Ally Miola learns that happiness is not only a state of mind, it’s a state in Northern Europe.
Contrary to what the legacy of a cartoon-doodling entrepreneur would have you believe, it turns out that the happiest place on earth is not, in fact, a theme park in California or Florida. After taking into account such factors as income, freedom to make life choices, social support, corruption and generosity, the U.N.-commissioned World Happiness Report determined that the happiest place on earth is actually Denmark.
Not only did the country top the report in both 2012 and 2013 (the annual listing only started in 2012), but, in 1973, when the European Commission set up a “Eurobarometer” with the intention of monitoring well-being and happiness, Denmark had the most favorable ranking of the continent—and the nation has continued to lead the pack every year since. That’s forty years of uninterrupted bliss!
Easier Done Than Said
So, what’s at the heart of all these good vibes? Well, Copenhagen, for starters. The cultural, political and spiritual center of Denmark, Copenhagen is an anomaly among national capitals. The city’s air and water are pure (the inner harbor, brown with pollution just 30 years ago, is now so clean that residents cheerily swim in it on long summer days) and, despite the fact that the average citizen works only 37.5 hours per week (a total that’s often reached in just four days, leading to an abundance of three-day weekends), the city still has one of the strongest economies in Europe.
It’s little wonder that the Danish lexicon includes such a word as hygge. While no amount of patience on the part of my Danish friends could help me correctly pronounce it, during my short visit to the country, I believe I was able to understand what the notoriously difficult-to-translate word means: More than just coziness, hygge encompasses a deep sense of happiness and contentment, often accompanied by candlelight, good company and even better conversation. It’s the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a favorite chunky sweater or the feeling of that first spring breeze on bare arms.
Unsurprisingly, most restaurants in Copenhagen strive to evoke hygge and, as the concept is so easy to channel over a satisfying meal, I’d say that many succeed. The scene surrounding the “New Nordic Kitchen” (characterized by Chef Claus Meyer’s manifesto of the same name) has captured the attention of foodies the world over—not the least of which is the team at Restaurant Magazine, famously naming Meyer’s Noma the world’s best restaurant in 2010, 2011 and 2012 (and number two in 2013), and Michelin, which has awarded the restaurant two of Copenhagen’s 15 total stars.
While everyone wants to snag the highly elusive reservation at Noma, locals joke that, these days, every restaurant in the city is helmed by a veteran chef of that superlative eatery. This is good news for visitors who might not have had the forethought to plan their meals a full year in advance. You’ll have better luck at Restaurant Radio, another of Meyer’s projects, which excels not only at hygge, but at folkekøkken, which the restaurant’s website describes as a place “where many people eat together in a friendly low-key atmosphere.” Offering three- or five-course dinner menus only (plus lunch on Friday and Saturday), the pescatarian dinner the kitchen put together for me was rife with organic produce, like pan-fried turnips, and fresh local seafood, such as scallops with crunchy cabbage and aromatic fennel. Each dish was prepared with minimal fuss, to allow clean, delicate flavors to take center stage, epitomizing the local cuisine’s defining trait of being both world-class and accessible.
With so much outstanding cuisine at their fingertips, Danes could easily see inches added to their waistbands. However, I couldn’t help but notice that, on the whole, they’re a decidedly lean bunch. How do they do it? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that more than half the population bikes to school or work. From my own experience, I found biking around Copenhagen to be one of the best ways to see the city—fast, fun and remarkably safe, with not only clearly marked bike lanes, but dedicated traffic lights for bikes that help keep car, bike and pedestrian traffic organized. As a New York City cyclist, I can only dream of one day experiencing such ease of travel in my hometown.
If you’re keen on taking a two-wheeled spin, yourself, but worried about doing it in an unfamiliar city, ride the train just north to Hellerup (the trains are bike-friendly, so feel free to pick up your rental in Copenhagen). There, you’ll find a long, flat coastal bike path that leads to the woods of North Zealand and the Dyrehaven deer park. Stop to snap a picture of the historically protected Skovshoved Petrol Station, designed by Arne Jacobson (the Danish mind behind the 60s mod egg chair and the design mecca that is the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Copenhagen). Reward yourself after your ride with traditional smørrebrød (rye bread with a variety of toppings) at Peter Liep’s Hus, a charming, cottage-like restaurant in the woods.
Vikings in Vogue
One trait I especially admire in Copenhageners: They don’t subscribe to the notion that, in order to ride a bike, you have to wear spandex, be able to dismantle and reassemble your ride with your eyes closed or belong to some sort of subculture. Everywhere, you’ll spy chic and professional-looking businesswomen deftly riding to work in high heels, as well as stylish pregnant mommies pedaling their little ones with cargo bikes. Of course, making every experience pleasing to the eye and soul, from pumping gas to the morning commute, is another part of that hygge zeitgeist that’s made Copenhagen such a remarkably pleasant city.
In Walt Disney’s defense, it is said that when creating his own entertainment compounds, he took inspiration from 19th-century amusement park Tivoli Gardens, which he experienced firsthand on a visit to Denmark in 1958. Perhaps, in coining the phrase, “the happiest place on earth,” for his own land of make-believe, Disney was merely making an unwitting (or sly) homage to the real capital of contentment.
Here’s Looking at You
For all their civilized discourse, it’s important to remember that modern-day Danes are descendants of Vikings, so make sure to look your companions in the eye when saying, “Cheers!” (skål). It’s how those warrior ancestors warded off would-be poisoners at the dinner table and, to this day, the tradition maintains a strong hold anywhere drinks are poured in Denmark.
Where to Stay:
• Hotel Kong Arthur 11 Nørre Søgade, 1370 København K; Tel.: +45 (33) 11-12-12; brochner-hotels.dk
• Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Copenhagen 1 Hammerichsgade, 1611 København; Tel.:+45 (33) 42-60-00; radissonblu.com/royalhotel-copenhagen
Where to Eat:
• Peter Liep’s Hus 8 Dryehaven, 2930 Klampenborg; Tel.: +45 (39) 64-07-86; peterliep.dk
• Restaurant Radio 12 Julius Thomsens Gade, 121632 København V; Tel.: +45 (25) 10-27-33; restaurantradio.dk
A tip from Hotel Kong Arthur’s front desk Duty Manager Lucia Albrechtsen:
Many of the small treasures of Copenhagen are actually hidden right in the center of all the “big treasures” like Strøget and Nyhavn, and even though people walk through them, I don’t think they really “see” them. When I am in the center of the city, I like wandering some of the small streets like Pilestræde, Klosterstræde or Gl. Mønt. The small cafés, galleries and shops in this area are owned by local people, and they’re places where you can design your own earrings, find local art or purchase a simple scarf that you can’t find anywhere else. Here, you’ll find a completely different charm from that felt in the busy and overcrowded shopping streets like Strøget and Købmagergade. [The smaller streets] are where you can find things that you will remember as special souvenirs from Copenhagen.
Tags: Denmark, Copenhagen, Premier
Author: Ally Miola
Courtesy: Premier Traveler