On a grey, windy Sunday afternoon, customers seeking warmth file into Grod, a restaurant specializing in porridge. In the tiny dining room, which resembles a sparsely furnished basement apartment, regulars pull their stools up to wooden tables. They laugh and chat over belated breakfasts of oatmeal topped with apples and flax seed, or savoury barley risotto with ribbons of kale and pink, pickled radish.
This comforting gruel has become curiously trendy in Copenhagen. The restaurant's popularity on Jaegersborggade, one of the hippest streets in the city, is undeniable proof.
The fact that porridge – porridge! – is fashionable is almost as unexpected as Copenhagen's own surge on the world's trend-o-meter. The Danish capital, whose historical claims to fame include fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid sculpture his classic fable inspired, is at last earning international recognition for its more contemporary attractions – its cuisine, art, design, architecture and general laid-back, down-to-earth way of life.
Of course, the Danes have long been ahead of the curve in these regards; the rest of us have merely been slow to catch on. The "New Nordic Cuisine" movement, characterized by fresh, organic and locally produced and foraged ingredients, has been redefining Danish gastronomy for the better part of a decade. Copenhagen's crowning restaurant Noma has been around since 2003, but it wasn't until 2010 that it earned the title of world's best restaurant, attracting international jet-setting gastronomes and inspiring imitators across the globe. Moreover, the city's designers and architects have been creating functional and elegant, minimalist works since at least the 1950s, when the aesthetics of legendary architect-designer Arne Jacobsen and Jorn Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, took off.
Copenhagen's vibe is largely characterized by a blend of thoughtfulness, pragmatism and creativity.
Take, for example, its famous network of eco-friendly cycling lanes – a feat of urban planning and the envy of other major cities. About 35 per cent of residents use its 390 kilometres of bike paths to commute to work and school every day. Pedal power isn't just the preferred mode of transportation for the masses either; even the country's political leaders and members of the Danish royal family may be spotted sharing the bike lanes with everyone else.
For visitors, cycling is arguably the cleanest, most convenient way to get around. And thanks to an initiative called Bycyklen Kobenhavn, it costs nothing to borrow a bike. Like using a shopping cart, you simply deposit a 20-krones coin (about $3.40) to unlock a bike and ride anywhere within the city centre. You then reclaim your 20 krones when you return it.
If sightseeing on foot is more your style, try a guided jog with Running Copenhagen. Founder Lena Andersson came up with these running tours as a smart solution for anyone who hates skipping workouts while travelling. You can break a sweat and explore the city without getting lost. Andersson, a knowledgeable guide and cheerful running companion, offers several different routes. For first-timers to the city, her leisurely eight-kilometre introduction to Copenhagen ensures brief stops at all the highlights, including Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish parliament; Nyhavn, the charming canal area that Hans Christian Andersen once called home and where he is said to have written The Princess and the Pea; and the famous sculpture of the Little Mermaid, who sits on a rock in the city's beautiful and astonishingly clean harbour. (So clean that residents swim in it in the warmer months.)
Once you've worked up an appetite, there is no shortage of good things to eat. Here again, Copenhagen's culinary scene reflects the city's appreciation for sustainability and forward thinking – and its distaste for fussiness and opulence. An amuse bouche at the restaurant Radio, established by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, exemplifies this perfectly; it consists of a bite-sized diamond of raw cucumber, dipped in yogurt and sprinkled with dried seaweed. The sheer simplicity and harmony of flavours is astounding, and it sets the tone for a meal that may change the way you think about food. Dishes are pared down to only three or four components, consisting of deftly combined, high-quality local ingredients, which provide evidence that less is definitely more.
Similarly, the cozy Manfreds & Vin, owned by chef Christian Puglisi, formerly of Noma, demonstrates that magic can be made of just a few great ingredients. Although the restaurant is deservedly known for its ox tartar, the vegetable dishes here really shine. A plate of crispy salad stems, topped with watercress and sunflower seeds is simultaneously refreshing and comforting. Green beans with slivers of salty anchovies burst with flavour.
