Discovering What Makes Scandinavians So Happy

Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On May 24, 2014, my fiancé, Andy, and I got married in New York City. A week later, we hopped on a plane with two carry-on suitcases and two one-way tickets to Paris. We had just pressed pause on our careers, sublet our apartment, and moved all of our things into storage. The only plan was to have no plans at all — and we ended up traveling for 394 days through 25 countries, stopping in nearly 100 destinations. Over the next few weeks, come along on this crazy journey to learn more about how we did it — packing, plotting, budgeting — and see some of the tens of thousands of photos we took along the way.

Our need to expedite our visa application process brought us from Vienna straight to Berlin. We skipped over the Czech Republic and Poland, and after 10 days in Germany, we only had two more weeks before we were heading back to France to meet up with our family. We decided to split that time between the cities of Copenhagen and Stockholm.

The train ride from Berlin to Copenhagen was an experience in itself. Once you reach the northern coast of Germany, the entire train pulls into a ferry boat and you cruise across the Baltic Sea to Denmark. Once across, the train hops right back on the tracks and carries on to Copenhagen. In the midst of this journey, I have a vivid memory of seeing an army of wind turbines rising out of the water.

Oh, the Danes. They’re eco-conscious, funny, attractive, friendly, and generally lovely humans. You want to hate them because they’re seemingly perfect, but you just love them. I know I’m making a massive generalization, but this holds true for my own Danish friends and pretty much every Dane I’ve ever met. And I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but everyone in Copenhagen is insanely chic...in that natural, understated, effortless kind of way. I already knew this, but I think I was more shocked to see the consistency in person.

If happy, friendly, chic people aren’t your thing, then you can still enjoy the incredible design and food scene thriving in Copenhagen. We couldn’t afford the world-renowned Noma restaurant, but treated ourselves to Nordic cuisine at Höst. We window-shopped with great restraint, because if you love Scandinavian design, stores like Hay are heaven.

In the big-picture sense, Denmark seems to have a few things really figured out. The Danes pay really high taxes, and in turn, they get universal health care, high minimum wages, months to years of paternity/maternity leave, and affordable education systems. This means that it’s really hard to get rich in Denmark, but not many people are going to be living in despair. And this social democracy seems to be working, because year after year, Denmark gets voted as the happiest country in the world. Add this all up and Copenhagen is a place that's hard not to love.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Nyhavn, which literally means New Harbour, is part of the original Copenhagen harbor. It was constructed by King Christian V from 1670 to 1673, and links the old inner city to the sea. The harbor is lined with old wooden ships and the original colorful townhouses. Today, Nyhavn is an entertainment district and home to a number of bars, restaurants, and cafés.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
From Nyhavn, we took a boat tour through the city, which was a wonderful way to see some of buildings and sights you have not been able to view just by walking around. The tour took us past the modern Opera House, the famous Little Mermaid statue and through the pretty Christianshavn district.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We passed Børsen, the Old Stock Exchange building, which dates back to 1625 and is one of the oldest buildings in Copenhagen. Its dragon tail spire is an iconic feature. You can see the ever-present bike commuters of Copenhagen at the base.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We made a visit to Torvehallerne, the snazzy covered market with over 80 stands and shops selling everything from meats and cheeses to produce, flowers, and chocolates. We were especially impressed with the fresh seafood selection.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
And you can’t leave Copenhagen without trying Smørrebrød, its famous open-faced sandwiches. We got these beauties from Hallernes Smørrebrød in Torvehallerne. Each one was like a little work of art.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We found a great apartment on Airbnb in Nørrebro, one block away from Jægersborggade, the main street and culinary hot spot of the neighborhood. I had read about a few popular spots, but I didn’t realize how many gems were on that street until we got there. We were completely obsessed with Grød, a restaurant serving sweet and savory porridge, day and night. But this wasn’t your granny’s porridge — think Icelandic yogurt and freeze-dried goji berries. We had potentially the best cinnamon roll of our lives at Meyers Bageri. We watched the coffee scientists brew a perfect cup at The Coffee Collective. And around the corner, we became regulars at the craft beer bar Mikkeller & Friends. We joined the locals after work for smoked, sour brews, and platters of sausages and gherkin pickles.

Similar to the situation we found in Schöneberg in Berlin, we could have easily seen ourselves living in Nørrebro. It was a laid-back atmosphere with a mix of demographics. When people ask us if we ever visited somewhere we could consider moving to, Berlin and Copenhagen are always at the top of our list.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We spent one sunny afternoon in Kongens Have, which translates to The King’s Garden. Originally a private garden for Christian IV, it has been open to the public since 1770 and is the oldest park in Copenhagen. The grounds are covered beautiful trees, sprawling lawns and manicured gardens. There was a sweet little café where we picked up some ice cream and watched the kids chase each other in the grass. Huge packs of teenagers were assembled in every other corner, leaving even huger piles of bikes nearby. And the whole park was framed with rows of colorful buildings. It was hard to ignore that whole World’s Happiest Country title in this park...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A sculpture in Kongens Have commemorating Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish author and poet. H.C Andersen is best known for his fairy tales, like The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, and The Ugly Duckling. He’s the man in Copenhagen.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We headed back to the Christianshavn neighborhood to explore the area on foot. Our first stop was Church of Our Saviour, the baroque church famous for its helix spire with a winding staircase. Yeah, that little gold railing around the exterior of the spire is actually a staircase. Kate Conquers Heights: Chapter 452.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Views over Copenhagen from the top of the spire.

