With its startling architecture and world class food the Danish capital is all about enjoying the good life … at a price. Our writer is also struck by the story behind a statue – and it’s not of a mermaid.
Arrived at Copenhagen’s Central Station with Danny Kaye’s voice blaring in my head. Maybe he was right when he sang about wonderful Copenhagen. When you get off the train, after a 15-minute journey from the airport you are greeted by the turrets and rollercoasters of a huge theme park. Within seconds of tugging my case across the concourse, all I could hear were the squeals and screams from the funfair rides of Tivoli Gardens (opened in 1843) opposite.
This is Denmark, consistently one of the top five countries in the annual World Happiness Report and home to one of the planet’s most famous storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen. Now the country is pushing for hygge – its unique formula for cosy comfort – to be given world heritage status by Unesco. It’s much in evidence as soon as I check into my hotel, the Radisson, where I relax in my 18th-floor corner room with a cup of organic coffee and a fluffy cinnamon pastry. From my window I can see the whole of the city and beyond, to the bridge that connects Denmark to Sweden.
The Radisson, opened in 1960, is a Copenhagen landmark: the “SAS” (Scandinavian Airlines) emblazoned on its tower harks back to the time when it was a glamorous airport satellite, complete with a check-in desk and departure lounge; from here, passengers were transported by bus to the runway. Today, the departure lounge is a supermarket, but the hotel has just been refurbished and returned to its 60s heyday. It was the signature work of seminal Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen, who designed its interior as well as its exterior – even the door handles and the cutlery are by him. The lobby is dominated by a giant spiral staircase that seems to hang from a vast circular hole above it.
Design fans should also head for Blox, a glass-encased boxy structure that aspires to be a city under one roof with a museum, offices, gym, restaurant and housing. The first thing I see when I arrive is a vertical play area with parents sitting around in the sunshine, their children climbing through rope mesh and frames and whizzing down slides. The whole place is a microcosm of the Danish spirit and its urban inventiveness. There are apartments on the top floors, open-plan offices where meetings are in progress, classrooms where school kids learn about design, cool shops and exhibition spaces.
Blox is the new home of the Danish Architecture Centre. Welcome Home (an exhibition that runs until 23 September) looks at how domestic space has been moulded to the changing realities of family life. Other shows explore Danish design through film and furniture, but the true permanent collection is the handsome city all around the centre. Blox is as appealing to locals as it is to visitors.
For a more affordable meal than Noma, try one of the city’s newest restaurants. Trio is at the top of the newly opened Axel Towers, apparently designed to look like a pile of copper coins. The bar overlooks the Danish Confederation of Industry building, which is transformed at night with a colourful light show – lumpfish roe and radish on a blini with a glass of champagne while watching it was one of the highlights of my trip.
No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a barge ride from Nyhavn, the colourful 17th-century canal waterfront district, which takes you to see a glimpse of Denmark’s most enduring mascot, the Little Mermaid statue commissioned in 1909 by beer baron Carl Jacobsen after he attended a ballet performance based on a fairytale by the same name penned by Hans Christian Andersen.