04 December, 2016

7 Things I Loved About Copenhagen

Happy December, everyone! In honor of the final month of 2016, I've finally decided to write about an event that happened four months ago: my trip to Copenhagen!

As I briefly hinted at in a previous post, the main reason for the trip to Copenhagen was to get married (!!). I won't go into too much detail about that here, since I want to focus this post on the city of Copenhagen itself, but we decided to get married in Copenhagen because Denmark makes it so easy for couples who come from different countries. Getting married in Germany would have been bureaucratically challenging, expensive and annoying, so after hearing praise of the Danish process from other international couples we know, we decided to take the easy route as well. It was just an added bonus that Denmark is home to Copenhagen, a city I've been wanting to visit for years, so we were able to combine the intimate wedding at Copenhagen City Hall with a mini-honeymoon in the most liveable city in the world.

And liveable it certainly is. After just a long weekend in Copenhagen I was ready to move there. I basically loved everything about it, from the focus on cycling and bike lanes to the architecture to the great coffee places and so much more. Since the trip was quite some time ago and my recollection of our exact itinerary is spotty at best, I'll break this post into categories rather than going chronologically. In no particular order, here are the things that stood out to me that I really liked about Copenhagen:

1. Biking

Out of all the cities I've been to, Copenhagen is by far the most bike-friendly (move over, Amsterdam, you've been dethroned!). City planning seems to have focused on making biking the most convenient way to get around and making owning a car completely optional. Not only are there bike lanes on basically every street, but often the bike lane is actually an entire lane the same width as the lane for cars (click here for a picture of what I mean). There is even a bridge exclusively for pedestrians and bikes and a bike "highway," an elevated road for bikes that makes commuting faster and hassle-free.

In addition to providing the infrastructure for biking, the city also allows visitors to rent bikes from a vast number of bicycle rental stations located throughout the city. Many German cities do this as well, but Copenhagen takes this service to the next level: all the bikes are e-bikes (bikes with batteries that propel you forward as you pedal) and are equipped with built-in tablets which are used for renting out the bike, navigating, and finding the nearest rental station to return the bike after you've reached your destination. This page will tell you all about it and show you pictures of the bikes.

Another bike-related peculiarity that I saw for the first time in Copenhagen were "Christiania bikes," or bikes with a built-in cart on the front for transporting cargo or even people. It's the perfect alternative to a car for bringing home groceries, carrying an extra large bag, or transporting small children to kindergarten. I really wish I'd taken a picture of one, but in any case, searching for "Christiania bikes" on Google will give you a good idea of what I'm talking about:

2. Electric cars

Despite the focus on biking there are of course still cars in Copenhagen, but in typically Danish style there's a twist: many of the cars are electric, and there are charging stations all over the city. The high number of electric cars, especially Teslas, is due to tax incentives from the Danish government that up until recently made the purchase of an electric car tax-free. In a country where the tax on cars can reach up to 180 percent of the car's value, this was a major incentive for Danes to buy electric cars. Unfortunately, these tax incentives were reduced starting in 2016 and sales of electric cars dropped considerably. Regardless of this disappointing development, it is still encouraging to see so many electric cars and the charging infrastructure to go along with them.

3. The architecture

One of the most memorable things about any city is the architecture, and Copenhagen certainly didn't disappoint. (Pictures are what you are reading this post for anyway, right?)

All of the preceding pictures are of Nyhavn (New Harbor), likely the most photographed place in Copenhagen and the view that most people have seen pictures of at one time or another. After seeing it in person I can definitely see why it's so well-known.

4. New stuff

In addition to the older, classic buildings above, there are also lots of new buildings and areas that look like they've recently been renovated. I got the impression that Copenhagen is doing well financially and is using their resources to invest back into the city and provide comfortable spaces for people to live and spend time.

Since we were there in summer the outdoor spaces were particularly nice. In the photo above you can see people taking advantage of the long daylight hours to chill by the water. The photo below shows a similar scene, except this time there's an actual swimming area on the opposite shore of the river, along with some green space to relax.

This new building, the opera house, was and still is controversial due to its modern design, but for the most part the people of Copenhagen have gotten used to it.

