Roughly six months ago, my boss (who’s a huge travel buff) gave me and my team a heads-up about some crazy cheap airfares to Europe and that he didn’t know how long this deal would last. The opportunity was too good to pass up and the decision was easy. Sam and I had been planning a Scandinavian dream trip for a couple years that we hoped one day we could go on. As it turned out, that opportunity came much sooner than we anticipated. Copenhagen was our destination of choice and we purchased our tickets that same day.
My fellow Americans are probably wondering “why Scandinavia?” or “why Copenhagen?” specifically. The answer is simple. Sam and I are in love with Scandinavian culture, especially when it comes to design. Denmark and more specifically Copenhagen is pretty much at the center of the world of Scandinavian design. In this day-and-age of sprawling metropolises with skyscrapers dominating the skyline, the city is pretty unique too. Only a few buildings in Copenhagen rise more than a few stories tall. Public transportation is fantastic, even by European standards. Between metro trains and bicycles, there’s basically nowhere in the city you can’t easily get to within 20 minutes, even during rush hour. And of course, how can you not want to visit a place consistently ranked in the top 3 happiest places in the world?
Hygge and the Home We Stayed In
It’s nearly impossible to read an article about Denmark and not see something about hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) and this post is no exception. We don’t really have a word in English that perfectly captures the concept of hygge. “Cozy” is probably as close as we come. Hygge describes a feeling that Dane’s are constantly trying to achieve: a feeling of general well-being and contentedness, as well as an appreciation of the little thing in life, such as the value of good company. During the short, cold days of winter, hygge helps keep the sadness at bay. When I think of hygge, I picture sitting with my wife in a small dimly lit coffee shop in the middle of winter kept warm by a crackling fire in the back of the room.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) we did not visit during peak Hygge season although you could certainly still feel the vibe.
It could have been due to the fact that we’d been traveling for nearly 10 hours straight, or possibly that once we arrived the temperatures were in the low 50s and rainy, but when we walked in the front door of our AirBnb it was like coming home.
As we settled into our flat, the heat was already pumping and morning in Copenhagen was just starting. As much as we were chomping at the bit to get out and explore the city we were in desperate need of some rest. I know that traditional wisdom says to stay up as long as possible when traveling across time zones, hopefully making it to nighttime at your destination, but believe me, we needed this. I had been fighting a cold for the past few days and ended up napping for three hours. When I did finally wake, we were really able to start taking it all in.
The flat where we stayed was in the fairly shady, turned very hipster, neighborhood of Vesterbro, which sits just west of downtown. By American standards, the accommodations were very small but in typical Danish fashion the space was used economically and felt cozy yet open at the same time.
The shelves were stocked with a wide variety of literature, from old Monocle magazines to novels to travel guides. In a book about hygge I read before our trip it had talked Danes love of unscented candles. At the time I thought it was a peculiar generalization, that it seemed unlikely that it was THAT common. However, sure enough, nestled between the books on one of the wall-mounted shelves was a box FULL of tall, white, unscented candles.
One thing that instantly stood out to me was the seating in the living room. In the corner of the room, running along two walls and under one of the windows, was a sectional couch. It was a bit different from what we’d expect to see stateside. This couch had no back but plenty of pillows and a couple of comfy blankets. This furniture was obviously intended for comfort. It’s placement near the window made it a great place to hang out and read a book while pausing to look out to see the constant flow of people on bicycles.
Heading out into the city
As the rain gave way to sunny skies we felt rested enough to leave the flat and head out into the city. It was only a short walk to Carlsburg Station (yes that Carlsburg, we could actually see the old headquarters and brewery from our window). From there it was a short 7 minute train ride to Copenhagen Central.
As you step out of the station there is no doubt about what city you are in, with the famous Tivoli Gardens right across the street. For me, this was my “not in Kansas anymore” moment.
Knowing we’d be pretty exhausted, Sam and I didn’t plan anything for the first day so we ended up wandering into Strøget.
Shopping in Strøget
Due to the proximity of Strøget to where we were staying, we ended up spending a fair bit of time in this area during our stay. To be honest this area is VERY touristy (not that it’s a bad thing). It’s was a perfect place to start our adventure. Strøget is basically one huge outdoor shopping mall filled mostly with chain retailers such as Zara and Levi’s. That being said, this part of town is great for relaxing and people watching. The streets are always full of tourists and locals alike. It’s here where it really struck me, how much more fashionable the average European is compared to Americans. Hay House and Illum were the highlights of this area for me.
