It was 11AM in the morning, and we had just finished a typically expensive Danish breakfast.
Victor: “What should we do today?”
Kai: “I don’t know. I guess we can just… walk around?”
Eric, Victor, and I were totally unprepared for our trip to Copenhagen. We would be in the area for the next three days, but we had no idea what to see in Copenhagen. I probably couldn’t even locate the city on a world map. We joked that this unpreparedness was characteristic of trips involving the three of us, because if we had even one mature person in the group we would have planned everything out beforehand and gone off early in the morning to see exciting things. And we probably wouldn’t be in Copenhagen.
Flashback to two weeks ago, when we were scrambling to finish booking our trip to Berlin.
Kai: “Let’s also go somewhere next week because that fits with my schedule.”
Victor: “Well we can’t go to Spain because Spain is nicer in the Spring… And we can’t go to Iceland because Iceland is too cold until the Spring… And we can’t go to Russia because it’s probably nicer in the Spring… And we’d probably get detained or something. What about… Copenhagen?”1
Eric/Kai: “Ok, sure, why not.”
A lot of my decisions in life happen with little foresight and planning. To be honest, even coming to Oxford was initially a spontaneous decision. When Victor first brought up the idea at the beginning of sophomore year, I agreed that it would be fun and applied. A few months later, I actually decided to study at Oxford without really knowing why. Given how the experience has been so far, I do think it’s been well worth it, but I definitely got lucky. A lot of the reasons I’ve liked Oxford were not reasons I ever thought about when I decided to study abroad.
Sure enough, Copenhagen turned out to be another case of getting lucky without planning anything.
The three of us landed at the Copenhagen airport in the evening and immediately went hunting for food. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that food in Denmark is quite expensive. Being at an airport certainly didn’t help, but small hot dogs cost around $10 and small bottles of water cost $3. We ended up settling on eating at Burger King, where I paid just under $15 for a burger, chicken nuggets, fries, and a drink.
We found our way to the hostel fairly easily via the metro system. When the hostel offered us complimentary breakfast for $8, we took it immediately.
Eric had a phone interview at 4PM, so he spent almost the entire day in the hostel preparing. This led to the situation described at the beginning of this blog post, where Victor and I had a full day in Copenhagen with absolutely zero idea of what to do. And so, we walked around.
Our first official destination was the Rosenberg castle, and on our way there from the hostel, we passed by the first of many rivers, which are my favorite part of Copenhagen.
I’m going to pause briefly to talk about how much I love Copenhagen’s rivers and water. Most bodies of water in Copenhagen are clean, calm, and dyed a deep shade of blue. The water is pure and undisturbed, and it soothes all the tension in me whenever I look at it. Combined with the refreshing feel of the brisk air, being near water in Copenhagen is just incredibly invigorating. Watching ripples of water propagate perfectly across the surface of a lake as a swan swims by reminds me of just how precise and beautiful nature is.2
My clumsy prose doesn’t really do it justice, but the water is just amazing. Danish people are so lucky.
Back to the journey. This wide river was teeming with swans and ducklings, and yet its surface was serene. The backdrop of tidy and colorful houses made it even more idyllic.
After crossing over the river, we stopped by a grocery store called Netto where we finally found reasonably priced supplies (2L of water for $0.60), before proceeding to the castle. The castle itself wasn’t too impressive, but the park that housed it was quite nice.
Next, we went to Nyhavn, formerly Copenhagen’s Red Light District, but now just two colorful rows of houses separated by a canal.3
We wandered South along the Eastern side of the main Copenhagen island before crossing into Christianshavn. We didn’t know it at the time, but Christianshavn is essentially the Brooklyn to Copenhagen’s Manhattan. It’s filled with hipsters and gang-affiliated drug dealers, as well as scenic jogging trails and amazing sights. We were initially just intending to walk to the park near the river, but as we were passing through the city, we noticed a tall building that reminded me of something I had seen out of my high school history textbook.
I don’t know too many famous Danish people, but both Victor and I were fans of the astronomer Tycho Brahe. We knew that he had a planetarium dedicated to him in the city, and for some reason, we believed that this building might be it. Thus, we took an unplanned detour to this building, which turned out to be…
Ok, a church isn’t exactly a planetarium, but it wasn’t too bad to be there. We went inside and took pictures of the large organ and its fancy chandeliers.
As we were about to leave the church, we saw an open door and stairs leading upwards. Next to the door was a sign reading “Tower not open until February 28th,” but who reads signs?
We clambered up the steps behind two other equally confused tourists. At every turn, I expected to be greeted with a locked door, but strangely every door we encountered was open. We climbed and climbed up rickety wooden stairs, through large unlocked doors and small unlocked doors, and past broken stone angels and clocktower contraptions. At some point, mechanical gears whirred around us as a window opened, letting sunlight stream into the winding stairwell.
