Explore the Happiest City in the World: Wonderful Copenhagen

Denmark is consistently rated the happiest place in the world. Some of the reasons why: Steeped in rich history, Copenhagen offers a wide spectrum of architectural, cultural and urban delights, the best of modern design and food as culinary art form. The city has much to offer travelers within a short radius and new cheap airfares make a visit from the US very tempting. The laid-back artful city center is located just 25 minutes from the design infused Kastrup Airport, and is easily reached by a new efficient metro system.

Here are my favorite places you should not miss:

Nyhavn is a charming old canal lined with pastel colored houses, bars, restaurants and wooden schooners, great for people watching
  1. After a long transatlantic journey Nyhavn is reached by metro in just a few stops to Kongens Nytorv. A quaint canal, flanked with old wooden schooners and pastel colored 17th century historic houses, is lined with lively restaurants and bars. During summer and winter, -especially those long Nordic summer days where the sun barely sets-, this is the perfect place to stroll, people watch, eat, drink or embark on a harbor cruise. The Danes love to gather here and warmly welcome tourists. Some bars are open 24/7.
  2. Nyhavn is the perfect starting point to explore the city from the water: rest your feet and enjoy a 1 hour Harbor Cruise through idyllic canals, where guides will tell the history behind the most beautiful churches, castles, old historic buildings and new modern architectural delights. Guided tour: Dkr 80, free with Copenhagen Card. (3 Nyhavn, 1051 Copenhagen K, Tel: 45 32 96 30 00)
  3. Amalienborg Castle is where the royal family presides. On axis with the harbor and the impressive rococo-baroque Marble Church, four identical classical-baroque palace buildings frame a large octagonal square. Watch the Royal guards change guard shifts: every day you can follow the guards as they march from Rosenborg Castle through the streets of Copenhagen and end up at Amalienborg, where the changing guards take place at 12:00 noon. (Amalienborg Slotsplads 5, 1257 Copenhagen K)

    Rosenborg Castle in Kongens Have (courtesy Pinterest)
  4. Nearby Kongens Have (Royal Garden) with the renaissance Rosenborg Castle is a favorite park for locals. The castle houses the royal crown jewels, diamonds and tapestries. (Oester Voldgade 4A, 1350 Copenhagen K +45 33 15 3286)

    Rundetaarn was built as an 7 story equestrian ramp to King Chr. IVs observatory
  5. Walk up the seven floor high brick paved equestrian ramp of Rundetaarn, a 17th century tower built by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory in the heart of the old Latin Quarter of Copenhagen. The brick paved spiral walk offers stunning architecture and breathtakingviews over the roofs of old latin Quarter of Copenhagen. (Koebmagergade 52A, 1150 Copenhagen K)

    Illums Bolighus is a mecca for modern design
  6. Denmark is world known as a design mecca. One place not to miss is Illums Bolighus, a retail store representing the ultimate in modern living, showcasing jewels of both Danish and international design, fashion and furniture innovation. (10 Amagertorv, 1160 Copenhagen K. )

    Danish smoerrebroed – open sandwiches – a culinary art (courtesy Pinterest)
  7. Copenhagen is a food lover’s dream destination. Noma is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best restaurants. Traditional Danish food is hearty and comforting, but Danish Smoerrebroed (the open sandwich translation does not do it justice) is now a vanishing art form. Beautifully decorated dark rye bread is ornamented with layers of decorated, at times pungent, meats, herrings or old cheeses. Try one of the few classic remaining old lunch café’s, my insider’s choice: Kanal Cafeen, an authentic place which oozes of old-time ambiance under the low ceilings a few steps down from the street level – or try their open air boat in the canal overlooking Christiansborg Castle. Smoerrebroed is best when paired with beer and Danish Aquavit. (Frederiksholm Kanal 18, Copenhagen K. Tel: +45 3311 5770. Reservations recommended)

    Koedbyen – a culinary and cultural mecca
  8. A new buzzing culinary and cultural mecca is Koedbyen (Meat-town), the Modernistic 1930’s meat packing district in Vesterbro. There is a certain rawness to the place and all the charisma from the old days is still authentically there, but now offers an array of rustic restaurants, underground clubs and bars. Butchers still arrive early in the morning, but the old halls and the square are now full of ambiance, food, art and music, offering a multitude of hip food venues and the hottest nightlife in town. The district consists of three separate areas: the white, the brown (oldest brick buildings) and the grey “Meat-City”, based on the buildings dominant colors. The square is packed with people on summer afternoons and evenings. The local food market is open Saturdays and the first Sunday of the month from spring through fall. Try Koedbyens Fiskebar with a simple Nordic design, long communal tables and couches. (Koedbyens Fiskebar, Flaesketorvet 100, Copenhagen V +45 3215 5656)

