Originally published May 4, 2016
Anti-establishment socialists or venture capitalists? Historic beauty or modern sensibility? In Copenhagen, you get it all, with two-for-the-price-of-one bargains such as:
- Multi-national corporations living in harmony near a hippie commune
- Suburban-style shops equally at home alongside independents
- Pretty, historic districts blending seamlessly with industrial complexes
Despite these differences, they all agree on one thing: environmentally clean healthy living. The bike lanes are full and it's tough to find anything BUT organic food in the shops. Well, maybe not the Shawarma vendor.
Change and diversity have always been in Copenhagen's DNA. Originally, a sleepy fishing village, it became a haven for merchants (Copenhagen = Merchants Harbor) but eventually became the ruling center as the capital of Denmark-Norway and driving force behind the Kalmar Union (between 1397 and 1523, the Kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway formed a state to block the expansion of Germany and the Hanseatic League). It further evolved into cultural powerhouse during the Danish Golden Age of the 19th century, where painting, sculpture, literature and philosophy thrived with key contributors such as Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen.
Today, it is a bustling haven of capitalism, set apart by a vibe that strongly identifies as Nordic. Yet despite this northern stoicism, Danish culture also has a unique edge that feels even more liberal and progressive than neighboring Norway and Sweden. These deep rooted values are felt throughout the city, but particularly at the hippie commune Christiania, founded in 1971 in the harbor borough of Christianshavn. After intermittent struggles with the city officials (mainly over open cannabis) who sought to close it, the site is now one of the top tourist attractions in Copenhagen. Consistent with the paradox that is Copenhagen, Christiania is self-governed, yet pay taxes.
We started our touring in Christiania and after a stroll through infamous Pusher Street, an open cannabis zone with a surprising amusement park-like atmosphere, we stopped for a fabulous vegetarian lunch at Morgenstedet. Photos are forbidden in the 'green light district' as Pusher Street is also known.
We stayed in the borough of Norrebro and did a fair bit of exploring there as well. On the progressive scale, it's a bit more gentrified than Christiania, but with a gritty edge. Labelled as 'up and coming', Norrebro is a creative center for artists and its (relatively) low rents have attracted migrants and young families. There we all were: babies in strollers, bearded hipsters, Pakistani Muslims and us.
Copenhagen is compact and easily explored on foot, so we walked everywhere. There are plenty of places to rent a cycle, but the crowded lanes didn't feel very leisurely, so we voted against it.
While Norrebro has the rough edges, most of the city center and historic landmarks are well manicured and make for pleasant walking. Besides the city center, Vesterbro is also great for strolling, with plenty of galleries, coffee shops and wine bars to tempt you.
While I photographed the obligatory historic sites such as Tivoli, Nyhavn, Rosenborg Castle and The Little Mermaid, I'm apparently fascinated by doors on buildings, as evidenced by the number of them I had on my phone.
But it was from the top of Our Savior's Church that all the contradictions faded away. I wanted to spend more time contemplating Copenhagen so I could leave you with something philosophical about the fusing of ugly and beauty into something real and appealing, but I had an attack of acrophobia (you climb the stairs on the outside of the building for Pete's sake!), so I'll just leave you with these shots.
Copenhagen, I get your split personality and I like where it's going. Tak!