Visiting the eclectic enclave of Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen
Everything you need to know about the quirky commune of Christiania.
As anyone who has visited Copenhagen, Denmark knows, the city is constantly abuzz with a lively, vibrant energy 24 hours a day. The Danish people and especially residents of Copenhagen pride themselves on their independent spirit and unique approach to life. You might enjoy a cozy coffee in traditional hygge style one day, go swimming at the city’s pristine beaches the next, and head out into the abundant wilderness for a camping adventure the following day. From the city’s wholehearted embrace of all things green and ecological, to the herds of bicyclists zipping through the city streets commuting to work and school every day, to the eclectic modern architecture and burgeoning food and music scenes, Copenhagen is a widely recognised mecca for all kinds of outside-the-box thinkers. And that bold and fearlessly independent spirit is especially apparent in the intentional community of Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen.
Freetown Christiania—usually referred to simply as Christiania—is a unique community founded on a disused military base right in the heart of Copenhagen. The original residents of what is sometimes referred to as an “anarchist commune,” sometimes as an “autonomous intentional community,” pried open fencing surrounding the decommissioned base and started squatting there in the early 1970s. The community grew, and residents constructed housing and soon declared themselves a separate and an open city. And while such a contentious beginning of course prompted some scuffles with law enforcement and government regulators over the years—who unsurprisingly frowned upon Christiania’s embrace of all things marijuana and their (former) flouting of the national ban on cannabis—the community is the legal home to between 850 and 1,000 full-time residents today. They live in wildly eclectic, often vividly painted houses constructed out of found lumber, discarded steel panels, and at least one house made entirely of discarded windows in their frames. A good portion of the area claimed by the community is green space as well, a sprawling parkland that straddles the canal or moat that separates two layers of the city’s old defensive walls.
Having such a singular community just minutes from the heart of a cosmopolitan center for tourism like Copenhagen naturally draws curiosity seekers and Instagram-hungry visitors. In fact, Christiania is ranked as the fourth-most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen and draws some 500,000 visitors each year. And for the most part, the residents of Christiania don’t seem to mind visitors — indeed there are cafes, restaurants, and vendors hawking all kinds of goods there to the tourists who come for a visit. However, if you go, there are few rules of the road you should be aware of. This guide will tell you all you need to know to enjoy your visit to Freetown Christiania, including how to get there, what to see while you’re there, when to go, and how to make sure you don’t run afoul of the community members who call Christiania, Copenhagen home. But first…
A little history
Christiania was formed out of the remains of a former military barracks called Bådsmandsstræde along with parts of the original city ramparts dating back to 1617. In the early part of the 17th century, King Christian IV ordered the construction of what was then a separate city called Christianshavn, built up from reclaimed beaches and small islands between the original city of Copenhagen and the island of Amager. The ramparts were originally constructed to form a complete defensive wall structure on the reclaimed land, and eventually extended to surround the entire city over the course of the 1600s. By the 19th century, Copenhagen had outgrown the western side of the ramparts and they were ordered torn down. However, the walls on the eastern side, where Christianshavn faces the sea a short distance away across Amagen were allowed to remain. To this day these walls along the east side of Freetown Christiania are considered one the best-preserved examples of surviving 17th-century defensive structures in the world.
The walls that form the outermost section of the ramparts have been dubbed Dyssen by the residents of Christiania and connect to the heart of Christiania via a bridge and a footpath on the northern end. Among other historical points of interest in Freetown Christiania are four former gunpowder storehouses that line the walls and date back to 1779-1780. They are located at four of the five redans, which are the triangular defensive points built into the wall that extend out toward the direction of anticipated attack. Incorporated into the walls and now the community of Christiania, they carry a fascinating history of their own that dovetails nicely with the overall history of the community. The then-remote location was chosen for gunpowder storage following a 1770 explosion at the former gunpowder magazine located in central Copenhagen, an explosion that resulted in 50 deaths. Following much the same reasoning, the Danish military in the 20th century also used the remote area for munitions storage, a link to the past spanning the centuries and centering in Christiania, Copenhagen.
