On the train ride west from Copenhagen, the Danish countryside turns spare and narrow, like a rubber band being stretched tight, waiting for release. Fields shrink to green stripes, broken by white farmhouses. Blink and there’s water out the windows, the causeway bridge humming tensely underneath. Denmark, by reputation, is the southern soul of Scandinavia: generous, gregarious, and courtly. But to venture from the capital is to feel the landscape pulling you northward, toward its empty coastline and the tightening subarctic sky. Here’s where the Vikings set sail, more than a millennium ago. There’s where Hans Christian Andersen was born. Let the rubber band loose, and it will land in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, which is less than a quarter the size of Copenhagen. If the capital is the heart of Danish culture, Aarhus—youthful, restless—is its whirring mind.
Who comes to Aarhus? Everyone, if you’re a Dane. “So many people know, or have lived in, Aarhus at some point in their lives,” the mystery novelist Elsebeth Egholm said over coffee one afternoon at a sidewalk table in the Latin Quarter, the city’s oldest district. “They connect it with youth, with a boyfriend or a girlfriend they used to visit, with a grandmother.”
A short walk from the Latin Quarter is Aarhus University, one of Scandinavia’s top research institutions. Its main quad (an idyll of grassy hills, shade trees, and an enormous pond where ducklings frolic) sends a stream of students cycling into town all day, infusing the city with warm Nordic charm. For decades, Aarhus—pronounced oh-hoos, like a fond lament—was known as Denmark’s training town: the place you’d find your sea legs before moving to the capital. More recently, though, it has become a destination in itself. Several of Denmark’s leading innovators have planted their headquarters on the city’s revivified waterfront. Luxury housing has followed suit. Aarhus now has Scandinavia’s largest public library, and some of its best restaurants. (When the Michelin Guide evaluated Aarhus for the first time, in 2015, the city came away with a startling three stars and two Bib Gourmand distinctions.) All at once, Denmark’s best and brightest aren’t graduating from Aarhus but into it.
For such people, the city’s appeal reaches both backward and forward: a nostalgic bond to what Aarhus meant during their younger years and a drive toward its eclectic international future. Egholm’s best-known fictional creation, Dicte Svendsen, an Aarhus newspaper reporter who’s an accidental detective on the side, was recently adapted into a popular Danish procedural; it arrived in America via Netflix in 2014, cresting our national passion for Scandinavian TV. Dicte was filmed entirely in Aarhus, and, like the novels on which it is based, it’s a quirky love letter to an even quirkier town. “A lot of people have a sentimental view of this city, and that’s why I wanted to set my Dicte books here,” Egholm explained, with a wan smile. “I often get the compliment not so much that the books are good but that it’s great they’re set in Aarhus.”
Suddenly, the city has a global standing. Aarhus was chosen as a European Capital of Culture for 2017, and today it is a jewel of a place to visit: safe, creative, English-speaking—and still undiscovered by the tourist hordes. It can’t compete with the size or variety of Copenhagen. But it doesn’t need to. Aarhus is where you go if you’ve seen the capitals of Europe and still hope that a city you have never heard of will appear and, like an unexpected soul mate, sweep you off your feet.
I came to Aarhus one day in late summer with few expectations. (It is fair to say that a city whose tourism taglines include “In Aarhus, when we say walking distance, we really do mean walking distance” encourages modest dreams.) But after a tour of its downtown attractions—indeed navigable by foot—I began to see the city as more than the sum of its parts, to notice the strange magic that draws you in. This is not a city of suits or glamour hounds but creative thinkers, eccentrics, and travelers who’ve returned to roost. If a single idea unifies the population, it is a belief that there’s an opportunity to make what doesn’t yet exist.
