Gate announcement flying SAS: “You can put away your passports, but smiles are mandatory.” Ugly Americans, rethink your destination. Everybody else, welcome to Scandinavia. I landed in Copenhagen, and took off from Stockholm a week later. Off-season, the nights were long and the weather cool, yet the welcome couldn’t have been warmer. Only one precaution: Leave that Viking logo sweatshirt at home. Here in the realm of the original Vikings, style rules. It’s a clean, understated, “Wish I looked like that” brand of chic.
Patrol Copenhagen’s Stroget—the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe—punctuated by vast public squares anchored by Somebody on a Horse, and you’ll see what I mean. One end is high-end—Royal Copenhagen, Georg Jensen, Gucci—the other, OK, McDonald’s, filled with cherubic blond moppets. In between, Illums, the Nordstrom’s of the city, delivers fashion that makes you want to burn everything in your wardrobe, plus a Design Department featuring home accessories you cannot (trust me) live without. Outside H&M (of Scandinavian origin), an accordion and oboe duo. More buskers down the block, from dueling marimbas to sweet violins. At an outdoor stall, a cook flips pancakes.
Design is in the Danish DNA. Step into the National Museum, and gaze at Viking jewelry and skeleton of 986 AD, hairdo intact. Forge forward to the Reformation to view Martin Luther in papier mache. The Danish Museum of Art & Design travels from early times through sleek melamine kitchenware and Bang & Olufsen’s radios to designs of the future (well, maybe), such as a gent in a pink-and-white Piggy Suit with matching valise. The Danish Design Center—LEGOs to BIOM sneakers, paper clips to lawn clippers—captures everyday style.
The Glyptotek salutes Danish painting from 1800 onward. In contrast, at the Jewish Museum, architect-of-the-moment Daniel Libeskind (World Trade Center Memorial coming up) employs confining, slanted slabs to convey the disorientation that displacement fostered. The Resistance Museum examines national stress under Nazi rule: capitulate, collaborate, or sabotage? Most famously, and heroically, when Hitler decreed Jewish deportation in 1943, almost overnight, scores of fishing boats smuggled their fellow citizens to Sweden.
Design of quite another sort—flamboyant psychedelic murals of the hippie 1960s—blanket the communal, countercultural enclave called Christiania. The gayborhood just west of that island hosts hot-hot gay bars, dance clubs, B&Bs, and saunas (free condoms everywhere). Check out www.meetgaycopenhagen.dk.
Nyhavn, the historic canal district, is lined with sherbet-hued houses (one was home to Hans Christian Andersen), newly-vivacious as outdoor cafés. Here, join a boat tour—free, along with museums and other transportation, with purchase of the Copenhagen Card—to glide past the new Opera House and the Little Mermaid, with glimpses of Amalienborg Castle, home of the royals since 1794, where stoic, beaver-hatted soldiers click heels on the cobblestones.
Dining ignites more design fervor in this stylish city, starting with its 13-Michelin-starred restaurants (more than Milan). I chose more affordable up-and-comers like Skt. Annee, housed amid the historic bricks near Nyhavn. Its forte is herring (seven styles), but I’d wolfed my own weight in that fragrant fish at breakfast at the uberhistoric Admiral Hotel. So, a salad lush with lobster, then fillet of plaice, a tender white fish, with snappy homemade remoulade. Or choose homemade pork sausage or smoked eel with scrambled eggs, amid other rehabs of Danish classics. It has won a Michelin mention.
So has Koeffoed, another cosy setting that calls on, and then reinvents, country fare: rooster with potato foam and chanterelles; veal carpaccio with buckthorn, malt, and beets; and my choice, cod topped with “Danish foie gras” (liver from that self-same rooster) atop spinach, pumpkin puree, and herbed potatoes.
Nimb offers two-fer views: on one side, the sparkling lights of Tivoli amusement park; and on the other, an open kitchen featuring elite inventions such as veal tartare with mushroom foam, chestnuts, and cress, topped with a dainty quail egg, then Western Sea skate with apples and leeks, or roe deer with smoked marrow, chanterelles, and lingonberries. Don’t miss the caramel ice cream with grilled pears.
At Salt, in the Admiral Hotel, try to decide between mallard duck with preserved rose hips, wild mushrooms, and dill, or pork shank aside caramelized lemon and cauliflower. Even the Glyptotec Museum gets into the act. Its café, set under a botanical dome, features some of the finest pastries in town—so heavenly, in fact, that the chef has her own TV show.