    Market halls at Israels Plads: artisan breads, flavorful cheeses and fresh markets
  9. The new Market Halls at Israels Plads are bustling with activity and house fresh market delights, cafes and eateries. Find healthy artisan bread, cheese caves with a mouthwatering selection of fragrant or stinky cheeses, fresh fish, meat and seasonal vegetables. (Frederiksborggade 21, 1360 Copenhagen K, 10AM-7PM)
    Fristaden Christiania: a social experiment at an old military fortification area (courtesy Pinterest)
    Christiania: a vibrant social experiment (courtesy Pinterest)

    Architectural experimentation in Christiania (courtesy Pinterest)
  10. As a social experiment, Freetown Christiania offers an insight into a self-proclaimed alternative society, a grass-root movement which is still independent of the Danish Government. An abandoned military barracks area was taken over by squatters in the late 60és –and was saved from speculative development. Old military barracks have been turned into café’s, bars, performance spaces and residences. Creativity and experimentation has always existed, as has illicit drugs. This area is raw and may not appeal to everyone. The main entrance is called Pusher Street, but drug sale is being combated by the police. A great place to eat is Spise Loppen in a casual old gunpowder warehouse with exposed old ceiling beams, a collective-run venue with global chefs and bright art. Get a creative meal at a decent price. Vegetarian choices. (Baadmandsstraede 43, 1407 Copenhagen K +45 3257 9558)

    Louisiana Art Museum
  11. If you have an extra day Louisiana Art Museum in Humlebaek is a delightful contemporary art museum with sprawling pavilions in a lush sculpture garden, which offers breathtaking views to the ocean. A place where modern art, lush gardens and ocean meets. About 40 minute train ride from centrum of Copenhagen to Humlebaek, and a 15 minute walk. A great museum café offers tasty selections of contemporary Danish food. (Gl. Strandvej 13, 3050 Humlebaek +45 4919 0719)

    Tivoli Gardens: an old-time entertainment park in the heart of Copenhagen (courtesy Pinterest)
  1. Finally, the Tivoli Gardens is the quintessential Danish experience, with a sense of quaint adventure. A historical amusement and pleasure park with Pantomime Theater, several free concert venues, expensive food, fun rides and beautiful gardens. Located across from the grand Central Station and the City Hall. A great place to stroll and have a fun time, open from Mid-April to End of September. (Vesterbrogade 3, 1630 Copenhagen V +45 3315 1001)

Author: Zia Hansen, born in Denmark and lived in Copenhagen for many years. Photos by Zia Hansen unless otherwise noted

Destination Vietnam: Surrender to the Charm of Ancient Hoi An

Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.

intriguing ornamentation on temple roofs
Hoi An temple roof ornamentation

The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely.  The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.

Tranquility at Villa Frangipani

No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.

Ocher colored ancient houses line the narrow cobble stoned streets

Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.

Old Japanese merchant houses
Entrance to old Japanese merchant house

The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy.  Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.

Fishermen pedaling from their bamboo shacks to raise their fishing nets from the river
Take a sunset boat ride on the river

The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.

The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.

Step into into the vibrant temples

The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.

Burning red incense coils add to the visual and olfactory experience

My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.

Venture down the narrow alley ways to explore local living

One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations  living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.

Hoi An
Old Japanese bridge

Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.

Street vendors outside the market hall

I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.

Crabs at the market hall
Catch of the day outside the market hall

Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.

Wedding photo in the old town

Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.

Written by Zia Hansen.  Photos by Zia Hansen

The Unexpected Enchantment of a Bike Adventure in Bangkok

What a wonderful way to start a new year: exploring something new: for me, a solo female expatriate, a bike tour through the side alleys and guts of Bangkok’s Chinatown and ThonBuri district.

In retrospect, New Year Day is a great day to bike through frenetic Chinatown: a lazy day, where most people are hibernating and recovering, most businesses shut down, making navigating the very narrow alleyways, giant potholes, lazy breaks and sharp turns a bit easier for a novice biker. I decided to go on an action packed 1/2 day tour on a very hot New Year Day.


An action packed day so full of visual impressions and so little time to photograph the charm of the decay and urban grit.

