A long time ago – but still within living memory – a group of homeless people took over a military base. Yet no one came to throw them out, so they stayed. And then, remarkably, the place transformed into an autonomous community with its own laws and became virtually a country inside another. You can even go visit, and it’s amazing.
This curious place is found in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, which is a pretty wonderful place just on its own. It’s considered one of the best eating and shopping destinations in the whole of Europe. The city is also well-known for its low crime rate and the scenery is beautiful. Who wouldn’t want to go? Just be warned: one accidental turn and you could find yourself in Copenhagen’s secret bonus country.
It’s called Freetown Christiana, and chances are you’ll stumble into it completely by accident! Yet there are signs that you’re off the beaten track. For a start, right at the entrance there’s one warning you to not take photographs. That hasn’t stopped some people, though.
And there’s just so much to take photos of. The walls of Christiania are covered in graffiti – turning the place into a massive open-air art gallery of sorts. As you walk along the streets you’ll find vegan cafes selling locally grown food for inexpensive prices. Yep, the whole place seems like a little slice of paradise.
The buildings of Christiania are also completely unlike anything you’ll have seen in the rest of Copenhagen. That’s because many of them were built from the ground up by the residents. Lots of the homes are brightly painted, and plenty of them are essentially made out of other peoples’ scrap. One is even constructed entirely out of old window frames, according to the website Scandification.
There are several points of interest in Christiania, and just like the place itself you’ll probably end up finding them by accident. There’s a skatepark called ALIS Wonderland, which serves not just the skating community there but also the whole of Copenhagen as well. And just like the colorful houses, it was created by people raised within Christiania.
And you can easily find your way around Christiania if you decide to stay for a bit. Head to a big building at the entrance – the Rundvisergruppen. You can book yourself a guided tour of the area from there or just get a map. Inside the four walls there also sits a museum, a Thai restaurant and even a theater.
Christiania provides a wonderful haven from the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen. You can just sit down, relax and enjoy the scenery for a bit. Alternatively, you could set up camp next to the canal which separates Christiania from the rest of the world and watch boats go by. But as you do this you might find yourself wondering: how did all this get here in the first place?
Copenhagen itself is a pretty beloved travel destination. It fact, it’s regularly ranked as one of the world’s best cities. It’s packed full of restaurants, museums, shops and interesting things to do. And even more importantly, the city is incredibly safe and everyone you meet will most likely be friendly.
But that’s not all: Copenhagen is also noted for being extremely environmentally friendly. Sure, cars exist there, but a great deal of people choose to get around on bike. Didn’t bring your wheels while visiting? No problem: you can get one for free. Danish folk love their bikes and are happy to provide them.
In fact, you can go to the city of Copenhagen with the specific intention of enjoying the natural world. It’s home to Kalvebod Fælled – a huge seaside meadow and a habitat for birds. And the water in the harbors of the city are so clean you can actually swim in them.
In fact, the whole of Denmark is regularly ranked as one of the happiest places in the world with the highest possible standards of living. The Earth Institute’s World Happiness Report – which ranks countries based on how fulfilled the citizens are – put Denmark at second place in 2020.
But of course, Denmark has a bloody history just like virtually every other country. And the military barracks that eventually became Freetown Christiania attests to that. Way back in 1617 King Christian IV had them built to house his troops. That particular figure, in fact, is responsible for many of the historical buildings in Copenhagen.
But of course, a new king eventually came along: Christian V. This one was interested in winning back the territory of Skåne from Sweden, which at that time was being ruled by a teenager named Charles XII. Tensions elevated and what we now know as the Second Northern War broke out. As a result, the military base was reinforced to provide defense.
It wasn’t really a great time for the average citizens of Copenhagen. The military base contained several gunpowder houses, and back in those days health and safety was a far-off concept. Needless to say there were explosions, and to the civilians the military base must have seemed more of a liability than a defense.
The base subsequently continued to expand as the years went by. It gained more buildings – including stables for the horses and small weapons factories. And yet, as an actual defense it proved more or less useless. In 1807 the English attacked Copenhagen and got through it easily.
Though gradually things changed, and the dangerous gunpowder houses were removed from the base in 1905. But there was a new and even bigger problem on the horizon – WWII. Over a four-year period from 1946, war criminals and Gestapo collaborators were executed on what is now the site of Freetown Christiania.
But things changed in 1961 when the area was given back to the city of Copenhagen, and the public were allowed to use it as a recreational space. It was safe, as all the weaponry and ammo had been removed. Yet the drain for the blood of executed criminals remained there as a stark reminder of the place’s history.
Come 1971 homeless people began moving into the area. There was less affordable housing in Copenhagen than nowadays, and it probably wouldn’t have scored so high on the happiness ranks. But at the same time it was undergoing a cultural revolution of sorts. Yes, more liberal attitudes to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were coming in.
From out of all this sprung Christiania. The abandoned military base was free real estate and those with nowhere else to go snapped it up. Homeless people, squatters and the hippy idealists of the era all moved in. You’d be forgiven for thinking the government or cops would have shut this little community down sharpish – but no.
Technically, the commune was illegal, but it just kept growing. And there’s estimated to be over 1,000 people there nowadays. Christiania wasn’t just a community – the people there attempted to establish themselves as their own country separate from Denmark. It would have independence, they hoped, and its own laws.
