Copenhagen: City of the Old and New / by Shivang Patel

Copenhagen was founded as a small harbor city a millennium ago. The city's name in Danish is København roughly translating to "Merchant's Harbor." Through the ages it has grown and developed in various ways, becoming an important cultural, economical, and political city for not only Denmark, but also for Scandinavia. Because of Copenhagen's long, long history one can see traces of said history throughout the city—something I as an American found slightly enchanting because the relative infantile history of the United States doesn't showcase remnants of centuries past throughout our cities.


Copenhagen is now a very cosmopolitan city in addition to being a metropolis. I knew it was a large city with much history, but until I walked around I didn't realize how diverse it is. There are people of every color and creed throughout Copenhagen and it’s neighborhoods. Whenever there is an influx of immigrants in an area, they tend to bring their respective cultures with them. And food is a huge part of culture. I’ve always said that you can get to know a people through their food. All over Copenhagen, one can find different cuisine—Thai, Moroccan, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Italian, German, etc. This magnitude of diversity is similar to what I’ve seen in New York City. 

Speaking of food, the Nordic countries aren’t particularly known globally for their cuisine, but Danish food, and more generally Nordic food, has been really stepping it up. One can attribute this to the New Nordic food movement and specifically René Redzepi’s world-famous Noma. There has been a trend to eat more local and real food throughout much of the Western world, and that and restaurants like Noma, I think, are a couple of reasons why Nordic food is being elevated in Copenhagen. This is not only true of Michelin star restaurants, but also of street food. A great example of this is Copenhagen Street Food—a warehouse on Papirøen (Paper Island) that has been transformed to a market with dozens of street food vendors. Located close to the aforementioned Noma and the popular tourist area, Nyhavn, Copenhagen Street Food provides one with a taste of not only delicious Danish foods like smørrebrød, but also local craft beer and tastes from all over the world due to the rich diversity of the city. One can grab some food, a pint of beer, sit by the harbor, and listen to live music with friends. This place was definitely my favorite in the city.

Balancing the old and the new, and successfully, is the anthem of Copenhagen. This is not only seen with food, but also with other aspects of culture, specifically music. There are lots of clubs and underground venues where one can go and listen to the latest European electronic music like deep house. Copenhagen, being a major European city, also has a vibrant classical music scene with more historic art forms like opera. Right by Copenhagen Street Food and across the water from Amalienborg, a Danish royal palace, is The Copenhagen Opera House (Operaen). The Operaen allows this older art form to thrive nowadays, but the building itself is actually of modern architecture—an interesting example of Copenhagen’s balancing act in terms of its architecture.


Throughout the city, there a balanced combination of new and old architecture. Much of the modern architecture is seen along the harbors as there is more land there that can be developed, but modern and post-modern architecture can be seen throughout the city. There is also lots of historical architecture all over the city. One can see examples of Gothic, Baroque, Rocco, and Neoclassical buildings, which feels like stepping back into time. The important thing is that Copenhagen has been able to balance the old and new and have them co-exist beautifully, unlike other European cities I’ve seen thus far e.g. Malmö.

My final note on Copenhagen’s balancing act is in terms of health. Personal and environmental. All over the city, there are many efforts to be as green as possible. Whether that be the extensive recycling or the many electricity-generating windmills along the harbors. Danes also bike quite a bit, reducing pollution. But these super-fashionable bunch make up for their reduction in automobile emissions by smoking out the wazoo. Practically everywhere one will people smoking cigarettes. And it’s not just the older generations who grew up seeing the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, but it is also younger people. I saw my peers, 20-somethings, and even younger people smoking. One could tell by the way that some of the kids popped a cigarette in between their lips and let it droop that smoking was the “cool thing to do.” Smoking, I don't think, is banned public places like how it is back home. For being so green (especially in Christiania) and progressive, Danes really do love their cigarettes. 

Other notes: transportation in Copenhagen is great. A third of the residents commute to work via bicycle, so there are bikes everywhere. The city has done a good job of making sure there are separate automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian lanes throughout much of the city. One can also rent bicycles easily. I used Bycyklen, and it was easy to sign up. I also used their great bus/metro system. It’s the best and most convenient way to get around the entire greater Copenhagen area. I was able to get a 72-hour unlimited-use pass at the airport (you can get it at many of the metro stations) for 200 Danish kroner (~$30 USD).

Overall, I absolutely loved Copenhagen. Like the rest of Scandinavia the prices for things are slightly inflated than one sees in the United States, but the city has so, so much to offer for whatever kind of adventure one is seeking. Copenhagen is a dynamic cosmopolitan, and I’m excited to see how it has grown and evolved the next time I have the opportunity to visit.