I have a theory. In every city, there are four overarching categories of tourist sites (although obviously there will always be some crossover), and for a successful city break, you need to visit at least one of each. I put this theory to the test when I visited Copenhagen recently, and had less than five hours to see all of it. So here it is; the single most whittled-down, focused tour of a city imaginable, based on the four types of places you need to see (plus one extra, which will become apparent later on).
THE VIEW FROM ABOVE
Christiansborg Palace Tower
You have to start broad and work your way down to the specifics. Every major city has at least one commanding viewpoint, and often those are heavily monetised. In a sign of how Danes do things differently, the recently-renovated tower at the top of Denmark’s Parliament building, right in the centre of Copenhagen, was opened free-of-charge for the public’s enjoyment at the end of the renovation work. Copenhagen is mercifully bereft of ostentatious skyscrapers, which means that the 106m tower is the highest vantage point in the city. From its central location and with the aid of the panoramic maps provided, you can get a good feel for the city from up here.
Did you know? The Christiansborg Palace is the only building in the world to host all three national branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial).
THE STORYTELLING BUILDING
Copenhagen City Hall
There’s always that one building that tells you the history of a city. Often there’s more than one (in Copenhagen’s case, Christiansborg Palace is another good example), but we’re being focused, remember? Above the main entrance to Copenhagen City Hall is a gilded statue of Archbishop Absalon, founder of the city. You can wander straight in off the street and into the spacious and imposing main atrium, which is suitably decked out with Danish flags. Make sure to visit Jensen Olsen’s “Astronomical Clock”, considered a remarkable work of its time (pun intended).
Did you know? The design for Copenhagen’s city hall, completed in 1905, was inspired by the Palazzo Pubblico of my beloved Siena. No wonder I liked it so much!
THE SITE YOU WON’T SEE ANYWHERE ELSE
This hippy commune on the east end of town won’t be to everyone’s taste. Certainly the ski-masked drug pushers openly selling cannabis on the main street (even known as “Pusher Street”) was an eye-opening experience for this Wandering Jew, but it’s a fascinating experience, and one I’d rather have here than in the murky backstreets of a more dangerous city. Intricate graffiti, buildings constructed by hand and a fascinating back-story (the area started out life as a military base) combine to make this one of the places to see in Copenhagen. The dissonance of the haphazard chaos in the otherwise spotless environment of Copenhagen only adds to the experience.
UPDATE: Literally a couple of days after this post went up, this happened. In the aftermath, residents of Christiania took a decision to dismantle “Pusher Street”. There have been similar attempts to curtail the drugs trade in the commune in the past, and while only time will tell if it succeeds, it’s definitely no bad thing that they’re trying.
Did you know? The lead singer of the band Lukas Graham, who were nominated for “Best New Band” at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, grew up here in Christiania.
THE JEWISH CONNECTION
Danish Jewish Museum & Synagogue
This is a bonus category for those interested in Jewish culture and history. The Jewish history of Denmark will be expanded into a longer blog post coming soon. The museum though is just over a decade old, with an interior makeover by renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, who was also responsible for the new One World Trade Center in New York and the Jewish Museum of Berlin among many other high-profile projects. The temporary exhibit, “Home”, is heart-wrenching, but does a good job of casting a critical eye over Denmark’s conduct vis-à-vis the Jewish community from 1943-1946; admirable and compassionate in so many ways, but not without its difficulties and mistakes made along the way.
Did you know? During World War II, centres of Jewish cultural life such as synagogues and Jewish schools were destroyed across Europe. In Denmark, only the synagogue of Aalborg suffered this fate, which meant that once the war was over, the returning Jewish community had foundations from which to rebuild.
THE LOCAL CUISINE
Copenhagen Street Food
To get a sense of any city, you need to eat with the locals. From the little I saw, I felt like Copenhagen Street Food really summed up the city. It’s edgy and hipster, relaxed but clean and socially conscious. The walk there is a joy in itself, taking you past wide, canal-side roads lined with brightly-coloured houses and over sweeping, modern cyclist/pedestrian bridges. Then, just before you reach “Paper Island” which houses the market, you’ll find yourself outside one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma. Don’t linger in hope though, reservations need to be made months in advance, and you’d need to sell off a few vital organs before you could pay the bill. Push past it, on the next island you’ll reach the converted warehouse which today hosts the stalls, vans and shipping containers which make up the street food market. 10-15 euros buys you a good meal from any of the myriad of different cuisines available, many of which also offer tastings (it was the tasting which swung me towards the pulled duck burger), and when you’re done, the cheesecake stall is highly recommended for dessert. Obviously I only had time for one meal there, but if you need other recommendations, check out this blog post on Copenhagen Tales. On a sunny day, you can (and should) take your food to the long tables outside by the harbor, and marvel at just how good life here can be.
Liked this post? Tell your friends. Didn’t like it? Tell them anyway. There’s no such thing as bad publicity.
-The Wandering Jew-