Back in the summer, my girlfriend and her brother saw that Norwegian Air was offering direct flights from Las Vegas to Copenhagen, Denmark for relatively cheap (under $400 round-trip). So we bought some tickets, made reservations at a hostel in Copenhagen, and spent our Thanksgiving holiday traveling to Europe and getting some more stamps on our passports. This was only my second trip to Europe and the second set of stamps that I got on my passport.
The flight was pretty grueling. Ten hours in economy seating is not the most comfortable thing in the world. The time-zone difference also meant that the flight effectively wiped an entire day off of our calendar. Ah well. We bought a transit card called the "Copenhagen Card", which gave us free use of the public transit systems for the entire week. It also granted us free admission to some public facilities such as castles, museums, and parks. It was a very handy thing to have!
Gløgg is a Scandinavian holiday wine.
Apparently, the Danes really like Christmas. One of the things that struck us almost as soon as we got off the plane is that the entire city was decorated for Christmas. Whole buildings were covered in lights, street lights were lined with garlands, and there were multiple Yule Markets (outdoor gift and food stands) lining the streets and squares of the city. Since the Danes don't have Thanksgiving, they apparently don't have any reservations about putting up Christmas decorations in November. We walked through some of these street vendors and Yule Markets and tried our first Danish delicacy: gløgg. Gløgg is a Swedish and Danish drink that mixes hot mulled wine with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, raisins, and almonds. It's kind of like a sweet hot tea, and it's a very strong drink with a somewhat overwhelming fragrance. It was good in moderation, but its overwhelming sweetness meant that it wore out its welcome for us very quickly.
Castles and museums
We spent much of our first few days visiting castles and museums. Our first stop was Rosenborg Castle, a small royal residence of Frederick IV and Christian IV. The castle wasn't very big, but it was very ornate. Every inch of the walls and ceilings seemed to be covered in decorations ranging from paintings and murals to marble sculptures popping out of the ceilings.
We visited Rosenborg Castle, a part-time residence of Kings Frederick IV and Christian IV.
After Rosenborg, we paid a visit to Tivoli Gardens, one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe. Our Copenhagen Card gave us free admission, but rides required the purchase of tickets. We bought the unlimited wrist-bands in order to ride whatever rides we wanted. There aren't very many rides in the park, but we got our money's worth out of the wrist bands. There was a modest roller coaster and some other fairly standard rides. The highlight, however, was a ride called "Vertigo". It's a small bi-plane seat attached to a rotating arm. The arm swings the seat 360 degrees with up to 5 g's of acceleration! The seat also spins around, leaving riders upside down and doing flips and barrel rolls. It was a very intense ride. At the fastest parts of the ride, the air blowing in our faces actually made it difficult to breathe. Since the park wasn't very busy (it being a weekday afternoon during the off-season), we were able to ride this ride back-to-back; once going forward, and again going backwards. Both provided slightly varied sensations, and both were intense.
Kronborg Castle is a strategically-valuable gateway to the Baltic, and the supposed home of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The next day, we visited Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark (only a short train ride out of Copenhagen). This castle sits at a strategic position at the mouth of the Øresund Sound straight between Denmark and Sweden, and was used by Danish kings to collect tolls and taxes from trade ships traveling between Scandinavia and Western Europe through the Baltic Sea. It's also the inspiration for the castle of Elsinor in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. My girlfriend is an English and literature teacher, so visiting the Hamlet Castle was high on her priority list! The castle is also supposedly the resting place of the mythical hero King Holger of the Danes, who is said to sleep in the castle, waiting to be awakened to save the country. A statue of him was built a couple hundred years ago at a nearby inn in order to attract tourists, but now a larger statue sits in the casemates underneath the castle.
The day after visiting Kronborg, we next started a gauntlet of museum visits. We started with the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. I have to say that I wasn't very impressed with this museum. That was mostly because it lacked many exhibits of Viking stuff. I would have expected to see a whole floor or wing dedicated to Viking exhibits, but instead, there were only a couple of rooms. Instead, the first floor of the museum was dominated by exhibits of runes and other iron-age, pre-Viking artifacts. There was a whole floor of exhibits based on the renaissance kingdoms of Denmark.
The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde features restorations of five scuttled Viking longships.
We left the museum early in order to checkout the Danish national acquarium (also in Copenhagen). This aquarium was also a bit disappointing. It was pretty small and lacked unique or interesting exhibits. The highlight was the octopus. I've seen octopodes, but they've always just sat in the corner not doing much. This octopus in Copenhagen, however, was very active. It was crawling all over the tank, swam around, and seemed to do gymnastics for us. It was pretty cool. They are very graceful and beautiful animals.
