You can literally hear new life emerging in Aarhus. Whenever a baby is born in the Danish city’s hospital, a bell rings in DOKK1, its new public library. And not just any old bell, but the world’s largest tubular bell — with a weight of three tons. The happy parents simply press a button in the maternity ward and it chimes.
I get chatting to a man with an office at DOKK1, and ask him if it’s a disturbance. Not at all, he says. “It just brings a smile to everyone’s face.” It’s an apt comment. Aarhus has a few nicknames, including the World’s Smallest Metropolis, but the City of Smiles seems spot-on right now. Denmark’s second city has long lived in Copenhagen’s shadow, yet its designation as a European Capital of Culture in 2017 has put a spring in its step.
You sense it strolling along Jægergårdsgade, a bustling street in trendy Frederiksbjerg, south of the city centre. Nondescript a few years ago, Jægergårdsgade is jam-packed today with bars, cafes, restaurants and shops. You can’t miss the mechanics of regeneration either, from construction workers building shiny office blocks to a skyline peppered with cranes.
Yet, against all the urban development, Aarhus also happens to be blessed with beaches and beech forests within easy reach. And, as you’d expect from a diminutive Scandi city, it’s one best explored on foot or by bike — although unlike the capital, it isn’t pancake-flat.
And, if that sounds like hungry work, don’t worry. The de facto capital of the European Region of Gastronomy in 2017, Aarhus boasts a trio of Michelin-starred spots, plus a galaxy of affordable options. They include a new street-food market — a big hit with the 40,000 students who help make Aarhus the youngest city in Denmark.
Back at DOKK1, I spot further proof of the city’s youth — a ‘car park’ for baby strollers, replete with lane markings. And, not for the first time, I find myself smiling.
Restaurant Pondus: The baby brother of Michelin-starred Substans, this casual eatery describes itself as a Danish bistro. Enjoy well-executed, seasonal dishes — such as pork belly with parsnips and lingonberries — in a relaxed setting. The three-course set menu for 295DKK (£34) is excellent value.
Restaurant Frederikshøj: Don’t go all the way to Aarhus only to skip the very place that put it on the gastronomic map. Super-chef Wassim Hallal won his first Michelin star in 2015 — one of the first in the city. His new Nordic menu takes inspiration from the sea and the forest, which form the the restaurant’s stunning surroundings. Book well ahead.
Jægergårdsgade: Nothing showcases the city’s renaissance quite like this street south of the railway station. Linking the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Frederiksbjerg in the west with the old meatpacking district of Kødbyen in the east, the once-grubby Jægergårdsgade is today a fun place to shop, eat and drink.
The Latin Quarter: With its narrow, cobblestoned streets, hidden courtyards and medieval buildings, the oldest part of town oozes historic charm. Spend the morning exploring its shops and boutiques — many of the local jewellery designers and ceramicists have their workshops here — and refuel with a top-notch coffee at La Cabra in Aarhus Central Food Market.
Like a local
Den Permanente: Enjoy a dip at this much-cherished beach and outdoor swimming bath, a 10-minute cycle ride out of town, situated just below the woodland park Riis Skov. Den Permanente has been a hit with locals since 1933, and you can see why: a beech forest provides its bucolic backdrop.
Ingerslevs Boulevard: On Wednesdays and Saturdays until 2pm, head to Denmark’s largest food market, south of the city centre. There, you’ll find around 60 stalls selling local meat, fish and cheese, fruit and vegetables, and honey from local beekeepers.
See & do
ARoS: The city’s contemporary art museum is a must-visit, not least because it houses a first-class permanent collection, including works by Andy Warhol and Ron Mueck. But the highlight is Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Your Rainbow Panorama — a 150m-long circular walkway, 50m above the rooftop. Its multi-coloured glass provides unbeatable views of the city.
The Botanical Gardens: You’ll be floored by the flora at this award-winning attraction, the highlight of which is four climate-controlled greenhouses. The journey begins amid the almond trees of the Mediterranean, continues into desert and mountain regions, and ends in tropical treetops.
Den Gamle By: An imaginative open-air museum, which shows how Danish people lived in three distinct eras: 1864, the era of Hans Christian Andersen; 1927, when industrialisation took hold; and the hippie-dippy days of 1974. ‘The Old Town’ was built with 75 historical houses relocated from 24 towns across the country.
Godsbanen: To see urban redevelopment at its most dramatic, visit these repurposed industrial buildings in the grounds of a former railway yard. Since 2010, they’ve been home to a range of creative businesses and workshops, so there’s always plenty going on.
Moesgaard Museum: With its wealth of archaeological and ethnographic treasures — including the Grauballe Man, the world’s best preserved Iron Age bog body — as well as the stunning views from its sloping grass roof, this museum is not to be missed.
Viking Museum: The basement of a Danish bank happens to be the spot where the Vikings founded the city of Aros a millennium ago. It’s worth a visit to view the artefacts unearthed here in the 1960s, including 1,000-year-old tools and pottery, and a Viking skeleton.
S’vinbar: This cosy corner bar in the centre of town is the go-to place for a glass of wine. It tilts towards Old World wines and with more than 300 for sale, most by the glass, there’s an unusual amount of choice. The wine flight changes daily and focuses on a particular grape or region.
Mig og ØlsnedkEren: If craft beer’s your thing, make a beeline for this year-old bar on Mejlgade. A Copenhagen brewpub spin-off, it has 20 microbrews on tap — half from Denmark and the rest from around the world.
Scandic Aarhus City: Location is key for this four-star hotel — it’s a stone’s throw from the main shopping street and walking distance from the railway station. It also has underground parking and onsite bar and restaurant — though you’ll be spoilt for choice if you do venture out.
Villa Provence: Enjoy a taste of the south of France at this cute boutique hotel. Its 39 rooms and suites are individually decorated in Provençal style. Throw in a pretty cobbled courtyard and a plum location, right in the heart of town, and la vie, c’est belle.
Getting there & around
Ryanair flies daily from Stansted to Aarhus. Norwegian Air flies twice a week (Thursday and Sunday) from Gatwick to Aalborg. British Airways flies daily from Heathrow to Billund. SAS flies eight times a day to Aarhus from Copenhagen.
Average flight time: 1h 40m.
Explore Aarhus on foot or by bicycle — rent one through Cycling Aarhus for 110 DKK (around £13) a day. Alternatively, you can pick up taxis easily, though they’re not cheap, and most cab drivers speak English. From mid-2017 there’ll be a light railway service running through the city.
When to go
Ideally, from April to October. Denmark has harsh winters but is typically mild throughout the rest of the year with temperatures around 10C. The weather is usually very pleasant from late spring to early autumn — but always pack a raincoat and a spare jumper.
Lonely Planet Denmark. RRP: £15.99
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers three nights’ B&B at the three-star Scandic Aarhus Vest from £269 per person, including return flights from Heathrow.
Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)