"The fish needs to swim," the waiter informs me, solemn sotto voce, before pouring a clear stream of aquavit into a tiny glass.
I'm pretty sure he's basically giving me an excuse to drink with lunch, given that I'm about to partake of a smoked-fish smørrebrød, the famous Danish open sandwich that, like most good things in Denmark, is close to unpronounceable. This onetime working man's lunch has undergone a glamorous renaissance in the high-end restaurants around Copenhagen (like the one I'm in, Lumskebugten), but the principle is basically the same wherever you go: slabs of rye bread topped with an array of delicious morsels, most involving seafood. You don't have to be washed ashore in Denmark for long before you start noticing that the sea, with all its maritime imagery and superstition, is tethered to life here as tightly as a fisherman's knot.
In spite of being an avid Europhile, I'm a first-timer to the Danish capital. Somehow Copenhagen never really figured on my European Grand Tour hit list. It seemed to me to be too far-flung, too chilly, lacking in any compelling landmarks. (It's a long way to go to see a statue of a mermaid, no matter how cute she is.) Well, I'm here to urge you to add Denmark to your Grand Tour right away. The Copenhagen of right now is easily the equal of Paris or Rome for dining, and the city is buzzing with creative energy, full of young fire-brands remaking the city into one of Europe's most essential destinations.
To get a handle on this former Viking fishing village, it helps to see the city in terms of its relation to the water. Central Copenhagen—packed with regal landmarks like Amalienborg Castle, King's Gardens, and the Royal Theater—is separated from multicultural Nørrebro, quaint, family-oriented Østerbro, and polished Frederiksberg by several long, narrow lakes, and by a canal from Christianshavn, home to the hippie enclave of Christiania. Vesterbro, to the southwest of the city center, is a burgeoning neighborhood with a hip, low-key bar scene. And on its eastern flank, the city faces Øresund, the strait of water that separates Denmark from Sweden. Unless you bring your own boat, expect to crisscross lots of bridges as you navigate the city.
One thing that has remained unchanged in Copenhagen is the Danish philosophy that marries a dedication to wholesome principles (recycling, eating organic, maintaining a small footprint) with an enthusiasm for life's hedonistic pleasures: great food and wine, convivial company, and beautiful objects. A statistic you hear bandied about a lot is that Danes are the happiest people in the world. They're certainly among the most polite. The first time I take the elevator in my hotel, I notice that there is no button to close the door, only one to open it. Danes would rather wait for someone running for the elevator than get to where they're going more quickly. Incredible.
Apart from accidentally stepping into the path of an oncoming bicycle (of which Copenhagen has a staggering 650,000 for its urban population of 1.2 million), few aspects of life here reward manic speed. Strolling the waterfront or floating the canals on slow-moving, Bateau Mouche–style tourist barges are de rigueur activities. Citizens patiently wait months for a custom-built bike. Meals are especially unhurried affairs, particularly given Copenhagen's status as one of the world's most exciting and celebrated food cities.
Spearheading Copenhagen's transformation into foodie heaven is Noma, the famous culinary laboratory where chef Rene Redzepi works his considerable magic. You can't swing a foraged mushroom in this town without hitting a restaurant run by a Noma alum. One of the hottest right now is The Standard, a former 1930s customs house set on Nyhavn Harbor and overseen by Claus Meyer, one of Noma's founders and widely considered the godfather of New Nordic cuisine.
A word of warning: Copenhagen is not the place to begin that low-carb diet. The bread is just too transcendently good. At Almanak, the Standard's casual ground-floor dining room, it's an amazing marriage of sour, rich, and intense, and served with butter spiked with rose petals and sunflower seeds. I could dine on this alone, but then along comes grilled cucumbers, smoked cheese, and the ubiquitous smoked mackerel. That's followed by a dish of fried cod with tomatoes, leeks and crab, and, finally, strawberries at the height of their seasonal perfection.
Restaurant Tårnet (The Tower) hasn't had time to join the starry Michelin ranks yet, but its location is certainly stellar. Take an elevator to the top floor and you'll be delivered to a romantic aerie tucked in the uppermost tower of the Hogwarts-like Christiansborg Castle. The room—romantically lit with glowing, egg-shaped lamps on each table—is lined with gigantic regal statues, and its windows offer dizzying views over Copenhagen's rooftops. Owner Rasmus Bo Bojesen, a passionate restaurateur with several notable restaurants around town, works the room, dropping by my table to share the philosophy of his kitchen, which could easily stand in as the national one: "It's about respect for my grandmother's kitchen," he says, "and respect for tomorrow."
