My 7 Biggest Surprises Moving to Denmark

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Last month marked my two year anniversary of moving to Copenhagen. Celebrating my “Denmark Day” with Mike and my friends was a lot of fun, and it made me think about some of the biggest surprises I experienced when expatriating. It’s been a lot more than expat housing and Danish hygge – those things I could read about online before I showed up. Everyday expat life in Copenhagen (København) can be very familiar but still so different, and here are my 7 biggest surprises moving to Denmark.

1. Biking is Mandatory

I biked quite a bit in Philadelphia, I was even a member of the city bike rental program. However, in Copenhagen, cycling is a way of life. Everyone bikes and it was intimidating, to begin with, but now I am a pro! Due to its massive 350km infrastructure of bike paths, Copenhagen is the #1 most bike-friendly city in Europe (sorry Amsterdam). Many cycle lanes even have bike traffic lights. In the city center, you will see more bikes than cars on the roads. You can check out the Visit Denmark website if you want to verify it. They have an entire page dedicated to biking in Copenhagen.

2. Smoking is Everywhere

Smoking has been banned almost everywhere I have lived for the last 15 years. However, that is certainly not the case in Denmark. It isn’t just the Copenhagen bars that are smokey. On the street and outdoor cafes, pretty much everywhere you go, someone will be smoking. While some bars are moving towards smoking bans, it was a big surprise for smoking to be as commonplace. Even the queen smokes! Danes are extremely healthy and health conscious, so the smoking trend really blew my mind. This was one of the biggest surprises moving to Denmark.

7 biggest surprises moving to Denmark
The queen letting one burn

3. Daylight is Insane

I always loved the long summer days in the northeast United States. It’s great when the sun sets late and you can enjoy sitting outside all evening. Because of that, I knew that living in Scandinavia would provide me with much longer days and hours of extra sunlight. What I did not expect is that it would wreak havoc on my sleeping patterns and general sanity through the summer months.

In late April, Copenhagen crosses over a point where the daylight is equal to the longest day of the year in Philadelphia (aka the summer solstice) and from there the days get longer by about 8 minutes a day. By the end of June, a night out at the bars can mean that you’re walking home in daylight. The sun doesn’t really set, it just kind of dims and then rises again. Some nights our first summer we would be out with friends having a few drinks and then realize it was 10:30 pm, the sun was still out and we hadn’t eaten dinner and have work the next day.

The sun rising at 3:00 am also means you need blackout shades to keep your brain from waking up hours before you need to get ready for work. The daylight in summer is insane compared to the short, dark winter days. This is one of the biggest surprises moving to Denmark and one of the most difficult.

4. Communication is Easy

I started learning Danish before I moved to Copenhagen using the Duolingo app on my phone. It was somewhat effective and I had a base when I arrived and began Danish lessons a few months later. What I didn’t realize is just how English-fluent the Danish population is. In fact, when I try to speak Danish today, most Danes prefer to continue the conversation in English (mostly because I haven’t mastered the pronunciation and my accent isn’t pleasant). I want to continue learning so that I can communicate better with my Danish friends, but communicating has been surprisingly simple so far.

5. Drinking is Life

One of my favorite surprises about living in Denmark is just how common it is to drink wherever and whenever you want. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a few beers in the work refrigerator and crack some open around 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon. There’s no open container law and no “last call” at the bars, so that can make for some exciting nights out. When friends come to visit we usually give them a walking tour that includes stopping at the 7-11 for a single beer to drink as we walk and sightsee.

7 biggest surprises moving to Denmark
Skål (cheers!)

6. Julefrokost is the event of the year

A Danish Julefrokost is the social highlight of anyone’s Christmas season. It’s the equivalent of a company holiday party (although you can use the same term for a Christmas dinner with friends or a club). A Julefrokost is alcohol-fueled and has a bit of a Vegas bachelor party atmosphere. Anything goes, and the stories don’t leave the group. Part of the reason is that spouses and significant others are not included. This was a surprising twist to learn, but it’s very common to socialize separately from your significant other in Denmark. It’s actually been a nice trait to adopt – especially for Julefrokost parties.

moving to denmark christmas is a big deal like at tivoli gardens christmas market
Christmas at Tivoli Gardens

7. The Danish flag is Everything

I used to think that Americans loved to wave and display the American flag. Then I moved here and was surprised to see that Danes take it to a whole new level. The Danish revere their flag and it’s common to decorate with the Danish flag for any major event. For your birthday, your colleagues will decorate your workspace with the Danish flag and you can expect to see it all over the place for every national holiday.

Their pride in the Danish flag is not without reason, Denmark has the oldest continually used flag in the world and it has an incredible origin story. Depending on your sources (mine is always wikipedia), the flag fell from the sky in 1208 and landed on a battlefield in present-day Estonia. The war campaign was all but lost before the lambskin flag fell from the heavens. As you would imagine, the Danish king led his troops to victory and the rest is history.

7 biggest surprises moving to Denmark
Culture combined

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These are my biggest surprises moving to Denmark.

Which of these is the most surprising and how do they sound to you?

Have you ever moved anywhere different and been surprised?

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