Aarhus! Does the name sound familiar? Could be because Denmark’s second city was one of the two designated European Capitals of Culture in 2017. This led to a whole host of publications chiming in: National Geographic, CNN, Lonely Planet and others, all naming Aarhus a must-visit destination.
Aarhus is small, yet offers everything a much bigger city does, without the hustle and bustle. It’s a university city – with the accompanying cool vibe, a foodie city – from Michelin stars to street food, a festival city, a sporting city, an artistic city… I could go on. Did I mention food?
And when you’re in the mood for a more rural ambiance, keep in mind this is tiny Denmark: distances are short. The Aarhus Region encompasses numerous charming spots, natural and cultural. You’ll find Himmelbjerget (Sky Mountain) nearby, Silkeborg with art, cultural heritage, and the surrounding lake district. Denmark’s oldest town, 1000-year-old Viborg is practically down the street, too.
All will be revealed, so read on for 11 things you’ll love in – and around – this lively, laid-back Danish city. Let’s jump right in with a fave of mine:
1. The ARoS experience
Aarhus ARoS Art Museum is a very cool modern art museum. Exhibits are unusual; frequently asking a lot of you as an observer. Demanding thought. And engagement. The circular rainbow panorama on top of the building demonstrates in a very visual way how everything can change when your perspective changes.
Below the rainbow is a striking spiral staircase and 10 floors of exhibitions: paintings, drawings, sculptures, things found in nature, and most intriguing, installations. ARoS is not afraid to be provocative. I dare you to leave unaffected.
During my visit in September 2018, there’s religion, sex and violence on view, inspiring a weird emotional mix: it’s alternately challenging, outrageous, exciting, disturbing… I see suicide bomber vests, toy soldier dioramas of evil and destruction. There’s aquarelles by Adolf Hitler. I see a Lamborghini keyed by thousands of visitors, half-melted mannequins, victims of torture, a family with their eyes ripped out. There’s also ‘normal’ paintings, spread out on walls painted in cheery colours, so your mind can relax for a bit.
2. Den Gamle By (Old Town Aarhus)
Old Town Aarhus is not a neighbourhood. Rather, it is a live cultural history museum, showing homes and city life from three different periods: the 19th century, the 1920s and the 1970s. This is your chance to time travel.
As you pass from one time-period to the next, notice the details: see how 19th century cobble stones give way to flat 1920s pavements? And how all of a sudden, there’s street lights and telephone wires? Horse-drawn carriages yielding to cars?
By the time the 1970s comes around, the concept of home has broadened. You’ll see a traditional family household, and also that of a single mother, of immigrant workers from Turkey, a commune…
In Den Gamle By, you can enter the houses and apartments, and even peek inside drawers and wardrobes. You can pop into the shops and buy goods from the era and strike up conversations with locals.
3. Salling Rooftop
It may seem strange to recommend visiting the top floor of a shopping centre. Nevertheless, that’s what I am going to do. Here I am, walking down Strøget, Aarhus’ pedestrian main street. As I look up, I spot a glass balcony bridge jutting out high above, with people looking down. Not down on me…I don’t think. But at their feet – and the world below!
This is Salling Rooftop, where you can have a bite to eat, a drink at the rooftop bar, listen to a concert, or just admire the views. And if you’re extra brave, you can walk on the glass gangway – on to the transparent floor – and look at traffic 30 metres below. I’m reminded of Auckland’s Sky Tower.
4. Aarhus Festuge (Aarhus Festival Week)
The annual Aarhus Festuge is one of the largest cultural festivals in the Nordics. Beginning the last Friday in August and lasting for 10 days, the festival focusses on music, art, food and general happiness. There’s concerts, street art exhibitions, shows, and most of it is free. This is a great time to visit Denmark’s second city.
Skovbad (forest bath) is worth a special mention. It’s inspired by the Japanese tradition Shinrin yoku, where ‘bathing’ among trees is thought to be healing. Japanese doctors even prescribe time to be spent in the forest. Conifers are considered best for cleaning the air and creating a calm atmosphere. Luckily, we have conifers in abundance here in the Nordics. During the festival, about 600 metres of trees have been temporarily planted along a median strip in the city. In between the trees, you can join yoga and mindfulness sessions. When the festival is over, the trees are brought to a city park.
5. Street food. And drink.
Are you a foodie? If so, you’re in luck: eateries abound, including four Michelin star restaurants, Aarhus Central Food Market, and Aarhus Street Food, where portions are enormous and drinks creative.
On this September Saturday, the heavens have opened up. It’s raining cats and dogs – and cows and pigs. Luckily, Aarhus Street Food is indoors, a visual and sensual delight. The variety of food is almost overwhelming. Where to begin? Here’s a tiny selection: Danish hot dogs, Faroese fish, homemade Mexican everything, créme brûlée donuts, Grandma’s curried meatballs, Jamaican meat with extra meat, Ugandan chicken fried in Calvados, Nordic tapas (fish on rye bread, natch), grilled peanut butter/nutella/marshmallow sandwiches (yes, really!) and, well… duck.
The Aarhus Region
Ready to get out of town for a bit? Let’s head to Skanderborg, the nature region – and then to Viborg, the historic region. Both are about half an hour away. Everything seems to be half an hour away in Denmark.
Skanderborg – nature
Let’s take a boat to the mountain. Yep, that’s Denmark for you. On Gudenå River, the country’s longest, you can sail towards Himmelbjerget (Sky Mountain) in a solar powered little thing, travelling at a top speed of 10 km/h. At 147 metres high, Himmelbjerget is one of Denmark’s tallest “mountains”, with legends and stories aplenty. That’s it in the photo above, with a tower on the mountain top. Views from the tower below. More about the ambitiously named Himmelbjerget in this post.
