Why Denmark – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Lindsay who asks,

Q. “Alex, why visit Denmark over England, France, Germany? Make your case.

A. – That’s a difficult one!  Over the last 10 months I’ve fallen in love thoroughly with Copenhagen, and the parts of Denmark I’ve seen.  However, it’s a relatively small country and geographically fairly uniform.   You won’t find the awe inspiring fjords, clifftop castles, or the soaring spires of the alps. What you will find are beautiful cities awash in vibrant colors which are populated by wonderful, friendly, happy and sincere people.  As most of my time spent here in Denmark has been in the late fall/winter I’ve stayed on the island of Zealand where the capital city, Copenhagen is located.  It will not be until later this spring that I have the opportunity to head to the mainland (Jutland) and the country’s many smaller islands to explore Denmark more completely.

The Danes have a rich history and heritage.  Their flag is the oldest flag in the world.  They were the launching point for the Viking explorers, raiders and conquerors that explored the globe and left a lasting mark everywhere they visited.  More recently they have invested heavily in alternative technologies, education and culture.  All of these elements come together to create a landscape that is distinctly Danish.  Danish artists, architects, musicians, and intellectuals have been incredibly influential on the international stage for hundreds of years – an incredible accomplishment given Denmark’s small population and challenging geography.  Each of these factors shapes and crafts the Danish experience and what you will find when you visit the country.

That said, I would not necessarily call Denmark an exclusive destination country.  It is possible to visit England, France or Germany as the sole destination for a 2+ week trip and leave feeling like you still missed a lot.  With Denmark I think you would find it to be a wonderful, rich, experience but one which might lack the diversity and fast-paced stimulation that you typically want out of a 2-3 week trip.  I believe a good illustration of why this is the case is Copenhagen.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve fallen in love with the city.  It is beautiful, it is charming, it feels cozy, and it has a lot to offer.  However, it’s what I would call a 4 day or 8 week city. The primary tourist attractions in Copenhagen – Nyhavn, the Opera House, Tivoli, the Little Mermaid, Christiania, etc. – can be seen fairly easily over the course of 2-3 days.  A week or a week and a half would be far too long for a casual visit. However, for those who have several weeks to spend and who want to immerse themselves in Copenhagen, the city has a lot to offer.  Copenhagen has an amazing music scene, wonderful festivals, an incredible outdoor, park and BBQ lifestyle in the summer, charming coffee shops and a wealth of small stores and quirky side streets that draw you in and leave you hankering for more.  In summer it is a wonderful cafe city with its ancient cobblestone streets, a young, gorgeous population, vibrantly painted multi-colored buildings, bikes everywhere, and a wealth of outdoor cafes.  The city’s numerous canals and lakes also give it an Amsterdam-like feel, but in a uniquely Danish fashion.

So, to answer your question – I would suggest Denmark, but I would suggest it as part of a larger visit.  Round trip flights to Copenhagen from Berlin, Germany can often be found for less than $70 USD.   Flights from England and France are often only slightly more expensive making it hard to justify not including Copenhagen in an itinerary.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

The Second Oldest Amusement Park in the World – Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

One of Copenhagen’s central tourist attractions, Tivoli Gardens, doubles as a regular destination for locals as well. The amusement park, which is semi-seasonal, is open between mid-April and the end of December each year.  It boasts a variety of wonderful (and comprehensively decorated) themes that change with the seasons while offering a more historical amusement park experience than many visitors may have experienced in the past.

Despite having arrived in Copenhagen back in July, I’m embarrassed to say this was my first trip to Tivoli.  I can’t say I have any good reason for the delay other than that due to my housing and visa woes I missed the initial trip most of my friends and classmates took when we first arrived. Now that I’ve finally made it, I’m definitely sorry it took me as long as it did to make it to the park, and that I’ll have to wait until April to return.  Though, to balance out the long delay, the magical ambiance that went with the holiday decorations and firework show definitely left me with an extremely memorable first time to the park – but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s talk a bit more about the park and its fascinating history.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

While it may be old news to amusement park aficionados, most readers will probably be surprised to learn the Denmark is home to more than just the original Lego Land.  In fact it not only boasts Tivoli, which was founded in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world.  It also serves as home to Dyrehavsbakken located a few miles to the north which is the world’s oldest park with a history dating back to the 1580s, and which I hope to visit (and share with you all) this spring.

