Gal With a Suitcase

Our intrepid travel columnist, who spends half her life on the road, falls head over heels for Copenhagen, a Christmas wonderland with beautiful architecture, craft brews, and a climate change conference that aims to keep Denmark cold.

Our intrepid travel columnist, who spends half her life on the road, falls head over heels for Copenhagen, a Christmas wonderland with beautiful architecture, craft brews, and a climate-change conference that aims to keep Denmark cold.

In Danish, København, roughly translated, means Merchants’ Harbor, and this royal capital of Denmark offers visitors the best of old and new. Locals call it “Paris of the North,” and Copenhagen lives up to this bravado in a phenomenal way.

Home to nearly 1.2 million people, it is one of the most densely populated cities in Northern Europe, and the most visited in the Nordic countries. Superb shopping, stately architecture, and a rich sense of history make it a charming destination for the Christmas season. And how apt that the U.N. chose Copenhagen to host this week's global climate-change conference, which may even produce a Christmas gift for us all.

How apt that the U.N. chose Copenhagen to host this week's global climate-change conference, which may even produce a Christmas gift for us all.

Once off the plane at the immaculate Kastrup Airport, I was struck immediately by all the ads in support of the conference. The most arresting were those by Greenpeace showing a decrepitly aged Barack Obama as someone who had the chance to “save us, but didn’t." I couldn’t help but chuckle when I stepped outside, past the eco ads with children dressed in “Hopenhagen” paraphernalia, to find a taxi stand filled with gas-guzzling Mercedes at least 50 cars deep.

But I’m not here to wax lyrical on climate change. Instead, I’ll stick to what I know, which is basically eating and moving. And in Copenhagen, you tend to move a little quicker—it is frigid here. The average winter highs hover just above freezing, and the breeze coming off of the Sound, between the Kattegat and the Baltic Sea, can certainly increase the pace of a typical nighttime stroll through town.

Other Backpack Adventures: • A Trip to TokyoBack Home in East LondonA Long Weekend in IcelandNevertheless, Copenhagen is an enchanting winter destination, with December as the high point. The Danes know how to do Christmas. Lights and ornaments are sprinkled throughout the city to just the right degree. People here are extremely friendly, and warmly welcome tourists. But as has been my theme lately, this city is—you guessed it—expensive. A dollar buys you about five Danish kroner, which is not a conversion in our favor. I found myself actually missing the euro, if only for convenience’s sake. But don’t let this stop you. If you can make it here before Christmas, do it. I haven’t been so taken with the season since I visited Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee, years ago. And to my delight, one thing that smothered that experience is not repeated here: poinsettias. There are, approximately, zero.

So, what can you expect? Colorful buildings, hearty beer, and plenty of hand-crafted trinkets to amuse all ages. Copenhagen is a walking city, so pack comfy shoes, pick a hotel near the center (there are deals) and don’t choose now to be shy about draping yourself in wool and fur.

Stay

Nimb Hotel is known to many, if not all, as the place to stay. With just 13 individually designed rooms, smack in the center of town and adjoined to Tivoli, Copenhagen's historic amusement park, this place is hard to find fault with. If you pushed me gently, though, I’d critique the cost. During the high season, rooms can run between 2,900 and 6,500 kroner, or a staggering $600-$1,300. If you can't justify this (I couldn’t), at least try out Nimb Bar for a fireside drink, or dine at the Nimb Brasserie overlooking beautiful Tivoli. The other restaurant, Herman, is their Michelin-starred option. On the whole, Nimb is fairly spectacular if you’ve planned a bank robbery prior to check-in.

Bernstorffsgade 5 København V +45 8870 0000 http://www.nimb.dk/

Consider Hotel Mayfair, a Clarion Hotel, in the center of Vesterbro, right in the heart of the action. I was looking for a reasonably priced option that was still boutique-ish, and this is it. You will not write home about the bathroom or concierge (pack your own toiletries and come equipped with local knowledge), but what you will find is a perfectly charming hotel with elegant touches like lush curtains, brightly colored carpets, and adorable little communal rooms off the lobby. Every guest is offered complimentary breakfast, and even dinner is included as part of the stay. This hotel suited me just fine, and we got a kick out of the view of next door's "gentlemen’s club." Nowhere is perfect, what can I say. Some 106 rooms from 1,200 kroner, or about $240 per night.

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Helgolandsgade 3 - 5 1653 København V +45 7012 1700 http://www.choicehotels.no/hotels/hotel?hotel=DK025

Eat

A Hereford Beefstouw is a steakhouse with a brewery attached, and I highly recommend it for a satisfying dinner. It’s beefy (there's only one alternative on the menu, a Dover sole) but if you’re in the mood for meat, look no further. Skip the sirloin or prime rib; instead, order the filet and a baked potato with sour cream and chives. Help it all down with one of the many home-brewed beers—the lager and seasonal Christmas beer disappeared quickly at our table. Service isn’t amazing, but that’s what the beer is for. Roughly $75 per person, reservations recommended.

http://www.a-h-b.dk/

Umami is a Japanese term indicating what some call the "fifth taste" (it's also sometimes described as "savoriness") and this French-inspired Japanese restaurant is a high-style, minimalist winner. If you feel like you’ve been here before, it’s probably because it was inspired by the owners’ visit to Nobu. Situated in a former 19th-century bank, this place is posh with the clientele and bold-faced names to prove it. The toilets are the former vault area, and the menu has everything from sushi rolls to sake-steamed mussels with cilantro and chili. My advice is to try a lot and split the bill. On Fridays and Saturdays there’s a DJ.

