BY DANIEL KUSNER
CRUISING COPENHAGEN: Denmark’s gay-friendly capital fuses Old World charm and ultra-modern design
COPENHAGEN — When fanaticizing about European trips, Denmark — with its precious Little Mermaid-fairytale images depicted by Hans Christian Anderson — isn’t usually the first place that leaps to a modern gay's mind when planning a vibrant and happening getaway. But Copenhagen, Denmark’s charming capital, is a cosmopolitan city in the midst of rapid change.
Copenhagen’s instant appeal lies in its subtle blend of contradictions.
Originally a fishing colony, the town got its name from the word køben-havn or “merchants’ harbor,” when in 1157 it became an island fortress and the commercial center on the Baltic trade route.
From its humble beginnings, Copenhagen has become the largest city in Scandinavia, home to 1.5 million people. It’s the seat of the oldest kingdom of the world. And upon first glance, the ancient shell of the city retains an almost-spooky, provincial charm. But amid its maze of pedestrian-filled, cobbled streets, Copenhagen is an urban playground with a flair for ultra-modern design.
In 1989, Denmark was the first country in the world to recognize gay marriages when the Danish Parliament passed the Registered Partnership Act.
In 1999, it became possible for married gays to adopt children of their partners. With this in mind, there really is no centralized gay ghetto in Copenhagen.
Gay establishments are integrated throughout this bustling and compact city — although there is a smallish gay district near the City Hall plaza, where the first gay union ceremony took place.
First thing you’ll notice in Copenhagen is the lack of cars. Then you start to notice how these busy Danes are so fit and trim. The narrow streets and exorbitant cost of automobiles make quick-footed pedestrianism one of the main forms of transportation.
But there’s a fine bus and subway system called S-tog, and taxis are easy to hail.
There’s also a radical “city bike” program, which is totally free and terrific for sightseeing. Simply pop in a 20-kr coin ($2.60 U.S.) into the handlebar and pedal away. When you’re done freewheeling, put the theft-proof bike back into its appropriate rack, and your deposit coin will pop back out.
Copenhagen’s central spine is the charming Strøget (meaning stroll) — Europe’s longest pedestrian-only mall that encompasses five streets packed with cafes, colorful boutiques, cozy restaurants and throngs of street entertainers. Although this grand promenade is heavily commercialized (Burger King, KFC and 7-11 paid a king’s ransom for their embarrassingly centralized location), bits and pieces of historic old Copenhagen are just a short walk away.
While other Scandinavian cities have their pleasure gardens and parks, Copenhagen’s brightly-lit Tivoli outshines them all. Built in 1843, these amusement gardens were built on the site of fortifications where a total of 160,00 flowers and 110,000 electric light bulbs set the scene. Roller coasters and merry-go-rounds are thrilling for kids. But wintertime at the Tivoli is especially picturesque for any age.
The park has more than 20 restaurants, and some of them are the most stylish and expensive in the city. The sleek, upbeat and informal Café Ketchup is full of young people, plays great music and serves a mixture of European and Scandinavian food. Try the halibut stuffed with crabmeat and herbs, or the marinated duck breast served with sun-dried tomatoes and fennel salad sprinkled with pine nuts.
For a gorgeous day-trip, try making the short jaunt up the Danish Riviera coastline to Humlebaek — a small town only 40 minutes north of Copenhagen. That’s where you’ll find the Louisiana, the most raved-about modern art museum in Scandinavia. Housed in a pearly 19-century villa surrounded by a large park, the Louisiana has one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe and mounts major contemporary art shows. Recent exhibits include a comprehensive retrospectives of David Hockney, futuristic architect Norman Foster and Danish design giant, Arne Jacobsen.
Labeled as “organic functionalism,” Danish design implies simplicity and clean lines where form follows function. The viability of and brilliant talents of Danish design is in constant renewal, and the Danish Design Center — located across the street from the Tivoli — celebrates the endless possibilities of furniture, technological products and everything associated with the inventions of the modern world. Opened in January of 2000, this five-story building contains a tremendous exhibit dedicated to the winners of the annual Danish Prize Design years. Winners include everything from the U.S. Army’s cotton T-shirt, to the egg-like shape of the transparent iMac, to mod-style lamps, holistic chairs and minimalist cutlery.
