9 Cultural Spots to Visit in Aarhus, Denmark
Local designers in the Latin Quarter, an annual Festival Week, gastronomy, Viking history, green spaces, enticing beach life, urban art and striking architectural structures – Aarhus in Denmark covers it all. The city is a fascinating blend of trendy cafés, top-notch architecture, world-class culture, exhibitions, museums, forest, harbour, beach and sea. In a few minutes you can walk from medieval Aarhus to the modern city, where you will find a wealth of cosy cafés with a vibrant, local authenticity.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 27 JUN 2020
Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark, sometimes described as the “world’s smallest metropolis”. Set at a river mouth, the location chosen for Aros by the first Viking settlers, it has throughout history developed to the modern city, that it is today, with the river and the sea contributing to its unique character.
Visiting Aarhus, you will soon realise that the city with its unpretentious ambience has a lot to offer. Being a university city, the atmosphere is young and lively, and the students add a welcome dynamic diversity to the cultural life. Whether you seek urban architecture, historic locations, phenomenal art or local culture, you will find it here in Aarhus in Denmark.
One of the newest parts of Aarhus is Aarhus Ø, situated at the easternmost point of Aarhus (Ø is short for øst meaning east), which is the result of an innovative expansion of the harbour. A transformation of Aarhus Docklands has created a new urban space with a variety of facilities right at the waterfront. It is now one of the hippest quarters in Aarhus, a part of the city which has both an extremely central location and an architectural uniqueness.
Aarhus Ø either has – or is close to everything: vibrant cafés and restaurants, hotels, workplaces, boutiques, peculiar apartment blocks, as well as popular public sites such as the food market Aarhus Street Food and other creative urban projects around. One of the eye-catching structures at the Docklands is the Iceberg, a characteristic iceberg-shaped residential complex in shades of white and cool sea blue.
The proximity to the sea justifies recreative activities such as a dip in the Harbour Bath, designed by the famous Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. A promenade deck, a rectangular 50-metre-long swimming pool, a circular diving pool, children’s pools and two saunas offer the 4,000 Docklands’ citizens the opportunity to chill here on a hot summer day.
Other important structures include the Navitas Science and Innovation, the Canal Houses, the Warehouses, the Harbour Islet and Dokk1. The area is under construction and not all the projected buildings have been completed yet. One of the works still to be executed is the Lighthouse – which will be a stunning 128 m tall building of apartments and businesses, matching the design of the surrounding buildings.
Once completed, the Docklands are expected to house around 12,000 residents and be the location of 10,000 workplaces – making it one of Europe’s most ambitious waterfront construction projects!
Dokk1 or Dokken is a top-notch cultural centre and public library located at the waterfront in the city centre next to the old Aarhus Custom House, designed by Hack Kampmann in 1998. Hence the name of the square: Hack Kampmanns Plads.
The name Dokk1 refers to the site being the former industrial harbour, a dock.
Designed with a huge glass prism providing excellent views of the city and the harbour, the structure has a neo-futuristic architectural style. A heptagonal metal disc above the prism holds the administration offices.
The development of the cultural centre was part of the Urban Mediaspace Aarhus project, financed by Aarhus Municipality and Realdania, and designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects and the Danish landscape architect Kristine Jensen. Sustainability, recyclable materials and low energy consumption have been a main focus in the project. The building was inaugurated in 2015.
In addition to the public library function, the building includes theatres, municipal public service, business facilities, underground parking with an automated lift system and integration to the light rail system.
One of the interesting features inside the building is the large bronze pipe bell, designed by Kirstine Roepstorff. It is connected to Aarhus University Hospital, and each time a child is delivered there, the parents can choose to push a button to activate the bell!
The underground car park has another fascinating installation, the Magic Mushrooms by Elmgreen & Dragset. It is a downscaled 1:100 model of an abstract city turned upside down.
Children are also well accommodated at Dokk1. On the outside deck a four-section playground, Kloden (The Globe), offers the opportunity to play in various world regions. There is a jungle (Africa), an Asian dragon (Asia), a bear (Eastern Europe), ‘ice’ (the Arctic), a large wooden eagle (America) and a volcano (Iceland).
ARoS is among the largest and most significant art museums in Northern Europe. Set in inspiring surroundings, the exhibitions are meant as spaces for social interaction and innovative approaches to broaden the mind and perceive the world in new ways through art. Encouraging ‘experience, insight and reflection’ is part of the vision.
Around 1 million people visit the Aarhus museum per year, which confirms its position as one of the leading art museums in Scandinavia.
The museum houses a notable collection of Danish eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings (the Danish ‘Golden Age’), among others, artists such as N.A. Abildgaard, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Christen Købke, Johan Th. Lundbye, Martinus C. W. Rørbye, Wilhelm Marstrand, P. C. Skovgaard, Vilhelm Hammershoi, P. S. Krøyer and J. F. Willumsen are represented.
More recent works include masterpieces by Olaf Rude, Jens Søndergaard and Oluf Høst, as well as abstract art and sculptures by Robert Jacobsen, Asger Jorn, Bjørn Nørgaard and Per Kirkeby. You will find striking examples of fascinating avant-garde CoBrA art in the museum.
In the basement ‘The 9 spaces’ display international art installations with works by artists such as Bill Viola, Tony Oursler, James Turrell and Pipilotti Rist. On the upper floors you can explore the finest collections of art from the 19th century onwards.
