Denmark

Is this Europe’s happiest city?

The citizens of Denmark are universally envied for their quality of life, buoyant disposition – and their sublime capital city. JAMES CLASPER shows us how to do it like a Dane in Copenhagen. Photos by ULF SVANE

There’s a bar in Copenhagen that takes 15 minutes to pour a pint of Carlsberg. That’s because it’s ‘slow beer’ – pilsner piped through an old Czech spigot to give it a smoother, creamier taste. And it feels very Copenhagen. The delightfully laidback Danish capital moves at a much slower pace than most cities.

Just look at how residents get around. Some 62 per cent cycle to school or work every day. (The majority cycle in winter, too – aka ‘Viking biking’.) And a quarter of families ferry their kids around in a cargo bike. The city has more than 390 kilometres of cycle lanes, the vast majority of which are safely segregated from traffic.

To feel like a local, then – and to kickstart the perfect weekend in Copenhagen – jump on a bike. It’s almost always the fastest way to get from A to B. (Prefer getting around on foot? Copenhagen is a compact city, and you can walk almost everywhere. Better still, several streets in the city centre are completely pedestrianised.)

Copenhagen may be pancake-flat, but all that pedalling can be exhausting, so the perfect weekend should start with a proper breakfast. And that means freshly baked bread, pastries and coffee. Usually, we’d pop out to pick up some rye bread and a cinnamon roll. But let’s treat ourselves and head to Juno, an artisanal bakery whose cardamom rolls draw long lines out the door. Or let’s head to The Corner, a cafe in Christianshavn, the city’s canal quarter, whose pastries also have a cult following. That’s because they’re coated in fermented beef glaze and coffee kombucha – exotic concoctions cooked up in the ‘fermentation labs’ the cafe shares with Noma, the restaurant that put the city on the culinary map. (More on that later.)

Suitably nourished, we’ll head into town, crossing the Inner Harbour Bridge – one of five bridges that allow cyclists and pedestrians to easily navigate this port city. (Our favourite is the Circle Bridge – designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the supports of its overlapping circular segments resemble the masts of a ship.) These bridges typify Copenhagen’s desire to be one of the world’s healthiest cities. Making it attractive to walk or cycle is part of that ambition.

Once in town, we’ll steer clear of the tourist traps – like the royal palace Amalienborg and The Little Mermaid statue – and head to less-feted attractions such as the art galleries of the meatpacking district or the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum with a charming winter garden and sculpture collection.

Alternatively, we might visit the Botanical Garden, home to Denmark’s largest scientific collection of plants (plus a greenhouse whose tropical temperatures attract shivering locals all year round). Or we’ll head to the trendy neighbourhood of Nørrebro and stroll through Assistens Kirkegaard, the tree-lined cemetery where Hans Christian Andersen is buried, followed by a mooch along Jægersborggade, with its charming cobblestones and trendy boutiques (which shut at 2pm on Saturday – remember what I said about laidback?).

By now it’s lunchtime. If we’re on the go, we’ll grab a hotdog – the Danish fast food for almost a century. Our favourite vendor is John’s Hotdog Deli in – where else? – the meatpacking district. But if time permits, we’ll head to Restaurant Palægade for a modern take on smørrebrød, the traditional open-face sandwich.

Perhaps you’re wondering how we’ve got the energy for this. The answer is our healthy work-life balance, or what the country’s official website calls ‘the Danish way’. You see, Danes enjoy a huge amount of flexibility at work, such as being able to choose whether to work from home or when to arrive at the office. Little wonder that, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Danes work fewer hours on average than most: 1,410 annually, or 27 hours a week. (And only two per cent of employees in Denmark work more than 50 hours a week, compared to the average of 13 per cent.)

It’s easy to spot evidence of our work-life balance. By 4pm on weekdays, most people are heading home. (Signs at Copenhagen’s busiest railway stations remind commuters that rush hour starts at 3:30pm and ends at 5pm.) Employees also get at least five weeks of paid holiday every year, plus extended, paid parental leave. No wonder Denmark topped a recent index of global workforce happiness.

In fact, Danes are routinely ranked as among the world’s most contented people. In the latest UN World Happiness Report, it comes third after Finland and Norway – a ranking unlikely to cause Danes much concern or envy of their Nordic neighbours because, well, they’re Danish. They have low levels of income inequality, a solid social safety net provided by the welfare state and a high level of trust. Then there’s the Danish concept of hygge. Roughly speaking, it means cosiness or conviviality – that warm, fuzzy feeling you get from simple pleasures such as spending time with friends. And it’s what Meik Wiking, head of the Happiness Research Institute – yes, it really exists – calls ‘the overlooked ingredient in the recipe for Danish happiness’.