“There’s a strong art scene here,” Hans Oldau Krull, one of the city’s leading painters, told me one day. I’d just tracked him down in his bar, Under Masken (“Under the Mask”), which is a bohemian dive of the first order: dark, friendly, filled with artists and klatching students. An enormous fish tank glowed along one wall; Krull said that, because he can trace his lineage back to seafaring people, he finds marine life comforting. The bar reflects his interests in other ways. Krull’s brother once told him, “I admire your career—I can’t drink enough to be an artist,” and Krull has taken that claim as a business mission. Since I’d come to talk to him about his work, he led me to a table outside and began chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Krull’s goatee, blond-white, matched his teeth and tinted aviator glasses. He wore a straw Stetson, and his pants and shoes were generously spattered with paint. Long ago, he said, he learned English by listening to Bob Dylan (“I thought, What the fuck is this guy saying?”), and he has now mastered the language to the point of disinhibition. It was the end of the Aarhus Festival, a program of gallery shows, performances, and parties. A parade of passers-by called out affectionately, and Krull invariably answered, though he often had no idea who the greeters were. “I know too many people,” he told me, not unhappily. When he isn’t at his bar, he paints at a studio in the suburbs, outside if the weather is all right. Riding into the city on a Vespa, dangling rolled-up sketches, he has become a mascot for his loony, laid-back town.
Like Egholm, Krull is a native Dane (his full first name is Hansel; his twin sister is, of course, Gretel), but he is also widely traveled. As a self-described sixty-eighter, he had hung out with Allen Ginsberg in New York, got spiritual in India, and researched indigenous art in western Canada. I wondered how he had ended up on the eastern coast of Denmark’s peninsula. Wasn’t the capital more appealing? He said it was simple. Aarhus was Scandinavia’s great art-and-music town. Also, he told me, with a coy look, it was famous for being home to the most beautiful women in northern Europe. “That’s always been the case. I don’t know whether it’s due to the water, but there’s definitely something....” He trailed off pensively, sucked up nearly half his cigarette in one drag, then smiled at me and raised his shoulders chivalrously. “Probably the water!”
Thus briefed, I set about trying to immerse myself in Aarhus’s natural resources as best I could. Denmark resembles the right side of a Rorschach blot, jagged and diffuse. Jutland, its largest landmass, curls inward near Aarhus, setting the city at the mouth of Kalø Bay. The views there are among the loveliest in the region, and, if I hoped to figure out what Aarhus’s environment had to do with its culture, I knew I’d have to begin with a spot that’s both the seat of local history and one of the most glorious of its present landscapes: the Moesgaard Museum.
The Moesgaard has been a prominent archaeology and ethnography museum since the early 1970s. For years, it occupied a former country estate, but a striking new building designed by Henning Larsen Architects opened in 2014, and since then the Moesgaard has emerged as one of the leading museums in the world—a cutting-edge institution worth crossing an ocean to see. The new façade, a giant grass-covered wedge protruding upward from the field, can be climbed like a hill. At the peak, I found myself looking out over the surrounding woods and sea. Here was a place perfect without being fussy, creatively designed but not flamboyant. Inside, a selection of dazzling multimedia exhibitions centered on the region’s history. I paid homage to the carcass of the Grauballe Man, billed as “the world’s best preserved bog body” and entombed in a darkened viewing chamber. I saw the museum’s irresistible stages-of-humanity mannequins (think Madame Tussauds, except with Lucy and Selam), positioned on the climb up its central staircase, and the faces of three people buried thousands of years ago, reconstructed from their skulls with CT technology. The Moesgaard is what you’d get if PBS’s Nova documentaries stepped off the screen to mix with science experiments and the fashion runway—and then marched outside to an exquisitely landscaped lawn.
I got lunch at Skovmøllen, a converted mill farm not far away set by a babbling brook in the woods. The house specialty is smørrebrød, the Danish open-faced sandwich. Trying to get into the local spirit, I ordered the so-called Dane’s Favorite, which became mine, too: a piece of aromatic poached plaice layered over another batter-fried piece on a thick slice of fresh-baked bread sautéed in butter—all drizzled with a crisp lemon sauce and dressed with delicate forest greens and Swedish caviar. A wooded trail leads from Skovmøllen to the beach, for those who wish to walk off the meal.
