You have probably heard of Copenhagen, but what about Aarhus? Denmark’s second-largest, lesser-known university city is a mix of old world values and modern culture. Don't miss out.
AARHUS, Denmark - It’s a chilly September morning and I’m strapped to my seat on a sturdy RIB boat, being propelled through the icy waters of Ebeltoft Cove with my hands tightly gripping the seatback in front of me. The air is thick with the smell of salt and my jacket is wet with ocean water. A pair of steely sea rangers picked me up from a deserted dock in Ebeltoft and outfitted me in a heavy-duty raincoat befitting an Arctic expedition. My purse and camera are tucked away in a waterproof compartment under my seat. In the distance, a classically beautiful sailboat is gliding through the water. A small Danish flag waves gently from the mast.
As we make our approach, the RIB starts to slow. The sailboat, our captain explains, is a training vessel used by The Royal Danish Navy. It is the definition of form meets function. Having spent time in Scandinavia before, I know that the Danes excel at this concept. Even the simplest everyday items are designed with the utmost care, built to last, and are always pleasing to the eye. Of course their navy ships are nice to look at. We pick up speed and continue our white-knuckle ride, the first of several nautical outings on my five-day trip to Aarhus, a dreamy, easygoing university city that feels like my personal Utopia.
Day One: Ebeltoft to Aarhus
My trip started the evening before when I arrived at Molskroen, a classic, timber-framed seaside inn in sleepy Ebeltoft, bordering Mols Bjerge National Park. After landing at the airport, I was driven straight to Ebeltoft, arriving in time for dinner at the hotel’s beloved fine-dining restaurant. Thanks to a mix of jet lag, a delicious tasting menu with lots of wine, and fresh sea air, I fell asleep fast and hard.
An early morning stroll gave me the lay of the hotel grounds, which includes a small apple orchard and a smattering of greenhouses filled with fresh produce for the restaurant. Across the street, an empty beach reinforces the fact that September in Denmark in decidedly autumnal. Back to the hotel for a breakfast buffet served on Royal Copenhagen china before catching a ride to a nearby dock for the aforementioned RIB.
Arriving in Aarhus by boat seems fitting given the city’s rich maritime history, which dates back to the eighth century when it was a Viking settlement. Today, it’s the second-largest city in Denmark and the biggest on the Jutland Peninsula, with a population just over 336,000. Aarhus has the feel of a lively small town with a young and energetic core, thanks to the student population of Denmark’s largest university. Narrow cobblestone streets, old-fashioned architecture, and a mayor who has a standing weekly jogging date with anyone who’d like to join strengthens my immediate feeling that this is one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever visited.
I check into Scandic Aarhus City, a centrally located business hotel with a modern, minimalist vibe. My first order of business is lunch at Den Gamle By. A visit to the open-air museum feels a bit like traveling back in time for its collection of historic buildings from the 1700s to mid-1970s and period actors in costume. After a leisurely stroll around the grounds, I grab a seat at a traditional Danish eatery called Simonsens Have, where I promptly order a plate of Swedish meatballs. From there, I make my way to the Latin Quarter for a coffee break at Great Coffee, a Willy Wonka-esque brew shop run by award-winning barista Søren Stiller. With my jet lag now at bay, I head to the rooftop of Salling, a local department store with one of the best views in town. For those looking to stay a bit longer, I’m told the sky-high outdoor bar is great. My final stop before dinner at Mefisto in the Latin Quarter is Møllestien, a photogenic street that I spotted on Instagram. Lined with half-timbered houses in pastel colors and a cobblestone street, it’s easy to see why most locals consider this to be the city’s prettiest neighborhood.
