The capital of Denmark, Copenhagen is Scandinavia's preeminent city. Hans Christian Andersen gave the world fairy tales and lived a bittersweet and likely bisexual life here. Long before there was a Copenhagen, far-ranging Vikings ventured from here to leave their mark across Europe and beyond.
Most gay nightlife is contained within one-square kilometer of the old city adjacent to City Hall (Radhus) Square, so there's little difficulty getting around to most places. Other places in Frederiksberg or over the bridge in Malmo, Sweden, are easy to reach too, with public transit going everywhere, at all hours.
Copenhagen Airport is only 5 miles south of downtown Copenhagen, in Kastrup. The Metro station is at the end of Terminal 3 with service to the center every 4-6 minutes days and evenings and every 15-20 minutes at night. Single rides cost 23 DKK, a 24-hour pass is 70 DKK, and a 72-hour pass costs 180 DKK. There are also taxis, train service from DSB, and bus service from Movia.
Walking or a cycle-cab will get you most anywhere. Bicycles are free to take from racks throughout the city (with a small deposit) to use within the central district, and the city is well served by frequent buses, a metro, and regional trains. The main rail station is also at the city center. For an overview of public transportation by bike, train, bus, or ferry, see CopenhagenNet, and City Bike, or the Visit Copenhagen website.
Media & Resources
QX is a Swedish online magazine with great coverage of all of Scandinavia and beyond - in English and Swedish.
XQ28 is another alternate lifestyle online magazine, also covering Sweden and Norway, as well as Copenhagen and elsewhere in Denmark.
Visit Copenhagen is a good general online source of see/do, eat/drink, shop/stay and gay information, and you can book your hotel here too.
Walk this way
Copenhagen is a great walking city, with car-free streets and squares and expansive waterside boardwalks.
The Tivoli Gardens amusement park contains rides, gardens, bars, restaurants and numerous performance venues. The site has the feel of an old-fashioned, leafy park and it was cleverly designed to feel intimate and quiet in most areas. The Tivoli's outdoor stages host everything from puppet shows to big rock concerts. Its indoor venues include the Glass Concert Hall, destroyed by Nazi sympathizers during the second world war and resurrected by renowned Danish modern designer and architect Poul Henningsen in 1946, and the Tivoli Concert Hall, a mid-century modern masterpiece.
Stroget, Europe's longest pedestrian shopping street, begins modestly at the Town Hall Square. About 10 minutes along, the shops become more interesting and soon the street transforms into a design district anchored by Danish design houses Georg Jensen, Royal Copenhagen and the department store Illums Bolighus.
A stroll on the lengthy boardwalk along the inner harbour takes you past Amalienborg Palace to any number of art museums. Vestindisk Pakhus, home of the Royal Danish cast collection, houses thousands of plaster casts dating back to antiquity. A full-size replica of Michelangelo's David stands out front. At the end of the boardwalk you'll discover the Gefion Fountain, an impressive depiction of the mythical Norse goddess Gefjun harnessing oxen to plow the land. According to myth, when Gefjun was promised as much land as she could plow in one night, she turned her four sons into oxen. The displaced earth was plowed into the sea, forming the island Zealand, where Copenhagen is located.
Hidden in dense greenery lies Christiania, the famous Copenhagen quarter that declared itself a free state in the 1970s and exists to this day as a social experiment in anarchy. "It's a completely functional city in the city. It's like the Vatican," says Elbaek. Christiania has few rules of its own design and makes decisions collectively. The area has a wild, ramshackle vibe, with sprawling outdoor patios, spontaneous music and performances and makeshift DIY buildings covered in colourful graffiti. It's a breezy contrast to the rest of the city's tendency to tidy or sleek architecture and it exemplifies the Danes' preoccupation with freedom and innovation and their corollary distaste for the normal.
Founded in 1167, Copenhagen become the Danish capital in 1443. The period of greatest growth was during the Danish Renaissance when much of the most interesting architecture was built by King Christian IV. Notable legacies from this time include Rosenborg Castle, the Round Tower, and the Stock Exchange. They survive today, despite the great fires of the 18th century and British naval bombardments of 1801 and 1807 which devastated much of the city. Danes established colonies in India and the Caribbean. The former Danish West Indies are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and their sugar plantations are gone, but blond-haired descendants and place names remain from the Danish years.
Greater Copenhagen has grown to a population of around 1.9 million today -- almost one-third of all Danes. English is almost universally spoken; Danes learn it from an early age. Since most movies and much of the TV are in English, Danes share a good deal of popular culture with Americans, Canadians, and Brits, while retaining their distinct national identity.