The interplay of the natural world and an unnatural one is key to the sensibility of Aarhus, which, despite an industrial past, has never lost touch with its surrounding woods. That contradiction enlivens the city’s growing food scene. “The good thing about Aarhus chefs is they’re closer to nature,” Thorsten Schmidt, one of the fathers of New Nordic cuisine, told me one afternoon at a table at Castenskiold, a riverside restaurant he has helped rejuvenate. Schmidt has his pick of perches in the high-profile culinary world, and he baffled many people when it was announced that he’d be spending a hiatus in Aarhus. Schmidt is not the head chef at Castenskiold, but he advises Mia Christiansen, a local prodigy who says she seeks flavors that are “clean,” using seasonal produce. (My lunch at Castenskiold included tiny Danish prawns with local carrots, a steak with chanterelles and a butter sauce with hazelnuts, and a spruce-flavored ice cream with berries.) The restaurant isn’t precious, though: after 11 o’clock, the dining room spins up into a bar and dance club, as if to prove how little Aarhusians care about self-seriousness. This is a town in which cosmopolitanism means fun.
The celebrated walking-distance-ness of Aarhus means that it’s an excellent city for nightlife wandering, especially along the slim central river. Hard-core partygoers can dance the night away at Train, a multilevel dance club. I had aspirations of getting in, but the place was full, as it often is, and I felt too old and tired to wait until 3 a.m. for an open slot. Yet I wasn’t at a loss for options. One Friday, I had a whiskey at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, a cozy, British-style bar decorated like a Victorian living room, complete with bookshelves. I met a friend at Fermentoren, which has 22 taps of artisanal beer. I walked up and down the river, where a progression of clubs catered to the young and energetic clientele. Sea breezes blew in from the harbor as, all through the center of town, kids in pairs and packs galumphed across the cobblestones. They assembled under the Sankt Clemens Torv overpass to dance. A blond woman burnished her cheeks with a boar-bristle brush, blindly applying makeup as she climbed a narrow street with friends. Dipping into Noir, one of the river clubs, I found myself in a temple of swirling indigo lamps and beer bottles perched on ice-filled cauldrons. This was the Scandinavian magic by which darkness can become cozy and close.
Morning was quieter. I got a coffee at La Cabra, a light-filled roastery worthy of Portland or New York City, and a pastry at Nummer 24, an organic bakery a few doors down. I visited ARoS, Aarhus’s flagship art museum, which has a huge collection of 19th- and 20th-century works. In 2004, it added a building by Schmidt Hammer Lassen that’s topped with an iconic work by Denmark’s preeminent contemporary artist, Olafur Eliasson. Your Rainbow Panorama is a ring-shaped walkway cased in rainbow-hued glass that affords 360-degree views of the city. With an hour to kill, I toured the nearby Aarhus Botanical Garden, newly renovated to include futuristic bio-dome greenhouses. The rain-forest dome, filled with butterflies, duplicated the habitat down to the piranhas in a pond.
Not far away, Den Gamle By (“The Old Town”) offered habitat creations of a different kind. Near the back of this reenactment village, mostly devoted to Aarhusian life in the pre- and early-industrial era, an array of storefronts re-created the year 1974. Had this been a particularly fine year for Denmark? I Googled it on my phone but found nothing. I started asking every reenactor I found. “I couldn’t tell you,” said the clerk in the 1974 record shop, which displays period hi-fi equipment and LPs. “Nothing special happened in 1974.” The woman in the 1974 grocery store was perplexed, too. In the 1974 reenactment apartment, which shows how normal Danes lived in 1974, the coffeemaker was mustard yellow. A terrifying Grandpa mannequin made snoring noises on the couch. Whatever cause for national pride Aarhusians found in the age of macramé eluded me that day. (Later, I would learn that the year is economically significant to the Danes—it marked the beginning of more prosperous times.) But on that visit, it was raining, which is not exceptional—Aarhus has a coastal climate—so I went for tea at A.C. Perch’s, supplier to the Danish crown. By that point, I was hungry again.