Temple in Chinatown, Bangkok
Chinese temple in Bangkok

temple offering in Chinese temple in Bangkok

When we stopped at temples and the Chinese flower market we had a few photo opportunities….otherwise I was honestly clinging white knuckled onto the handlebars of my wobbly bike -at the end of the tour a few battle scar bruises later, having had a fantastic action packed experience and vivid memory for years to come.

img_0874Flower market in Chinatown, Bangkok on a lazy New Year Day
Flower market in Bangkok

I highly recommend this urban excursion. I honestly never ever thought of bicycling in Bangkok before-but never say never…. ! This is an amazing way to explore the gritty, charming urban decay, context and life in the exotic multilayered city away from the CBD and shiny malls. Very real and surreal at the same time.

Temple in ThonBuri, Bangkok

The ThonBuri experience was uniquely different; a sleepy tour through charming, laid back neighborhoods and stunning temple grounds, culminating in climbing up into a beautiful stupa across from the river. The brick construction was a stunning engineering creation.

The guided biketours by Van Kessel, a Dutch bike tour operator, gives you an amazing series of action shortcuts through the maze of Chinatown – and a very safe way for solo female travelers to explore the “darker” , lesser known, side of Bangkok, in good company. I love adventures and destineering, learning more of the local culture and local way of living. A few well-deserved scrapes were well worth the experience of scrambling the bike through the tight and narrow alley ways, banyan trees and gators.

Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen

Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure

Longboat in Bangkok

New Year for most of us feel like a crossing time, a time for reflection. What will the new year bring? Opportunities, adventures, love and happiness?

One of my goals is to take the time to open my eyes and explore the richness of my local context. Urban adventures are so inspiring and enriching. Explore the galleries, the side alleys, the urban richness with all your senses: the gritty, the artsy and the beauty. Be an adventurer! Explore with all senses -plus explore the world through the lens of a smartphone.

Longboat in Bangkok

The day before the New Year 2016 I explored the “darker side” of Bangkok (meaning less known) by taking a 2 hour longboat ride of the lesser known Thonburi Khlongs around Chrak Phra on the opposite side of CBD (central business district). Under the King Taksin Bridge at the BTS station Saphan Taksin you will find numerous boat tour vendors, and if you are persistent in negotiating, and insisting you are not a tourist, you can get a great deal for a 2 hour shared long boat ride.

Continue reading “Celebrate New Year by Exploring a New Adventure”



I love to travel and explore foreign countries and have traveled many countries alone.  As a single female traveler one of the most important aspects of each trip we take is where we stay during our travels.  I can speak of personal experience as I have had some really bad hotel experiences and unsafe locations have totally ruined my vacations for the first day, until I decide to forfeit my money paid upfront, in pursuit of finding more comforting, pleasurable and safe places to stay.

Today most of us spend hours searching online for the best possible accommodation based on location and price point.   Our accommodations are usually chosen based on authenticity, location, comfort, cost, and the way they reflect the local character.   However, even after hours of viewing alternatives, we sometimes end up with a bad choice which totally ruins our experience of a location.  The photos of the hotel and travel websites may look great or the reviews of the properties are good, but something glitches. Seemingly small things, such as the great looking pool in the center of the hotel property is under repair and workers start drilling at 7:00am in the morning, making your stay totally miserable, especially if you have had a long international travel and jetlag.  Or, you just needed that long peaceful weekend to distress alone, reading and writing.

30 years ago there were no travel websites, hotel reviews and smart phones.  The first time I arrived in Chicago 30 years ago I made 2 big mistakes.  First of all I had not made any hotel reservations ahead of time (I was traveling for 2 months with no fixed itineraries) – and I arrived in Chicago at 4:00AM in the morning.  I was from Europe and had no concept of American cities and the potential danger certain neighborhoods could pose.  The airport was dead at that time in the morning, no tourist information was available, and no car rentals were open.  What do you do?  I could not even get a map of Chicago in the airport.

I chose to take the metro, without knowing anything about the city.  Looking at the metro map it seemed that 6th Street would be near the center of town, and I decided this could be a good place to start my hotel search.  I was traveling in style, dressed in red crocodile lacquer heels, a black jumpsuit and a huge red suitcase on wheels.  I was travelling for 2 months through the USA for the first time in my life.  I arrived underground and had to carry my heavy suitcase up all the stairs from 3 levels below.   As I finally ventured up in street level I was horrified as I saw no city center; only a deserted old butcher house area-skid row-where homeless people are sleeping on the street amongst broken glass, rubble and garbage with the burned out ambers of the bonfires of the night.  Downtown could only be seen in the far, far horizon.  What do you do?  I could have ventured downstairs again to take the metro to a different stop, but I would still have no idea where to get off the train.

