‘You don’t know boring till you’ve visited Denmark. Copenhagen is pretty but there’s not much else to see.’
A friend from university told me this 12 years ago. That image, stereotype of Denmark being this flat and boring country stayed in my head for many years. I have visited Denmark twice since. Both times, only to visit Copenhagen. I can confirm that Copenhagen is a pretty city. Very regal. Great cafes and wonderful gastronomy.
The trips to Copenhagen however made me even more curious about the rest of Denmark.
That is one of the reasons why on a cloudy, muggy afternoon in late August, I was excited to be visiting Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. As much as I love revisiting my favourite old haunts in Paris, Amsterdam and London, I’ve also tried this year to seek out more lesser known, off the beaten path destinations like San Sebastian and Finnish Lapland.
Another reason to be excited about Aarhus next year is its well deserved status as the new European City of Culture.
The key theme and message of next year’s celebrations is to encourage locals and visitors alike to rethink the way we live. Be creative. A message that resonates with me massively.
‘Could things be done differently?’
In an era of globalisation where we live in an increasingly homogenised society, we travel to the same places and seek comfort in the known, this message has a powerful relevance. It is a fascinating idea. Creating an open city that is rethinking the way we live.
So, to have a glimpse of what the city of the future might look like, I went with my family to Aarhus. This is what we discovered.
“Study the past if you want to define the future” Confucius
Inspired by Confucius, the first stop on our trip was to visit the ‘old town’ of Aarhus aka Den Gamle By.
Den Gamle By is not your usual ‘old town’ that you find in a city. This is a living and breathing experience of what it was like to live and work in a Danish market town.
Everyone we meet in the museum is in character, dressed in traditional costumes.
It felt quite surreal. It was the closest thing to discovering a portal into one of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales. All the streets are covered with cobblestones and the buildings are half-timbered. These buildings were built between 1550 and the late 19th century in various parts of the country and then later moved to Aarhus during the 20th century.
The town itself is a fantastic attraction with most buildings open for visitors. After a brief jaunt through the town meeting the local baker and the blacksmith, we are given a tour of the village by a traditional horse-drawn carriage.
Afterwards we get carried away with some of the 19th Century amusements like a wooden bowling alley, a small brightly-painted carousel, mumbly pegs plus a set of wooden stilts which I tried to walk on but horribly failed.
We had lunch in Traktorstedet Simonsen Garden, a restaurant with a cozy patio – beautiful. Here we tasted the typical sandwiches of Denmark-Smørrebrød!
These are made with dark bread and you can choose different types of fillings from vegetables, cheese and cold meats. For as little as 69 DKK, it is a good value for money option.
There is a real sense of connection with the environment and passion for sustainable living in Denmark. This is reflected in the Danes love for the outdoors, parks ( there are 164 parks in Aarhus!) and places like the city’s Botanical Gardens.
Besides being a leading research centre, the gardens is a good place to recharge your batteries. Lying just beyond the medieval walls of the Den Gamle By, we took some time out on the grass , enjoying the beautiful late August sunshine.
The highlight for many people visiting Aarhus is visiting ARoS, one of the most amazing and unique museums I’ve been to in the world. The museum showcases the work of progressive artists from all over the world either through painting, sculpture, photography, videos, drawings and art installations.
The star feature of the museum is the incredible rainbow panorama roof top installation by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
The ‘rainbow panorama’ takes the form of a circular, 150m-long walkway made of brightly-coloured glass panels. Walking around this installation you enjoy this amazing 360 degree panoramic view of the city in all colours of the spectrum. No word can describe the happiness you feel walking in the rainbow panorama.
The museum has a fantastic cafe where they have excellent coffee, sandwiches and ice-cream from local producers, Hansens Flødeis. I recommend their delicious strawberry and vanilla ice-cream.
For dinner, we visited Mefisto in the city’s trendy, vibrant Latin Quarter.
Latin Quarter was beautiful in the evening, packed with locals. Plenty of locals gathered here in cosy cafes, drinking alfresco on the cobblestone streets.
I am huge seafood fan which is the reason we visited Mefisto which is known for their fish and lobster dishes.
The following morning, we head out to Højbjerg, a suburb of Aarhus, Denmark to dig a little more deeper into Aarhus’s past.
This is the Moesgaard Museum where you can view several other archaeological findings from Denmark’s ancient past plus view the legendary Grauballe Man (who has the enviable title of the world’s best preserved bog body ) The Grauballe Man was discovered in 1952 from a peat bog near the village of Grauballe in Jutland.
