma, which reopened last February.

But today I continue past Amalienborg, Queen Margrethe II’s winter residence, to the city’s Little Mermaid, a bronze statue that has been gazing wistfully out to sea since being gifted to the city by the Carlsberg Foundation in 1913. In recent years, this sculpture, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s namesake fairytale, has been a target of public vitriol: she has been decapitated twice, been covered in paint multiple times, had her arm sawn off, and been blown into the harbor with explosives. I don’t feel the need to resort to vandalism but her diminutive size and setting are somewhat underwhelming.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Photo: VisitDenmark)
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Photo: VisitDenmark)

Other gifts from the Carlsberg Foundation—established by Carlsberg beer founder J.C. Jacobsen in 1876 in support of science, art, and culture—have been better received. J.C.’s son and brand namesake Carl Jacobsen was a big fan of sculptures, and Copenhagen’s Glyptotek museum houses more than 10,000 of them from his personal collection. It’s curious to see so many works juxtaposed in such close proximity—wandering the halls feels like time traveling through 6,000 years of culture, aesthetics, and civilization rendered as stills of Ramses III and Tutankhamun, Degas’s dancers, ancient Greece and Rome. Yet somehow it all seems entirely natural in modern Copenhagen, a dream destination for art, architecture, and design aficionados, or even anyone with just a passing interest in these fields.

Madeira

Related Article

Madeira

European vacationers have been flocking to this Portuguese island for years, but most Americans have yet to discover it.

If you peek into the windows of apartments after sunset, you’ll see people relaxing in iconic (and valuable) midcentury modern furnishings, such as Arne Jacobsen’s Drop, Egg, and Swan chairs. They’ll be bathed in the warm pools of light created by Louis Poulson lamps—the essence of hygge, that now-famous concept of coziness and contentment central to Danish culture.

The Design Museum Danmark offers a more curated insight into Danish modern. Alongside its more than 100 iconic chairs, it exhibits contemporary Kaare Klint’s diligent analytical studies of spatial design and the unsurpassed workmanship of Hans J. Wegner, Børge Mogensen, Arne Jacobsen, and Verner Panton, all of whom revolutionized how the world works, sleeps, and sits.

Not all of Denmark’s excellent museums devoted to aesthetics and design are in the capital.

Danish modern chairs
Danish modern chairs at the Design Museum Danmark

Dubbed the “Home of the Brick,” museum-cum-sensory-experience Lego House opened in the family-run brand’s hometown of Billund late last year, in time for its 60th anniversary in 2018. A creation of Bjarke Ingels’s firm BIG, it is constructed from 25 million Lego bricks and offers 130,000 square feet of endless possibilities for play and learning that capture the ethos of Lego—an abbreviation of the Danish words "leg godt" (play well).

Four color-coded zones are designed to speak to different facets of play—creativity, communication, emotion, logic—while the Masterpiece Gallery features rotating exhibitions of works by the world’s adult Lego builders, such as life-size dinosaurs and a tree made of more than 6.3 million bricks.

“If BIG, the company, had been founded with one single purpose, it would have been to build the Lego House,” says Ingels.

Another of my favorite Danish institutions turned 60 this year: modern-art museum Lousiana, set within a series of pavilions framed by sculpture-dotted lawns and views over the Øresund, 25 miles north of Copenhagen. I’ve been here many times, vying with other visitors to take the perfect selfie inside Yayoi Kusama's joy-affirming work, Gleaming Lights of the Souls; wandering through an exhibition of Marina Abramović’s seminal, often shocking works. You can easily day trip here by train or car along Strandvejen—the artery that hugs the eastern coastline from Copenhagen up to the town of Elsinore and Hamlet’s UNESCO-listed 17th century Renaissance castle Kronborg—but I’ll take any opportunity to spend the night.

My lodging of choice is Kurhotel Skodsborg, a striking white royal residence from 1852 until King Frederik VII’s death a decade later and repurposed as a sanitarium at the turn of the 20th century. The best way to start the day here is with a saunagus, an intense spa experience that alternates essential oil–rich steam in a 210-degree Fahrenheit heat with dips in extremely cold water.

The iconic Isbjerget housing
The iconic Isbjerget (Iceberg) housing project in Aarhus

“Mist master” Tina R. Andersen—who has tightly pulled-back blonde hair, a serene expression, and the glossy, rippling muscles of a gymnast—leads today’s session. As I settle onto the wooden slats, she whirls and whips a towel to intensify the heat, sending blasts of hot air into my face, which makes me gasp. Then she leads me barefoot across the road fronting the property to plunge into the ocean. Tina says an elite group of businesswomen come here for a saunagus early every Monday morning, to network and discuss the forthcoming week’s issues. I can barely move, think, or speak.

“People often don't realize how hard it can be. You might be sitting still, but your body is working really hard,” says Tina as she helps me crest the ladder and ties my robe around me.

Once recovered, I bike into the lushly forested 1,000-hectare Deer Park—King Frederik VII’s former royal hunting grounds. It’s anchored by a 1730s baroque hermitage hunting lodge, named for its dumb waiter–like elevator, which enabled the king and his entourage to feast and converse in privacy beyond the ears and eyes—but not ministrations—of his servants.

Nods to more recent history are nearby. You can see writer Karen Blixen’s family home and the desk where she wrote “Babette’s Feast” and the memoir Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen in the 1930s. Cars still refuel at Arne Jacobsen’s jet age–inspired white-tile gas station; and the former residence of architect Finn Juhl, credited for introducing America to modern design, is now a museum filled with his collection of arts and crafts.

On every trip to this country, I try to see or do something new, and Denmark always delivers.