Woman cannot live on bread alone, no matter how good it is, so I pause in my culinary odyssey to appreciate the other thing Danes do so incredibly well: design. The Design Museum, a treasure-filled series of rooms in a former 18th-century hospital, is where midcentury-modern geeks go to get their fill. On my visit, the lobby features two giant Hans Wegner chairs, part of the "Just One Good Chair" exhibition (never fear, many of this Danish master's greatest hits are on permanent display), and from there it's a walk through works by some of the 20th century's most celebrated furniture designers and architects, from Verner Panton to Nanna Ditzel and Arne Jacobsen. If the names aren't familiar, the iconic chairs, lights, and other usable artworks created by these legendary artists are instantly recognizable.
I've been tipped off that a new venture on the waterfront combines Copenhagen's stellar offerings—food and design—so I head to Copenhagen Street Food. Here I find a huge warehouse facing Nyhavn Harbor featuring furniture made from shipyard salvage and 20 or so food trucks and stalls dishing out street-food fare from wild mushroom tacos to organic hot dogs. Despite the late northern summer chill, fashionable Danes lounge on folding chairs outside, noshing on snacks and generally living up to their happy reputation.
A distinctive cocktail culture has grown alongside Copenhagen's dynamic restaurant scene. Bar-hopping is a growing sport, and much like dining, mixology is treated with a reverence verging on the religious. I decide on a pilgrimage to Lidkøb Bar, a former apothecary in Vesterbro, a red-light district turned boho-cool neighborhood. Everyone here looks like they've wandered off a fashion shoot, from the patrons to the svelte waiters in black leather aprons. Earlier, a Danish expat friend had tried to explain the concept of hygge (pronounced HYOO-guh), which roughly translates as coziness, or cheeriness, usually brought about by good company, food, and wine. Danes will approvingly describe a convivial gathering as "very hyggeligt." As I sip a cocktail in front of Lidkøb's fireplace, I think I finally get it.
Much like that other famed canal city, Venice, Copenhagen is best explored in a serendipitous way. Some of my greatest discoveries are literally stumbled upon, like the utterly charming Sankt Peders Stræde, or St. Peter's Street, in the Latin Quarter, one of the oldest parts of the city. Starting at the eponymous church, I pass Sankt Peders Bageri, a famous bakery with a gold pretzel-and-crown insignia on its wooden sign; Fantask, a comic book store in basement spaces on opposite sides of the street; and Brillebutikken, an eyeglass boutique on three levels.
I end up gazing in the window of Sögreni Cykler, where they are building the kind of custom bicycles Danes love to ride. I settle for a zinc bike bell, and then stop to refuel at Bar Moritz just down the road. The motto of this jaunty new tapas-inspired bistro in ultra-hip Hotel SP34 is "Wine. Dine. Repeat." So I do just that amid the potted olive and citrus trees, as the plaid shirt–clad waitress brings over plates of delicious tapas and cheese. When the check comes, it's clipped to a vintage sardine can—of course.
By now I've become so smitten with Danish design that my last day's activity feels inevitable. I head for the heart of central Copenhagen to explore the city's iconic department store, Illum (left), in business since 1891. With its soaring atrium roof and four levels of fashion design essentials, stepping inside can bring on a swoon. I coo over Velorbis, a dapper gent's accessories brand; consider making a serious investment in Scandinavian fashion labels like Day Birger et Mikkelsen, Filippa K, and Acne; and end up purchasing some didn't-even-know-I-needed-them treasures like a red leather bicycle pouch and a ceramic candleholder in the shape of Amalienborg Palace.
Finally I duck into Torvehallerne, a gourmet food hall near Norreport, the busy central train station, which offers sustenance from smørrebrød and hand-crafted chocolates to smoked fish from Bornholm, Copenhagen's easternmost island. Sipping a fair-trade coffee while admiring my new purchases, I feel a sense of deep Danish contentment flow over me as I watch Copenhageners happily conversing over their open sandwiches and other unpronounceable things. This, I think to myself, is definitely hyggeligt.
Emma Sloley's most recent piece in Coastal Living was about Guana Island, BVI.