This large gathering is outside the food market called Copenhagen Street Food, where you can find prepared food of all kinds. In the background is the newly opened pedestrian and bike bridge connecting the two banks of the river, which cuts the travel time across the river by more than half.

5. Gender-neutral bathrooms

Although traditional single-sex bathrooms still exist in Copenhagen, the gender-neutral variety is a visible trend. Many of the gender-neutral bathrooms we came across were of the single stall type, but even larger multi-stall bathrooms are often shared by men and women. I found this incredibly relieving, since it meant that everyone has to wait in line equally as long and I didn't have to suffer through the often epically long lines for the women's room. Making bathrooms a neutral rather than a gendered space also contributes to, or perhaps reflects, the high level of social equality in Danish society.

6. Electronic payment

Contrary to Germany, debit and credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere in Denmark. We were able to pay with a card at every store, cafe and restaurant we went to, which was very convenient since we didn't want to get cash and then end up with leftover Danish krones at the end of our trip. Even little food stalls and juice stands accept cards. Card payment is simply the norm in Denmark, and there have even been proposals to allow businesses to refuse cash! Denmark is definitely on the path to becoming a cashless society, an area in which Germany is lagging far behind.

Along with card payments, contactless and mobile payments are also widely used. A lot of the time we didn't even have to stick or swipe the card in a reader, we could simply hold the card next to a sensor and the payment was processed instantly. While this is becoming more widely available in Germany, many people just don't know it's an option and therefore don't use it even when it is available. Paying via smartphone is also an option at many places in Copenhagen, something that, as far as I know, is not possible at all in Germany. [Edit: I've been informed that smartphone payment is possible in Germany. ApplePay hasn't come to Germany yet, but you can pay with an Android phone at the same places where contactless payments are accepted.]

7. Trust

I'm not really sure what to call this one, so "trust" will have to do. What I mean is best described with an example: the royal family. It may seem quaint to Americans and Germans, but Denmark does indeed still have royalty, and they are well-respected by the Danish public. They demonstrate the relaxed and open Danish attitude well, starting with the royal palaces. There are four royal palaces directly in the city, and the various members of the royal family live there together. It surprised me at first that the plaza in the middle of these four buildings is public property, and visitors are allowed to go as close to the buildings as they want. Cars can drive through the plaza, people bike through on their way to work, and it's no big deal.

The four palaces are each set on a corner of the central plaza.

Although they are royalty, the royal family makes an effort to live as similarly to the average person as possible, and the open, publicly accessible nature of their property is part of that. The royal parents even bike with their children to school every day. This suggests a high level of trust in the people on the part of the royal family, which in turn points to a high level of trust and security in the culture in general. I much prefer this attitude to the insane amounts of protection around high-profile people in America and the general lack of public trust that goes along with that.

These are just some of the things that I appreciated and enjoyed about Copenhagen. In general I got the impression that Denmark is 5-10 years ahead of Germany in many ways. The most obvious examples are the electric cars and the electronic payment methods, but even beyond that it felt like Denmark is developing slightly ahead of Germany, and in many ways much farther ahead than the United States. They are more aware of reducing environmental impacts, make more of an effort to design and build useful, liveable spaces for people, and are closer to achieving social and economic equality than anywhere else I've been.

Some of the things I've mentioned in this post contribute to that equality. For example, making biking a feasible method of transportation frees people from the expense of needing a car, which allows people of all economic levels to move around freely and access what the city has to offer. The gender-neutral bathrooms break down barriers between the sexes and are inclusive of people of all gender identities. And that's before you even take into account their robust social programs which offer all Danish citizens a level of economic security, opportunity and well-being that most countries can only dream of. After hearing of the successes of their social system and seeing statistics like the graph from this article about the socio-economic mobility within Danish society, I can't help but feel like the "American Dream" has already come true in Denmark.

Even though I most likely won't end up moving there, as I dreamed of after visiting, I definitely want to return to Copenhagen in the future. It combines so many things that I like in a city: beautiful buildings, an easily navigable city center, lots of bikes, good food, an environmentally friendly attitude, and a flexible and user-friendly bureaucracy run by friendly and helpful people. With so many things to love, I can't wait for my next chance to visit!

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