Did you just google Copenhagen because you are planning a visit? Or have you possibly gone the vintage route and circled the city on your map with a pen or marker?
If you are indeed planning a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, good for you! This city is bustling with life and varying cultures, yet it slides under many American radars in terms of destination hotspots. When I told people I was heading to Copenhagen, most of them greeted that statement with a microsecond flash of narrowed eyebrows and tilted heads. Apparently, when you are going across the pond, Denmark is not the first place people think of.
Here is my list of things to know before traveling to Copenhagen.
1- Denmark is said to be the happiest country on Earth.
… and it appears to be true. The people of the country are very friendly, cheerful, and more than willing to give directions or answer any questions. There are many theories behind the reason for this. Some say it is because they are so healthy because of all the bike riding. This could be part of it; most of the Danes are quite thin (the first large person we came across, I mentally pegged as an American. Sure enough, after eavesdropping for a minute, she mentioned being from Milwaukee!) and there are more bikes per person than cars. Some say it is due to their purposefully positive attitude towards the climate, the family emphasis, the health care, the list goes on and on. My personal observation adds another reason that seems sadly absent from our American attitude.
The Danes, on a general whole, seem to have a mutual respect for everyone and everything, including rules and guidelines.
On the mostly-empty train from the airport to Copenhagen city central, my mother (whom I invited along as a travel companion) put her feet up on the opposite facing seat and leaned her head back to relax. While exiting, a woman passed my mother and discreetly suggested that she put something under her feet to keep the seat from getting dirty. This was not said with any air of derision, and this woman was not a train employee; it seemed genuinely respectful to my mother and to the public property. This is only one example of the many ways people paid attention and respected public and private property.
Granted, this does not mean there is no crime. A bartender told us he had lost 5 bikes in 7 years to theft, and we passed a man complaining to another about someone stealing his bike seat. The average citizen that we saw, however, pays attention to the right of way at crosswalks and intersections, throws litter in the trash containers, and understands the reasons for kindness and diligence of personal behavior.
Speaking of bike theft…
2- If you do rent or bring a bike, lock it up!
As I said, bike theft is still prevalent, and this can include bike parts. I saw many a bike without a seat, which could be due to either theft or the owner took it with them to prevent it being stolen. Whichever the reason, it is clearly something the Danes are concerned with, so perhaps you should be as well.
3- In Copenhagen, most people speak English and have no problem speaking it.
The bartender we spoke to moved to Denmark from New Zealand 3 1/2 years earlier and had worked in food service for 2 years. His Danish, he said, is limited to “bartender Danish.” A server we met at the Hard Rock Cafe was from Iceland (which, by the way, has a BEAUTIFUL language; she may very well have been insulting us in her native tongue, but I still could have listened to it for hours!) and, after 3 years, she still could not speak Danish.
The first couple of days, I started most conversations and transactions with “Kan du tale Engelsk?” as I had heard that most non-English speaking countries in Europe will be cooperative as long as you at least put forward an effort to communicate in their native tongue. My mother is much more direct than I am and started conversations right off the bat in English. The Danes were not phased by this in the least, and I noticed many others approaching store clerks and transit employees with English as well. In Copenhagen, most of them speak English as well as they speak Danish.
However, we took a day trip to Helsingor, a much smaller town an hour train ride north of Copenhagen. Aside from the employees at Kronborg Castle, the largest tourist attraction in town, most only speak Danish. We are in their country, after all, they are not obligated to accommodate us. Don’t let this intimidate you, though. They are very patient with those speaking limited Danish. Bring a phrasebook, break the language barrier, and go order some “vin” or “ol” at a sidewalk cafe.
That being said…
4- “Dansk” (Danish) is a complex spoken language.
… and it is almost impossible to find a resource to tell you the rhyme or reason behind the phonetics. When you see the word and then hear its pronunciation, your brain will twitch at the sight of the superfluous g’s in some words and complete lack of sufficient vowels in others. If you go the phrasebook route with trying to communicate, you may be better off pointing at the word in your book rather than trying to pronounce it, lest you risk incurring mass confusion or riotous laughter.
… and if you DO figure out the basic concept on Danish phonetics, shoot me a line!
5- Copenhagen is a beautiful city filled with history and culture.
I am kind of a nerd, I like museums. Our second to last day in Copenhagen, despite enjoying the sightseeing and shops around town, I announced that I was going to at least one museum, alone or not. My mother said she wanted to find a museum that told her about the Copenhagen culture and people.
“What a pointless concept” was my first thought. After all, isn’t that the reason you go to the location in question? If I wanted to read simply about the people, I could have looked that up on the internet from home. I went to Copenhagen to find out these things for myself.