Modern Danish design is alive and well at HAY House. For those unaware, HAY is a design house that carries a wide range of home goods. There was plenty of furniture Sam and I would have loved to bring home, but sadly that just wasn’t an option. One item that really stood out to me was their line of TVs. I’ve always thought of how electronics nowadays are lifeless pieces of black plastic and glass. Gone are the days where your TV was considered a piece of furniture, often decked out in wood to match the rest of the living room. These televisions were a spiritual successor to those TVs of old.
We ended up walking out with small trinkets. A toothbrush for me (I had forgot mine) and matches and notebooks for Sam.
Illum Bolighus or “Illum” was like no shop I’ve ever seen. Really it was more of a department store than anything. Danish design was the common thread shared by the wide range of items here. We actually just stumbled upon this place (although Sam had read about it). The top floor was adjoined at the top to the Royal Copenhagen flagship store (where we has just been). So on our first trip there we worked our way from the top down. Sam fell in love with all baby furniture and toys (uh oh haha) while I was more drawn to all the Bang & Olufsen speakers. As much as I would have like to buy everything there we ended up leaving empty handed.
During our entire 10 day visit, it really only rained twice, which according to the locals is unheard of for Denmark in May. On one of those days we decided to keep things low-key. We had a late start to the day, hopping on the train to make our way to Grundtvigs Kirke (Church). The church itself was nestled in a quiet residential area of the city and as we made our way there I couldn’t help but think of how peculiar it was to have such a grand church there. The rain was little more than a slight drizzle by the time we arrived. The exterior was impressive compared to the surrounding buildings, rising at least a couple stories higher than anything nearby. In typical Danish fashion, the church was elegant but subdued. The interior was reminiscent of a renaissance cathedral minus the ornate paintings and sculptures or really any sign of gaudiness. Also, instead of stone, the entire structure was made from brick. This was one of the most impressive things to me, that these long organic curves leading up into the cavernous ceiling were made of such an ordinary building material.
Brund – Jeans & Boots
After attempting to capture what we could of the Church in photos we made our way back to the station. Before heading back to the city center we jumped off the train at Nordhavn Station to pay a visit to Brund; a small shop specializing in two of my favorite things: Red Wings and denim. While many of the brands they carried were American they also carried some European brands, such as Indigofera and Edwin, that until then I hadn’t had the chance of seeing in person including. After browsing for a while I settled on an Edwin flight jacket.
Before finalizing the purchase I had the chance to meet Peter; the store manager. Like many of the people we came across in Denmark and Sweden he was very friendly. He was obviously very proud of the business and how unique it was to the area. We probably spent a good 20 minutes talking about our passion for heritage goods. Before leaving he gave us a suggestion for lunch. The suggestion was a vegetarian restaurant run by a few Australians called Souls. Unfortunately, I was starving at this point so I didn’t get any photos of the food but it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Roughly half way through our vacation Sam and I made a day trip across the channel into Malmö. This was purely a shopping trip as there were a couple shops I wanted to visit here as well the Emporia mall which Sam had her eyes on.
After grabbing a quick bite to eat we stopped at Meadow. I felt right at home here. Aside from the American heritage clothing staples they carried a number of regional brands such as Wrenchmonkees, Norse Projects, and Livid. After trying on a few pairs of Denim I tried Livid and fell in love. The fit was perfect and small details such as lined back pockets sold me. As I was ringing up my purchase, talking to Peter about what brought Sam and I to Malmö, Christopher, who had been working in the back, overheard our conversation. He remembered I had left a comment on their Instagram a couple weeks prior about our upcoming visit. As we talked for a few minutes another customer made his way into the shop. It was none other than Svant (you may know him better by his IG handle: @theurbanhippieswe). Christopher asked if we had met. We hadn’t but I had instantly recognized him. After chatting for a few minutes longer Christopher was kind enough to snap a photo of us for Svant’s Instagram and Sam and I continued on our way.
Our next stop was Sage. Of all the clothing shops we visited this was certainly the smallest. However, what they lacked in square footage, they made up for in curation. Every piece deserved it’s spot in the shop. I did get a bit of a kick out of seeing Velva Sheen (a Cincinnati brand) so far from home. Just as the other shopkeepers and owners were so kind, Johanna was no exception. Part way through our visit, who else but our new friend Svant popped into the shop. This time we had the chance to chat longer, mostly talking about how social media and more specifically Instagram has been such a great place for this community we are a part of and how Brands such as theirs can reach people they never thought possible. I ended up walking out with a knit cap from Andersen & Andersen and a new brass hook for my Workman Wallet from Standard pattern.
While the city was beautiful and the food was great, if you were to ask me what stood out most I would, hands-down, say it was the people. I’ve never visited a place where so many people were interested in having genuine conversation and were so willing to be helpful without being asked.
I hope to revisit our vacation on the blog at some point in the near future.