The Peacock - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As the story goes Tivoli was initially launched under the rule of King Christian the VIII as an initiative to nurture citizen’s goodwill.   Initially located just outside of the city’s western gate in Vesterport, as the city has grown the park has slowly been incorporated into Copenhagen’s historic downtown.   Throughout its history the park’s owners have consistently focused on maintaining the park’s ambiance and historical allure while working creatively within the park’s limited space to add modern rides and attractions.  It currently boasts twenty five rides, four of which are roller-coasters.  No small accomplishment for a park that takes up just over 20 acres of land.

Little Russia - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Throughout its rich history, Tivoli has left its mark on the entertainment world.  The park served as a heavy inspiration for Walt Disney when he set out to create Disneyland, inspired Hans Christian Anderson as he wrote The Nightingale, and is said to have played a central role in composer Hans Christian Lumbye’s musical career. With its fantastic charm, romantic ambiance, and rich vegetation it’s guaranteed to leave its mark on all who visit.

The Daemon - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

My introduction to the park began just after dark (which comes far too early in Copenhagen in December).  The weather was crisp, but tolerable, and the sky largely cloudless with a beautiful crescent moon.  It was the 29th of December, one day before the park was scheduled to close down until April. I’d arrived after dark to see the park at night, and to make sure I had the chance to see Tivoli’s famous firework show which is put on the last week of December.  The plan was to connect with a classmate and her boyfriend who were both Danish and had offered to introduce me properly to Tivoli.  However, eager to spend some time wandering the park on my own I arrived a few minutes early to snap a few photos and some video.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As I waited for Jonas and Margrethe to arrive my attention was immediately stolen by the rich, deep, sparkling blues of the Pantomime Theater.  The theater is designed in an oriental style, and features a brilliantly colored peacock with sparkling tail.  Built as an outdoor theater, it was designed by Vilhelm Dahlerup who also designed the Royal Danish Theater.  While the theater is known for the peacock’s mechanical tail, which serves as the front curtain, I was immediately distracted by a large stable set up immediately in front where I presume the chairs would normally sit.  In their place a rustic stable had been built served as a temporary home for Santa’s reindeer during daylight hours.  Long since put to bed, a rumbling recording of roaring snores reindeer snores echoed out from the hut, serving as an amusing contrast to the pristine plumage and diamondesque elegance of the Peacock Curtain that served as its backdrop.

Little China - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

From the theater, I quickly wound down through small free standing shops and past Tivoli’s Moorish Palace, which serves as home to the Nimb Hotel and Restaurant.  Then past little Russia with its vibrantly colored  buildings, and out into one of the park’s open areas.  The open space serves as home to two of the park’s large carousels: the Music Carousel and the Swing Carousel, both of which are vibrantly lit at night.  It is also home to the world famous Star Flyer, and the heart tree/kissing tree.

The Lover's Tree - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

To my delight the crescent moon fell squarely amidst the naked branches of the heart tree.  Naked of leaves the large tree cut an impressive silhouette while supporting a number of large, glowing red hearts.  All of which surrounded a beautiful, brilliantly bright crescent moon in the background.  It was delightful, if a bit lonely – definitely one of those places and moments made for a stolen kiss, music to remember and a beautiful travel companion.

Light Show - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Leaving the tree behind, I quickly met up with Jonas where we mad our way immediately to one of the small concession stands for steaming cups of Gløgg/Glögg. Gløgg is a staple of winter life in Denmark.  It consists of mulled red or white wine, often with almonds and raisins in it, is served steaming hot out of large cauldrons.  In many cases it is further fortified with a few shots of hard alcohol.  Jonas opted for the spiced rum, and I followed his lead.  With blood slowly returning to my fingers, we wound into little China Town, beneath the Daemonen – Tivoli’s largest roller coaster – before pausing along Tivoli’s fairly large lake.

Little China - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As Jonas explained some of the park’s history to me we were greeted by a stunning view. The lake’s water was almost perfectly still and the lit buildings, trees, and roller coasters that sit along it cast vibrantly colored reflections. Just as Margrethe arrived music began to play, the lights changed, and fog rolled out over the lake. Then, to my absolute (and perhaps slightly childish) delight a laser and fountain show began. It combined a fun mixture of fog, light, laser webs, music, and even a bit of flame for an enchanting performance that had water, and light dancing across the surface of the lake. We stood mesmerized for the length of the show, despite the cold.

