When I was sixteen, I got on a plane and flew halfway across the country to live with a family I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to, and learn a language I’d never even heard spoken before. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t know who I would be if I had not done it.
It was hard. It was amazing. It was frustrating. It was an educational experience that surpassed anything I could ever learn in a classroom. I made life-long friendships with other kids from all around the world, and I gained a second family. I learned about the world. I learned how to be independent.
Nineteen years later, I was boarding a plane again with Paddy back to Denmark. We’ve embarked on many international adventures together, but this one was different. I wasn’t going away this time. I was coming home.
I was nervous. The last time I saw my host family and classmates was when I was 17. Would they even want to see me after nineteen years? Did they even remember me that well? When I left Denmark in 1998, email was a new phenomenon. I had managed to find almost all of them on Facebook around 2006 or so, and I’d maintained some contact with everyone on social media since then. My classmate Ann visited me in Seattle in 2011, and urged me to come back to visit. I wanted to, but building up vacation time is a bit more of a challenge for Americans, and there were so many places in the world that I hadn’t seen yet.
Finally, I decided I had to go. I made plans with my host family and friends, brushed up on my Danish with the Duolingo App (wish I had that when I was an exchange student!), and bought our plane tickets.
We began our trip with four days in Stockholm, Sweden as I didn’t get a chance to see Sweden during my exchange year. We got over our jet lag and had a little tourist time before boarding the train to Copenhagen. Read about our adventures in Stockholm here.
I had booked tickets in advance through the Scandinavian Rail website. With train tickets, the earlier you book, the better rate you get. I think the earliest you can book in advance is three months. You do need to print your ticket. I had forgotten to print my ticket, and had only printed the confirmation. The info desk at the Stockholm Central station directed us to the auto kiosks where we were able to print our tickets using our reservation number.
We weren’t sure which train car we were supposed to be in, and we ended up in the right seats in the wrong car. We found this out when someone else showed up with a reservation for our seats. We located the correct seats, but they were unfortunately facing backwards. I get extremely motion sick if I don’t face forward in a vehicle. Fortunately the train employee was able to find us two seats facing forward that didn’t have a reservation.
When we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station, my friend Pan was waiting for us. Pan was a fellow exchange student from Thailand during my year in Denmark, and liked Denmark so much she ended up moving there and working for MAERSK. She had invited us to stay with her and her boyfriend Sebastian from Germany in their apartment near the Copenhagen airport.
If you’ve read about our travels in Thailand, the lake safari tour that we took on the floating lake house in Thailand is run by my friend Pan and her family. She runs the website from Denmark. Her family’s lake safari tour is one of our most memorable travel experiences and we highly recommend it.
It was strawberry season in Denmark, and Pan welcomed us with a traditional danish tart with strawberries and marzipan and tea. Danes have a tradition of having cake after work on Wednesdays.
For dinner, Pan showed Paddy how to cook several home-style Thai dishes that she grew up with. We were impressed with the variety of Asian produce available in Copenhagen.
Our first meal in Denmark consisted of Thai home cooking and German beer. It was delicious.
Pan and Sebastian had to work, so Paddy and I set out to be tourists in Copenhagen for the day. We got some breakfast sandwiches and coffee at a little cafe in the mall across the street, and then caught the Metro into the city center.
The Copenhagen Metro is very easy to use. If you don’t have a multi-use pass, you can purchase single use tickets from the electronic kiosks. There is often a metro employee on site to answer questions or help if needed.
No one takes your ticket when you get on the train, and there are no turnstiles to scan your ticket through to get to the train platform. If you are tempted not to pay and take a free ride, don’t. Metro employees randomly (and semi-frequently) do ticket checks on the trains and the fine for not having a ticket is pretty steep.
There was no metro in Copenhagen back in the late nineties, so it was nice to be able to easily and quickly get around the city.
We got off the train at Kongens Nytorv, which is the stop fairly close to the city center (Indre by). We used Google maps on our phones to navigate to Strøget, the pedestrian shopping street.
I remembered always wanting to go to Strøget as a teenage exchange student when I visited Copenhagen, but we walked around for approximately 5-10 minutes before we decided that there wasn’t really anything we wanted to shop for. There are some interesting shops and cafes, but clothing and other merchandise in Denmark is very expensive. It’s a nice area to see for a short amount of time, however.
We walked over to Christiansborg Palace and admired it from the perimeter. Christiansborg is the Danish parliamentary building, housing the offices of the Prime Minister and the Danish supreme court. The Danish Royal Family uses portions of the castle for receptions and events.
Several royal castles had been built and re-built at Christiansborg’s location since 1167. Christiansborg was first built in 1733 but burnt down and was rebuilt twice, with the third and current version standing since the early 1900’s.
You can tour many parts of the palace including the royal reception rooms and chapel, and some ruins of the very first castle that were excavated in the palace basement. Paddy wasn’t feeling too up to touring fancy palace rooms and I’d seen it once before, so we moved on.