Store Kongensgade 59 1264 København +45 3338 7500 www.restaurantumami.dk

A friend recommended I try Vesterbro Bryghus for its typical brewhouse feel and I’m glad she did. Vesterbro is wonderfully industrial, but with special touches that made it memorable. It’s a common local destination for after-work beer and gossip. Their special Danish beer is brewed on site, and the menu varies from mozzarella caprese starters to Cajun magic mains. Crème caramel is on offer for dessert—that’s all I’m saying.

Vesterbrogade 2 B 1620 København V www.vesterbrobryghus.dk

Do

Your first stop should be Tivoli, and the best time to visit is at night. Tivoli is a darling old-fashioned amusement park with restaurants, bars, shops, and stalls selling everything from thick woolly accessories to snow globes. You’ll be well entertained even if rides aren’t your thing (they’re not mine) and there are plenty of food options. Grab a beer or a hot mug of Danish Christmas glogg (mulled wine) and nosh on the snacks that share your path: hot dogs, sausages, dipped waffles, and anything sweet is a sure thing. For a sit-down restaurant, I recommend Groften. It's a little brasserie next to an old theater. Order the skipperlabskovs ad libitum, which is beef stew and mashed potatoes. It arrives with a side of diced beets that were second to none. You must buy tickets to enter Tivoli, which are 95 kroner, or approximately $20. During the high season it's open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

www.tivoli.dk www.groften.dk +45 33750675; you can book, but walk-ins are fine

After Tivoli closes you may want to walk across to the grand City Hall Square for a stroll to the Icebar CPH by ICEHOTEL, a hotel built entirely of snow and ice. En route you’ll pass the Galerie Gerly on Vankunsten 13, where you’ll discover an eclectic mix of local artists; I was particularly taken by Anders Christopher Pedersen. Once you reach Icebar, you’ll be met by a handsome and just friendly enough bouncer who will ask you to shell out 150 kroner per person for entry and one drink. You’ll then be outfitted with an unflattering blue coat-and-glove get-up and put into a room that familiarizes you with the 23-degree temperature. When you finally arrive in the actual Icebar, you'll be reminded of the simplicity of this idea: It’s cold, there’s a lot of ice, and it’s a bar. Order one of the “Cold Drinks” served in a Torne River Ice Glass, suck up that ridiculous feeling of being a tourist, and clink your ice glass.

In Nyhavn, you can find Canal Tours which offers a bargain-priced 70-minute water tour of Copenhagen’s amazing architecture and waterways (60 kroner per person). You’ll take in spectacular panoramas, including the city's 2.5 billion kroner stunner of an Opera house, the magnificent black diamond library, the old canon boat sheds, and of course, the iconic Little Mermaid statue in Langelinie Harbour. (It's roughly four feet tall—I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.) A new temporary neighbor to the dignified Mermaid is a statue called The Survival of the Fattest by sculptor Jens Galschiot for Art in Defense of Humanism, placed here to coincide with the climate-change conference. It depicts an obese white woman sitting on the back of a skinny African man, and provides an interesting contrast to the fairytale of the Mermaid.

If you do only one thing in Denmark, visit the remarkable Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Two separate friends called it “one of the coolest art galleries on the planet,” and I must agree. With over 3,000 pieces, it is one of Scandinavia’s largest art collections. You can easily spend an afternoon taking in post-1945 works by Warhol, Picasso, or Polke. Shilpa Gupta has a thousand-microphone piece that's worth the trip alone. Part of the magic is the journey to the Louisiana—a picturesque train ride 30 minutes outside the city center that arrives at beautiful coastal views. If you’re really game for adventure, buy a 24-hour ticket and head on to Kronborg Castle in Helsingor on the Sound between Denmark and Sweden. William Shakespeare famously fictionalized this castle as the setting for Hamlet.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Gl. Strandvej 13 3050 Humlebæk www.louisiana.dk

Finally, consider flying into Malmo, Sweden. You’d get the added benefit of taking the train over Oresund Bridge. Book a day flight so you don't miss the heavenly views.

Avoid

Beware of Christiania. This is a squatters' village started in 1971 when homeless people started sneaking over fences to occupy “The Forbidden City of the Military,” as it was dubbed by journalist Jacob Ludvigsen. Since then it has essentially remained a self-contained area of Copenhagen, complete with its own set of governing laws and communal ideology set out by Ludvigsen nearly 40 years ago. All I’ll say is thank goodness I went here during the day. There were hordes of unsavory-looking men standing by fires selling varying kinds of hash, Great Dane-sized dogs lurking about, and enough graffiti to showcase at the Louvre. Haight-Ashbury, this ain’t.

The two-Michelin starred Noma has been hailed as the third best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine—and it's the epitome of overrated. While the setting and service are impeccable, the food just doesn’t satisfy. At roughly $750 for two, I’d seriously suggest a miss. Instead, try Formel B. The menu changes monthly and offers Danish-inspired French cuisine over six beautiful courses. You must book in advance and wear a jacket and tie.

Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50 percent of the year. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. Prior to that she served as global director of corporate and business affairs for IBM Corporation She was the director of PR for the Financial Times. She lives between New York and London.