Its the picturesque scene that adorns postcards of the city – colourful low rise buildings serving as the backdrop to a pedestrian sidewalk and diners having a meal al fresco by the shallow harbour.
This is Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, the touristy watering hole of the city. But as is common with most cities, tourist spots were never build with that purpose in mind – Nyhvan too was re-positioned after its original purpose was lost.
Its original purpose was in its name – Nyhavn, New Harbour.
Nyhavn was constructed using Swedish prisoners of war in the 17th century as a way to enable the entry of trading ships directly into the central square – Kongens Nytorv. By allowing fishing boats and merchant ships to dock in the city the authorities were able to facilitate trade and increase the money coming into the city.
Trade is not always elegant and upperclass – in fact the age of merchants and traders that we live in today is rare. Merchants in many cultures and societies were always seen as a class lower than the landed gentry and civil servants. That has to do with the nature of trade and class – it was partly physical and engaged in by only by those who were not born into the higher classes. Part of the seedy reputation of traders had to also do with the salty sailors who ferried the traded goods.
The sailors who had been weeks and months at sea were humans with needs – physical and emotional, and whole districts were propped up by them. In fact 17th and 18th century Nyhavn was lined with brothels, bars and gambling dens with the sailors as their main clientele.
The vices needed for a good sailor ahoy on shore are not unique but human and lest we use our individal morals to judge them consider that it was this human need that enabled whole towns to be built.
At its peak Nyhavn counted the author like Hans Christian Anderson as a resident.
But this peak would give way to a trough.
Nyhavn’s shallow port meant that its countdown to irrelevance began the day it was completed. There would come a point eventually when larger ships would not be able pass through the narrow waterways. This began in the 18th century and the harbour became a mini-port for domestic freight vessels. However even function would give way as land transport became even more efficient at the end of the Second World War.
By the 1960s, Nyhavn was a ghost town that needed revitalisation and outcome over years of efforts is the tourist honeypot today. So popular that local guides now advise against Nyhavn for an authentic experience.
Our guide (from this company) pointed at Nyhavn, “great view, not so great food at really not great prices.” This is in one of the most expensive countries around. If even the locals think its too expensive, I don’t think many of us would want to disagree.
It is however a great starting point for a canal trip around the city.
This is a marker of success though, besides being on every postcard, Nyhavn was the symbolic backdrop when Lili’s first public emergence as a woman in The Danish Girl.
Simply put, if Nyhavn hadn’t succeeded in bringing in the crowds tour guides would not be advising to beware of tourist traps.
Still, trap or not, if the weather is good, its a great place to (do what the Danes do and) grab a beer and sit by the waterfront, watching the day go by.
ON THE MAP