If you’ve visited Denmark on holiday, it’s likely you travelled to Copenhagen, the country’s most popular tourist destination. But now Copenhagen has a rival for the affections of tourists.
Aarhus on the country’s east coast is fast becoming a super cool city, beloved of hipsters, culture vultures and those seeking a weekend break.
It’s set to become the latest Scandinavian capital of cool, helped by news that British Airways is starting direct flights from London. It is also European City of Culture in 2017.
Here are 10 great reasons to book a trip to this intriguing Danish city.
1. Soak up the culture
Love art and culture? Aarhus punches well above its weight as a cultural destination, boasting world-class galleries and museums.
The star in Aarhus’ cultural crown is the ARoS Kunstmuseum, a stunning contemporary art gallery which is equal to anything you’ll find in London, Paris or Rome.
You’re greeted by a giant-sized crouching boy, a super realistic sculpture 5 metres high by Australian artist Ron Mueck which dominates the lobby. It provides a sense of the gallery’s big ambitions.
Once inside, you enter ‘Dante’s Divine Comedies’ where you descend into Hell in the basement or then ascend to Heaven on the top gallery floors. It’s a cute idea.
There is something for everyone with well-curated displays in spacious galleries housed inside the striking cube-shaped architecture.
A special exhibition on the treasures of Denmark’s Golden Age, with works dating from 1800-1850, is a treat for those who enjoy traditional paintings.
Contemporary art and video lovers are in for a treat with changing exhibitions and international works from the gallery’s permanent collection.
‘Nine Spaces’ is an intriguing exhibition area in the gallery’s basement designed for video and installation art.
One of my favourite pieces is a huge interactive installation featuring large balls whizzing through metal runways and contraptions which was a big hit with young and old alike.
There’s something new and exciting around every corner – and I was extremely impressed by the quality of the art and the high standard of curation.
From autumn 2017, don’t miss the huge installation called Valkyrie Rán by Joana Vasconcelos which will wind its way through the ARoS building, spanning eight levels.
2. Head over the Rainbow
Fancy a trip over the rainbow?
The spectacular ‘Your Rainbow Panorama’ at ARoS is a circular gallery made in glass featuring every colour of the spectrum by Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson.
This 360-degree rooftop walkway is as good as it gets for art lovers, enabling visitors to walk through a rainbow coloured corridor which provides tinted views of the city from above. This aerial kaleidoscope is truly stunning.
For those who remember Olafur Eliasson’s famous Weather Project with its giant orange sun at London’s Tate Modern, you won’t be disappointed by the artist’s latest creation. It is truly heavenly.
Whatever the weather, you can take a leisurely stroll on top of the city with ever-changing views. What a fabulous roofscape!
Why not visit ARoS on an evening when the Rainbow Panorama takes on a new lease of life as the fading light provides a very different view? The galley is open until 10pm on Wednesday nights and can you enjoy a drink in the bar as the sun goes down.
3. Explore the Old Town
Down in the old town, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful but my top tourist recommendation is Den Gamle By, a huge heritage museum.
This impressive museum take the form of a complete town with streets, back yards, houses, shops and workshops. The museum’s living history is brilliantly presented and will appeal to older and younger travellers.
Stroll through the streets of the 1700s and the 1800s where you can visit the magnificent Mintmaster’s Mansion, the Mayor’s House, Merchant’s House and the Eilschou Almshouses.
Walk along its waterways and take a trip to see the tradesmen in the Back Building. It’s here where you can get a real feel for joinery, carpentry and cabinet making. Unsurprisingly, I had to tear my partner Tony away from the woodwork section.
The fun goes on and on. I’d suggest wearing sensible shoes because the museum covers a huge area – it’s very easy to spend 3-4 hours wandering its streets and buildings.
The Danes love nothing better than dressing up so it’s no surprise there are actors in historical costumes everywhere you look. But don’t worry – they aren’t as cheesy as you might think.
They do lend an authentic air to the Old Town whether it’s the kitchen maids, shop assistants or craft workers going about their business and chores.
You can even pay a visit to the vicar’s widow in the Eilschou Almshouses in Navnlos Street or say hello to the maid who is often found cooking in the Aarhus Merchant’s House in Toldbodgate.
There are plenty of opportunities to interact with the costumed staff too, if you like that sort of heritage thing!
Alternatively, you can soak up the atmosphere of yesteryear by buying ‘Russians’, sugar pretzels and vanilla rings at Aarhus’ old bakery. Or why not visit the ironmonger’s where you’ll find ‘Madam Blue’ enamel ware and old mechanical toys.
