an introduction to Vesterbro

 

Vesterbro is a district of Copenhagen to the west of the city centre that is densely built with relatively narrow streets and small squares. Its boundaries are marked by prominent and well-known features of the city … Vesterbro is immediately beyond Tivoli and the central railway station and north of the main railway lines that run into the station, so railway lines mark the east and south edges of the area and it is immediately south of the line of lakes that mark the west side of the inner city, and south and east of the affluent area of Frederiksberg. The west end of Vesterbro is defined by the large west cemetery and the site of the Carlsberg brewery which itself is now the focus of a massive redevelopment programme. 

 

 
looking along the railway tracks towards the city centre with the apartment buildings of Ingerslevsgade - the south edge of the residential area of Vesterbro

This was very much a working-class district with not just the railway but , at the south-east corner of the area, there is a wholesale meat market, still used in parts commercially but also the focus of new developments with new restaurants and venues for exhibitions in some of the older buildings that date mainly from the 1880s and the 1930s.

From the central station to the far side of the western cemetery is about 2.5 kilometres and the overall distance from the south end of the lakes to the factories and rail yards south of the main railway, also within the district, is 1.5 kilometres although the main residential area is much smaller so from the central station to Enghave Park is just 1.5 kilometres and from Vesterbrogade - forming essentially the north boundary - to the main railway line is less than a kilometre.


 
Vesterbro by the late 18th century. The outer defences and the west gate are top right and the palace and gardens of Frederiksberg are on the left. A very distinct 'round-a-bout' can be seen below and to the west of the lake. This survives on Frederiksberg Allé and helps identify the line of what is now Vesterbrogade with only fields between that road and the sea shore. The beach followed the line of what is now the line of Sønder Boulevard. The map predates the establishment of the Shooting Gallery. 

 

In the 18th century there were only a few houses along the roads that fanned out from the west gate of the city because, for military reasons, buildings had not been allowed in the area immediately beyond the ramparts and the water-filled outer ditch of the city defences. Early maps show that the bay to the south and the south approach to the inner harbour was then much wider than it is now with the sea coming in to a shore just beyond what is now Sønder Boulevard. There were small fields on either side of what is now Vesterbrogade and, below the fields, to the south, grass land or marsh that ran down to the sea.

 

 
Vesterbro in 1860 with the first railway running along the shore - on the line of Sønder Boulevard with the railway terminal - banegaarden - just below Tivoli. The present central station was completed in 1911 and the line on through to Østerport was not constructed until 1917


In the second half of the 19th century, as the city grew, this was one of the first areas that developed outside the city ramparts with new houses, apartment buildings, shops and churches built on either side of the roads running out from the old west gate to a royal palace and gardens on the hill at Frederiksberg. Construction work spread south from Vesterbrogade and streets and small squares and building plots were laid out on either side of what is now Istedgade. Many of the apartment buildings date from the 1880s and 1890s although the blocks along the railway are later. Many were poorly built and were divided up into small apartments and lodgings. 


 
Istedgade looking west


The streets of Vesterbro seem relatively narrow, when compared with other districts of Copenhagen, particularly at the city end. As in other parts of Copenhagen, most of the buildings are five or six storeys high so it can seem to be darker and starker than many parts of the city although towards the west end of the area several side streets run at angles from the main roads and are wider with triangular spaces where roads converge and that is where you find small open spaces now with lively cafes and pubs and local shops.

 
Dybbølsgade from Sønder Boulevard

 

Vesterbro had earned a reputation for prostitution and drugs by the 20th century, in part because of much poor-quality and crowded housing and in part because it is close to the central railway station - often the most likely place to find a red-light district in many large cities - and it was hemmed in by both the large area of Kødbyen, the wholesale meat market, and by the railway lines.

Close to the centre of the city, and with a substantial number of slum dwellings, this might have been seen as a potential area for large-scale demolition and massive redevelopment, particularly in the period of growth for the city in the 1950s and 1960s, but the city’s planners made a decision to retain and restore the buildings of Vesterbro and restrict demolition to the worst properties, mainly the buildings within the crowded courtyards. This was combined with significant improvement to the streets and squares with schemes to reduce or slow traffic and to create new open and green areas.

 

 
Sønder Boulevard

 

Work is progressing on the extension of the city metro and one section of the new circle line runs out of the city under Sønder Boulevard so, at the moment, the street and the square at its west end has a considerable amount of hoarding where there is engineering work. Once completed in 2018 the line, with a new station at Enghave and with it fast links to Frederiksberg to the north and to a new metro station at the central railway station,  there will certainly be even more redevelopment in the area.

With all these changes, Vesterbro has become a popular area to live … improvements to the streets and buildings not just making the area more attractive but bringing in new businesses and new cafes, bars and restaurants, particularly around the Meat Market but also along Istedgade, along Sønder Boulevard and around the small squares looking towards Enghave park. In fact, one of the official city tourists sites, Visitcopenhagen, reveals that in 2014 Vesterbro was voted 4th on the Thrill List 10 most hipster neighbourhoods on earth. You may or may not see that as a good thing.

 

 
Gammel Kongevej looking towards the centre with the Planetarium at the end of the lakes to the left and the northermost apartments of Vesterbro to the right