Thanks to musk ox and beetroot, Copenhagen is having its day. This big city in a smallish kingdom made global news last year when chef René Redzepi of Noma knocked Spain’s El Bulli off the top spot as the world’s greatest restaurant, according to San Pellegrino’s 50 best list. Noma’s setting is certainly the epitome of industrial Nordic cool – a moody quayside warehouse overlooking a harbour skirted by iconic contemporary architecture. Diners wrap themselves in soft bearskins, lean back in gorgeous handcrafted chairs and welcome a new dawn of innovative Scandinavian feasting – with not a meatball in sight. Noma is about wild herbs foraged by hand, toasted rye bread, seaweed, juniper and elderberries. It’s all very sophisticated hedgerow.
Herein lies the appeal of Copenhagen; while the city has fabulous designers, chefs and architects, you’ll find little that’s tiresomely trendy or overly self-conscious. The hip and ground-breaking sit happily beside the been-there-forever; the buzz is wholesome and the people appear to possess a collective internal feng shui.
When it comes to hotels, one name in particular is riding the wave of this energetic new mood. Don’t be seduced by the credentials of the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel – only room 606, “The Museum Room”, remains as it was when Arne Jacobsen completed the hotel in 1960; the rest is, sadly, a bit disappointing.
Nimb, on the other hand, is where it’s at. This is Copenhagen’s most outstanding boutique address, with impeccable service, 13 beautiful rooms and suites – dressed with hand-woven fabrics, antique furniture and an abundance of fresh flowers – and a ground-floor organic dairy and bakery. The smart interiors are amusingly at odds with the hotel’s fabulously kitsch exterior. It’s like a mini whitewashed Taj Mahal, covered in fairy lights and overlooking Tivoli Gardens, the marvellously old-world fairground built under Christian VIII to distract his subjects from political unrest (and equally diverting today, even with no progeny in tow).
If you prefer a less elaborate hotel, the Skt Petri is about the size of a cathedral, with sparse but vibrantly colourful rooms designed by Per Arnoldi. Pop in on a Friday night to see the scene, even if you don’t stay here. And then there’s the chic setting of Hotel Twentyseven, which is home to an underground ice bar (where you can sip fruity vodkas out of cut-ice glasses) and glossy, if small, designer bedrooms.
Copenhagen is very compact and you can walk or (better still) cycle practically everywhere. Obvious hits – which you needn’t necessarily explore in great depth, but should certainly admire for their architectural integrity – include the Renaissance Rosenborg Castle, Rundetaarn (Europe’s oldest observatory, with some of the best views of the city), the church of Frederikskirken and the stately Amalienborg Palace, home to Queen Margrethe II. Also worth seeing, via an exploration of Nyhavn and the harbour front, are the bold opera house – utterly striking in the evening light – and the Royal Library extension, aptly known as “The Black Diamond”. Both caused controversy when they opened; both are resounding contemporary successes.
Worth spending proper time in are the National Museum (whose impressive new wing features 25 canvases by Matisse, Picasso and Munch) and The Danish Museum of Art & Design, where you’ll find midcentury allstars Arne Jacobsen, Jacob Jensen and Hans Wegner interspersed with more obscure (though also interesting) textiles, drawings and porcelain. Less well known, but just as captivating, is the Museum of Danish Resistance, which tells the remarkable story of how the Danes, with just a few days’ notice, smuggled over 7,000 members of their Jewish community to neutral Sweden during the second world war. Another highlight is the Davids Samling, a collection of Islamic art from the 8th to 19th centuries that is beautifully displayed in the town house of the collector himself. It is to Copenhagen what Sir John Soane’s Museum is to London.
After half a day or so of cultural immersion, you’ll be hungry. A table at Noma is the theoretical ideal, but at short notice a near-impossible reality (bookings should be made months ahead). The good news is that Copenhagen is swiftly catching up with its rivals as a card-carrying foodie destination. Among the city’s luminaries is The Paul, steps away from the twee delights of Tivoli Gardens. Few other Michelin-starred restaurants can claim to overlook a pirate ship, and the roasted langoustine is sensational.
