Jacob Stubbe Østergaard, writer from Copenhagen 29/07/2013
Summer is upon Copenhagen. Sunlight is gleaming off the spires and people are walking slowly along the old canals. In the city centre, Japanese tourists are posing for pictures and American tourists are eating ice cream. Outside the touristy middle, the city is half empty. Beautiful people sit around in coffee bars and a few joggers run around the big lakes marking the border of the inner city. In the evening, the remaining young hipsters 'chill' with dubstep music and a few cold beers on the old bridge across the lakes from the inner city to the Nørrebro borough.
To define the soul of the Danish capital, you can come a long way by looking at a map. As a part of Denmark, Copenhagen is situated just off the European peninsula, but it also reaches up to be a part of Scandinavia. Denmark has a double identity. Danes accept that they are part of Scandinavia, but they feel at least as related to continental Europe (Germany, France, and Netherlands). Copenhagen is where the Nordic meets the continental European.
On the map, you can also see that Copenhagen is a border city and a harbor. Sweden's third biggest city, Malmö, is only 35 minutes away and almost to be considered a part of Copenhagen. Germany, Norway and Poland are also within reach. This leads to a tendency visible in many capital cities: an international mindset - many inhabitants feeling more related to other regional capitals (especially Berlin) than to rural Denmark. Copenhagen - a pleasant city with few high-rises and with many bicycles and pedestrians - is bubbling on the verge between being a 'cute' historical city and being a true, international metropolis.
In terms of contemporary culture, performance and space-related art are enjoying glory days. The field is dominated by interactive art and art dealing with interaction, with space, place and individual versus collective identity. This connects indirectly to Copenhagen's experiments in environmental sustainability and human scale urban design. Copenhagen is in an intriguing process of rethinking the urban collective and the relations among individuals and between individuals and groups. Many Danish artists are inspired by Berlin and spend a lot of time in the German capital. But Copenhagen - with a peaceful recent history - is a bit less rough and maybe more positive.
In the present, a slumber is upon Copenhagen. But as a drowsy July is passing, it's making way for a very active August. As the city fills up again and the weather hopefully stays shiny, a whole tirade of major cultural events is coming our way. Forget about The Little Mermaid and go experience Copenhagen culture for real.
The peak of activity comes in the last week of August. This week is the Copenhagen Art Week - 'a week packed with activities for art lovers.' hosted by one of the major Danish art magazines and focused on promoting the best of Danish art. During this week, there are also no less than three major art fairs: the 'established' CHART, the 'alternative' Alt_Cph and the 'big' Art Copenhagen.
The world's biggest design award, the Index Award, will be awarded in Helsingør on August 29. The subsequent exhibition opens in cenrtal Copenhagen on August 30
On the 29th of August, the internationally renowned Index Award for 'design to improve life' will be awarded. On the following day, theIndex Award exhibition opens in the beautiful Royal Gardens in central Copenhagen - free of charge and a must-see. Design lovers can also enjoy a two-floor exhibition, hosted at Gl Strand, featuring the internationally renowned Danish clothes designer Henrik Vibskov.
In the middle of the month, those who appreciate the rougher and more underground art scene are treated to the increasingly popular Galore Urban Art Festival, which includes music scenes as well as a wide palette of alternative and un-established art.
Metropolis Festival, taking over the public space August 1 - August 30". Photo: Emese Kelle
In the meantime, the Metropolis festival will be taking place all over town through the whole of August. This is a performance-, theatre- and art festival in the public space, aimed at undermining the traditional structures of the city and challenging our perceptions.
As if this was not enough, some interesting exhibitions are also underway: 'Zaha Hadid - World Architecture' at Danish Architecture Center is an interactive exhibition of Pritzker Prize winning Iraqi-British starchitect Zaha Hadid. Hadid's architecture has been termed 'futuristic', and said to 'evoke the chaos of modern life'.
The most prestigious art museum in Denmark is Louisiana, situated by the sea 30 km north of Copenhagen. It is worth the train ride just for the seaside scenery. This summer, Louisiana is hosting 'Half-a-wind Show' - a major retrospective of the life and art of Yoko Ono.
Photo credits: copenhagenmediacenter.com
Areas to explore
The most magical part of traveling is exploring. When you explore, you create your own version of the city, which you can keep forever. In Copenhagen, as in most great cities, the trick is to get out of the touristy city centre. Here are a few pointers about interesting areas to explore in Copenhagen - the rest is up to you. One piece of general advice: Rent a bike. Within the respective areas below, walking is fine. To get from one to the other, it's great to have a bike. Biking infrastructure is very good in Copenhagen. Public transport is fairly good, but expensive. You can rent a bike at Cykelbørsen, Gothersgade 157.
Latin quarter. Photo credits: copenhagenmediacenter.com / Morten Jerichau
The Inner City
The historical city centre is not the city's cultural epicentre, but it's beautiful, atmospheric and old, and definitely worth walking around in. The small 'latin quarter', outlined by Vester Voldgade, Nørre Voldgade, Nørregade and Vestergade, is charming and good for walking. Canal tours are lovely on sunny days, and there are various museums and castles to explore. In terms of contemporary culture, the inner city is home to Charlottenborg - one of the most prestigious contemporary art spaces, run by The Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the place of exhibition for its graduates. You can also catch exhibitions at Gl Strand and at Nikolaj Kunsthal, residing in what used to be a church.
Meat City (Kødbyen)
Just behind the central station, the former meat-packing now serves as home to hip nightlife, 'creative offices' (containing hundreds of small new companies), galleries and trendy restaurants. Pay attention to V1 Gallery and the queer night club and performance scene Warehouse 9. Heading away from the central station from Halmtorvet outside the meat city, you can take a walk down Sønder Boulevard. This once poor and crime-ridden area has undergone one of the most successful overhauls in city planning history, and its wide and green central reserve is now - especially if the weather is good - a buzzing hangout and meeting place for locals and people from all around the city.
