Many people outside of Denmark may be unfamiliar with Denmark’s second city. Billund? No that’s Lego HQ. Gothenberg? No, that’s Sweden. While capital Copenhagen draws international attention, Aarhus crams a lot into its small space.
With a flight time of roughly 1 hour 20 minutes from London Stansted to Aarhus airport, it’s a simple vacation for those searching for a slower, more realistic slice of Danish living than tourist-heavy Copenhagen.
Aarhus Airport is plainly under renovation, with some arrivals currently via a marquee, although the airport’s services are otherwise excellent. The small scale of the flight operations, combined with a modern, well-designed terminal structure, creates the sensation of being in a private airport lounge.
The present construction project has already resulted in the establishment of a hotel within the terminal, and work to extend the terminal’s gates is now underway, hence the marquee. The 925x Airport Express bus service is the easiest way to get to Aarhus, which is around 40 kilometres away through rolling rural countryside. The 50-minute journey to the city’s central station costs 115DKK (approx. £13) each way and is scheduled to coincide with arriving and departing airlines.
On the drive from airport to Aarhus, one of the first things that strikes visitors is the agricultural countryside; it’s simple to see why agriculture has been so essential to the Danish economy. The spread of wind turbines across the landscape also bears witness to a new economic force in action. Denmark was a pioneer of wind turbine technology in the 1970s, and it is now one of the world’s largest wind power exponents, ranking second only to neighbouring Sweden in wind power generation per capita. Aarhus itself is home to Vestas, the world’s largest turbine producer.
Another thing that becomes obvious as we approach the outskirts of Aarhus is the abundance of another type of energy – pedal power. Cycling is embedded in Danish culture, with around 9,000 bike stands positioned within the city’s ring road alone. Bicyclists include children, students, parents with toddlers, commuters, and deliveries.
A well-planned bike route network integrates cyclists, autos and pedestrians; it requires some practise to look for cyclists as well as cars when crossing streets. However, there is a classic Scandinavian sense of conformity at work, as bicycles wait for traffic signals in single file, and pedestrians patiently wait for the green light to cross the road, even if the road is empty. When safely over the road, those red and green figures on the pedestrian crossing lights are worth a closer study. Crossing lights within the historic Viking settlement boundaries have red and green Vikings instead of regular crossing lights.
Aros (Aarhus’ original name) was built in the Viking era and quickly became a well-known commercial harbour, a heritage that has endured to this day. While later growth has destroyed most of Viking Aros, the city’s Viking Museum is a hidden treasure. It’s easy to overlook because it’s tucked away in the basement of a grey modern office complex, but descend the steps to stand on the same ground as early Vikings and you’ll see ruins of some of those early Viking homesteads, curious artefacts and a wonderful introduction to Viking life and exploration.
The practically buried museum represents Aarhus approach to tourism nevertheless; don’t expect Viking themed restaurants, historically incorrect horned helmets, or other stereotypical Viking tourist items in Aarhus; this is a city that wears its history lightly.
While the Viking Museum is underground, conversely it appears that rooftops are a reoccurring theme in Aarhus. Heading to a department store as your first stop in a city is not standard tourist advice, but the Salling department store’s roof area has been made into a must-see site and the best place to orient yourself. Salling Rooftop and Roofgarden first opened their doors in 2017 and have since been crowned Europe’s best rooftop bar. While the rooftop venue sells drinks and even has a Starbucks branch, the venue has much more to offer than drinks.
Thanks to a network of pathways and lounging areas, secret gardens, and statues, visitors may enjoy 360-degree views of the city while indulging in that most Danish of commodities, Hygge. Visitors who are daring enough can even walk out onto a glass walkway that protrudes out and above the pedestrian shopping strip 80 feet below.
Salling Rooftop also overlooks one of Aarhus’ other notable observation deck, a multicoloured circular platform on top of the ARoS art museum. Olafur Eliasson’s Your rainbow panorama installation, which rises 50 metres above street level, has provided tourists with a multicoloured panoramic view of the city since 2011.
The museum below is the second most visited art museum in Denmark, with numerous floors dedicated to art installations and exhibitions. One of the more remarkable works is Ron Muek’s Boy, a giant 4.5-metre-high sculpture that amazes with sheer scale but also careful likeness, intimacy and detail. It is now one of the museum’s ‘must see’ exhibits.
The sense of scale in both the architecture and the artwork inside this museum is unmistakable. The museum is currently being enlarged, with a major extension set to open in 2025.
While not as evident as in other Scandinavian cities such as Oslo, where development projects appear to be reshaping the entire city, Aarhus is going through its own transformation. A derelict container terminal to the north of the city centre has been turned into a new residential and leisure area as part of the AarhusØ development.
