Fall Travel: Europe's Happy Place is Copenhagen

9.16.2013

By Bryan van Gorder

Is Copenhagen heaven? With it's cozy streets, endless restaurants, and seriously happy people, it just might be.

Luggage in hand, I stepped up to street level at the Kongens Nytorv metro station and a flurry of activity greeted me. Apparently, I had arrived in Copenhagen the same day as a spate of unseasonably warm weather, and city denizens had come out enthusiastically to welcome it. Squadrons of cyclists whizzed past in every direction, and as I headed down the cobblestone streets of the Nyhavn — a 17th-century canal lined with colorful old houses — I found myself parting a sea of people. Here, thirsty sun worshippers packed cafés, street musicians entertained, and small groups of friends gathered along the waterfront to converse and drink beer. Yes, a palpable excitement filled the air and I wanted in. Copenhagen was enchanting.

Of course, one of Copenhagen’s most famous former residents, Hans Christian Andersen, practically invented “enchanting,” having penned fairy tales like Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, and The Little Mermaid. A statue of the latter, Den Lille Havfrue, perches delicately on a rock near Langelinie Pier and is one of the city’s star attractions, as evidenced by the crowd clambering over the water to pose with her. (Stroll the surrounding area too: Amalienborg Palace sits mere blocks away and nearby monuments like the Gefion Fountain are also worth a look.)

For a full-on fairytale experience, however, visit Tivoli Gardens (Tivoli.dk), the world’s second oldest amusement park, located in the heart of the city center. Twenty acres of beautifully staged themed areas showcase thousands of flowers, twinkling lights, restaurants, and theaters. There are thrill rides too, many visible in the skyline from around the city and each seemingly designed to propel, jettison, or hurl its riders in a unique, physics-defying way.

My “happily ever after” came at mealtime. In 2010, chef René Redzepi’s Noma was named the best restaurant in the world, causing an explosion in the Copenhagen food scene, and the city has since become a constellation of Michelin stars. Gastronomic hot spots have popped up in every neighborhood celebrating the new Nordic cuisine or the use of modern techniques on local, seasonal Scandinavian ingredients. Fish figures prominently, as do fennel, beets, dill, rye crumbles, and tarragon; but unexpected ingredients like nasturtium buds, pigs’ ears, and pine appear as well.

The finale of the Eurovision Song Contest was in swing, and Denmark’s competitor, Emmelie de Forest, was heading into the weekend favored to win. Although nearby Malmö in Sweden officially had hosting duty, Copenhagen seemed to attract its share of international tourists, especially among the competition’s huge gay fan base.

This shouldn’t surprise, considering Copenhagen’s long history as an open, inclusive city. An early adopter of LGBT acceptance, the Danish capital was the site of the world’s first legally recognized registered same-sex partnership and has the world’s oldest national LGBT association, founded in 1948. Copenhagen is both cosmopolitan and charming, possessing all of the trappings of a big city in an easily manageable package. Perhaps it is this relaxed, open attitude that explains why Danes routinely top the list of the world’s happiest people.

At nightfall, Copenhagen’s streets continued to teem with life, especially near City Hall Square where many of the LGBT-frequented bars and clubs can be found. In fact, a venue change requires no more than a few blocks’ walk from Centralhjørnet (Denmark’s oldest gay bar) to Men’s Bar (only men allowed), Jailhouse CPH (bartenders in cop uniforms), Heaven (weekend disco), or Oscar Bar Café (trendy with ample outdoor seating). As I arrived at the latter, I headed to the bar for a beer as a pair next to me passionately debated the comparative talents of each Eurovision finalist.

Twenty-four hours later I found myself in City Hall Square again, on my way to grab a beer at Oscar. Now, however, a large screen had been set up to broadcast the Eurovision finals with thousands of onlookers waving flags and singing along. In the end, Emmelie de Forest won, proving fairy tales do exist.

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