For those of a shy disposition, it’s easy to wander around and ignore the actors because the whole costumed thing is done with typical Danish restraint and subtlety.
For those who like an old-fashioned horse and carriage ride, there are plenty of trips to relieve those tired feet after traipsing around the old town.
Den Gamle By’s cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings have been likened to a Danish market town in Hans Christian Andersen’s day. In fact the author used to visit the Almshouses as a youngster on a daily basis to learn poetry and culture.
Creative types will enjoy trying their hand at calligraphy in the ink shop or looking around the excellent Danish Poster Museum and Gallery of Decorative Arts.
Rather like Beamish Open Air Museum in England, Den Gamle By has focused its latest expansion plans on modern times.
The ‘new town’ is set in 1927 with shops, a brewery and fuel station providing an insight into life during this period.
You’ll also discover how industrialization affected the lives of ordinary Danes with electricity, electric street lights, telephone wires, bicycle stands and petrol pumps. Motor vehicles became a part of the Danish street scene in the 1920s, leaving horse-drawn carriages behind.
Don’t miss the museum’s contemporary town – Tarnborg – which is full of houses and shops dating from 1974. Here you get a sense of what it was like to live in Danish homes during the ’70s.
Step inside the apartments on Havnegade and visit the homes of a single mother, a family, a middle class working couple, a commune and immigrant workers.
Each apartment is recreated from the real people’s stories and photos. What I liked best was being able to look inside the drawers and wardrobes to get an authentic experience of what life was like. There’s even a special interactive experience where you can dress up as the characters on a large computer screen.
Next door there’s an opportunity to visit the first gynaecology clinic in Denmark which has been recreated with all the inventory from the original clinic. Only in Denmark!
If you’re interested in pop culture, you’ll definitely want to drop into the Fotoborgen Shop on Sonderbrogade, once located in the northern suburb of Trojborg.
And Poul’s Radio store has been recreated with fantastic attention to detail with authentic radios, TV and music centres from the 1970s.
The shop was a big hit with my partner Tony whose face lit up with joy as he looked at the old hi-fis, tape recorders and reel to reel tape recorders.
It was almost impossible for me to get him out of the shop. His excuse was that he owned some of the old radios when he was a kid. Sorry Tony but that does give your age away!
Why not drop into the jazz bar – the Bent J., recreated from the original venue, for at beer or enjoy a delicious Danish pastry at Café Bonnich?
4. Walk the city streets
With a population around the size of Newcastle or Liverpool, Aarhus is a small but compact city with all the amenities you’d expect from the capital of Jutland.
The Aarhus tourist guide is keen to stress how everything in the city is within walking distance – and for once, it’s absolutely true.
Guided tours provide a good introduction to the historic city in the summer months. You can choose from a straight history tour which takes in Aarhus Cathedral or, alternatively, walk the ‘Footsteps of the Vikings’ route.
Aarhus was recently voted best shopping destination in Scandinavia but expect to splash the cash as Denmark isn’t the cheapest place in Europe. But, it does offer distinctive, high quality crafts and designer goods.
5. Enjoy Aarhus by bike
Cycling is very easy in Aarhus – in common with most Danish towns and cities. In fact, Aarhus is one of the best bike cities in the world, boasting Denmark’s first ‘bicycle street’.
Look out for the free city bikes – Aarhusbycykel – which can be borrowed from various locations across the city. You’ll need a coin to claim one but this is refunded when you return the bike. There’s a free map and APP map which also features the best places to eat and hang out.
If you fancy a short trip out of town, there’s a cycle path through the Marselisborg woods where you can stop for a break at the Deer Park, the Ballehage beach or carry on to the Moesgåard Museum or Moesgåard beach. It’s an easy 15-20 minute ride.
If bikes aren’t your thing, jump on a hop-on, hop-off city sightseeing bus during the summer season, departing from the town hall on a 12 stop loop route.
6. Take to the sea
The Aarhus waterfront has undergone major development over the last decade and it’s a great place to hang out if you enjoy boats and sailing.
There’s also a waterfront camper van site if you’re travelling in a motor home although on my visit, we didn’t emerge from the truck for more than 10 minutes at a time because of the very windy weather!
Culture lovers should visit Dokk 1, a new venue with a large hall for events including concerts and plays, although I arrived on a quiet night when there were no perfromances.
