Beat the Summer Crowds in Copenhagen

Nyhavn Canal

Discover the wonders of this uncrowded and architecturally-striking Danish capital during the long days of summer.

Smart travelers keep an eye out for places that are drawing the crowds and then head in the opposite direction. In Europe, there’s a mass exodus from the chilly north to the sun-baked south in August leaving the Nordic capitals to discerning visitors. Copenhagen is more wonderful than ever in the long luminous days and balmy evenings of summer, and you can bicycle around on traffic-free streets soaking up rays that won’t burn you to a crisp. The Little Mermaid is on loan to Shanghai as the centerpiece of the Danish Expo pavilion, but there’s much else to see besides that overrated trophy.

Over the past ten years, Copenhagen has reclaimed much of its waterfront from industry and has outsourced most of its port facilities to Malmo, the Swedish city that can be reached by train in 30 minutes via a tunnel or by car over a spectacular bridge. The harbor is now so clean that the island of Amager has become an exuberant beachfront, and walkways and bike paths are going in along the main waterways. The navy has vacated the island of Holmen, and this has become a vibrant community with the waterfront Opera House as its centerpiece. An automated metro runs 24/7, linking Holmen to the new development of Orestad and the airport, 15 minutes to the south. Other new attractions include the Royal Playhouse and the spectacular Radio Concert Hall, but you’ll have to wait until September for the performances to resume.

The genius of Copenhagen is to weave old and new seamlessly together, reinvigorating museums, monuments, and neighborhoods. Sharply angular additions play off ornate red brick blocks with green copper roofs. The skyline is punctuated, not with high rises but with fanciful spires, the gilded spiral ramp of Vor Freisers church, and four entwined dragon tails over the Old Stock Exchange. One of the best places to stay is the Admiral Hotel, a 17th-century salt warehouse with massive timbers, imaginatively converted. Across the water is the Danish Architectural Center, which occupies another massive warehouse and is one of the liveliest spots in town for exhibitions and events, a well-stocked bookstore and a reasonably-priced upstairs buffet. A block away on a side canal is Kanalen, an exceptionally good and friendly restaurant in an old house with scrubbed oak floorboards and a terrace overlooking a narrow canal.

Old Stock Exchange Vor Freisers Church

If this sounds like a rambling and disorganized approach to the city, it’s meant to be, for the charm of Copenhagen resides, not in major sights, but chance discoveries. The capital has kept its humane scale, and everything is tied together with buses, ferries, and free bicycles (available at racks around the city on payment of a refundable deposit). The Queen lives in one of four elegant rococo mansions that flank the cobbled octagon of Amalienborg, and the only give-away is the guard in period costume standing outside beside his kiosk. Tucked into a corner of the Royal Library is a tiny Jewish Museum, with origami-like plywood display cases shoehorned into a brick-lined hall. It’s a reminder of how the Danes, alone among the countries the Nazis occupied, saved almost all their Jewish citizens from deportation and death.

Amalienborg & Marble Church

The NY Carlsberg Glyptotek—a wonderfully ornate museum established about a century ago—contains a recreation of a Roman temple, with stone columns and statuary, and an array of sensuously curved plywood chairs, 1950s classics by Arne Jacobsen. Complementing this antique setting is a contemporary staircase with waxed plaster walls shimmering in the overhead light and shallow marble treads leading up and around a stack of new galleries. Design aficionados dream of staying in Room 606 of the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel, the one authentic survival from 1960, when Jacobsen designed this Scandinavian Airlines flagship. A chic restaurant, Alberto K, occupies the top floor, which looks out over the city and across the Oresund to the coast of Sweden. You can recreate much of room 606 in your own home, buying silverware at George Jensen, fabrics and furniture at Illums Bolighus or Paustian, and vintage items now out of production at one of the antique modern stores on Bredgade.

Ordrupgaard: Zaha Hadid addition

An agreeable excursion from Copenhagen is by bus or bike up the Strandvagen coastal road to Humlebaek, where another visionary, the late Knud Jensen, created the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Jensen had a great love of the arts (he was close friends with the author Karen Blixen) and acquired a ruined estate with the goal of creating a new kind of museum–one that opened up to nature and would, as he explained, “exhibit the best and most controversial works of modern art, but in such a way that they didn’t scare people.” In 1956, he sold his business, and that enabled him to hire two young architects to create the first galleries, a cafeteria and a sculpture garden looking out to the sea. Since then, Louisiana (named for the original owner’s three wives, all of whom were named Louise) has grown to a circuit of galleries including one that is placed underground so as not to intrude on views of the sculpture garden. Stop off on the way back at Ordrupgaard, another beguiling museum that began as a family collection of French Impressionists, and has recently acquired a dramatic, cave-like extension by Zaha Hadid for imaginative temporary exhibitions. The house of designer Finn Juhl in the grounds is currently under restoration, but should soon reopen for weekend tours.

Finally, don’t miss out on the world’s best restaurant: Noma–voted #1 in the 2010 San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards– if you can beat the crowds and get a reservation.

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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