The once brutal Vikings have now become one of the world’s most peaceful,
joyful, and sustainable societies
Since the end of the last Ice Age – approximately 10,000 BC – people have migrated from the Eastern and Southern parts of Europe to the northern area we now call Denmark. The flat terrain, rich soil, close proximity to water and at times harsh climate, has shaped Danish history and culture ever since. Once, the people here were known as brutal Vikings, but now they are regarded as the happiest and most peaceful persons living in a truly sustainable country.
All about sustainability
For hundreds of years, Denmark was a society based on agriculture and fishing, and Danes still feel closely tied to the land and the water around them. This respect for nature is why Denmark is a pioneer in promoting sustainability.
Sustainability means different things to different people. To the Danes, sustainability is a holistic approach that includes renewable energy, water management, waste recycling, and green transportation including the bicycling culture.
Through decades of extraordinary and sustained efforts, Denmark has built a world-class green energy system that delivers a cleaner everyday life and more green energy. In particular, Denmark has focused on making buildings more energy-efficient, an important contributor in a country where heating is required for more than half of the year.
Denmark is keen to do its part in helping the United Nations to achieve its 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and has developed a specific action plan to address both environmental sustainability and social goals like equality and inclusion.
In the very middle of Denmark lies Samso Island, famous for its delicious potatoes. Since 2007, Samso has been 100% sustainable, relying entirely on renewable energy such as wind, solar, and biomass energy. Many of Samso’s inhabitants replaced their oil-burning heaters and insulated their homes.
Now the island is implementing a new strategy for re-using all waste. A new biogas plant will even produce the necessary power for the ferry “Princess Isabella” that connects Samso with mainland Denmark.
If you want to know more about its sustainability aims, you can visit the Samsø’s Energy Academy (https://energiakademiet.dk/en/), a hub for development of new, sustainable ideas and knowledge sharing. The academy hosts workshops and other events and each year, 5,000 scientists, politicians, journalists and students visit the island to learn from the local experiences.
More than that, it’s a wonderful place for country walks, historic castles, Viking history and truly, some of Denmark’s best potatoes.
Bornholm, Denmark’s sunniest island in the Baltic Sea south of Sweden, was another pioneer of sustainability. It was voted the EU’s most sustainable island in 2020 (Samsø came second). It’s known as a delightful place to visit because of its charming locals, organic produce and great food, not to mention its beaches and sunshine.
Its sustainable vision is called Bright Green Island and reflects an ambition to be CO2 neutral by 2025 and to have a zero-emission and climate-friendly community by 2035, along with its work developing solar and wind power facilities. The combined hotel, restaurant and knowledge center Green Solutions House in the town of Rønne is among the island’s sustainable frontrunners and a great base for exploring the green island.
Denmark constructed a ski slope on the top of one of the world’s most efficient waste-to-energy plants (Amager Ressource Center) in the heart of Copenhagen, called CopenHill. It’s Denmark’s first skiing destination and manages to put the fun into function. If you are not much of a skier, you can also try the hiking trail that goes all the way along CopenHill’s roof. At CopenHill, you will also find the world’s highest climbing wall of 85 meters, where certified climbers can test their skills.
Amager Ressource Center is one of the steps towards Copenhagen’s goal of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral capital. Not only will the new architectural beacon be visible from most of Copenhagen, a giant chimney way up on top will be blowing giant smoke rings, which will be emitted and be visible to Copenhageners every time 250 kilos of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere.
Another popular practice for sustainability in this mostly flat country is cycling. Yes, Danes love to cycle and believe that it’s a wonderful way to support sustainability, keep fit and have fun. There are over 12,000 km of cycle lanes in national, regional and local routes plus accommodation especially designed for cyclists. There are innovative cycle bridges and cargo bikes for all the family (including the dog). In the capital city Copenhagen, there are more bikes than people, and half the population gets to school and work on two wheels.
So why not make like a local and explore Denmark by bike! Explore the wonderful countryside, pretty market towns, peaceful coastal paths, unparalleled wildlife, as well as manors, castles, breweries, smoke houses and outstanding Nordic restaurants. The Baltic Sea Cycle Route runs through some of Denmark’s most enchanting countryside, along country lanes, beside sandy beaches and across peaceful islands. Or if you want to push yourself, head to Vejle in southeast Jutland. The town is home to the professional cyclist stage race PostNord Danmark, and is known for its short explosive hill climbs. There are also mountain bike trails in Danish forests and a growing number of gravel tracks are springing up around the country.
Cities offer on-street bike rental options as well as bike shops who can rent you touring bikes, cargo bikes and just about everything else.
Not only what we do and how we travel but also what we eat means a lot for the sustainability development of a nation.
From Michelin-starred restaurants to cosy cafes, there are plenty of places to follow a plant-based diet in Denmark. A growing list of restaurants are offering vegan and vegetarian options on their menus, along with speciality eateries that focus just on plant-based food. They are easier to find in major cities than out in coastal and countryside areas. The Vegetarian Society of Denmark (https://vegetarisk.dk/restauranter/) provides a full map of all the restaurants in the country that serve at least three vegetarian dishes. And if you’re self-catering, it’s good to know that Denmark’s supermarkets generally have a really good range of organic produce, vegan and vegetarian foods to choose from.
