Denmark’s second-biggest city is brimming with enough arts, culture, and youthful vigor to give Copenhagen a run for its money. With amazing museums, exciting restaurants, and historical attractions, it won’t take much to convince you that Aarhus is worth visiting. Still, you might be wondering, why should you choose it over Denmark’s capital?
Aarhus is a maritime city, nestled on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula. This vibrant metropolis has one of Europe’s youngest and fastest growing populations and is home to the largest university in Scandinavia. Aarhus was even crowned European Capital of Culture in 2017 and is often dubbed the “City of Smiles” thanks to its friendly and liberal demographic.
There are plenty of reasons that Aarhus deserves a place on your travel bucket list. Our guide comprises seven stand-out qualities of the city to say why you should visit at least once. From the spectacular buildings to the annual events and its strategic location, it’s all here. Let’s get into it.
Aarhus’s unmissable modern buildings are just one draw factor to the energetic city, but you’ll also find an eclectic mix of centuries-old landmarks living harmoniously among the contemporary architecture. One of the most notable, newer complexes is the Iceberg, Aarhus’s most recognizable feat of modern engineering.
Occupying an ideal harbor front location, the otherworldly apartment blocks jut out at random angles, clad with white stucco and adorned with blue glass balconies. The result is a futuristic yet maritime aesthetic, organized in such a way that every individual apartment is afforded an advantageous view over Aarhus Bay. Louis Paillard, SeARCH, CEBRA, and JDS are responsible for the bizarre design, and the Iceberg has become a motif of the city, housing 7,000 inhabitants.
There’s also the new city library, a minimalist building, too situated on the waterfront known as the Dokk1. The more than 300,000 square foot building houses Scandinavia’s largest collection of books within its peculiar heptagonal walls. There’s a café, study room, viewing terrace, and 350,000 materials from books to magazines, records, games, and tapes to devour.
And if it’s a bit more heritage you’re after, be sure to check out the Aarhus Theater. The ornate building dates back to the 19th century. It was designed by Hack Kampmann and features four different stages as well as a decorative facade. There’s also the city hall complex, comprising three buildings in an ode to Scandinavian modernism and art deco style. Norwegian marble covers the outside and the 60-meter tower draws in visitors. The hall was built in 1936 by the renowned Arne Jacobsen and is a landmark of Danish architecture.
Still, if you really want to flip back through the history books, the oldest building in Aarhus is the Vor Frue Kirke, or “The Church of Our Lady”. Its crypts date back as far as 1,000 AD and the church served as a Dominican convent or Black Friar convent throughout the middle ages.
The Cultural Scene
The architecture is testament enough to Aarhus’s rich cultural output, but it’s not just the impressive buildings that are worth seeing. Instead, it’s what is inside some of them that also counts. Museums, art galleries, theaters, and music halls are scattered around the compact city and Aarhus is home to some of Denmark’s top cultural attractions.
The ARoS Aarhus Art Museum is one for modern-art lovers. Distributed over 20,000 square meters and ten storeys, the gallery is one of the largest in Northern Europe, and the collection of art dates from 1770 to the present day. You’ll also find unique installations like “Your rainbow panorama” by Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson.
For history aficionados, there’s Den Gamle By, a symbol of Danish heritage located in the Aarhus Botanical Gardens. Den Gamle By translates as “The Old Town” in English and the open-air museum is a place for history buffs and young families to unite. The district illustrates traditional Danish town culture with 75, half-timbered historical houses and exhibitions that take visitors on a journey through the ages.
And for a taste of it all, don’t forget Museum Ovartaci, a combined art and history museum dedicated to the past and present of Danish psychiatry. The gallery houses a collection of art produced by patients at the Risskov Psychiatric Institute in Aarhus and aims to educate visitors on modern psychiatric treatment.
The Food and Drink
Aarhus has a diverse and exciting gastronomical scene to rival any European capital city. There’s something to suit every taste and budget from Danish street food to New Nordic fine dining, international fusion restaurants to cozy coffee shops.
Check out Aarhus Central Food Market if it is local delicacies and produce that you’re after. The permanent bazaar boasts a collection of stalls serving takeaway snacks and homemade treats, as well as full meals and alcoholic drinks with plenty of seating. The market is a more refined alternative to Street Food, another enclosed market serving global cuisine at well-stocked bars, and a favorite meeting place of locals and visitors.
Be sure to take a stroll in the Latin Quarter in the heart of Aarhus, and through Aarhus Ø, the trendy up-and-coming district on the harbor front, for the very best in Aarhus’s foodie scene. Check out L’estragon and their five-course tasting menu and wine pairing for French refinery with a New Nordic twist, or Mefisto Restaurant for cozy, Danish classics and great service.
Aarhus is also one of the best places for sampling some of Denmark’s cherished national dishes and regional variations. Danish Smørrebrød might go against everything you know and love about the humble sandwich, but they line up in café windows, are packed into their own custom lunch boxes, and are even served at specialty restaurants in Aarhus.
At their simplest, the open-faced sandwich is just dense sourdough rye bread, called rugbrød, topped with butter, but classically they’re piled high with everything from sharp horseradish cream, with pickled herring and shrimp to avocado, onions, and dill, and even meatballs and mayonnaise.
Another must-try Aarhus dish is Æbleflæsk, the sweet Danish pork delicacy consisting of cured pork belly with fried apples and sugar. There’s also Fiskefrikadeller which you’ll find on most restaurant appetizer menus. These fish cakes, traditionally made with cod, combine eggs, breadcrumbs, onion, and dill and are fried in a pan, perfect for a summer’s evening.
