You’ll always have Copenhagen, but Aarhus offers all the hygge (and Nordic cuisine) along with one of the most exciting design scenes on the continent, writes John Wogan.
SO closely associated is Denmark with its capital, Copenhagen, that most visitors unknowingly overlook the country’s second-largest city. Aarhus is another Viking-founded seaside port, this one 98 miles across the Kattegat on the eastern coast of the Jutland peninsula — a town whose modest size (327,000 people) can give it the feel of an overgrown village, complete with cobbled streets and 18th-century facades.
And yet over the past decade, as Copenhagen has reached hygge-seeker saturation point, Aarhus has emerged on its own terms as a design destination.
Consider Isbjerget, the ambitious 2013 architectural collaboration that consists of four faceted residential buildings meant to resemble floating icebergs, or the equally avant-garde Dokk1 in 2015, Scandinavia’s largest public library.
Then there’s the Michelin-starred restaurant scene, which takes full advantage of the surrounding countryside and waters’ bounty. Happily, however, new development hasn’t detracted from the coziness that still distinguishes the city: Here, visitors can actually participate in everyday life, whether that means hunting for perfect peonies at Ingerslevs Boulevard farmer’s market, stopping for coffee on one of the narrow, medieval streets of the Latin Quarter, home to many of Aarhus University’s politically active students, or biking through Marselisborg forest, south of the city and dense with elms, oaks and wildflowers.
Villa Provence: Don’t come here expecting spare Scandi style; Villa Provence’s married owners have styled their homey, 39-room inn — a two-story 1820 rowhouse within walking distance of the harbour — in homage to their favourite region of France, with four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs and decorative antique birdcages. At breakfast, guests gather in the whitewashed dining room for fresh-baked baguettes and croissants, cured meats and cheeses. In the summer, drinks are served in the hotel’s hydrangea- and boxwood-filled courtyard.
Hotel Oasia: With its raw wood plank floors and clean white walls, it’s all crisp minimalism at this 65-room hotel, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t playful flourishes as well, like caramel-coloured leather armchairs and fibre-concrete coffee tables that allude to iconic Modernist designs by the likes of Walter Gropius and Verner Panton. Located less than a 10-minute walk from the youthful, busy Jaegergardsgade neighbourhood, home to many of the city’s best cafes (try Juliette for a morning latte and chocolate croissant), its perfectly firm, all-natural horse-hair mattresses (from the Swedish brand Hastens) are the ideal reward after a day of sightseeing.
Haervaerk: In addition to concrete floors, rough wood tables and a large meat locker that’s fully visible from the dining room, this restaurant in culinary-centric Frederiksbjerg has a tasting menu that changes not just daily, but sometimes hourly. That’s because the chef-owners source virtually all of their highly seasonal ingredients from farms within a 40-mile radius, and when a certain type of prized produce is gone, it’s gone. Still, guests can always count on memorable, hearty dishes along the lines of haddock ceviche with blackcurrant vinegar and roast pigeon confit with kale and onions. The contents of the meat locker, meanwhile, are regularly transformed into venison tartar and pork kebabs served with a crispy Belgian waffle.
Frederikshoj: Compared to the new Nordic restaurants that have become Denmark’s culinary signature, Frederikshoj, with its white tablecloths, quilted leather chairs and hushed dining room, feels comfortingly retro. Located a few miles outside downtown Aarhus, the restaurant provides views of the Marselisborg forest and tastes of the sea, with creative seafood dishes such as Norwegian lobster bisque and Jerusalem artichoke with fresh snow crab.
Aarhus Street Food: Located in a former bus garage in Aarhus’s main business district, this 18-month-old food hall — inspired by Borough Market in London — is worth multiple trips. Many of the 30 or so stands specialise in ethnic and street food. Standouts include Tuk Tuk, popular for its curries, and Banh Mi Bandits, for Vietnamese sandwiches, while Mormors Kokken (“Grandma’s Kitchen”) is the go-to for Danish comfort food like pastry tartlets filled with baked asparagus and chicken ragout.
Domestic: This popular Latin Quarter newcomer, located in an airy, exposed-brick loftlike space, is a temple to all things fermented — try the cod with pickled cabbage or the pickled gooseberries drizzled with pine oil. To drink, there’s mead, a sweet and spicy brew made with fermented honey, and oolong-flavored kombucha. Just don’t mistake Domestic for a casual joint — it was awarded a Michelin star last spring.
Lertoj: Of the city’s many independent art and antiques shops concentrated in the Latin Quarter, the best might be Lertoj, which carries whimsical ceramic pieces made by a collective of eight designers. One maker-member, Sverre Tveito Holmen, tends toward faux bois vases glazed in rich earth tones; another, Henriette Duckert, embellishes bowls with delicate, meringue-like peaks. There are also dimpled teapots crawling with painted ants and paperweight-size sculptures of horses and birds.
S.T. Valentin: You’ll find sophisticated, wearable men’s wear at this boutique on Guldsmedgade. Along with sought-after Scandinavian brands like the preppy-sporty Les Deux and Wood Bird, which makes structured jackets and slouchy knitwear, there are also glossy ebony belts, messenger bags and metallic-gray wallets by the house line. Owners Nikolaj Valentin and Steffen Larsen also design a series of illustrated posters that offer witty instructions on such sartorial quandaries as “How to Tie a Windsor Knot”.
Moesgaard Museum: At this temple to archaeology, anthropology and ethnography, exhibits range from eerily realistic models of early humans to a full-scale recreation of a wooden Viking ship that visitors can “steer” through a digital simulation of coastal Norwegian fjords. Its main structure — with a dramatically sloped grass roof that doubles as a park during the warmer months — is a feat of futuristic architecture, and reason enough to make the 15-minute trek from downtown.
ARoS Aarhus Art Museum: Over a century after its founding, this museum helped put Aarhus on the map when it debuted a new building designed by the renowned Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen in 2004. The imposing 10-story brick-and-glass box is filled with work by both Danish and international artists, from Bjorn Norgaard to James Turrell. But the biggest attraction is the circular top-floor walkway, also known as Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Your rainbow panorama’ (2011), a permanent installation enclosed in multicolored glass. Passing through the mesmeric space as the light shades from yellow to green to deep purple, you might feel as though you’ve travelled to another dimension.