Fyn—the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen—is a popular summer destination for families for its idyllic, bucolic vibe and moated castle Egeskov, and for providing easy access to another 96 tiny islands. While most are inhabited—Drejø, popular among artists; Skarøm, known for its fantastic ice cream—many are not, and there’s something incredibly relaxing about knowing that you’re separated from every other human in the world by a body of water.

Historic sites dot Bornholm, a 227-square-mile island between Sweden and Poland that is lauded by artists and poets for its scenic landscapes and pure light. At the Duodde bunker, I stroll among the remnants of a 56-foot-long gun the Germans installed during WWII. On a visit to the 13th century fortress ruins at Hammershus, I learn that the site is as famous for its centuries of scuffles with Swedish forces as for its clog-wearing troll Krøllebølle, who—everyone will tell you—lives in the caves nearby.

Another Danish destination worth checking out: Aarhus in Jutland, named European Capital of Culture 2017. [GZ1] My first stop here is contemporary art museum ARoS, which attracts a million visitors a year. Here, I look at the city through Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Your rainbow panorama, a 150-meter-long circular rooftop tunnel clad in transparent colored panels to create chromatic vistas.

Like Copenhagen, Jutland is a place where history and modernity are easy companions. At one end of the city, Gamle By (Old Town)—an open-air, village-sized museum comprised of buildings moved here from all over the country and painstakingly reconstructed—offers an immersive insight into Danish life through the centuries. I step into a house that takes me through a day in the life of a 16th century carpentry apprentice; at the other end of the complex, a docent in flares and a polyester-collared shirt pretends to try to sell me the latest turntable from Bang and Olufsen from a shop styled as it would have been in the 1970s.

To the east, the new Aarhus Ø development, distinguishable at a distance thanks to its already iconic multifaceted white Iceberg apartment complex, rises from the shoreline like, well, an iceberg. Encompassing a 50-meter-long swimming pool, circular diving pool, children’s pools, and two saunas—another Bjarke Ingels project—the Aarhus Ø area features a floating triangular harbor bath that was an immediate hit when it opened last June.

Now, in fall, a few diehard sunbathers have stripped down despite the chilly wind, and the handful of bars and cafés are doing good Saturday brunch business. I imagine that the planned theatre, hotel, dining, and retail developments will only bolster this district’s appeal. I’m already looking forward to returning to see how things progress.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS:

The Kingdom of Denmark is the southernmost Scandinavian nation. It consists of more than 440 islands and the Jutland peninsula on mainland Europe. Its neighbors include Norway to the north, Germany to the south, Sweden to the north and east, and the U.K. to the west. Copenhagen, the capital, is on the island of Sealand. Denmark ranks as the world’s least-corrupt country, according to a 2017 report by Transparency International, and has a high degree of socioeconomic equality and high standard of living. It’s also among the happiest countries in the world, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report.

CLIMATE:

Because water surrounds Denmark, its weather can be extremely changeable, but it is generally characterized by cool summers, with the warmest days reaching about 77 F; temperatures on the coldest winter days hover around freezing. It rains a lot, especially in fall—the annual average is 30 inches over 179 days—so it’s wise to pack an umbrella.

GETTING THERE:

Denmark is well served internationally by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), with airports offering commercial and executive services in most urban hubs. More than 50 airports serve private jet clients, including hubs for destinations covered in this story: Copenhagen Kastrup Airport, Billund Airport, Aarhus Airport, Bornholm Airport, and Odense Airport (for Fyn).

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

Denmark has its own currency, the krone, although many places take euros. Credit cards are widely accepted by retailers and at ATMs. Biking is not just popular in Denmark—it’s hardwired into the local psyche. More than half of Danish commuters travel by bicycle, and Copenhagen, which has 100 miles of bike lanes, was the first city to implement a bike-sharing initiative.

Traveler Report Card

CUISINE:

Copenhagen’s dining scene has gone from strength to strength since René Redzepi and Claus Meyer opened Noma (A+) in 2003, kick-starting the New Nordic movement and wide adoption of locavorism and turning a global culinary spotlight on Copenhagen…If you can’t score a table at Noma, consider two-Michelin-star Geranium (A+). Set rather incongruously within a sports-stadium complex, chef Rasmus Kofoed’s restaurant serves a tasting menu of dishes such as wild mushroom soup in silver-plated eggs and charred scallops with young Jerusalem artichoke…For an elevated take on the open-faced sandwich smørrebrød (“butter bread”)—Denmark’s national dish, featuring house-made toppings such as fried pickled herring and beef tartare with pickled beets—visit smørrebrød champion Adam Aamann’s new restaurant 1921 (A).

ACCOMMODATIONS:

Rooms at the new Hotel Sanders (A) draw on contemporary influences and Danish classicism...The Krane (A), a one-bedroom hotel designed for two guests, offers all-black accommodations atop a former coal crane…Following extensive renovations, 18th century Hotel D’Angleterre (A+) reopened in 2014 as one of the city’s most luxurious lodgings. (Book ahead for its legendary Sunday brunch and Krug Champagne afternoon tea.)…Moorish-inspired Nimb (A+) more than doubled its complement of 17 suites by adding 21 accommodations plus a rooftop pool this year, along with an excellent fitness center and spa. Rooms command views of the adjacent century-old Tivoli Gardens amusement park, where guests enjoy free rides…Kurhotel Skodsborg (A) debuted newly refreshed neutral-toned rooms and public spaces a few years ago; fronted by a private beach on the Øresund, it offers everything needed—good restaurants, an expansive spa, and fitness activities—for a relaxing, restorative stay.


Editor's Note: For this feature, the author stayed at Kurhotel Skodsborg courtesy of the tourism board Visit Denmark; was hosted by Nimb; and was flown to Aarhus courtesy of Visit Aarhus, which provided free access to public transportation and museums there.

THANK YOU TO OUR BJTONLINE SPONSORS