The museum is equally fascinating on the outside. Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects have designed a unique wedge-shaped museum with planted roof that rises from the sloping landscape. The kids loved it and kept on running up and down the slope. It becomes a place for picnics in summer and sledging in winter.
One of the best ways to experience Aarhus is by bike.
Cycling Aarhus offers daily guided tours ( 299 DKK) that give you a nice overview of the city. We decided to rent a bike ( 110 DKK) from them and create our own tour of Aarhus.
Our first stop was Great Coffee. The owners of the cafe are extremely passionate about their coffee and roast the coffee by themselves. You walk in and greeted by the delicious smell of freshly roasted coffee beans.
Very chilled out place with plenty of wooden tables to read a book or even get some work done. ( 35 DKK for a coffee )
We then cycled to the port area of Aarhus.
This is Denmark’s largest container port. The port area is undergoing a huge redevelopment at the moment.
Lots of new apartment buildings and fascinating futuristic structures are popping up in this neighbourhood.The most iconic building in this area is the Isbjerget aka the Iceberg. The roof rises up and then plunges down, creating the illusion of seeing a real iceberg.
We later pop into the nearby Strandbaren, a pop up beach where you can savour BBQ burgers, sip on cocktails and watch the container ships float by. Or if you are feeling energetic, join the locals for some beach volleyball.
We late stumble across this sculpture by Swiss artist Marc Moser for the summer’s Sculpture on the Sea exhibit in Aarhus, Denmark. Called Sea Pink this is pop art at its best: huge, oversized sunglasses at the beach with pink tinted lenses that allow the viewer to see the “sea pink.”
Cycling on our way back we stopped off to admire another awe inspiring piece of architecture- Dokk 1, which was recently voted as the world’s best library.
Encircling the library is also one of the coolest playgrounds you will find in a city. Dubbed the Kloden (The Globe), each section represents various cultures and regions of the world.
My favourite is the large wooden eagle on an erupting volcano : these both apparently represent Iceland and the American continent.
Back of the library, you also get a nice panoramic view of the city’s impressive skyline.
For dinner , we went to the newly opened Aarhus Streetfood. Inspired by the success of Copenhagen Street Food on Paper Island, this streetfood mecca has food from all corners of the world.
We enjoyed everything from prosecco from Italy, Banh mi sandwiches from Vietnam, delicious dumplings to nutella crepes and even fish and chips! Prices are reasonable and affordable. People here are lovely, warm and welcoming. Definitely not a place you want to miss when visiting Aarhus.
So. That was our 48 hours in Aarhus. A quick snapshot. 40 snapshots actually of a few memorable days in a truly unique city.
A city of the future with a glorious past, we met some truly wonderful people in Aarhus.
I need to reconnect with my friend who visited Denmark all those years ago.
Tell him that the rest of Denmark is still flat.
However, it is a country that is far from boring.
Aarhus has changed, thanks to its glorious rainbow effect.
A city in a constant state of flux and self-reinvention – is there anywhere in Europe that can compare?
Where to stay
Cabinn Aarhus is good budget hotel. Affordable, clean and a great location. Family room ( 2 adults and 2 kids) costs around €168 a night.
City Sleep is a cheap and cosy hostel in the centre of Aarhus. Five minute walk from the town and just two kilometers from the beach and woods. Privates start from €120 a night while a bed in their female and male dorm starts from just €26 a night.
Other value for money options includes the Radisson Blu Scandinavia hotel. Privates start from €235 for 2 nights ( Non refundable, no breakfast included) in the off peak season which is great value for a 4 star hotel in Denmark. This hotel enjoys a fab location, right beside the Aros Art Museum. Despite the central location, it is very quiet. The family room is spacious and comfortable. The two bedrooms are divided by a glass door and each room has a window, a bathroom and a huge flat screen TV. For the princely sum of €23 a night the hotel offers a very generous buffet breakfast. Hotel staff are professional and friendly.
My trip to Aarhus was made possible thanks to the kind support of Visit Aarhus ( Thank you Peer, Anne and Mette ) and Visit Denmark UK ( Thank you Kathrine, Ninna, Daniel and Dennis ) . The views all represented here are my own. If you are visiting with your family, please checkout the excellent guide to Aarhus compiled by my other half, Sofia Vasconcelos on her blog, FromMadeiratoMars.com