I lied down in my bed at the cozy Hotel Tiffany in Copenhagen, Denmark, spent from my first full day of exploring this charming capital, from its disappointingly little Little Mermaid statue to its surprisingly interesting Christiansborg Castle. As soon as I closed my eyes, a tremendous explosion nearby jolted me. Although I couldn’t see the bursts of color in the sky, I could hear the fireworks that seemed to go on, and on, and on…
Perhaps it was a national holiday that I hadn’t read up on? Or, maybe, Denmark had finally won the World Cup? Was it the queen’s birthday? None of the above, I found out the following morning from the chap who delivered my daily breakfast of breads, juice, and superior Danish cheese to my room; it was just another Saturday night at Tivoli Gardens.
Tivoli Gardens, an unusually elegant amusement park and pleasure ground, occupies a good chunk of the heart of Copenhagen, the equivalent of, say, dropping a Six Flags in Manhattan’s Times Square. Tivoli opened in 1843 and remains the second-oldest operating amusement park and second-most popular seasonal theme park in the world. With annual visits approaching five million, the gardens’ patrons owe a debt of gratitude to its founder, who cajoled King Christian VIII into giving him space for a permanent amusement park by presciently reminding the ruler that “when the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics” — a very tempting motivator for a monarch.
The genius of the gardens is its appeal to people of all ages. Children relish the opportunity to play arcade games, board the St. George pirate ship in the manmade lake, and challenge their intestinal fortitude on 32 rides, including those ominously named Demon, Monsoon, and Vertigo, as well as the more benign-sounding Panda and Classic Carousel, and on one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters.
Plenty of mostly blond children were having the time of their lives, but I was also impressed by the number of adults, from thirtysomethings to golden girls, strolling around the grounds sans offspring. Various gardens (Japanese, hanging, and bamboo, among others), a very refined hotel (ranked as or among the best in the city by everyone from Small Luxury Hotels of the World to TripAdvisor to Condé Nast Traveller to Trivago), and a host of restaurants appeal to a more sophisticated palate.
After meandering around the storybook buildings and absorbing the sheer happiness that this blithesome park seems to generate, I stopped for a little snack al fresco at Grøften. Over a bowl of thick cream of mushroom soup and some decadently sweet strawberries and cream, I began to anticipate one of Tivoli’s most renowned attractions: the lights. Garish neon signs, fluorescent lights, and glaring lampposts are all absent from the gardens. Instead, the whole place is lit solely by lanterns and millions of white and colored light bulbs, transforming it into a rather dreamy and unexpectedly romantic setting.
But I’d have to wait a while longer. Even though my watch read a bit past eight, sunset doesn’t arrive in Denmark until around 10 in July, and another 30 minutes must pass until darkness inks the sky. But there’s always something here to keep you entertained while you bide your time, so I attended a 90-minute performance in the Tivoli Concert Hall, built in 1956 (after Nazi sympathizers burned down the original in 1943) with a capacity of more than 1,600. Musicians playing cellos, violins, and a bratsche (a German viola) engaged the audience with a medley of classical works from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
By the time the concert ended, hints of dusk had gently appeared. Slowly, as the sky darkened, the magic began. Lights outlined the arches, window frames, pilasters, and dome of the exotic Moorish-style Nimb Hotel. Nearly 100,000 colored lights illuminated the Chinese pagoda, reflected in the waters of Dragon Boat Lake. Quiet phased out the boisterous exclamations of excited children as parents made for the exits, toting their worn-out sons and daughters who were up well past their bedtime, their gleeful shouts carried away by the cool breezes that claimed victory over the heat of the day. Lanterns threw flickering shadows on the alleys I now sauntered along, in no particular rush to depart this Danish never-never land. Lulled into a luxuriant state of somnolence, by the time I passed under the wonderful arch at the main entrance, trimmed with hundreds of light bulbs, I was ready for a long slumber, feeling just a little bit younger than I did at the start of the day.