Day Two: Silkeborg and Aarhus
For the second day in a row my morning starts with a scenic boat tour around the verdant Silkeborg lake district. I spend most of the hour-long ride contemplating an immediate move – something I often find myself doing when I visit a new place that I like. If only the Danish winters weren’t so harsh, this would surely be the place for me. It’s quiet and calm with houses overlooking the lake; and the modern-day trappings of a city are less than an hour away. I deboard at Silkeborg Harbour for a morning of museum and gallery hopping. My first stop is Museum Silkeborg, a canary-yellow manor house known for exhibiting one of the world’s best examples of a bog body. What is a bog body you might ask? I didn’t know either. It’s a naturally mummified corpse that has been preserved in a bog. This one, named Tollund Man, dates back to around 300 B.C and was found not too far from Silkeborg. He looks peaceful despite having died by hanging and has the coloring and patina of a tarnished bronze sculpture. Ordinarily this isn’t the type of museum exhibit I would search out, but after seeing him in person, I can understand the fascination. From there I head to lunch at Brasserie Underhuset, before making my way to Gallerie Moderne and Museum Jorn.
Back in central Aarhus, I venture out for my last (and favorite) museum visit of the day. ARoS Aarhus Art Museum is the country’s second-oldest public art museum, but it looks anything but thanks to a futuristic rainbow structure affixed to the top of the building. Designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the 150-meter-long and three-meter-wide circular walkway hovers above Aarhus offering the best views in town. It’s a trip to walk around and if you can go at sunset you’ll be in for a real treat. The rest of the museum’s collection ranges from the Danish Golden Age to modern day, showcasing international artists like Frank Ghery, Andy Warhol, and James Turell. I spend another hour exploring the art before ending my evening at ARoS Wine and Food Hall, the museum’s reasonably priced fine-dining restaurant.
Day Three: Aarhus
Having visited Denmark a few times, one of the comments I most often hear from fellow Americans when discussing my admiration for the country is that they simply couldn’t bear the steep income tax. At around 45 percent, it is certainly on the high side, but after seeing and experiencing some of the “perks” firsthand, I think they might reconsider. Aarhus’ DOKK1 is an excellent example of a government-funded public space that feels light years ahead of its time. On my morning tour of the striking building, which functions as both a library and citizen service center, I peek into a 3D-printing class offered to local children and a weekly classical music hour performed by the city’s orchestra for new moms and babies – just two examples of the free public programming on offer. Those looking to work will find plenty of room to spread out with streams of natural light and views of the water. There’s also a cafe and the world’s largest tubular bell, which rings every time a baby is born in the city. It’s truly an admirable public space.
My next stop is Ghrelin, a new-ish gourmet restaurant in the city’s still-developing Aarhus Ø neighborhood. The sparsely furnished space is beautifully designed with walls made of gray concrete and honey-colored wood. The food, much of it made from locally sourced ingredients, is almost too pretty to eat, but it’s the delicious warm bread and salty Danish butter that I think about most once I leave. With its angular sky-high highrises and harborside setting, a post-lunch stroll around Aarhus Ø has me feeling like I’ve stepped into the future.
From there, I take a ten-minute car ride to the Infinite Bridge for a quick walk along the circular shaped wooden pier, which juts off the coastline. Originally part of the biannual Sculpture by the Sea festival in 2015, the people of Aarhus were so taken by the work of art that the city had it reconstructed as a permanent installation. It’s fantastic and the serene seaside setting has me wishing for a few more hours to explore the surrounding area, but I need to get back to the city center for my dinner reservation at the Michelin-starred Domestic.
Day Four: Ebeltoft
My final morning in Aarhus is spent outside the city, back in Ebeltoft, where I walk the tiny village’s cobblestone streets, wishing I had another day to explore before leaving for Copenhagen. Before my flight, I head to Restaurant Moment, a ten-minute drive from the airport. Far and away my favorite meal of the trip, the elevated vegetarian restaurant is set inside Friland eco-village, a mortgage-free, intentional community that could only exist in Scandinavia. Favorite dishes include geranium-baked carrot with homemade smoked cheese, salted nuts, glasswort dust, mallow leaf, white asparagus emulsion, buckwheat, leek ash, and elderflower vinegar, and a homemade mascarpone with blackcurrant, jostaberries, wild plum, cicely, apple sorbet, and burnt white chocolate. The dishes may sound fussy and complex, but they were actually quite simple and satisfying – the perfect way to cap off a first visit to Aarhus.