However, these days the residents of Freetown Christiania have turned a full 180 on the buildings’ former use as tools in the making of war, renaming the four of them Kosmiske Blomst (Cosmic Flower) Aircondition, Autogena, and Fakirskolen (The Fakir School). Although a number of buildings within the former military base were designated as historically protected landmarks in 2007, over the years the residents of Christiania have made some minor alterations to them.
Another historical site of note that falls within the boundaries of Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen is the location of the last execution site in Denmark, the Københavns Gamle Henrettelsesplads or Copenhagen Old Execution Space. It is located at the Second Redan near the building that has been dubbed Aircondition. On this site following World War II, 29 convicted war criminals were executed. The final time it was used for its original purpose was in 1950 when a high-ranking Danish collaborator who was convicted of working with the Gestapo was shot. Although the wooden walls of the building are no longer there, the concrete pad that made up the structure’s foundation remains, and a drain for the blood of the executed is visible at the center.
Up to and during World War II, the barracks the Danish military constructed in the former region of Christianshavn housed soldiers who were tasked with maintaining and storing ammunition and weapons. The need for the barracks fell off steeply in the post-war years, and by the late 1960s the army began operations to shut the base. By 1971 the barracks and the surrounding lands were abandoned and closed off with fencing and barricades.
But with the sprawling base area being guarded only sporadically by night watchmen, homeless people started moving in to the region and sleeping in the abandoned buildings. By this time, neighbourhood residents had also begun prying open parts of the fencing surrounding the base and using the grassy areas as playgrounds for their children.
The birth of a community
The origins of how the community of Christiania, Copenhagen started, or at least the story behind who first accessed the base and began staying there long-term are somewhat muddy — most accounts say the founding of Freetown Christiania was organic and haphazard, while some claim that it was an organised protest against the government of Denmark due to a lack of affordable housing. Either way, by September of 1971, a journalist named Jacob Ludvigsen, a former member of the Provo counterculture movement—which sought to provoke violent responses from the Danish government using non-violent baiting tactics—declared Christiania an “open city.” In a widely-distributed article, Ludvigsen described how he and five compatriots had “conquered” what he termed “The Forbidden City of the Military,” and declared Freetown Christiania open for anyone interested in building up “a society from scratch.”
“Christiania is the land of the settlers,” he wrote. Later, in co-authoring the mission statement of Christiania, Ludvigsen said that the goal of the community would be “to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community.” Indeed, the ethos of caring for one another and community are important threads running through the history of Christiania. The community members are deeply into yoga and meditation, and although hard drugs are forbidden, Ludvigsen and the community’s other founders extended a standing offer to people looking to recover from drug addiction in a non-judgmental, healing environment, especially, as Ludvigsen wrote, for “…the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race” of modern life outside the walls of Christiania.
Such tolerance and declarations of independence from duly-elected government authority comes with risk however. Over the years various Danish governments have undertaken different tactics to try to reign in or evict the residents of Christiania, and the residents have not infrequently found themselves in direct conflict with police and other government forces. In 2007, an effort by the Danish forestry department to demolish the remains of an abandoned building on the land claimed as part of Freetown Christiania caused an outcry among residents, who took the incursion by forestry workers escorted by police as intent to begin demolishing all the structures in the area and evicting the residents. After the forestry workers and police entered Christiania, residents made improvised roadblocks, threw rocks and shot fireworks at police vehicles.
Eventually the police stormed Christiania in force, used tear gas on the residents and made a number of arrests, including the arrest of one resident who sneaked past the police lines and dumped a bucket of urine and faeces on the police commander. In total, 50 people were arrested, and prosecutors demanded heavy sentences, declaring in court that Christiania was in a “state of rebellion.” This, despite the fact that the residents of Christiania had forged an agreement with the Danish defence ministry in 1994 to allow them to occupy the land and pay taxes and fees for water, power and garbage pick-up. It wasn’t until 2011 when the residents of Christiania finally hammered out an agreement to buy the land at below-market prices that the community of Christiania was officially recognised as legitimate. The first payment was made in 2012, making the members of the anarchic collective known as Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen part of the landed gentry.
