COPENHAGEN — Hans Christian Andersen didn't invent this city, but it seems that many of its citizens get up every morning wistfully determined to relive his 19th-Century fairy tales with all the engaging fantasies he left in his notebooks and sketch pads.
Walk down the lively Stroget shopping mall that runs through town and you'll hear a harp-guitar duo playing perfect background music for Andersen's "Little Mermaid" or "The Nightingale."
Mailmen wheel by on bicycles, their brilliant red jackets a colorful match for the lacquered mailboxes. A children's band marches through Tivoli Gardens in full colorful regalia of the Queen's Life Guards, the pretend king and queen following in a miniature carriage and naturally making faces at each other.
Yet with all their playfulness and good humor, Danes never neglect hard work and the quality of life in this rich little country. Nor is the cultural ambiance overlooked. Copenhagen has more concerts, ballet, theater, jazz, museums and galleries than many of the world's larger capitals.
Still, the nostalgic and fanciful are never far from the surface. Andersen's ugly duckling turned into a swan, and Danes of course decided that was the perfect national bird.
Here to there: SAS has the only nonstop; KLM, Northwest, TWA, BA and Finnair fly here with changes. Take the SAS airport bus into town for about $2.50, a taxi for around $10.
How long/how much? Two to three days, certainly if you spend time on marvelous shopping and a visit to lots of attractions outside town. Alas, the Danish good life doesn't come cheap: Hotels are downright expensive. Moderate dining is possible if you stick to the Danmenu, two excellent courses for less than $9 including service charge and tip. Local specialties are often offered.
A few fast facts: The Danish krone was recently worth 13 cents, about 7.6 to one U.S. dollar. Summer weather is in the pleasant 50s and 60s; winters are usually in the 30s, thanks to a warming Gulf Stream. Good buses and trams will get you around town, a Copenhagen Card lets you ride them at will, plus gain entry to most museums and Tivoli, for $9 daily, about $19 for three days. Or join just about every other native by renting a bicycle for $5.50 daily.
Getting settled in: Vestersohus (Vestersogade 58; $96 B&B double) added new furnishings in many of its rooms since our last visit, making this homey place beside a canal even more inviting. Small lobby, pretty breakfast room with African daisies on pink cloths, roof garden overlooking water where people gather for evening coffee or drinks among rose, strawberry and tomato plants. For another $6.50 you get a room with kitchen.
Ascot (Studiestraede 57; $68-$80 B&B winters, $83-$100 summers), a renovated 18th-Century town house just a block from the main square, has a marvelous old staircase leading up from the lobby, stained-glass windows, modern rooms with colorful graphics and the usual hearty Danish breakfasts in a cozy room.
Extensive renovation last year has made the Triton (Helgolandsgade 7; $83 B&B winters, $93 summers) a pleasant stop. An imaginative architect has made the medium-size rooms with Danish-modern furniture most comfortable and attractive. Really nice bar, bright buffet breakfast room with communal tables, staff super helpful and friendly.
Regional food and drink: Smorrebrod, the "butter bread" open-face sandwiches, come close to being the national passion, shrimp, eel and smoked salmon versions being the most toothsome. Danish pork is among the world's best, thanks to keeping the pigs inside and so clean and pink that they look like marzipan. A Danish friend insists that they also have two extra ribs, a porcine quirk to contemplate.
The same Dane insists that expatriates miss the country's marvelous new potatoes more than anything. But we'll settle for an evening over a table of Copenhagen's spectacular array of seafood, almost too bountiful to believe.
Have a go at aquavit, the caraway- or dill-flavored national drink, chased with beer. Two or three and you're as funny as Victor Borge.
Moderate-cost dining: Smorrebrod for lunch is another good way to hold costs down, so join the prime minister and his Cabinet members at Slotskaelderen (Fortunstraede 4) for roast beef or pork, fish fillet, pate, egg-and-shrimp and more exotic types for about $10, including beer and a shot of aquavit.
Two doors down you'll find Nickoli, an old church converted into casual restaurant. A good variety of fish, salmon with peppercorns and sour cream $7, artichoke stuffed with zillions of baby shrimp $5.25. Probably the best deal in town is the railway station restaurant where an enormous smorgasbord is yours for $11.
Going first-class: One of the best locations is that of SAS Royal (Hammerichsgade 1; $240), across from Tivoli and a block from the main square. The restaurants are excellent, service brisk, rooms very comfortable.