Denmark’s second city and the largest on the Jutland peninsula, Aarhus encapsulates many of the things people love about this country.
It’s a clean, forward-thinking place filled with arresting pieces of modern architecture.
If you’ve got a thing for design, check out the functionalist town hall or the new Dokk1 complex by the water.
History also abounds in Aarhus: The sprawling open-air museum, Den Gamie By is the closest thing you’ll get to a time machine, while the old streets of the Latin Quarter are made for a wander and cool glass of beer in the summer.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Aarhus:
1. Den Gamle By
A large and labyrinthine open-air museum with 75 authentic historic buildings and a large cast of “re-enactors” , Den Gamle By is the ultimate gateway to Danish social history since the 1700s – and a fun day out.
The attraction creates living snapshots of the 18th, 19th and 20 centuries and lets you interact with the period as much as possible.
So in the 19th-century area you can see what life was like when Hans Christian Andersen was writing, meeting village characters like the widow of a clergyman or merchant’s maid and tasting cakes baked with recipes from 1895.
The most recent part covers the 1970s, so you’ll meet four young hippie-types and listen to LP records.
2. Moesgaard Museum
This attraction has collections from around the world, but the exhibitions covering Denmark’s past boast artefacts you can’t see anywhere else.
If you have the nerve take a peek at the Grauballe Man, a bog body from the 3rd century BC that was discovered in 1952.
The body was so well preserved that they were even able to take the man’s fingerprints.
There’s also a large hoard of Iron Age weapons dating back well over 2,000 years and excavated at the Illerup Ådal river valley.
Part of the museum’s appeal also lies in its sleek low-impact design, with a grass-covered roof that blends almost seamlessly with the surrounding hillside.
Aarhus has one of the largest art museums in Europe, and it’s also a distinctive landmark in the city thanks in no small part to “your rainbow panorama”, a circular viewing platform and walkway with glass that runs the entire spectrum of light.
Up here there’s the best view of the city.
Below are nine different exhibition spaces, displaying Danish works from the Golden Age in the early 19th century and continuing to the present day.
Temporary exhibitions showcase international design, architecture, film, illustration, sculpture, conceptual art and painting: Wim Wenders, Olafur Eliasson, Frank Gerhry and Bill Viola have all featured here.
Urban amusement parks are a way of life in Danish cities, and this goes for Aarhus too, which has the Tivoli Friheden.
It’s tucked into the Marselisborg Forest, beech and coniferous woodland that runs along the coast from the southern side of Aarhus.
There are four roller coasters at Tivoli Friheden, as well as 40 other rides, games and other amusements.
Big kids can board the Cobra, which has three inversions, while smaller kids will have great fun on a choice of animal-themed rides like the monkey.
When hunger strikes there are sit-down eateries, fast-food cafes, as well as picnic and barbecue areas if you pack your own lunch.
5. Botanical Garden
The greenhouses at Aarhus’ Botanical Garden, just north of Den Gamie By have all been renovated in the last few years.
A new tropical house has also been added, and this is an almost alien, curved structure housing dense rainforest and with simulated animal sounds to enhance the experience.
There are four different climate zones synthesised at the park. Outside you can amble through typical Danish landscapes of beech forest and heathland.
The large rose gardens here are maintained by local volunteers.
6. Aarhus Domkirke
This imposing cathedral was originally built at the start of the 1200s in the romanesque style, but had a gothic update in the 1400s and has kept this appearance ever since.
At 93 metres long and 96 metres high, it’s also the longest and tallest church in Denmark.
The most interesting features are all inside though.
Try to get a look at the medieval frescoes depicting a variety of saints.
These are very well-preserved and are a fraction of what was once here before the reformation and iconoclasts.
The altar of the church is considered one of Denmark’s great treasures; it was designed by the German painter-sculptor Bernt Notke in the 1400s and has a section that can be rearranged according to the time of year.
7. Musikhuset Aarhus
This airy building, Aarhus’ Concert Hall, is one of Denmark’s most important pieces of modern architecture designed by Kjaer & Richeter architects and built in 1982.
The building is enclosed by spacious grounds with precise boxwood hedges, flower beds and fountains.
Inside there’s a large complex of six halls and nine stages that put on a packed calendar of performances each year.
