Denmark’s second city Aarhus might not be the most famous European Capital of Culture, but its eco, design and foodie credentials mean it’s probably one of the most interesting. Read about the must-visits in Denmark’s most interesting city.
The Latin Quarter
This is the oldest part of the city, an area of quaint shop-fronts, half-timbered houses, spires and cobblestone streets around Pustervig Torv, the central square.
The street-plan in the Latin Quarter goes back to the 14TH century, but the neighborhood only got its name in the ’90s because of its similarities to the Latin Quarter in Paris.
At night it’s a part of town where Aarhus comes to let its hair down, with restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes, and by day you can see what you can find in the independent shops or have a chat with a friend over a beer or coffee.
Its winding cobblestone streets, quiet backyards and half-timbered houses ooze charm, but it’s still a thriving hub. You’ll find plenty of independent shops selling everything from ceramics and jewelry to books and vinyl, plus a gaggle of lively cafes.
Graven, a street that runs east to west, is the main drag but all the little side streets that run off it are worth exploring too.
Home to major hotels, buzzing bars and top attractions, the city center is also a shopper’s paradise, with stylish department stores such as Magasin du Nord and Salling, and Danish brands like Samsøe & Samsøe and Georg Jensen. In Aarhus’ center point, Domkirkepladsen, the city’s 12th century cathedral looms large. At Nordea Bank, across the square, the Vikings founded the city in the ninth century. Its name comes from “Aros”, meaning “place at the river’s mouth”). The Viking Museum marks the exact spot.
The cathedral was originally built at the start of the 1200s in the Romanesque style, but had a gothic update in the 1400s and has kept this appearance ever since.
At 93 meters long and 96 meters high, it’s the longest and tallest church in Denmark. However, the most interesting features are inside the church. The well-preserved medieval frescoes depict a variety of saints. The altar of the church is considered one of Denmark’s great treasures; it was designed by the German painter-sculptor Bernt Notke in the 1400s and has a section that can be rearranged according to the time of year.
The harbor district
Aarhus Ø (East) showcases cutting-edge Danish architecture such as Bjarke Ingels Group’s Iceberg building, which won an international Architecture Award in 2016. Explore your inner bookworm at Dokk 1, the city’s new public library, which opened in 2015 and revitalized a section of the city’s former industrial harbor. It’s a seven-sided disk above a glass prism, in which the city library is housed.
A remarkable piece of sculpture, a three-ton tubular bell, is placed in Dokk 1’s atrium. It’s the largest in the world and connected to the city’s main hospital. Every time a baby is delivered, the bell will chime. The piece was designed by Copenhagen-based artist Kirstine Ropestorff.
The spectacular Harbor Bath is a triangular floating complex featuring a rectangular 50-meter-long swimming pool, a circular diving pool, square children’s pools and two saunas.
In summer when the country enjoys 17 hours of daylight and warm temperatures, a refreshing dip in the ocean is highly recommended.
It’s open every Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to midnight, entry is free and there are lifeguards on duty.
The western neighborhood is home to two major tourist attractions – the Botanical Gardens and the Old Town. The latter is an open-air museum that shows visitors how people lived from pre 1900 to the 1970s. The attraction was built using 75 historical houses that were relocated from 24 towns across Denmark.
In the 19th-century area you can see what life was like when Hans Christian Andersen was writing, meeting village characters like the widow of a clergyman or merchant’s maid and tasting cakes baked with recipes from 1895.
In the Botanical Garden, the tropical house looks like an almost alien, curved structure housing dense rainforest and simulated animal sounds. There are four different climate zones synthesized at the park. The large rose gardens here are maintained by local volunteers.
Egå Engsø is an artificial lake and wetland area that was created when land that had once been reclaimed for farming was re-flooded in the 1950s. In the decades since its creation Egå Engso has become a habitat for a catalogue of animal and plant species that are endangered in Denmark.
White storks stop by the lake to rest, while short-eared owls hunt the meadowlands. From the tower that was installed in 2007, you might spot interesting birds or just enjoy the sight of the pleasingly green landscape.
This is a relatively new part of Aarhus and the bustling neighborhood has a twice-weekly outdoor market plus numerous bars, cafes, restaurants and indy boutiques. You’ll find most of them in Jægersgårdgade.
This is one of the largest contemporary art museums in Europe. It’s also a distinct landmark in the city thanks to Olafur Eliasson’s 50m multicolored circular walkway, suspended above the roof. It’s visible from all over the city. If you think it makes for amazing photo opportunities from the outside, just wait till you get to the top. Through its multicolored glass, it provides spectacular views of the city – especially at sunset.
The Danish High Line
Could Aarhus have an answer to the High Line in the future? That’s what a consortium of architects and urban planners hope, with their aim to transform Kulbroen – a 160m long decrepit bridge that was once used to transport coal – into a recreational green and healthful urban space. For now, the Coal Bridge remains an atmospheric backdrop for summer food-markets and occasional jazz festivals.
Godsbanen describes itself as a ‘center for cultural production’ and multidisciplinary focal point – in plain English, it’s a collection of repurposed industrial buildings that’s home to a range of businesses. Come to wander its 10.500 square meter space where you’re bound to stumble across live music, theatre and markets among the upcycled shipping containers and yurts.
Moesgard Museum is worth visiting for the architecture alone. The roof resembles the wing of an airplane and is a lovely place to explore. The museum has collections from around the world, but the exhibitions covering Denmark’s past boast artefacts you won’t find anywhere else. If you have the nerve take a peek at the Grauballe Man, a bog body from the 3rd century BC that was discovered in 1952. It was so well preserved that they were even able to take the man’s fingerprints.