Of course, candles are the crucial ingredient of hygge – and Danes are Europe’s biggest consumers of them, burning about six kilos per person every year. To stock up, we’ll head to an interior design shop such as Dansk, Dora or Hay. (But we’ll resist the temptation to splurge on yet more stylish ceramics or designer furniture. They may be beautiful, but we like to keep our small apartments uncluttered.)

Having hit the shops, it’s time for a swim in the harbour. Yes, the water’s clean enough. The only issue is the temperature. But if we cycle to La Banchina, a waterside restaurant on the outskirts of the city, we can leap off its jetty before warming up in its wood-fired sauna.

Alternatively, we might putter round the harbour in a GoBoat. They’re solar-powered, easy to use and equipped with a picnic table. Having planned ahead, we’ll have snacks from Torvehallerne food market and wine from importers Rosforth & Rosforth. Under one of the harbour bridges, it offers free tastings on Saturday afternoons and specialises in natural wine – ‘juice’ made with minimal intervention and fermented only with naturally existing yeast. It’s all the rage in Copenhagen today. To see what the fuss is about, head to Ved Stranden 10, whose sommeliers will find you something fun from one of the dozen bottles they’ve got open.

By now, it’s time for dinner. Ideally, we’ve got a reservation at Noma 2.0. Launched 15 years ago, it established a style of cuisine based on local and seasonal ingredients, and was named the best restaurant in the world four times. Having closed the original Noma last year, chef René Redzepi reopened it on a new site in February – and it’s once again the hottest table in town. In fact, the waiting list is 40,000-strong, so odds are we’re eating elsewhere. (Our bank manager will thank us: dinner costs 2,250 Danish krone – almost HK$3,000 – and that’s excluding wine.)

Copenhagen-11

Fortunately, the cuisine that Redzepi pioneered, New Nordic, has long since spread to other restaurants, while numerous Noma alumni have opened places of their own. A case in point is Amass, which former head chef Matt Orlando launched in 2014. Located in a spectacular, graffiti-painted industrial space in edgy Refshaleøen, it serves seasonal dishes that won’t break the bank. Another local favourite is Spisehuset, a cosy restaurant tucked down a backstreet in the meatpacking district. It offers fuss-free, inventive dishes made with organic and biodynamic ingredients.

That’s a sign of the times, too: from supermarkets to restaurants to public institutions, better, more sustainable food is everywhere now (astonishingly, almost 90 per cent of the food served in the city’s public institutions is organic).

After dinner, we’ll seek out some live music – perhaps the Sunday night jam session at jazz club La Fontaine. Then we’ll have a nightcap at a værtshus, a traditional drinking den, such as Vinstue 90, home of the ‘slow beer’. The lights will be low and the air smoky (thanks to a loophole in the law, smoking is permitted in some small bars). And the city’s health department certainly wouldn’t approve. But then again, the slogan of its official health plan is ‘Enjoy life, Copenhageners’. And you know what? We do.

Is it better to be a Hongkonger or a Dane?

Hygge can only go so far. If it were just a matter of adding a few candles, Hongkongers would be just as ‘happy’ as Danish citizens. How do their lives differ?

Average hours worked per week

Hong Kong: 50.1 hours
Copenhagen: 39 hours

Average air quality

Hong Kong: 29 micrograms of PM2.5 pollution per cubic metre
Copenhagen: 11.1 micrograms of PM2.5 pollution per cubic metre

Annual leave

Hong Kong: 7-14 days, plus local holidays
Copenhagen: Five weeks, plus local holidays

Paid parental leave

Hong Kong: 10 weeks maternity; three days paternity
Copenhagen: 52 weeks, shared between partners

Kilometres of cycle lanes

Hong Kong: Estimated 220 kilometres
Copenhagen: Estimated 390 kilometres

Unemployment rate in 2017

Hong Kong: 2.9%
Copenhagen: 5.7%

Personal income taxes

Hong Kong: 15%
Copenhagen: 37-53%

Number of Michelin-starred restaurants

Hong Kong: 63
Copenhagen: 15

Cathay Pacific launches a seasonal service to Copenhagen from Hong Kong on 2 May

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