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.)
One of the things that surprised me when I first moved to Denmark is that there could be so many distinctions and divisions between fewer than six million people living in an area half the size of Indiana.
But the differences exist, and they are deeply felt.
Stopping by Copenhagen and saying you’ve seen Denmark is a little bit like stopping by Manhattan and Disney World and saying you’ve seen the United States. (And many Danes do precisely this.)
Dry humor in Jylland
While Copenhagen is both the capital of the country and its business center, much of the country’s wealth is generated in Jylland, the large land mass stuck to Germany.
Whenever the holiday season approaches, I always think about the time I brought home our Christmas tree on a bicycle.
It was a grey day in late November – we Americans like to start our Christmas decorating early – and my young daughter dearly wanted a tree for our Copenhagen apartment.
So we walked through the snow to the parking lot of a nearby Netto, where a cheerful fellow from Jutland was waiting with a good selection of sweet-smelling pines.
Being a very small girl, my daughter wanted a very big tree. The man spied our shopper bike and looked a little doubtful, but he went ahead and wrapped up one of the largest trees in white plastic netting, and helped us lift it onto the bike.
The trunk was on the baggage carrier in the back, and the top of the tree over the handlebars and into the basket. We walked the bike home that way, with my daughter holding the big pine tree at its center over the seat, while I steered the bike in the right direction.
“When I first moved to Copenhagen from New York City, more than a decade ago, Danes used to ask me why I wanted to come to a little place like Denmark after living in glamorous Manhattan,”, writes Kay Xander Mellish in a new article for Berlingske.dk (in Danish) and The Copenhagen Book (in English).
“Nobody asks that any more. In the time since I’ve been here, Copenhagen has increased its confidence while New York City as a cultural capital seems to have lost its mojo.”
I’ve never seen a country that loves its flag as much as Denmark does – and that’s a big statement, coming from an American. But foreigners who come to Denmark can’t help but notice that the Danish flag is everywhere.
People love to fly Danish flags over their summer houses – the bigger the better. Christmas trees in Denmark are decorated with little Danish flags. Cucumbers in the supermarket have Danish flags on the label to show they’re grown in Denmark. Whenever a member of the Danish royal family has a birthday, two little Danish flags are stuck on the front of every Copenhagen bus.
The Danish flag is closely associated with Danish birthdays. If you have a birthday when you’re working in a Danish office, one of your colleagues is likely to put a Danish flag on your desk. It means – happy birthday! You may see a birthday cake with tiny Danish flags stuck into it, or the Danish flag recreated in red frosting.
And if you’re invited to a party by a Danish friend – any kind of party – you may find paper Danish flags stuck into the ground to guide you to the right house.
The Danish flag is not really a statement of nationalism. It’s a statement of joy.
I’ve never seen anyone say anything negative about the Danish flag – until a couple of weeks ago.
If you live in Denmark or follow the Danish media, you’ll know there’s been a lot of talk of gangsters over the past week. One Danish gang is trying to expand at the expense of another gang, and this summer there have been about 25 shootings in Copenhagen, generally in the northern neighborhoods – my neighborhood.
Somebody was shot outside my supermarket, somebody else was shot outside the school near my house, and a couple of people have been shot just walking down the street.
Most of the victims are other gangsters, but a few have been unlucky civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time. All have been young men, and the Copenhagen police went so far as to suggest that young men stop wearing knit hats. Knit hats can be a gang sign.
I should point out that this summer in Denmark has been so cold that wearing a knit hat in August can actually seem like a good idea.
I help out at a flea market sometimes near Copenhagen, a flea market that’s held a few times a year to benefit my daughter’s marching band. We sell things people have sent for recycling – at the local recycling center, you can put things that are still useful in a special room, and then community groups sort through those things and sell them to raise money.
We have one persistent problem: too many shotglasses. Each new week brings dozens of beautiful crystal shotglasses, prized for a lifetime by someone from the older generation, perhaps now the dead generation. These people to used to drink clear snaps before fancy Easter lunches, and or a dark bitter alcohol called Gammel Dansk before breakfast.
People in Denmark don’t do that much any more. They go jogging before breakfast and drink wine for holiday lunches, if they drink anything.
And most young people already have a set of grandpa’s old shotglasses gathering dust somewhere at the back of a cabinet, and they don’t need any more.
So week after week, these lovely little etched crystal glasses line up like fragile soldiers on the storage shelves at the flea market. Nobody needs them, nobody buys them, but we just don’t have the heart to throw them out.
I do a lot of writing in the lovely, sunny cafe at the Statens Museum for Kunst, otherwise known as the Danish National Gallery.
This museum is free to the public and has a great collection of both historic and contemporary art.
Now I’m excited to say that you can get a paperback copy of the ‘How To Live in Denmark’ book in English at the Statens Museum for Kunst gift shop.
You can also buy a copy of the book at the shop at Denmark’s National Museum, at the Politiken Bookstore on Radhuspladsen, or at Made in Denmark on Brolæggergade 8. It can also be special-ordered from any bookstore in Denmark, although you may have to wait a couple of weeks. It’s also available in Aarhus at Stakbogladen near the university.
I was walking towards my home in Copenhagen the other day, when I walked past a kindergarten. It had a big, open playground with lots things for the kids to climb on, but nobody was climbing. The kids were all gathered around a giant, open bonfire. Now, these kids were 3 to 5 years old, and the flames of the bonfire were probably twice as tall as they were. But there was no restraining fence or barrier to keep them away from it. Just a couple of adults and some pails of water.
Big open fires, which are called bål, are pretty common in Denmark, even around children. Sometimes the kids even roast little pieces of bread over the fire, or rather, a long piece of dough curled around a stick. Snobrød, it’s called. Kids grow up learning not to be afraid of fire. Maybe that’s a legacy of Denmark being such a cold country; fires were once very important to staying alive.
Even at Tivoli in the winter, you’ll see open containers of flaming hot coals – you know, the sort of things you usually see in depictions of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. But at Tivoli Danish parents are carefully showing their children how to warm their little fingers over the hot coals. No fear.