Aarhus has long laboured in the shadow cast by Copenhagen, but transformation is afoot in Denmark's second-largest city. This Viking-founded hub on the Jutland peninsula is staking a claim for visitor attention, and building a reputation as an emerging European destination for city-breakers, festival-goers, art and food fans, and those looking beyond the capital-city conga.
It’s been accruing some weighty accolades to shore up its appeal, too: in 2017 the spotlight shines upon Aarhus as a European Capital of Culture and a European Region of Gastronomy. Check out what makes this compact, affable city tick, and why you should contemplate a visit.
Architecture & design
In Denmark, great design is a given. Connoisseurs will want to investigate the weekly tours of Aarhus' central town hall (rådhus), built in the early 1940s by design deity Arne Jacobsen. Pay homage to thought-provoking design at the nearby ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, whose interior was inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy and is embellished by a multicoloured rooftop walkway known as Your Rainbow Panorama, conceived by renowned Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson.
Architecture buffs can fill an itinerary with iconic modern buildings such as the 2014 Moesgaard Museum, which is shaped like a wedge emerging from the landscape (complete with a walkable, grass-covered roof), and Dokk1 (dokk1.dk), which opened in 2015 as part of Aarhus' large-scale waterfront regeneration and boasts Scandinavia's largest library. Aarhus Docklands (known as Aarhus Ø in Danish) is a new neighbourhood that's home to some headturning residential developments – the brilliantly spiky Isberget (Iceberg) (jdsa.eu/tad) has won architecture awards and many an Instagram fan.
There's a food revolution sweeping Aarhus, with new restaurants, cafes, microbreweries and provedores springing up regularly and giving diners plenty to hunger over. Options swing from farmers markets to fancy-pants dining; food-truck parks feed grazers while gourmands can choose between three restaurants granted stars in 2015 when food bible Michelin finally cast its net beyond the Scandinavian capitals: restaurants Gastromé (gastrome.dk), Frederikshøj (frederikshoj.com) and SUBSTANS (restaurantsubstans.dk) were all honoured for their culinary excellence.
Pack stretchy waistbands and put on your tastebud-tour list: pastries (of course), smørrebrød (open sandwiches), gourmet hot dogs and top-notch local seafood, all washed down with craft beer. You might be hungry enough to coincide your visit with the annual Food Festival (foodfestival.dk) held each September.
Vikings founded Aarhus as a trading town around AD 900 (its name comes from 'Aros', meaning 'place at the river's mouth'). In the oldest neighbourhood, known as the Latin Quarter, cobbled lanes surround churches and half-timbered homes – wander down Møllestien laneway, Aarhus' prettiest street, for fairy-tale facades.
The finest places to explore local history are Den Gamle By (the Old Town), a brilliant open-air museum where you can explore ye olde Aarhus and inspect recreated neighbourhoods from 1927 and 1974. Moesgaard is a must: the building may be futuristic but its exhibits explore culture and ethnography with aplomb. The star exhibit here is the 2000-year-old Grauballe Man, whose well-preserved body was found in a nearby bog in 1952.
Aarhus' large student contingent guarantees buzzing nightlife and a live music scene to rival Copenhagen. Student haunts include VoxHall, Radar and Train, and an all-ages crowd enjoys the diverse offerings of the glass-fronted concert hall known as Musikhuset (the Music House).
Aarhus has built itself a fine reputation for festivals: the biggest and best excuse for a party is the annual Aarhus Festival in August, but there are also shindigs throughout the year celebrating up-and-coming bands, jazz, food and even Vikings. The Viking Moot is a late-July weekend dedicated to authentic costumes, crafts, feasting and warrior displays.
Is Denmark Europe's best family destination? Quite possibly: the great outdoors is gentle and easily accessible, the attractions numerous and the locals welcoming. Key kiddy draws in Aarhus include Den Gamle By, where family activities are cranked up during school holidays and in the lead-up to Christmas. In the same neighbourhood, check out the striking walk-through greenhouses of the Botanisk Have (Botanic Garden).
Call into Kvindemuseet (the Women's Museum), which celebrates womens' lives and their achievements, and includes a hands-on kids' section. On the waterfront, Dokk1 has loads of kid-friendly spaces. Wrap up educational pursuits with a few hours at Tivoli Friheden – a wholesome amusement park that's not in the same league as Copenhagen's star attraction but offers plentiful rides, games and fast-food stands.
Danish cities are primed for two-wheeled exploration, so hire a bike and cruise the bicycle lanes with the locals – or, better yet, take a cycling tour with Cycling Aarhus, to take in the city highlights with a side serving of local stories.
Great areas for fresh-air exploration, on foot or on two wheels, include along the waterfront, south to the marina and Marselisborg (taking in the summer home of the Danish royals and its surrounding park). Head further south to Moesgaard (follow your museum visit with a great woodlands walk), or north to Risskov, to check out the pretty forest and sandy beach with clear, calm (and cool) waters.
Denmark is decidedly compact and Aarhus is only three hours by train from Copenhagen, so there are many attractions within day-trip reach. Three favourites:
Djursland is the large peninsula northeast of Aarhus (the 'nose' of Jutland's face), and it is prime summer-holiday territory thanks to excellent sandy beaches and big family-focused draws such as zoos and amusement parks.
Silkeborg lies 45km west of Aarhus, at the heart of the Danish Lake District. This is a photogenic pocket of lakes, forests and hills (well, Danish hills – these don't reach dizzying heights) where camping, walking, canoeing and boat trips are the order of the day.
Make it happen
Aarhus is easily accessed by train from Copenhagen – the Rejseplanen (rejseplanen.dk) site is indispensable for all kinds of travel within Denmark.
Aarhus airport is 45km from town, with flights to/from Scandinavian capitals and London Stansted. There are better international connections to the larger airport at Billund, 95km away in central Jutland. The airports have good bus connections to Aarhus and all transport will deposit you in the heart of the city.