Denmark's city of small-town charm

Copenhagen's plentiful parks, lakes and quiet streets are what draw Tabish Khair to the Danish capital.

Nyhavn, the old harbour of the Danish capital Copenhagen, is decorated with lights for the holiday season.
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Copenhagen's plentiful parks, lakes and quiet streets are what draw Tabish Khair to the Danish capital. My earliest memory of Copenhagen is of empty spaces. Where were the traffic jams I was used to in Delhi, the milling crowds of London? Was this really the capital of an affluent First World country? It turned out to be a misleading impression. Having spent more than a decade in Denmark, I have realised that, both as a capital and a city, Copenhagen is more central to Denmark than Delhi is to India or Washington to the USA. This doesn't appear to be the case at first sight - after all, both Delhi and Washington are on the mainland Copenhagen is on an island off Jutland. But while Delhi and Washington house only a fraction of Indians and Americans, Copenhagen contains one fifth of the population.

Centrality - real or assumed - confers a kind of beauty and an air of confidence, and Copenhagen has much of both. But centrality can also be deceptive, and in some ways Copenhagen is a misleading city. At times it is a cosmopolitan place that tries to keep its "cityness" invisible; at other times it is a town desperately trying to appear cosmopolitan. Usually, however, it's simply a large city that pretends to be a small town. This smallness accounts for much of its charm: the lakes, parks, quiet avenues and shops in many parts of Copenhagen camouflage shopping complexes, international business centres, easy access to every imaginable urban facility and metropolitan lifestyles.

Both the modern, big-city and old, small-town aspects of Copenhagen are brought home by Hovedbanegården, the main railway station. Railway stations have much more character than airports, which all tend to look the same. The main station of Copenhagen is a tall historical building where sleek shops have been fitted into an older exterior without too much damage to the past. If you take the smaller back exit, you end up in what used to be, until recently, the sleazy quarters of the city, inhabited by prostitutes, drug addicts and poor students. In recent years, this has been refurbished, though some traces of its roots (such as decrepit-looking drunks escorted by their huge dogs, and the occasional working woman at a corner) still remain.

The station's larger and more polite front exit opens onto a broad avenue opposite the famous Tivoli entertainment park, one of Copenhagen's main attractions. Not someone to go for loud rides - the idea of paying to be scared has never appealed to me - it is seldom that I take to entertainment parks, but Tivoli is an exception. It is not a gleaming, brash Disney-twin: while there are game stalls, merry-go-rounds and other rides, much of Tivoli is devoted to middlebrow and even, at times, highbrow culture. There are regular circus shows, pantomimes, bands, gardens, walks, restaurants and cafes, including one on a sailing ship in the middle of an artificial lake; there is even European classical music. Tivoli was founded by an enterprising journalist who literally sold an idea to King Christian VIII in 1841. The idea was to keep the masses so thoroughly entertained that they would not have the time to foment revolution. It opened in 1843 and seems to have worked quite well in Denmark.

Tivoli also hosts a mellow and cosy Christmas market - this year from November 20 to December 30. With more than a thousand Christmas trees, and millions of lights threaded along its lakes, restaurants and willow trees, with blazing braziers and mugs of gløgg (spiced mulled wine), Tivoli becomes more than just an entertainment park during the festive season. Dozens of shops selling Danish crafts, Nordic knitwear, rugs, wooden furniture, jewellery and candles; a Pixie Ville with 136 mechanical pixies; fancy dress Father Christmases, gnomes, elves and other Christmas features add to the usual charms of the place.

If you come out of the main exit of Tivoli and turn right, in less than a minute you will reach the large paved rectangular Rådhus (town hall) square, with the historical town hall on one side and a more recent addition, a futuristic bus stop on the other. The long sides of this rectangle are two busy roads, one of them named after Hans Christian Andersen, the writer whose fairy tales are read across the world. A statue of HC - pronounced "Ho See" in Danish - stands in one corner of the square near this road: Ho See is looking up to the skies in a decidedly poetic manner, and a straggling flock of middle-aged Japanese tourists are clicking away at him somewhat less poetically. The flock has diminished since my last visit: surely, I think, the best way to track whether world economies are recovering or not is to count the number of Japanese tourists at such spots. By the evidence of the day, world economies are still ailing, alas.

There is only one big (outdoor) cafe in the square and a couple of hot dog stands. There are also street musicians playing in different corners: Copenhagen was once the jazz capital of Europe. It still hosts an impressive jazz festival once a year: a festival that is itself a reason to visit the city. You can cross the town square and walk down the long pedestrian street, Strøget, that starts on the other side and branches for a few kilometres. For me, such pedestrian streets are the main delight of many European cities. They succeed in restoring the rhythm of the olden-day city centre, a lifestyle torn apart in the early 20th century by the rise of automobile culture and accompanying roads meant not to loiter and linger in, but to dodge and run across.

At the other end of Strøget lie the old harbour, Nyhavn, and the impressive Royal Theatre. The concept of Strøget is as big a tourist success as Tivoli. Actually, it is a bigger success as it does not need millions to be maintained. Tivoli has often been running at a loss. Strøget is a good place to eat, expensively or cheaply. India Palace, one of Denmark's few decent Indian restaurants, is just around the corner. But if that sounds too spicy, it would be a good idea to walk into one of the Turkish cafes for a delicious and cheap shawarma sandwich. There are also some good French, Italian and Greek restaurants in the neighbourhood, at least one excellent Spanish tapas restaurant and a decent Mongolian barbecue. Unfortunately, the service in Copenhagen restaurants is not particularly polite, either due to the egalitarianism of the country or the fact that Danish, as a language, lacks some of the forms of politeness that are embedded in languages like French, Arabic, Urdu and even English. Hence, even though Danes speak quite good English, their English phrasing can come across as abrupt and short.

For me, no trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to Christiania, which is only about 10 minutes' walk from the other end of Strøget. In 1971, a handful of long-haired hippie types walked into abandoned 19th-century military barracks in a less fashionable section of Copenhagen and claimed to have founded a collective. They came to call the 84-acre complex Christiania. They claimed autonomy, refused (initially) to pay taxes or to use the city's amenities (no electricity, no hot water). They allowed the sale of hashish, but cracked down internally on hard drugs. The group grew and it has long been a small colony, the houses colourfully painted, the cafes dilapidated but full of character, the inhabitants largely split between (at times successful) artists, writers, actors and other creative types, and (at times unsuccessful) peddlers, drug pushers, bums.

This idea has never appealed to many bourgeois Danes and with the land around Christiania appreciating significantly in value in recent decades, there seems to be a growing political initiative to domesticate Christianites, convert them to solid middle-class values and put their prime property on the market. While ordinary houses and flats in Copenhagen can be surprisingly small, the city contains some magnificent historical buildings. These attest to another of those things that (like poverty) are meant to be invisible in Copenhagen: colonialism. Copenhagen - and contemporary Denmark - prefers to be reticent about its colonial history, but Copenhagen was very much an imperial city. Yet even though Denmark had colonial possessions in the Americas, Asia and even Europe (including Greenland) and once led the European slave trade, its present-day egalitarianism allows Danes to forget that these are colonial buildings.

Luckily, it is also a city of parks and lakes. Many, like Kongen's Have (King's Garden) which has been open to the public for centuries, used to be royal gardens. Copenhagen's charm lies ultimately in these uncluttered spaces: and the heart of Copenhagen is eminently walkable, in sunny summer and in Christmas frost. Tabish Khair is associate professor of English at the University of Aarhus. His new book, The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness, is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

For further information about Tivoli, including opening hours, rides and events, visit