7. Go back in time
Aarhus boasts excellent museums but allow plenty of time to explore them, especially if you’re already planning a trip to the huge Den Gamle By which can take up a full day.
The Moesgaard Museum is a must for lovers of prehistory but requires a short trip out of town. Don’t miss a walk on the Prehistory Trackway from the museum which leads through fields of wildflowers to the beach.
Also recommended are the Women’s Museum (Kvindermuseet) and the Occupation Museum looking at how Aarhus was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War.
8. Meet the Ancestors – Bog People
Meet the ancestors at the Moesgaard Museum which recently reopened in an impressive new building which looks like a triangular wedge rising out of the land. I’m told that there are fantastic views across the countryside from the top of its grassy roof.
The star exhibit is the Grauballe Man, a perfectly preserved Iron Age bog body dating from the 3rd Century BC.
Sadly, the gallery was still being completed when I visited so we drove down the road to nearby Silkeborg where the local museum houses the famous bog body of the Tollund Man. With his peaceful face, it’s hard to take your eyes off this ‘sleeping figure’.
There’s also the Elling Woman, another remarkable Iron Age body preserved in the local peat moors, famous for her remarkable braided hair.
9. Marvel at architectural styles
Aarhus is a treasure trove of architectural styles from Gothic and Baroque to Nordic Classicism, Romanesque and Modern. The street pattern in the old city dates back to the Middle Ages with narrow alleyways and meandering passages.
The oldest surviving houses are in the Latin Quarter with buildings dating back to the early 17th century whilst medieval merchants’ mansions with courtyards can be seen in Klostergade and Skolegade.
Lovers of contemporary architecture will love Isbjerget – the Iceberg – this unique apartment building in the harbour area looks like floating icebergs breaking up. It’s best seen at night when it seems to glow in a strangely hypnotic blue and white colour.
It’s also worth a detour to the City Hall – Aarhus Rådhus with its modern tower clad designed by the famous Scandinavian architect and designer, Arne Jacobsen.
Sadly, I muddled up my timings, having spent far too long at the ARoS gallery, but I’m told that the tower tour and climb is worth the trip (Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays at 14:00). A guide will take you to the top of the tower from where there are great views over the city.
Talking of ARoS, the gallery’s striking architecture is a must-see building in Aarhus. The Cube (as it’s known) is most striking from the inside where it unravels like an onion with a curved, tiered floor plan and spiral staircase which lead on to a series of ‘museum streets’.
10. Enjoy City of Culture 2017
Aarhus has been chosen to be European Capital of Culture in 2017 – the festival’s theme is RETHINK and there’s an exciting programme of events running through the year.
The one that caught my eye was Red Serpent, a spectacular outdoor performance of a tale about a hero from the Viking Age. The show is one of four huge events during City of Culture 2017 and will be performed on and around the amazing, grass-covered roof of the Moesgaard Museum.
I’m also tempted to book a trip to Aarhus to see the spectacular Garden with international art installations placed in usual locations.
It will take place in an ‘art zone’ spanning four kilometres radiating from the AARos gallery. This sounds like it could be something special, if you love contemporary art.
Another highlight will be the contemporary ballet ‘Tree of Codes’, with visual effects by the renowned artist Olafur Eliasson.
Bike fanatics are also in for a treat. The CYKLO festival will transform the city centre into a two-wheeled paradise for anyone who loves bikes.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Aarhus
How does Aarhus compare to Copenhagen then?
It’s smaller and has a different, northerly vibe but it gives its bigger rival a run for its money. With a leisurely feel to Aarhus, you’re bound to feel chilled and relaxed if you’re looking for the perfect weekend break. Check out the city’s attractions on the Visit Aarhus website.
At only an hour by plane from London, it’s an easy hop from the UK to Denmark. Alternatively, if you’re travelling by car or motor home, the city is only two hours drive from the port at Esjberg.
The ARoS Kunstmuseum is my top recommendation – it’s a great place to hang out and enjoy the Panoramic Rainbow walk.
Den Gamle is another must-see attraction with its old streets an half-timbered buildings. It’s located close to the centre of Aarhus next to the Botanical Garden. Check out the website for more information about getting there and opening hours. Admission charges apply.
To save money, why not buy an Aarhus Card which offers a discount on most of the city’s main attractions, museums and galleries?
If you’re feeling rich, try out the city’s new Nordic cuisine at the Michelin starred Mammen or Gastrome restaurants. I’m afraid that my budget didn’t run to this culinary treat!