A Copenhagen Treasure: Christiana, a Colorful Bohemian Neighborhood

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

My Baltic Sea cruise ended in Copenhagen, Denmark. Now, I had three days to explore this fascinating city.

Christiana neighborhood, Copenhagen, Denmark

My travel companion, Susan, and I thoroughly enjoyed the city tour (see previous blog) and a visit to the monarch’s palaces. We were slowly figuring out how to navigate the city center of Copenhagen. It seemed a maze of narrow streets and intriguing alleyways, all going in a different direction. At least we had a big clock tower as a beacon in the labyrinth to guide us back to our hotel. So, we were keen on venturing out.

Next on our list of places to tour was the Christiana neighborhood within the city limits of Copenhagen. First, we needed a bit of background so we could fully appreciate this unique part of the city.

For much of the 20th century Christianshavn was a working-class neighborhood, but Christiana, a small borough in the Christianshavn neighborhood, grew into a bohemian paradise during the turbulent 1970s. It is now a fashionable, diverse, and lively part of the city with its own distinctive personality. Businesspeople, students, artists, hippies and traditional families with children live side by side.

Christiana neighborhood, phot Denise Ames

We decided to explore just Christiana, the most interesting and eclectic borough. Christian is an intentional community and commune of about 850 to 1,000 residents, covering 7.7 hectares (19 acres). Even though it is small in size, it packs a lot of cultural punch.

The area of Christiania was formerly a military base and after the military moved out the area was only haphazardly guarded. There was periodic trespassing by homeless people who gradually took over the empty buildings as squatters. On September 4, 1971, inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood broke down the fence to take over parts of the unused area as a playground for their children.

Christiana neighborhood, photo Denise Ames

On September 26, 1971, Christiania was self-declared as open and free. The idealistic mission of Christiania was to be a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. As a result, many young people flooded into the area.

The hippie and squatter movement, along with the philosophy of collectivism and anarchism contributed to the spirit of Christiania.

Backway to Christiana, photo Denise Ames

Christiania has been a source of controversy ever since its creation from a military compound to a squatted alternative settlement in 1971. Although hard drugs are forbidden, cannabis is allowed. Hence, a lively drug trade in cannabis has often sparked violence, including murder and shootings. Although some people in Copenhagen see Christiania as a scourge, others see it as a source of positive alternative and communal lifestyles. 

Susan and I entered Christiania through a maze of paths, sidewalks, steps, and parks along the river. Our navigation of the city was not fully functioning as of yet. But we made it. It was fun to come in the “back” way, it seemed as though we were entering a forbidden land.

Christiana neighborhood, photo Denise Ames

But it was hardly a forbidden land, Christiania is the fourth most frequented tourist destination in Copenhagen. In fact, many buildings were dedicated to the tourist trade, selling tie-dyed t-shirts, drug paraphernalia, incense, and anything else associated with the 60s and 70s hippie culture.  Since Susan and I lived through the hippie days, we weren’t as taken as others in purchasing what was commonplace over 50 years ago.

I did enjoy wandering through the streets and taking in the graffiti splashed across buildings and colorful art work adorning everything from benches to tractors. It seemed important to residents to make a visual statement on anything that had a paintable surface.

Christiana neighborhood, photo Denise Ames

Christiania really was a great place to open up one’s senses. It was visually stimulating, we could hear rock music blasted from speakers, and the aroma of cannabis freely floated through the air. Since Susan and I wanted to keep our senses alert to get back to our hotel, we declined any temptation to partake in a “toke.”

Speaking of drugs, I was surprised to see so many reminders—either on murals, walls, or informational displays— that hard drugs were illegal and to be viewed with caution. Whether addicted druggies were deterred by these well-meaning messages is hard to say.

After strolling through Christiania for several hours we were getting hungry and ready to find a restaurant to sit down and relax our weary feet. Since we were not eager to listen to full-volume renditions of the Grateful Dead (those days had passed) we decided to look for a quieter dining venue.

Christiana neighborhood, photo Denise Ames

We exited through the quaint and welcoming entrance to Christiania. I took a final look back at the hodgepodge of stores, houses, warehouses, and improvised buildings that made up this unusual neighborhood. I gazed at the throngs of tourists and the apparent locals in their worn sandals and colorful garb, some had a look of purpose and dedication etched onto their youthful faces.

From what I could tell, I could imagine that the people who called this place home were committed to making it a place of alternative ways of living that that were more human-centered to the modern atmosphere of impersonal Copenhagen. Whether their visions were idealistic fantasies of a utopian future or realistic alternatives to the stresses of modern life was not clear to me as I made by way through the archway that simply read: Christiania.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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