Is Copenhagen the Coolest City in the World?

Picture the established cool capitals of the world. Maybe you’re thinking of fashion models strolling the Tuileries in Paris. The overstimulation of Times Square in NY. A purple orb skewered by a skyscraper above Shanghai.


Now picture Copenhagen. What’ve you got?


Maybe first you thought of the bicyclists, poised above handlebars, flicking bells with civility as they glide past each other. And then maybe you thought of the pastel blush of the city’s mansions, standing at attention on the edge of blue-ink canals. Did Danish design occur to you? Probably: Blonde wood, curved armrests, the tapered legs of a chair making light contact with the floor of a restaurant. And food, of course. New Nordic cuisine has long been a trend, it’s international fame starting with Rene Redzepi’s Noma, which won every accolade there is to win.


Here’s the thing. None of the above is new exactly. So why are we still excited about Copenhagen?


It’s not Copenhagen that changed. It’s us.


No disrespect to the Eiffel Tower or anything, but we’re not coming to Copenhagen to upload a photo of an icon to Instagram, only for it to sit on a virtual shelf with millions of identical shots. No, we come here to adopt the entire Danish lifestyle, the hygge. Copenhagen has become the traveler’s cool older sister: We show up to raid her closet, wear her clothes, and hope some of her cool rubs off on us.


“When people visit me I always joke that there’s ‘nothing to do’ as a tourist, except live like a local,” writes Hazel Evans, a British expat and the co-founder and Creative Director of Mad About Copenhagen, an online guide to the city. “Travellers these days (I’m generalizing here) don’t only visit places for the romanesque architecture or the museums. Our priorities are changing–we’re curious about people’s lives, and Copenhagen is so liveable, it’s a veritable socialist utopia.”


Take the city’s transit: no other city has succeeded in making its public transit infrastructure sexy. So it’s almost with a blush that a Copenhagener will tell you that the city has almost 250 miles of bike paths, that 40 percent of its residents bike to work.


Or take its environmental uprightness. The city’s trying to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital. And after some serious overhauling of wastewater management, the harbor is clean enough to swim in.


There’s more earthly pleasures to be found here, of course. In the obligatory (or so it seems for European capitals) gentrified-neighborhood-in-a-former-red-light-district, Vesterbro, you can make a good argument that you’ll find Danishness distilled. Blonde woods, ceramic and tapered stools are sold in the relentlessly photogenic DANSK Made For Rooms. Local artists and designers rotate through Designer Zoo, showcasing everything from tables to candlesticks in a spirit of creativity and community. You’ll find Absalon, a converted church where the community has swapped catechism for yoga, hip-hop and swing dancing classes, and nearby the way cool Absalon Hotel. (The streets are noisy — avoid the first couple of floors’ rooms.)


For most travelers, Copenhagen first became cool on the plate. Anthony Bourdain visited in 2013 simply to eat the foraged cuisine at Rene Redzepi’s revelatory Noma, which had opened ten years earlier. (“The guy is out in a field yanking weeds out of the ground,” he said in the episode. “I really didn’t expect it to be as good as it was.”) The food world establishment threw its weight behind the restaurants and the movement, but the rest of us noticed, too. Now Scandinavian menus are now represented in Brooklyn and London, and you can get a “Danish brunch” on the Champs-Elysees.


But the food scene here isn’t resting on its (foraged) laurels. Just as food tourists arrive for the New Nordic fantasia, changes are occurring. Noma closed for a while — by choice, not loss of popularity — and moved from it’s obscure harbor location to its new home at Refshalevej 96. Redzepi is also co-owner of 108, a restaurant geared toward locals that quietly opened six years ago. The quintessentially Danish restaurant Gro Spiseri at OsterGRO began as a tiny rooftop garden where baby greens shivered in the breeze before being consumed by diners, and became Denmark’s first rooftop farm, with the spectacular, magical dining space also on the roof.


Pop-up food events and collaborations have long been the order in Copenhagen. “What really makes it so wonderful is the level of collaboration and teamwork across the industry that you rarely see in other cities,” says Evans. “Collaboration and treating others as equal is fundamentally Danish. So whether you’re here for the food, or the bikes, you’ll feel it.”


What does it mean for the world when travelers start traveling to experience a spirit of collaboration and equality? I’m no scientist, but it’s probably good for travel and good for the world. And in a time when we’re all looking anxiously for some good to cling to in the world, it’s obvious that Copenhagen–with its bicycles, its modernity, its philosophy and community –is shining.


Copenhagen was always cool, FYI.