When it comes to filmmaking, the Danes even have their very own deliberate approach. "The Dogma 95" film movement is mainly the brainchild of Danish director Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark), a strict “anti-musical” discipline that prohibits use of artificial light, music scores, make-up, sets props and costumes.
The Danish Film Institute — an enormous library and institution that celebrates and conserves cinema — is also the host organization for the annual nine-day Copenhagen Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which is held in October. Year-round, it’s is worth checking out the DFI programming schedule for interesting matinees and evening films. There’s also a bookshop with an impressive supply of film criticism, literature and vintage film posters. For visitors with a thirst for film and a hunger for something a bit more victual, the complex’s own restaurant SULT offers creative cuisine for that post-show dinner date.
Copenhagen’s “Black Diamond” library is a striking glass building leaning over the harbor at the edge of the palace Christiansborg Palace complex. It’s a breathtaking marvel of geometric architecture that’s placed right alongside the city’s distinctive dragon-like spires of 1639 Old Royal Stock Exchange.
Peppered with hip restaurants, raunchy sex clubs and bohemian wateringholes, exploring Copenhagen’s nightlife is a thrill-seeking adventure. The gay-owned restaurant Kelleren is two-level establishment: The second floor is a candlelit escape gaining a solid reputation for its Bloody Brunch Buffet. But the first floor is an acoustic-listening café that’s great to cruise collegians and check out Copenhagen’s plentiful and stylishly designed free publications.
Oscar Bar & Café is a laid-back pub that lures a solid crowd of friendly, stylish boys who like to sit on leather couches, smoke in comfy armchairs and sip chilled draft beer. Heaven, located near the City Hall and run by a young gay couple, is a crowded and energetic pub on the street level with an affordable and quiet restaurant on the second floor. For a large-scale night of dancing, Pan is the gay club where straight people like to boogie as well. And Cosy Bar is where you want to stop for pre-dawn nightcap.
For those truly seeking a rare Viking adventure, the Scandinavia Leather Men club is like a gay-sex outtake from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Only open on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s totally worth checking out. A private club located in an unassuming old building (you are buzzed into a courtyard and need to find the stairs that lead to the basement), SLM is a wild joint. Occupied slings, S/M chairs, a crazy back room with an acrid scent wafting near some old bathtubs … Up near the front bar, you can also watch TV and easily strike up a conversation with some leathery locals. You might want to ask them about these mysterious-sounding “bird boxes” filled with lube and condoms at the outdoor-cruising hangout, Ørstedparken.
There’s another erotic playground — the Amigo Sauna, which is three stories high and in need of a decent cleaning crew. A visit at the Amigo can be a drafty experience — a place where a nice warm steam could do a weary traveler a lot of good. If that’s the case, see if your hotel has a well-lit and powerful sauna.
Peak season for Denmark is summer, so during wintertime is a good time to cash in on cold-weather discounts. Right next to the Planetarium, the Scandic Hotel Copenhagen is a full-service 18-floor hotel with a restaurant, bar, café, fitness center, sauna and solarium. The top floor has a stretch of rooms that are elaborately modern — some complete with original Warhols hung over the bed, futuristic wooden cabinets and Bang & Olufsen entertainment centers.
If shopping is your bag, then the Royal Scandinavia retail center — a dizzying multi-level shopping smorgasbord — should be home base. Royal Copenhagen has come to symbolize quality in hand-painted porcelain throughout the world. The retail center specializes in various porcelains, hand-blown glass and exquisite craftsmanship in silver and stoneware, which can all serve as souvenirs or reminders to return and discover all over again. On the top floor is a huge selection of bargain-priced castoffs and irregulars, and unless you’re an expert, you probably can’t tell the difference.