Scandinavian showdown: Copenhagen vs Stockholm

Author: George Epaminondas
Photography: Tom Bingham

Every continent has its city rivalries.

In earlier times the feuds might have triggered warfare, but these days the battle is generally for cultural supremacy and the rules of engagement more civilised. In Scandinavia, the most intriguing rivalry of modern times is between Stockholm and Copenhagen. Both cities are admired for their natural beauty, high-minded ethics and razor-sharp aesthetics. But they're quite different in almost every other way and they appear to be perpetually in competition - in the nicest possible way. "Swedes are more efficient, disciplined and serious," says Danish novelist Peter H Fogtdal. "Danes are more relaxed, humorous and anti-authoritarian. Serious studies have confirmed it."

I observed as much on a recent dual-city visit.

Life in Stockholm proceeds with clockwork precision, whereas Copenhagen projects a more tranquil vibe. Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine Copenhagen's progressive hippie commune, Christiania, existing in Stockholm. But don't rile the Danes. "For centuries, the two nations competed for regional hegemony, and until the 17th century, Denmark was the more powerful," writes Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor at the University of Oslo. When Sweden's tourism board launched a campaign in 2006 in which Stockholm was labelled "the capital of Scandinavia", it was akin to a declaration of war. "The message is wrong," Copenhagen's irked tourist chief told a local newspaper.

So, how do the capitals compare? Allow me to adjudicate.

Urban beauty
Spread across 14 islands connected by bridges, with arresting architecture, cobblestone streets and abundant parks, Stockholm is fairytale beautiful.

At Mälarpaviljongen, a magical alfresco restaurant perched on three pontoons, I order toast Skagen (prawns with mayonnaise, lemon and dill on rye bread) and bask in the extended gloaming hour. But parts of the city, like the district of Norrmalm, with its crowded streets and industrial buildings, can feel overwrought. The cityscape of Copenhagen, on the other hand, is remarkably free of high-rise buildings.

It is also expressly designed to be navigated on two wheels. Everyone from silver-haired dowagers to denim-clad hipsters uses the bike lanes that wind around the city. On my rental, I whizz by picturesque waterfronts, 17th-century townhouses and groovy districts such as Nørrebro. Here I pass through Assistens Cemetery, where locals picnic on blankets. Even the Tivoli Gardens, a tourist-heavy amusement park, is positively sublime for an evening stroll.

Winner: Copenhagen.

Copenhageners are blessed with raffish style but if I was a street-style photographer I would set up shop in central Stockholm. While wandering around the district of Östermalm, I've never spied so many nattily attired gents: skinny jackets, tailored trousers, tan shoes and hair cropped on the sides and long on top, as if they've sprung from the pages of GQ. Östermalm is a retail mecca, with stores from many of the nation's illustrious fashion brands, including Acne, J Lindeberg, Filippa K, Anna Holtblad and Tiger of Sweden. At Acne I score a dapper denim jacket in cobalt-blue cotton velvet, and proceed to wear it everywhere. Stockholm also has excellent department stores, namely NK and Åhléns, where one could launch a retail blitz. Copenhagen has Illum, of course, but that store excels in home furnishings rather than fashion. With a flourishing street-style scene, exceptional vintage stores, and a burgeoning fashion week, Stockholm consistently wows in the fashion stakes.

Winner: Stockholm.

It could be called the Noma Effect. The pioneering restaurant has inspired a spate of top-notch new eateries, many of them by Noma alumni. Bror, run by Samuel Nutter and Victor Wagman, two former sous-chefs at Noma, is garnering attention for its accessible New Nordic cuisine. "Competition between the cities is on, but in a positive way," says Wagman. Denmark currently leads with 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, a couple with two stars (Noma and Geranium). Stockholm has nine starred restaurants. "Whoever gets the first three-star restaurant can smile," he adds. I'm floored by an eight-course meal at Amass, which opened earlier this year. It's run by Matt Orlando, an American chef who was chef de cuisine at Noma, and takes shape in an eye-catching industrial space in Christianshavn. Standout dishes include raw shrimps with hot-smoked foie gras, and wild blueberries with ice-cream, croûtons and olive oil. It's not that dining options are scarce in Stockholm. On the contrary, chef Danyel Couet at F12 is a wizard. But it would be hard to compare any city to Copenhagen now. Nowhere is as adventurous.

Winner: Copenhagen.

Maybe my timing was off - I visited early in the week - but I find Stockholm's nightlife underwhelming.

At F12 Terrassen, one of the better-known boltholes, the action unfolds on a set of stone stairs, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds. On a Tuesday night, the crowd of blank-eyed blondes is perched on the steps like university students lolligagging between classes and I'm served the weakest vodka tonic of all time. The patrons are a little more interesting, the drinks a little more substantial at Berns, a hotel with a complex of bars, but it lacks edge. In contrast, Copenhagen is abuzz every night of the week. The city's Meatpacking District is studded with more spirited bars than its New York equivalent. When I visit, Karriere, Jolene, Mesteren & Lærlingen and Bakken are teeming with bright young things dancing elatedly. It's impossible not to have fun bouncing between the numerous boîtes here. "Danes generally drink more and hold their liquor better," says Michael Fuchs, who chronicles the best of his hometown on his blog 60by80. "Where would you rather party?"

Winner: Copenhagen.

Stockholm takes the gong with its slew of elegant lodgings, including the Grand Hôtel, the Lydmar and Hotel Skeppsholmen, a coolly modern inn located on the scenic island of the same name. I check into Hotel Nobis, which opened three years ago and was shrewdly designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune, also responsible for Hotel Skeppsholmen. The leading firm transformed a pair of 19th-century buildings into a sleek sanctuary with the occasional visual treat, such as an enormous crystal-studded chandelier in the lounge and a restrained colour scheme inspired by Stockholm's winter. "The interiors are not loud, flamboyant or self-righteous," according to the press notes. No, they are not; they're subdued and sophisticated. Service is never less than stellar - the hotel's concierge even lends me his member's card to a private bar across the road. In Copenhagen, I stay at First Hotel Skt Petri, which has an unbeatable location in the Latin Quarter and a louche vibe, but otherwise the city's boutique options are limited. If you're willing to spend big, try Nimb or the recently renovated Danglieterre.

Winner: Stockholm.

Final grade
In my totally subjective survey, Copenhagen narrowly edges out Stockholm as the most appealing city in Scandinavia. Another factor informing my decision is that the locals, true to the stereotype, are reliably approachable and affable. In Copenhagen I'm frequently drawn into conversation, at restaurants and cafés - even on my bike waiting for the lights to change. The Danes have a word, hygge, that means conviviality, camaraderie and cosiness all at once, as if to underscore how much they value those qualities. During my dinner at Bror, an animated couple at the table adjacent introduce themselves. Rasmus is Danish and Karoline is Norwegian. Copenhagen, they assert confidently, is the coolest city in Scandinavia. For the moment, I have to agree.

More Scandinavia

Copenhagen travel guide

Baltic cruise

Getting there
Emirates has 84 flights per week from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth to Dubai, and daily connections to Stockholm and to Copenhagen. Etihad flies from Australia to both Scandinavian capitals.

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