I first fell in love with Copenhagen nine summers ago.
Herb and I had spent two days here before a Baltic cruise, and I was immediately smitten with an impossible case of love at first sight. From the colorful canal-front houses in Nyhavn to the old-fashioned charm of Tivoli Gardens to a hidden 19th century tearoom called A.C. Perch’s, I was enchanted. I loved how warm and friendly it was, how beautiful yet comfortable it felt and how happy its residents seemed. I even proclaimed to Herb that if we ever moved to another country, it would have to be Denmark!
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had fallen quite hard for something called hygge.
Hygge: (noun) A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being; regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture.
Pronounced hoo’-gah, it’s a word that has been making its way into modern-day vernacular the past few years and was a finalist in 2016 for Oxford Dictionaries’ “word of the year.” According to visitdenmark.com, the word is Norwegian in origin and has been embraced by the Danes since the late 18th century, when it first appeared in Danish writing. There is no English counterpart, although it is sometimes translated as hug or cozy.
On this brief return visit to Copenhagen, I wanted to bottle up a huge dose of hygge that would last for months on end. I longed to discover places beyond the main attractions where hygge surely thrives. On a lark, I googled “Copenhagen hygge tour” and couldn’t believe what I found.
It turns out such a thing exists.
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The Hygge & Happiness Tour offers a half-day walk through some of the oldest parts of Copenhagen – places that “scream hygge,” as the website describes. We met our guide Axel after disembarking our ship, the last day of a Norwegian voyage that ended where it had begun. It was Sunday morning, and the city was calm and quiet, with only the sounds of boats on the canal interrupting the stillness as we walked from Nyhavn to our hygge destinations.
Axel began our walk by talking about the origins of hygge. A Danish native who is doing a stint as a tour guide during his gap year before university, he spoke with fondness about the word, although he was quick to add that it doesn’t automatically come with the Danish culture.
“Hygge is doing something pleasant, stress-free, in the absence of anything annoying,” he explained. “People sometimes think that because we are Danish, we have hygge all the time. That would be impossible for anyone! The images of hygge that come to mind are sitting on a sofa by a fire when it’s raining or snowing outside. You have a hot drink and a blanket and maybe a book or a board game.”
He went on to say that hygge can be a noun or even a verb, but its most common usage in daily life is as an adjective or adverb – hyggely. “When we meet someone or say good-bye, we often say it was hyggely seeing them. Or we might describe a building as being hyggely.” And then he added, “the more hyggely, the higher the price.”
Hygge Passageways and Gardens
I immediately recognized the Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian square and shopping area, from our previous visit, but Axel was quick to move us along to the back streets. “It’s not very hyggely here,” he laughed. A short distance away, the charming architecture made it extremely clear why Axel wanted us to leave the main square. Our first stop was a passageway leading to a lovely courtyard. We wandered through the area before stopping for a Danish pastry.
Our next hyggely stop was a beautiful hidden courtyard called the Royal Library Garden. Designed in 1920, the garden features a small pond with a sculptural fountain, seasonal flowers and a statue of Danish philosopher and writer Søren Kierkegaard.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
The Oh-So Hyggely King’s Garden
Herb and I had toured Rosenborg Castle and walked through the gardens on our first visit to Copenhagen. What I remembered most were the trees, rows of perfect symmetry lining a pathway that seemed to disappear into a distant infinity. It was a tranquil spot, and what I didn’t know at that time was that there was a lot of hygge going on!
Axel first took us to a coffee shop at the garden entrance called Kafferiet Slow Coffee. Decorated with pink flowered wallpaper, white wainscoting and velvety-looking cushioned banquette seats, the tiny shop is quite the hyggely find. We took our coffees into the garden and began our walk. King’s Garden is the oldest and most visited park in Copenhagen. Also known as Rosenborg Castle Gardens, it was created as the private gardens of King Christian IV in the early 17th century.
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
~Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography
We left King’s Garden and headed toward another café. This time Axel asked us to wait at a table outside, telling us he was picking up “a chocolate.” Thinking he meant a small piece of chocolate, Herb and I both laughed when we saw what was on our plates. These were full-size chocolate desserts, not pieces of candy, and as Axel said, they were “full of hygge!”
I couldn’t tell you exactly where we were during this last stretch of our tour, which may be a good thing. Some secret places should remain as much of a secret as possible. What I can tell you is that I was so absorbed with taking pictures that I found myself absent-mindedly following Axel, turning down streets and crossing roads wherever he led us. My camera was having a fantastic time, and these streets and houses were my favorites of the tour.
I was taking photos of a particularly charming street when a woman rode by on her bicycle, parking it in front of her house. Both Herb and I felt a bit uncomfortable and apologized if we were intruding in any way, telling the woman how much we admired her home. “Oh, that’s all right,” she kindly told us. “I understand. I’ve lived here more than 50 years, and it’s gotten really busy ever since people discovered the street on Instagram.” She went on to talk with us for at least fifteen minutes and probably would have chatted longer if we hadn’t needed to move on with our tour.
I got the feeling that even with the inconvenience of tourists, she felt very lucky to live here.
One Last Moment of Hygge
Herb and I said goodbye to Axel and headed back to our hotel. We had dinner plans at what sounded like a very hyggely restaurant for our favorite end-of-the-trip comfort food – pizza! When we arrived at Ristorante Italiano, the outdoor patio was full, but it turned out that the upstairs dining room couldn’t have been a more perfect spot to wind down three weeks of travel and look forward to the journey home.
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It may have been nine years since we were last together, but like a wonderful, enduring friendship, Copenhagen and I picked up where we left off. All the little memories of what I loved so deeply about this city came rushing back as if I’d been here just last week.
And although I didn’t find a magic bottle of hygge to pack inside my suitcase, I left Copenhagen with a lifetime supply of Danish comfort forever woven inside my heart.