If you came to Copenhagen before late November, you saw a study in understated urban style. At the world-renowned restaurant Noma and its New Nordic disciples, the pared-down dishes of sea buckthorn and wood sorrel were being plated like minimalist still life works. In the interior shops on the Stroget pedestrian street, the egg and ant chairs that helped define Danish Modern’s sleek, geometric aesthetic were selling fast. Even the Danes themselves — straight-backed as they whizzed past on the city’s responsibly green bike paths, maybe a summer scarf blowing back in the breeze — looked austerely elegant.

By the third weekend in November, however, the city suddenly assumes a different persona. Overnight Christmas markets start popping up on cobblestoned street corners. Big ropes of garland and strings of fairy lights get draped over doorways. Danish elves edge out the bony mannequins in shop windows and as dusk falls on the third Friday of the month a crowd gathers outside the grand dame Hotel d’Angleterre for the big moment. The Royal Guard’s Music Corps plays Christmas carols, then a hush descends, and precisely at 5 p.m., when winter’s faltering Nordic sun finally fades, someone flips a switch that lights up the Kongens Nytorv, the city’s central square. Running down the hotel’s neoclassical facade there, glowing in the lights, is a waterfall of shimmering icicles, and a balcony filled with life-size bears, wearing top hats and pearls, surrounding a layered yule cake, looking like the city’s newest, unlikeliest mascots.

The flipped lights, it turns out, illuminate a new face to Copenhagen, too. In an instant, for one month at least, the city’s rep as the capital of grown-up New Age cool makes room for a second, purely childlike, downright goofy, old school holiday spirit. And the Danes, who know how to have fun, give into the exuberance with ease, fueled by glasses of mulled wine.

That doesn’t mean that the city loses sight of its essential self, of course. In fact, during the holidays, Copenhagen embraces both its halves, so adults hungry for chic 21st-century Scandi style can still find it. And anyone hoping for the nostalgic romance of a kid’s throwback Christmas will find that, too. Consider it the best of both holiday worlds.

During a long weekend, I devoted my first day to the child-happy holiday and I knew the drill, having experienced Danish winters before. So I started where every Copenhagen kid does, at Tivoli Gardens, the city’s amusement park, though that’s a misnomer. In fact, Tivoli, running since 1843, features a fanciful sprawl of carousels, fountains, pagodas and pantomime theaters. The elegance gets doubled when the Christmas market opens. That was obvious as I walked under a hoop of lights past the constellation of wooden houses selling wool hats, ornaments, candy canes and nutcrackers. Cynics may call this one very picturesque mall, but cynicism doesn’t work in December and the Tivoli market’s sheer attention to detail redeemed all the salesmanship. These weren’t so much prefab cottages as full-blown mini manors, complete with alcove windows and a scrim of faux snow robing their peaked roofs.

A cake for the season

The market vendors’ apple dumplings, kind of a kiddie version of an amuse-bouche, reminded me of the second necessary stop on Copenhagen’s old world holiday trail. Let other bakeries elsewhere call the spongy pastries they produce danishes. They aren’t. Danishes are what you find in Copenhagen’s supernal string of bakeries, where the eponymous pastry is such an artful stack of delicate layers that you can’t bite into one without wearing a coat of buttery flakes. You can find that definitive danish everywhere in town but most locals make at least one seasonal pit stop at La Glace conditoriet and tea shop, a central city institution that sets the gold standard for Copenhagen bakeries.

“It’s history,” manager Marianne Stagetorn Kolos told me when I dropped by for a sample. “Many families have a tradition of coming to La Glace in December. Grandmothers bring their grandchildren.”

Part of that tradition is eating a wedge of the signature Sports Cake, which has been the bakery’s bestseller, Kolos notes, “for 124 years.” Eat a slice of the feathery cloud of whipped cream and crushed nougat and you understand why. But each year La Glace introduces a new Copenhagen Christmas Cake and this year’s version is a showstopper. “It is filled,” Kolos said, taking a deep breath, “with dates, figs, apricots, cranberries, hazelnuts and almonds.” Yeah, that’s all.

A big piece was sustenance enough for my afternoon spin on a rental bike past the Copenhagen landmarks that turn the city into a romantic Old World holiday every day of the year. Rosenborg Garden was strewn with statues of nymphs and milkmaids; they framed the moated Rosenborg Castle, a spiky gothic silhouette of jutting towers.

