Berlin and Copenhagen: Our Future Homes

Since we traveled to both Berlin and Munich, and to both Copenhagen and Stockholm, you might think it would make sense to pair those cities up for blog posts instead of making the less intuitive pairing of Berlin and Copenhagen. Before visiting, I think we would have agreed with you - and there are a lot of ways in which these cities differ - but what we found in both that draws them together in my memory was a comfort and sense of home. These are cities we could see ourselves moving to, more so than any others we had been to in Europe.

It helps, of course, that everyone in these cities speaks very good English. It also helps that everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Neither city is super touristy, though each has touristy areas. They feel like places where people actually live, and live quite happily.

In Copenhagen, the biggest factor might just be the bike culture. I haven't yet been to Amsterdam, which I understand may rival Copenhagen on this, but I have seriously never seen so many bikes in one place as I did on every street in this city.

bikes in CPH

All the major streets in Copenhagen have wide bike lanes, separated from car traffic on one side and from pedestrians on the other by curbs. In places where there is street parking, the parking spaces are between the car traffic and the bike lane so cars aren't cutting across it. There are separate traffic lights for bikes, too, so you don't have to deal with cars turning right and cutting you off. People have special storage sheds for their bikes that come with apartment rentals. There are rental bikes available all over, including ones with power assist that were very helpful for getting up the hill to our somewhat suburban neighborhood.

Brendan with a power-assist rental bike
Brendan with bike

Here's a video Brendan took during the morning rush hour. Note the ratio of bikes to cars and buses - it's crazy!

In Berlin, there are also rental bikes all over, and bike lanes on every major street, but it is all a bit less formal and organized. The bike lanes jump from vaguely defined paths on the sidewalk into the street and back again. If you think of the Germans as highly ordered and organized, and as strict rule-followers, then Berlin will surprise you. We speculated that some of the ambiguity in intersections (no stop signs anywhere) must be intentional as it caused everyone to slow down significantly. Still, there is enough of a bike culture that we felt very comfortable getting around the city this way, which is hugely helpful in a sprawling city like Berlin.

Both cities have their touristy centers with attractive buildings, but they both also have somewhat unremarkable, uniformly plain residential areas. This may seem like an odd thing to count as a positive, but what it means is the touristy area is more contained than in some other cities, and the residential areas feel accessible and affordable - and they can still be attractive in their own way.

In Copenhagen, our apartment was in a rather charmless, brick row house about 15 minutes by bus from the city center. We looked at some property listings and found them to be pretty affordable for such an expensive city. Plus, everyone seems to have awesome taste in interior design (if you're into that modern Scandinavian look like I am). The neighborhood itself was quite suburban and lacking in restaurants, but had easy access to a nice, dirt walking path around a large pond and to good transit options (in addition to the automated bike rentals).

In Berlin, our apartment was in an old, 5-story building with wide plank wood floors and super high ceilings, but from the outside the building was unadorned and unremarkable, matching the pastel sameness of the surrounding apartment buildings. Like in Budapest, so much of the city was leveled during WWII that almost everything in the city is post-war in origin. Our neighborhood was one of the exceptions, but it seems that after the damage of the war, and then the years of neglect under Soviet/East German rule, any original exterior features of these old buildings were lost and they were given their current, smoothed-over facades.

This block in our neighborhood, with its blossoming trees and view of the Zionskirche, was one of the more charming.
Our Berlin neighborhood

In the decade after the fall of the Wall, this neighborhood - Prenzlauer Berg - was known for its squatter culture and resistance to the gentrifying pressures. Now, just a couple of these buildings remain, lending a small amount of creative edge to the neighborhood's feel.

Squatter building

We were pretty centrally located here and we had easy access to several parks and tons of restaurants. Berlin has a surprising amount of green space, though very little of it is of the manicured, formal variety, and with the warm spring weather, we were happy to take advantage alongside the locals. Berliners love their outdoor space.

Berlin also has an awesome restaurant scene. In fact, this is one point on which Berlin and Copenhagen are distinguished from each other in my memory. Wrapped into it are questions of diversity and affordability, and Berlin definitely comes out on top in both.

