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Which is better? Stockholm vs. Copenhagen
Your definitive guide to the best Scandi capital
Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to answer one question: Is Stockholm better than Copenhagen? Or is it the other way around?
Technically, that is two questions. All the more reason for me to venture out there in person, and settle this dispute once and for all.
So how to tell the two apart? Fortunately, I have developed a sophisticated and comprehensive rating system.
Best water-based excursions: Stockholm
Both cities are by the Baltic, and feature extensive canals. So the best way to explore them is on the water. There are lots of options on mode of transport, ranging from kayaks to large canal cruisers. Doing a guided tour gives you a lot of information quickly. I was taken by the small GoBoat rentals in Copenhagen, if you feel confident enough to steer yourself.
Ultimately, Stockholm wins this round because its vast archipelago of surrounding islands, which gives you a lot of additional options. You can take short tours around the islands, or take a public ferry to hop on one of the islands if you want to make a daytrip or overnight stop.
More generally, both cities have excellent public transport, including trains to and from the airport. Once you get there, you can explore the iconic backdrops by metro. My theory is that you see a city best on foot, so I walk as much as I can. But in Copenhagen, renting a bike is definitely quicker, and incredibly easy given the bike-friendly design of the city.
Best American foods: Tie
Do you love bagels and burgers? Come to America. If already in America, go to Scandinavia and its US-themed food spots. If you want your food with political opinions, there is even a Midwestern diner in Copenhagen (tagline: Straight from the American Heartland).
I find this a little odd. US fast food joints are global. But this is different. Burger-themed restaurants were ubiquitous in both Stockholm and Copenhagen, offering a step up from fast food in terms of both quality and ambience, with a beer menu. The ethos seemed to be: “we are taking your foods, but doing them better.”
In Copenhagen, having failed to nab a reservation at Noma, I did the next best thing and grabbed a burger at the Noma burger place, Popl. And it was good. But not noticeably better than the Barrels, Burgers & Beer in Stockholm which had the excellent microbrew in residence, or BurgersNFuel. All were excellent, probably better than 95% of US burgers I’ve enjoyed. And since cities are expensive, they also provide a break on the wallet.
The availability of such familiar and well-executed comfort food is a comfort but one that keeps you inside your comfort zone. Worth checking out, but should not become the theme of the tour. Try something different. There is, for example, a lively Japanese and Korean food scene in Copenhagen. I enjoyed Jah Izakaya & Sake Bar.
But you can always stick with the local classics.
Best meatballs: Stockholm
The meatballs at the classic Swedish neighborhood restaurant Tennstopet were so good that there was no real point in even trying to make a comparison with Denmark.
Best Smørrebrød: Copenhagen
Smørrebrød, the art of putting a small meal on a slice of dark bread, is a Danish classic. But the Nybroe Smørrebrød offered a strong entry from Stockholm. And the Ostermalm Saluhall that houses it is well worth a visit in its own right as an architectural delight as well as a vendor of awesome options for a picnic or dine-in experience.
But ultimately this is a win for the home team. Here is the Smørrebrød I had when lunching with Crown Prince Frederik.
Best royals: Copenhagen
Both Denmark and Sweden have royal families, so it seems relevant to take this into account. Copenhagen has Rosenberg Castle (below) and gardens (below) in the city. Or the castle that was the basis for Elsinore in Hamlet if you want to hop on the train for an hour.
Sweden has a royal palace in Gamla Stan but visit Drottningholm Palace, the summer residence, as an an excuse to jump on a boat for the one hour journey via the archipelago.
However, Denmark wins here. I was in Copenhagen to give a talk at an event hosted by the Crown Prince Frederik Center for Public Leadership. Such enlightened royalty has earned my loyalty. Here we are below. (Fun game: Guess which one I am and which one is the Crown Prince before googling).
Best beer: Copenhagen
Now the competition really heats up. Stockholm boasts Omnipollo, which has a couple of outlets in the city and offers some very creative beers and pizzas.
Stick around the hipsterish Södermalm neighborhood to explore other bars, including one by Mikkeller, the king of Danish microbeer. In Copenhagen, we stopped at Mikkeller & Friends (Stefansgade). As with every Mikkeller venue, there is an almost overwhelming number of rotating beers. You can grab your beers and head across the street and sit by the park.
And here, I must acknowledge a bias. I’ve been in Denmark more times than I can count because I have a visiting professorship at Aarhus University. Thus, Copenhagen is familiar ground. I can tap into the local knowledge of friends, who know where we can grab a beer to go, and then to hang out in a local neighborhood that is a bit off the regular tourist track, but can still offer some useful life lessons.
Best vibe: Copenhagen
Copenhagen seemed to have more places where people could just sit, grab some food and a beverage, and hang out. The Reffen market was one example, as was the area by Popl burger.
Parts of a city used to be navy base, but in recent decades have been redeveloped, mixing cutting edge architecture, like the Copenhagen Opera House, or apartments built from shipping container material.
In this way, Copenhagen feels more vibrant, a city still reinventing itself. It has a bit more grit under its nails, the occasional flash of graffiti. Stockholm appears to be pretty happy with what its got, which is, to be fair, lovely.
Well, there you have it. Pump your fist Copenhagen. Hang your head in shame Stockholm. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong. Maybe if I had checked out the Abba Museum things would have been different. But for now, the winner takes it all.
If you like this travel writing, you should probably have higher standards. Check out the archive for travel writing about Italy, Maine, and Salzburg.