White-hot Refshaleoen: Meet the trendiest neighborhood in Europe you’ve never heard of

The iconic Copenhagen microbrewery Mikkeller has a tasting room along the waterfront in Refshaleoen, Denmark.


By MARK JOHANSON | Chicago Tribune | Published: July 4, 2019

The Oxford Dictionary defines hygge as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment.” The Danish concept has become so popular that it made the dictionary’s word of the year shortlist in 2016.

I first discover the true meaning of hygge at La Banchina, a 16-seat farm-to-table pescatarian restaurant overlooking Copenhagen Harbor. Some in today’s lunch crowd are frolicking in the sea despite the near freezing mid-winter temperatures. Others are swirling glasses of natural wine as they peruse the three daily Nordic dishes scribbled in erasable marker on the back window — all of which will be cooked right in front of them so as to create a dialogue with the chef.

La Banchina embodies one of the defining characteristics of Danish culture, yet its setting is anything but cozy.

“When we opened in 2016, there was basically nothing in Refshaleoen,” La Banchina’s manager, Signe Norregaard, says of the neighborhood, which was, until recently, an industrial wasteland.

Refshaleoen (pronounced ref-say-loon) is less than 3 miles from the city center — a 15-minute bus ride from Copenhagen Central Station. But Norregaard, like most Copenhageners, had never ventured here growing up. She even had to look up directions the first time she came.

A good day at La Banchina in 2016 meant 20 guests. Now, this hygge-infused slice of warehouse-lined Refshaleoen regularly handles 400. Such is the skyrocketing appeal of the unlikely neighborhood as it emerges from the ashes of its industrial past to become Copenhagen’s new capital of cool.

Refshaleoen was, from 1872 to 1996, home to the shipyard of Burmeister & Wain, which at one point was Denmark’s largest employer. An icon of Danish industrial history, the area had been largely closed to the public until about six years ago, when it opened up and reinvented itself as one of Europe’s most innovative neighborhoods. Now, it’s a place for raging music festivals, top New Nordic restaurants, and trailblazing displays of sustainable design.

La Banchina lies in the former waiting room of the old shipyard where workers would clock in for the day. The only new establishment that predates it in Refshaleoen is Amass, an American-owned restaurant in a graffiti-filled warehouse that offers multicourse degustation menus set to hip-hop.

Chef de cuisine Max Bogenmann shows me the 1,075-square-yard urban garden at Amass, where he sources between 15% and 25% of the produce, depending on the season. In the colder months, it might be brimming with cabbages, kales or swiss chards. Over the spring and summer months, you’ll find tomatoes, herbs and berries.

Having a space for a garden in real estate-hungry Copenhagen was the reason they set up shop in Refshaleoen in 2013.

“It’s become very important to us over the last couple of years to try and become more conscious and responsible about the way we cook,” Bogenmann says.

Like its new neighbor Noma — which bagged the No. 1 slot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times before relocating to Refshaleoen last year — Amass champions locavorism and sustainability within the cooking industry. It opened a craft brewery in a warehouse across the street in January called Broaden & Build to “look at beer through a chef’s eyes.” Bogenmann says cooks use the offcuts from the restaurant for snacks, while the brews incorporate things such as fruit rinds and surplus herbs.

That same warehouse also houses a genre-defying alcohol company, Empirical Spirits, and a newly opened modern art gallery called Copenhagen Contemporary. Future tenants include madcap chef Rasmus Munk, who plans a five-hour-long dining experience spanning 50 small courses at his forthcoming restaurant Alchemist.

“Were you to ask me five years ago if I thought all food and drinks was moving out to Refshaleoen, I would have said certainly not. It wasn’t a place you came,” Empirical Spirits chief operating officer Ian Moore tells me. “But it happened and it’s really cool.”

I sample a few bottles in Empirical Spirits’ new tasting room — including Charlene McGee, a mescal-like juniper spirit inspired by the local culinary tradition of smoking — and follow it up with a much-needed pick-me-up coffee at the nearby artisanal bakery Lille.

I pass Urban Ranger Camp — where former B&W shipyard halls hold the world’s highest indoor ropes course — en route to Refshaleoen’s most talked about new feature: CopenHill. This waste-to-energy plant is capable of processing approximately 560,000 tons of waste annually to supply more than 72,000 apartments with heating and 30,000 with electricity. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the skyline-dominating geometric wedge will also have a ski slope and trail running course on its roof, as well as the world’s tallest manmade climbing wall rising 279 feet up its side.

“When the government announced the design contest for the facility, one of the things they wanted was that at least 15% of the roof would be used by the citizens,” CopenHill’s head of innovation Cecilie Nielsen says as we tour the site ahead of its summer opening. “BIG, the firm that won, was like ‘Why not 100%?’ So, they came up with this plan, which people thought was crazy.”

CopenHill remains fantastically outrageous. When complete, it will have a restaurant up top and an area for apres-ski down below, making it the closest thing you can get to a ski resort in the heart of a flat city.

I walk to the opposite side of this post-industrial playground just as the sun is plunging into the harbor. My destination is CopenHot, an oh-so Scandinavian sauna complex on the neighborhood’s northern edge.

CopenHot is a true Nordic wonderland with one sauna, two “sailing spas” and a half-dozen hot tubs. Lit by billowing bonfires when I arrive, it’s yet another hygge-infused place built for harnessing those prized Danish feelings of wellness and contentment.

I opt for a sailing hot spa, purely for the novelty of it. These floating Jacuzzis are like the Teslas of the sea, with silent electric motors that keep the mood serene as I bob around Refshaleoen’s freezing waters while soaking in a 104-degree moving tub.

Owner Ole Agnholt Markdal, who’s joined me for the ride, tells me that oscillating between the cold seawater and a sauna or spa is a trick Danes use to fight the depression of long winters.

“It’s a free drug,” he explains. “The first time you do it, you’re laughing nervously; the next time, you’re addicted.”

I become hooked, as warned, dragging my numb limbs in and out of the frigid harbor, getting high on this free Danish drug.

We float alongside the shore as old warehouses glow under fairy lights for the Friday night crowd. It strikes me that, for such a gritty area, Refshaleoen has become improbably cozy.

What would those wizened shipbuilders think if they could see this place now?

Expected to open this summer, CopenHill is a ski complex on top of a waste-to-energy plant in Refshaleoen. The ski slope is made with a synthetic surface called Neveplast so it can be used year-round.