We walked across the canal to the Christianshavn neighborhood. Christianshavn is a man-made island surrounded by canals. It is also home to the infamous Christiania neighborhood.
Christiania is a “free town, ” (AKA hippie commune) that began when some hippies took over some abandoned military barracks back in 1971 and set up camp. In addition to the military barracks that were there, people built their own houses with whatever free materials they could find, making for some pretty artsy and funky little abodes.
The original settlers of Christiania wanted to be able to make their own laws and government, including making marijuana legal. As you can imagine, controversy ensued and the area has had off and on battles with the police. In the 1970’s hard drugs were also part of Christiania’s culture, but after several overdoses and problems, the people of Christiania have outlawed all drugs other than marijuana. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been a completely successful campaign and problems with drug dealers and criminal gangs has been an intermittent issue.
If there is a “sketchy” neighborhood in Copenhagen, I suppose this would be it. I don’t feel threatened there but police raids are still known to happen and there have been violent incidents here in the last 10 years. Use caution, but don’t be afraid to check it out in the daytime.
If there has not been a police raid lately, you will probably see pot dealers on Pusher Street selling their wares. Note that cameras are not allowed in this area by the residents, and if you take a photo of a pot dealer he/she will not be happy with you. Leave the camera/phone in your bag.
Christiania has a number of cafes and music venues, as well as art galleries and a few shops and souvenir stands. We stopped into a bar and had a beer outside in the sun. Bring cash if you want to buy something, I’m not sure if credit cards are accepted.
On the way out we tried to stop into an art gallery but it was closed for another hour or so. I wouldn’t plan on visiting Christiania in the morning, things seem to open a little later around here. Early evening or late afternoon would probably be the best time to go. Do your Copenhagen sightseeing earlier in the day, and then come to Christiania to have a beer and check out the scene.
We hung out for a little while until it was time to meet my friend Jakob for a late lunch.
Jakob had been one of my AFS exchange program orientation leaders when I was an exchange student. He was only three years older than me and one of three young Danish volunteers that our orientation group had a lot of fun with. He had also been on exchange in South America in the mid nineties.
We had originally planned on meeting Jakob for coffee, but we hadn’t had lunch yet and were hungry. Jakob suggested Ravelinen restaurant nearby, which served upscale traditional Danish smørrebrød in a nice quiet location on the water.
Danish smørrebrød is probably the cuisine that Denmark is known the most for. It literally means “butter and bread” and consists of an open-faced sandwich on rugbrød (hearty pumpernickel bread). Rugbrød is an acquired taste for many people (myself included), but it is very hearty and healthy. You don’t need to eat very much of it to be full and you stay full for hours.
Rugbrød is just a vehicle for other delicious foods, however so if you don’t like the taste just pile on the toppings.
Jakob and I each had a dish with herring, and Paddy had a pork dish. My herring came with apples and curry and dill, and was delicious. The dishes look small, but when you put them on rugbrød and create multiple open-faced sandwiches, you soon become very full.
I can count on my hand the number of times I remember eating out at a restaurant during my year in Denmark, and I don’t even think it totals more than five. So needless to say, this was the fanciest smørrebrød I’d ever had. It was also priced accordingly.
Danes don’t go out to eat very often. Going out to eat is very expensive in Denmark, so when Danes do go out to eat it is usually a special occasion or while on vacation. You won’t find a lot of mid-range restaurants in Denmark (or Scandinavia). You will either find cheap casual eateries or fancier pricey places.
If you want to experience some traditional Danish food done very upscale, Ravelinen is a great place to go and in the summer has a nice open air view of the water.
After lunch we said goodbye to Jakob and headed back towards the metro. Paddy’s allergies were really acting up as the grass pollen was really high, so we went back to Pan and Sebastian’s apartment to rest for a while before meeting up with them for dinner.
*Note: If you have allergies or think you could possibly need any kind of over-the-counter American medicines while in Denmark, bring them with you. Most medicines in Denmark are available by prescription only, and even cold medicines aren’t available.
That evening Pan and Sebastian took us to their favorite Szechuan restaurant near the Copenhagen Central Station called Magasasa.
We didn’t expect the best Szechuan food we’d ever had to be in Copenhagen, Denmark, but it was. If you are in Copenhagen and need a break from Scandinavian cuisine, definitely check this place out.
We told Pan and Sebastian just to order their favorites and we would share. We had the crispy duck, string bean pork, beef with black pepper sauce, tofu with mixed seafood, and chow mein.
The string bean pork and the crispy fried duck were absolutely the best we’d ever had. Everything was amazing. The prices were pretty reasonable too (for Denmark anyway).
Pan and Sebastian had annual passes to Tivoli Gardens amusement park that included two guests free of charge. Tivoli Gardens is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Copenhagen, for Danes and international tourists. It is nothing like an American amusement park–you won’t find deep fried butter or toothless carnies manning sketchy rides with half of the light bulbs working.
