Don’t be deceived by those dark Nordic detective stories and glum philosophers. It seems there’s plenty to smile about in the Danish capital. Over the years, all manner of surveys on wellbeing and life satisfaction have placed the Danes – and, more particularly, residents of Copenhagen – near the top of happiness lists.

Words Brian Johnston

This is often explained by their personal freedoms, top-notch education system, good social services and security. And Danes have a rather pleasant life, pedalling about on bicycles, playing with LEGO and listening to their nifty Bang & Olufsen stereos. But will any of this happiness rub off on mere visitors to this cheerful and chirpy city?


Surely yes, because Copenhagen’s relaxed lifestyle and considerable chic and urban assets are available to anyone. You can get on a bike yourself, wander safely about after dark, and enjoy the best of Danish design in both fashion and food, because Copenhagen’s style and experimental flair is seen in restaurants and boutiques alike. Something else to make you happy: Copenhagen blends lovely old things (castles, cathedrals, cobblestones) with just as lovely new things (designer furniture, avant-garde architecture, music festivals). The city is unexpectedly contemporary and cutting-edge, yet also fulfils the stereotypes you expect of Scandinavia: chic bars, minimalist chairs, houses that look as if they’re made from gingerbread, long summer nights. But, even in the chill darkness of Copenhagen’s winter, there are things to make you smile. What the Danes call hygge (cosiness) is everywhere. Candles flicker on windowsills, lights sparkle, snow falls. You can ice skate in an old town square and feel as if you’re in a fairy tale.


Maybe Danes are happy because they know that fairy tales really do come true. After all, they aren’t just brought up on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, but are familiar with the tale of Australian girl Mary Donaldson, who met ‘Fred’ in a Sydney pub and is now the crown princess and future queen of Denmark. Stroll down to Amalienborg for a glimpse of royal life: Crown Prince Frederick and his wife live in one dainty palace, Queen Margrethe II in another. At noon, soldiers in blue jackets and bearskin helmets perform a Changing of the Guards ceremony that could be straight out of a children’s fantasy.

Queen Margrethe has often been spotted pedalling around the city on her bicycle. If you want to feel cheerful in Copenhagen, follow suit. This is one foreign city where you won’t have to work out bus routes or cram into overcrowded trains. A bike provides you with fresh air, exercise and an intimate look at the city, and will certainly bring you closer to its residents. Half the people here cycle daily, using 300 km of cycle lanes, many with their own dedicated traffic lights and parking bays.


Pedal out along the waterfront, taking in the Little Mermaid statue as you go – actually one of the few people in Copenhagen who looks a bit glum as she sits on her chilly rock. Yet, surely it’s practically impossible not to be happy if you live in (or visit) a place surrounded by water. Copenhagen is bisected by canals and sprawls over numerous islands, with water views at almost every turn. Sailing boats skip, seagulls shriek, the salty breeze brings a glow to your cheeks. This is a city married to the sea. A pedal along from the Little Mermaid, Nyhavn or ‘new harbour’ (which is actually three centuries old) feels like a fishing village. Come down here for an afternoon coffee or an evening drink at tables that front jauntily coloured wooden houses, and watch boats bobbing in the water, and you’ll have yet another moment to smile about.

Second to water is the city’s greenery. When the sun shines, everyone is outdoors – on beer terraces and benches, on sailing boats and roller skates. But, most of all, these city folk love their parks. Everyone hangs out in flower-filled King’s Park or the Botanical Gardens that lie around Rosenborg Castle, where they feed the birds or admire the palm
trees that soar in the glasshouse. Even Assistens Cemetery is considered a park: people picnic and sunbathe and attend rock concerts among the tombstones. If you have kids, they can run off their energy in Fælledparken, the city’s biggest park, with open, grassy areas for impromptu football games, strolling or lying back and looking at the clouds. And though it’s 20 km north of the city, you’ll get a nice urban escape at Dyrehave, which used to be a royal hunting
ground, and where deer still wander. Even better, it’s right beside Bellevue, one of the best beaches in Denmark.


The clever thing about Copenhagen is that it manages to have all the assets of a big city – great art, a noted underground music scene, world-class dining – while still retaining the relaxed air and charm you’d expect of a small town. That’s true even in the city centre, but to understand the spirit of the Danish capital merits exploration of its neighbourhoods as well. The districts of Vesterbro and Nørrebro in particular have emerged in recent years with a newfound confidence that sees new immigrants mix with students, artists and coffee-drinking hipsters. Though they lack specific sights, they offer great street markets, delis, ethnic eateries and cafés, and eclectic boutique shopping. Live-music venues are hopping at night, and so are the cocktail bars and microbreweries. Just more reason to celebrate a city of considerable satisfactions.

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From Colours September 2016


Copenhagen Jazz Festival 2016.
5 Senses – Sound

Few genres of music make you happy quite like jazz, and Copenhagen has a reputation as one of Europe’s leading
jazz centres. Take in the performances of jazz legends and up-and-coming artists at Jazzhouse, which puts on over 200 concerts annually, or kick back at Jazzcup, a café and record store with live music. Other good venues are Jazzhus Montmartre and La Fontaine. The city hosts jazz festivals in both July and February.