7. Art Centre Silkeborg Bad
Also, half an hour from Aarhus – and half an hour from Himmelbjerget (those distances again) is Silkeborg. I associate this little town with the Tollund Man. Heard about him? He was found near Silkeborg in 1950 and was thought to have been the casualty of a recent homicide. Well, scratch the word ‘recent’ and they were right. This exceedingly well-preserved murder victim had been hiding in the peat bog here since the 4th century BCE.
But I digress. Silkeborg has heaps more to offer than fascinating Stone Age corpses, including a rad art museum.
The Art Centre Silkeborg Bad (Silkeborg Baths) was once a health spa in the forest. More ominously, the area also served as Nazi HQ from 1943 to 1945; you’ll find World War II bunkers in the area. It has also been a refugee camp. A location with all kinds of history, then. Today, you’ll find a thought-provoking sculpture park and art museum here. 40 different works hide among the bushes. Though some are quite easy to spot.
Australian Callum Moreton has created this eye-catching moveable sculpture he calls Sisyphus. Remember the guy who was punished by the gods for being arrogant, big-headed, deceitful, untrustworthy… and forced to roll an enormous stone up a hill again and again and again, for eternity?
This rather morbid huge head is Moreton’s interpretation of the myth: four arrogant, big-headed, deceitful, repressive world leaders. Four sides of a coin, so to speak, despite differing political ideological views. As Sisyphus’ stone keeps rolling down the incline, the faces will gradually dissolve and vanish. As will the four.
The main building houses more thought-provoking exhibits. In September 2018 and for a few months longer, it’s all about death.
Beyond the Body comprises four stages: before death, death, after death and survivors/commemoration. An intriguing little video clip shows a man completely covered with bees. Two extremely life-like bodies lie on the floor of a spacious, airy room, looking like they have recently been executed. Ample room for reflection about life and death here.
Viborg – history
Half an hour from Aarhus, is little Viborg. Denmark’s oldest town is celebrating 1000 years this year. We stop by the studios of Sergei Sviatchenko. Viborg Museum has commissioned the famous Ukrainian/Danish collage artist to create the tribute for Viborg 1018 – 2018. The result is history and art in an aesthetically pleasing, fun and creative combination.
Viborg is full of charm. Have a wander through the narrow streets and alleys. That’s how you get a feel for a place. Look down, and notice the pretty cobble stones. Look up, and spot the compelling architecture. Look straight ahead, and you’ll discover an impressive cathedral, a quirky old wine shop, a cosy bakery, a little brewery, and a fine restaurant hidden in a grotto.
8. Dahls Vinhandel
Just by Viborg Cathedral, in the Latin Quarter, is Dahls Vinhandel. This pleasantly dusty little shop has sold wine and spirits since 1807. For sale is also glasses to drink it from, as well as various treats: tea, coffee ground on the premises, chocolates, liquorice, olives, oils, vinegars, pesto, rice, spice…
9. Søster Lagkage Konditori & Cafe
Two sisters, Vikki and Sussi, run this lovely little cafe/shop that sells fabulous baked goods and all sorts of odds and ends/occasional concert venue. The décor is personal; feels like I’m in their home: here is their parents’ wedding photo, there is a bell string from the youngest’s confirmation. Wander around this little treasure trove and try the Danish pastries. Just remember, in Denmark, they’re called wienerbrød (Vienna bread).
10. Viborg Bryghus (brewery)
How’s about a beer tasting? In the town brewery, you can book just that for a mere 150 kroner. Not bad for 6 different types of beer. The strongest has 10.1 % alcohol content. During this millennial year though, a special 15% beer is being produced!! Only 888 bottles available.
11. Brygger Bauers Grotter (food, at last)
Hungry? You must be, after six beers. I suggest dinner in the historic grottos of an old convent. Great food, great atmosphere. I’ll end this roundup with some of Brygger Bauer’s delectable tapas. Bon appétit! Buen provecho!
I had two days in town and spent quite a bit of time ambling aimlessly around to feel the vibe. That meant I didn’t have time to see everything I wanted. Next time in Aarhus, I want to explore these two especially:
Aarhus’ newest neighbourhood is Aarhus Ø (Aarhus Island), with striking contemporary architecture and harbour baths, a series of pools with sea water for you to take a dip in. I can get there by bike along the canal, or by boat. I love being on the water. Also, Denmark is made for cycling. Both ways equally tempting then. Maybe I’ll go twice.
Moesgaard Museum – MOMU
About half an hour (surprise!) by bus from Aarhus, in a rural idyll, is MOMU, Aarhus’ ethnographical/archaeological museum. I had a quick stop outside, and only saw the horizontal lines and grass roof. However, fellow bloggers assured me the exhibits are innovative, informative and exciting. I’m intrigued to hear that MOMU has one of the world’s best-preserved Iron Age human remains (there I go with ancient corpses again!) Also interested to hear about the exhibit De dødes liv (Life of the dead), showing death customs and rituals from around the world: death masks from Papua New Guinea, death costumes from Mexico’s Dia de Muertos, skulls, skeletons… Happy Halloween!
Disclosure: I’ve been in Denmark more times than I can count, sometimes for work, other times for pleasure, usually for both; sometimes at the invitation of someone else, sometimes of my own accord. This time I was a guest of Visit Aarhus. Every word, every thought, and every opinion are mine, all mine. As always, as ever.