Indeed, the joy of Copenhagen is that it’s increasingly difficult to eat badly here. Start with breakfast at brasserie-style Café Victor. It’s replete with sublime cinnamon buns and pastries (usually gone by 10am, so hotfoot it) and smart locals chatting over free-range eggs and ham.
Come lunchtime, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Danes excel at sandwiches. The century-old national institution that is Ida Davidsen is still going strong, with countless varieties – over 250, in fact – of smørrebrød, the open-faced sandwiches for which Denmark is famous. Or get yourself utterly au courant and head to one of two buzzy new arrivals. The Royal Cafe, with its pink aprons, pretty flocked wallpapers, custom-made chandeliers and Fritz Hansen chairs, has swiftly established itself as an ideal stop-out for shoppers, discreetly tucked away as it is just off Strøget, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe. It’s given rise to a new culinary phenomenon – “smushi”, which combines the smørrebrød concept and ingredients with those of sushi: tiny, open burgers with creamy mustard, golf-ball-sized fishcakes, and the option to mix up to four different varieties in one meal. Meanwhile, just around the corner from the National Gallery, Aamanns is another take on the Danish tavern: sparkling white and minimalist, with homemade soups and cakes, and organic smørrebrød elevated to an art form, topped with razor-thin apple slices or tiny cubes of quince and local forest mushrooms.
For supper, Cofoco, a chic basement establishment in hip Vesterbro, is inventive and fresh without being fussy. It’s all about the ingredients here; the menu simply lists what’s in each dish. Don’t miss the rhubarb, cardamom and white chocolate pudding. In a similarly relaxed vein, Madklubben is all unaffected stylishness, with outrageously good, hot-from-the-oven bread and Nordic-modern delights (Norwegian salmon in a lemony mayonnaise foam was a standout).
Alternatively, head a few blocks south to the regenerated meatpacking district, where cool bars, cafés, restaurants, gyms and art galleries (of which V1 is the star, showcasing international stars such as Banksy) are creating a sophisticated edge. Karriere bar, part-owned by local art star Jeppe Hein, is the place for pre-dinner or late-night cocktails – an unreconstructed art-house lair where Olafur Eliasson lights tower over canteen-style tables. The food is 100 per cent organic Danish and even the cocktails toe the locavore line: the Purple Overdose, which can be made on request, is flush with beetroot and mint. For dinner, there’s no more of-the-moment table to book than at Fiskebaren, a Danish seafood showcase populated by ferociously hip locals. The Jutland trout and the mussels steamed in apple cider are particularly fine.
You may well want to take some Danish gourmet treats home with you. Meyers Deli is a one-stop paradise that champions local ingredients in three different locations and also serves a relaxed but fizzing Sunday brunch. And then there is AC Perch, a jewel box of a teashop that first opened in 1835 and sells loose leaf tea that is stored in old-fashioned jars and weighed out on scales. There are branches in Japan (which speaks for itself) and a tea salon where you’ll find everything from scones and jam to zingy 21st-century tea smoothies.
There is, of course, life beyond eating in Copenhagen. Indeed, you’d be remiss not to dip into the homeware and fashion scene. Seek out some of the more offbeat boutiques and vintage finds, especially in Vesterbro, where you’ll discover the flagship of Designers Remix Collection, a local favourite, plus indie storefronts such as Samsøe & Samsøe, which champions Scandinavian labels such as Filippa K and Whyred. And YDE, one of the city’s rising couture stars, produces clothes inspired by Marie Antoinette and worn by the Danish royal family. The place for iconic Danish housewares, meanwhile, is Normann Copenhagen in the centre of town. Even the egg cups are paragons of clean-lined Scandinavian design genius.
A bit of Copenhagen will come home with you, regardless of whether you make any purchases. It’s one of those quietly inspirational places that slowly works its way into your heart; the more you pick away at it, the more excitements you unravel. It’s this combination of the obvious and the unexpected – like musk ox and modern cuisine – that has put Copenhagen firmly on the map.