Tivoli is meticulously maintained down to the most finite details. Beautiful manicured gardens, stages for musical acts and other performances, bars, restaurants, shops, and a variety of fun rides. Peacocks and other exotic birds freely roam the grounds.
It was raining and after 9:00 PM, so there were very few other people in the park. All the lights were coming on, and it was actually really nice to stroll around in rain coats. Downright “hyggelig,” as the Danes would say.
You may have read about the Danish word/concept of “hyggelig.” It doesn’t translate entirely to English, the closest word we have in English is “cozy.” But hyggelig is more than just warming up by a fireplace in a sweater with a hot mug of cocoa. It is about nice atmosphere, and spending time with friends and family. Inviting your friends over to drink wine and play board games on a stormy winter night with candles is hyggelig. Having a picnic dinner in a nearby park is hyggelig. Walking through Tivoli Gardens in the rain with friends and lots of colorful lights is hyggelig.
We got some beers (Carlsberg and Tuborg, of course) from an outdoor beer stand and sat and talked under a covered patio for awhile, and then walked around some more. I was glad we didn’t pay full price for the short time that we were there, but we had a really nice time exploring the park and catching up with our friends. It was really beautiful at night with all the lights, and the rain didn’t bother us. We’re from the Pacific Northwest, we are used to outdoor activities in the rain.
We stayed at Tivoli until closing time at 11:00, and decided that a few more beers might be in order before we went home. Sebastian took us to Vesterbro Bryghus (Vesterbro brewery) right around the corner from Tivoli Gardens. It was a cozy little spot with live music and good craft beer. Craft beer wasn’t really a thing in Denmark back in the 90’s, but has since become extremely popular (much like it has in many parts of the US).
Not wanting to overstay our welcome with Pan and Sebastian, and needing a couple days of alone time, we had arranged to check into an Airbnb in downtown Copenhagen for the next two nights.
Note: Airbnb is the best way to go for lodging in Denmark. Hotels are extremely expensive and tiny. With Airbnb you can find a one bedroom or studio apartment with a kitchen for less than the cost of a hotel room. We ended up staying in a hotel the last three nights of this trip, and what you get for your money in a budget hotel is pretty disappointing.
We met our Airbnb host at 11:00 AM for an early check in, which we appreciated. The apartment was located in some historic military barracks in the northern part of downtown Copenhagen, and had everything we needed including a fully stocked kitchen.
To get across town, we had to take the train to the Osterport station, and then walk about 10 minutes with all our luggage. An easy walk if you aren’t carrying a bunch of stuff. Not so much if you are. (*Tip: pack light. You will be doing a lot of walking).
After a short rest, we walked down to Nyhavn, Copenhagen’s famous picturesque harbor. If you see any tourist brochure or guidebook for Copenhagen, Nyhavn will probably be the picture on the cover. It really is colorful and lovely.
Pan had suggested that we take a canal tour of the city from Nyhavn. While super touristy, this ended up being a fabulous idea. It was a nice day, and we were a little tired from lugging our stuff around and walking around the city a bit that morning.
The canal tour was 80 Kr (about $13 US) each, and leaves Nyhavn once every hour. We showed up right as one was about too leave–perfect timing.
The tour takes you through all the canals around the city: Christianshavn, the canal around Christiansborg palace, and out to the Little Mermaid statue. Don’t expect a good view of the Little Mermaid (Lille Havfrue) from the canal tour, you only see her backside from far away. Mostly you get a view of all the tourists taking photos of her.
In fact, you don’t really get a good tour of anything in particular, but you get a nice relaxing, restful boat ride with a guide telling you about parts of the city in English, Danish, and German. If you’re tired of walking and need a break, the canal tour is a good way to rest and keep sightseeing at the same time.
After the tour we stopped at the little hotdog kiosk next to the harbor. I had the frikadeller sandwich, and Paddy had a red hot dog.
Danes love their hotdogs (pølser.) The “red hotdog” (røde pølser) is just that–a bright red hot dog. It is dyed with a red dye, which can’t be good for you. I have no idea why it’s red (maybe to match the Danish flag??). In any event, it is a very Danish fast food item. Not all the pølser at the kiosks are red, however– in case you want to try the Danish hot dogs without day-glo artificial dyes.
Paddy’s allergies were acting up again, so we decided to go back to the apartment to relax for a few before heading back out again. On the way back, we stopped in a few shops and visited Amalienborg Palace, the home of the Danish queen and royal family.
Flashback! Me at Amalienborg Palace in 1997:
Later in the afternoon we decided to walk to see the Little Mermaid statue, the proverbial Eiffel Tower of Denmark and an ode to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose everyone has to see it, it is the number one tourist landmark in the country, but it really is rather disappointing. I’d seen it before during my exchange year but felt like I should go back and see it again with Paddy. It was early evening and the weather was nice. We had a lovely stroll through the park on the way there.
