Originally Published December 2016
An Oregon native, Steve McCall spent his childhood summers in the heart of the Willamette Valley wine country. He currently lives within walking distance of the urban wineries in Berkeley, and a short drive from California’s famed Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or his website.
If you’re having a hard time working up enthusiasm to visit a crowded shopping mall or the office holiday potluck, perhaps a visit to the Old World can help to recapture some of your good cheer. The winter season in Europe offers a refreshingly low-key change of pace to the usual routine. Many cities feature extensive holiday markets, special performances, and festive seasonal decorations. Holiday celebrations are less commercial and more oriented toward socializing with friends and family.
In addition to providing a welcome diversion from the normally hectic pace of the season, holiday travel to Europe offers other benefits. Airfares are considerably lower than in prime summer months, particularly if you book early – look for good prices in September and October. After that, prices tend to rise steeply until you get to mid-December, when you may be able to find last-minute discounted fares. Likewise, you can snare substantial off-season discounts on lodging, museums, tours, and other attractions. Holiday crowds are smaller and tend to be mostly cheerful locals out for the day.
The downside, of course, can be the weather, particularly if you select a destination in Northern Europe. Last year we spent a week in Copenhagen and experienced everything from snowflakes to mild sunshine. Although the daylight hours were short, when the sun came out the light was absolutely luminous. In rain, snow, or sunshine, it was a pleasure to stroll the streets of this charming, friendly city.
If global warming persists, the Danes may start producing domestic wine, but for now you’ll have to make do with imported bottles. Befitting its emerging role as a foodie destination, the Copenhagen wine scene is lively and diverse. You can find interesting selections available in wine bars, at retailers, and on restaurant lists.
Warm, fortified wine with spices, raisins, and nuts in it – as a concept, it sounds right up there with haggis and Rocky Mountain oysters. Yet in practice, the drink is absolutely delightful, especially when combined with chilly temperatures, twinkling lights, and a festive holiday atmosphere.
You’ll enjoy countless opportunities to sample gløgg, the delicious mulled wine that’s ubiquitous in Copenhagen during the winter.
Everywhere, kiosks selling gløgg and other warm beverages
Gløgg is sold everywhere during the holidays, from inexpensive streetside kiosks to casual cafés and fine restaurants. And of course, the very best version is made from an old grandmother’s secret recipe and served to family and friends in the comfort of one’s home.
But even if you’re limited to only sampling commercial gløgg, be sure to give it a try as you stroll in the winter chill. Mulled wine is a winter tradition across much of Europe, and the Danes will strenuously argue that theirs is the very best version of all… and I’m not going to disagree!
Dining in Copenhagen can be a budget-buster, but we discovered a relatively inexpensive way to stretch our krone. The city is home to a growing number of casual wine bars featuring moderately-priced wines by the glass or by the bottle, and you can accompany your selection with a variety of light, tapas-style dishes.
Værnedamsvej is a short commercial street in Copenhagen’s upscale Vesterbro district. A few doors up from our favorite French bistro (see below) we stumbled across Falernum, a café by day and wine bar by night where you can order everything from eggs benedict to a magnum of champagne. Food and wine options are eclectic, prices are moderate, and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
Copenhagen’s Meatpacking district is a bit grittier and more contemporary, a former industrial area that’s become home to many popular restaurants, bars, and galleries. Paté Paté is another café-slash-wine bar located in a former meat processing facility. It’s got an industrial chic interior, a broad selection of Mediterranean-themed dishes, and a lengthy list of well-priced wines available by the glass or by the bottle.
We liked Villa Vino so much we visited it twice during our week-long stay. This cozy spot is centrally located, just a short distance from Strøget (Copenhagen’s famous pedestrian shopping street), and right across the street from a great independent cinema. Villa Vino serves a nice variety of wine-friendly appetizers, small plates, and desserts to accompany its extensive list of wines by the glass and by the bottle.
Menus in contemporary Copenhagen extend well beyond pickled herring and root vegetables. Sixteen local restaurants have been awarded Michelin stars, and the Scandinavian locavore menu at Noma got it named Best Restaurant in the World five times between 2010 and 2015. (If you can secure a reservation there, expect to pay accordingly).