This thought was snuffed out rather humbly as there IS a Museum of Copenhagen aka Kobenhavns Museum that, basically, tells exactly of these things. It mixes the history of the city with the sociology and ecology and more. One of the best parts of this museum displays personal items and tells stories of different modern-day immigrants to Copenhagen (i.e. So-and-So’s ice skates from when his family moved to Copenhagen in 1967). The idea of celebrating average people in such a way, not reserving this right for celebrities or so called “more important” persons, seems beautiful somehow.
Consequently, this became my favorite museum. It also taught me to not judge the relevance of a concept before experiencing it (the age-old “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” mantra).
6- Bring more than one brand of electrical plug converter.
This tip is for intercontinental travel in general, not just Copenhagen. In Europe, their outlet receptors are different than ours in America. If you have anything that needs an electric charge, you HAVE to bring a converter.
However, not all electronics will work with all converters. You may have a reputable brand and the correct outlet type, but that does not mean your equipment will cooperate. I had a converter that my computer worked with it, but my hairdryer would not. My mother had one that my hairdryer worked with, but her phone would not charge. This is probably related to voltage and other such technicalities, but most of us have more than one thing to plug in at the same time, anyway, so just bring a couple with you. Or go power-free, that could be an adventurous experiment.
7- Familiarize yourself with the money conversion rate AND the math required to calculate it beforehand.
Again, this is for all international travel.
I thought I knew the money exchange rate before I went to Denmark, and I did… enough to rattle the basic concept off the tip of my tongue, that is.
Enter math from stage left.
Despite knowing in my head what the conversion rate was, I did not correctly grasp how to convert it. In retrospect, I cannot remember the erroneous math skills I was using to get it wrong, but it was not until a few days before we returned to the states that I realized I was calculating everything as costing much less in dollars. Though we never ran out of money, we had spent more than I had figured. Practice your conversion rate skills and check your answers against an actual conversion calculator online so you can do approximate conversions on the spot in a store or restaurant.
8- Wear good walking shoes.
Even if you do rent a bike or use public transit, many of the roads and sidewalks are old and made of uneven cobblestone; this means make sure this walking shoe has a good sole. I am the type of person that is very comfortable walking around all day in a pair of thin flats. If given the choice, I would love to be barefoot much of the time. Even for someone like me, I highly recommend an actual walking shoe because of the uneven cobblestone. I wore a pair of dress boots sometimes all day and my feet were sore that night because of the road structure.
You’re on vacation, consider fashion less and comfort or practicality more.
9- Tipping is optional in Copenhagen.
As a former server and also former food delivery driver, I always tip if it is allowed and always towards the top end of or above standard percentage. It is, however, not required or expected in Copenhagen. If you do decide to tip, standard is 10%.
Because of this lack of requirement, the servers are not suck ups like we tend to be in the states (I can say that, I also was one, remember). They are polite and friendly, even chatty, but they may, say, go on break or end their shift despite you still being there. They do have someone take over your table, however they may not always tell you that this has happened. If they do tell you, it’s not in an apologetic manner. The servers are not by any means rude, just casual. In comparison to the way Americans expect servers to be, however, it could be interpreted as rude by those particular to a certain standard. Just know they will still take care of you, so go in unassuming.
This also ties into the fact that the customer service might be slower. Before jumping to conclusions, this is not BAD service, this is NORMAL in Europe, including Copenhagen. Part of it is the mindset that social meals are a time to relax and enjoy. So do that. Relax. Enjoy.
10- In Europe, and namely Copenhagen, you may have to think a little more.
In many ways, it feels like we Americans are expected to be spoon-fed instructions and told letter-by-letter exactly how it is to be done (i.e. you know that restaurant that, upon answering the server that this is indeed your first time in their establishment, they proceed to give you a list of instructions on how their ordering process works? Even if it is the exact same process as every other restaurant known to man?).
While walking through the Stroget shopping district one day, I impulsively decided to get a fish pedicure. After paying, I was told to go down the spiral stairs and wash my feet and calves. I wound my way down and found an unmanned room with some lockers, benches, and floor level wash basins. After some rigmarole, it turned out I was suppose to wash my feet, dry them, and then put on these kroc-like sandals before trekking back up the stairs. Was I capable of figuring this out? Yes. Did my brain naturally know it had to connect a few further-displaced dots than normal? Now it did! Europeans normally have to make these types of decisions for themselves, whereas the process seems to be frowned upon in America.
Tommy Lee Jones said it best in Men in Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it!”
When in Copenhagen, and anywhere in the world, take a minute to think things through. Don’t assume things are done they way you are used to, but embrace the different culture and your chance to briefly play in it.
Explore your world.
Expand your mind.
Enrich your life.
Until next time…