The Little Mermaid has been a victim of vandalism by teens and political activists over the years. She has had her head and arm taken off (I think more than once?), and has been painted different colors. The week before we arrived, she had been painted red as a protest against the pilot whale slaughter in the Faroe Islands.
It turned out early evening was a good time to visit Den Lille Havfrue, most of the tourist crowds visit during the day. There were a few tourists but not too many. As we were walking away I heard a man say to his friend, “She really is unremarkable, isn’t she?”
If you are a fan of Hans Christian Andersen and the Little Mermaid story, I’d suggest visiting his house and museum in the town of Odense on the island of Fyn. Odense is an easy two hour train ride from Copenhagen and the museum is just a short walk from the train station. The museum has the original hand-written stories including Den Lille Havfrue from 1837. I find his house and the museum to be much more interesting than the statue.
On the way back to the apartment we grabbed some pizza from a nearby fast food pizza restaurant for dinner. Pizza in Denmark is everywhere and cheap. It is often the preferred snack of drunk young Danes at 4:00 AM outside the bars.
At 8:00 PM we met up with a former classmate of mine, Ann and her husband Martin at a restaurant called Cofoco. Cofoco is located in the Vesterbro neighborhood not far from Copenhagen Central Station. Ann had been one of my closest classmates during my year in Denmark, and had visited us in Seattle back in 2011. It was really great to see her again and meet her husband.
Cofoco is a fancier restaurant with small plates, and we just wanted to have a few small things and some drinks. I had the ceviche dish, and the kaffir lime ice cream for dessert. Both were delicious, the ceviche was a unique preparation with green tomatoes and herbs. The kaffir lime ice cream came with white chocolate cream, crisp honey cakes, and fresh strawberries.
We finished our evening at Copenhagen’s tiki bar Brass Monkey. Because you know we just had to go to the tiki bar in Denmark.
We had originally tried to get a group of classmates together for the evening, and Ann had booked a table for us. However, it ended up just being us as one classmate came down with the flu, another had a sick child, and another was having a difficult pregnancy and ordered to be on bed rest from her doctor. It was disappointing not to see them, but I assured them I’d be back in town again in a few years. I suppose I timed my visit to be at a time when many of my classmates are at the age where they have small children to tend to. I’ll try my next visit in 5 or so years when their kids are a bit older.
Brass Monkey was a great tiki bar. The DJ played a lot of great American garage and surf hits from the 60’s, and the decor was on point. The drinks were delicious, albeit expensive (it’s Denmark after all). Ann and I shared a Volcano Bowl and then I tried a classic daiquiri. The drinks tasted like they used real fruit juice and were not overly sweet.
It was a fun evening, and we made plans to do something the next day as Ann and Martin had the day off.
We slept in and had breakfast at the apartment, and then met up with a friend and her husband for coffee at The Corner coffee bar at Restaurant 108. The coffee and pastries were great, the barista was extremely pretentious. He was annoyed when Paddy ordered a drip coffee and said that they were out and he didn’t want to make any more, so Paddy got an Americano instead. I was snapped at when I ordered a pastry off the menu that he was out of as well. Despite snobby man bun barista with the attitude, the coffee was good and we had a nice visit.
Ann and Martin had originally planned on going sight seeing outside the city with us, but I got a message from Ann that she was very hungover from the night before and would need to rest, leaving us with a free day.
In the Gameltorv (Old Square) we found a festival of Thai food and culture going on. There were many Thai street food booths and some Thai dancers performing.
We took a rest in the late afternoon back at the apartment and then headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks.
We had dinner at one of the many casual Middle Eastern “kabab” restaurants on the pedestrian shopping street. It was good and affordable. Not as cheap as in the US, but much less expensive than if we went out to a nicer restaurant.
After dinner we went to a bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which seemed like a funky little dive bar that Paddy would like.
There was some metal playing on the juke box, and lots of novelty shot specials on the drink menu. I took this opportunity to make sure that Paddy didn’t leave Denmark without trying a shot of the Hot N’ Sweet salt licorice vodka for only 20 kr (about $3).
It wasn’t his favorite. However, you shouldn’t go to Denmark without trying it once. It is very Danish.
It was early was early and we were the only patrons at the Voodoo Lounge aside from a group of 18 year old kids a couple booths down who were getting their Saturday night started early.
Young people in Denmark usually don’t go out until about 11:00 or so in the evening, after having several drinks at home with friends first to save money. Many bars don’t close until 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, so a night out for the youth crowd pretty much means all night.
Good news for the older folks: You can usually go out and have some drinks earlier in the evening and head home around 11:00 PM, avoiding the weekend warrior brigade of drunk youngsters.
We called it a night pretty early, as we had a train to catch at 9:00 AM the next morning and we didn’t have much money to drink out at bars with (Denmark is expensive!).