I decided my best option would be to start walking towards the far horizon of the luring lights of Downtown. I remembered the song “Woman in Red” and filled my mind with great energetic energy while I started walking over broken glass and rubble, careful not to get too close to any of the sleeping homeless people.  The wheels of my suitcase did however betray me with the clonking sound and numerous people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.  Finally after an hour I see a bus and make it stop, but I still had no idea of where to go.  I figured First Street would be as central as I could get as my starting point and I remembered there was a YMCA on First Street, thinking this would be my saving grace.  I arrived around 6AM in the morning, but “Sorry Mam, everything is old out”…..Some elderly people were begging to stay another night as their welfare checks had not yet arrived.  Certainly they needed this roof more than I did.  I asked the reception if they could recommend any place to stay, but the answer was no.   Aimlessly I started wandering down the streets of Chicago, stopping at every hotel asking about any possible vacancies.  A huge convention in town had booked all hotels.  Downtrodden, my feet were blistering, and I desperately needed a shower after my red-eye flight and my long morning hike in heels.  All the hotels along the streets were fully booked, until I finally found a couple of dilapidated brownstone buildings, one of them Tokyo Hotel.  First I went into the adjacent hotel to ask for a room for 2 nights.  The receptionists giggled and told me this was for long term accommodation only…..on my way out I noticed a blue movie bar at the entrance, and although I naively did not know what that was, I sensed discomfort being a single female traveler.

Then I stepped into Tokyo Hotel next door.  The carpet was tattered, the place was run-down, but, yes, they did have a room.  The receptionist had stared me up and down, with her perforated acne scarred face, which felt uncomfortable, but I really needed a room.  “It’s $29 per night.  The room is non-refundable”. Ok, I grabbed the key and stepped into the elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators ever built in Chicago as an old man grey faced man on a stool in the corner of the elevator was pulling old chains, brackets and bolts. Finally the ramshackle lift reached my floor level: “Jump, Mam”.  It turned out I had to jump across a 12”gap and 8 “up to reach my floor.

Finally I reached my room, which only could be described as a “slimy”, tattered room.  As expected, the lock did not work….My heart was beating so fast, sweat running down my back in anxiety, what to do? I pulled an old tattered armchair in front of the door and loaded it up with my heavy suitcase while letting the hot water fill my bathtub.  Time to think – what were my options?  Being an architect I really wanted to explore the great architecture of Chicago and decided to take a risk and explore the city all day, hopefully sleeping soundly at night.  Chicago is an architecture lover’s dream.  I had a fabulous time exploring until I met with a famous architect I had previously met at the American Institute in Rome, and he asked me where I was staying.  Ashamed of my non-prestigious accommodations I hesitated, but he insisted I tell him: Tokyo Hotel. “Oh, no”, he told me! “You must get out of there, no matter what! That place is notorious for prostitution, crime and drugs.”

Shocked, but also grateful that this famous architect truly seemed to care about me, I started my journey back to the hotel.  I stopped at a motel nearby which I had visited earlier that morning, but it was still fully occupied.  When I shared my story to the 2 female receptionists they were horrified and told me they would cancel one of their reservations and give me a room across from the reception where I could be safe.  I was so grateful for the kindness of these 2 women.  30 years later I am still grateful for their extremely kindness.  Now I still had to go back to Tokyo Hotel to get my belongings. While waiting in a long line at the reception desk I overheard an old man complaining about his room service last night: he did not like her….The old lady reminded me of the no-refund policy, but I scurried off to my room to get my belongings almost tumbling over the rolled up worn-out carpets, thinking my life is worth so much more than the $29….and slept peacefully at the nearby hotel the next 2 nights.

After this experience I learned a hard-earned lesson: as a single female traveler safety comes first, no matter how central the location is.  Do your research ahead of time and at least book your first hotel night in advance when visiting a new city.  During the first day of exploration you can always find a better place to stay, if needed, after seeing the place in person.

I just researched Tokyo Hotel online and wish I had found this information 30 years ago:

Per Wikipedia: The Tokyo Hotel, located at 19 E. Ohio Street, was a hotel in the North Loop of Chicago. Designed by architect Ralph C. Harris, it is 15 stories tall, and has 150 rooms. It opened in 1927 as the Devonshire Hotel. Before it closed in 2013, the Tokyo was not aimed at tourists, but rather longer-term residents, and earned a reputation for being home to “prostitution and criminal activity.”[1]

Written by Zia Hansen