The residents of Christiania set down their own laws, which you had to abide by if you wanted to live there. There was to be no violence, weapons, gang colors or stealing. According to the website Contiki, you’re also not supposed to run in Christiania. Why? Well, it implies you are running from something and could make people fearful.
The Social Democratic government running Denmark in the early 1970s weren’t sure what to do with Christiania. Eventually, they gave it the status of “social experiment,” which many inhabitants disapproved of since no one had asked them. But no matter what, the community just kept going. And finally in 1989 its existence was made legal.
Now, whole generations of people have been raised in Christiania. Residents there are very proud of what they’ve achieved, and they pass down “patriotic” songs to their kids. One of them is called “Christiania Battlesong.” And, according The Guardian, it goes, “Christiania men and women: now let us show them what we can do. As long as the sun is shining, we intend to fight for our country.” Yeah, it probably flows better in Danish.
Christiania is such an object of curiosity that every year at least 500,000 people visit it, according to Cophenhagen’s tourist board. Many are surprised at what they find in the ramshackle beauty. To some it’s like stepping back in time to the ’70s – an entirely different world if you weren’t there.
Tom Freston of Vanity Fair magazine visited the place while it was still in its infancy, and he wrote about this in a 2013 article. He remembered, “Back then, a walk through Christiania – no cars, of course – was mesmerizing. Everyone was young. There was a lot of hair. I’d seen American hippies, but the ones here were a bit more stylish – chic even – especially the girls, [who were] barefoot in their face paint and peasant dresses.”
Freston returned to the community that year, and he was impressed. He wrote, “Christiania has grown up to be a cool, verdant little village in a corner of Copenhagen. I had underestimated the work ethic and the diligence of the Danes. They have built an entire settlement of spare, humble, Hobbit-like homes that surrounds a lake and runs along gravel paths and cobblestone roads that wind through woods to the seaside.”
And if Danish Hobbiton sounds appealing, there’s more. Freston went on, “Older buildings have been restored and are often covered in murals. There are bars, cafés, grocery shops, a huge building-supply store, a museum, art galleries, a concert hall, a skateboard park, a recycling center, and even a recording studio inside a shipping container.”
The legal status of Christiania has changed as well. In 2011 the Danish government demanded that the citizens either pay up or get out, and so the Foundation Freetown Christiania was created. The organization now owns all of Christiania apart from the old military buildings, which are owned by the state.
In 2016 Christiania celebrated its 45th anniversary, and The Guardian newspaper interviewed a few of the residents. One of these was Ole Lykke, who’d been there since 1979. He told them, “When Christiania started, there was nothing around here. If you were coming to the area, you either came here or to the ship-building factory, which closed down in 1986.”
Lykke went on, “If Christiania hadn’t started in these old military barracks, most of this area would’ve been torn down. Then they would’ve built concrete houses that probably would’ve been torn down by now. We saved this area, and have made an attraction in the city.”
Copenhagen’s former mayor Frank Jensen was pro-Christiania as well. He told the newspaper, “[The city] needs grassroots movements like Christiania because they add new dimensions and dynamics to our culture and urban life. The city needs to make room for people that give Copenhagen the edge and contributes to making it stand out – nationally and internationally.”
Famous travelers have also been to check out Christiania and report back on what they find. Phil Rosenthal of Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil visited in 2018, and he filmed some scenes in the community. He enthusiastically told his audience, “It’s what the ’60s were supposed to turn into, you know, instead of all those people going into hedge funds.”
One of the locals showed Rosenthal around and demonstrated how everyday plants were used to create food for the community. A rose growing by the side of the road, for example, could be eaten straight off the stem. Further along, there were wild apples and trees full of fruit growing all over the place.
Rosenthal was also informed about something which probably wouldn’t have been safe for broadcast: Christiania’s nude beach. But it was apparently raining that day, so no one was there. Rosenthal’s guide told him, “Come here on a nice day, you’re gonna have 20 people laying completely naked out on this dock.”
Other travelers too have been bewitched by the sometimes downright surreal beauty and culture of Christiania. YouTuber Gabriel Traveler went there in May 2017 and despite the weather being terrible he was fascinated. In fact, against the dark grey sky the colorful buildings and flowers seemed to pop out even more.
In the comments of that video, many people spoke about their own experiences in Christiania. One person said, “You have to be there in the summer! It’s a completely different experience! It’s bustling with nice people and good music.” And another said, “Anything can happen on Christiania. If you’re chilling by yourself, you might end up with two-to-three new friends [on] a regular day.”
Though the people of Christiania are apparently starting to grow concerned about all the tourists. In 2019 CNN published an article about the place and said “Christiania has become a victim of its own success. Mass tourism has arrived alongside gentrification, and some residents have chosen to leave the commune after four decades of residency to escape rising prices.”
Plenty of residents seemed to feel they were being treated as Instagram props. One person, Emmerik Warburg, told CNN, “Tourism is killing Christiania. The sheer amount of tourism and not wanting to learn but instead only needing to have a different background for your selfie kills the surroundings.”
Yet despite everything, Christiania is still there and you can still visit it. You can marvel at the colorful graffiti and the artworks, smell the reams of flowers and strike up conversations with locals who know the history of the place. But as always when traveling, you’ve got to remember to be respectful.