There’s also a large hoard of Iron Age weapons dating back well over 2,000 years and excavated at the Illerup Ådal river valley.
Aarhus’ Concert Hall is one of Denmark’s most important pieces of modern architecture designed by Kjaer & Richeter architects and built in 1982. The building is enclosed by spacious grounds with precise boxwood hedges, flower beds and fountains.
Inside there’s a large complex of six halls and nine stages that put on a packed calendar of performances each year.
Marselisborg Palace and Memorial Park
The park is landscaped in the English style, so has the loose, flowing appearance of a pastoral country scenery.
Paths wend their way through copses and cherry groves and up the gentle rises between the palace and the bay.
Next to the palace grounds is a memorial park to the First World War, and there’s a monument here from 1925 naming the 4,144 soldiers from this part of Denmark that lost their lives after being conscripted to fight for Germany.
About a 15-minute bike ride south of the city is a pretty wildlife park where deer roam around among the trees. They’re used to human contact and are particularly fond of raw carrots, which they will happily eat straight from your hands.
Located on the coast, the park makes for a great escape just outside the city, especially when combined with a walk along the Ballehage Beach.
In the summer, the beach is popular with sunbathers and swimmers due to the long stretch of white sand and calm clear water. There’s no lifeguard but there are toilets and changing facilities and a 66-foot-long jetty that extends into the sea allowing people to dive straight into the ocean.
This museum is definitely on of a kind since it focuses on psychiatric treatment. It sits within the Risskov Psychiatric Hospital, which dates to the mid-19th century.
One of the main exhibitions here is the collection of art created by the institution’s patients down the years. 850 of the collection’s 12,000 are on display.
Upstairs the museum charts the history of psychiatric treatment and the various advances that have taken place.
Eat and Drink
La Cabra Coffee
From its two locations, one in the Latin Quarter and another right inside the train station, La Cabra Coffee serves the best coffee in Aarhus. And you can enjoy freshly baked sourdough bread and a selection of cakes and pastries too.
Central Food Market
If you’re looking for relatively cheap, go to the Central Food Market, housed in a building that opened in 1938 as a restaurant and dance hall. In 2016 it was converted into the current food-focused operation. It features 10 vendors, communal seating and a centerpiece: a big horseshoe-shaped bar at the entrance that spills into the outdoor courtyard in summer when the doors are left open. Traditional Smørrebrød (Danish open-faced sandwiches) are among the best on offer here.
Ghrelin is one of Aarhus’ newest and best restaurants. The restaurant is run by the charismatic Anders Kristensen and Nicklas Nielsen
Mig & Ølsnedkeren
A standout among Aarhus’ many cozy pubs and smart tap rooms is Mig & Ølsnedkeren. This craft beer bar only sells a rotating selection from their own microbrewery as well as other small, local producers. From the 20 taps on offer, go for a classic pale ale or try something more experimental such as the sour yuzu and raspberry.
Cozy, rustic bistro Pondus in Aarhus’ city center, opened in 2018, offers some knockout dishes like beef tartare and roast pork cheek. The day’s menu is listed in chalk on a blackboard.
The majority of wines at Pondus is made with natural methods using organic grapes and are sourced from small European producers, particularly in France.
The best selection of wines in Aarhus is on offer at S’vinbar. The wine list focuses on smaller, lesser-known producers and unusual styles. It’s a perfect pre- or post-dinner stop, but they do serve some snacks, if you want to settle in for the duration.
At Sonnesgade 11, look for the stylish cracked façade, then skip the ground-floor restaurant – even though it’s rather good – and head for the basement, where you’ll find a little-known branch of Rosforth & Rosforth – Copenhagen’s trendiest retailer of natural wine.
St Pauls Apothek
St Pauls Apothek is the city’s premier destination for cocktails and is located on Jægergårdsgade, a street which is lined with hip bars and restaurants.
The building, an old chemist’s shop originally opened in 1899, now sells potions of a different kind, created by a team of award-winning mixologists.
Substans is one of Aarhus’ most famous restaurants, having held a Michelin star since 2015. It’s set to move location to the new harbor-side Aarhus Ø development later this year, but for now it’s still serving elegant Nordic-style cuisine from its original home in the Latin Quarter.
There is no à la carte menu at Substans, with diners instead choosing one of two multi-course tasting menus, the “Big” (12 courses) or the “Not So Big” (nine courses), which certainly keeps things simple.
The cooking is anything but simple, however, with technical, precise dishes that include thinly sliced scallop dressed with lovage oil and lightly fried pine needles, and pork with onions, a crisp kale leaf and finished with a zesty green tarragon cream.
Aarhus Street Food
Wallet-friendly dishes are served at Aarhus Street Food. It occupies an old bus garage and features around 30 vendors under its large industrial roof. The options are global in scope, with everything from Thai and Indian to fish and chips, but one of the best is Stegen & Dellen, which serves traditional Danish pork sandwiches smothered in gravy and topped with mustard and crackling.
It’s open seven days a week for lunch and dinner throughout the year, except for some public holidays.
Where to stay
Invest in an Aarhus Card for free access to 25 of the city’s top museums and attractions and travel on the airport bus and city public transportation.
Feature image (on top): From Latin Quarter. Photo: Visit Aarhus
Must-Visits in Denmark’s Most Interesting City, compiled by Tor Kjolberg