Coming in right behind Tivoli as Copenhagen’s most popular tourist attraction with over one million annual visitors, the community of Christiania has grown into one of the most celebrated and debated areas of Copenhagen. With its many concert venues, cozy cafes, organic restaurants, beautiful green spaces and accepting attitudes Christiania is more than a place to just light up a joint . . . although it is definitely that, too.
The history of the site where Christiania stands today stretches all the way back to the early 1600s when King Christian IV established the area to house military barracks and the city’s ramparts. The area was used as such intermittently for the next 350 years, ultimately being abandoned in the late 1960s after being used as an execution site during World War II.
As the military moved out, many homeless people in the area began to move in, squatting in the empty buildings. On September 4, 1971, local area residents knocked down a fence to create a playground for their children. Three weeks later on September 26, well-known activist and journalist Jacob Ludvigsen declared the area officially open as a “free town” in an article in his magazine Hovedbladet (The Main Paper).
In the article Ludvigsen outlined his vision for the fledgling city, calling it, “ the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch . . . where all the seekers of peace could have their grand meditation - and yoga center. Halls where theater groups can feel at home. Buildings for the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race...Yes for those who feel the beating of the pioneer heart there can be no doubt as to the purpose of Christiania. It is the part of the city which has been kept secret to us - but no more.”
From that spirit of sanctuary and inclusion, Christiania grew. To this day, the community remains a haven for the homeless, the unemployed, the addicts and many other societal outliers your grandfather complains about while waving his fist in the air and lamenting about society these days. Additionally, Christiania is also a magnet for creative and progressive types, attracting artists, intellectuals, musicians, poets and academics alike.
The autonomous community that has since flourished stands in a stark juxtaposition to the site’s original intended use, and Christiania's reputation as a refuge from the outside society for those in need mixed with its “hippie” background and liberal attitudes has prompted many Danes to regard the city as a successful social experiment.
Today, some 850 people call Christiania their home, with roughly 200 of those being children. The culture of Christiania is one of self-maintenance. Each member is responsible for his or her own life and home.
Christiania is divided into neighborhoods, the smallest consisting of 10 residents and the largest having around 80 residents. Each of these neighborhoods is responsible for making their own decisions regarding the maintenance, upkeep and future development of the area, as well as for solving conflicts between the residents. If decisions cannot be made within the neighborhood community, issues can be taken to Christiania’s highest authority, the Community Meeting. The decision making process is democratic, and required to be unanimous.
Like any community, Christiania has established its own infrastructure. The free town has its own grocery stores, cafes, kindergartens, childcare facilities and even currency called the Løn (although you are free to use Danish kroner within the city).
Residents of Christiania pay taxes for heating, water and electricity, but run their kindergartens, youth clubs, postal service, urban infrastructure maintenance and green areas on their own, without financial assistance from the Danish government.
Christiania is a car-free community focused on being a sustainable, ecological and green society with many preserved natural spaces, and has among some of the most beautiful green areas in Copenhagen.
The most famous, and most controversial street, in Christiania (and arguably all of Copenhagen) is of course, Pusher Street. The street has gained its notoriety for being the central vending area of Christiania’s cannabis trade.
On this short stretch of road running through the city, you can find stalls and booths selling a variety of different cannabis-derived products, i.e. yes, you can buy weed here.
Christiania’s open soft-drug trade has been around as long as the city itself. Technically illegal, it has of course become a huge point of political controversy, and throughout different points in the city’s history, the Danish government has either turned a blind eye, or calculatedly worked to put an end to it. In the Spring of 2004, police raided the area and shut down the trade, increasing their patrolling presences. However, Pusher Street and the cannabis trade has since returned to how things were pre-2004.
Once more, possession of marijuana in Denmark is illegal, and getting high in Christiania does not exempt you from arrest anymore than getting high in front of the House of Parliament. And although law enforcement is typically lax (not actively pursuing smokers), and although Christiania is generally a very peaceful place, occasional raids do happen.
Photos are absolutely forbidden on Pusher Street, and you’re not as sneaky as you think you are, so don’t even try. Seriously.
POLITICAL CONTENTIONS AND THE FUTURE OF CHRISTIANIA
As a seized piece of government property with an open drug trade, Christiania of course has a fluctuating and tumultuous relationship with the Danish government. Over the years, as different political parties have come into and out of power in Denmark, there have been actions and crusades, at times turning violent, aiming to assert the government’s power and ownership over the land. Some have suggested to transform the land into a mixed residential/recreational area (a move Christiania residents feel will turn their free community into a regular, indistinguishable city), while others have tried to shut the city down all together.
In the spring of 2011, Christiania closed down for the first time in its four decade history. In the midst of negotiations with the government, the community voluntarily decided to close itself off to the public in order to meet as a community and discuss their next steps in the process. Eventually, the city reopened and Christiania was given the opportunity to buy its land (valued at 102 million DKK) to effectively obtain legal ownership. The deal, which was a compromise for both parties, came after several years of failed negotiation and allows Christiania to be managed collectively and communally owned.
A fund has been set up to make anyone eligible to buy a “share” of land to preserve Christiania. Prices start at 100 DKK, and those making a purchase receive an attractive and professionally produced paper “share.” All proceeds go to ensuring the future of this unique and beautiful community.
In September 2011, Christiana celebrated the milestone of its 40th anniversary. And while the future is uncertain for the town, Christiania is committed to moving forward under its original philosophies of inclusion and community. Future plans include building expansion, collective economic development and a focus on remaining a driving force in the Copenhagen art and culture scene.
Many non-Christiania dwelling Danes have a warm spot in the heart regarding the free state, and view the alternative community’s ability to exist and persist as a point of pride.
Despite its rocky relations with the government and the presence of Pusher Street, a trip to Christiania is not all a trip into a dangerous drug den. Although the cannabis trade is a facet of this society, it is not the focus. Instead, the spirit of Christiania is one of cooperation, acceptance and community.
While certainly laid back, Christiania is not a lawless “anything goes” society. Upon entering the city and in various spots throughout, you are greeted with signs detailing the laws of Christiania. The four main laws of Christiania forbid weapons, violence, hard drugs and “rocker badges” (pins or badges indicating membership in a motorcycle gang). Additionally, bulletproof vests, explosives, fireworks, stolen goods and cars are also prohibited. So be sure to check your stolen fireworks at the front entrance before entering.
Christiania is also home to many cafes and shops, as well as beautiful green spaces and a warm welcoming atmosphere, and you should feel comfortable bringing Grandma along on a visit. In fact, many Danes take their guests and visitors to experience the unique and unparalleled atmosphere of this special city.