Copenhagen has set the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2025. Its innovative ways of achieving that target offer tourists an immersive experience as well. By Aatish Nath
Copenhagen is not a city of superlatives. It isn’t looking to draw tourists with the world’s largest Ferris wheel, tallest observation deck, or largest mall. Instead, it’s looking to grow sustainably and get tourists to move away from the crowded centre of the city (after they’ve taken that selfie at the colourful Nyhavn waterfront) and explore the other offerings of the Danish capital. But at its unique waste-to-energy plant, CopenHill, you will find the world’s tallest climbing wall, which rises up the facade of the world’s first waste burning plant to be capped with a U-shaped ski slope. On a tour, the plant’s communication consultant, Sune Scheibye, said, “We wanted to make something that was the cleanest, most energy-efficient plant in the world.”
When I visited in August 2019, there were still a few months to go before Amager Bakke, as it’s locally known, would open (in October that year), but there was more than enough greenery—grass and flowers, bees, and according to Scheibye, even a late-night wandering fox captured on CCTV—to portend its popularity as a ski slope and hiking track in the city. Standing atop CopenHill, it didn’t take an imaginative mind to see how the roof could come alive with skiers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. An added bonus is its height, which offers breathtaking views of the city—Frederik’s Church (marmorkirken.dk), The Royal Danish Playhouse (kglteater.dk), the fast-changing neighbourhood of Nordhavnen, and even Noma (noma.dk) are some of the landmarks one can spot. But for tourists (and locals), what matters is the ability to try their hand at skiing down an urban, man-made mountain, complete with ski lifts. This past summer, the building hosted a jazz and cocktail event, giving residents ample room to maintain social distancing while enjoying the summer sun.
It is only the latest salvo in the Danish capital’s goal to show the world that sustainability can be built into the fabric of a city, instead of being shoehorned into design, urban planning, and even food systems after the fact. Using cutting-edge sensors and particle capture technology in its single towering chimney, the waste-to-energy plant emits just 15 per cent of the emissions that other comparable energy producers release.
This is a city that, pre-COVID, saw 62 per cent of its inhabitants commuting on cycles and that has invested in a new metro line to make shuttling around the city a breeze. For tourists, Donkey Republic (donkey.bike) offers hassle-free bike rentals, but that’s for when you’re familiar with the city. If you’re looking to get acquainted, consider one of Cycling Copenhagen’s tour, which will introduce you to the city’s bike-only infrastructure, from bridges like the Brygge and Circle to ‘highways’ that sometimes soar high and offer bird’s-eye views of traffic-filled roads to parks where summertime picnics are the norm. I didn’t realise that over the course of my three-hour tour, I had covered almost 13 kilometres in a closed loop, which served as a confidence boost to make the cycles an integral part of the rest of my trip. Along the way, we stopped to see Hans Christian Anderson’s grave, the food-filled Meatpacking District, and of course, the procession of buildings along the waterfront—from BLOX (blox.dk), the modern culture centre, to the postcard-perfect, rainbow-hued buildings of Nyhavn. Transiting through the harbour, we pedalled past swimmers at the harbour baths, diving into the water and making the most of the summer sun. Older residents remember not being able to swim in the water, polluted thanks to the city’s port and the cargo ships that regularly anchored on the coast. Over time, though, the port has moved further away from the centre of the city.
In former industrial areas like Refshaleøen (refshaleoen.dk) and Nordhavnen, shipbuilding warehouses and cranes are giving way to Michelin-starred restaurants and boutique hotels. Refshaleøen is already a buzzing hub of diverse eateries. The outdoor food court, Reffen, includes a range of diners, some in shipping containers and others recreating a tiki vibe with thatched walls and colourful banners. For those missing Indian food, there’s even an eatery called Dhaba—started by an Afghan refugee—that churns out cauliflower tandoori and organic mango lassi. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find restaurants like Amass and Alchemist. While the former is on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (theworlds50best.com) long list, the latter won two Michelin stars within a year of opening, and both adhere to very different food philosophies.
At Amass, Chef Matt Orlando sums up the philosophy, “We actually start with the by-products as the focal point and that decides what we end up adding.” As a result, its dishes marry ingredients from its own vegetable garden with bread made from potato skin, miso made from almond pulp, and oil infused with lobster bones. Across the street, past repurposed warehouses and behind a heavy unmarked door in the former set-building workshop of the Royal Danish Theatre is a restaurant that serves up to 50 impressions (their term for courses) in a single meal. Rasmus Munk’s two Michelin-starred Alchemist sprawls over three floors, and meals move guests through various rooms including a planetarium-like space, complete with a dome and custom projections that create an immersive world. It’s no surprise that Copenhagen has become one of the world capitals of gastronomy, with restaurants, farms, and other establishments working to minimise waste. Consider Beyond Coffee (beyondcoffee.eu), which collects spent coffee grounds from restaurants and cafes and uses them to grow speciality mushrooms like oyster and lion’s mane for the city’s eateries.