These days the residents of Christiania continue to be avid practitioners of meditation and yoga. The community is also home to a theatrical group that in the past has performed happenings across the city of Copenhagen. Christiania, Copenhagen also celebrates LGBTQ rights and is home to Gay House, an autonomous institution that works as a center for LGBTQ activism and hosts frequent parties, cabaret and variety shows and theatre that is beloved in wider Copenhagen’s LGBTQ community.
Christiania and drugs
If you’d previously heard of Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen, it’s most likely in reference to the enclave’s reputation for openly defying Denmark’s cannabis laws. For years the community allowed the open sale of marijuana and hashish, and indeed the main thoroughfare where the cannabis trade was conducted is known as Pusher Street, although the council of Christiania prefer to call it The Green Light District. Interestingly, for years the government and police of Copenhagen tolerated this situation, despite the fact that marijuana remains illegal in Denmark. Some theorise that the sales were tolerated in Christiania because it meant that, although Christiania forbids hard drug use and sales, at least hash and marijuana peddling would largely be confined to one area.
However, all that changed following a shooting death in 2016 when a man believed to be carrying the receipts of marijuana sales for the day pulled a gun during a routine stop and shot two police officers and a civilian. He was subsequently killed in a shootout with the Danish version of a SWAT unit, but not before police had locked down the entire neighbourhood and the residents were stricken with fear. Following this incident, the community elected to shut down the cannabis stalls of Pusher Street and did so the following day, requesting that visitors respect the community’s decision and buy their weed elsewhere. Although cannabis sales in all likelihood continue there on the down-low, the shuttering of the open stalls reportedly has caused a 75 percent decline in the drug trade in Christiania.
Christiania rules of the road
So for the first-time visitor to Christiania, Copenhagen, the first rule to keep in mind is that, despite Christiania’s long-time reputation for openness and especially openness to cannabis, looking for drugs there is a big no-no. Not only do police periodically patrol looking for illicit activity, the residents of the area have asked visitors to respect their desire to keep that kind of trouble outside the walls of the enclave. In addition, the community has a list of nine hard and fast Christiania rules:
No weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no biker colours, no bulletproof clothing, no sale of fireworks, no use of firecrackers or other incendiary devices, and no stolen goods.
Another thing to keep in mind is that residents prefer that visitors don’t run and indeed there used to be a sign announcing that rule as you entered; given the past difficulties with the law and with violent drug dealers, a person running in Christiania and especially on Pusher Street is capable of sparking a panic.
As mentioned earlier, one of the unique and wonderful things about Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen is that it’s located within the city, making it easy to get to via a variety of transportation options. That said, keep in mind that outside cars aren’t allowed into the community, so you might as well walk or take a short metro ride to get there. At the very least plan on parking some distance away if you do choose to drive.
From the city center at Norreport metro station catch the M2 train to Christianshavn station, just two stops away. From the station walk along Torvegade Street to the southeast two blocks until you reach Prinsessegade, where you’ll take a left. At the corner of Badsmandsstraede you’ll arrive at the bohemian community of Freetown Christiania.
If you choose to walk or cycle, it’s about a 2.3 km trip from Norreport, and offers a couple of cool famous sites to view along the way. Head to Fredericksborgadde and walk toward Amager, or southeast. The street will soon change to Kultorvet, and you will continue past the Round Tower or Rundetaarn, until you reach the canal and cross over. Next you’ll pass the gorgeous Christiansborg Palace with its 12th-century castle ruins. As you continue along the canal you’ll pass the impressive former stock exchange, the Borsen with its sharp, twisting spire. You’ll cross another canal and soon reach the Christianshavn metro stop where you’ll take a left. Just a short distance along you’ll see the beginning of Freetown Christiania Copenhagen on your right.