Tip: Beer, wine, and booze are easily purchased at local grocery stores and bodegas, so it is easy to have a few cheap drinks in your room to save money. This isn’t the case in other Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland where you have to buy all alcohol in a government liquor store. Denmark is much more liberal with their alcohol laws and alcohol is cheaper in Denmark than elsewhere in Scandinavia.
Today was the day that I would travel to Fanø Island to visit my host family for the first time in 19 years. I was excited and nervous.
Fanø is a popular summer tourist destination for Danes and Germans who visit Fanø for its big, sandy beaches. To get to Fanø Island, you have to catch the ferry from the west coast city of Esbjerg.
The train from Copenhagen to Esbjerg takes about three hours with no transfers. The further in advance you book your train tickets, the cheaper they are. I booked the orange non-refundable tickets on the Danish DSB train website for about $15 per person a month in advance, which was a really good deal.
We managed to find our correct train car this time, and the train ride was pretty smooth.
We arrived in Esbjerg about noon, and proceeded to walk through town to the Fanø ferry. (We later learned that we could have caught the bus from the train station to the ferry, the bus is usually timed with the train and ferry arrivals). It is about a 15 minute walk.
Esbjerg was where I went to school when I lived in Denmark and where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was a quiet Sunday, and most of the shops weren’t open quite yet despite it being past noon.
I’ve had so many dreams about going back over the past 19 years. Walking through Esbjerg, catching the ferry, walking up my host parents’ driveway. It was surreal to finally do it.
The Fanø ferry terminal had been expanded since I lived there in the 90’s, and the ferries were different. No more smoking section!
The ferry takes about 12 minutes and leaves every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in late evening and certain times in the winter). The cost for a an adult walk on passenger is 45 Kr (about $7.25) round trip.
After another 10 minute walk through town, we arrived at my host parents’ house. My host parents (Mogens and Tove) were working in the garden. It was so great to see them after all this time.
Mogens and Tove welcomed us and prepared a traditional Danish smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) lunch in their little garden house. We had pickled herring, ham and deli pork with a mayonnaise-vegetable salad, and hard boiled eggs with tomatoes, all served with Danish rugbrød (dense pumpernickel bread).
Shortly after lunch my host brother Jeppe and his family came over for cake and coffee, along with my host sister Sofie and and her husband. It was so great to see them, and quite a warm welcome.
Paddy and I stayed in my old room, which was just what I had hoped we would do. Mogens and Tove’s lovely house looked pretty much the same as it did in 1998, save a few updates and improvements in the kitchen and upstairs bathroom. They run a bed and breakfast during the busy summer season on Fanø called Engbo Bed & Breakfast. If you visit Fanø in the summer, you can stay with them too–and I highly recommend you do. They are wonderful people and their house is central to everything in the main town of Norby.
Tove wouldn’t let me help her with dinner that evening, so I took a short walk around town.
Fanø has many traditional grass-roof houses that date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s. They are very cute and well-maintained to this day.
Flashback! Here I am riding a bike on Hovedgaden back in 1997:
We had a really nice home-cooked dinner that evening with Mogens and Tove, drinking wine and catching up on the past 19 years.
We had breakfast in the garden in the morning–bread rolls with cheese and jam and yogurt with muesli. I love the Danish muesli-it isn’t so sweet like American granola and is much healthier for you. Yogurt in Denmark comes in milk cartons and you pour it into a bowl and put muesli on top.
After breakfast, Mogens took us on a little adventure down to Sønderho, the town on the south end of the island.
We stopped by the beach on the south end in attempt to see the seals that are often laying around on the sand bars there, but the seals were pretty far out and you needed waterproof rain boots to walk to them. It was pretty windy as well, so we skipped the seals and headed into Sønderho town for some coffee.
Funny thing about the seals–they weren’t there in the 90’s when I was living on Fanø. They showed up some time later and are now a large tourist attraction.
The restaurant Mogens took us to wasn’t open yet, but the owner let us in and served us some coffee anyway. Mogens told us all about the history of Fanø.
After coffee, we stopped by Hanne’s Hus (Hanne’s house), a historical house made into a museum to show a typical home during Fanø’s “golden age” of ship-building back in the late 1700’s. It wasn’t open as it was a Monday, but we peeked inside anyway.
Before heading back, Mogens took us on a walk to see an old duck trap on the island. It’s use for hunting was prohibited in 1931, but was used after that for many years to put tracking tags on the ducks for the purpose of scientific study. There is a large outdoor informational display at the duck decoy/trap about birds and wildlife on Fanø and the history of the duck trap.
On the way back to the car, Mogens suddenly darted off the path and out into the field, and came back with a plant that is a relative of the venus fly trap. It looked like a venus fly trap, but very tiny. A little online research upon returning home revealed it to be a relative of the venus fly trap, but a smaller carnivorous species called drosera intermedia or a “”sundew.”I’d never seen one in the wild before. Mogens took it home to try and pot it.
When we arrived back in Norby, Mogens and Tove had some things they had to do, so we took a walk through town and poked around in some of the shops. It was mostly standard butik shops and tourist fare.
