While Rudy explained at breakfast that I should pour the granola over the thick yogurt, Annette decorated my wife’s crispy flatbread with a pickled herring. Rudy and Annette, who were renting us a room in their Copenhagen flat, then told us that they put the foil on the breakfast table so their guests wouldn’t feel guilty about sneaking away with a sandwich for lunch. The Danes creatively share ways for travelers to sample their culture without going broke.
Staying in a B&B lets me travel better because of — not in spite of — my tight budget. While the cheapest Danish hotels cost much more, I enjoy double the cultural intimacy and just as much comfort for about half the price ($90 for a double with breakfast) by staying at a B&B.
The Danes love things hyggelig (hew-glee) — that’s cozy. Even with a million people, Copenhagen — Scandinavia’s largest city — feels hyggelig. Where else would Hans Christian Andersen, a mermaid statue, Europe’s first great amusement park, and lovingly decorated open-face sandwiches be the icons of a major capital?
For the tourist, Copenhagen is compact. After a busy day cruising the canals, touring its palace, and strolling a shop-lined pedestrian boulevard called the Strøget, you’ll feel right at home.
Start your city visit at Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square), the bustling heart of Copenhagen. This used to be the fortified west end of town. The king cleverly quelled a French revolutionary type thirst for democracy by giving his people Europe’s first great public amusement park, Tivoli, in 1843, just beyond the walls. When the train lines came, the station was built next door to Tivoli — for the best possible access to all the fun.
Today the walls and moats of Copenhagen are long gone. They’re replaced by a ring of lush parks and tranquil lakes — so appreciated by the nearly naked sunbathers who savor the short Danish summer — oblivious to all the history that surrounds them.
The train station, Tivoli, and City Hall huddle together. From there, the Strøget pedestrian street stretches through the heart of the old merchant’s harbor to the old sailor’s quarter, a 15 minute walk away — but don’t rush it.
Nyhavn, formerly a sleazy sailors’ quarter, lounges comfortably around its canal. A few lonely tattoo parlors and smoky taverns stubbornly defend their salty turf against a rising tide of trendy, expensive cafés. Glamorous sailboats fill the canal. Any historic sloop is welcome to moor here, temporarily joining the fleet that makes up Copenhagen’s ever-changing boat museum, a scene of modern-day Vikings gone soft.
While tattoos were once the mark of crusty old sailors, today they are Viking chic. Young Danish bodybuilders showing off muscles, tans, and tattoos, clog the harborside promenade working their way through cases of local beer. The scene is off-putting to many tourists who don’t realize that, in a land with astronomical taxes on serving alcohol in bars, this is just the only affordable way for the normal working class gang to “go out” for a few beers. I consider the outdoor beer consumption in Denmark no different than the consumption in an English pub — just without the building.
The city’s most famous (and photographed) citizen, the Little Mermaid, sits demurely on her walk a few blocks further away, posing patiently for all the tour groups and wondering when a prankster will steal her head again.
If your rambles whet your appetite for history, the excellent and curiously enjoyable National Museum traces the Danish civilization from its ancient beginnings. English explanations make the prehistoric passage graves, mummified Viking bodies with armor and weapons, the rustic yet mysteriously exquisite 2,000 year old Gunderstrup Cauldron, ancient lur horns that still can be played, and mead drinking horns particularly interesting.
Budget travelers eat well in Europe’s most expensive corner with a few tips. Viktualiehandler (small delis) and bagerier (bakeries), found on nearly every corner, sell tasty pastries such as wienerbrød. (These are what the rest of the world calls a “Danish”). Try the drinkable yogurt, caviar in a squirt tube, creamy Havarti, and dense rugbrød (rye bread), which make picnics as memorable as they are inexpensive.
Denmark’s famous open face sandwiches cost a fortune in restaurants, but many street corner smorrebrød shops sell them for about $4 each. Drop into one of these often no-name, family-run alternatives to Yankee fast food, and get several elegant sandwiches to go. There’s no more Danish way to picnic. The tradition calls for three sandwich courses: herring first, then meat, then cheese, washed down with a local beer. Skål!
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.