Given my preference for fruit and yogurt at breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, no one would mistake me for a foodie. And yet there I was after five days in Copenhagen, totally enraptured by breakfast at Ibsens, the small, family-owned boutique hotel that I too briefly called home earlier this summer.
Set out every morning in the hotel’s cozy modernist lobby, the breakfast buffet — crusty bread garnished with poppy seeds, oat flakes, raisins and nuts; house-made rhubarb and wild berry preserves; oatmeal studded with apple spears and berry jam; a half-dozen varieties of cheese; flaky apple pastry and much more — was bountiful enough to carry me almost through a whole day of exploring the city’s museums, new waterfront developments and popular walking streets.
Within minutes of settling at a table, I would be greeted by a friendly server delivering a pot of coffee and pitcher of milk. Gradually, the room filled with businessmen and families with invariably well-behaved children. From the quiet babble, I gathered that most guests were Europeans, though I did overhear one distinctly American voice grumbling about the lack of bacon and fried eggs.
I had returned to Copenhagen to visit friends and to see how the city had changed in the decade since I was last there. With its history of fine craftsmanship, Denmark is famous among design aficionados for the mid-20th-century modernist furniture that is now enjoying a revival in the U.S. Since 2000, Copenhagen, the country’s capital, has invested heavily in cultural offerings, public transit and urban renovation, especially along its once-neglected waterfront.
All of that was there for me — fortified by breakfast — to discover, but first I wanted to check out Ibsens’ neighborhood.
I’d taken a train from the airport to Norreport Station, just three blocks from the hotel. When I emerged from the underground, I was immediately reminded that Copenhagen vies with Amsterdam and Beijing in its commitment to bike transit.
Hundreds of bikes were parked around the station and more whizzed past — commuters heading to work, parents towing kid-carts, shoppers with overflowing baskets. Bikers easily outnumber drivers on most streets in the city’s center, and Ibsens, like most Copenhagen hotels, had bikes to lend. Though tempted, I decided that it was easier — and maybe safer for a novice — to explore on foot.
At one end of the block, an arc of greenery and lakes beckoned. The long, curving lakes were once part of the old city’s fortification and are now integral to its extensive park system. Two blocks in another direction took me to Orstedsparken, a lush vale of trees, flower beds and well-manicured lawns around a sunken lake banked with sunbathers.
The surrounding neighborhood is dotted with little shops selling handmade ceramics, sweaters and the yarn to knit them, antiques and used books, Danish-designed clothing, and that oh-so-tasty breakfast bread.
Just two blocks from the hotel, the new Torvehallerne food hall is a magnet for picnickers who catch a bit of midsummer sun while chowing down on sandwiches and craft beers at outdoor tables. Before heading home or back to work, they can pick up flowers, fruit and vegetables from outdoor stalls, or stock up on fresh ground coffee, teas and spices in shops under the market’s modern canopy.
Still sated by my ample breakfast, I resisted the temptation to join them and instead strolled down Kobmagergade, one of the city’s many walking streets, toward the Round Tower. A 118-foot-tall astronomical observatory built in 1642, the tower’s rooftop balcony offered a splendid 360-degree view of the city on my first visit in 1982.
Would new offices and skyscrapers now obscure that vista? Or would the city have kept intrusive modernity in check and retained its low-lying profile?
New and old in balance
From the Round Tower’s observation deck, it is clear that Copenhagen has modernized without compromising its 19th-century flavor. Nothing blocks the vista of the city’s distant waterfront or the maze below of walking streets and tile-roofed buildings that are rarely more than five or six stories tall. The tower itself seems little changed over the centuries.
The spiraling brick-paved ramp that takes you to the top is still sturdy enough for the horse that Russian czar Peter the Great is said to have ridden up it in 1716. Modern times have added a little coffee shop and exhibition hall halfway up that housed a surprising show of avant-garde clothes displayed on wolf-headed mannequins. Stranger yet, though entered via the tower, the shop was actually in the attic of the church next door.
Reassured that the city’s understated charm is intact, I set off to tour the harbor and check out some favorite museums.
Located on the island of Zealand, Copenhagen faces east toward the Oresund, a ribbon of water connecting the North Sea and the Baltic while separating Denmark from Sweden. The city, whose name means “merchant’s harbor,” first embraced the water for defense and commerce, but now for culture.
Across the harbor from the 18th-century Amalienborg Palace, home to Queen Margarethe II and her family, a dramatic new limestone and glass opera house opened in 2005. Beautifully sited for maximum photo ops, the opera house overlooks a waterfront promenade where arriving patrons tie up their boats.
On the palace side of the water, the Royal Danish Playhouse (2008) juts over the waves on a wooden jetty, and a bit farther away the gleaming black-glass Royal Library (1999) leans toward a channel that laps its foundations. All three buildings were designed by Danish architects and feature local (or at least Scandinavian) art, including light sculptures by Copenhagen’s own superstar, Olafur Eliasson, at the opera.
