COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - The Danish capital that fostered Hans Christian Andersen, the godfather of fairy tales, and hosts one of Europe’s oldest royal lineages is also the setting for grisly murders and political intrigue in television dramas popular across the world.
Copenhagen has always been far more complex than Denmark’s “happy nation” reputation. The gorgeous old town with splendid historic buildings stands near areas that have only recently seen a renaissance after years of gang violence, prostitution and ethnic tensions.
This contrast makes for an ideal city break, which should start with a one-hour boat tour that introduces Copenhagen’s best sights. These include Venice-like canals, royal palaces and the stark modern architecture Denmark is known for.
After the canal tour, hire a bicycle for the rest of the day. Half of all residents commute to work by bike and the wide cycle lanes make it safe even for beginners.
FROM FAIRY TALES TO ‘BORGEN’
For your fill of fairyland, see the 170-year-old Tivoli amusement park at the heart of the city. Despite its age, it offers hair-raising rides such as the Star Flyer, as well as tulip-marked paths winding around lakes, bars and restaurants. In the evening, there are fireworks and live music.
Denmark’s parliament is housed in Christiansborg Palace, where the royal family previously resided for 400 years. The palace has guided tours through gilded corridors and among remnants of older castles in the basement.
Christiansborg is known as Borgen, lending its name to the political drama that sits somewhere between “The West Wing” and “The House of Cards” in its darkness and complex plot lines.
Just a 10-minute cycle ride away is the grand Marble Church. Climb its dome to see the splendor of the old city including the Amalienborg and Rosenborg castles, the Botanical Gardens and the modern Opera House across the water.
For lunch, make your way to the Nyhavn dock packed with sidewalk cafes offering “smorrebrod” open sandwiches washed down with a cold Tuborg Classic beer. Ideal for people-watching, this sunny spot is frequented by Danes as much as tourists.
Carl Jacobsen of the Carlsberg brewery dynasty was a passionate art collector and founded the Carlsberg Glyptotek. The glass-domed building, worth a visit all by itself, houses ancient sculptures and an impressive collection of 19th Century French art.
Denmark has topped the World Happiness Report in recent years, due to its high per-capita income, long life expectancy, social support and other factors that make for a contented life.
For a peek at the darker side of town, take a tour with Weirdwalks. English-speaking guides will introduce the city’s history of witch hunts, executions, mobsters and murderers.
For modern-day outlaws, you can visit Freetown Christiana, the former army barracks and city ramparts claimed by hippies during the 1970s.
Despite repeated threats to close the commune, its continued existence proves true the stereotypical Danish tolerance of social experiments. On so-called Pusher Street, cannabis is sold and smoked openly, despite a clear law criminalizing weed.
Move deeper into Christiana through a small forest to see huts by the water painted in rainbow colors and powered by DIY windmills. It feels like a trip back to the 1970s.
Walking down the street with a beer in hand is perfectly acceptable, and Copenhageners will hang out with six-packs in the city’s well-kept cemeteries, using them as parks.
At Assistens Cemetery, in the ethnically-mixed Norrebro region, you can sit on a blanket and toast the 19th Century’s Andersen or Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher, who are buried here among other famous Danes.
As the sun sets in Assistens, head to Jaegersborg Street for dinner. Don’t worry if you can’t get a table at Noma, named the world’s best restaurant four times since 2010. Instead, try Relae, established by a former Noma chef and serving up elegant Danish platters with a dash of Italian.
Hip restaurant and cafes have transformed Norrebro’s crime-ridden reputation in the same way trendy bars and nightclubs are clearing the name of Vesterbro’s red-light district.
The setting for the Danish crime hit show, “The Killing,” Vesterbro’s untouched roughness makes it popular amongst hipsters and artists partying the night away.
Lidkoeb is a bar hidden in an alley off Vesterbrogade, the area’s main artery, and serves cocktails in sparse Nordic interior furnished with leather benches, animal skin and lots of wood -- an elegant Viking touch, if that is possible.
Whether you are a dancing queen or king, the meat-packing district in Vesterbro is the latest hot spot where old slaughterhouses have been transformed into clubs and bars, many frequented by Copenhagen’s gay community.
Editing by Sabina Zawadzki, Ayla Jean Yackley and Tom Heneghan