The Lake Lights - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

I mentioned it briefly already when talking about the heart tree, but it bears reiterating. The old trees that decorate Tivoli are fantastic. Especially in winter, devoid of their leaves, and decorated in brilliant arrays of Christmas lights. The trees along the lake cast stunning reflections while simultaneously seeming to be lit by thousands of small, glowing lake fairies.

The Pirate Ship - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Eager to find something for Margrethe to drink, and nearing the bottom of our cups of Gløgg we made our way down and around the far end of the lake, which took us past the park’s impressive pirate ship and then across towards the aptly named Smuggler’s Row.

Tivoli Gardens - Smugglers Row - Copenhagen

Smuggler’s Row has a fun, eclectic feel and serves as home to a number of  permanent food stands and small shops.    As the photo suggests, it has a delightful mixture of oddities and fantastical decorations.

Tivoli Gardens - Smugglers Row - Copenhagen

The crowds had begun to build, and eager to warm up we ducked into a small beer garden that had liter steins of Paulaner beer and just as importantly large heat lamps.  There we sat, chatted, and exchanged stories while warming up and preparing for the evening’s main event.  The firework show.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As we finished our beers and made our way back towards the open space with the heart trees we were shocked to see how much the park had filled up. In the seemingly brief time we had been away, wandering the park, the entire area had filled – shoulder to shoulder – with eager onlookers. We quickly found a small spot with a great view and settled in. Now, I’m not sure what you might be familiar with for firework shows back home, but after spending the holidays and new years here in Denmark, I can promise you that regular residents take their fireworks very, very seriously. As a result the bar is set pretty high for a professional show like Tivoli’s and I’m happy to say they more than delivered. You’ll have to watch the video which is embedded earlier in this post to see them. I’m afraid I was so busy enthralled by the fireworks and recording video I failed to pause and snap a few traditional photos. The backdrop was gorgeous with little Russia to our left, old street lamps in front of us, and the colorfully lit dome at the top of the Star Flyer as the backdrop. The show rivaled anything I’ve seen the city’s put on for the 4th of July back home. The fireworks were colorful, plentiful and of course loud!

My trip to Tivoli was an evening spent in a magical fairy tale land. The park is an absolute delight and has its own unique charm which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you find yourself in Denmark, make sure you set aside an afternoon – or evening – to explore the park and all it has to offer. As an interesting side note, you have different options when purchasing tickets. There is a cheaper, non-ride based ticket which gives you admission to the park – perfect for evenings like mine. Or you can opt for a ride pass which is good throughout the park, and ideal in warmer months when fast rides and daring drops call!  For more information you can view their site at Tivoli.dk.

Have your own experiences, or fun facts from Tivoli? Feel free to share them in a comment. As always, thanks for reading, and please make sure to subscribe for future updates!

The Day I Fell In Love With Copenhagen

Cathedral and Lily Pond - Copenhagen, Denmark

The day started off well.  After an absolutely fantastic evening out on the town, during which my friend Kevan introduced me to Danish nightlife I rolled out of bed and headed to the common area. There I ate breakfast, changed and then set out to meet Kevan at the nearby 7-11. Yep, that’s right. I said 7-11.  Believe it or not they’re everywhere in Scandinavia.  When you think about the primary focus and business model behind the company it makes perfect sense, but you can imagine my shock.  McDonalds? Subway? Burger King?  Sure. Those are expected. But some of the others were definitely a surprise. 7-11 was the main one, but TGI Fridays in Norway was a close second.

A Tall Ship - Copenhagen, Denmark

Kevan had volunteered to play guide and show me around the city.  We met up mid morning and then set out down the main shopping boulevard.  We wound down past city hall, through several large squares and then eventually paused at Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli is a world famous amusement park located in the heart (and I do mean heart) of Copenhagen.  The park opened in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world. Impressive right?  From Tivoli we continued along the boulevard and quickly arrived at the central train station.  The station itself is beautiful.  A large sprawling building, it has most of the traditional charm of early turn of the century trains only unlike many of its peers the station’s massive ceiling is built from and supported by intricate wooden timbers.