To name just a few, BaneGaarden in Copenhagen is known as a secret sustainability hub, hidden along the tracks from Copenhagen Central Station, to serve up sustainable plant-based food in its café and restaurant. Gemyse Tivoli in Copenhagen is a veggie wonderland packed with herbs from all over the world. Souls is a healthy (and delicious) vegan, gluten-free café in Copenhagen. The Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin’s vegetarian restaurant Veve is located in a beautiful old warehouse in Østerbro of Copenhagen, serving world-inspired dishes. Café Fika is a welcoming café in Aarhus that offers everything from vegetable pies to gluten free cakes, all made from organic ingredients. We Feat in Aalborg is a 100% organic eatery that focuses on good physical, mental and social health. They serve a healthy alternative to today’s fast food.
Hygge and cold water swimming
This year’s World Happiness Report again ranks Denmark among the top three happiest of 155 countries surveyed – a distinction that the country has earned for seven consecutive years.
People propose many reasons why Danes evaluate their lives more positively. For example, they have a stable government, low levels of public corruption, and access to high-quality education and health care. The country does have the highest taxes in the world, but the vast majority of Danes happily pay: They believe higher taxes can create a better society.
Perhaps most importantly, however, they value a cultural construct called “hygge”. The Oxford dictionary added the word in 2017, and it refers to high-quality social interactions. Hygge can be used as a noun, adjective or verb (to hygge oneself), and events and places can also be hyggelige (hygge-like).
Hygge is sometimes translated as “cozy,” but a better definition of hygge is “intentional intimacy,” which can happen when you have safe, balanced and harmonious shared experiences. A cup of coffee with a friend in front of a fireplace might qualify, as could a summer picnic in the park. A family might have a hygge evening that entails board games and treats, or friends might get together for a casual dinner with dimmed lighting, good food and easygoing fun.
Research on hygge has found that in Denmark, it’s integral to people’s sense of well-being. It acts as a buffer against stress, while also creating a space to build camaraderie. In a highly individualized country like Denmark, hygge can promote egalitarianism and strengthen trust.
Truly, Dane’s happiness largely lie on their strong intent to seek happiness. From November to April, there is hardly any daylight and Danes often have weeks without seeing the sun. So a lot of people suffer from mild winter depression. Then, a growing number of Danes choose cold water swimming as a way to invigorate the senses and combat their winter blues. Though science is inconclusive, enthusiasts say cold water swimming not only heightens happiness but fosters a sense of community. Now, some companies are using it to create workplace bonds.
At 15C, many of us would consider it far too cold for a swim, but for the Danes this is considered warm. Many plunge into the sea year-round, including in the middle of winter, when the days are cold and the water can get as cold as 2C.
There are about 90 official winter swimming clubs throughout Denmark, attracting more than 20,000 total registered members. At CopenHot, a collection of saunas and hot tubs on Copenhagen’s harbour front, the busiest time is often during the winter season. Copenhagers descend upon CopenHot and move between saunas, hot tubs and into the frigid ocean or ice bath (which is literally filled with ice). They believe that, when you throw yourself into the cold water and then into a boiling sauna, it gives you energy and an enormous endorphin kick.
Some companies have incorporated it into spa packages, touting the wellness benefits to their clients. At Kurhotel Skodsborg, a spa hotel 30 minutes from Copenhagen, one of the wellness experiences on offer is ‘sauna gus’, a ‘sauna fusion’ where guests spend time in a hot sauna (where a ‘gus master’ coaches them through the hot experience with essential oils, breathing techniques and meditation) followed by a dip in the nearby Baltic Sea, which is often around 4 degrees.
There isn’t a large volume of scientific research on the benefits of winter bathing, but there are some preliminary studies. The threats were clear: physiological reactions to cold water immersion can be risky and – depending on the temperature and amount of time spent immersed – can bring on sudden heart attacks, hypothermia and drowning.
What of the benefits? A cold dip can also be extremely energising for the body – the shock of the cold water kicks the body’s “fight or flight” instincts into gear and enables the release of stress hormones. Many people swear that cold water helps reduce swelling and inflammation – take, for example, ice baths used by some athletes to aid post-match recovery – but there’s scant evidence of the benefits.
Though people report how cold water swimming help them to alleviate anxiety and depression, professionals insist that research studies have yet to be published which systematically investigate the effect cold water swimming has on health and wellbeing. And the lack of concrete evidence means it’s too simplistic to say “cold immersion is good for you”.
Despite the lack of major scientific breakthroughs, many Danes are already convinced of the benefits. In cities like Aarhus and Copenhagen, swimming in the harbour is easy thanks to good water quality. People argue the cold swimming help them rest their mind and feel more positive, especially when they have had a long day at work or are a bit hungover.
