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Finding nature in Copenhagen & creating a green life in the city

Copenhagen is one of my absolute favourite cities, but Denmark isn’t exactly known for its wild natural beauty. It isn’t mountainous in the slightest (or even hilly), and considering I moved here less than two years after I published Mountain Song, my book about finding peace and quiet in the Swiss Alps, that might seem like a pretty strange decision.

Iain had finished his post-doc in organic chemistry, decided that he was educated enough at last, and started applying for “real jobs” (his words, not mine.) Being self-employed meant I could tag along wherever he got a job (passport permitting), but for a bit more equality, Iain asked me for a shortlist of places I’d like to live.

I included Switzerland, of course, but also Scandinavia. When I’d gone travelling on my own for the first time after finishing university, I bought an Interrail pass and headed north to Oslo, followed by Bergen (where I met Iain), then Copenhagen and Stockholm.

I loved all of those places, but especially Copenhagen. The restaurants were fantastic, the pastries top-tier, and the parks offered welcome green spaces. There were some good jobs on offer for Iain’s industry, he applied, and after an exceptionally laid-back and long application process, he was offered a job.

So that’s how we ended up here, after getting married in an incredibly last-minute but beautiful way in a treehouse by a Scottish loch so I could join as an accompanying spouse. (Thanks, Brexit.)

In terms of flat European cities, it’s a fantastic place to be. The rumours about Danish work-life balance seem to actually be true, the high taxes make for high quality of life, very little work seems to be done after 3pm, and there are babies everywhere. Winter is impossibly dark, but that’s what hygge is for.

Copenhagen may not be blessed with sublime nature, but it’s still one of the greenest cities. Sure, there are no mountains, but you can create a life close to nature here. A year into our life in the Danish capital, here are some of my favourite ways to spend time in nature in and around Copenhagen.

The best places to find nature in and around Copenhagen

Wander the wilder grounds of Søndermarken

Admittedly, our apartment doesn’t have quite the same views as my Swiss house used to. We can currently see about eight cranes on average and an enormous building site. But we can also see the edges of one of my favourite parks, the Søndermarken (or technically, just Søndermarken, as it literally means “the southern field”).

Unlike its manicured and beautiful neighbour, Frederiksberg Have, Søndermarken is largely untamed and wild across its 32 hectares. When you’re in the park you forget about the city surrounding it, and can’t really hear any traffic.

Søndermarken hosts some pretty cool events too. Back in May, I adored three days of talks and inspiration at Bloom, a free-to-attend “innovative festival that helps us reflect on nature, science, and ourselves” under the oak trees. We also loved Syd For Solen music festival, where we saw a fantastic evening set from The National after Slowdive, Cassandra Jenkins, Wet Leg, and some other great artists.

Søndermarken during Bloom festival in May

Look out for rare trees in J.C. Jacobsens Garden

I often head to the Søndermarken for longer walks, but there’s another nearby contender, J.C. Jacobsens Have, which was closed for 160 years and only reopened to the public in 2008. It was owned by (surprise, surprise) J.C. Jacobsen, who is best known for founding Carlsberg and pioneering Danish beer culture.

Niels Bohr lived in the Honourary Residence next to the garden from 1932 until his death in 1962, and the gardens were visited and toured by names including Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein, and Robert Oppenheimer, with whom Jacobsen discussed the problems of physics and the world on walks in the garden.

In 2017, J.C. Jacobsens Have underwent further restoration to restore it to its original state, including in layout and botanical inventory. There’s a fantastic sequoia, several stunning magnolias, and a newly-opened little hill path (yes, a hill!) in the middle of the garden.

Bring nature to your balcony (and even grow some veg)

If you’re blessed with a balcony in Copenhagen, you have even more options to live a green life in the city – and bring nature to you. I wrote recently about my own adventures in balcony gardening on the windy fifth floor in Copenhagen, including growing tomatoes, aubergines, raspberries, blueberries, runner beans, and even lemons.

Growing tomatoes on a balcony
Some of our San Marzano tomatoes, plum tomatoes, and runner beans

Leap in the water at the harbour or havnebadet

If the city seems quiet on a hot summer evening in Copenhagen, it’ll be because everyone’s cooling off at the harbour or a havnebad (harbour bath). Like many Swiss cities I came to know and love, swimming in the water is totally normal and popular here. That said, remember to swim with others, especially in winter. And look out for jellyfish.

Swimming with our anonymous friend at Islands Brygge harbour

Cycle through the forests of Dyrehaven (or go further afield)

If you get talking to a Dane about where to find nature close to Copenhagen, they’ll probably mention Dyrehaven. It’s everyone’s favourite deer park, just a single train ride away from the city and great for wandering, cycling, and looking out for deer.

That said, last summer we also had a fantastic time cycling around Nordsjaelland, stopping for overnights at Helsingør, Hillerød, Gilleleje, and Frederikssund. I especially loved cycling through the Gribskov forest (on my city bike which has been dragged through a lot more than city roads):

Spend a day hiking around the Furesø

On one of the first warm days of spring this year, we made a packed lunch of Indian restaurant leftovers, grabbed a backpack, and got a 45-minute train ride to Farum for a day hike in the spring sun.

The 21 km “Furesø Rundt” route is pretty self-explanatory: just keep walking around the lake until you get back to the train station in about 4-5 hours. But you can follow this trail on AllTrails, which is listed as the most popular hike in Denmark. Back in March it definitely wasn’t at all busy, but I haven’t been in summer yet.

Get the train to Skåne to hike the Skåneleden trail

Okay, this one is kind of cheating as Skåne is definitely not in Copenhagen. But one of the best parts about Copenhagen is its proximity to other cool places by ferry (Oslo) or train (pretty much anywhere in central Europe – I even got the train to Zurich last summer), so I think it’s worth mentioning.

To get our altitude fix last summer, we took the train over to Sweden to hike some of the Skåneleden trail, including the beautiful section passing through Söderåsen National Park. Our starting point was Åstorp, which is about 1hr 45 from Copenhagen Central Station. It was a perfect break in nature, and really didn’t feel difficult to get to from Copenhagen at all.

I’ll try and write up more about our hiking trip soon, but here’s a little overview. Over a few days in early August, we hiked these stages of the trail (links are to the Skåneleden website and include their difficulty levels, although none of it was super challenging if you’ve done a lot of hiking):

If you’re also living in Copenhagen, or even just visiting, set aside a day to pack a backpack, put your hiking boots on, and explore. You might not find many hills, but there are plenty of other adventures to stumble upon.

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