The meat city is strictly part of Vesterbro, but the area directly around it is ridden with drugs and prostitution. However, once you get a bit further out (walking along Sønder Boulevard or the faded red-light district of Istedgade), it shifts to being one of the nicest areas in the city. Outer Vesterbro, centred around Enghave Plads, is strewn with small and odd independent stores (books, clothes, design...), sushi bars alongside kebab joints, and coffee bars with personality. Bordering Vesterbro is Carlsberg City, a work in progress, but already home to quite a few galleries and art venues, including DanseHallerne, which is essential if you're into dance shows.
When you cross the lakes on the beautiful Dronning Louises Bro, you come to Nørrebro. Nørrebro is famous as the multicultural and diverse part of Copenhagen - the Bollywood film shop on Nørrebrogade attests to this. Nørrebro is being gentrified as we speak, but it's still just a bit more 'street' than Vesterbro. Nørrebro is quite big. The best parts to explore are - the area around Skt. Hans Torv; a cute area with lots of independent clothes shops, small creative businesses etc. - Assistens Cemetery; by far the most beautiful cemetery in Denmark and the final resting place of Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard) - Jægersborggade north of the cemetery; the hippest cobblestone street in Copenhagen, paradoxically home to both drug dealing and the top of the pops in terms of innovative concept mini-shops and restaurants). On sunny days, locals go grilling and beer-drinking in the narrow park which begins at the end of the this street.
Much older and smaller, Christianshavn, with its small streets and canals and wickerwork houses, is the most beautiful part of Copenhagen. Christianshavn's greatest attraction is the famous free town of Christiania, which is a whole strange world of its own. In the normal world, Overgaden Institute for Contemporary Art is running a multi-media exhibition by local artist Jette Hye Jin Mortensen until August 18. The exhibition deals with adoption, combining factual information with 'dark' and more abstract video art pointing to some deeper identity themes. In the north end of Christianshavn, DAC (Danish Architecture Center) is home to interesting exhibitions and an amazing bookstore for those interested in architecture. Current exhibition is Zaha Hadid - World Architecture.
If you want to get really down and dirty with the underground layers of the Copenhagen art scene, make a visit to the area around Prags Boulevard on the island of Amager. This otherwise faceless area is full of low-rent project spaces which have drawn the un-established artists and gallerists in. You may have to knock on some doors and go up and down some narrow staircases, but the young entrepreneurs will probably be delighted to show you what they're working on and tell you who else to visit. Also on Prags Boulevard this summer: urban gardening (Prags Have), and Smag Verden food festival on August 31 and September 1.
Amass Restaurant, opened by a top chef from NOMA, two-fold 'Best Restaurant In The World' winner
Where to eat
Copenhagen has what I would like to call an escapist culinary tradition. Eating Danish food in Copenhagen is not very authentic. However, a few restaurants are having great success at the moment using only fresh and local ingredients. If you want an avantgarde culinary experience, take the floating bus out to AMASS and enjoy what's on their menu that particular day.
If you want to eat well and pay a bit less, Madklubben Vesterbro is a good and popular choice. The restaurant is easy to recognize by its minimalist design.
In the affordable end of the spectrum (by Danish standards), Flyvefisken Thai restaurant, at Larsbjørnsstræde 18 in the inner city, is highly cherished. La Petanque crêperie at Rømersgade also offers a good, light meal at a low price in the inner city.
Superkaffeforsyningen on Møllegade, Nørrebro, is also a charming place to enjoy quality coffee
Where to have coffee
Coffee is a social activity in Copenhagen. People meet over coffee in cafés to socialize, to talk about new ideas and to check each other out and get a feeling of local community.
In the inner city, have your coffee at Paludan Bogcafé on Fiolstræde just across the ancient university library - a hangout for intellectuals and for everybody else too. If you like books (and you're not easily scared), check out the book collection in the basement.
On Vesterbro, have your coffee with at the unnamed coffee bar by the corner of Istedgade and Flensborggade, or at Bang & Jensen just on the near side of Enghave Plads.
If you like architecture and cows, take a trip to the newly built city of Ørestad. Not much goes on there, but there's some groundbreaking architecture to gape at. Be sure to check out "8-tallet" ('figure 8'), drawn by Bjarke Ingels Group. This avantgarde residence building is designed somewhat like a mountain village, and you can drive your bike all the way to the top and down again. At its outermost corner lies Café 8tallet. Café 8tallet marks the end of Copenhagen and the border of civilization. From its patio, you can look out across a small basin of water and over the vast savannah of Kalvebod Fælled with its grazing cows and running deer. Airplanes fly low over the savannah to land at the nearby airport, and if you come in the evening, it feels a bit like you're having a cup of coffee at the end of the world.
Danish furniture design at Hotel Alexandra
Where to sleep
Many hotels are located in the area just behind the central train station. These hotels are usually cheap and conveniently situated with some great areas close by, but you should be aware that this is the worst neighbourhood in the city. Walking on the street is not exactly dangerous, but the area has a bad vibe and lots of pushers, drug addicts, pimps, trafficked prostitutes, paupers and alcoholics.
If your budget is not too tight, check out the exquisitely design-conscious Hotel Alexandra. The furniture here is all done by famous Danish mid'20th century designers, making the hotel a special place to stay.
Relatively cheap accommodation may be found at the Cab Inn hotels around the city. If you don't care about comfort and luxuries and you want to spend your money on culture instead of accomodation, try Sleep In Heaven, one of the few hostels on Nørrebro. Start your day with a walk through Assistens Cemetery or coffee at Jægersborggade.