Finally, a mysterious woman passed us and the other tourists on the staircase. A minute later, the other tourists turned back, saying to each other that the woman had told them not to proceed any further. Undeterred, we proceeded onwards.
The staircase became steeper, narrower, and windier, and we passed by other strange sights, including a broken stone dove. Near the end, the stairs became so narrow that only the front of our feet could fit on each step. Finally, we found a door that led outside. After making sure that the door would not lock us out, we ventured onto the balcony area.
Golden railings adorned with ornate designs surrounded us as the wind swirled around us. We now stood on top of the church’s spire. From where we were, we could see the entirety of Copenhagen and beyond. If anyone looked up at the church, they would have seen two silly study abroad students desperately trying not to drop their phones while creating new Snapchat stories.
We even climbed to the top of the spiral staircase, where the stairs eventually became too narrow for humans to walk on and ended in the big golden ball.
Suddenly, the church’s clock tower sounded around us. We snapped back to reality and decided that for safety, we should probably go back downstairs after just a few more photos. When we reached the ground floor, we were surprised to see the other two tourists also waiting there. When they saw us, they explained why.
Tourists: “The door is locked.”
Tourists: “We can’t get out.”
We tried a few other doors nearby, but none of them led out. At least we weren’t locked out on the church spire’s balcony. In the worst case, we could probably call Eric after his interview and ask him to bust us out somehow.
The door being open initially and then closing when we returned was perplexing. Strangest of all, however, was that we didn’t see the mysterious woman who passed us on the staircase ever again. She was supposed to be in front of me and Victor the whole time, as we only saw the other two tourists turn back, but we never saw her on our way up to the very top.
Before I had too much time to think about the situation, a man heard our conservation and opened the door. We all apologized for accidentally wandering into the tower despite signs telling us not to do so, and left the church happily. It’s safe to say that this was my favorite part of the Copenhagen trip. And, like so many things in life, it was unplanned.
After the church adventure, we meandered through a park, which used to be a series of battlements, along the banks of another river. Once again, it was breathtaking. I would run here as often as I could if I lived in Denmark.
After crossing back into Copenhagen, we wandered past a strange slide.
Victor then had to charge his phone, so we found a nice looking building and went inside to find an outlet. We probably looked like hobos sitting there on the ground next to the outlet, and a security guard came to ask us what we were doing.
We explained our situation to him, and he explained that the building we entered was a private building and that we weren’t technically supposed to be in there. I think he felt bad for us and was amused enough to let us charge our phones for 15 minutes. While Victor sat on his butt and texted and I randomly performed ADT choreography, tens of people dressed in suits exited the building. We later realized that we were in Nykredit’s main office. Nykredit is basically the Goldman Sachs of Denmark.
I’m going to take another moment here to say that Danish (and Swedish) people are really nice in general. The security guard at the airport joked with us while he explained how the metro system worked. The people checking us into the hostel were super friendly, and the Nykredit security guard let two American blokes loiter around in front of some of the richest people in Denmark.
We then found made our way to the Tivoli Gardens, the world’s second oldest amusement park, which was unfortunately closed.
It was around dinnertime, and we decided to eat… Burger King.
At night, we met up with Eric at Kastellet, but it was too dark to see much. We found a gas fire inside and spent the next hour making a series of Snapchat videos for Eric and taking photos through an octagonal hole in the wall. It was getting chilly, so we returned to the hostel soon afterwards. Victor and I spent the rest of the night trying to convince Eric to go clubbing with us at a place called Rust, but after Berlin, Eric was never listening to any of our great ideas ever again.
On the second day, the three of us went on a standard guided city tour. Our tour guide told us some funny things about Denmark, including:
- During exchanges of political power, politicians give each other gifts and troll each other. For example, the former Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, once took a controversial selfie with Barack Obama that made Michelle Obama very unhappy. As a parting gift, the new Prime Minster gifted Helle Thorning-Schmidt a selfie stick. In return, she gave him a pair of expensive socks to mock his infamous comments about $300 shoes not being that expensive.
- The Danish prince consort Henrik, the husband of the Danish queen, has a terrible Danish accent. Henrik always wanted to be king but could not become king by law. When the queen announced his retirement from politics, the Danish people began chanting “King Henrik! King Henrik!” to mock him.
- There are two female weather girl statues in the city center plaza that are supposed to tell you whether it’s going to rain or not based on which statue is standing outside. They stopped working 5 years ago, and the Danish decided that it wasn’t worth fixing because the weather is too unpredictable anyways.