The next day, we satisfied our Viking itch by hopping onto a train to Roskilde and visiting the Viking Ship Museum. This museum features restorations of a handful of Viking longship shipwrecks that were scuttled to act as barriers in the narrow and shallow Roskilde fjord. The shipwrecks were discovered in the 1960s, and the Danish government put up steel barriers around the site, drained the water, excavated the longship remains, and spent decades reconstructing the ships in order to exhibit them in the museum. The remains were incomplete, but the museum also constructed full-size replicas of these ships. During the summer, they even offer boat trips on the replica longships. Sadly, we visited in November, and those boat trips weren't available. Perhaps we'll have to go back in the summer in order to ride the ships.
A little dress-up fun in the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde.
This museum was pretty cool and was one of the highlights of the trip. It wasn't a very big museum, but the restored shipwrecks and the exhibits about how they were used as barriers to protect the settlement at Roskilde were all neat. This museum also had an excellent gift shop that was loaded with cool souvenirs, t-shirts, toy weapons, model ships, and books. Many of the better-looking books were written in Danish, and so I couldn't understand them, but I did find one cool-looking book in English to buy.
A detour to Malmö, Sweden
We also took a day trip across the Øresund Bridge from Copenhagen to Malmö, Sweden. We visited the Malmöhus Castle. This castle also wasn't very impressive, but it made up for it by having an entire natural history museum and aquarium hidden away underneath it. This aquarium actually had some more interesting animals than the Copenhagen aquarium, including a lot of reptiles. I especially liked an adorable little Egyptian tortoise that they had. The animal had apparently been caught by customs inspectors at the border. Someone tried to smuggle the animal across the border, but, since this species of tortoise is endangered, transporting it across international borders is illegal. The confiscated animal was donated to the aquarium.
Danish food was not very impressive, but we did enjoy our one Swedish meal.
After the museum, we wandered around the city, checked out the shopping districts (which were having Black Friday sales despite not having a Thanksgiving holiday), and had lunch. We weren't terribly impressed with Danish food. Pastries and desserts were good, but the actual meals were kind of uninteresting. I did try herring for the first time, and I liked it. But other meals weren't very noteworthy. Maybe we just didn't find anything good, but my impression of Danish food isn't very impressive. Our limited experience with Swedish food, on the other, was much better. We went to lunch at a restaurant called Mellow Yellow and had great food. My girlfriend ordered a reindeer steak, and I ordered arctic char. She liked the reindeer a lot. I liked it too, but it was a bit "gamey" to me. I'd eat it again, but I much prefer bison. The char was excellent. I like salmon, and the char had a somewhat more intense flavor, which was good. For dessert, we had some wonderful mini personal apple pies. They were really good!
That being said, there was a place in Copenhagen called Copenhagen Street Food (or "Paper Island"). This is a food market that sits next to the Nyhavn docks and is made out of repurposed cargo containers from the nearby industrial districts. My fellow Las Vegas residents may recognize this as being similar to our own local Container Park, but without the fancy, fire-breathing mantis. The food here was excellent, especially the creme-brulee doughnut! We visited this site a few times in the last couple days in Copenhagen, and wished we had found it sooner, as we'd have loved to have gone there a couple more times to try other food stands.
Not sure if I'd stay at a hostel again
During the nights, we stayed at a Generator Hostel in Copenhagen, near the Nørreport metro station. I've never stayed in a hostel before, and the experience here was mixed. The beds are thoroughly uncomrfotable. I feel that hostels are really intended for young, college age partyers, as you have to be either exhausted or wasted drunk in order to be able to sleep on these terrible beds! I got, at best, only a half-night of sleep each day due to the crappy beds.
We had a group of four people, and we shared an 8-bed room with four other people, so there wasn't much privacy. One flat-mate caused some problems with another flat-mate and made a disgusting mess of our room's bathroom. In our last night, some other party kids came to bed around 3 am only to let their phone alarms go off without even waking up to turn them off. My girlfriend had to get out of bed and wake up the sleeping person to make him shut off his phone alarm. But then that same person had a second alarm (with a different sound) go off only an hour later! Again, he didn't wake up for it, and after several minutes of the alarm going off, we had to wake him up ourselves to make him turn it off. So nobody slept that night, and it left us all very tired for our last day and flight back home.
The city of Copenhagen was decorated for Christmas.
It wasn't all bad though. We actually made friends with another of our flat-mates, a very friendly young lady from New Zealand. She was very sociable and a good conversationalist. We hung out with her and chatted a couple nights. The hostel provides a bar and lounge setting on the first floor that allows visitors to hang out, eat, have drinks, and mingle with each other. So it's a fairly welcoming environment, assuming that you aren't a total introvert.
Had a good time, but happy to be home
Our time in Denmark (and Sweden) was fun, other than some minor nuisances with our traveling companions and hostel drama. I'm not sure if I'd really care to go back to Copenhagen though. I wouldn't mind visiting other places in Scandinavia though. A trip to Sweden or Norway could be fun. I'd definitely like to be able to return to the Viking Ship Museum and take one of their longship boat tours.
Mostly though, I was happy to return home and sleep in my own bed. And since I missed Thanksgiving dinner, I was also anxious to visit my parents and make sure I got some left-over pie from my mom before it was all eaten.