Updated: Jan 21
I am not good at Dance Dance Revolution, playing poker, or tying knots, but I am very good, I've learned, at solo traveling.
Some of my fondest memories have been made on trips taken alone — like kayaking with a backpack full of bread and cheese in Lake Como, watching the sunset on a high-in-the-hills balcony in Santa Margherita Ligure, and eating spleen sandwiches with strangers at a street market in Sicily.
This does not at all mean that every moment of my solo trips has been fun. I’ve experienced plenty of boredom, loneliness, nervousness, self-consciousness and other bad “nesses” while traveling by myself. No matter how much fun I’ve had or how confident I feel, I’ll still die a little inside when I walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for one. I’ll still wish I’d brought along a friend to clink wine glasses with. I’ll still wonder if my whole trip was a bad idea when I feel nervous walking to my Airbnb at night.
But something, or some things, about traveling alone in Copenhagen made all of these worries go away. I never felt unsafe. I wasn’t bored for a second. And for the first time, I didn’t once feel sorry about being alone. I had a really peaceful time.
Copenhagen gets a lot of the credit for this. It’s charmingly colorful, has lots to do, and feels extremely safe. But there are a few things I did differently on my fifth solo trip that I think made it the best one yet.
I grabbed a seat at the bar. A revelation: It turns out you don't have to be a sad guy in a movie to sit at a bar alone. The bar is a naturally social place, where you practically have no choice but to meet the people sitting next to you, chat with the bartenders, or simply enjoy watching cocktails being shaken and conversations being had while minding your own business.
Balderdash, tucked right into Copenhagen’s touristy center, is the perfect place to do all of these things. It's a small, cozy, just-dimly-lit-enough hideaway from the city’s psychotic winds, and the friendly bartenders are just as interesting as the inventive cocktails they make. I had a white rum drink with apple, miso, maple, and truffle spray (which tasted mostly apple-y with a savory finish) while chatting with a couple from Brussels about how mayonnaise is the best condiment for French fries. I couldn’t have done that at a table by myself while wondering if everyone around me thought I was troubled!
I ate like no one was watching. I kind of always do this, but whatever. When I wasn’t taking a taste-bud world tour (from Japan with egg-topped shoyu ramen at Slurp Ramen Bar, then to China with spicy-as-sin pork-head terrine at Tigermom), I was still eating — but with my eyes. Just about every block on Copenhagen’s walkable streets is filled with cheese shops, wine stores, and organic produce markets that all look like they were curated by goop. “Buy me, buy me!” the artisanal products cheer chipperly from behind their pastel-painted storefronts. And if I lived there, I would, probably until I could no longer pay for internet or electricity.
And then there was the bread. I could talk about the cardamom croissant at Hart Bageri for the rest of my days. After a few very necessary sniffs of its glossy exterior, you bite through its flaky layers. The butter hits your tongue right away, then the crunchiness of the sugar, and then the purest cardamom flavor you’ve ever tasted. It’s shaped like a baby monkey bread, with a rounded bottom and bite-size pieces on top that you can pluck off and pop right into your mouth. I liked it so much that I went back again on Sunday and got extras for the plane ride home. (Another great thing about traveling alone: No one can judge you if you make your entire trip about croissants.)
I love the use of cardamom, which is warm and minty and herbal all at once, in Nordic treats like Swedish sweet buns and wafer cookies. It has the coziest flavor, like being wrapped in a blanket. So it makes a lot of sense that the Danes, the inventors of hygge (which is pronounced, to my shock, “hue-gah,” and means the joy of being cozy), are cardamom lovers.
I took a nerdy walking tour. I’ve long ignored people’s notions that walking tours are a great way to see a new city. How lame! I can walk myself around! I thought stubbornly. But now I must acknowledge that touring a city with a local reveals bits of knowledge you never could have unearthed yourself.
Without having taken my small-group, hygge-themed walking tour of Copenhagen, I wouldn't have learned, for instance, that you can still find a key hidden in the mouth of a lion statue in front of Rosenborg Castle (a trick that promiscuous King Christian IV used to sneak ladies who weren’t his wife into the palace).
And of course, had I not taken this dorky little tour, I wouldn’t have learned about hygge from a real Danish person. In true cozy form, my companions and I cradled giant cappuccinos while making messes of the flaky, poppyseed-studded tebirkes pastries that our guide, Sandra, ate every Sunday as a kid. Her hygge, she told us, is reading in pajamas from morning to night, letting the hours pass without checking the clock or thinking about tomorrow. This is somewhat foreign to me. I spend plenty of days relaxing — eating, strolling, hanging out with friends — but there’s almost always a plan, a certain place to be by a certain time. I’m always checking the clock. But Sandra might be onto something. The last time I spent a whole day unplanned, I was so struck by it that I felt compelled to blog about it. I guess that means I should do it more often.
I experienced new Firsts, alone. By far the most wonderful thing I saw on this trip was a concert by Lennon Stella, an angel-voiced singer from Canada who is apparently loved by 16-year-old girls and me. This was my first-ever solo concert. Standing just a few feet away from Lennon in the small venue, surrounded by groups of Danish speakers, I knew right away that I felt more comfortable being there alone than I would have with a friend. I didn’t have to worry about if anyone else was having fun or if I was dancing too eagerly or singing too loudly. With no one to care for but myself, I totally let go, beaming uncontrollably and feeling more joyful than I’d felt in a long time.
My First Solo Concert definitely beat my First Solo Rollercoaster Ride, which was fun in a very dumb way. Fresh off the airport train, I strode into Tivoli Gardens, which is the second-oldest theme park in the world, 112 years older than Disneyland and about the size of its largest women’s restroom. In the middle of winter, most of the rides were closed — but not The Demon. I took one look at the coaster’s devilishly crimson twists and turns, and the next thing I knew, I was swiping my credit card, strapping myself into the third row, and unfortunately surrendering my glasses to the attendant who made me take them off. Blind and by far the oldest person in sight, I still laughed the belly laugh that only a neck-jerking, loop-the-loop-filled rollercoaster can produce. I think it lasted about 15 seconds.
All of the best things about my trip — my walking tour, my solo concert, and my first bite of that Hart Bageri cardamom croissant — happened on Saturday, which was an almost unfairly perfect day. It’s only fitting that on Sunday, aggressive winds and rain not only quashed my plans to window shop in the great outdoors, but also canceled my flight back to Florence.
With no one else’s wishes to consider, I was free to hide from the weather exactly how I wanted to: with steak tartare in the first restaurant I could find, while watching the rainfall and reading old reviews of Mad Men. Some things, you've just got to do alone.