Another way to get there is to take the 350S bus from Norreport to Christianshavn St. and walk southeast in the direction of Dronningensgade, about 10-15 minutes from the entrance to Christiania.
What to do in Christiania
Shortly after you enter the enclave, you’ll see the infamous Pusher Street right away, and possibly a sign asking visitors to refrain from taking photographs “because hash is still illegal.” It’s likely that the ban on photos has been eased somewhat since the community shut down the open stalls, but nonetheless it’s still probably best to avoid photos in the Green Light District. Even elsewhere in Christiania, as you seek out Instagram-ready moments to share with friends and family, keep in mind that this is people’s home, and they’re not likely to take kindly to being photographed as if they were animals in a zoo. Be respectful and ask first, and most people will be happy to let you snap photos of them or their houses.
Keep in mind too that if you are interested in getting more of an insider’s view on the story of Christiania, there are usually people at the entrances offering their services as Christiania tour guides for a fee.
Some must-see sights include the Christiania Community center with its brightly painted facade and outdoor art installations. Nearby you’ll want to check out the Alis Wonderland skateboard park, which was built by a couple of second-generation Christiania residents, friends who returned to create one of the most beloved skateboarding spots in the entire city of Copenhagen.
If you’re up for some music there are plenty of venues in Christiania for all tastes, including the Christiania Jazz Club and Children’s Theater, which hosts acts of all kinds, from jazz to hip-hop and more in an intimate atmosphere. Loppen is another venue, more of a simple rock and roll hall featuring energetic shows and cheap beer, a favourite of locals and visitors alike. The Den Gra Hal is another great venue for concerts, lectures, and more.
Another of the unique draws that residents and visitors to Christiania enjoy is called Science and Cocktails at the community’s cinema, Byens Lys. Talented mixologists will whip up delicious and imaginative cocktails for visitors there to enjoy as they listen to lecturers talk on all kinds of science-related topics. Often the free-form nature of Christiania spills over into the lecture hall, and the talks morph into freewheeling discussions with the audience.
There are also any number of galleries, used and vintage clothing shops, and vendors selling all manner of tchotchkes related to Christiania throughout the community. Keep in mind too that if you visit during the holiday season, Christiania plays host to one of the most beloved Christmas markets in Copenhagen — and don’t worry, it’s indoors! You can enjoy a mulled wine and all kinds of Christmas cookies and treats as you shop the stalls for jewellery, clothing, and other artisanal handicrafts.
Finally, after spending some time in Freetown Christiania’s bars, cafes, and shops, and enjoying the creative graffiti and other human-made beauty, don’t forget to cross over the Dyssebroen, the bridge that connects the main commercial part of the enclave to the Amager side. This part of Christiania is wilder and greener, with lush grassy areas and trees, along with many houses. You can also find a number of platforms extending out over the water to sit and enjoy the tranquility of the natural area that the thoughtful residents of Christiania have protected for over five decades.
Restaurants and cafes
After you’ve built up an appetite with all the walking around, don’t worry because Freetown Christiania has plenty of dining options for all kinds of tastes. Given the enclave’s historic roots in hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s no surprise that vegetarian and vegan options abound. Some of the highest-rated restaurants include vegetarian restaurant Morgenstedet and Cafe Loppen, which specialises in vegetarian food inspired by Thai cuisine. Another great vegetarian choice for simple, down-to-earth food is Gronsagen. A great place for people-watching and to look for a chance to strike up a conversation with a local resident of Christiania is Manefiskeren, a great cafe with outdoor seating at long, communal picnic tables and even a pool table inside if it’s too cold for dining al fresco. Finally, for the unreconstructed carnivore, Cafe Nemoland offers tasty burgers and sandwiches, and is also renowned for its great coffee and creative desserts.
All in all, Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen is a wonderful and unique treasure. Local residents of Copenhagen as well as visitors flock to the enclave and with good reason. If you’re visiting Copenhagen, it’s well worth taking an afternoon and an evening to stroll around, have some dinner, and catch a show in one of the most creative intentional communities in the world!
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