People in Aarhus, they want to try something new every time they go out,” Søren Jakobsen, who cofounded the Michelin-starred restaurant Gastromé with William Jørgensen, told me. The two chefs decorated the romantically lit restaurant themselves. The tables, each bearing bouquets of local thistles, are pale oak and paired with Danish Modern chairs draped in animal skins. What Gastromé is trying is new in combination more than in substance: the restaurant shapes its menus through local sourcing but combines flavors in fresh ways. At dinner, I enjoyed a late-summer gazpacho, prepared as a delicate sorbet, and heavenly northern-Danish langoustines with cauliflower and a brown-butter mousseline. Pre-dessert was an ingenious plum granita—a traditional Danish refreshment—with dill and Icelandic skyr.
If Gastromé is the distillation of Aarhus’s easygoing ingenuity, Frederikshøj, the flagship of Wassim Hallal and another Michelin-star recipient, embodies its second-city ambition. “I dream of getting three Michelin stars, and getting people from other countries to come and taste our food—and to learn about the city through it,” Hallal, a Beirut-born Danish wunderkind, told me. The evening I ate there, the menu started with delicate Burgundy snails in a cold cream sauce, a deconstructed eggs Benedict (quail egg and seaweed purée), the best tartare I’ve ever had, and macarons flavored with calf’s blood and forest lovage—and those were just the amuse-bouches. Unlike Jakobsen and Jørgensen, Hallal is unsqueamish about sourcing from outside the region—one of his signature ingredients is caviar—and his technical range seems inexhaustible: the meal included a cold scallop in horseradish sauce, oysters that arrived at the table basting in pine smoke under a glass globe, variations on the theme of sweetbreads with raspberry, and beef with small potatoes painted to look like rocks. Dessert was a reimagined banana split cased in a gold sugar sphere; I had to crack it open before gobbling it up.
Frederikshøj is set, luxuriously, in the woods on the southern edge of town, looking out onto a lawn framed in lindens and, beyond its edge, the sea. Sitting at a table by the window as the long Nordic day turned to dusk, it struck me that, for people of a certain disposition, this was as close to paradise as earth could get.
Aarhus is less expensive than Copenhagen, but it isn’t cheap. I didn’t understand why its economy had grown so swiftly lately, so I looked up one of the CEOs responsible for its renaissance, Christian Stadil. “There was a period when Aarhus was too much a follower, looking to Copenhagen,” said Stadil, who recently moved the headquarters of Hummel, the sportswear company, into a converted submarine dock by the harbor. “But something has really happened in the past couple of years, and it’s taken a frog leap.” Stadil is a guru of an unusual cast—he’s written two books about leadership that talk about the power of karma and the subconscious. “There was really a need for an environment that motivates and inspires creativity and innovation—and this is what I found down by the harbor.” Since then, other companies have also made the move.
“This is still a small town, but we feel more connected to the outside world now,” Mikkel Frost, an architect at the Aarhus firm Cebra, told me near the city’s northern harbor one afternoon. Frost was among the lead designers of Isbjerget, or the Iceberg, the most iconic of several new harborside apartment complexes meant to resemble its name—jagged, angled, and cast in white terrazzo. Since the construction of the Iceberg and its neighbors, a bus has begun running from here to the center of town, and a landscaped promenade on the water has started to fill in.
Frost, a native Aarhusian, has watched the city’s urban standing change. In the 1990s, bridges between Denmark’s islands reduced the commute time to Copenhagen to three hours, making the two cities business partners—and rivals in development. Frost’s wife, also an architect, works at Schmidt Hammer Lassen, which designed the docklands’ unmatched new centerpiece, Dokk1 (a Danish pun). The building, Scandinavia’s largest public library, opened last summer, and it features giant windows looking out onto the water. I ventured in one afternoon shortly before closing and I wished I could spend a week.
Not far away is Filmby, the city’s 13-year-old soundstage complex where both seasons of Dicte were filmed. VIA University College, the local vocational school, recently launched a filmmaking program that includes internships at the studios. “Students are taught how to make productions, from idea to finished product,” Ellen Riis, a filmmaker who heads the program, said. With its foray into entertainment, Aarhus hopes to take its long-standing underground arts culture mainstream.