Some companies even incorporate winter bathing into their team-building culture. In Skagen, in the north of the country, there’s even an annual bathing festival in January, where participants – hosted by the local swimming club, The Icebreakers – take morning dips, then gather at a local cafe for hot coffee and soup.
SPA in Denmark
The amazing hot and cold water therapies breed Denmark’s spa traditions. Spa hotels and plenty of saunas are arrayed along its beaches, and to warm you up after an icy-cold plunge. Below is a list of the highly recommended spas throughout Denmark.
Aire Ancient Baths, Copenhagen. This unusual subterranean spa in Carlsberg Byenis set in a building dating back to 1881. It has a heritage-rich ancient baths feeling to it, and offers massages, Himalayan salt therapy and six thermal baths plus a variety of steam rooms and a salt exfoliation area to relax in. https://beaire.com/en/aire-ancient-baths-copenhagen
CopenHot, Copenhagen. CopenHot is more than a little unconventional. You can cruise the Copenhagen canals in a private hot tub boat, and get a prime view of all the city’s sights at the same time. You can also indulge in its hot tubs on Refshæløen, enjoy their waterfront sauna and jump into the clean harbour to cool off too. https://copenhot.com/
Great Northern Spa, Kerteminde. The Great Northern Spa in Kerteminde, Fyn, is a beautiful setting if you’re looking for inner peace and relaxation. All stays and visits are based on “Morning, Dinner and Evening Spa” times, and you can book a package that suits you best too. https://greatnorthern.dk/spa/
Kokkedahl Slot Spa, Hørsholm. In Hørsholm, just up the coast from Copenhagen, this luxury spa offers treatments and a day spa experience for those not staying at the hotel, plus the option of booking the whole spa for an intimate and romantic spa night. Along with a pool, it has a sauna and one of Denmark’s only SensorySky showers. https://kokkedalslotcopenhagen.dk/en/spa-area/
Marienlyst Beach Spa, Helsingør. Let yourself be pampered from top to toe at Marienlyst, one of Denmark’s most beautiful spas. The beachfront spa has more than 20 different spa facilities and experiences – both inside and outside, including hot tubs, whirlpool baths, beach saunas with direct access to the Sound, salt therapy, yoga, fitness, lounge areas, view terraces and a lovely spa-cafe. http://www.marienlyst.dk
Hotel Vejlefjord. Nominated for a Danish Beauty Award in 2020, Hotel Vejlefjord has a thermal spa with thalassotherapy, saunas and a Nordic spa experience. The 120-year-old hotel is surrounded by nature for that extra de-stressing feel. https://en.hotelvejlefjord.dk/
So we can see Denmark is such a culturally rich and sustainability aware country. It’s so interesting a place to delve into. And don’t forget that it also a land blessed with natural wonders. Denmark has a wide variety of landscapes and areas of natural beauty waiting to be explored. To stay in the magnificent outdoors is also a wonderful way of sustainable travel, of course.
Head out into the untouched dunes, twisted forests and traditional seaside villages of Denmark’s wildest national park — Thy National Park. If you like the deer, don’t miss Jægersborg Deer Park, 15 km north of Copenhagen. Here you can get up close to around 2,000 deer, that are untroubled by human presence. The park also contains the world’s oldest amusement park, Bakken. Then there is the Wadden Sea (Vadehavet) national park featuring more than 30 islands and the park is one of the world’s most important habitats for waterfowl. Here you can witness starling murmurations, take an oyster safari and visit the Wadden Sea Centre.
The Svanninge Bakker on Fyn is a paradise for hikers. The Svanninge Hills, just northeast of Faaborg, are epitomized by winding roads, hedgerows and charming half-timbered houses. From the hills, you have stunning views to the southwest and across the South Funen Archipelago.
The white cliffs of Møn is one of the most famous and beautiful places in Denmark. It is the only place in the country where you can experience high chalk cliffs and the unique flora and fauna associated with them. You’ll meet many rare plants on walks in the area and can hunt for fossils on the beaches below the cliffs. And the stairs to and from the beach will provide good exercise.
A few hundred metres north of Skagen lies Grenen, where the two seas Skagerrak and Kattegat meet. This natural wonder of colliding seas creates a unique spectacle and allows you to get close to a natural force so strong. Bathing actually is forbidden at Grenen. However, do feel free to dip your toes in the shallow waters where the seas meet.
For those who love seaside fun, spend days exploring the wide, sandy beaches and expansive dunes of the West Jutland coast. The sea is rougher here than in other parts of Denmark, making these beaches excellent water sports areas. If you’re looking for more child-friendly and family areas for swimming, try the coastal area around Limfjord. You can also do an island hop in the South Fyn Archipelago. The many islands within the archipelago are diverse and offer their own unique experiences, but all are peaceful. Wander round their cosy villages and quaint harbours. You can reach the islands from Jutland and Fyn by small ferry boats. It’s a place of beautiful landscapes, but far more than that. Come to this romantic Nordic country and enjoy a hygee life as the locals, or you can learn from their efforts for a better planet.
Information provided by: VisitDenmark