How To Design a Happy City: Copenhagen Might Have the Answer

Outdoors and in—uncovering the secret to good living in the Danish capital.  
Copenhagen Denmark
Strøget, one of the world’s longest pedestrian shopping streets, thrums with the music of buskers at the iconic Stork Fountain. Photo: Telia/Shutterstock

A late August sun shines like a giant disco ball over Copenhagen harbour. Happy picnickers beam as they dig into beers and hampers on canal steps and aboard yachts. The brightly coloured waterfront buildings of Nyhavn are lined up like an open box of crayons.

Music pours out from boats and buskers in a city that is clearly enjoying being alive. Who would believe it is late afternoon on a weekday? Unlike my compatriots, Danes work a 37-hour week, and staying in the office later than 4.30 p.m. is frowned upon. Copenhagen is ranked one of the world’s most liveable cities, and the country has been ranked three times by the UN as the world’s happiest nation.

In this capital city that seems so much at ease with itself, catching sunsets is just one way in which life is geared to keep residents happy, stable, and healthy. This is a city that embraces green living. Copenhagen’s waterfront is so clean its residents swim in its harbour. I’m headed to the first and best-known harbour bath at Islands Brygge. I watch kids somersault off springboards to join adults bobbing in the rippling blue river. Our party of seven—five journalists and two hosts—pile into a GoBoat, a solar-powered picnic boat made partly of recycled plastic bottles. We nervously jet our way through the canals, past waterbuses, kayakers, and revellers on home-made wooden boats. People wave as we pass them. The clear, brittle Nordic light fills the harbour, whose skyline is unobstructed by skyscrapers that are banned in the city centre. The burning sunset is spellbinding. New structures blend seamlessly with the historic. The glittering granite facade of the Black Diamond—the modern extension to the Royal Library, the largest in the Nordic world—rises alongside the iconic dragon-tailed spire of the Old Stock Exchange. On the riverbank opposite stands the striking red Cirkelbroen, one of the city’s new car-free bridges, built exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians.

Family Copenhagen

Danes greet the summer by sunning themselves in parks, and diving into cool harbour baths—the most popular is at Islands Brygge, pictured here. Photo courtesy: Christian Alsing, Københavns Kommune/Copenhagenmediacenter.com

We pass a floating café and funky houseboats that double up as Airbnbs or studios with tiny artworks in the windows. Fancy yachts are moored beside simple vessels; people converse on decks over beer and pop music.

As luck would have it, on our return, we pass GoBoat’s fortnightly summer music concert under a canal bridge. As our boats gently bob in front of a floating platform in the fading light, huddled like moths around cellists sending quivering notes over the water, I wonder if this would count as a taste of the core Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”): a sense of relaxation, intimacy, and warmth.

Everywhere I look, there’s a sense of consideration in the city planning; Scandinavians seem to enjoy designing to the last detail, I think.

I notice that the chairs at establishments are elegant and comfortable, the lighting is cheery and inviting, that big windows harness the scarce sunshine. Typically, the cosiness of candlelight invokes hygge, but, as I find through conversations with the locals I meet, the concept has as many interpretations as there are Danes. One young man defined “watching TV or playing backgammon after work with my girlfriend” as hyggeligt or “full of hygge;” another as “taking out old family crockery for a cookout with friends.”

Canoe Copenhagen

Danes have a strong appreciation for effortless, intimate, quality time, whether it’s spent jamming with the gang or sharing a quietly romantic moment on a canal. Photo courtesy: Nicolai Perjesi, Københavns Kommune/Copenhagenmediacenter.com

As I tour the city, I note that in Copenhagen, open spaces are beloved. Adults picnic while kids spin cartwheels in Denmark’s oldest royal garden at Rosenborg Castle. Everywhere, people lie back on the grass—even in the serene gardens of the Assistens Cemetery. My favourite stop however, is Superkilen, a funky urban park in Nørrebro, an ethnically and socially mixed neighbourhood. It’s fascinating to learn that the sprawling park was designed as part of the city’s response to riots and conflict in the area. Its playground has elements from 60 countries, from Jamaican jukeboxes, to a Moroccan fountain, Palestinian soil, neon signs from Qatar and Russia, and a Thai boxing ring. Superkilen has happy memories for our guide Sine, who often plays here with her kids.

Playful urban design is also palpable at Papirøen, or Paper Island, a part of the city I visit later the same evening. Once a paper warehouse, the industrial area is tagged for redevelopment. Despite the fact that it’s got a year to go before the redevelopment starts, I don’t see anything in shambles or looking depressed. In fact there is vibrancy here as Papirøen has turned into a lively, pop-up creative hub with food trucks, galleries and museums. Grabbing plates of the iconic smørrebrød—open-faced sandwiches traditionally made with pickled herring—I take in the waterfront view. On the riverbank opposite gleams the Royal Danish Playhouse, to the right the Royal Opera House, and to the left, the latest car-free bridge, Inderhavnsbroen—new cultural landmarks of a city undergoing urban revival for the last 30 years. A feeling of excitement and spontaneity is tangible everywhere.