Even if you aren’t coming for a classical, jazz, pop or rock concert, you have to drop by just to look around the vast foyer and pay a visit to the venue’s cafe.
8. The Latin Quarter
This is the oldest part of the city, an area of quaint shop-fronts, half-timbered houses, spires and cobblestone streets around Pustervig Torv, the central square.
The street-plan in the Latin Quarter goes back to the 1300s, but the neighbourhood only got its name in the ’90s because of its similarities to the Latin Quarter in Paris.
At night it’s a part of town where Aarhus comes to let its hair down, with restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes, and by day you can see what you can find in the independent shops or have a chat with a friend over a beer or coffee.
9. Aarhus Rådhus
You don’t have to be an architecture buff to appreciate the simple beauty of the city’s town hall.
It was built in 1941 during the Nazi occupation adhering to a pre-war design by Arne Jacobsen, one of the most celebrated functionalist architects.
The initial plans did not include the clock tower that makes the town hall so distinctive; this was added later at the behest of Aarhus’ citizens.
The tower is now a nationally-recognised landmark, with an exposed marble-clad structural frame and marble clock-face placed half-way up the tower rather than at the top.
10. Dokk 1
This cultural centre was opened in 2015 and revitalised a section of Aarhus’ former industrial harbour.
It’s another attraction that is worth seeing just to marvel at its eye-catching design.
It’s a seven-sided disk above a glass prism, in which the city library is housed.
Inside you should take a look at a remarkable piece of sculpture in Dokk1’s atrium: A three-ton tubular bell, the largest in the world in fact, that is connected to the city’s main hospital.
Every time a baby is delivered the bell will chime.
The piece was designed by Copenhagen-based artist Kirstine Ropestorff.
11. Nordic cuisine
Aarhus is best-known for the convivial cafes on the charming corners and square in the Latin Quarter.
These go arm-in-arm with a handful of restaurants that craft the latest in Scandinavian cuisine, like Nordisk Spisehus on M.P. Brunsgade.
It sounds quite daunting, but the food is surprisingly simple, drawing on the fresh, seasonal and organic produce and letting their flavours do the talking without excessive frills.
At some point you’ll also have to grab a smørrebrød, a kind of open-faced rye sandwich piled with cold meat, fish or cheese, and then carefully topped with seasoning and garnishes.
12. Marselisborg Mindepark
How much you can see of the gorgeous park around Marselisborg Palace depends on whether the queen is in residence.
The park is landscaped in the English style, so has the loose, flowing appearance of a pastoral country scenery.
Paths wend their way through copses and cherry groves and up the gentle rises that between the palace and the bay.
Next to the palace grounds is a memorial park to the First World War, and there’s a monument here from 1925 naming the 4,144 soldiers from this part of Denmark that lost their lives after being conscripted to fight for Germany.
13. Ega Engso
In Aarhus’ northern suburbs is this artificial lake and wetland area that was created when land that had once been reclaimed for farming was re-flooded in the 1950s.
In the decades since its creation Ega Engso has become a habitat for a catalogue of animal and plant species that are endangered in Denmark.
White storks stop by the lake to rest, while short-eared owls hunt the meadowlands.
If you’re patient you’re sure to see something interesting from a bird-hide or the tower that was installed in 2007. Other than that it’s a pleasingly green landscape for a gentle summer stroll.
14. Museum Ovartaci
OK, it won’t be for everyone, but this museum that focuses on psychiatric treatment is definitely one of a kind. It sits within the Risskov Psychiatric Hospital, which dates to the mid-19th century.
One of the main exhibitions here is the collection of art created by the institution’s patients down the years. Of the collection of 12,000, 850 pieces are on display.
Upstairs the museum charts the history of psychiatric treatment and the various advances that have taken place.
You’ll get to know about shock therapy and lobotomies, so it’s not for the squeamish.
The pick of the day-trips from Aarhus is this pretty little coastal town, 45 minutes around the coast and through the Mols Berge National Park.
Receiving its municipal charter at the start of the 14 century, Ebeltoft is the oldest market town on the Djursland Peninsula.
“Picturebook” is an overused adjective, but it definitely applies to Ebeltoft’s misshapen old half-timbered houses and picturesque harbour.
Come to potter around the family-run shops and see the old-time street entertainment in summer.
Further reading: 15 Best Places to Visit in Denmark