When I mentioned visiting Esbjerg for a few days off this spring, many of my friends in Copenhagen said – why? Esbjerg doesn’t have a reputation as a vacation spot, even though it’s the fifth-largest city in Denmark and the youngest big city.
My daughter, who is more clever than I am, told her Copenhagen friends that we were going to the “West Coast of Denmark” making it sound like we would be relaxing on one of the west coast beaches.
For Copenhagen snobs, Esbjerg is a fishing town, which it was 50 years ago but isn’t really anymore. It’s an oil and wind energy town, industrial but very modern.
Still, I think the city has a bit of an inferiority complex.
To celebrate the anniversary of the “How to Live in Denmark Podcast” – which launched in summer 2013 and has since racked up more than a million downloads – I wanted something special and memorable. This new Welcome to Denmark drawing is it.
I have long been a fan of Danish cartoonist Claus Deleuran’s 1992 image, “Danes, Danish, More Danish”, done for an exhibit at the Nikolaj Kunsthal, but had always been frustrated that it only seems to exist online small, low-res versions.
I thought it would be fun to recreate it – and as long as I was redrawing it – to reflect the Denmark of today.
Although I have drawn cartoons in the past, this particular image is not drawn by me. I commissioned Polish graphic artist Karolina Kara to help me to create it, explaining to her exactly how I wanted each of the characters to appear.
I also gave her photos to work with, such as a picture of the trademark “Copenhagen bench” the beer drinkers are sitting on in the foreground to the right.
Along with food and housing, getting around is a big part of the cost of living in Denmark. In fact, the less you spend on rent, by living outside of the most expensive downtown zones, the more you’re likely to spend on transport.
And no matter what the tourist brochures suggest, you probably won’t go everywhere on a bike in Denmark. Bikes are great in downtown Aarhus or Copenhagen, or in a campus-type area like DTU in Lyngby.
But the further you get outside of urban areas, the more useful a car is. That’s why there are 2.5 million personal cars on the road in Denmark plus 0.5 million “business cars.” Three million cards on the road means roughly one for every two people.
Cars are brutally expensive in Denmark, and if you live far away from mass transport, you might be stuck buying one.
Otherwise, there are many ways to lower your cost of transport in Denmark by getting around for less, and it has a lot to do with how well you plan.
And the Danes are, in general, very good advance planners.
Incredibly cheap train tickets
My personal favorite way to cut the cost of transport in Denmark are the Orange train tickets you can get for incredibly cheap prices if you book in advance.
I was stunned to find that you can get from one side of Denmark to the other – from Copenhagen to Esbjerg, to be precise – for only 99 kroner.
That’s cheaper than a 10-minute trip in a Copenhagen taxi. And it’s 3 1/2 hour journey.
Anyone who has spent time living in Denmark knows that it’s one of the most expensive countries around. That’s true when it comes to food shopping in Denmark, too.
One Dane who had lived in the US explained it this way: “In Denmark, every supermarket is priced like Whole Foods.”
For those of you who haven’t visited the States, Whole Foods is a high-end grocery chain nicknamed “Whole Wallet” or “Whole Paycheck.”
One reason is that unlike most Western countries, Denmark imposes a full sales tax on food items, adding 25% to the price of almost everything.
I love old books. I love the kind of old books you get at antique bookstores or on the Internet Archive. And I have a good collection of old books about Denmark.
I like old travel guides, most of which are still pretty useful because the Danes don’t tear a lot of things down the way they do, in say, Los Angeles or Hong Kong. In Denmark you’ll pretty much find most castles and monuments right where somebody left them hundreds of years ago.
If you want to see a famous church or square or the Jelling Stone, your Baedecker guidebook from 1895 will work just fine for you in most cases.
Denmark has had two female prime ministers and about forty percent of the people elected to the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, are women, which one might think is a good indicator of gender equality in Denmark.
But when it comes to private industry, Danish women have one of the lowest participation rates in management in Europe. According to the OECD, only 26.9% of managers in Denmark are female, compared to 40.7% in the US.
It’s not unusual to see a senior management team made up entirely of Danish males, with perhaps a Swedish or German male thrown in for diversity.
It might seem like a counterintuitive time to talk about beaches, in the middle of a long, very cold winter.
But in these times of COVID, beaches are one of the few places in Denmark you are currently allowed to meet up with family and friends.
Beaches, parks, frozen-over lakes, these are the big social meeting points at time when cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, gyms, schools, theaters, museums, places of worship, and hairdressers, barbers, and nail salons are all closed.
Unlike the Norwegians, Swedes, and some Germans, the Danes don’t show their cultural pride by dressing up in 19th century folk costumes. (As a matter of fact, the first time I ever saw a Danish folk costume was at a festival in California.)
Instead, Danes express their cultural pride through food.
When visiting Denmark, you’ll be offered Danish cuisine, and expressing enthusiasm for it will go a long way towards generating harmony with your Danish friends.
Flæskesteg, Denmark’s national dish
The good news is, dining in Denmark offers something for everyone.
If you’re a carnivore, don’t miss the Danish pork dishes, particularly flæskesteg. That’s a crispy, fatty fried pork that’s often called Denmark’s national dish, served with sugary caramelized potatoes and braised red cabbage.
For people who prefer fish, there’s a great selection in this country surrounded by water.
While a car is useful for exploring the Danish countryside, a car in one of Denmark’s larger cities can be a millstone around your neck.
The traffic is terrible, the fuel costs stratospheric, the parking spaces doll-sized. Bicyclists own the road and often ignore traffic rules.
If you’re just visiting, don’t feel you need to rent a car when you land at the airport.
Even if the home or business you’re visiting is in the suburbs, there’s a good chance you’ll save money by taking a cab – and most Danish taxis are Mercedes-Benz or Teslas. (There is no Uber or Lyft in Denmark.)
Watch out for bicyclists
If you do choose to drive in the city, be very careful about right turns.
Several Danish bicyclists are killed every year because a car or truck took a right turn and the bicyclist (who may be drunk, grooving out to music on his earbuds, or simply not paying attention) continued going straight.
There is no legal right turn on red in Denmark, and even on green, the bicyclist has the right of way.
Denmark is a lovely place to settle down for a while, or even permanently if you are ready to do battle with the immigration authorities. While I’m no expert on Danish visas or immigration law, I can offer a few practical tips for moving to Denmark.
First of all, make sure you bring money. Denmark is an expensive place to live where you will own less stuff, but better stuff.
That said, there’s no need to bring much furniture, in particular if your furniture is nothing special.
You can easily purchase basic pieces from IKEA, either in Denmark or in IKEA’s homeland of Sweden, and there’s also the option of buying gorgeous Danish design furniture inexpensively at local second-hand stores and flea markets.
Clothing and beauty products
Bring lots of casual, warm, and waterproof clothing. You don’t need huge polar jackets – Denmark rarely goes below 0 Fahrenheit/-15 Celsius – but halter tops and suede loafers will see very little service.
When it comes to business clothing, blazers, sweaters, and trousers in subtle colors are usually your best bet. (Danes are not great fans of whimsy or eccentricity when it comes to clothing or jewelry.)