- A Danish church took 150 years to build because they just stopped building it 30 years in when the architect died, and they just didn’t want to finish it for a long time.
- There are 3 iterations of the Christianborg palaces, where the different branches of government are located. The second one burned down because firefighters were deemed too dirty to walk on the palace carpet.
- The tour guide re-enacted the Danish encounter with the Germans in World War II.
Tour guide: “The German tanks are approaching, and the Danish soldiers with machine guns are trying to defend. Pew! Pew! Pew! Ok, nevermind, this isn’t working, let’s surrender.”
- The Danish fleet was destroyed by the British fleet early on in the Napoleonic Wars when they didn’t side with Britain. The Danes then cut down all of the oak trees in the land to rebuild their fleet in just 6 years. The British then came back and destroyed their entire fleet again.
After the tour, we saw the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, which is honestly one of the most disappointing tourist attractions ever.
There were a lot of picturesque sights nearby, though.
For dinner, we went back to the area near the Tivoli Gardens where we had… yup. Burger King. At night, Eric and I went to see a Joshua Radin concert, which was actually pretty enjoyable even though Eric and I were probably the two youngest people there.
On the third and final full day, we took a train to Malmo, a Swedish city just across the ocean from the Copenhagen airport. In Malmo we saw some random colorful statues and a slightly disappointing castle. While wandering around, we encountered a really large and peaceful park. We found a small grove of neatly arranged trees, and we affectionately nicknamed it the “danktuary.” The park bordered the ocean, and we made a short stop at a wooden pier that reminded me of Pacifidlog town from Pokemon. A cold bath and sauna resort was at the end of the pier, and we saw quite a few naked men there.
We then stopped by the Turning Torso, a strangely shaped residential building that towered over everything else in Malmo.
Overall, Malmo was a pretty quiet area, but it was a nice place nevertheless. At dinnertime I finally convinced Eric and Victor that we shouldn’t go to Burger King again, and we went to an authentic local soup shop called Spoonery. At Spoonery a nice female customer talked to us. She introduced herself as a soccer player, and after a bit of discussion we found out that she graduated from Stanford. Later, we searched her up and identified her as Ali Riley from the New Zealand woman’s soccer team.
That was the end of our stay in Malmo, and after picking our bags up from the hostel, we went to the airport to fly home. We had a few leftover Danish krone, and naturally, we spent it on Burger King.
Here’s a few more random things I’ll remember from this trip
Sometime on this trip, I showed Victor and Eric how to play with panorama photos. These are some of the results.
We purchased 3-day tourist passes at the airport which made public transportation incredibly easy. I’m sorry for always talking about this, but European public transport is just so much better than US public transport that it has not ceased to amaze me. Denmark’s trains also have chairs that fold up, like movie theater chairs, which makes so much sense.
I also found it interesting that the roads in Denmark are divided into three separate lanes of equal width – pedestrian lanes, bike lanes, and car lanes. The ratio of bikes to cars is high enough that this change is justified.
It’s a small world
At the hostel, I overheard two girls talking about MIT. After joining their conversation, I found out that one of the girls, Golda, was very good friends with Aaron Rose, my freshman year roommate. At the Copenhagen airport’s Burger King, I ran into my CPW friend Eric Ouyang, who happened to be visiting Copenhagen for Valentine’s Day weekend.
Food (is expensive)
We had Burger King 4 times over the course of 4 days. America’s power in the world is far-reaching, and it’s most easily seen through the spread of our consumer culture, which I believe is symbolized by our fast food.
I was on a quest to eat local cuisine, but it was virtually impossible to find. We had Smørrebrød, an open-faced Danish sandwich, for lunch one day, but it was just like any other sandwich you’d find in a cafeteria. We couldn’t find any of the local meatballs, and the only local food we could locate was served in expensive Michelin star restaurants.
Other than Burger King, our food consisted of takoyaki from 7/11, falafels, and a hotdog from a food cart.
The meal at Spoonery in Sweden was the only local food that I enjoyed.
If Hawaii and California didn’t exist…
During our trip, it became evident that we were travelers with an empire state of mind (i.e. walking speed) in a place much more suited to a slower pace of living. I don’t think I’d work in Denmark, but it’s a wonderful and calm place with great views. The people all seem pretty happy with their lives. If it weren’t so cold and the food weren’t so expensive, I’d consider retiring here.
(1) We also forgot that we’ll probably be coming back to Copenhagen in May. Yay for planning.
(2) This apparently reminds my mom of the recent detection of gravitational waves, and so she requested that I put this footnote in. Yay for science.
(3) This is Copenhagen’s #1 rated tourist attraction.