After visiting the church, we headed over to Christiania, the 84-acre commune founded in 1971 by young artists, hippies, anarchists, and squatters on an abandoned military base. They claimed the area as a free city and have been living a pretty lawless life there for the over 40 years. Most famously, Christiania is home to one of the world’s biggest cannabis markets. And although it’s still illegal in Denmark, it’s tolerated in Christiania, after the government tried and failed to crack down on it in 2004.

I wish I had pictures, but they’re not allowed. I’m sure because one, they’re selling illegal drugs, and two, you’re actually walking through people’s homes. Today, Christiania is second-most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen. It’s a mashup of artist studios, warehouses, DIY homes, gardens, art galleries, music venues, and cheap eateries.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Remember when I thought Amsterdam had a lot of bikes? Well, Copenhagen wins. I’ve heard that there are more bikes than inhabitants in the city and that 50% of the citizens commute by bike every day. Of course, we had to join the ranks, so we rented two classics for our seven-day stay.

But jumping into the bike lane is no joke in Copenhagen. These are multiple lanes, full-on expressways with bikes tire-to-tire, and a whole system of rules and hand movements to communicate with fellow bikers. We did our best to blend in, but there’s no doubt I had a huge "tourist" arrow pointing at my head as I accidentally signaled left and turned right. Not surprisingly, the Danes embrace this mode of transportation effortlessly. Mothers pull their little ones in wooden trolleys, businessmen cruise by with briefcases, and young women pedal past — high heels and all.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Superkilen is a unique public park located in Nørrebro created to celebrate the diversity of the neighborhood. The design is influenced by the over 60 nationalities of the individuals that make up this area of Copenhagen. For example, there is a Moroccan fountain, a Turkish bench, and a Japanese toy octopus. It’s divided into three color-coded main areas: a red square, a black square, and a green park. The red square is an area for sports. The black square is designed for socializing on benches or playing backgammon. And the green park is covered in lawns and playgrounds.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A detail of the white lines the stretch across the black square. The lines split around objects and create optical illusions as they stretch over the hilly terrain of this part of the park. If there ever was a park created for me, this was it. I was right at home in my black-and-white striped shirt and my black-and-white shoes in my black-and-white park.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Forget NYC, Copenhagen has a cooler meatpacking district — Kødbyen, which literally translates to Meat Town. Both are filled with restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries, and creative businesses. And while they’re both gentrified, Copenhagen’s meatpacking district, in Vesterbro, still has a raw, industrial feeling with a handful of companies that are still serving the meat industry, whereas the Meatpacking District in Manhattan is now a wonderland for tourists and bottle service. This little corner is home to the popular bar Jolene.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Night lights in Vesterbro.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Tivoli Gardens is a famous amusement park in Copenhagen and the second-oldest amusement park in the world. And I confess: We didn’t go in. I don’t know what we were doing. We ran out of time! I was quite distressed about this, so I snapped a pic from across the street.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After seven days in Copenhagen, we discovered that it truly earned its title as one of the most livable and pleasant cities in the world. We were charmed. We could get used to commuting by bikes through a village-like city covered in canals, eating world-class food, having a good work/life balance, caring about the environment, being immersed in an art and design scene, and looking painfully chic.

We were heading to Stockholm to continue our tour of Scandinavia. This was an exciting stop for us, because we’d be finally be seeing familiar faces — some dear Swedish friends who had moved back to Stockholm after living in New York. Even better, we found out that they were throwing a traditional crayfish party, Kräftskiva, on their roof deck to welcome us.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We were greeted by an impressive spread. It was covered in paper decorations, little crayfish confetti, and name tags decorated with fresh dill. We wore paper hats and bibs and learned the proper way to crack open a crayfish — you suck the juices out of the shell first. Ack. We butchered the Swedish language while attempting to sing traditional drinking songs. And after every song, we did a shot of elderflower liqueur. We were proper Swedes.

And then the next day, it really hit us — besides the elderflower hangover, it was tourist fatigue. Don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m certainly not complaining, but there were moments in our trip when we were completely burnt out on being a tourist. At this point, we had been on the go every day for the past four months. We just couldn’t lift our camera. We couldn’t see another beautiful monument or church. We just hung out with our friends, went to dinner, strolled the streets, and barely documented any of it.

But we do love Stockholm! Here's what I can tell you: Stay in trendy Södermalm. Check out perfectly curated stores like Grandpa. Go visit the Photography Museum, Fotografiska. Eat at Urban Deli...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
...And do this. The Vasa museum. This was one sight we had to pull the camera out for. This museum houses the warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. It’s the only intact 17th century ship in the world and in one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever been to. The ship sits in the middle of the building, while several floors of information and viewing decks wrap around it. It was excavated in the 1960s by, get this, divers digging tunnels under the ship and feeding steel cables through it. Those cables were used slowly to inch the boat up over a period of time. The other artifacts are equally impressive. They even have some pieces of the paper-thin sails intact and have been able to make wax recreations of what some of the sailors may have looked like using their bones.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A wooden carving that adorned the Vasa of Roman Emperor Titus. Long-lost brothers...

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