Fountain and Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

After making special note of the train station’s location (I’d arrived through the airport, but would be departing by rail) we cut down towards the harbor.  The route wound through ancient cobble-stoned streets, most of which were lined by trees and periodically ballooned into small squares. As Kevan shared random tidbits of Danish history and lessons in local culture we wound past parliament and the new opera house – a beautiful building located along the central waterway which feeds København’s picturesque deceptively named ‘New Harbor’ which was completed in the mid- 1600s.

Main Cathedral - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wound past the harbor I was left with what seemed to be a perpetual grin stuck on my face.  The whole area is a historic district dedicated to old “tall ships”.  As a result, every open space available along the canal has some sort of aged vessel moored in place.

Cathedral's Dome - Copenhagen, Denmark

Some 5-10 minutes later we arrived at Frederick’s Church which is also commonly called the Marble Church.  A large cathedral, it looks and feels very similar to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and boasts the 4th largest dome in Europe as well as the largest dome in Scandinavia. The Cathedral was bright and beautiful with a very clean build and a massive organ. As with most of the great cathedrals throughout Europe and Scandinavia it leaves visitors feeling small, insignificant, and awed.

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

With stomachs rumbling Kevan and I headed back to one of the cafes along the new harbor.  Over the course of our walk the topic of local foods had come up.  To my surprise we’d pieced together that the origin of the US slang smorgasbord (an extremely diverse set of options), has its roots in the Scandinavian Smörgåsbord and more regionally the koldtbord in Denmark.  Kevan suggested a restaurant with a spectacular view of the harbor and then introduced me to a beautifully presented Smörgåsbord.  It featured a delicious dipping sauce, fresh beef, bacon, and fish as well as a delicious chick/potato salad.  Good food is always a plus…good food, a bit of history and an incredible setting? A rare delight!

A Gargoyle - Copenhagen, Denmark

With fully belly’s we struck off towards the Gefion Fountain. A beautiful fountain that depicts the Norse god Gefion in a chariot pulled by a number of large animals.  The fountain sits beside a beautiful small church and a stones throw away from Copenhagen’s old fortress Kastellet, or the citadel.

The Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

The old earthen fortifications are still visible and well maintained.  The wide moat which surrounds them boasts a picturesque mixture of goldfish, swans and lily pads.

Dog with Geese - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we wrapped back around the fortifications and moat towards the main entrance to the fortress we paused briefly to watch a dog at play.  Set to the backdrop of the cathedral, the dog slowly tried to herd a small group of lounging geese.  The geese, who were anything but concerned, slowly made their way into the moat and then floated just out of reach taunting the frustrated dog.

Old Fortress - Copenhagen, Denmark

After crossing a wooden bridge which included a draw-bridge esque component, we passed through the Kings Gate and entered the inner compound.  The compound is still an active military facility with service men on site. As Kevan explained some of the history associated with the fort he also explained that he’d served a portion of his time in the Danish armed forces as a guard – which was a fun insight.

Canon and Bench - Copenhagen, Denmark

Enjoying the brilliant summer weather we continued along the top of the fortification, pausing to take in various sights. Some (like the photo above) reminded me of civil war era-fortifications along the North Eastern part of the U.S. while others were decidedly more modern. The most comical was a view from the fortification wall of the found Danish mermaid statue. Not overly interested in the statue from the get go, I wasn’t terribly disappointed to learn that it had actually been shipped off to the world fair where it was a piece of the Danish pavilion. I was, however, extremely entertained to learn that to make up for it, a webcam had been set up and was broadcasting an imagine of the statue into the harbor where the statue would normally sit.

Windmill - Copenhagen, Denmark

Chuckling, we wrapped along the back half of the fortress wall and paused to take in a large windmill, which dates back to the 1840s and is still operational. The mill was built in case of a siege to aid in the milling of supplies such as flour and rolled oats.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

Starting to feel a bit footsore we wound back the way we’d come, pausing briefly when we stumbled on a gorgeous swan resting along the banks of the fortress moat.  If you could train wild birds for picture perfect moments, the swan would have been a prime contender.  As I paused to snap a series of photos the swan largely ignored me, focused on its grooming and enjoying the afternoon sun.  It was the perfect addition to what was already a picturesque backdrop.

The Old Opera House - Copenhagen, Denmark

Our next destination was the Freetown of Christiania. Our path wound us back past the new harbor, through a large central square, and in front of the original opera hall before we crossed a bridge and wound towards the small section of the city occupied by Christiania.

