Copenhagen (København) is a great city and always the focus of much attention – but currently it’s being watched with particular interest because of its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2025. It’s now the end of 2020 so that’s not much more than four years from now, but I’d say they’re in with a good chance of meeting the deadline.
They’re very proud of the huge Royal Danish Opera House (actually opened back in 2005), in a regenerating area of former docklands, but I must say that, even as an opera-lover, I have my doubts – it may have perfect acoustics and be incredibly energy-efficient, with heat pumps, seawater cooling and a district heating scheme, but did it really have be so BIG? The amount of carbon embedded in its construction is boggling. Another huge project was the construction of an automated ring metro line that opened in 2019, but the environmental benefits of that are much clearer. A light rail line is under construction in the suburbs, with the first stretch (from Lundtofte Park in the north to Ishøj in the southwest) due to open in 2025. The Copenhill waste-to-energy plant (properly known as Amager Bakke), producing clean energy for 60,000 families while heating 120,000 homes, opened in 2019 and famously includes a rooftop green space, including an all-year ski and snowboard slope, as well as a climbing wall. As ever, the greatest benefits come from the cheapest and most low-tech options – insulation and cycling, of course. Since 2016 fifteen cycle/pedestrian bridges have been built across the city’s various waterways and railways, and a couple of them already carry 22,000 cyclists a day. More than a dozen supercykelsti (cycle superhighways, up to 25km long) have been created from the suburbs to the centre, and some city-centre streets have a ‘green wave’ at peak times, allowing people cycling at a fairly moderate pace to keep moving without red lights getting in the way. What’s more, cycling is a pleasurable experience here, with no sense that people are desperate to get past you. Cycle commuting has increased from 52% of residents in 2015 to 62% in 2019 – on an average day (yes, it’s a year-round activity) there are more cyclists in Copenhagen than in the entire United States.
The most exciting project under way at the moment is perhaps the development of the Carlsberg site, a US$3 billion project to turn the former brewery, just west of the city centre, into a highly sustainable and liveable quarter where half the area will be given over to residential buildings (much of it affordable), 35% to offices and shops and 15% to cultural, sporting and educational activities. In fact 15% of the buildings are listed structures, and some of them are full of character – and I’m not talking about the odd swastika, intended purely as an Indian symbol of prosperity and goodness – they’re on the famous Elephant Gate, but there are also some other spectacular gateways and even a lighthouse. It’s all due to be completed by 2024, in time for the 2025 carbon neutrality deadline; of course, all the new buildings are amazingly energy-efficient, but what seems even more impressive is that 96% of the materials from demolished buildings is being recycled. The visitor centre and shop (in the original brewery) are currently closed for a facelift, due to reopen in 2020, which I think will be 2021.
Carlsberg beer is pretty boring, but the story of the company is fascinating. It was founded by Jacob Christian Jacobsen (1811-87), who studied the new process of making bottom-fermented lager in Germany and in 1847 built a brewery alongside the new Copenhagen-Roskilde railway; making very consistent beer on an industrial scale was hugely profitable and in 1876 he decided to donate the entire business to the Royal Danish Academy, setting up the Carlsberg Foundation to fund research in science and the humanities. Having largely funded the restoration of Frederiksborg Castle (in the western suburbs) after a fire, he came up with the idea of a Museum of National History there, which opened in 1878.
In 1871 he built a new brewery alongside the first one and leased it to his son Carl (1842-1914); in 1879 Carl set up his own brewery, Ny Carlsberg (New Carlsberg), and in 1902 handed that over to the foundation too (it owns a minimum of 51% of the business). He was more focussed on the arts than his father and had already created the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (meaning sculpture collection, although much more than that; at the brewery in 1881 then near the central station since 1897), the Danish Museum of Art and Design (1890) and the Royal Cast Collection (1895). He also paid for the statue of the Little Mermaid (from a HC Andersen story) in 1913. In 1921 the Carlsberg Foundation largely funded the Institute of Theoretical Physics, said to have been the birthplace of quantum mechanics, leading (among other things) to Michael Frayn’s brilliant play Copenhagen; it was headed by Niels Bohr, who from 1931 lived in JC Jacobsen’s old home.
Surprisingly perhaps, being managed by the Royal Danish Academy has not stopped Carlsberg from becoming the world’s third largest brewing company; it took over Tuborg in 1970 (there’s a Tuborg Foundation too), Tetley in 1992, and Scottish & Newcastle, the UK’s largest brewer, in 2008 (with Heineken). The flagship beer, variously known as Carlsberg Lager, Carlsberg Beer and Carlsberg Pilsner, was created in 1904 by Carl Jacobsen; Special Brew, a stronger lager, is brewed only in Denmark and the UK (Northampton).
