The small Scandinavian powerhouse of Denmark always ranks in the top 10 in the United Nations World Happiness Report. During a business trip to Copenhagen in June, I was reminded why. It’s clean, efficient, safe, socially minded, sustainable and technology-driven with high trust among its citizens, high quality of life and values centered upon honesty and equality. It has free education and an advanced health care system that’s a digital model for the forthcoming European Health Data Space. The Danes are polite, helpful, friendly and good-humored. What’s not to love?
As the capital of Denmark and its constitutional monarchy, Copenhagen is like a bright crown jewel. It contains many gems, literally in its royal treasury at Rosenborg Castle and metaphorically in Viking and royal history, maritime and cycling culture (the Tour de France began there this year on 1 July), good eating and nightly entertainment. For example, on Sunday and Monday nights, restaurants and bars with live music were packed downtown and Tivoli Gardens, an urban amusement park, was open until midnight. Ironically, this city of about 600,000 is far more bustling on these “off nights” in the summer than the European capital of Brussels, which has more than double the population. It’s clear the Danes know how to have fun … no wonder they are happy!
The first time I went to Copenhagen in August 2013 (the country is best seen in its “pleasantly warm” summer), I was struck by a twisted “unicorn horn” on top of the Old Stock Exchange (Børsen), one of the city’s oldest buildings dating back to 1625. It is now home to the Danish Chamber of Commerce, where – as good luck would have it – my recent business meeting was held. It is just as impressive on the inside: a chamber fit for a queen with dramatic lighting, polished wood and stately decorations. Adding to my unexpected architectural tour, my hotel faced Copenhagen’s striking City Hall (adjacent photos above).
At 10:30 pm, I ticked another sightseeing box: Tivoli’s nightly light show over a pond called “Illuminations.” The mystical, hypnotic display of colorful laser lights danced in fountains of water. It was worth popping over to the park in the dark to see. (Normally, you can only do so with an entrance ticket to the whole park, but kind security guards let me in for free since Tivoli was closing at midnight.)
My Tivoli experience began underneath an outdoor “ceiling” of fresh orchids and colored lights. From afar, I saw thrill-seekers doing “demon drops” down a tower and heard their screams along with the whoosh of a rollercoaster and other rides. A Chinese pavilion, replica of the Eiffel Tower and Japanese pagoda gave me a sense of elsewhere while greenspace, fountains, gardens and Danish restaurants in Tivoli brought my mind back to Copenhagen.
Other local “thrills” are some of the world’s top-ranked restaurants: Geranium, Alchemist, and Jordnær, numbers 1, 18 and 38, respectively, on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Unfortunately, I have not yet been to any of them. In 2013, my friend Robert and I tried to book at NOMA, one of two of Copenhagen’s three-Michelen-star restaurants that was once ranked the best in the world. Unfortunately, it was not far enough in advance, so we got on a waitlist. Lo and behold, Robert got the call when we were in town but unfortunately, he missed it due a business meeting. (Another reason to return!) NOMA has since been eclipsed in ranking by the city’s other three-Michelin-star restaurant Geranium.
While now near the stunning Copenhagen Opera House on the water, ironically, NOMA used to be located close to the hippie “freetown” of Christiania, which is a polar contrast to the posh restaurant. (Since we couldn’t get into the latter, we strolled through hippie-ville instead.) It was founded in 1971 in old military barracks as a hash hub and never left the 70s in its look and feel. It has always been controversial and sometimes adversarial with the Danish government. As a result, in 2012, it became the Foundation Freetown Christiania with its own set of rules to accommodate the lifestyle of about 1,000 free-spirited Danes, including Pusher Street, where marijuana products (and other drugs) are still freely and illegally sold. Because of its counter culture, strict visitor rules apply (generally no photos are allowed). Amazingly, I did not get kicked out with my clandestine camera!
In sharp contrast to Christiania residents, Robert and I watched disciplined members of the Danish Royal Guard march from Rosenborg Castle to Amalienborg Palace, the winter home of the Danish royal family (they do so every day from 11:30 am to noon). While the Danish monarchy maintains a low profile, it is alive and well as one of the oldest monarchies in the world. We experienced it via numerous buildings, such as the 800-year-old Christiansborg Palace (now home to the Danish Parliament, Supreme Court and Ministry of State), UNESCO-listed Kronborg Castle dating back to 1420, and fairytale-like Rosenborg with its King’s Garden plus gleaming tierras, crowns, swords and other impractical collectibles loaded with priceless gems. The monarchy is a unifying force of the Kingdom of Denmark, which includes Jutland peninsula, 1,419 islands – 443 of which have been named and 78 of which are inhabited – and autonomous, northwestern territories of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. (Ironically, Denmark has 2 percent of Greenland’s land space but 99 percent more people.)
Other parts of Danish history can be observed in Copenhagen’s 17th century Round Tower, the oldest functioning astronomical observatory in Europe, and National Museum of Denmark to time-travel to the Viking Age. Modern gems include the Danish Architecture Center showcasing what Danes do best; world-renowned Copenhagen Zoo with two giant pandas; and National Gallery of Denmark displaying Danish and international art from seven centuries.
While Copenhagen is very walkable, the best way to see it is by boat and bicycle (though beware traffic in cycling lanes, which can outnumber cars!). Several canals cut through the city and tourist boats pass points of interest from colorful homes to bustling Copenhagen Harbour, which includes the opera house and twice-decapitated sculpture The Little Mermaid. (She was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale about a mermaid who gives up everything to be united with a handsome prince on shore for whom she looks perched upon a rock.) Or you can take in the city with an aerial view from Frederik’s Church, which is curiously known as Marble Church even though it’s not made of marble.
Being a tall blonde, the Danes instinctively addressed me in Danish when I was in their country. While my origin fits (the name Dansby comes from a Danish settlement in the UK), my second language (French) does not. Luckily, the Danes speak excellent English so getting around Copenhagen is easy (plus it has an excellent train system that connects to the airport). For Danes, this is especially true as their identity cards digitally connect them to everything they need – another happy element!
Denmark proves that climate does not dictate happiness. Case in point, it is ranked fifth out of 154 countries in the UN’s 2022 happiness report. No wonder as a visitor, I could not help smiling.