The commitment to organic, closed-loop food was evident at my daily hotel breakfast, where over 90 per cent of the produce—from milk to oats, meats to eggs—was organic. I was staying at Hotel Ottilia, a part of the former Carlsberg brewery complex that has been converted into a four-star hotel. It takes the heritage brick facade and updates it with statement features like an installation by Niclas Hoflin, and a gin bar. The area around the hotel is in flux, with apartment buildings, a new school, a dance theatre, and commercial spaces slowly opening up, but there’s enough to see—from the structures that housed the former beer brewery to the Bakkehuset (bakkehusmuseet.dk), a house-turned-museum that focusses on literature and culture. The hotel itself is Danish chic—think sheepskin throws and well-proportioned furniture for those seeking refuge away from the tourist-filled centre.
Nordhavnen is another part of the city that is slowly being built for the future, with a master plan designed by Cobe architects (cobe.dk), which is headquartered in the area. There are residential buildings like the Silo—the name indicates its former avatar as a grain silo—as well as newly constructed rooftop playgrounds and a school with a facade built out of solar panels. Over time, the land will be reclaimed and built on, adhering to the master plan. Architect Dan Stubbergaard, the founder of Cobe, said, “Future generations will have the opportunity to influence the architecture on the individual islets over time.” For now, two new metro stations make it easily accessible, whether it is to see how the city is building for the future or for some spirited workout on Konditaget Lüders, a stark-red recreational space on the rooftop of a parking lot. Here, you find kids on a trampoline, fitness enthusiasts sweating it out, and the odd photoshoot with the endless expanse of the water serving as the backdrop. There aren’t too many accommodation options in the area, but THEKRANE, a single-room hotel perched 15 metres above the ground, is worth considering. The structure is spread over three levels in a former coal crane and comes with complimentary use of a BMW electric car, airport pick-up, and more. With room for just two people, it’s ideal for a couple’s retreat.
Having explored most areas on land, I was excited to see the city from water. I ditched the tourist-filled boats for a kayak, navigating around the canals and the harbour, between houseboats and sailboats. But there was a conscious twist in this trip as well. With GreenKayak (greenkayak.org) founder Tobias Weber-Anderson’s help, our two-person kayak picked up barnacle-encrusted chip bags, soda bottles, cigarette packs, and bottle caps during the hour-long journey. The Danish company, which relies on sponsors to buy the kayaks, has now taken its model abroad and is available in other European countries like Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Germany. The best part? In doing your bit for the environment, there’s no charge for taking the kayak out on the water!
If you’d rather do less, GoBoat offers sustainable boats that are powered by the sun, wind, and water, and allows you to steer them on your own after a brief lesson. The distinctive boats, with a table in the centre, are ideal for those looking to picnic on the water. While navigating the canals, use a map to spot some of the city’s iconic buildings, like Christiansborg Palace and The Royal Library. You’ll also be able to see some of the many church spires that punctuate the skyline peeking out from behind the low-rise buildings along the water.
Reflecting on my trip on my last morning at Prolog Coffee in the Meatpacking District, it was evident that Copenhagen wasn’t looking to entice me with tourist-only attractions. Instead, as a model for future growth, it has made sustainability a core tenet of its identity, allowing it to focus on a unique superlative that has long-term implications for the planet: the first city to go carbon-neutral.
On a Green Trail in Copenhagen
Hotel Ottilia: Opened last year, the hotel may be retrofitted into a former brewery but it takes hygiene seriously, being an early adopter of self-disinfecting technology, which should allay the fears of even the biggest germaphobes. Doubles from INR 16,103; brochner-hotels.com
THEKRANE: For those looking to splurge, this hotel has great views and total seclusion. With a boardroom, and personal sauna and spa, it’s the height of luxury in a city known for its egalitarianism. Starts from INR 1,77,382; thekrane.dk
Amass: Don’t let the graffiti and rap music fool you; the food here is revelatory. The restaurant offers seven- and nine-course tasting menus that are seasonal and full of flavour. amassrestaurant.com
Alchemist: Chef Rasmus Munk’s innovative food takes on issues like racism and the environment, proving that even fine dining can be a venue for social activism. alchemist.dk
Prolog Coffee: Popular with the city’s chef community including René Redzepi, this third-wave coffee shop does a great pour-over with beans sourced from all over the world. prologcoffee.com
Reffen: This outdoor food court has everything from Mexican cuisine to burgers, Indian food to Asian dishes. Different eateries let a family of four nosh on their favourite cuisine while enjoying the setting. reffen.dk
Boating: Captain your boat through the city’s canals, with a picnic basket of chips and iced tea. GoBoat’s vessels are quiet and sustainably-powered and offer the ideal way to spend a relaxing time on the water. goboat.dk
Cycling tour: Follow the lead of locals and get around the city on two wheels. It’s best to book a tour with Cycling Copenhagen, to get a sense of etiquette and routes. cycling-copenhagen.dk
Skiing: Even if you’re not an outdoorsy person, the chance to ski on a man-made slope can’t be missed. CopenHill’s exterior is also open for tours, and then there’s the climbing wall. copenhill.dk
Kayaking: GreenKayak’s innovative model allows you to get on the water while also doing something useful. There are multiple points in the city to explore from, and early mornings are best to avoid the crush of tourist boats. greenkayak.org