One night near the end of my stay, I met up with Krull at Godsbanen, a former railway station converted into a den of artists’ studios. Krull and I were there at the recommendation of his friend Dr. Bo, a magician with a slender mustache and a broad-brimmed black hat. Dr. Bo knew about a traveling circus, the Brunette Bros., that was scheduled to perform that night among the trailers. It was twilight. The Brunette Bros. ran out of a trailer decked in old-style circus signage. A small crowd gathered, and the smell of popcorn cut through the moist air.
“Popcorn,” Dr. Bo murmured, sniffing theatrically. “A small sign of showbiz.”
The clowns served the popcorn wrapped in old magazine pages. The show began. With balletic precision, they played out a domestic drama with the trailer as a stage. “A clown’s life,” one said, at the droll peak of the performance, “is a mess.” A puppet show began. The clowns provided musical backing with an accordion and a tuba. “We’re having some technical difficulties tonight!” one announced in mock panic, and urged the audience to the next face of the trailer. There were seats there, formed into a miniature amphitheater, and a cozy fire in a brazier nearby. The puppet show continued, more elaborately, with small toy figurines and intricate backdrops, flamenco dancers and musclemen and a Rapunzel-like woman who did acrobatics on her own enormous braid. It was the smallest, cheapest circus I had ever seen. But as the night wore on in Scandinavia’s great unknown city, it seemed fitting that it should also be, by a wide margin, the best.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Aarhus
There are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Aarhus, but travelers can easily fly to the city through Copenhagen.
Hotel Oasia: A modern getaway on a cobblestoned side street near the train station. hoteloasia.com; doubles from $135.
Hotel Royal: This 19th-century hotel is conveniently located, abutting both the Latin Quarter and the shopping district. hotelroyal.dk; doubles from $247.
Restaurants & Bars
A.C. Perch: This high-end shop, which acts as a supplier to the Danish crown, serves more than 150 varieties of tea, plus a selection of sweet and savory bites. perchs.dk; high tea from $30.
Castenskiold: A sunny riverside restaurant that turns into a busy club after 11 p.m. The menu, by Mia Christiansen, is completely seasonal. castenskiold.net; entrées $27–$58.
Fermentoren: Connoisseurs love the huge, ever-changing selection of craft beers on tap here. 24 Nørregade; 45-61-518-268.
Frederikshøj: Wassim Hallal’s flagship (below) sits nestled in a protected forest and received a Michelin star in 2015 for its creative cuisine—think macarons flavored with calf’s blood. frederikshoj.com; prix fixe from $103.
Gastromé: The cozy, romantic, and Michelin-starred restaurant draws on locally sourced ingredients, some from the nearby woods. gastrome.dk; prix fixe from $73.
La Cabra: The award-winning baristas at this café satisfy coffee snobs with house-roasted beans. lacabra.dk
Nummer 24: The academics turned bakers who run the joint take special pride in their 24-hour sourdough. 24 Graven; 45-23-484–892.
Sherlock Holmes Pub: Enjoy libations and live music at this British-style pub dressed to look like a Victorian lounge: big bookshelves, ornate wallpaper, and a vast whiskey selection. sherlock-holmes.dk
Skovmøllen: Try the irresistible smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) served in an idyllic farmhouse tucked in the woods on the edge of town. restaurantunico.dk; smørrebrød $19–$28.
Under Masken: A welcoming dive favored by students, artists, and urban philosophers. 3 Bispegade; 45-86-182-266.
Aarhus Botanical Garden: The outdoor expanse of the garden contains flora from throughout Denmark, while greenhouse domes support habitats from elsewhere in the world. sciencemuseerne.dk
ARoS: Aarhus’s flagship art museum features an iconic rainbow walkway by Olafur Eliasson on its roof. aros.dk
Dokk1: Scandinavia’s largest public library
was designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects as part of an initiative to transform the city’s industrial harbor into an enjoyable public space. dokk1.dk
Godsbanen: The former freight-rail station now houses artists’ studios and supports a lively cultural center. godsbanen.dk
Moesgaard Museum: One of the finest and most cutting-edge family museums in the world focuses on archaeology and ethnography. moesgaardmuseum.dk