Restaurants abound in the central city area, so visitors on a more modest budget will find all types of food readily available. During our visit, we enjoyed traditional Scandinavian meals, of course, but also well-made French, Indian, and Italian cuisine.
Pizzeria La Fiorita is located in a pleasant residential part of the Vesterbro district, a few minutes’ walk from the city center. It’s a casual neighborhood place, staffed by friendly Italian-speaking folks who serve up some of the best Sicilian-style pizza in the city. The restaurant is tiny, but we were lucky and found available seats inside. We pulled some Italian beers from the cooler, ordered at the counter, and enjoyed a hearty and relatively inexpensive lunch.
LES TROIS COCHONS
Les Trois Cochons serves bistro-style French cuisine in a former butcher shop on Værnedamsvej. The restaurant’s eclectic décor pays homage to the former space, as shiny white industrial tiles combine with homey pine tables and sparkling crystal chandeliers to provide a uniquely Scandinavian version of casual elegance. We enjoyed excellent wines by the glass, traditional bistro dishes (steak frites and moules mariniere), and shared a delicious crème brulee dessert.
Copenhagen is known for its extensive holiday markets. You’ll find several markets across the city, but do note that most of them open for the season in November or early December and shut down a few days before Christmas. Only the Tivoli Garden market remains open until the New Year.
NIGHTLY FIREWORKS AT TIVOLI GARDENS
The Christmas Festival at Tivoli Gardens features dozens of booths selling everything from gifts and holiday decorations to warm drinks and sweets to ward off the winter chill. The park is open daily from 11 am until 11 pm (midnight on weekends). We enjoyed visiting in the evening, when the venerable amusement park is lit up with thousands of lights and other seasonal decorations. The festivities culminate in a nightly fireworks display.
For a different slant on traditional holiday markets, you may want to check out the seasonal fair in Freetown Christiania, the autonomous commune located in the center of Copenhagen. The vibe is festive, but undeniably counter cultural – expect to see lots of crystals, candles, and costumes. Also, note that photography is strongly discouraged, especially in areas where drugs are openly bought and sold. Christiania is a fascinating social experiment and a fundamental component of life in Copenhagen. That said, it’s not necessarily for everyone, so do your research before planning a visit.
In addition to visiting the seasonal markets, we enjoyed Torvehallerne, one of the most visible symbols of Copenhagen’s emergence as a hotspot for contemporary cuisine. The complex is a permanent gourmet food market centrally located near the Norreport train and metro station. Opened in 2011, the Torvehallern fills two bright, glass-walled buildings facing a central courtyard. Inside you’ll find vendors selling everything from whole spices to fresh produce and wine. In addition, a number of small restaurant stalls provide on-site meals and beverages.
Do even the most cursory research into Danish culture and you’ll soon be confronted with the concept of hygge. It’s usually defined as something involving coziness, warmth, and the presence of dear ones… or more precisely, the act of living in such a way as to emphasize those characteristics. For the tourist, the net effect of hygge is simply this: almost anywhere you visit – particularly during the holidays – you’ll be met with surroundings and attitudes that invite comfort and wellbeing. It’s a delightful experience.
The concept of hygge was the most striking takeaway from our visit to Copenhagen, and it offered a stark contrast to the all-too-common US holiday experience. Restaurants and stores were brightened by the glow of candles and festive decorations. Public spaces glittered with sparkling lights and greenery. As we strolled on city streets or visited markets, we occasionally mingled with crowds, but no one seemed stressed. Rather, most people radiated a tangible air of relaxation and enjoyment.
Truly, a holiday experience to savor and remember.
Falernum - http://www.falernum.dk/
Paté Paté - http://www.patepate.dk/
Noma - http://noma.dk/
Pizzeria La Fiorita - http://www.pizzalafiorita.com/
Les Trois Cochons - http://cofoco.dk/en/restaurants/les-trois-cochons
Tivoli Gardens - https://www.tivoli.dk/en
Other holiday markets - http://www.visitcopenhagen.com/copenhagen/get-spirit-copenhagens-christmas-markets
An Introduction to Copenhagen - http://www.copenhagen.com/