At the harbor, old warehouses have been renovated into offices, hotels and outdoor restaurants that spill onto a long esplanade and plaza where people linger on summer evenings, sipping beer as twilight falls. Harbor tours can be booked from the old quay at Nyhavn, a quaint canal lined with picturesque gabled houses, sidewalk cafes, buskers and often rowdy revelers.
Art and design
Copenhagen is so rich in art that even with several days in town, I had to sacrifice some choice options for want of time. That meant making a very fast pass through the Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery of Art) and entirely ignoring the Thorvaldsen Museum, home to elegant neoclassical sculpture by native son Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), whose mesmerizing “Ganymede and the Eagle” is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Worse yet, there was no return to the Ordrupgaard in suburban Charlottenlund, a woodsy country-house museum famous for its Danish and French Impressionist paintings. In 2005 the Ordrupgaard added a glass-and-concrete wing by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid that I’d hoped to see because it looks so incongruously impressive in photos.
Still, my three top favorites more than compensated for the cuts.
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek houses one of the world’s great collections of Greek and Roman sculpture, arguably the finest collection of Rodin sculpture outside France, vast galleries of top 19th-century French marbles and bronzes, and surprisingly early paintings by Paul Gauguin and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.
Located next to Tivoli, the 1843 amusement park and pleasure garden that inspired Disneyland, the Glyptotek is primarily a collection of sculpture, its name deriving from “glypton,” the Greek word for sculpture.
Founded in 1882 by an heir to the Carlsberg brewing fortune, the Glyptotek is a grandiose brick palace with elaborate mosaic floors and colorful, skylit galleries arrayed around a palm-filled “winter garden” and pretty tearoom. The paintings are in a new wing whose rooftop terrace offers stunning views of the city and of Tivoli rides spinning high above the gardens next door.
A nose for art
It was the noses that impressed me most on my first visit to the Glyptotek in 1982. All those ancient marble heads, most more than 2,000 years old, still had intact noses. This was different from most museums where even Caesar and top gods were usually dinged up. At the time I didn’t look closely and simply assumed that Carlsberg money had snapped up the best.
Wrong. It turns out that most of the proboscises were nose jobs, 19th-century additions stuck on in order to pretty-up the heads in the museum fashion of the day. Curators have now decided this was a very bad idea as the metal pins and fixatives used to hold them eventually disfigured the surrounding stone, sometimes staining it rusty red in a permanent nosebleed.
So, off came the noses. Frankly, I was disappointed because I loved the illusory perfection lent by the faux noses. But, the museum did do the right thing for posterity. And it tossed me an explanatory bone in the form of a “nasothek,” a display case filled with 88 replica noses (and a few ears) that had been removed from the sculptures.
The Glyptotek’s impressive painting collection, coupled with that at the Ordrupgaard, raises the question of why is there so much great French art in off-the-beaten-track Copenhagen. The simple answer is probably that rich, urbane Danes sought it out in Paris. A lesser known fact is that Gauguin’s wife, Mette, was Danish.
After the Gauguins separated in 1884, Mette returned to Copenhagen with their five children and his art collection, including pictures by Manet and other Impressionist friends. That art ultimately ended up in Danish collections. And despite Gauguin’s infidelities and tempestuous life, the couple stayed in touch almost until his death in 1903 and she helped broker sales of his work in her hometown.
For an overview of Danish creativity, I headed next to the Designmuseum Danmark, a vast and engaging collection of furniture, textiles, posters and products ranging from appliances to a spectacular 1986 evening dress created by Danish couturier Erik Mortensen for Balmain in Paris.
The museum’s recently reinstalled chair collection is a must-see tribute to famous designers who made a fetish of proper seating. Dozens of influential classics in wood, leather and steel by Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, Poul Kjaerholm, Kaare Klint and even Americans Charles and Ray Eames pose on lighted platforms or are enshrined like crown jewels in floor-to-ceiling vitrines. Housed in a former 18th-century hospital, the museum wraps around a spacious courtyard where convalescents once took the sun and visitors can now have lunch.
No visit to Copenhagen would be complete without a trip to the improbably named Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. The country’s most popular art museum, Louisiana is located about 30 minutes by train north of the city in a verdant dell overlooking the Oresund. Founded in 1958 by a wealthy Danish cheese merchant, it is named after the three wives of the property’s first owner, all of whom happened to be called Louise.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful art museums, Louisiana’s glass-walled pavilions, nestled into the landscape, inspired Richard Meier’s hilltop Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Besides its own collection of postwar Euro-American art, Louisiana regularly mounts international shows indoors and out. Even on a rainy weekend, its activity rooms are always packed with kids drawing or building with Legos while adults explore the galleries or the lush landscape, dotted with classic sculptures by Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Mark di Suvero and other modernists.
After hiking through Louisiana’s woods and along its mist-shrouded shore one afternoon, I repaired to the museum’s cafe for a classically Scandinavian lunch of dilled shrimp and pear tart. Then, sipping a glass of crisp white wine, I raised a silent toast to the pleasures of all things Danish.
Mary Abbe, a former Star Tribune arts reporter, spent much of the summer in Europe.