Copenhagen is a city on the up. Noma, the restaurant that is its most famous tourist attraction since The Little Mermaid, really is something else. Noma topped the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list last year, knocking off the seemingly untouchable El Bulli, and it was number one again this year. But if you'd rather put your faith in empirical evidence than accolades, you need look only to the number of dishes in restaurants around the world that have been lifted in part or whole from its menu, or the droves of young chefs flocking for their chance to work unpaid in its kitchens, to know that Noma is where it's at. It's most definitely worth a trip to Denmark in itself, but when you arrive you'll see that there's more to Copenhagen than Noma, and there are plenty of good reasons - edible and otherwise - to make the capital much more than a stopover.
Unless you've got a particularly deep-seated Hans Christian Andersen fixation, the Little Mermaid herself isn't really one of those reasons. Coming from a nation such as ours where big is definitely the go with artificial attractions, she's surprisingly small, though you can't say you haven't been warned. Given to the city by the Carlsberg brewery in 1913, she's been decapitated twice and had her right arm stolen once. As a characteristically tall, friendly Dane tells me, "She's been through a lot".
In terms of the biggest tourist attractions, the Amalienborg Palace, the winter residence of Denmark's famously nicotine-positive Queen Margrethe, is a smorgasbord of Danish rococo while Designmuseum Danmark has more Jacobsen and Jensen than you can shake a well-proportioned stick at. The Tivoli pleasure gardens present an unusual mix of restaurants from family-friendly to fancy, alongside roller-coasters, rides and touchingly old-school sideshow attractions. On a more cerebral level, there's the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, built in 1642 and Europe's oldest functioning observatory. Surprisingly, the ascent (apart from at the very last storey) is made via a corkscrewing ramp, not stairs. Word is that it was designed this way partly for the ease of transporting heavy equipment, but mostly so the king could take a horse and carriage to the top. Smart king.
The National Museum of Denmark is impressive in both scale and curation, but distressingly short on Viking-related fun. "They're just a very small part of our history," a guide tells me as I run in the direction of the gallery where they keep the big swords. That conflicted approach to the wilder side of the nation's heritage comes through loud and clear in the exhibits themselves. "It does not look as if the Vikings tried to make contact with foreign peoples in peaceful ways," reads one caption. No kidding. But even if it's a bit of a fizzer on the violent-Norsemen front, it's a pretty excellent collection, and the massive skeleton of an aurochs and the museum's impressive range of trepanned skulls are handsome consolation. (The quality of the captioning at the museum, I should add, including the elegance of that PC phrasing, is just one of a million examples of how willingly and well Danes speak English. The country is, in short, paradise for the lazy monoglot.)
The best way to enjoy Copenhagen is to simply wander the streets, or put its famed bike-friendliness to the test for yourself. It's an attractively human-sized city, thoroughly walkable, with wide streets and excellent shopping all set within an appealing jumble of mostly low-rise architecture. There's lots to see, whether it's the boutiques and the likes of the Taschen bookstore in the tiny streets running off Kongens Nytorv, the human traffic in edgy Vesterbro, or funky, pram-blighted Nørrebro. There's the slightly odd juxtaposition of sunbathers, picnickers and headstones in the Assistens Cemetery where Søren Kierkegaard is interred, and the calm of the old city fortifications of Kastellet, part of the ring of bastioned ramparts built along the river in the 17th century, and now a public park. In the laneways of the city centre itself you'll find retailers of Greenlandic goods (makers of mean fur-trimmed earmuffs), antique books, and metre-long loaves of bread from local cult chain Lagkagehuset alongside the bigger local names of Georg Jensen, Royal Copenhagen and Lego.
It's a friendly city, but not without edge. Lagered-up Danes can be every bit as boisterous as their British high-street cousins, and the situation with drugs in Copenhagen is a curious one. The citizens of Christiania would rather their freetown, a city within the city, was known as an autonomous zone, famed first and foremost for its libertarian culture. But its best-known image and biggest tourist attraction is Pusher Street: a thoroughfare filled with stalls hawking hashish and marijuana like a bizarre parody of a farmers' market, only with fewer prams and worse coffee. The so-called hard drugs are verboten here, but, like the violence and weapons that are also outlawed in this supposedly lawless quarter, they're said to be inexorably on the rise. Still, there's more to Christiania than drugs, and Pusher Street isn't exactly a war zone. It's also a place beloved by many Danes.
"Christiania is one of my favourite places to take visitors, for sure," says René Redzepi, Noma's chef and co-owner. "Step away from Pusher Street, because there's a little bit of a bad vibe there. If you know where to go in Christiania then there are some amazing spots." Kastellet is another of his preferred haunts. "Nothing to eat or drink there, it's just a peaceful walk, which I adore."
For all its tranquillity, Redzepi says Copenhagen is changing before his very eyes. "In Copenhagen right now you're experiencing the birth of something." For visitors to the city there's the unique opportunity, he says, to see something at its inception. "You feel that vibrant energy that you get when people are discovering something new. Something's going on and you can feel it."
Noma certainly has that electricity. The buzz you get crossing the threshold is every bit as powerful as winning the El Bulli lottery, and yet for all its cutting-edge qualities, it's a disarmingly low-key and friendly restaurant. The focus on the sense of place informs everything they do here, from the use of Nordic ingredients on the plate to the stone, timber, fur and other materials used in the room. Even the old shipping warehouse location, right on the river, conspires to make it all the more singular an adventure.
