This diminutive Danish city with a population of 350,000 may be Denmark’s second-largest, but given the countless things to do in Aarhus, the city’s certainly not resigned to playing second fiddle to Copenhagen. Indeed, vibrant little Aarhus (pronounced “or-hoose”), which long flew under the radar of the world tourism spotlight, has since moved on to stake its claim as a world-class destination in its own right.
The city’s star rose to new heights in 2017, when it was named a European Capital of Culture—as well as an official European Region of Gastronomy. Packed with history, this so-called “city of smiles” is a delightfully walkable locale where you can easily skip between attractions, many of which come anchored to the city’s iconic harbor, scenic coast, and historic quarters.
Here are some of the best things to do in Aarhus.
1: Explore Aarhus’s Harbor
Aarhus’s harbor—once a bustling port for fishermen and ferryboats—may have changed form over time, but it’s no less dynamic a place today. Its transformation from a primarily industrial zone to one that’s been carefully cultivated for public enjoyment means its perimeters come lined with pleasant promenades and some of the most notable attractions in Aarhus.
For one, you’ll find some of the city’s most defining architecture here. You won’t miss the striking angular and jagged roofs of the whitewashed Isbjerget, or the Iceberg, an apartment complex that anchors the city’s newest quarter, the Aarhus Ø district. Or, check out the futuristic Dokk1 Cultural Centre, a massive, modern library and community center complete with giant picture windows and outdoor art installations.
Rub elbows with the locals at the harbor-front Harbor Baths—this complex of pools and saunas is one of the most popular things to do in Aarhus come summertime.
2: Get Your Art Fix at ARoS Aarhus Art Museum
One of Northern Europe’s most sizeable and visited art museums, ARoS comes loaded with 10 floors of thought-provoking art, where a robust year-round calendar of international exhibitions and activities unfold. The city’s main and showcase art museum, ARoS bills itself as a “mental fitness center,” stating that “more than a museum, ARoS is a social platform.”
The permanent collection spans works of art going back three centuries, with pieces by lauded artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Bill Viola, and Francis Bacon. There’s an entire floor dedicated to installation pieces, and a focus on Danish Golden Age works from artists like Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Christen Købke, and Jørgen Roed.
Don’t-miss pieces include Australian artist Ron Mueck’s Boy, a towering lifelike sculpture of a crouching boy. The rooftop is another top installation, offering rainbow-hued, 360-degree views over the city. The colorful, circular, glass-enclosed walkway here—called Your Rainbow Panorama—is an installation piece conceptualized by Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
3: Step Back in Time at Den Gamle By (The Old Town)
This well-designed national open-air museum, with a mission of preserving Danish history and culture, lets visitors interact with Danes through the centuries—or at least very well-portrayed versions of them. Costumed actors fill in Den Gamle By, The Old Town, behaving and practicing their trades just like in days of yore.
The impressive reenactment village, which was founded back in 1909, includes 75 reconstructed historic houses that have been placed here from all over Denmark. It incorporates time-warped sections devoted to distinct historical eras of Danish life, including the late 19th century, the 1920s, and the 1970s, as realized through recreated streets, residences, vehicles, and more.
Hop on a horse-drawn wagon ride for a fun overview, then visit the workshops and shops where snippets of Danish days gone by are recreated, including in a post office, pharmacy, school, bookshop, and even a jazz bar. You can also visit homes occupied by local characters who you can mingle with in their kitchens and living rooms.
Onsite museums include one with a notable collection of clocks and watches, and others devoted to jewelry, toys, and even posters. Look to the Gallery of Decorative Arts for its collection of silverware and delftware.
4: Refuel at the Aarhus Street Food Market
In recent years, Aarhus has earned an outsized reputation for its culinary chops. The city’s full-fledged food revolution means that hip eateries, microbreweries, and Michelin-starred fare are all on the menu.
One of Aarhus’ culinary highlights is the Aarhus Street Food Market, a permanent street food market that offers outstanding street food options from more than 30 vendors. Filling in converted shipping containers in an old bus garage, the market offers a veritable smorgasbord of global cuisine including Mexican tacos, Indian curries, and French crêpes.
It’s also a good spot to tuck into some Danish specialties like the traditional smørrebrød (open sandwiches). Pull up a seat amidst the Danes that flock here to indulge their ever-evolving palates.
