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Culinary Postcard: Copenhagen, Denmark

An edited version of this article was published online at SBS Food in April 2016

Where 

Copenhagen is the capital city of Denmark. This one-time fishing village is now a major European city, and home to 1.2 million Danes.

Why go? 

Copenhagen is Denmark’s art, culture and food capital. It’s also home to the Copenhagen Stock Exchange, and is imbued with a well-to-do air: the locals are friendly, and the streets feel safe – probably because bikes outnumber cars, and cyclists well and truly rule the roads. That makes Copenhagen a wonderful city to follow your nose in, cobblestoned streets and all. 

Must eats 

You’ll stumble across a whole host of eating options in this lively city, from bakeries touting wienerbrød (“Vienna bread” – what we call Danish pastries) to pølsevogns (literally: sausage wagons) offering hot dogs, to traditional Danish eateries selling smørrebrød, or open sandwiches, and fish dishes that make the most of the city’s proximity to the sea. Then there’s the kind of modern ethnic fare you’d expect in an international city, and 15 Michelin-starred super restaurants, like New Nordic cuisine chef Rene Redzepi’s Noma. Eat there, if you can. Modern day Danes are a little bit obsessed by ice cream, and there are locals making good quality gelato peppered all over Copenhagen. To really eat like a Dane, your lunch or dinner is best accompanied by a stor øl – that’s a big beer, and snaps. Also called akvavit, snaps is a small, strong shot of spirits made with either caraway or dill.

If you only eat one dish 

The world of smørrebrød is worth immersing your tastebuds in, if only to experience the Dane’s very particular approach to toppings. But first, the bread. Like their Nordic neighbours, Danes are raised on rugbrød – dark, dense rye bread that comes in thin, fibrous layers and is made with a sour dough starter. Today’s term ‘smørrebrød’ comes from smør og brød, (‘butter and bread’), and this is how this one-time labourer’s lunch starts. After the butter comes a slice or two of your chosen pålæg, or on-lay. This might be marinerede sild (pickled herrings), leverpostej (pork liver-paste), gravad laks (cured salmon), or one of more than a dozen possible accompaniments. On top of that, you must have the correct garnish. Marinerede sild must be topped with fresh onion and capers. Leverpostej comes with bacon and sautéed mushrooms, and gravad laks is topped with shrimp, and then decorated with a slice of lemon and a sprig of fresh dill. These combinations have been tried, tested and proven for generations, so go with it (there’s really no point arguing; trust me on this); you’ll find it on the menu in Danish restaurants all over the city.

Must visits

Tick the tourist box by strolling around Nyhaven (New Harbour), where colourful buildings line a canal filled with historical boats, and visiting the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, which dates to 1642 and is one of the best-known and most popular structures in Denmark It’s also Europe's oldest functioning observatory, and gives great views over the city’s old Latin Quarter. Copenhagen boasts an impressive collection of galleries and museums – my pick is the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which boasts Copenhagen’s largest collection of contemporary art (yet is charmingly set in a baroque palace dating to the 17th century). And of course any true blue Australian must pay a visit to Amalienborg Museum, the publicly accessible part of the Amalienborg Palace; the winter residence of the Danish Royal family where Crown Princess Mary lives with Crown Prince Frederik.

Best food souvenirs 

Pick up some old-fashioned Danish candy from Sømods Bolcher on Nørregade, right in the heart of the city. They’ve been hand making candy here since 1891, and depending on when you visit, you might get to see the candy getting cut, pulled, and intricately rolled. 

Best time to visit 

Copenhagen has four distinct seasons, and its winters are dark and cold. So make a trip in spring or even better, summer – that’s anytime between early May to late August.