One thing that's not especially Scandinavian about the restaurant is its staff. There are four Australians working the night we visit, and we're greeted with a g'day by restaurant manager James Spreadbury, an Adelaide native who has fallen more than a little bit in love with Copenhagen. "There's good food from the bottom tier all the way up to splashing out," he says, "and some of the wine importers here are the best I have come across."
As it happens, one of the big surprises at Noma is the wine program. Or rather, the drinks program - you can have a house-made birch-sap beer when you're settling in with your snacks, or perhaps a sea-buckthorn juice, just one choice from that rarest of things, a full non-alcoholic pairing option. The first several dishes come out thick and fast, most of them eaten by hand in one or two bites, many of them brought to the table by chefs with equal parts pride and shyness. An almost non-existent puff of Spanish moss, crisped and dusted with fine earthy porcini powder; whole leeks, the pale ends simply deep-fried; and a truly delectable tiny rye bread sandwich of chicken skin and lumpfish roe are among the standouts. A switch to Fanny Sabre's Bourgogne Aligoté in the glass, and then a series of dishes familiar from pictures (and from the borrowings of other chefs) comes out. The superb play of textures between slivers of raw chestnut and löjrom, another roe; a little straw nest holding liquid-centred smoked and pickled quail's eggs; a large hot rock strewn with juicy langoustine meat and oyster emulsion. And so it goes, elegant, intelligent and sincere, all the way through to the last course.
It's woodsy stuff, informed by a thorough knowledge of the local environment, and the acidity of each dish is carefully honed to keep you wanting more. The leaping-off point for Redzepi's asparagus and spruce dish is the fact that they grow together in the field. Wrapped in spruce and grilled, the white asparagus takes on a resinous flavour. It's plated up with "young, fine, tender, fragile, delicate, delicious" shoots of spruce, whipped cream and a sauce made by juicing char-grilled green asparagus. It's important to juice it while it's still hot, Redzepi says. "The liquid that you get out of it is insanely delicious".
At Dragsholm Slot, a castle near the sea an hour's drive north of Copenhagen, Claus Henrikson takes it a step closer to nature. The 13th-century castle overlooks Lammefjord, a fjord drained last century for farming. The farm's produce is the pride of Denmark's chef elite; Henrikson honours the fact that his vegetables have come out of the earth the same day they're cooked by placing them at the heart of his dishes. In the mesmerising likes of poached Limfjord oysters with tiny balls of potato, sago pearls, pickled seaweed and scurvy grass, the animal protein is the garnish to the plant rather than the other way around. Leek stems sound like the last word in deprivation cuisine, but with a sauce of ramson leaves and flowers, baby onions, slivers of lamb's brain and nasturtiums, they're anything but. Even before you factor in the magic of the setting (the accommodation at the castle is of an equally high standard) and the quality of the service and wine, the cooking at Dragsholm more than merits the detour.
Relæ, a restaurant from another Noma-guy-made-good, Christian Puglisi, is the talk of the town, its mix of rock-star kitchen skills and a rocking ambience chiming with the bistronomy movement. Puglisi, a Dane born in Sicily to Italian and Norwegian parents, says he's glad to have been part of the new-Nordic push, but is happy going his own way. That means olive oil is served with the bread he bakes, and grapefruit granita enlivens an entrée of lumpfish roe with hazelnut milk. Poached and sautéed duroc pork dressed with lemon and olive oil is paired with a smoked cod roe mayonnaise and swedes cut into fine sheets and cooked to a texture he likens to pappardelle. At just under $55 for four courses it's a steal, but over the road at his more casual Manfred's eatery, it's less expensive again, with main courses such as roast pork neck with parsnips clocking in well under $20.
At Fiskebaren, a buzzy fish restaurant set, bizarrely enough, in the Kødbyen meat market, the vibe is no less upbeat. Between Anders Selmer's inspired wine list (which includes - wait for it - a Danish-grown white named for Redzepi's daughter, Arwen) and Martin Bentzen's menu, it's hard not to have a good time. It's harder still to resist enjoying yourself at Ved Stranden 10, another of Spreadbury's favourite haunts and a place that should be on the hit list of every jet-setting bottle-stroker, up with Terroir in Manhattan, Le Verre Volé in Paris and Brawn in London. It's very much a wine bar first, with the focus on what's in the glass rather than the eats, but that's not to say the duck rillettes (brought in weekly from the Loire) and the exceptional croque-monsieur (something of an obsession for co-owner Christian Nedegaard) don't hold their own against the Trossen Mosels and Le Ponge gamay on show.
Copenhagen might not have the deep roots of culinary culture of the big food capitals, but it has the essentials covered and it has interest enough to sustain a really magical week of eating and good times. You've got Coffee Collective for real espresso, and the boys at Ruby can match it with the cocktail kings of the English-speaking world. If you want to try smørrebrød - the ubiquitous Danish open sandwich - made by someone with a chef-like approach to sourcing quality ingredients, then Aamanns has you covered. And then there's the Danish fixation with hotdogs. The DØP pølse van parked near the foot of the Rundetaarn gets the tick of approval for its fancy bread and organic produce, but truth be told, even the lewdly artificial versions sold late into the night at every train station hit the spot if you've fortified yourself with enough Carlsberg first. They're served with both raw and fried onions - an inspired touch.
"In Copenhagen we're still discovering, still exploring, and we're not over the line yet," Redzepi says. "And I hope we never will be - maybe the process is the beauty of it. It would be great to always keep climbing."