I knew I’d enjoy Copenhagen, but I didn’t expect it to feel as livable as it did. I had never been to a Nordic country before, and all I really knew about Denmark was its enviable healthcare and education systems, as well as the theory that Danes are the happiest people in the world. I wasn’t at all prepared to be completely smitten with the city.
Just like Milan and Tokyo, I knew I could live in Copenhagen as soon as we landed. If you’re into design, you’ll love Kastrup, the largest and busiest airport in Scandinavia. Even if you have no appreciation for modernist furniture and ribbon skylights that allow ample natural light into the airy terminals, you’ll appreciate the cheerful customs agents. (Yes, you read that correctly. The customs agents in Denmark are cheerful.) Our customs agent joked around with us, warned us about the crazy weather in Iceland, and seemed genuinely excited for our travels. Who knew they’d be more welcoming here than in embarrassingly polite Japan and the faux-friendly United States?
After customs, we met our friends Mariah and Thomas at baggage claim, and then proceeded to buy our train tickets. While in line to buy our tickets, an airport worker handed out a complimentary chocolate to each of us. Free chocolate upon arrival?! This is definitely my kind of city.
Our hotel, Axel Guldsmeden, was just a 13-minute train ride and 5-minute walk from Central Station. Axel Guldsmeden is part of a small Danish chain that focuses on sustainability, which I thought was quite fitting for Denmark. The entire place exuded hygge (the Danish concept of coziness that is finally becoming a thing in the U.S.). The lobby had dozens of fur throws and warm lights, and our bathroom had heated floors.
On our first full day, Anthony led us through the rain on a self-guided walking tour using our Rick Steves guide book. We roamed around quaint neighborhoods strewn with unlocked bikes, grand government buildings, and iconic waterfronts. Since it was Christmas Day, almost everything was closed and the streets were relatively empty.
That night, we had our first dinner with Dine with the Danes, a cultural exchange program in which a Danish family hosts you for dinner. I learned about this program through our guide book and organized two dinners during our trip. For our first dinner, we took a commuter train just half an hour outside Copenhagen. Our host, an adorable blond woman named Lotte, met us at the train station and led us to her home, where her husband Peter was cooking for us. This was probably our favorite experience of the entire trip! We felt so welcomed, as if we were long-lost friends, and for almost six hours, we discussed everything, from Christmas decorations to the effects of catcalling on female self-esteem to Icelandic soccer games. Our hosts fed us a traditional Christmas meal, which included succulent roast pork with crispy skin (just like Filipino lechon!), boiled and mashed potatoes, pickled red cabbage, and lots of Christmas beer. For dessert, we had ris à l’amande, a cold rice pudding with almonds and a hot cherry sauce. During dessert, Lotte and Peter taught us a Danish game: whoever finds the single whole almond hidden in their dessert bowl wins a prize. Thus, the four of us took painstaking precautions to avoid accidentally biting into that whole almond. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten porridge that cautiously before. Finally, Anthony found the almond in his bowl and won a bag of julebolcher (colorful hard candies). Our next dessert (because apparently you’re allowed to have multiple desserts in Denmark; no wonder the Danes are so happy!) was a plate of klejner (pieces of crispy, fried dough twisted into small knots). These were delicious!
The next day, we explored Tivoli, the famous amusement park near our hotel. Opening in 1843, Tivoli is the oldest operating amusement park in the world. While I’m not a huge fan of rides, Tivoli is absolutely magical during the Christmas season. Unlike at American amusement parks, Tivoli actually has respectable restaurants, as well as a handful of open coal fire pits around which you can warm yourself. These open fire pits would never exist in lawsuit-obsessed America! Perhaps what most impressed me was the jolliness of the ticket booth and guest services workers. When we had trouble buying our tickets for one of the roller coasters, someone who looked (and acted) like Santa Claus chuckled as he helped us with the machine and cheerfully told us not to stop worrying. I think stressed-out Americans could learn a thing or two from the Danes.
Our next dinner was another Dine with the Danes meal, this time with a cosmopolitan couple (which included another woman named Lotte!) and their two daughters. This dinner lasted even longer than six hours! I think I especially enjoyed this dinner because it reminded me so much of dinners with my own family, filled with elaborately-cooked meals made from scratch and intellectual discussions that could go on forever.
We started off with another game which involved rolling dice and stealing presents from the table. It was a great way to make us Americans feel anxious about choosing the best presents and rolling the dice as quickly as possible. Our first course consisted of what Danes traditionally eat for Christmas lunch: pickled herring on rye and smoked salmon on white bread. The main course included more of that deliciously crispy roast pork and pickled vegetables, as well as bacon, mushrooms, liver, and cured meats. Dessert was a dream come true. Lotte and Henrik brought over more and more dishes of homemade cookies, klejner, marshmallows, and licorice. And again, we talked about everything, from Denmark’s education system to songs about Massachusetts. It’s always humbling to see how closely non-Americans follow our politics, and reassuring to realize that the rest of the world was as devastated as us when our country elected the most embarrassing man to become our next president.
On our last full day in Copenhagen, the city finally opened up completely after three days of Christmas festivities. At last, I was able to see what I’d really come to Copenhagen for: chic Danes! There they were, with their perfectly tousled straight hair; artistically bundled up in thick scarves; wearing only dark, neutral colors and sleek wool coats; and naturally lanky from all the biking they do. I would be constantly happy, too, if I looked half as chic as these Danes.
The next day, as we left our hotel and dragged our luggage to the train station, I thought about why Danes are so obviously happy. Their high taxes mean they have free healthcare, free education, and 52 weeks of parental leave. They eat lots of pastries. They don’t lock up their bikes because they actually trust each other, and 50% of Copenhagen residents commute by bike. Unlike Americans, who brag about how hard they work or how late they stay at the office, Danes actually seem to enjoy their jobs because they don’t define themselves by them, and their work culture entails an ideal work-life balance.
I could probably go on and on about why Danes do life better, but it was time for us to head over to Iceland. Halló, Ísland!
Tips for future travelers:
- Participate in Dine with the Danes. Not only are you going to eat amazing food, you’ll learn way more from these meals than from any guide book. At such a turbulent time for U.S. politics, meeting new people in another country and spending time with them is an easy way to act as a sort of ambassador of sane Americans. To participate, message them on their facebook page, and you’ll be given some questions to fill out about yourself, such as your location and interests. After you pay about $75, Dine with the Danes will match you up with a host family, and you’ll get clear instructions on how to get to their home.
- Avoid visiting Denmark between December 24 to 26 because the city completely shuts down.
- We didn’t get to try as many restaurants as I would have liked to, but I recommend Restaurant Ravelinen for traditional Danish food and Sankt Peders Bageri for pastries from the oldest bakery in Copenhagen.