Denmark has once again been voted the happiest country in the world. Does this make its capital, Copenhagen, the cheeriest city on earth? Perhaps. This is a reputation that makes locals proud and when strolling around Copenhagen’s streets, it’s easy to see that the Danes may just have mastered the secret recipe to happiness. Nestled on the eastern coast near Sweden, Copenhagen would seem an unlikely playground of cultural innovation yet this city is always on the cutting edge of new ideas. Here are five ways to delve deeper into Copenhagen.
1) Harbour Nation
Danish history is rich with Norse gods, Vikings and navigating the open seas. Although unconfirmed, historians believe that Copenhagen has existed since the late Viking period. The early Danes were some of the first explorers: they made it all the way from Denmark to Greenland (still part of the Danish kingdom) and on to L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, believed to be the first European settlement in the Americas.
With such a seafaring legacy, its not surprising that modern Copenhagen’s harbour is a major tourist attraction and arguably, its most famous postcard snapshot. Narrow colourful buildings in bright yellows and blues line the walkways while small boats float lightly in the canal. Visitors cram together to take a picture with the large Danish flag, the must-have shot from the trip.
2) Land of Fairytales
Denmark and Copenhagen served as the backdrop for some of the most beloved fairytales in European literature. Hans Christian Andersen paid homage to his native land in his writings, which have been translated into 125 languages and inspired films, plays, and dance performances, immortalizing Copenhagen into the imagination of generations of children and adults.
One of his most famous works, Den lille havfrue (The Little Mermaid), is another one of Copenhagen’s star attractions. Tourists from around the world flock to Langelinie promenade to catch a glimpse of this small statue. The sculpture is an important icon of Denmark and as such, it has been the target of political activists since the 1960s. It has been painted, twice decapitated and even launched off its rock by explosives.
3) Independent Notions
“You are now entering the European Union.” This sign welcomes visitors to the Freetown of Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous section in Copenhagen. Originally established in 1971 as a squatter camp, it has become an important centre for the anarchist movement and freethinkers around the world. Christiania is not only known as a forward thinking commune. Its main street is home to a well-known open cannabis trade and is also known as Pusher Street.
Unfortunately, it has also become somewhat of a haven for harder drugs, which despite community efforts, are hard to eliminate from the market. Despite its rough reputation, Christiania is really worth the visit. It is like entering a bubble of idealism that’s hard to compare to any other place in the world. Photography isn’t allowed, especially on Pusher Street, so be careful where you aim your camera.
4) Visualizing Danish Mentality
If you lose your way in Copenhagen, you may find yourself in the midst of entire city blocks of identical yellow buildings, each one indistinguishable from the next. While seemingly reminiscent of a North Vancouver gated community, Copenhagen’s architecture is actually meant to embody the cultural significance of conformity and collectivity — quite the opposite of North American individualism.
Accidentally stumbling into Krokidile Gade is a voyage into the inner workings of the Danish psyche. There are ten unwritten rules in Danish and Scandinavian society that dictate acceptable group social behaviour: Law of Jante. In a nutshell, you are not to think that you’re anyone special or that you are better than everyone else. Scandinavians, Danes included, have these laws deeply ingrained in their mentality and it influences many of their behaviours. Perhaps this emphasis on the group over self is one of the secrets for Denmark’s happiness?
5) National Treasure
While Copenhagen may be the capital of fairytales, its true treasure is its citizens. Dressed in head-to-toe black pedaling chic bikes while trying to fight off the winter blues, most don’t make eye contact or smile at strangers. Foreigners shouldn’t be thrown off by chilly expressions-on the contrary; it is a sign of being polite.
While Danes may have a cold exterior, they are truly warm-hearted and generous people. They even invented the concept of ‘hygge’, most closely translated to coziness, which includes lots of burning candles and inviting friends over in the afternoon for coffee and cake to avoid the harsh winter. It may take some time to befriend a Dane, but once it happens, consider them to be lifelong, loyal friends.
Although far from most typical European backpacking agendas, Copenhagen is worth the trek northwards. Whether you’re curious about Danish culture, people or history, there will be something to discover in this quaint little capital.