Between the central station and the Carlsberg brewery, the meatpacking district (Kødbyen) was established in 1879, to remove the blood and guts from the old city – it’s now the heart of the city’s nighttime economy, with the hottest bars and clubs. Across the tracks, in an area still partially occupied by a locomotive depot, between the Carlsberg and Fisketorvet (Dybbølsbro and Havenholmen) stations (although only pedestrians and cyclists can take the direct route), is a largely unknown but rather alluring alternative: wooden railway sheds, disused for half a century, are being restored by green entrepreneurs as BaneGaarden – one shed houses an organic farmers market, one a streetfood hall, one a vegetarian restaurant and one a hall for community events. Others will eventually house a woodshop, a plant market and a hub for young entrepreneurs with a sustainable focus. There’s also a new school, student residences, some other shops and the DieselHouse museum, in a still-operational power station, which preserves diesel engines produced by Burmeister & Wain (founded in 1846, and now part of MAN). Their first engine, a single-cylinder model dating from 1904 and producing 40 HP, is started up on Thursday afternoons, while the largest, a monstrous 1,400 tonnes in weight and producing 22,500 HP, runs for about five minutes on two Sunday mornings a month – built in 1932, it generated power for the city until the late 1960s but was not finally disconnected from the grid until 2004.
Street food and more
As in Amsterdam and Hamburg (not to mention the Sugar Factory site in Groningen, which I will get around to writing about at some point), there’s a former docks area which has been taken over by street food outlets, bakeries and microbreweries – here it’s Refshaleøen, on Papirøen (Paper Island) to the north of the self-governing hippy enclave of Christiania (and not far from Copenhill). The sustainable Amass restaurant came first (in 2013), using waste food and with an emphasis on pickling, followed by the Lille organic bakery and Broaden & Build organic brewery, known for hazy IPAs and mindwarping flavour combinations; unfortunately B&B failed to weather the first wave of Covid-19. The Reffen Street Food Market (aka Copenhagen Street Food) started in 2017 as shipping containers housing over fifty food trucks and stalls serving cuisines from around the planet and some just recently invented here; it has now expanded into the vast Werkstatt 167 hangar, creating the largest foodhall in Scandinavia.
A totally different gastronomic experience (albeit one that I will probably never experience myself) is to be had here at Alchemist, where Rasmus Monk, a sort of mutant hybrid of Heston Blumenthal and Damien Hirst, offers a mind-blowing thirty-course set menu combined with optical illusions and theatrical political statements – he’s taken over the Royal Danish Theatre’s domed former set-building workshop, but seats just forty guests there.
Copenhagen is of course known for its amazing range of restaurants, and the most famous was Noma, consistently voted the world’s best until René Redzepi decided at the end of 2016 to close it for a year. It reopened early in 2018 on a new ‘campus’ in a former fortified bastion southeast of Papirøen; in addition to the 42-seat restaurant and a private room, there’s a fermenting space, bakery, test kitchen, garden and greenhouses. In July 2020 a 31-year-old Singaporean, Kenneth Foong, was appointed head chef, and in November it was radically rebooted as – believe it or not – a burger joint. It’s a presumably temporary response to the world of Covid-19, with takeaways and no reservations, but with the same attention to organic sourcing and creative details as before. Eating in, burgers cost the equivalent of £17, plus £6 for chips.
Incidentally, cycling out to Papirøen my eye was caught by the masting crane (Mastekranen), built in 1748–51 as part of the Royal Naval Shipyard (also easily visible across the water as you head north towards the Little Mermaid) – yes, it was used to lift masts in and out of warships.
The city is also home to some amazing bakeries, some set up by Noma alumni, such as Juno the Bakery in Østerbro. In the city centre, I had a great brunch at Paludan Bogcafé (Book Café), where there’s fine food and coffee and also a beautiful bookshop with period ceiling-high shelves (although most people at the tables are consulting laptops and phones rather than books). At the rear of the central station, Jernbanecaffeen meaning literally Railway Café, is a delightfully unspoilt retro place where train drivers and conductors really do come in between shifts.
I can’t say much about accommodation, as I stayed in a cheap CabInn hotel near the Fiskertorvet shopping centre and it was exactly what I wanted for the price. But – harking back to the Carlsberg development – the new Hotel Ottilia (named after Carl Jacobsen’s wife) has created a bit of a buzz with its industrial-chic styling and its rooftop restaurant. Similarly, Villa Copenhagen, which opened in July 2020 in the former central post office (dating from 1912), is a luxury hotel that’s also energy-efficient, full of sustainable materials, and makes a point of employing women and minorities and helping the homeless – very Copenhagen.