You probably know the song Wonderful Copenhagen from the film Hans Christian Andersen. However, Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, has during the last century stolen visitors’ attention from the capital of Denmark.
Aarhus (also written Århus and pronounced Oar-Hoos) is the main city on the Jutland peninsula. It holds the title of Denmark’s second largest city with a population of just over 300,000 inhabitants. Being a university city and center for education, Aarhus has the youngest population in the whole of Denmark and among the lowest in Europe. Aarhus offers an elegant mix of cosmopolitan city and small-town charm.
The relatively small size of the city, the many attractions, shops and world-class restaurants, wonderful pubs, impressive art galleries and romantic places can easily be explored on foot. And the modern canal-veined dockland quarter at its northern tip has been a concrete and brick playground for architects given a free hand.
Around Aarhus beach you find everything from sustainably built student accommodation to a building called the Lighthouse as well as the temporary greenhouse-style “Dome of Visions” housing everything from art exhibitions and lectures on the future of architecture to yoga and live music.
The many fine restaurants in Aarhus have made the capital of Jutland a tourist magnet. There is a clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants as well as bistros and a burgeoning street food scene. Aarhus is also known as the City of Cafés.
Visitors and residents alike can enjoy the public flower and vegetable garden and warehouses that are offices by day and spaces for book clubs and workshops by night. Last February, the city hosted the Michelin Nordic Guide ceremony for the first time, further cementing its reputation as a top gastronomic city.
In Aarhus the words værtshus, bodega, bar, kro and café are used in a rather loose and confusing way, but when you have visited some you have probably learned how to differentiate between them. Why not check out Cirkuskroen, formerly owned by a circus-family and decorated with clowns and old circus paraphernalia.
One of Aarhus’ most famous restaurants is Substans, having held a Michelin star since 2015. It is serving elegant Nordic-style cuisine in the Latin Quarter. It is closed until May 2020 when it opens in new locations on the east harbor-side.
Opened in 2013, Kähler Villa Dining offers wonderful dining experiences with aperitifs, appetizers, snacks, a three-course dinner, unlimited wine and coffee. The restaurant has been awarded the prestigious title ‘best gourmet restaurant in town’.
The patrician villa has an open view to the kitchen and an interior décor that brilliantly depicts the Kähler design universe. Kähler Design is a 175 years company, world famous for its handcrafted ceramics, which also can be purchased in the restaurant.
One of Aarhus’ newest restaurants is Ghrelin, run by the charismatic Anders Kristensen and Nicklas Nielsen, who are thoughtful about every ingredient they use in a dish. The two chefs have seemingly also found the right balance between serious and fun. However, even if the plates are playful there is a serious punch in the flavor department.
One of Aarhus’ first cafés, opened in 1989, Café Smagløs (English translation Café Tasteless) is anything but devoid of flavor. Over the years, this cozy and friendly café with a spacious outside dining area that faces Monastery Square has developed quite a cult following, and is popular with students. Smagløs’ brunch is the very best for the price in Aarhus and their NamNam burger is nothing short of amazing.
Restaurant Pondus, opened in 2018 by the same owners as Substans, offers some knock-off dishes. The friendly staff are happy to make suggestions on which wines pair best with what dishes, and there is always a good selection available by the glass. The day’s menu is listed in chalk on a blackboard.
Delicious Scandinavian cuisine and wonderful wines are served at the critically acclaimed Nordisk Spisehus restaurant in the heart of Aarhus. Its team of top chefs, including members of the National Culinary Team of Denmark, design luxurious Scandinavian menus, decidedly Nordic but very ‘nouvelle cuisine’. The hay-smoked salmon is unbeatable.
Occupying an old bus garage, Aarhus Street Food is cheap eats galore, featuring 30 vendors. The options are global in scope, with everything from Thai and Indian to fish and chips. In the summer, outdoor bars serving beer from the local brewery Aarhus Bryghus make it a great place to come and drink too.
Situated between Aarhus and the quiet, charming village Odder, close to the forest and the beach, you find Malling Kro (Inn). The atmospheric restaurant unites tradition and innovation, and was awarded two stars by the Danish Dining Guide for a kitchen of high quality, and three ‘wine glasses’ for an excellent wine selection. It’s a great place for wining and dining since you also can choose to spend a night or two in one of the guest rooms.
Jægargårdsgade is a street lined with hip bars and restaurants. If you’re searching for a cocktail bar, head to St. Pauls Apothek, which the name implies once was an old chemist’s shop originally opened in 1899. The award-winning mixologists creates the best cocktails in town!
In Åboulevarden in the center of the city you find Hotel and Restaurant Ferdinand. Hotel and Restaurant Ferdinand was named the best Danish brasserie of 2009 by Den Danske Spiseguide (The Danish Restaurant Guide). Their menu is a combination of high quality and simplicity and includes dishes at all price levels.
