Small and relaxed, Copenhagen doesn’t feel like a capital city. Consequently, rather than seeing Copenhagen as a monumental centre of power, Danes tend to see it as more of a ‘national town’…
In recent years hygge has exploded in the UK. With it, unsurprisingly, there has been an unprecedented influx of British tourists to Denmark. Copenhagen is now constantly replenished with a stream of hygge-lovers. Thankfully, Copenhagen is not only Scandinavia’s most hyggeligt city, but a perfect scale model of Scandinavian society as a whole. The first time I visited Copenhagen it was my eighteenth birthday. I was walking home from dinner when we came across the prime minister giving an interview. We waited for him to come off air and he came over for a chat. It was a spontaneous and relaxed event typical of the Scandinavian sense of community.
Copenhagen has both smart hotels and rustic bars; world-class museums and a lawless drug-quarter. But, with a relatively small class system and small wealth gap, each strand of the city fits effortlessly into a unified whole. Palaces and tower blocks sit comfortably alongside each other, state schools are of an exceptionally high standard and there is no clearly defined business district.
“Palaces and tower blocks sit comfortably alongside one other, state schools are of an exceptionally high standard and there is no clearly defined business district.”
With a population of just over 600,000, to the British tourist Copenhagen rarely feels like a capital city. Most residents commute by bike and the wide boulevards common to many European capitals are rare. Moreover, while most European capitals have a focal point for national occasions, Copenhagen has no clearly defined point of reference. Rather than being a monumental centre of power, therefore, it is to Danes a sort of ‘national town’. Amalienborg Palace, the royal family’s workplace, surrounds a cobbled square, while Christiansborg Palace, housing the parliament, prime minister’s office and supreme court, is nestled among multi-coloured canal houses. Last time I was in Copenhagen I went to Amalienborg to watch the arrival of President Macron on a state visit. I was intrigued to see how such an important diplomatic event would be staged in Copenhagen’s casual surroundings. There was inevitably a large crowd, the event interrupted programming on national television and there were military processions systematic of such occasions anywhere in the world. But, in a typically Danish manner, we were permitted to get up close to Macron and the royal family as they passed, making the event feel equally intimate and sincere.
When I told my Swedish friend about it, she was unimpressed, passing it off as symptomatic of pan-Nordic liberalism. However, she did admit that Sweden was slightly stricter when it came to national security (as her mother experienced first-hand working for their prime minister) because Sweden has experienced security problems in the past. Denmark has not experienced problems so can afford to keep security lax. But I wonder if at least some explanation of Danish nonchalance lies also with Copenhagen’s provincial atmosphere. Stockholm has clearly defined centres of power and well-established ‘good’ and ‘bad’ districts. As Copenhagen’s are less noticeable, it balances leadership and citizenship effectively, creating a city that is both a dignified setting for national ceremonies, and one in which the prime minister stops by for a chat.
This article has also been published in Epigram.