As a roaring university city with Denmark’s largest population of young people, it’s no surprise that Aarhus has a nightlife that keeps up with the times. There are plenty of nightclubs, bars, pubs, and lounges with craft cocktails, great beer, diverse atmospheres, and music from every genre.
The thriving student community keeps the party going, even on weeknights and there’s something to do every evening. You’ll see people taking to the streets at around 8 or 9 pm, but things don’t kick off until around midnight, in true European fashion, and clubs and bars can be open until the early hours.
The canal is one of the best places to head for evening drinks, with a great mix of bars lining the waterfront and Danish pubs serving cold beers. The Latin Quarter is also brimming with plenty of lounges to get a few cocktails and lively restaurants that work up quite the atmosphere once dinner has been cleared.
The city has the best clubbing scene on the Jutland peninsula and the premier nightlife institutes are concentrated between the canal and the harbor basins. Popular haunts like Gbar, Der Kuhstall, and The Australian Bar are open until 5 or 6 am some nights of the week.
With great nightlife, comes international recognition, and that’s just part of the reason that Aarhus is a destination for music concerts and national events. Aarhus is the base for one of Denmark’s leading music festivals, NorthSide. Founded in 2010, the three-day extravaganza is held every June with three main stages and a host of events taking place across the city.
International and Danish artists across multiple genres rotate the stages in front of crowds of up to 40,000 people each day. Better yet, NorthSide prides itself on sustainability and you can expect Scandinavian innovation at its finest when it comes to the organization of the event.
Still, it’s not just the summer when Aarhus comes alive. During the festive period, the center of Den Gamle By, the Old Town, and open-air museum, becomes a Christmas haven with all manner of mulled drinks, toasted nuts, children’s toys, and ornate souvenirs on offer. The Christmas Market replaces the traditional Wednesday and Saturday markets that take place all year here and it lasts from around the 23rd of November to the 5th of January.
You’ll also get a glimpse at the festive time of the 1970s in Denmark from the decorated timbered houses and streets. In fact, Danes don’t just celebrate Christmas, but something called Julehygge instead which dominates December and the end of November too. The spirit of the season brings warmth to the cold Nordic winters and the best place to soak it up is at Den Gamle By.
Aarhus is only around three hours from all the excitement of the Danish capital, but nestled on different islands, across the Great Belt in the Baltic Sea, Aarhus offers a completely different taste of Denmark and the surrounding regions than Copenhagen does.
Summer is an especially good time to visit, not only for the 15-hour days, but because of the nearby beaches within easy reach from Aarhus. Bellevue Beach, Den Permanente, and Mariendal Beach are all reachable by bus or bike from the city center with sprawling sands and great opportunities to soak up the sun and enjoy the great outdoors of Jutland.
Skanderborg and Ry are just two of the quaint towns located in the heart of the Jutland Lake District too. Skanderborg sits on the northeastern banks of the Skanderborg Lake and is known for its smaller ponds, marshes, and bodies of water that punctuate the cityscape. Whereas Ry, the market town that sprouted around a train station, is best known for Himmelbjerget, one of Denmark’s highest natural points and a great hiking destination. Both villages are within a half an hour’s drive from Aarhus and equally quick to reach by train.
The Jutland Peninsula even borders Germany, making Aarhus easy to reach from central Europe and a great stepping stone to the rest of the continent. Aarhus is less than a four-hour drive from Hamburg, the major port city and the birthplace of Currywurst in northern Germany. And it’s just over six hours to iconic Berlin from Aarhus, although these distances are also easily flown, with budget airlines offering regular returns for around $50.
Scandinavia is notoriously expensive, and Denmark is no different. The Nordic nation is one of the priciest countries to live in in the world, and while high salaries and high taxes balance things out for its residents, it can be a different story for tourists. Still, if you’re set on the Scandinavian dream or keen to visit Denmark but can’t face Copenhagen’s soaring premiums, Aarhus could be a good alternative.
The cost of living is much cheaper in Aarhus than in Denmark’s capital city. Rent prices in Aarhus are as much as 30 percent lower than in Copenhagen, without compromising on quality neighborhoods brimming with art and culture. Restaurant prices are around five percent higher in Copenhagen than in Aarhus, while groceries and alcohol can range from 20 percent to 50 percent more in the capital.
A monthly transport pass costs around 500 DKK (69.50 USD) in Copenhagen and just 392 DKK (53.70 USD) in Aarhus, while taxi tariffs can be double that of Aarhus in the capital. On average, you can expect to spend around 1,460 DKK (200 USD) a night for a double room in Copenhagen, compared to 1,190 (163 USD) in Aarhus, while the average apartment rental on Airbnb costs 1,729 DKK (237 USD) a night in Copenhagen and just 1,016 DKK (140 USD) a night in Aarhus.
Aarhus is still an expensive city in an expensive country, but it is as much as 16 percent cheaper than Copenhagen on average for a holiday, and even cheaper than many European capitals.
How many days do you need in Aarhus?
There is tons to do in Aarhus and you could spend weeks uncovering all of its wonders. Still, as a decidedly compact city, balancing graceful heritage with spirited modernism all within a walkable center, you could easily fill three or four days touring the historical attractions, hitting the museums, sampling the cuisine, and embracing the Nordic way of life.
When is the best time to visit Aarhus?
Summer experiences the most daylight hours in Aarhus and temperatures hover in the high 60s, but the rain arrives with the school holiday crowds in July and August, making May and June a better time to visit. The Jutland peninsula is cool and wet all year round, but temperatures can reach the low 70s in May and rainfall is less heavy than in the summer months.