It’s in the laid-back, cosy interiors of Manfreds restaurant that I find another Danish path to happiness—through the stomach. Here I get a taste of the New Nordic cuisine that has turned Copenhagen into such a lure for foodies. This culinary movement has turned the focus on Danish cuisine and using local, seasonal produce. The food movement was spearheaded over a decade ago by the founders of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, but its manifesto has trickled down even to the trendy farmers market at Torvehallerne, with its artisanal cheeses and brews. Manfreds’ co-owner Chef Christian Puglisi stops at our table to chat; he left Noma and its focus on foraging ingredients to start a restaurant (the more formal Relæ, opposite the street) with certified organic, seasonal produce grown on local farms. I scrape the last morsel of the exquisite beef tartare complemented by the satisfying crunch of watercress and rye-bread croutons. It is happy-making, and the most memorable meal of my trip. Manfreds shares its street with other divine establishments—one serves ice cream made with nitrogen, another is a bakery by Noma’s Claus Meyer, one even does variations on porridge. Noma unfortunately is completely booked up, but what I find interesting is that for all its fame, it is still reinventing itself. At the end of the year, the restaurant, voted three times as the world’s best, will close and reopen as an urban farm.

One evening, my Danish friend Astrid picks me up for a night walk through the city. Like most Danes, she arrives by bicycle, which she pulls alongside us on the pavement. Vesterbro was once famous for its sex shops—Denmark was the first country to legalise porn in 1967—and it is intriguing to pass from the gentrified area with its pumping clubs, to a dimmer stretch with neon-lit stores displaying erotica. A sticker on one wall catches my eye: A happy hooker only exists in your imagination. It strikes me that this sticker represents a dialogue the city is having with itself as it keeps changing. We walk back to Skt. Annæ (St. Anne) hotel in gentrified Nyhavn. This boutique property was once a pleasure house frequented by sailors. Nearby Strøget, once known for its traffic snarls, is today one of Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping streets. I love that the street hosts not just the swish shops that make it a design lover’s mecca, but also the flagship Lego store.

Just back from visiting her home on the Danish island of Bornholm, Astrid is excited about joining medical school in a few days. College is paid for by the Danish welfare state, which in return for high taxes, also covers childcare, unemployment, pensions, healthcare, and early retirement. Happiness in Denmark seems to stem from a sense of stability and contentment with one’s lot. As I listen to her easy-going, wry conversation, I think about how it all starts in infancy. I’ve noticed in amazement that in Copenhagen, well-swaddled babies are left sleeping in prams outside establishments, while parents shop or eat inside without a worry. It’s a Scandinavian tradition that springs from the belief that fresh air, even sub-zero temperature air, encourages hearty naps and healthy constitutions. Watching these babies alone in their strollers was, to me, the surest sign of a community that feels happy and secure.

Copenhagen mural

Graffiti in Copenhagen ranges from political comment to whimsical visions, but the writing on the wall is at its most vivid in the utopian commune of Christiania. Photo: Robert Harding/Indiapicture

For me, part of the Danish secret to happiness is their emphasis on community, and the commitment to finding well-designed solutions to any situation. My favourite glimpse of their creative thinking is at Christiania, a neighbourhood and alternative living social experiment. The semi-autonomous community was formed in 1971, when squatters and artists took over abandoned military barracks and created a bohemian commune. For decades, the community struggled against the government until a resolution was reached in 2013. Christiania now has 84 acres of green spaces, a lush lake, eco-friendly buildings, and creative businesses. The “free town” has an easy vibe that draws both locals and travellers. I spot an Alice in Wonderland theme in the gorgeous, vivid graffiti murals that lead into the commune and enliven almost every wall. A stocky man walking by in a brown T-shirt and pink tutu adds to the surreal atmosphere. Like every other Dane I’ve met, our guide Morten glows with pride for the community in which he’s lived since the 1970s. Property is collectively owned here, he tells us, and decisions are taken by consensus—the most recent being to close down the long controversial hash-dealing street. The sweet, pot-scented breeze reminds me that Christiania is the only place where Denmark’s marijuana ban is relaxed. Still, this is not its most famous liberal stand; Denmark was the first to recognise same-sex unions in 1989, so I can understand how it ranks high on personal freedom on the world happiness index.

Today, Christiania employs eco-friendly technologies like solar energy and rainwater harvesting, and recycles what it cannot reuse. It has funky performance venues and restaurants, and artsy shops. I loved the jewellery at Kvindesmedien, an ironworks store run by three women blacksmiths. The commune’s most famous product is the sturdy Christiania cargo bike, which I spot all over the city. While its urban solutions may differ from the rest of the city, Christiania provides a welcoming, hyggeligt space for Copenhageners to kick back and relax.