On the way back we stopped at Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus for some soft ice cream. Before you leave Denmark, be sure to try the ice cream. The soft ice cream (soft is) is very sweet and creamy and different than the soft ice cream in the US. It is often served with sprinkles or chocolate dust on top.
Hard ice cream is also delicious in Denmark, and is served with real whip cream and a sweet cream on top. It’s hard to describe–just try it. As a matter of fact, don’t leave Denmark without trying some sort of local dairy product. Cheese, ice cream, butter–try it all. Dairy is something that Danes do very well.
Fanø Vaffel og Bolsjehus is also a great place to buy candy to take home to share with family and co-workers. Danes love hard candy and gummy candies, especially black licorice. Try the salt licorice–it’s an acquired taste but very Scandinavian.
Later that evening I helped Tove harvest some new potatoes from her garden for dinner. When I lived in Denmark, we didn’t always have fresh garden potatoes for dinner, but we always had potatoes. Every night. I didn’t know how to cook when I was an exchange student, but I could peel potatoes and wash dishes. So that’s what I did every night. Every night. Fortunately, I love potatoes.
For dinner Tove and Mogens made the quintessential Danish dinner, Frikadeller. Frikadeller are fried meatballs made with pork or a combo of beef and pork, and usually served with boiled potatoes and some sort of gravy sauce. Mogens and Tove argued about how they should be cooked, Mogens thought they should be crispy on the outside and Tove was worried that he would burn them. They turned out delicious, whatever the cooking consensus.
We had a traditional Danish appetizer while cooking of some laks (smoked salmon lox) on French bread with butter and fresh dill from the garden. I remember my host parents serving this at Christmas and whenever we had company over for dinner. It’s delicious with white wine.
Dinner was just how I remembered many dinners as an exchange student, and it was really nice to share the experience with Paddy.
After dinner we sat at the table and had coffee, wine, and snaps, talking until late in the evening.
Danish snaps (schnapps) is not like what we consider schnapps in the US. It is more of a vodka/potato based aquavit type of liquor, not a sweet syrupy flavoring liqueur.
Mogens had a couple kinds of snaps he flavored with berries and herbs from his garden. Danes drink snaps at celebrations, when company comes to dinner–or any time at all, really. It is a drink meant to be sipped.
After another lovely breakfast of bread, cheese, and yogurt with museli, Paddy and I ventured out into town in search of the infamous Fanø seals. Mogens and Tove told us that they often like to lay on the sand bar near the Norby ferry.
Sure enough, there were many fat, lazy, happy seals sunning themselves on the sand bar by the ferry. They were in many different colors, and all seemed to be smiling and quite pleased with themselves.
After enjoying the seals, we continued down to the ferry dock and strolled along the beach near the ferry in search of more seals, and amber. We found a few amber-colored rocks, but no amber.
Amber (fossilized tree sap) washes up on the beaches of Fanø during storms, and can be polished up to make jewelry. You can find amber jewelry in the little shops in Norby to buy as a souvenir. The best place to look for Amber is on the southern beaches of the island.
We happened to be on Fanø during the Fanø International Kite Festival, which happens every June. I remembered the festival from my exchange year, and was excited to see it again. People come from all over the world to fly unique and interesting kites on Fanø’s immense sandy beaches.
Tove and Mogens let us borrow their bikes, so we rode to the beach to check it out.
Bikes are a main mode of transportation for many people in Denmark, and was my only mode of transportation around the city and island when I was an exchange student. My host family didn’t even own a car back then. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was about 18 years old, but turns out–you really don’t forget how to do it.
It was a little less windy than the day before (there is such a thing as too windy for kites), and closer to the weekend so there were many kites out on the beach.
We could have ridden for miles and looked at all the kites, but the wind was a bit difficult to ride a bike in, so we just went a little ways.
On the way home, we stopped at the Mission Afrika Genbrug thrift store. If you see a shop in Denmark that has “genbrug” in it’s name, it means thrift store (literal translation: recycle/reuse). I love thrift stores in foreign countries, you can often find a very inexpensive and unique souvenir.
I hit the jackpot on this thrift store visit– I found a Norwegian wool sweater for only 40 kr –a little over $6.00 USD. Norwegian sweaters are upwards of $200-$300 USD new, and this one fit me and was in great condition. Score!
We ended the afternoon with a beer at the new Fanø Bryghhus across the street. Inside the brewery was pretty production oriented, but you could ring a bell and buy a glass of beer on tap from one of the workers inside. I tried the special kite beer they had for the festival weekend. It was really good. There was outdoor seating available.
That evening Mogens and Tove had invited my host Aunt and Uncle and my AFS liason from my exchange year and her husband over for dinner. My AFS liason Marianne had also been the host mother of one of my closest exchange student friends. Paddy is a great cook, and we wanted to cook an American dinner for everyone. We decided prior to traveling that we would do this, and brought along a recipe for Louisiana style shrimp and grits with collard greens and cornbread.
