A little more time in Copenhagen: Tivoli, the Zoo, and a Spectacular View

Midlife Sentence | Copenhagen, Christiania

A couple of weeks into our trip, we had another opportunity to explore Copenhagen, when we returned from Finland with the honeymooners, en route to Sønderborg. The flat we rented this time was more centrally located than the one in Nørrebro, and if the weather cooperated, we’d easily be able to walk to a few attractions.

The weather did cooperate (which in Denmark means temps in the low to mid 60s, intermittent rain and some sun. As with our last trip to northern Europe, I made the mistake of packing sundresses. Sigh.), so we came up with a plan to do way more than would be physically possible for mere mortals in one day (if you know us, you know that’s kind of our MO).

We started with a 400-step climb to the top of the spire at The Church of Our Savior at Christianhavn (Vor Frelsers Kirke på Christianshavn) for a spectacular view of the city.

Throughout our trip, something that has struck me is the relative lack of what I think Americans would consider standard safety precautions. It’s something I’ve noticed elsewhere abroad as well (in Guatemala we once stayed in a hotel suite with one bedroom that had no windows or smoke detectors, and exposed wires provided power to the hot water heater above the shower) (it’s probably not very appropriate to compare Europe to Central America, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want).

In the US, if you were to climb 15 floors to the top of a centuries-old tower, the last 150 steps of which are on the outside of the spire, I’m pretty sure you’d find yourself surrounded by Plexiglas, with prolific warning signs about holding on to the railing, not throwing anything over, and climbing at your own risk.

Okay, yes, I’m generalizing. I also have a moderate fear of both heights and small spaces, and I think I must have had a nightmare at some point that had to do with climbing through narrow enclosures up a crowded staircase that gets narrower and narrower near the top, and feels like it’s swaying a little bit in the wind to boot, with nothing to hold onto but wrought iron that by rights should probably have rusted through in the nearly 300 years its been standing in the constantly wet and windy Danish weather.

Needless to say, although the view was spectacular, I didn’t stay more than long enough to take more a couple of pictures, and then visit the church itself, which was also spectacular. I do wish I’d read that there’d been a recent and very extensive renovation on the spire, which opened in 1752. It might have made it easier to pause for better pictures.

But probably not. I’d probably also have read the (untrue) urban legend about the architect of the spire killing himself by jumping from the top when he realized the spiral turns the wrong way.

Christiania was right down the street. It’s one of the only locations in Denmark that exchange students are expressly forbidden from visiting as a condition of their exchange. Since Jack’s exchange was technically over, OF COURSE we had to visit. Christiania is the site of an abandoned military base that was settled by squatters in 1971 as an artists’ commune, and later established as an autonomous free town in the middle of Copenhagen. Residents and visitors engage in the buying and selling and smoking of a certain substance we could smell from our canal tour as we passed by on our earlier visit. Although pot is still technically illegal here, the Danish authorities respect the self-governance of Christiania and tend to leave them alone.

I know, this sounds crazy: squatters take over government land, develop their own currency and laws – a sign at the entrance says “You are now leaving the European Union” – and build their own homes, and businesses in a community that flourishes for forty years. For more information on the complexity of Christiania, I recommend an article by Tom Freston in Vanity Fair that sheds some light.

My Lonely Planet guide and everything I’d read on the internet warn pretty strongly about how aggressive Christiania citizens will get with photo takers, a warning Jack’s host sister reiterated with a story about a friend of hers who took out her phone to snap a photo and was accosted by a very aggressive group of young men. The ban on photography is indeed unfortunate given some of the art inside the area (the photos above were taken at the entrances to Christiania, while Jack was having a mild freak out on me about having my phone out).

It was entertaining to people watch here for sure, but given the articles I’d read celebrating Christiania as a “must see” for tourists like us, I guess I expected a little hippier, bra-burning, peace-love-rock-and-roll crowd, instead of the gritty, vaguely intimidating scene with which we were met and the tough looking folks peddling their wares. On what’s known as Pusher Street, we saw vendors with carts lined with jars of dozens of different types of hash with labels like White Widow and Zombie Maker that didn’t sound very enticing to me at all.

But then again I’m probably not the target market.

I wanted to do a little more people watching, but it didn’t take long for us to feel like we were a little too far out of our element, and besides, we were all getting strangely hungry, so we didn’t stay long in Christiania. We left and found an American style burger place down the road.

Dang, that was the best burger.

Our next stop was the Copenhagen Zoo. I’m not normally a zoo fan, but there was a stunning video advertisement and display in the airport that had intrigued us all. The actual Zoo did not disappoint.

We were going to finish off the day with a trip to Tivoli Gardens, but by this time we’d logged about 15 miles on foot (not to mention the 15 floors at the church), and it was starting to rain. We were beat, so we called it a day.

By the time we did get to visit Tivoli Gardens, it was on our last full day in Europe. Our larger party had been whittled down by quite a bit. We’d sent mom home a week earlier, dropped Jack off to say his goodbyes in Sønderborg, and the lovebirds had returned home. So it was just Mike, Colin, and I.

Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest amusement park in the world and purportedly a place Walt Disney visited when coming up with the plans for Disneyland. After driving the three and a half hours from Aarhus to Copenhagen, I wondered if an afternoon was enough time to take in all of Tivoli. I didn’t feel we could miss it. It’s the number one tourist destination in Copenhagen and everyone who knew about our trip to Denmark has recommended it. Even if we didn’t care to ride the rides, there were things to see and people to watch.

We’ve been to Disneyland, when the kids were little, and I couldn’t help but compare the two. Tivoli is smaller, without the Disney-costumed characters running around. There were folks driving little tour trains, and they had to ring a bell to get slow moving people out of their way, and they looked a fair bit grouchier than any Disney worker I ever saw. Both parks are equally crowded, and although the rides looked fun, the lines were just as long at Tivoli as I remember at Disneyland.

A couple of things stood out to me at Tivoli: first, as crowded as the place was, it wasn’t all that noisy. Danes don’t do a lot of screaming. On some of the rides I’d have been screaming my guts out. There were some screamers, to be sure (Germans probably), just far fewer than I’d expect.

Second, the structure of the park is interesting. It’s compact enough that rides are in very close proximity to crowds of people. In some areas roller coaster tracks were mere feet above us, and cars of stoic Danes (and a few screaming Germands) would occasionally rush overhead.

The whole place had a far less commercial feel to it than I remember at Disneyland, where everything is distinctly branded, every ride based upon a movie or television show or character, with a corresponding shop full of plush toys and t-shirts. At Tivoli, rides were made up to look like pirate ships or bi-planes or rockets, and didn’t feel like part of some larger franchise.

And they serve alcohol at Tivoli, which was not the case when we visited Disneyland. When a mom cannot get her hands on a beer upon exiting the Pirates of the Caribbean ride after it has been stuck for forty five minutes while the three year-old on her lap screams in her ear, I don’t think you can call your amusement park The Happiest Place on Earth.

So, Tivoli wins the park comparison over Disneyland, hands down.

(Sorry Walt).

Overall, while I was glad we had the opportunity to visit the park, I didn’t think Tivoli Gardens was the most spectacular thing we saw while in Denmark.

But then again, given what we’ve seen and experienced on this trip, it’s going to take a while to ponder what that most spectacular thing might be.

Thanks for putting up with all these posts. Hope you’ve enjoyed the photos!

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