The skies were overcast and a chilly rain had just begun to fall as we walked the few blocks from the train station to our hotel. Despite the near freezing temperatures, I was filled with a sense of warmth. It was only after that visit to Copenhagen that I realized this feeling spread into every aspect of our visit to the Danish city.

The term hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) is a Danish concept that has recently gained rapid popularity in the U.S. Along with blogs and books that focus on the topic, even the official tourism website of Denmark hosts articles instructing travelers how to embrace it during a visit.

Like many similar ideas born from the cultural practices in other countries, there is no direct translation. Hygge is best described as a sense of comfort and coziness one might think of when bundling up next to a warm fire with a good book or enjoying an evening with family and friends. It isn’t a thing, it is a feeling. It comes about by slowing down and enjoying the present moment.

Danes are experts at bringing hygge to everyday life, especially around the holidays. It is something that has always been engrained in the culture of the country, but when I first visited Copenhagen it was not the trend it is now in the U.S.

Looking back on that trip I realize how fortunate I was to experience hygge before I knew how to define it. I wasn’t trying to find hygge. It found me. That doesn’t mean that travelers can’t find it for themselves amidst its now wild popularity. In fact, it’s impossible to escape the feeling when visiting Copenhagen during the holidays.

Find it in the winter scenes and welcoming traditions

As we maneuvered the streets on that wet evening, the candles burning in windows throughout the city cast a mystical light on every corner we turned. Even as a larger, bustling city, Copenhagen had a quaint feel. Despite the drizzle turning to snow, cyclist bundled in winter coats sped past us in all directions. Warm or cold, the city lives up to its two-wheeled reputation. Winter conditions do not halt this form of active transportation. It was picturesque to say the least.

Upon checking into our hotel we were greeted with brunkager, a traditional Christmas cookie similar to gingerbread. After dropping off our bags, we were informed about happy hour and the tradition of Julebryg, Danish Christmas beer. Dating back hundreds of years, J-dag or J-day occurs the first Friday of November, and is known as the day the specially brewed Christmas beer comes on the market. For travelers like us, this beer was available during evening happy hours courtesy of the hotels where we stayed. There is nothing quite like sipping a holiday beer, while eating holiday cookies by candle light, even when in a hotel lobby.

Embrace it in the places you go and things you see

A stop at Tivoli Gardens is on the list for many visitors to Copenhagen. One might expect it to feel overrun with tourists, but given its equal popularity among locals, the attraction manages to leave a culturally-rich impression while filling you with a peaceful sense of holiday spirit. As we filed in with other visitors I was not expecting to feel any sense of peace among the crowds, but as the sun set, this attraction proved me wrong.

It is something to see with lights lining the small lake, and special holiday shops and market stalls set up with gifts and traditional foods. Tivoli remains open through New Year’s so if you are staying awhile, buy a pass that will allow you to visit on multiple days. We found ourselves popping in several times throughout our visit.

Traditional Christmas Markets are also easy to find outside Tivoli where you can browse without paying an entry fee. A market lines the Nyhavn Harbor along the glistening water with bobbing boats and colorful buildings. The Deutschs Christmas Market lights up Axeltorv Square as visitors shop for gifts and enjoy holiday foods. It’s important to note that these markets typically close before Christmas Day so take advantage of them if you are there in the days prior to the holiday.

Being a food-lover Torvehallerne made the top of my list for exploring the local food scene. An indoor food market that sometimes hosts a farmers market outside, visitors can stroll through over 60 stalls and enjoy everything from a cup of coffee to seasonal treats and traditional breakfasts. In the winter, it is a welcomed break from the cold while also providing a sense of undeniable holiday cheer.

Just remember when it comes to restaurants and shops, what a visit to Copenhagen provides in coziness and holiday celebration it lacks in accessibility. If you have your heart set on dining at a place you’ve read about, or seeking out the most traditional Danish foods, check restaurant schedules ahead of time. Many locations close between Christmas and New Year’s. Plenty of delicious regional foods can be found, but without some research, you could find yourself disappointed upon arrival.

Feel it when you ring in the New Year

The spirit of the holiday does not end on Christmas Day in Copenhagen, making us happy that we extended our trip through the New Year celebration. As we walked the streets of the city on New Year’s Eve, despite speaking no Danish, we could make out that most of the supermarkets would be closing mid-day. Upon making this discovery, we also witnessed every person, and I mean that quite literally, leaving the store with a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine. Not wanting to feel left out, we headed inside to find the beverage selection still well stocked, but dwindling by the minute. We grabbed a bottle and headed back to the hotel assuming we’d pop it open at some point throughout the evening.

With a fireworks celebration at around 10 p.m., you might choose to ring in the New Year early as we did at Tivoli Gardens. Standing shoulder to shoulder among merry families and a beautiful display of lights was a festive way to close out the year behind us.
Exhausted from travel and with an early flight planned the next day, we almost ignored what seemed to be a migration of people towards the bridges. We mustered up our last bit of energy and headed out to the Copenhagen Lakes. As we followed the pack, our eyes grew large at seeing the vast number of people lining each bridge and nearly every spot on the banks that lined the water. All had a bottle of bubbly and some chose to sport goggles or protective glasses, something that became much more logical as midnight struck and corks began popping off in the dark. Soon after, fireworks erupted in every direction. It was a display unlike any we had ever seen. The New Year was upon us and we felt honored to celebrate it in a such a lovely place.

I had no idea how attached I’d become to Copenhagen and the Danish way of living, or at least what I could observe of it with a few days of exploration. It is a place that won me over immediately and leaves a longing inside me each time I think of our experiences there. Many people travel to Denmark in the warmer months, and I will someday as well. But as I quickly found out, the hygge, the feeling of warmth and welcome, the tradition, and celebration around the holiday season, make it an equally intriguing time to visit.