Locals at Rest - Copenhagen, Norway

The walk towards Christiania was gorgeous.  It took us over the main bridge, and across a second smaller canal which was awash in people resting, socializing and eating.

The Canal - Copenhagen, Denmark

Though slightly less picturesque than their Dutch counterparts, the Danish canal system is absolutely gorgeous and adds a lot of beauty and extra character to Copenhagen.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As we neared Christiania I realized we were near one of the more unique fixtures of the Danish skyline: the Church of our Savior.  To my surprise Kevan mentioned that you could climb the external spiral, which seemed like too tempting an opportunity to pass up.

View from the Spiral - Copenhagen, Denmark

The rout to the top was a long one, but well worth it.  The first half wound through the internal workings of the cathedral, including a large room which holds one of the largest sets of bells in Europe.  From there it broke free into the spiral which starts out fairly wide and slowly wraps upward.  The higher you get the narrower the stair becomes before it is literally absorbed into the top of the spire. While rather difficult to navigate, especially given our collective size (we are both over 6’4″) the view was well worth it.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

After taking a few minutes to enjoy the fresh air, and view of the city we wound back towards the organized chaos of the city. Eager not to get stuck in the bell room when the hour struck, we hustled down the stairs, dodging rafters and ducking past old wooden supports before pausing briefly to watch the massive mechanical clock mechanism slowly crank away.

City Streets - Copenhagen, Denmark

As the afternoon began to slip towards dusk, we reached Christiania.  The area – about the size of a city block is an odd thing. The buildings were originally a Danish military facility which was abandoned in the 60s.  By the 70s, local hippies moved into the area and began to lay claim.  The area has continued to evolve and was largely left alone by the local government. It has developed its own flag, currency, culture, and set of laws. Additionally, it is partially protected by a law passed in 1989 which transfers responsibility for the supervision of the area to the Danish government, instead of the local city.

The City from Above - Copenhagen, Denmark

As a hippy mecca, the area is most famous for having a lax/largely unregulated approach to soft drugs (though all hard drugs have been banned via a local law) and in many ways acts as the Danish equivalent to Amsterdam’s coffee houses.  Weed and Hash are openly sold along the central street from freestanding stalls.  That said, there’s far more to Christiania than just soft drugs.  The area is awash in art, music, crafts and food.  As we walked through the small area, there were a series of musicians performing, sandwiched between shops selling everything from silly tourist knickknacks to a plethora of Christiania-specific items, most of which sport the local flag: A red bar with three yellow dogs. The district even has its own branded beer which is available for purchase.

A Swan at Rest - Copenhagen, Denmark

With mention of things like Dutch Coffee shops and street vendors hawking tubs of marijuana it’s easy to assume that the area would be dangerous, or family unfriendly.  Interestingly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  The area is a creative commune first and foremost, built around mutual respect, investment and cooperation.  As a result, it’s mostly family friendly and not uncommon to see parents with young children at one of the local eateries relaxing, listening to music and grabbing a bite to eat. Hungry, Kevan and I found an open picnic table in an open area, sandwiched between a sculpture from Arthurian legend of a sword in a stone and a large oriental obelisk.  For just under $10 USD (which by Danish standards is dirt cheap) we ordered a delicious flank steak served in a thick portobello mushroom sauce with a side of egg sized boiled potatoes.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

After a hearty meal, it was time to wind our way back towards the hostel.  First, however, we paused at the new harbor where everyone was out and about relaxing and listening to a jazz singer performing at the foot of the canal.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

The golden light of sunset brought out the color in the buildings and boats, and put everything into a magical twilight. As we wandered casually through the crowd, we paused again at one of the small courtyards off of the main harbor.  In the entrance to one of the small museums in the area, another set of musicians were set up and performing.

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

Exhausted, we headed back to the hostel to collect a few of the girls, before heading back out on the town to explore Copenhagen’s night life.  Kevan was a fantastic guide and host who offered a special insight into the city.  I can’t wait to find my way back to Copenhagen and can easily say it is hands down one of the most delightful, friendly, and enjoyable cities I’ve been to.  As far as national capitals go, it is easily one of my top three favorites in the world.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t hesitate! Head to Copenhagen and enjoy everything the city has to offer!