Grits, collard greens, and cornbread are all things that you won’t find in Denmark (at least they would be very difficult to come by). Anticipating this, I had been lugging a box of grits, cornbread mix, Cajun seasoning, and smoked paprika around in my suitcase since we landed in Stockholm.
Having purchased our shrimp earlier that day at Fanø Fisk in Norby, we walked next door to the shiny new Super Brugsen in search of the rest of our ingredients.
We managed to find a type of green leafy cabbage that was similar to collard greens, and we found everything else we needed including a spicy sausage that ended up tasting just like Cajun andouille sausage. We even found cheddar cheese for the grits–which I’ve never seen in any household in Denmark, but someone must eat it if they sell it at the grocery store.
It was successful! I think our dining companions found the food to be tasty but a bit rich to eat very often. We chose southern American food because Pacific Northwest food would be a delicious salmon dinner–and salmon is already common meal in Denmark as well. We wanted to go with something different and possibly something new that my Danish family hadn’t had before.
It was so nice to catch up with everyone and I felt very welcomed “home.” After dinner the conversation turned into mostly Danish and I felt a bit bad for Paddy as I could follow most of it but not all…but then again that was what the first three months of being an exchange student was like: a lot of participation in family activities and not understanding anything. Paddy was a good sport.
The next day, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Esbjerg. We took some photos in the garden and then Mogens drove us to the ferry. They said they would like to come visit us in Seattle next summer and I hope they do.
Mogens stood on the pier and waved at us until the ferry was out of sight. I teared up a little.
At the Esbjerg ferry terminal we were able to catch the bus to the train station. The driver was even able to provide change.
From the train station we walked a short block over to the Cabinn Hotel on Skolegade. Our room was ready. This was our first taste of a budget hotel in Denmark–the Cabinn was like getting the shittiest room on a cruise ship. The bathroom had a very airplane bathroom-like quality to it. The shower was pretty much on top of the toilet. This is what you get for $135/night in Denmark. I think I booked the second from the lowest rate room as well. The “economy” room advertised a very skinny twin bed with an equally skinny pull-out trundle bed underneath. The rate did include a more than adequate continental breakfast, however.
Esbjerg was the city I went to school in during my exchange year, and the city where most of my classmates lived. I spent a lot of time in Esbjerg, and it was a trip to be back after so long.
We freshened up at the hotel and then walked around the pedestrian shopping street (Kongensgade) and main square a bit. We wanted to get something inexpensive for lunch, but there weren’t a lot of casual, affordable lunch options. We settled on dönerkebab sandwiches at Babylon Pizza on Skolegade. Skolegade street is where all the bars and nightlife are, and I remember going to Babylon Pizza for a late night slice or two back during my exchange year. I’d never been there in the light of day. The chicken dönerkebab I had was really good. It was huge, a bit too big for me to finish. Good value for an inexpensive lunch.
After lunch we walked around Esbjerg some more. The town square looked just as I remembered it.
We also walked up to my old school, which was a different school now. There wasn’t anyone there, exams were over and the school was empty. The door was unlocked though, so we walked in and peeked inside. It looked exactly the same.
Later that evening, we met up with some of my old classmates at the restaurant Dronning Louise in the town square. Dronning means queen in Danish, and Dronning Louise restaurant and bar has been around since before I was an exchange student. I remember many nights dancing until the wee hours in the upstairs bar with my classmates. I’d never eaten at the restaurant though–eating out in Denmark was too expensive for me back then.
It was really great to see some of my classmates again. We had a really nice time catching up. I wished I had more time in Esbjerg to spend with them other than just the one evening.
The menu was good, mostly upscale pub grub. Expensive, but not too outrageous. Paddy and I both ordered burgers. I had the grilled halloumi burger with portobello mushrooms, avocado, red onion, and pepper chutney. It was delicious, but HUGE. I only made it through half of my burger–I definitely wasn’t expecting the biggest burger ever to be served to me in Denmark.
It was a Wednesday night, so we didn’t make it a late one. Paddy and I had an early train to catch the next morning anyway. It was a really nice evening, the best weather we’d had so far during our trip.
Back to Copenhagen
The Cabinn had a nice continental breakfast, despite the small, cramped rooms. It was typical Scandinavian breakfast fare– breads, meats, cheeses, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, museli, etc.
The Cabinn location next to the Esbjerg train station was also a big bonus.
Once again, we ended up in the right seats in the wrong train car. The train cars were not labeled with the same car numbers as on the tickets when we boarded, and the digital car numbers weren’t changed until after we had settled in. So we had to get all our bags and move once again, which was super annoying. Be sure to double check your train car number.
We had booked two last nights in Copenhagen before flying home at the First Hotel Twentyseven near the Copenhagen Central Station. I realized as we walked the half mile to the hotel that “near” is a relative term when carrying luggage.