Nearby at the National Gallery of Denmark, the Danish wing of paintings changed shape as I moved through the rooms, with the 18th-century portraits of lantern-jawed, droopy-eyed aristocrats giving way to patriotic Victorian landscapes. My favorite: a canvas of a Jutland farmer standing backlit on a flap of luminous moors, so he seemed to be dissolving into the golden ether, like a very Danish version of an apotheosis. At nearby Nyhavn Canal the landscapes came to life as I bumped over the cobblestones. The canal, strung with garland and Christmas lights, was suffused by its own dense Nordic light that stippled the pastel townhouses, painted pistachio, cornflower blue, dusky rose. The whole tableau looked like a fairy tale; Hans Christian Andersen lived for a while along the canal and his spirit still haunts the place, particularly when the light dies, with the finality of a long Danish winter night that the writer understood well. His bittersweet fairy tales, considered adult literature in Denmark, come wrapped up in an elegiac Nordic sadness that knows most stories don’t end well.

Still the pastel houses gild Copenhagen’s kid-worthy holiday and, after that passing moment of somber twilight, things turned light and cozy again. At the D’Angleterre Hotel’s very formal Marchal restaurant my big holiday dinner didn’t have time for any Nordic gloom, or stylish restraint. Instead, the opulent dining room, all black marble, was complemented by a proudly excessive procession of dishes: scallops and truffles bathed in a Jerusalem artichoke soup; wild duck breast; beef tartar dressed with horseradish, peaches and figs; lobster robed in a saffron sauce; and a classic Danish holiday rice pudding drizzled with cherry sauce.

It was the kind of baroque holiday meal even the chicest Dane probably wants to indulge in, with childish zeal, after a year of Arctic twigs and berries, and the holiday mood was peaking just across the street, in the Kongens Nytorv’s own evening Christmas market. The vendors, leaning out of their wooden huts, were hawking mulled wine, reindeer pelts, fur gloves. And, in one case, a free massage.

Danish Modern shops

I slept well enough without a massage and opted to pledge my second day in town to Copenhagen’s trending, New Nordic approach to the holidays. That meant first making a procession through the Stroget pedestrian street’s lineup of landmark Danish Modern shops. At Illums Bolighus a few simple red globes were hanging sheepishly off a minimalist, skeletal tree, for one very tepid attempt at holiday cheer. It didn’t matter. The store’s goose-down comforters and streamlined housewares made for unimpeachable Scandi stocking stuffers. So did the porcelain tableware at the neighboring Royal Copenhagen flagship store. Worth a visit alone were the historic Flora Danica plates featuring a garden of Danish flowers, some painted trailing their muddy roots and already evoking an unsentimental modernist sense of simplicity.

For a stylish, shading into hipster, Copenhagen Christmas, though, I headed to the northern Norrebro district of the city, which has recently morphed from an industrial backwater into one very arty epicenter. On the anchoring Jaegersborggade, the organic coffeehouses and vegan cafes shared blocks with the inevitable tattoo parlors, where the best gifts were surprisingly elegant ceramic bowls painted with classic inked tropes: mermaids, anchors, valentines.

A block down, the line was already forming at Relae restaurant. Chef Christian Puglisi, like many of Copenhagen’s second and third wave of New Nordic chefs, once cooked as a sous chef at Noma but his casual dining room, all exposed brick walls and open kitchen, sets a looser tone. So did the veg-centric dishes I sampled that came streaming out of the open kitchen, from a shiitake mushroom fritter to a sliced pumpkin coiled around eggs and walnut.

“New Nordic is a bit of a tired expression,” Puglisi said while I ate. “As an immigrant I have always used olive oil and anchovies. My approach is to think both locally and globally, exploring how ethnic food dishes from Italy, India and Ethiopia can be made with our own certified organic ingredients.”

Puglisi’s words echoed during my final night in Copenhagen. My cabdriver was excited about the local holiday ski slope fashioned out of a waste-processing power plant, a sure sign that the Danes know how to recycle just about anything. He dropped me off at Baest, another Norrebro restaurant that has become the toughest reservation in town because it plops zealously sourced Danish meats and vegetables on top of wood-fired pizzas.

The big cheesy pie with foraged foods, the festive waste-processing ski ramp, Puglisi’s passion for a more flavorful take on organic — they all suggest the very model of an evolved city that takes its global responsibilities seriously and knows how to have fun with those good intentions, too. Add in the Christmastime cake and twinkling lights illuminating the cobblestone streets, and the city is one big holiday present to the world — one that is primed to merge its purely childlike and very grown-up halves, and throw the kind of celebration that lasts way beyond Christmas.

 

Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, writes for Epicurious.com, Condé Nast Traveler and other media.