This isn't right, I think to myself, watching distressingly gorgeous couples sunbathe and sip vodka tonics while a DJ spins chilled-out Jamaican dub. Electrolysizedgods in Dolce & Gabbana swim trunks race across the silky sand to take leaps off the pier. Forget that it's only 50 degrees out and everyone is shirtless (except me, bundled in fleece). It's barely past noon on a Sunday, and a full-on beach party is under way in Copenhagen.
The scene has the marks of an exclusive, illegal rave: the location, on an abandoned wharf in Christianshavn; the crowd, which might occupy the first three rows at a fashion show; the absence of any kind of sign out front. You get the thrilling sense that should the cops suddenly crash through the fence, every bottle of Finlandia, every deck chair, every volleyball could be quickly tossed into the harbor, along with the 200 revelers. But this harborside beach club, known as Luftkastellet, is entirely legit—so much so that the crown prince of Denmark is a regular guest. To which I can still only say: This isn't right. This is patently unfair.
It's a feeling one often gets in Copenhagen, a city that exists primarily to inspire a deep regret among those cursed to live elsewhere. The Danes make the rest of us look like apes, and I'm not just talking about national health care or paternity leaves with full pay. This is a place where Wallpaper magazine is sold at the 7-Eleven, and where the clerks at 7-Eleven speak better English than most Americans. This is a town so reverent of aesthetics that a city ordinance bans cheap plastic café furniture—instead, sidewalks are lined with stainless-steel chairs and tables straight out of a design museum. Nobody steals them; everyone has much nicer ones at home. It's a city where even the airport has hardwood floors; a city where you may find yourself envious of a kindergartner's shockingly stylish shoes.
After one night in town your neck may ache from gawking. After twoyou'll be drunk on Arne Jacobsen cutlery and Wegner sofas. By the third you may resolve to sell every mundane thing you own and move here, perhaps claiming cultural asylum.
It wasn't always this way. I'd visited Copenhagen several times before and, like many friends, found it eminently civilized, jarringly clean, and pretty damn dull. This was the Copenhagen of Tivoli Gardens ("soulless, oversanitized," I'd scribbled in my journal years ago), sober-faced palaces ("attractive in a sexless, Sam Waterston sort of way"), stale smørrebrød with liver paste ("vile; notify Amnesty International"), and what I came to call the Little @#$%ing Mermaid. (I'm not alone in my antipathy, by the way: the statue has endured two beheadings and countless other humiliations. Last September, vandals with dynamite managed to blast the mermaid off her perch. She's back now, awaiting the next round of abuse.)
I had nothing against Scandinavia per se. I'm Swedish-American myself. Clean lines and bad food are in my blood. But Copenhagen back then struck me as full of people too civilized for their own good—too rich, too bland, and, excepting their furniture, decidedly unfunky. The music scene was just one example: only a few years ago Denmark's two principal exports were Aqua, of the grating novelty hit "Barbie Girl," and the supremely cheesy boy-band called Michael Learns to Rock. They were big in Taiwan. Enough said.
What happened?The city seems utterly rejuvenated.
It's no coincidence that the rest of the world is consumed by a fetish for all things Danish. Bands like Junior Senior (a superb dance-punk duo from Jutland) and the Raveonettes (who recorded an entire album of fuzzy garage rock in the key of B-flat) have finally caused Rolling Stone to forget about Iceland. Danish director Lars von Trier and his Dogma 95 cohorts are constantly being anointed as the future (or the end) of cinema. And from São Paulo to Saigon, you can't swing an artichoke lamp without hitting a nightclub or hotel that bows to Danish Modernism.
All this encouragement has helped Denmark's next generation make its mark. Take the young chefs of Copenhagen, who draw inspiration from no less daunting a model than Ferran Adrià of Spain's El Bulli. Adrià's outlandishly deconstructed dishes are to millennial cooking what Verner Panton's chair was to mid-century furniture; here his disciples are adding a Scandinavian twist and creating some of the zaniest food around (snail cappuccino?). Or take the entrepreneurs behind the brash new Hotel Skt. Petri—the first design-themed hotel to open in Copenhagen since 1960 (!), when Arne Jacobsen created the Royal. You can almost hear the rustling in attics across the city as Danish kids reclaim their grandparents' old Swan chairs and Finn Juhl coffee tables—perhaps to outfit some new boutique or café.
Perhaps all those Wallpaper spreads and São Paulo nightclubs reminded them of what Denmark was capable of. Whatever the motivation, Danes have got their groove back—and right now Copenhagen is arguably the coolest city in Europe.
Cool becomes the Danes. Nearly everyone you encounter is absurdly attractive, fiercely stylish, and possessed of an enviable, effortless grace. A Dane can glide about on a rickety granny bicycle with a bell on it and come off like Audrey Tautou. I rent one myself and pedal happily around town until I glimpse my reflection in a window, looking for all the world like a nerd on a bike with a bell on it.
When I first meet Sune Rosforth, he pulls up on a Long John cargo bicycle, and of course he makes the clumsy relic seem like Peter Fonda's chopper. Sune is one of Copenhagen's premier wine importers; as such, he's friendly with all the city's chefs. Through a mutual friend in New York, Sune has assigned himself the task of showing me "the city no foreigners know about, the top-underground city," whatever that means. Tonight he has scored us a table at First on the Right, Copenhagen's most exclusive restaurant—the bill must be paid when reservations are made; you're then informed, by post, when and where to show up. Only 16 fortunates are invited: nine courses, seven wine pairings, $165 per person. We're due at seven sharp.
So I hop on my girlie bike and follow Sune down the quiet residential streets behind Charlottenborg Palace. We stop outside a stately apartment building. Sune pushes a buzzer marked 1.th (først til højre, or "first floor, on the right"), and we ascend the old wooden staircase, to be greeted by a hostess in a vintage cocktail dress. She ushers us into a grandmotherly drawing room—flocked scarlet wallpaper, crystal chandelier, Royal Copenhagen china—where 14 other guests are chatting in small groups. A Milt Jackson record crackles on the antique turntable. The hostess circulates with sherry.