How can you experience something which has no discernible equivalent in English? Jade Conroy heads to Copenhagen in a bid to feel “hygge”
According to the UN’s most recent World Happiness Report, the Danes are the happiest people on the planet. I found this quite surprising. What of the astronomically high tax? And unbearable winters? Sure, they have The Killing, René Redzepi and Danish pastries. Maybe eating the latter for breakfast every day imbues the soul with a year-round sense of inner peace.
Then I found out about hygge. There is no exact English-language equivalent to the word (which is pronounced “hooga”). It originated in Norway where it equates to “wellbeing”, and a few searches give me “cosiness”, “fun” and “conviviality” as definitions. In a nutshell, it’s an elevated state of being to which the Danes aspire.
Candles, a roaring fire and friends contribute to the feeling, so I’m told by hygge enthusiasts. I want to try some of this hygge. So – forgoing any elevated state of being for the sake of a cheap EasyJet flight – I take my first trip to Copenhagen.
I was expecting it to be busier in this part of town but on a Wednesday night it is disappointingly quiet. Quiet does not hygge make
As is customary with European weekend breaks we begin with food and drink. We head to Nørrebro, the “It” neighbourhood, to sample the city’s answer to dude food: gourmet hotdogs. Big Willy’s Gourmet Hotdogs are served out of what seems like an extension of someone’s living room. We indulge in pickle-heavy New Yorkers with a side of slow-cooked, moreish chilli. I was expecting it to be busier in this part of town but on a Wednesday night it is disappointingly quiet. Quiet does not hygge make.
A postprandial wander leads us to local wine-bar Vinhanen. Jackpot! Candlelight twinkles from within, where a 50th birthday party and a hotchpotch of catch-ups, first dates and post-work carafes are underway. Behind the bar lie massive steel vats of wine on tap – an idea, one of the owners tells me, borrowed from the south of France. Puglian primitivo, a Rhône Valley merlot and a Côtes du Ventoux are the offerings today, and from 35DKK per glass, a fairly cheap, hygge-inducing option for wine guzzling. My favourite part is that you can even bring your own bottle and take some away, for hygge at home.
We manoeuvre around coat-laden chairs and couples perched on steps, settling on some grey leather-topped stools. The people to our right make a passing, jovial comment to us in Danish and we order a bottle of the Ventoux and a cheese board. I soon realise that hygge is essentially the same as a dinner party: the right volume of buzzy chatter, laughter, clinking glasses, flattering lighting, all fuelled by honest food and good wine. Nobody is in a hurry (I usually am).
It is the ambience of classic European culture – even now it attracts many of the same types (artists, journalists, socialites) that frequented the coffee houses in the 18th century. And that’s the overwhelming sense I get in Copenhagen: everything here is devoutly civilised. Everyone and everything is immaculate: it’s like the kooky lovechild of Shoreditch and Primrose Hill.
It makes sense that a lot of Copenhagen’s coffee shops are turning into watering holes by night. One such hybrid spot is Atelier September: by day, this one-time antique shop, which six months ago converted into a shop-café-bar, is rife with MacBooks and their owners, sipping noisettes and eating avocadomad with vintage cutlery, but by night, attention turns to drinking. Artisan bottles of wines (primarily biodynamic) and sakes fill the shelves. The space is meticulous: everything from the old Chagall and Picasso exhibition posters to the wine labels and fresh flowers has been selected with a set-designer’s precision. I love the space, but like many other spots here, it feels a notch above overdone. A bit like a Wes Anderson movie – it’s Instagram fodder.
For lowbrow drinking, we tried Danish pub Mikkeller, where it’s less about pints and packets of crisps and more about a changing menu of craft beer and mismatched furniture. Dyrehaven, a reclaimed pub, is similarly casual. If it’s cocktails you’re after, then it has to be Lidkoeb, a three-floor house hidden behind Vesterbrogade. After a wet and windy night, this hyggelig bar was just the tonic: friends crammed in booths, Helmut Newton photography, a roaring fire and an attentive barman. Young Copenhagers queue around the block to get in here at weekends. Not for them the excesses of Berlin’s Berghain or London’s Boiler Room; they would rather queue for a cosy nightcap at a place where they can be heard over music and order via table service. As Line Lundø, of the Food Organisation of Denmark tells me, “I haven’t been clubbing since I was in my teens. At weekends we usually stay drinking at a friend’s house until very late. Then we go to a bar.” She adds: “Hygge is something that you do with your friends at home, with candles, dinner and large amounts of red wine. That’s probably why we spend such a large amount of our income on interior design!” I wonder what Line and friends would think if they were to witness my local stomping ground, Kingsland Road, on a Saturday night. Hygge doesn’t sit well with sticky floors, pumping music and fabulously tacky Turkish-run pool halls.
“Hygge is something that you do with your friends at home, with candles, dinner and large amounts of red wine. That’s probably why we spend such a large amount of our income on interior design!”
Food – and the surroundings in which you eat it – is important here. The influence of the high church of Noma has set the bar high in Copenhagen, and Redzepi’s culinary offspring have focused on their own projects the city over. I choose Relae, a low key, 50-cover restaurant. Everything about the experience was hyggelig. The food was comforting (the Sødam chicken was poultry consummate), the atmosphere tightknit, and the service friendly and unassuming – the chefs were back and forth from the kitchen, serving the floor (Puglisi included).
The sense of community is strong here. The street on which Relae is situated, Jægersborggade, is a micro-community in itself: Relae’s fine porcelain crockery is from beautiful ceramicist Inge Vincents down the street; its sister restaurant, Manfreds & Vin, is across the road. There’s also a farmer’s market every Saturday. And, further down the street, is perhaps the most hyggelig offering of all: Grød, a restaurant open morning, noon and night, dedicated solely to porridge.
Once back in London (and back in my local pool hall) I soon forgot what hygge felt like, despite my best intentions to replicate it with the help of a hygge scented candle (I couldn’t resist). And yet… Last weekend I went for a late dinner à deux at Mayfields, the tiny neighbourhood bistro in Hackney. As I sat down at the little Formica table, elbows knocking the girl to my side and a soundtrack of Saturday chitchat mixed with the 90s hip-hop wafting in from the kitchen stereo, I realised I felt it. Hyggelicious. C
Follow Jade Conroy at Twitter @jaders_