Berlin isn't like Munich, where all you can find are German restaurants, or like Vienna, where if it isn't German/Austrian food, it's Italian. It has a great diversity of food, which in our neighborhood included lots of Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Mexican, and plenty of trendy burger joints. There is a strong feeling of multiculturalism throughout the city reflected in the food scene. On our exploration down to the Kreuzberg neighborhood, we also found a large Turkish population, and, surprisingly, we overheard a lot of Spanish being spoken around the city, something we hadn't experienced elsewhere in Europe.

Food trucks, tapas, and beer gardens

In Copenhagen, there is a visible Muslim population, made up of Pakistanis, Moroccans, Iraqis, and Turks, but there seems to be less of an embrace of their cultures by the Danish population, who favor a certain uniformity. Where Berlin excels in a feeling of youth, dynamism, and creative expression, Copenhagen substitutes a contented, socialist ideal.

The neighborhood that bucks this trend, though, is Copenhagen's Nørrebro, to the north of the city center. The city's artist population calls this neighborhood home, and in turn it has become the heart of the hipster and alternative scene - the only part of the city where we saw people with colorful hair and clothing. We moved to this neighborhood for our last couple nights in the city, and I'm so glad we did - it gave us a new perspective, and a new reason to love the city.

Even in Nørrebro, though, restaurant prices are just too high for the budget-conscious tourist to eat out regularly. We opted for lunches out and dinners in to save money. In contrast, Berlin was surprisingly cheap - like being back in Sevilla or Zagreb, where a beer at a restaurant costs you $2, not $9.

A favorite breakfast/lunch spot in Nørrebro
Norrebro restaurant

Norrebro restaurant

What Copenhagen (and Denmark in general) does really well, though, is bread, pastries, cakes, and coffee. We found room in our budget for plenty of coffee and pastry breaks!

Both cities have great public transportation, and in Copenhagen this includes an easy-to-use regional train service that quickly gets you out of the city. We took advantage of this to take a day trip north to see Kronborg in Helsingør, aka Elsinore, the castle where Shakespeare set Hamlet. The castle was really cool and beautiful, and we loved the town, as well, with its modern waterfront and touristy town center.

Helsingor waterfront

Under the castle is a system of chambers and tunnels, guarded by a statue of Holger Danske. The legend is that he sleeps there until the day Denmark is in trouble - then he will awaken and come to the rescue!

Kronborg casemates

The train up to Helsingør was so efficient that, after visiting Kronborg, we found that it was still only early afternoon - plenty of time for another stop! We decided to tack on a visit to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which had been recommended highly by a fellow travel-lover. It really was one of the best modern art museums I've ever been to, and would be worth a visit just to wander around the sculptures on the grounds. They are arranged in such a way that many are integrated with the landscape and the layout of the building, so that its like a journey of discovery, seeing what's around the next corner.

Our other touristy activities in Copenhagen were to visit the Carlsberg brewery, where we did a fun tasting of their microbrew line, Jacobsen:

And to visit the very cool, and very old Tivoli Gardens - an amusement park that opened in 1843. While Tivoli certainly is a big tourist draw, I can imagine that it is also a local attraction, as it is incorporated directly into the heart of the city and has more class to it than your average amusement park.

We also enjoyed just wandering around Copenhagen's downtown, including the picturesque waterfront of Nyhavn.

Copenhagen Nyhavn

And we couldn't leave without a photo with the Little Mermaid.

Little Mermaid

In Berlin, we skipped one of the biggest tourist sites, the Reichstag building, with its big, glass dome, but only because we would have had to wait for hours to get in! We did hit up a few other sites, including Checkpoint Charlie (which didn't really have much to offer other than a photo-op), part of the Berlin Wall, the Fernsehturm (a huge, Soviet-era TV tower), the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Cathedral, and the very cool Pergamon Museum with its impressive collection of Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Islamic art and artifacts.

It was fun catching the touristy sites, but mostly, in both cities, we lived like locals and loved it! Now if we could just get our families and friends to move, too...