Until the 1830s few Danes were officially punished for same-gender sex. Rapid urban growth after the 1860s brought a discernible "sodomitical" subculture, but it took tabloid sensationalism of the 1890s and homosexual prostitution scandals for a 1905 law to be passed forbidding the practice. From 1906 to 1911 there was massive press coverage, and homosexual suicides, round-ups, and exiles became frequent. Two early noted gay celebrities -- critic and teacher Clemens Petersen and actor Joakim Reinhard -- fled to the U.S. to avoid scandal.
Changes came with the general radicalization of the 1930s, which helped the passage in 1933 of a law decriminalizing homosexuality for those over 18. But in a backlash after World War II, police began arresting men for sex in public places, and age-of-consent laws were more strictly enforced. In response, the "League of 1948" homophile organization was launched and began publishing Pan in 1954 -- now the world's oldest continuously published homosexual magazine.
In the 1970s, as elsewhere in the world, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front were formed with a more confrontational agenda. The League, renamed the National Association of Gays and Lesbians, later re-assumed leadership of the movement with an assimilationist approach, advancing the position that Danish queers see themselves first as Danes, an interest group -- not a separate minority apart from the larger society. The very success of integration helps explain, for such a large city, the relatively small gay subculture of Copenhagen.
Parliament in 1987 forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and in 1989 introduced "registered partnerships," which the Lutheran state church began blessing in 1997. Gay-parent adoptions were legalized in 1999, and many politicians and other public figures are now openly gay.
Bars & Clubs
Amigo Bar (Schonbergsgade 2), straight-friendly gay and lesbian club in Frederiksberg, busiest after 2am, open until 6 or 7am.
Cafe Intime (Mikkel Bryggers Gade 1), small mixed clientel piano bar in Frederiksberg, old-time atmosphere of leaded windows and dark red walls.
Can Can (Mikkel Bryggers Gade 11), small establishment, older, mostly male, very welcoming crowd, jukebox music.
Centralhjørnet (Kattesundet 18), oldest gay bar in town, lively parties, old-fashioned pub ambiance. Friendly older clientele mixes easily with younger guys.
Cosy (Studiestroede 24), gay dance club, so small and narrow it gets intimate in the crush; known for easy-meetings.
Dunkel (Vester Voldgade 10), sexually ambiguous, gay-friendly, energetic young dance crowd, Fridays and Saturdays from 8pm to 7am, Berlin-style electro music.
Heaven (Rådhuspladsen 75), new GLBT cafe/bar at ground level, breakfast, lunch and dinner, drinks; weekend basement nightclub special events.
Jailhouse (Studiestroede 12), playful lock-up theme, staff dressed in uniforms, long basement bar usually packed, mostly guys. Popular upstairs restaurant.
Jernbanecafeen (Rewentlowsgade 16) gay-friendly, authentically old-fashioned bar by Central Station, Wi-Fi, sing-alongs to traditional Danish songs, live music Wednesdays and Sundays.
Lesbisk Kaffe (Enghavevej 56, Vesterbro), cozy home comforts cafe and bar, tapas, brunch, DJ music, free Wi-Fi, mostly women with a few of their men friends.
Masken (Studiestroede 33), two-level hang-out, mostly young guys, internet access.
Men's Bar (Teglgardstroede 3) men-only -- young, old, all kinds. Easy-to-meet-people place with tradition of buying a drink for someone across the bar who catches your fancy. Free brunch buffet first Sundays.
Oscar (Radhuspladsen 77) bar and cafe by City Hall clock tower, open daily from noon. Great start for tour of gay Copenhagen, Wi-Fi, young, friendly, staff, gay periodicals, maps, events listings and business cards. Nice-weather sidewalk tables, standing-room-only weekend nights before dance club hours. Guys here will advise on hottest dance clubs of the moment.
Vela (Viktoriagade 2-4), no-frills, mostly women's bar, just off Vesterbro, games, busy weekends.
Club Christopher (Knabrostræde 3), Saturday gay dance party weekly until 6am, on ground floor of former PAN Club, mixed gay/lesbian/trans crowd, garden smokers' area.
Never Mind (Norre Voldgade 2), open nightly, drag shows and after-hours dancing until late; mostly men, especially on weekends.
Wonk (Adelgatan 2) 20+ dance club in Malmo, Sweden, each Saturday until 5am. A 24-hour train connects to Copenhagen.
Heaven (Rådhuspladsen 75), new GLBT cafe/bar at ground level, breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks
Jailhouse (Studiestroede 12), popular restaurant above bar, nightly, weekends until midnight, hearty entrees, starters and deserts, full bar, house wines.
Oscar (Radhuspladsen 77), full bar, coffee shop, sandwiches, burgers, and salads; English breakfast, brunch and omelets noon to 4pm; best place to start in gay Copenhagen with WiFi, gay maps and magazines.
