Christianshavn’s time to shine

It seems that everyone in Copenhagen is now talking about Christianshavn, the district of the Danish capital that includes the famous Freetown Christiania. Mondo went to spend a sunny day with the locals.

Christianshavn, Copenhagen
Built on a group of islands, Christianshavn is a distinctively maritime district of Copenhagen.

HOW REFRESHINGLY LAID-BACK! It’s a Saturday morning in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn, and the district is coming awake at a distinctively leisurely pace.

At first sight, it’s reminiscent of Amsterdam, with its canals and pleasant urban vibe. The architecture also brings to mind some of the New York neighborhoods that are home to that city’s affluent creative class, and traditional English towns. And here you’ll also find plenty of the stone houses with exteriors painted in rust-colored lime that are typical of Copenhagen.

Christianshavn is the most maritime part of the city, located on a group of islets between the islands of Sjælland and Amager. The district was founded in the early 1600s by King Christian IV – hence the name, which translates as “Christian’s Harbor.” It was founded as a merchants’ neighborhood, but by the 20th century had become known as a dilapidated working-class, bohemian area. Nowadays, however, Christianshavn has gained a new lease of life as a child-friendly and trendy part of the city. It’s a great destination for a day trip on foot.

Vor Frelsers Kirke, Christianshavn, Copenhagen
The tower of the Church of Our Savior is considered by many to have the finest views over Copenhagen.
Christianshavn, Copenhagen
Christianshavn is a relaxed district with a communal air that’s home to a large number of families with children.

Just around the corner from Christianshavn metro station is Overgaden, one of Copenhagen’s main art galleries, showcasing both local and international art on two floors. After admiring the art, you can continue to Wildersgade or Strandgade. Both streets traverse Christianshavn between the canals almost from end to end.

There’s a wine shop, an artisan boutique, café, small bike repair shop, and a lot more. In a cozy shop with a large selection of stones and crystals, thirtysomething parents let their young children marvel at the sparkling amethysts, rose quartz and rock crystals in the window.

Looking at the boats moored in the canal, it appears that many of them are occupied all year round, with bicycles on the decks and remote workstations with computers visible inside. Some of the boats are bedecked with such elaborate floral arrangements that you might mistake them for florists’ shops.

“Christianshavn is home to free spirits with open minds, and there’s a strong sense of community,” says local Rasmus Juul.

In the mornings, the canal is mostly frequented by healthy-looking boaters in puffer vests. One of them is Rasmus Juul, who is cleaning his boat while waiting for his adult children to join him for breakfast. Juul has lived in Christianshavn for 25 years.

“There are many free spirits living here, open-minded people. Christianshavn is rich in local color and has a vibrant feel of togetherness. People know each other here and are happy to spend time together,” he says.

Here, having a boat in the canal is the equivalent of a Finnish summer cottage – it’s a second home, even if you don’t officially live on the boat.

According to Juul, Christianshavn has changed a lot during the time he has lived here. The shabbiness of bygone years has given way to a more prosperous and cultivated look.

“In the 1990s, many of the houses here were very run down, but they’ve been renovated and there’s nothing like that here anymore. Nowadays this is a really expensive area to live in.”

Tourist boats now ferry tourists along the canal early in the morning, which was not a likely sight only a few decades ago: many people wanted to steer clear of this part of Copenhagen, as it had gained a bad reputation over the years.

Christianshavn, Copenhagen
Until about 20 years ago, the area was rundown and housing was cheap. After extensive renovations, housing prices have risen significantly.
Christianshavn, Copenhagen
There are a wide range of eateries there, whether it’s burgers or fine dining you’re looking for.

Surrounded by stone walls and just eight hectares in size, Christiania is a neighborhood and part of Christianshavn that was founded as a “free town” on the outskirts of Copenhagen in 1971. The idea was to establish a hippie haven with a community spirit where there would be no violence. Yoga, meditation and sexual liberation were the order of the day. The police turned a blind eye to Christiania’s drug trade, and the free town gradually developed a reputation throughout Europe as a liberal but troubled place.