You thrive on design? Well, Sweden can satisfy, too. Stockholm makes a strong statement, starting with the new Photography Museum’s Fashion Through the Ages show, featuring bold-name photogs like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Annie Liebowitz shooting supermodels in offrunway moments: Elle McPherson to Naomi Campbell, and Kate Moon all nude and skinny.
Just as outrageous is the Nordic Museum’s show Dandy, showcasing top designers’ essentials for men, along with explanatory statements such as “It’s simple—just dress impeccably” to “The Dandy is a bit of a queer,” with a lavender suit, pink shirt, and tie as role models. Other rooms trace Swedish styles from the 1870s through the not-entirely-admirable invention of polyester.
The National Museum gets into the act with its Century of Design show—laptops to shopping carts and spatulas. Remember, IKEA was born here. And the arresting Museum of Modern Art uses its white, soaring walls to trace avant-garde canvases from old-timers Picasso and Dali to Warhol, Oldenberg, and Yves Klein. Use your Stockholm Card for free admission and transportation via metro, whose gawkworthy stations are called “the longest art gallery in the world.”
Luxe shops clustered near the National Theater (once home to Ingmar Bergman) are minigalleries of fine taste: Svenskt Tenn for playful fabrics fashioned into everything from pillows to purses; Palmquist, supplying leather goods to the Royals and us mere mortals, too; MarZio for boots or ballerina shoes in 20 colors; Orrefors for collectors’ crystal; Acne for collectors’ jeans (and impossible shoes); oddmollys for clothes it rightly dubs “Bohemian Scandinavian chic”; Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair for svelte everything-but-shoes; and DesignTorget for fun ways to spice your home, and life.
Wander the Medieval island of Gamla Stan with the 600-room Royal Castle (about as cozy as the Pentagon). Cross another of the town’s 53 bridges to yet-another island, Sodermalm. SoFo, the city’s boho hub and showcase of design for the alternative set, offers: Beyond Vintage for period rags; Cocktail Deluxe for classy kitsch (penguin salt and pepper shakers, red polka-dot tango shoes); Grandpa for retro menswear; and 10 Swedish Designers for just that, the collective’s swell clothes. Cafés include Mellqvist, featured in Stieg Larsson’s books and tours for cultists, and Spring, hangout for the “latte mamas” caffeinating their year-long parental leave (papas, too).
Shopping for food is another exercise in fashion at Ostermalms Saluhall, the Harrod’s Food Court of Sweden. Rub elbows with the locals over smorrebrod (those luscious, open-faced sandwiches) of beef with horseradish sauce, shrimp married with asparagus, and more.
Locovores reach heaven at Gubbhyllan, an 1880s house-turned-restaurant in Skanska, a Sweden-in-microcosm collection of buildings and costumed craftsmen. Here, Chef K. C. Wallberg, AKA “the King of Slow Food,” crafts Swedish all-stars, such as boar sausage or reindeer stew, further brightened with a cabbage-dill-lentil salad. To gild his creamy cheesecake, he has saved the heritage, sweet-sour seabuckthorn berry from extinction.
Celebrate classics at Prinzen, itself a classic setting, where my bossy waiter insisted I order the Swedish dumplings—meatballs coated in mashed potatoes, boiled, halved, and fried in butter, then topped with a garland of tart lingonberries to scrub the palate. PS: He was right.
And what’s more iconic than Swedish meatballs? I wolfed more than my share, sweetened once again with lingonberries, at my hotel, the lovely (and GLBT-friendly) Skeppsholmen, boasting spare, modern styling in the historic military barracks that anchor the island’s park-like setting. First, dig into this: a cocktail of shrimp, grapefruit, horseradish and avocado.
For GLBT info, pick up QX Magazine.
Across the bridge, B.A.R. serves as a shrine for fish fanatics. Choose your fillet from the iced array at the counter, then select sides (coleslaw to risotto) and sauces (aioli for me, chili for my partner).
One last meal? Head back to romantic Gamla Stan, where Den Glydene Freden launched its kitchen in 1722. Nothing dated about the menu, however, forcing hard choices like crab salad with apples, basil, and vanilla, or duck-liver pâté paired with preserved figs. Then, lamb with cabbage, beets, pureed potatoes, and roasted garlic sauce? Or maybe cod with mussels? They’ll have to forklift me onto the plane. Carla Waldemar
For your own flight of fantasy contact VisitDenmark.com and VisitSweden.com.