5: Revisit History at the Moesgaard Museum
Another can’t-miss thing to do in Aarhus, the Moesgaard Museum is dedicated to the prehistory of human civilization, which it showcases through a series of archaeological and ethnographic exhibitions, all of which are presented in a transporting architectural setting.
Inside, look for outstanding interactive exhibits like the “evolutionary stairway,” which shows anatomically accurate reconstructions depicting various stages of the evolution of the human species; the precision of the models is owed to them being based on archaeological bone finds.
Other highlights from the museum’s archaeological exhibitions include Iron Age-weaponry; a depiction of a Viking journey from Aros (Aarhus’s former name); and a display dedicated to some of the best-preserved remains of Bronze Age-people, who were found buried in oak coffins near Aarhus.
The 2,000-year-old Grauballe Man, exhumed from a nearby bog, is considered to be the world’s best-preserved body from Iron Age Europe—even his hair and fingernails remain intact.
In the ethnographic exhibitions, the “Lives of the Dead” exhibit showcases how people around the world remember the dead, including traditions like Danish heirlooms, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and reburials in Uganda.
The modern, wedge-shaped museum building itself is no less a showpiece. From its walkable, sloping, grass-covered roof, visitors can overlook the surrounding forest and ocean landscapes, as well as sneak a peek of the historic Moesgaard Manor, an old manor house set just next door.
6: Amble at the Infinite Bridge
You may have heard of a bridge to nowhere, but in a Danish take on the concept, this bridge leads to infinity. Indeed, the Infinite Bridge, on the outskirts of Aarhus, was initially built as a temporary art installation as part of the “Sculpture by the Sea” event in 2015, but proved so popular that it’s since become a permanent fixture (apart from winters, when it’s dismantled).
The circular, walkable, wooden pier, located on Varna Beach, offers 360-degree views out onto Aarhus Bay and the surrounding ocean and woods. Its perfect circular formation, stretching out over the sand and sea, is infinitely photogenic.
7: Get Back to Nature in Aarhus Botanical Gardens
One of Aarhus’ largest parks situated just steps away from Den Gamle By, Aarhus Botanical Gardens features sprawling lawns and gardens that spill over a landscape of hills and streams.
Spend some time rejuvenating here while taking in the gardens themed around roses, grasses and perennials, Danish plants, alpine vegetation, medicinal plants and herbs, and more. There are also the Tropical Houses, a greenhouse complex filled with subtropical and tropical plants and an atmospheric café.
The gardens are a perfect spot to spread out a picnic thanks to the large spread of tables, benches, and grassy knolls that await.
8: Wander the Historic Latin Quarter
The Latin Quarter makes up Aarhus’s oldest and arguably most charming quarter, dating back to the 14th century. A walking tour along the ancient and narrow cobblestoned streets leads to a tapestry of cozy cafés and restaurants, art galleries, mom-and-pop shops, hidden courtyards, and storybook half-timbered architecture.
An atmospheric stroll here will also bring you to the Romanesque- and Gothic-style Aarhus Cathedral, dating to 1201, which contains a notable selection of frescoes and a significant altarpiece. After visiting, take a break in the center of the quarter at the pretty Pustervig Torv square, which is ringed by outdoor cafés.
9: Hop on Two Wheels
When in Denmark, do as the Danes do and explore the city in two wheels. In Aarhus, bikes are as omnipresent as cars, and hopping on one is a great way to experience the city like a local.
Best of all, the city has a free bike-share program, and the streets are paved over with bike paths so that you can safely get from point A to point B. On two wheels, you can take an impromptu city tour or make your way to the surrounding forests or beaches within minutes.
10: Get Hip at the Godsbanen Cultural Hub
For a glimpse of cutting-edge arts and cultural scene that make Aarhus one of the most fascinating cities in Scandinavia, make way to the lively Godsbanen cultural center. A creative hive for artisan ateliers, artist studios, theater stages, dance halls, auditoriums, and more, culture buffs can find just about anything they’re after here.
Tucked into a cluster of industrial buildings in a renovated freight yard, you’ll find a robust calendar of special events, markets, live music, and art exhibitions unfolding here throughout the year. Don’t miss seeing what’s on the schedule while you’re in town.
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