Things took a really ugly turn when motorcycle gangs in the surrounding areas decided to muscle in on the area’s lucrative trade in cannabis and other drugs. Several violent crimes were committed here in the 2000s, including a grenade attack, shootings and a murder. It was only in the 2010s that Danish law was more forcefully imposed in Christiania, and since then things have improved a great deal.

This is confirmed by Catrine Salskov Iversen, who meets us on our visit to Christiania. She is on her way to the grocery store with her children, Milan and Chia.

“When I was a child, there were frequent confrontations between Christiania locals and the police,” Iversen says. “On our way home from school, there was often broken glass on the streets, and even frying pans were used as weapons.”

The tourists who frequented the area in those years were mostly of the bohemian variety, but Iversen says the area now attracts all kinds of curious visitors. With around a thousand inhabitants, Christiania is now a popular tourist attraction.

Christianshavn, Copenhagen
The canals and boats give Christianshavn its distinctive appeal.
Christianshavn, Copenhagen
According to Catherine Salskov Iversen, the famous hippie enclave of Freetown Christiania has in recent years become a calm and pleasant place.

The area is still recognizable by the surrounding wall, where graffiti artists with their spray paints are an everyday sight.The Christiania of today has a cultivated and orderly character, but it is also a very commercial area, full of stalls selling items such as almond-shaped stones, trinkets and batik clothing. There is a playground and adventure forest for children, and most of the people you’ll see there during the day are Danish young adults and their kids.

You can still get a whiff of cannabis here and there. Because Christiania feels so commercialized now, one wonders whether this is a matter of some shopkeepers wanting to create a more bohemian atmosphere with cannabis-scented mist spray, in keeping with the reputation of the area. Surely not!

“Christianshavn’s idyllic milieu is given a rough edge by the hippie enclave of Christiania. But Christiana has also been smartened up in recent years.”

The area is definitely worth a visit, and the free town also makes a change from the milder atmosphere of Christianshavn. One attraction not to be missed is Vor Frelsers Kirke, or the Church of Our Savior.It is one of Denmark’s most famous churches, and the views from the 90-meter church tower have been voted the best in Copenhagen by the city’s residents.

Be sure to enjoy the tranquility inside the church before taking on the 400 steps that will take you to the top of the tower. Rather than brave the uppermost 150 steps, people with a fear of heights are advised to stay on the central landing to admire the scenery. This is because the final ascent is by the stairway that spirals around the outside of the tower. The railings are quite low, and passing clouds can create the illusion that the whole tower is swaying.

The experience is almost like riding a roller coaster, and is particularly popular with families with children. Once you’ve come back down to earth, it’s time to enjoy the rest of Christianshavn.

Vor Frelsers Kirke, Christianshavn, Copenhagen
Climbing the tower of the Church of Our Savior is a popular choice for visitors. Tickets can be purchased in advance at vorfrelserskirke.dk.

One of the most charming cafes in the district is Parterre, along the banks of the canal. From the terrace you can watch dog walkers and other locals while enjoying a cappuccino and a sweet treat.

There are plenty of good places to eat in Christianshavn. Among them is Kadeau, a fine dining restaurant that has been awarded two Michelin stars. It is one of the restaurants that over the years have earned Copenhagen its reputation as a great foodie destination. Kadeau’s dishes are known for their inventiveness, and the price for the full set menu is the equivalent in Danish krones of a whopping €350.

There are also plenty of casual and cheaper places to eat, of course. For example, POPL Burger on Strandgade is a straightforward option. With a menu of just four different burgers and a children’s meal, the choice is made easier.

On Saturday afternoons, Copenhageners head off to enjoy the wide range of street food on offer at Strandgade 95. With its plastic cups and utensils, it’s more like a festival catering area than a picturesque delicatessen, but the locals find this a relaxed spot to spend an afternoon and evening.

And if you’re in the mood for some cultural nourishment after some street food, the Nordatlantes Brygge cultural center and gallery are just a stone’s throw away. There you’ll find art from Denmark, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

See also:

• Paris on foot: Avenue des Champs-Élysées >

Text: Jenni Arbelius Photos: Meeri Utti

This story was published originally in Mondo's issue 5/22.

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