The tapas bar Forlæns & Baglæns (Forward & Backward) is a cozy place with a vintage feel. Spanish tapas are prepared from scratch with fresh, high-quality produce and served with Spanish beer and wine or organic fruit juices. Enjoy a classic cocktail before your meal and a home-made cake and a freshly ground coffee after dinner.
Forget all about Tuborg or Carlsberg (the Budweiser of Denmark). The craft beer offered at Mig & Ølsnedkeren is a rotating selection of 20 taps from their own microbrewery as well as other small, local producers.
Searching for organic food? Then the place is Café Gaya, a warm and friendly café where the food is mainly vegan, and oozes with intense flavors to delight the senses. In good weather they have outside seating in a courtyard away from the street. Every Friday, the café offers live concerts.
Just want a glass of wine or two? Head for the bright, modern S’vinbar, which probably offers the best selection of wines in Aarhus. The staff are very friendly and can help with recommendations from the list which focuses on smaller, lesser-known producers and unusual styles.
The wine bar makes for a perfect pre- or post-dinner stop off, but they do serve some snacks, if you want to settle in for the duration.
The best coffee in town you’ll probably find in two locations, one in the Latin Quarter and another right inside the train station. Look for the name La Cabra Coffee. With modern Scandinavian design and an internationally acclaimed coffee roaster, which only uses beans sourced directly from small producers, La Cabra takes coffee very seriously. They also serve a selection of cakes and pastries.
Worth a visit
South of the Aarhus city, in the Thors woods which are part of the larger Marselisborg-Moesgaard forest, lies the Deer Park. The area houses a wonderful population of sika and fallow deer which you can get really close-up to. The wild boars live in their own enclosure.
The amusement park Tivoli Friheden is tucked into the Marselisborg Forest, beech and coniferous woodland. There are four roller coasters at Tivoli Friheden, as well as 40 other rides, games and other amusements.
Big kids can board the Cobra, which has three inversions, while smaller kids will have great fun on a choice of animal-themed rides like the monkey. When hunger strikes there are sit-down eateries, fast-food cafes, as well as picnic and barbecue areas if you pack your own lunch.
Combine your visit to this area 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.
In the village of Lisbjerg just north of Aarhus, you can visit the Japanese Garden, an authentic Japanese garden laid out in traditional chisen-kaiyu style designed for promenading. The garden, which has no entry-fee, is rather large and varied.
Dating from the 14th century, the Latin Quarter is the beating heart of Aarhus and the area most visitors will head to first. 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, with the Pustervig Torv square providing a good place to stop and relax in between.
The Old City (Den gamle by) is a large open-air museum with 75 authentic historic buildings and is the ultimate gateway to Danish social history since the 1700s. The attraction creates living snapshots of the 18th, 19th and 20 centuries and lets you interact with the period as much as possible.
The most recent part covers the 1970s, so you’ll meet four young hippie-types and listen to LP records.
ARoS Museum is the largest art gallery in Northern Europe and is the most visited in all of Scandinavia, so it’s an essential stop on any Aarhus itinerary. Topped with a rooftop installation by Olafur Eliasson, the “Rainbow Panorama” is a 150-meter-long circular, and most colorful, walkway.
Along with regular touring exhibitions, there’s an impressive permanent collection featuring both Danish and international artists such as Grayson Perry, Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
Moesgaard Museum has collections from around the world, but the exhibitions covering Denmark’s past boast artefacts you can’t see 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. The body was so well preserved that they were even able to take the man’s fingerprints.
Part of the museum’s appeal also lies in its sleek low-impact design, with a grass-covered roof that blends almost seamlessly with the surrounding hillside.
Aarhus’ 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. Harbor Bath is open Saturdays and Sundays and is free to the public.
The greenhouses at Aarhus’ Botanical Garden, just north of Den Gamie By have all been renovated in the last few years. A new tropical house has also been added, and this is an almost alien, curved structure housing dense rainforest and with simulated animal sounds to enhance the experience.
There are four different climate zones synthesized at the park. Outside you can amble through typical Danish landscapes of beech forest and heathland. The large rose gardens here are maintained by local volunteers.
Where to stay
The choice of hotels in Aarhus is not the same as in Copenhagen though, but there are decent hotels.
One of the better options is Hotel Oasia. The hotel is decorated with an emphasis on elegant and discreet luxury, clean lines and Scandinavian design – and focus on functionality. The rooms are furnished only with designer furniture, including Hästens beds, Bang & Olfusen, custommade Montana furniture and chairs from Theselius and Kjærholm. Raw plank floors without carpet underline the pure Nordic style.
Comwell is a design hotel which opened in 2014 with 240 rooms. It is located in the city’s newest and tallest highrise, Aarhus City Towers.
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. The card can be purchased for different time periods
Your Essential Guide to Wonderful Aarhus, Denmark, compiled by Tor Kjolberg