RizRaz (Kompagnistraede 20), lunchtime hot and cold buffets and smorrebrod offer good value for price, big fresh selection, veggie options, open daily until midnight.
For sumptuous deserts, on-site or take-out, Konditori La Glace (Skoubogade 3) has served Copenhagen with sweet treat cakes, cookies and confections since 1870.
For a quick alternative to the American fast food joints there are many Turkish doner kebab shops, and home-grown polsevogn (sausage) stands. The latter first appeared in Denmark around 1910, and today more than 130 million red polser are consumed annually. Lunchtime smorrebrod and buffets around town also offer good value for the price.
For the above, and a dozen more suggestions, see our maps & listings/restaurants pages, with locations and website links.
Saunas & Sex
Amigo Sauna (Studiestroede 31a), largest sauna in Copenhagen with steamy facilities on three floors, video cinema, maze, and cabins for romp with new friends.
Body Bio (Kingosgade 7, basement), sex club with small sauna, mostly men, some women and trans; cabins, maze, sling, internet access.
Men's Shop (Viktoriagade 24), sex shop with sex toys, sports and fetish items, lubricants, porn DVDs, magazines, and play spaces; also designer underwear and gay art films.
Scandinavian Leather Men or SLM (Lavendelstræde 17), fetish membership club for men, with strict dress code, basement playroom maze, slings, glory holes, naked nights, Fuck and Dance nights with DJs.
Closed recently: Copenhagen Gay Center (Istedgade 34-36) sex shop of many years, since December 2011 when the owners retired.
Carsten's Guesthouse (Christians Bygge 28), singles, suites or dorms - all at reasonable rates. Guest kitchen, breakfast option, free Wi-Fi, roof-deck garden, cable TV; plus use of phones, computer, bicycles, DVD movies, and laundry facilities for a little extra. Helpful Carsten has info on sights and nightlife.
Copenhagen Rainbow Guesthouse/B&B (Frederiksberggade 25c) overlooking Stroget pedestrian shopping street, near City Hall Square and all the bars and restaurants.
Hotel Windsor (Frederiksborggade 30), gay hotel on the other side of Orsted's Park.
See more hotels listed in our lodgings and map section.
Focus on Copenhagen by David Walberg
(Guide Magazine, September 2009. Note: Klaus Bondam, a Deputy Lord Mayor at the time, is now Director at The Danish Cultural Institute in Brussels).
The small, snug bar called Dunkel is quite literally packed to the rafters: On a makeshift dance floor, revelers clamber up one another's backs to perch atop shoulders, hooting and hollering as they engage in treacherous double-decker dancing. It seems the raucous spirit of the Vikings lives on, even in Denmark's more fashionable gay clubs.
Things are barely more subdued on the sidelines, where bulbous brushed-copper pendant lamps hover just above cocktail tables, like B-movie spaceships preparing to alight. Their warm glow reveals broad smiles stretching every pair of lips, save for those that yammer excitedly or mush against other pairs in passionate smooches. Cascades of laughter flow over the sounds spun by Djuna Barnes, the revered local lesbian DJ who has succeeded in raising the crowd to a fever pitch.
The rambunctious vibe spills onto the street outside. Partiers sit, stand and lie on the sidewalks, drinking beer, cracking jokes, dancing and making out. When Dunkel closes at 5am everyone agrees it seems way too early to go home.
The streets are full of the city's party warriors. They are mostly young but also old; gay, straight and in-between; men, women and in-between; all basking in the triumph of another night vanquished.
All-night party town
Deputy mayor Klaus Bondam tells me it's not just tradition that makes for Copenhagen's reputation as an all- night party town. It's also by design. The city encourages its citizens to fill the streets until the wee hours.
"We want more activity in the city, we want more energy in the city," he says. "The Lord Mayor and I last year launched a project which we called -- what would that be in English? -- something like 'Hit it, Copenhagen,' or 'Put the fire on, Copenhagen,' where we looked at all the things that made it more difficult to have some life on the street, have bar seats on the street, to play music, to put up concerts or other events in the small squares and so on."
Bondam and I are chatting at Oscar, a charming gay cafe which he invokes to make his point. "If the owner of Oscar wanted to make a small concert out there," he says, gesturing to the public square just outside, "he had to fill out thousands of applications and talk to the police and talk to that department and this department. I mean, he was exhausted before he had ended that. That's much easier now. We want to make it easier."
Representing such a lively city, it helps that Bondam enjoys a night on the town. "I've had some of my happiest moments in my life going out. I used to be quite a wild party boy," he says.
"What I like and what I miss a lot, having grown older," he confides, "is going to a bar or a disco, dancing and drinking all night and then walking home in the summer mornings when the lights are up and the bakery is open and you can go in and you can be drunk and buy a Danish pastry, and then go home, sleep for several hours, and then take the train to the beach."