The magnificent silhouette of the modern construction may be seen from the city centre, yet this new neighbourhood is only really understood up-close. On an unusually hot and beautiful September Saturday, Aarhusians are out in force here, waterskiing, sunbathing, or swimming in Aarhus Bay.
Set against the backdrop of turquoise skies and blue oceans, the multi-tiered apartment structures, particularly the beautiful white and blue Isbjerget (Iceberg), may easily be mistaken for the Mediterranean rather than Scandinavia. There’s still work to be done here, and getting from the city centre to AarhusØ still means walking through underdeveloped docklands, but it’s a strong indication that the city is looking to the future as its business turns away from historical shipping.
Den Gamle By (The Old Town), on the other hand, exemplifies Danish pride in their urban past. This living history museum, founded in 1914 but continually expanded since then, has saved buildings from towns and cities across Denmark from demolition and recreated them into several historical streets.
We have a 2010s street with a Blockbuster video store, a lively 1970s main street, 1920s cafes and businesses, and older streets dating back to the 1550s. This is a living museum with authentic structures reconstructed here in Aarhus.
The apartments above the stores are furnished as though the inhabitants have just stepped out, and the shops and cafes are manned by enthusiastic employees eager to share their knowledge of the history (or sell you an authentic Danish dessert!).
It could all so easily turn into a theme park, but the attention to detail makes this a completely entertaining and absorbing glimpse into Danish urban life over the centuries.
While much of the city can be explored on foot (or by joining the residents on bikes), it’s worth hopping on the number 18 bus for a 30-minute ride to the Moesgaard Museum, which may be the highlight of any visit to the region. The museum, which opened in 2014, is a wedge emerging from the terrain, with its roof forming a viewing platform with views of the coast. The museum traces the evolution of man in the region.
Descending a flight of stairs lined with our human ancestors is also a voyage back in time, as we learn about the region’s early inhabitants. The highlight of the collection is Grauballe Man, one of the best preserved ‘bog bodies’ discovered in 1952. Despite his 2000-year-old age, features of the man’s appearance, such as stubble on his chin and a shock of red hair, have been preserved. Face to face with one of archaeology’s most famous artefacts is a profoundly affecting experience, and the exhibition reveals much about his life, discovery, and preservation.
There’s much more to Moesgaard Museum though than just Graubelle Man. The evolution of man in the area is well charted by well-conceived interactive displays that keep people of all ages interested. After your visit, you’ll be somewhat a changed character, sitting on the museum cafe terrace in the late summer sun, enjoying a Smørrebrd (open sandwich) and reflecting on the intriguing human story detailed here.
That human story continues to be lived in the city today. There are no large brash multi-national chains that make many city centres virtually indistinguishable from one another. There is a Starbucks, but the Nordic equivalent Espresso House is more prevalent, and while the omnipresent McDonald’s and Burger King are present, they are a low-key, side street, presence in favour of smaller, more local companies.
The picturesque Latin Quarter is a particularly rich hunting ground for those small independent restaurants, bars and coffee shops, while Aarhus Street Food, located in former garages next to the city bus station, is highly recommended for a livelier experience and the chance to choose from multiple international kitchens.
The Scandic City provided accomodation for this trip, which was conveniently located just off the main pedestrian street. It’s a hotel that isn’t quite what it seems on the outside. The 19th-century façade of the former Østergarde Hotel can be seen from the street, but enter and you’ll find a sleek modern hotel erected behind the exterior in 2012.
The public areas and rooms feature high-quality Scandinavian design, as well as Scandic Hotels’ signature aesthetic. The lobby bar is a terrific place to meet for a quiet drink, and the magnificent complimentary breakfast in the adjacent dining area has enough buffet options to get you through the day. For those looking for a more substantial evening meal on location, The L’øst provides a menu fuelled by local delicacies.
The hotel offers a range of room types, from standard to suite, with some offering street views and others enjoying interior courtyard views. A Superior Plus room with views of the aforementioned Salling Store and overlooking a busy street (be prepared for city garbage vehicles at 2am) was the perfect location for this visit. A large, well-appointed rooms with separate seating space offer plenty of space and peace & quiet.
Because the chain prioritises environmental impact, room servicing and cleaning are only available upon request and must be planned with reception by lunchtime the day before. That appears to be a feasible option for a business trip hotel, but it’s more difficult to predict needs a day in advance for a longer four-night stay. Aside from that, the Scandic Aarhus City is an ideal starting point for seeing everything this small but charming city has to offer.
Aarhus may lack the tourist trappings of its larger sister Copenhagen, but it may offer a more authentic peek into Danish society. It may lack (as yet) the full-fledged harbour front reconstruction of Norway’s Oslo Bjørvika project (albeit it does have a significantly lower cost of living than Oslo), but it is forging its own route to recreate itself as a 21st-century metropolis cognizant of its legacy.
Feature by Glen Pearce for Nordic Watchlist.