Wonderful Copenhagen

ENCHANTING: Even after 150 years, Hans Christian Andersen still has the power to enchant small children.
ENCHANTING: Even after 150 years, Hans Christian Andersen still has the power to enchant small children.

The Danish capital is an ideal introduction to Europe for New Zealanders.

Checking us in to our hotel, Raphael is puzzled. "You've come all the way to Denmark from New Zealand? Why?" he asks. "Your country is so beautiful!"

"And Copenhagen – it's not like Paris, you know."

We've been here only for an hour or so but already we've seen that for ourselves: there's no crazy traffic, the Metro is easy and clean, every person we approach for directions is friendly and speaks perfect English – and Nyhavn, the cobbled street we've just walked down, is lined with brightly painted buildings facing a canal with picturesque old schooners moored bow to stern along both sides. So no, not like Paris at all, we agree cheerfully.

Copenhagen is actually the ideal introduction to Europe for New Zealanders. It's not just that it's simple to get to now, flying with Emirates through Australia and Dubai; it's more that it's so accessible in the other sense, too.

That everyone speaks English is a huge bonus: "Denmark is such a small country; we don't expect anyone else to know our language," someone tells me. In fact, everyone apologises so profusely after initially speaking Danish to me that I want to reassure them that, really, it's OK, we are in Denmark after all. And then there's the city itself, which is historical, pretty, compact, flat and pedestrian-friendly.

Unlike Paris, which can overwhelm visitors by the sheer scale of the riches on offer, Copenhagen's delights are more manageable, which is not at all to mean inferior. In three days, I'm spoiled for choice when it comes to museums, castles and art galleries, none of them dauntingly, and tiringly, immense, but all packed with treasures, whether it's old masters, impressionists and modern art; Vikings, architecture and Hans Christian Andersen; or ships, dinosaurs and design.

Denmark and design are practically synonymous and, at the Danish Design Centre, in an appealingly hands-on display that's dripping with famous names – Bang & Olufsen, Ecco, Georg Jensen, Arne Jacobsen, Skagen and, of course, Lego – the philosophy and process are explained simply and clearly.

Naturally: simplicity, practicality and ease of use are the foundations of Danish design philosophy, whether it's focused on a door handle, vacuum cleaner, chair or medical equipment. I leave the exhibition with a new and entirely unexpected appreciation for the form and function of the colostomy bag.

It was a Dane who designed the Sydney Opera House, which put a lot of pressure on architect Henning Larsen when Maersk – another famous Danish name – put up the money for a new one to be built in Copenhagen. On a thoroughly enjoyable boat trip along the city's canals and around its harbour on a gloriously golden autumn afternoon, ducking our heads as we pass under low bridges, we cruise past the imposing glass and metal box on its own little island: it seems rather harsh to call it, as some affronted locals do, "The Toaster", but on the other hand, Sydney needn't worry about being eclipsed.

There are other, more successful, modern designs along the route, like the angular gleaming black granite slab of the Royal Library and, viewing them from the water between trees glowing with autumn foliage, they make a striking contrast to the city's historical buildings of stone and brick.

I notice that towers seem to be something of a theme here. The Stock Exchange has a green copper tower entwined with the tails of four dragons; the spire on the Church of Our Saviour has a corkscrew staircase winding up around it on the outside; Christiansborg Palace has an ornate, layered rococo spire; Frederik's Church goes for the classical look with a great dome.

One of the best places to see them all is from the top of one, the Round Tower, which has the distinction of (almost) no steps: climbing it is a simple matter of walking up the 200-metre paved road inside it, spiralling so gently upwards that tsar Peter the Great could ride his horse to the top. From there, on all sides are towers, spires and domes decorated with statues, balls and crosses, above buildings no higher than four or five storeys, so that the city has an architectural harmony that it does, indeed, share with Paris.

Another excellent viewpoint is from the rooftop cafe of the nearby Post and Telegraph Museum, although the plate of dainty morsels in front of me is altogether too distracting. Smrrebrod is one of Denmark's great culinary gifts to the world (let's not forget sweet pastries, and beer) and on my platter are squares of dense rye bread topped with smoked salmon and herbs, a little fried plaice fillet with remoulade, a small chunk of tender grilled steak, a dollop of creamed chicken with bacon (another Danish specialty). It's a feast.

Less traditional is the smushi at the Royal Copenhagen China cafe: an attractive melding of smrrebrod and sushi, artistically presented, and quite delicious. It's another theme: across the harbour from our cosy hotel is Noma, just named Best Restaurant in the World. I'm sorry not to be eating there, until I go to Koefoed, where manager Lars takes me through a menu of absolute delight based on the produce of his home island, Bornholm.

I'm beginning to be thankful that I'm doing so much walking here, although the 1.6-kilometre length of Stroeget, the pedestrian street and its offshoots running through the centre of the city, is lined with such enticing shops that it's more of a stop-start stroll than a power-walk. Among boutiques and chain stores is the Lego shop with a whole wall of dig-in containers of pieces, and Illum, a mouthwateringly stylish department store. Royal Copenhagen, Georg Jensen and Magasin du Nord offer serious-money shopping, but there are cheaper places too; and people-watching is free.

There are plenty to watch. Although Copenhagen is small by European standards, with a population of 1.8 million, most of its citizens seem to be on the streets, pushing astonishingly large prams, reading books in parks and squares, clustered around stalls selling roasted nuts, hotdogs and crepes, cruising Strget, and doughtily seated at tables outside restaurants and cafes, wrapped in blankets.

If they all drove cars, city life would be impossible but here the bicycle is king. Cycleways are everywhere with their own little traffic lights, and it's a foolish pedestrian who strays on to them: the volley of sternly flicked bells is chastening enough, but they skim along so fast that there's a real danger of injury in a collision.

I hire a bike from my hotel. I struggle to keep up with the locals' intent pedalling, especially on the teeth-juddering cobblestone stretches; so I let them sweep past me. I tootle along peacefully, enjoying the carillon from a church, stopping to look at a pretty windmill, exploring the hippie haven of Christiania where stalls sell marijuana on Pusher Street and graffiti is an art form, and pedalling out to where the Little Mermaid sits, with her multiple decapitation scars, on her rock beside the harbour.

Not like Paris? No, it's completely Copenhagen, and that's not just good: it's wonderful.

Pamela Wade would like to thank wonderful Copenhagen and Emirates.

The Press