Form follows function
Danish society is rare in that it is intrinsically progressive. Danes, it seems, are always on the lookout for doing things a better way, for living a better life. This quality expresses itself in everything from their approach to all manner of design - - for which they are deservedly famous for innovation, functionality and beauty -- to their approach to democracy, citizenship and human rights. They embrace change at precisely the points where other societies fear it. Their greatest fear, instead, is of being boring.
"I think it's a challenge that every big city faces these years is the scary face of constant normality," muses Bondam. "It's a threat for every society and especially I think it's a threat for city societies, because we're very close to each other, we live very close, we look at people all the time. And if we get too scared, we tend to [want to] look like the other ones. Then, 'I'm just like everybody else, and there's nothing wrong with me.'"
Bondam is channelling Soren Kierkegaard, the famous philosopher who lived in Copenhagen almost 200 years ago. Kierkegaard, too, counseled Copenhageners to shun the crowd and embrace freedom; in the process, he birthed the concept that would become known as existential angst -- the dreadful condition that afflicts us as we realize freedom's truly terrifying, endless possibilities.
"I'm not very sort of controversial myself in any sense," Bondam continues, "but what I really like about the city is the possibility of looking out on the street and seeing somebody who looks completely different from me, who lives a life which is completely different from mine, who takes completely different choices than I do.... They reflect my own choices: Do I make the right choices? Can I live my life in another way? And it makes me curious.
"The way I see it, it gives me also freedom to be gay in the city, the freedom to live my life."
"Copenhagen has a very special place in gay history," says Bondam from his cafe perch overlooking the city's main square through huge windows. He waves his hand toward city hall, an unlovely building that looms over the square. "It was this house over here that held the first registered partnership in the world. The law today is copied in a lot of other places in the world."
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Denmark way back in 1930, although attitudes waxed and waned in the following decades. In 1961, male prostitution was criminalized if the prostitute was under 21; the Ugly Law, as it became known, was repealed in 1965 and male and female prostitution were equally legal by 1967, the same year that pornography was decriminalized.
The age of consent for gay and straight sex was set at 15 in 1976 and registered partnerships became legal in 1989.
"Denmark was the first country where a pornographic law was liberated," continues Uffe Elbaek, head of the recent Copenhagen Outgames. "We were the first nation where you were allowed to have a partnership with your boyfriend or girlfriend. So for sure, it's been a long tradition for people to create their own lifestyle."
Jakob Hougaard is another of Copenhagen's gay deputy mayors and, at 33, is the youngest mayor. "Denmark is known for being a very cozy place," he tells me. "We don't have in the Danish culture a very divided image of each other, actually we have in Denmark a very egalitarian culture. Being on the eye level of other people, and being on the same boat -- those are metaphors for Danish culture, so that's important values in Denmark.
"The gay community is not as segregated as I experienced in Toronto, where there is a part of the city with rainbows all over the place and every store and every boutique and bar was gay," says Hougaard. "I think you will see it more mixed in Copenhagen and you will also see that as a gay you will also be going to straight bars with no problems."
But does this welcoming attitude extend to other forms of nightlife? Bondam tells me of the city's intervention in a gay cruising spot. "There's an outside cruising area in one of the parks ... and the city, they cut down some bushes, and there was a big roar in the gay community about that, because we were taking the 'erotic oasis' away from the city."
Digging deeper, I discover the city's intervention was perhaps somewhat workaday. "Of course you're allowed to have sex if you don't hurt anybody or you don't disturb anybody," explains Bondam. "But one of the problems up there in the park was also it is a playground during the day, and those guys, they left condoms out there. I mean, I don't want to look at used condoms on the street, and children shouldn't look on a used condom....
"If you want to have sex during the night, for Christ's sake, clean up after your act. I'm very much a politician who's into the responsibility thing. I mean, everybody has a responsibility for life in the city.... It takes millions and millions to pick this up. We could use this money for something else, if you just put it into the dustbin."
Equality and difference
Danes possess a sense of civic entitlement unique to Scandinavia. Even casual conversations reveal a profoundly democratic culture; people from all walks of life are active and engaged in shaping their society and social barriers seem relatively few.
Everyone -- even the most perverted of homosexuals -- assumes the right to be free, not just behind closed doors, but openly. It's widely accepted that everyone ought to participate in public life and that even unconventional attitudes and activities ought to be represented in the public realm, with a share of public recognition, public funds and public space.
Danish queers have somehow managed to achieve both equality and difference -- both sides of what remains, even for many of the world's most liberated gay communities, a brutal trade-off.
A trip to Copenhagen allows visitors to bask in a unique environment of warmth and freedom, in a culture that inspires with its refreshing outlook and achievements.
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