Our room wasn’t ready, but they were happy to store our luggage while we walked around. We were hungry, so we began a hunt for an affordable lunch in the area. This once again proved difficult. If you don’t want pizza, kebab, or McDonalds, you are pretty much going to pay high prices.
We circled around a few times, realizing that we were in the touristy area of Copenhagen. We finally settled on a place called Rio Bravo, which had a comical American “wild west” theme but served Danish food. Mostly, we just wanted to sit down and kill time and have a beer and some lunch. It was close to the hotel. Not cheap, but we were there, so we went in.
Paddy had a Caesar salad with chicken and I had a Danish fried fish dish with pumpernickel bread, and we each had a beer. I think we spent around $50. The food was alright. Not $50 alright, but alright.
Back at First Hotel Twentyseven, we waited until check in time exactly before our room was ready. The hotel definitely has a hipster theme going on.
Our room was small, but not too cramped with a nice bathroom. It included complimentary instant coffee, tea, and a few snacks. I think we spent about $175 a night, breakfast not included. The bed had an older, saggy mattress which was disappointing. Overall, we can’t recommend Airbnb enough. Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive and just not worth the price.
We spent a little while relaxing and then walked to the metro station to take the metro to visit my host sister Ny and her family for dinner at her house. It was great to meet her husband and beautiful daughters, and there was even a surprise visit from my host cousin Johan.
On the way back to the hotel from the metro station we walked by Mojo Blues Club and went in. A Danish woman and her band were performing classic American blues songs. It wasn’t what we were expecting to find in Copenhagen, but the band was really good. We wanted to stay longer but the cigarette smoke was too much. We found it odd that it is illegal to smoke in all bars in Denmark except this one (??). It’s too bad, it’s a great music spot.
On our last day in Denmark, I had grandiose plans of getting up early and taking the train to Kronborg Castle (AKA “Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, as it was my favorite castle that I saw during my exchange year. I had also wanted to try and tour Rosenborg Castle as well in Copenhagen.
However, after non-stop going from place to place and visiting people, we really just needed a lazy day. We had a great time visiting everyone, but we kind of felt like we needed a vacation from our vacation. So we slept in late, and then went and had coffee and sandwiches at Kontra Coffee around the corner from our hotel. Their coffee was delicious and came with a little piece of chocolate to dip in. The sandwiches were also great and the price was reasonable.
We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and reading books and doing a lot of nothing.
That evening we had dinner plans with my friend Ann and her husband again at their house in the town of Ganløse, about an hour’s train ride northwest of Copenhagen.
We met Ann at the train station in Hillerød and she drove us by Fredericksborg Castle on the way home. The castle was closing and it began pouring rain, so we didn’t get a great look at it but it was really awesome. Fredericksborg Castle is a good day trip idea from Copenhagen if you have a few days in the city.
Ann introduced us to her kids and she and her husband Martin made a delicious home-cooked Danish dinner. We wished we could have stayed later to continue catching up with them, but we had a 6:00 AM flight back home the next morning so we couldn’t stay that late. It was a nice evening.
We had originally chosen First Hotel Twentyseven because it was close to the Copenhagen Central Station so that we could easily get to the airport when we left. After considering the half mile walk with luggage, the pouring rain, and leaving for the airport at 3:00 AM, we opted just to take a taxi to the airport from the hotel. It was expensive–about $50 USD but worth it to avoid the hassle of carrying luggage in the rain and trying to catch a train at 3:00 AM. Sometimes your convenience is worth it, and this was definitely one of those times.
My return to Denmark was the trip I had hoped it would be. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, and I had wanted to do a few more tourist things with Paddy, but overall it was a fantastic trip back.
If you are visiting Denmark for the first time, my biggest piece of advice for you is to get out of Copenhagen. Most tourists just stop off in Copenhagen and call it good. There is much more to Denmark than Copenhagen. It may be a tiny country, but it has some interesting things to offer.
Here is a list of suggested places to visit in Denmark outside of Copenhagen:
- Kronborg Castle in Helsingør
2. Fredericksborg Castle in Hillerød
The city of Odense, including Hans Christian Anderson’s house
4. The town of Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town. The Ribe Cathedral dates back to the 1100s. There is a viking museum with ancient artifacts and many other historical attractions.
5. The town of Skagen–the northernmost tip of Denmark. A quaint artsy beach town with miles of beautiful sandy beaches
6. Legoland in the town of Billund. Did you know Legos are from Denmark? Now you do.
7. Fanø island (highly recommended!).
And finally, if my host family or Danish classmates are reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you to my host family for taking a strange American girl into their home for a year and making her part of your family. Thank you for such a warm welcome “home.” And thank you to my classmates for accepting me for who I was, helping me learn Danish, and helping me navigate teenage Danish culture. Being an exchange student in your country grew my soul and helped define the person I wanted to be more than any other experience in my life. I went home humbled, empowered, confident, and hungry to see the world. I promise it won’t take another 20 years for me to make it back to Denmark again. Thank you.