Fabulous food can be found elsewhere, even when you're eating on the run. Recently, locals have developed a renewed appetite for smorrebrod, or Danish open-faced sandwiches on rye. Traditionally a hearty lunch for agricultural workers, these sandwiches have been given a gourmet upgrade, with toppings such as smoked mackerel and tomato compote, or roast beef and delicate, crispy onion straws. One of the most renowned places to order smorrebrod is Aamanns, in the district of Osterbro. (Aamanns is opening a location in New York this fall.) But you can also find smorrebrod – and a whole lot more, including fresh produce, baked goods and specialty items – at the bustling Torvehallerne market, which brings together many of the city's fine food purveyors.
Like many cities, Copenhagen reveals its true charms through its neighbourhoods. In the southwest area of Vesterbro, you'll find funky art galleries and eateries tucked within the meatpacking district. A short walk away, you'll find indie boutiques, tiny cafés and wine bars as you walk along Istegade street, just west of the red-light district. In Norrebro, to the north, you can take in the friendly, artsy, easygoing atmosphere of Jaegersborggade. Meanwhile in the eastern district of Christianshavn, you can venture into the odd, hippie enclave of Christiania, a self-dubbed "free town" that was created in the 1970s and declared an independent mini-state. (Despite numerous attempts by Danish authorities to clear out this renegade community over the years, Christiania endures, along with the open sale of cannabis within its walls.)
Even the suburbs of Copenhagen are far from mundane. The new outer district of Orestad is well worth a visit for architecture enthusiasts. The flat landscape, surrounded by protected parkland, is studded with eye-popping, futuristic structures such as the Orestad Gymnasium, the Bella Sky Comwell Hotel, and the Tietgen student dormitory.
Ask locals what the secret is to Copenhagen's cool factor, and their answers will vary. Some will tell you it has something to do with their love of hygge, a concept that translates roughly to conviviality, which pervades its culture and design sensibility. Some will suggest that in a small country with limited natural resources, Danes are forced to rely on creativity and an open mind to the outside world. Still others believe the economic woes plaguing Europe have boosted appreciation for Denmark's modest and level-headed approach to life. It's no wonder the United Nations declared Denmark the happiest country in the world this year, based on measures such as health, social support and the absence of corruption.
But if you spend a few days here in the capital, you'll come to realize that most residents aren't too concerned about analyzing what makes their city cool. They'd rather just enjoy it.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Hotel Kong Arthur By purchasing carbon offsets, this cozy hotel became carbon neutral in 2008 and has been minimizing its environmental footprint, without compromising on comfort, ever since. It even lets guests rent its electric car. Norre Sogade 11; 45-3311-1212; kongarthur.dk
Bella Sky Comwell Hotel This modern hotel exemplifies cutting-edge Danish design and architecture. Whether or not you like its style, you'll appreciate the thought that went into designing every detail. Bella Sky also has a women's-only floor. Center Boulevard 5; 45-3247-3000, bellaskycomwell.dk
Where to eat: Radio Created by Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma, this cool, chic restaurant is one of the city's best. Don't let the kitchen's restraint fool you. The food here isn't fussy; it's phenomenal. Julius Thomsens Gade 12; 45-2510-2733; restaurantradio.dk
Manfreds & Vin Noma alum Christian Puglisi opened this casual eatery as the little sister to his acclaimed Relae Restaurant across the street. The service is friendly and while it's not a vegetarian restaurant, Manfreds will give you a whole new appreciation for veggies. Jaegersborggade 40; 45-3696-6593; manfreds.dk
Restaurant Koefoed This elegant restaurant specializes in using ingredients from the tiny Danish island of Bornholm, a renowned source of fine food due to its agriculture-friendly geography. Landgreven 3; 45-5648-2224; restaurant-koefoed.dk
The writer travelled courtesy of VisitDenmark, Wonderful Copenhagen and Air Canada.