A few hours before our flight back home, my companions and I stride through Copenhagen in the wee hours of the morning, reluctant to call it a night while the bars are still kicking. The joy is infectious; I smile when I see people dancing in the street to music pumping from a 7-Eleven store. A silver-haired woman spots us from opposite the road and raises her hands in the air. “Have a great time in Denmark!” she hollers. If only it wasn’t the end.


 

The Guide

 

Orientation

Man Copenhagen

The candy-coloured waterfront of Nyhavn is a cheery place to grab lunch at a quayside restaurant, or drink beer and watch the yachts bob by. Photo: Tuala Hjarnø, Københavns Kommune/Copenhagenmediacenter.com

Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and the country’s largest city—although it’s compact enough for half its citizens to commute everywhere by bicycle. This historic city lies on the east coast of Zealand island and is known for its chic design, cutting-edge restaurants, and green initiatives.

Getting There

Flights from India to Copenhagen require a short layover in a European city such as Munich, or a Middle Eastern hub like Dubai.

Visa

Indian travellers to Denmark require a Schengen visa. A 90-day, multiple-entry visa costs €60/₹4,600 plus a service charge of ₹1,537. Applicants must have a return ticket, a confirmed itinerary, and travel medical insurance with a minimum coverage of €30,000/₹22 lakh valid for the duration of the visit across EU states. For application forms and documentation details, visit dk.vfsglobal.co.in. It is best to apply for a visa at least 15 days before departure.

What to Read

How to be Danish by Patrick Kingsley is a short primer on contemporary Danish culture that is both insightful and fun to read.

Tips

·The Copenhagen Card offers free entry to a number of top attractions such as Designmuseum Danmark, canal tours, entry to the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, and Den Blå Planet aquarium, as well as attractions in Greater Copenhagen such as Kronborg Castle in Helsingør and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk. The card gives free access to public transport via bus, harbour bus, train, and metro within the Copenhagen region, which includes the airport. Discounts on food and shopping are included. Cards are available for durations from 24 hours (DKK379/₹3,715) to 120 hours (DKK839/₹8,222), from the time of activation. The card is particularly useful for families, as two kids under the age of ten can be added for free to the card of a paying adult. To ensure the card is useful, check that the attractions you’re interested in are open on the day you plan to visit. See www.copenhagencard.com/.

·While many hotels offer bike rentals, a convenient way to pick up and drop off bikes at stations across the city is via the city bike, Bycyklen. Create a user profile on the website bycyklen.dk; the username and password can be used to unlock a bike. Alternatively create a profile on the touchscreen tablet attached to a city bike parked at a station; the tablet is also used for payment and navigation via GPS.

Ice Cream Copenhagen

Gammeldags isvaffel is ice cream served the old-fashioned way: in a waffle cone, accompanied by whipped cream, jam, and chocolate-coated marshmallow. Photo: Kim Petersen/Alamy/Indiapicture

·Take a guide wherever possible. Our tour guide Sine Louise Schmidt is the founder of Cph:cool (www.cphcool.dk; from DKK1,650/₹16,010 for 1-6 people). The Christiania Tour Guides Group has neighbourhood walks run by locals like our guide Morten Nielsen (www.rundvisergruppen.dk/indexENG.htm; from DKK50/₹485 for groups of 6 and above). Some guides even come in costume, such as Richard Karpen who took us on a Copenhagen walk dressed as the 19th century fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Our guide William Jansen at Kronborg Castle, said to be the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, narrated the action while walking us through the castle dressed as the courtier Horatio (“In Hamlet’s Footsteps” runs Nov-Mar; see kongeligeslotte.dk/en; adults DKK140/₹1,360, children 4-17 DKK95/₹920). Their depth of understanding of the local culture is invaluable, and will make you feel more a part of the fabric of the city.

·While English is commonly spoken, conversation is smoothened with a few words of Danish such as “tak” for thank you and “skål!” (“skol”) for cheers.

·Copenhagen has several vantage points for an outstanding view of the city. Climb the 400 steps to the top of The Church of Our Saviour. In Tivoli Gardens, take the Star Flyer, a carousel ride that spins people as it ascends and descends, for a whirling view of the city’s majestic sprawl. Kayak beyond the city harbour to watch the sun rise over the windmills.

·The summer months between June to August bring Copenhagen’s most pleasant weather, lighting up the faces of the locals too. Go now for festivals like the party-centric Distortion, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, the Copenhagen Cooking and Food Festival, and the cultural Roskilde Festival, plus Red Bull’s sporting contests and free Sunday concerts at Christiania’s Café Nemoland. Carry along a swimsuit to jump in the clean harbour waters.

Appeared in the December 2016 issue as “How Danes Spell Happiness”.

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    Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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