Shortly into my bike tour of Copenhagen, it became evident why our guide, Mike, wore a retina-burning chartreuse T-shirt. It was a beacon, necessary for spotting him in the sea of bicycles that pulse through the streets of the Danish capital.
This is a city where bikes reign supreme. Even on a lazy summer Sunday, the streets buzzed as Copenhageners went about their everyday lives on their two-wheeled transportation of choice: 10-speeds and fixed-gears; stocky "grandma" bikes and sleek racing machines and heavy-duty tricycles built for hauling cargo (or kids), with two wheels up front and a deep wheelbarrow-like container between them.
Fact: You haven't really seen Copenhagen until you've seen it by bike.
Denmark's first bike path was created in the 1880s, but Copenhagen's total embrace of cycling stems from the energy crisis of the 1970s, when alternative modes of transportation became an economic necessity. The city funded large-scale improvements to bike-related infrastructure, and it hasn't looked back, continuing to invest in bicycles as a core part of the city's identity.
Today, Copenhagen has even more bikes than its 1.2 million humans, according to government statistics, and more than a third of all trips here are pedal-powered. These aren't mere recreational vehicles but the gears, quite literally, that keep Copenhagen going.
For visitors, bikes also are the easiest way to take in the city's major attractions, many of them too far apart for easy walking but ideally spaced
for a leisurely ride. A few different companies give guided tours (the one I took is called, appropriately, Bike Copenhagen With Mike), and many others offer bike rental for the more independent-minded.
The city's commitment to bike infrastructure was on full display as my group started out from Central Station. We rode down one of the city's many dedicated bike lanes -- well marked and removed from traffic, with nary a pockmark to jostle our heavy red-and-black cruisers.
A DANISH HISTORY LESSON
I took up the rear, behind two 20-somethings from Canada with matching goatees and a family of four from Venezuela. At the front, in that chartreuse shirt, was guide Mike Sommerville, in his mid 50s but clearly the fittest one in our group.
We pulled into the courtyard of the Museum of Copenhagen, which showcases the history of the city. Mike gathered us in front of a large-scale model of medieval Copenhagen, each building about the size of a bag of flour. Mike told us about Denmark's 12th century founding father, Bishop Absalon, and about the rise of the city as a major trading port. He told us about the population's fortitude during the plague of 1711, during the British bombardment of the Napoleonic Wars and the Nazi occupation of World War II.
Mike quoted a patriotic song by native son Hans Christian Andersen: "'Tis you I love, Denmark, my native land!"
WHERE DISNEY GOT HIS MERMAID
It was time for a rendezvous with Hans Christian himself. We entered a verdant park, stately poplars and other trees everywhere. And, on second glance: tombstones everywhere, too. This was the Assistens Cemetery, where Andersen is laid to rest, along with Soren Kierkegaard and other local luminaries, plus lesser-known individuals such as the postal worker whose grave Mike pointed out to us just across the path from Andersen.
Mike was clearly proud of the egalitarian nature of Danish society and used the odd grave pairing as a segue to explain that the cemetery looked like a park because, well, it was one -- a public green space where families had picnics and hung out.
Our next stop was The Little Mermaid, where tourists go to pay homage to the city's pre-eminent storyteller. It's a monument to Andersen's most beloved story, of course, but -- let's be honest -- probably more famous today for its association with a studio named Disney. The statue sits on a rock just a few feet into the water along the Langelinie promenade, an inviting park area near the 17th century Kastellet fortress, providing easy access for the legions of picture-takers. The mermaid looked a bit overwhelmed, frankly, by the swarms of admirers who had come to pose with her.
We cruised back to the humming paths of blonde, beaming bikers. The passing landscape provided ideal conversational fodder. There was the immense Gefion Fountain, featuring a statue of the goddess Gefion leading a team of four oxen, the landmark and legend both more transfixing than The Little Mermaid (Disney, take note). Here was the Amalienborg Palace, winter home of the royal family (Crown Prince Frederik is an avid cyclist). And we all chattered when Mike pointed out Noma, a waterfront restaurant voted the best in the world the past three years, where traditional Nordic ingredients get a modern twist in dishes such as "Pork neck and bulrushes, violets and malt."
We rode on to Christiana, a largely self-governed counterculture enclave -- an 84-acre commune, essentially -- begun in 1971 by squatters who took over an abandoned military base. Lively murals covered the walls of low brick buildings, and hawkers sold food and souvenirs, while cargo bikes brimmed with scrap materials for DIY projects. We made quips about the acrid haze in the air, before turning onto a narrow wooded path.
BRING YOUR OWN HELMET
I followed the erratically swerving Canadian in front of me, but when I looked away for a moment, I turned back to find the others had all disappeared down a steep hill; Mike's bright shirt was nowhere to be found.
The slope was fast approaching, with branches and stumps lying in wait. Like everyone in the group (and nearly every cyclist in the city), I wasn't wearing a helmet. I recalled Mike's proud comments on Danish society, how the strength came from the shared concern for one another. As we plunged into the abyss, I would have to trust this stranger to help me.
My new Canadian friend nailed it perfectly. At the bottom of the hill, he looked back and grinned. We pedaled faster, giddy with bike-fueled glee, to catch up to Mike.
COPENHAGEN: IF YOU GO
A variety of airlines fly from JFK and LaGuardia to Copenhagen, with nonstop tickets currently starting about $900 round trip. Copenhagen has a good public transit system, including a Metro train line from the airport to the city center. But once you're settled in, you'll be biking, right?
Where to stay
Axel Hotel Guldsmeden is a chic but not snobby design showcase, with rooms decorated in a style that mixes Balinese with Scandinavian elements. The hotel has rental bikes for guests. Rates start at about $165 double (hotelguldsmeden.com/axel).
For budget travelers, Cabinn Express is a somewhat austere but clean and friendly option. There are three branches near the city center and another by the airport. Rates start at about $81 (cabinn.com).
Bike Copenhagen With Mike offers a variety of tours, all in English, including the three-hour Copenhagen City Tour. Tours depart daily from Sankt Peders Stræde 47 / Latin Quarter at 10:30 a.m. (other tour times vary). Cost: About $48, including bike rental, cash only (bikecopenhagenwithmike.dk or email@example.com).
Many hotels have bikes available for guests. Rental shops are widespread; expect to pay about $17-$33 for one day. Here are a few options:
Committed to "bikes for a better life" in Denmark and beyond, Baiskeli sends its used tour bikes to workshops in Mozambique and Sierra Leone. Locations: Ingerslevsgade 80 and Turesensgade 10 (cph-bike-rental.dk).
Rent a bike
Want to try the famous cargo bikes? Here's your chance. Rent A Bike offers a wide range of those, and other bikes, too. Locations: Central Station and Østerport Station (rentabike.dk).
Copenhagen City Bikes
The bike-share program requires a refundable deposit; bikes are available at more than 100 stands in the downtown area (bycyklen.dk).
Copenhagen's website offers a good selection of English-language information, including maps. Direct link to the biking page: bit.ly/9k0ufq.