One of the real draws is ‘Your rainbow panorama’ by the Danish/Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, on the museum roof. The exhibition floors are topped off with a colourful rainbow installation, which gives the opportunity to walk inside and experience 360-degree panoramic views of the city in various shades of green, yellow and red. The iconic rainbow can be seen from many places in the city and has become a landmark of Aarhus. You can also enjoy the view from the restaurant ARoS WINE & FOOD HALL atop the building.
Another top piece of sculptural art is the huge Boy sculpture by the Australian artist Ron Mueck in the entrance hall.
In addition to being an art gallery, ARoS is also occasionally a venue for special events and meetings.
The Old Town or Den Gamle By is an open-air museum, which will take you back in history to different time periods in Denmark.
You will be taken centuries back to Hans Christian Andersen’s time, when people used horse-drawn carriages in the cobblestone streets. In the museum area you will experience historical half-timbered houses from all over Denmark, dating from the 1500s to the late 1800s.
You will be able to explore urban workshops such as the traditional shoemaker, tailor, coppersmith, hatter, apothecary and watchmaker to see how they performed their job and which tools and materials they used at the time. During your visit you will likely come across people dressed up as in the olden days.
The baker still sells delicious Danish pastry based on recipes from the late 1800s! You can enter any house which has an open door. Don’t miss a visit to an ordinary family’s middle-class home, a visit to the Mayor’s House boasting a very well preserved Renaissance merchant building from the Danish Renaissance, or a visit to the Mintmaster’s Mansion being an upper-class home from the 1700s with Baroque and Rococo decorations.
Another part of the Old Town shows urban life around the time of the industrialisation in Denmark. Nye phenomena such as electric street lights, telephone wires and cars appear in the streets. An authentic motor car dealer features old cars from the time period. There is a whole 1920’s neighbourhood which gives interesting insight into the new life and businesses emerging with all the new inventions.
The newest exhibition is the 1970’s town featuring representative homes and households. It is a glimpse of Denmark in 1974, when the established society and its norms were dissolved. You will get the opportunity to visit a Radio and TV shop, a historical Aarhus jazz bar, a magazine shop, a nuclear family, a commune, a single mother, a group of Turkish immigrant workers having come to Denmark for work and more.
You will also find a number of museums inside The Old Town such as the Danish Poster Museum, the Toy Museum, the Musaeum of prehistoric artefacts and local history, as well as the fascinating Aarhus Story featuring a journey through 1200 years of history in Aarhus from the Viking settlement onwards.
Built into the green hills in the south of Aarhus, surrounded by forests and the sea, Moesgaard Museum is the place to seek insight into the past in Denmark. The enticing museum is set here in the landscape, where the first Vikings arrived in the 8th century and developed a settlement at the ‘mouth of the river’, known as Aros. It tells the story of the Viking Age in the area, and displays runic stones, bog bodies and other archaeological finds excavated around old Aros.
You can also explore Oldtidsstien, a prehistoric trail across the landscape formed during the Ice Age, featuring reconstructions of houses from the past such as a Viking stave church and a medieval water mill. Just off Oldtidsstien you will locate one of the popular Aarhus beaches, Moesgaard Strand, often bustling with people.
Inside Moesgaard Museum you will also find a Stone Age hunting room, and you will be able to interact with the ancient cultures through virtual reality glasses. It is both entertaining and instructive and gives a picture of Denmark throughout the history.
The museum building is the result of a renewal in 2013, which replaced the old manor museum. A new structure was dug into the sloping hills, designed by Henning Larsen Architects. It is a remarkable design, where the museum roof is the rising lawn sloping down into the surrounding scenic meadows.
Moesgaard Museum is with its permanent and temporary exhibitions and engaging venues an extremely popular place for both locals and visitors. A couple of times outdoor plays have taken place here – for example a Viking play about the Viking king Harald Bluetooth. It is also the perfect setting for other Viking events such as the annual Moesgaard Viking Moot existing since 1977. 500 authentically dressed Vikings gather here every year in July, where the event culminates with a giant battle!
The other great Viking museum in Aarhus is Vikingemuseet, located right in the city centre in the basement of the Nordea Bank at Skt. Clemens Torv.
The small museum features an exhibition of the excavations performed at this very location in Aarhus. Visitors are taken 3 metres down to explore the thick layer of urban dirt and debris, which has accumulated during a thousand years.
Down here the existence of the old Viking Aros is revealed, including remains of the old ramparts at the time of Harold Bluetooth’s rule. Viking artifacts uncovered here are on display, and you will get insight into their homes, the structure and layout of old Aros, as well as life in year 980 based on the traces, that the Vikings have left. Moreover, you can experience a real Viking attack!
The yellow brick buildings, housing both auditoria, laboratories, administration, museums and student dorms, have with time become a landmark of Aarhus.
Aarhus University was designed by the Danish architect C. F. Møller. Founded in Aarhus in 1928 with only 78 students, it is the second oldest university in Denmark! Arts got its own building in 1933, and in 1936 an Economics and Law faculty saw the light of day, followed by Theology in 1942 and Science in 1954.
During the Second World War Aarhus University was bombed. Gestapo had its headquarters at the University, in the Kollegium 4 and Kollegium 5. On 31st October 1944 the Royal Air Force attacked the Gestapo headquarters. The architect C. F. Møller was shortly buried under the ruins of the main building, but was soon rescued. Another 10 construction workers lost their lives.
Today, Aarhus University has 5 faculties in Arts, Natural Sciences, Technical Sciences, Health, and Business and Social Sciences. Having an excellent international reputation, the University ranks among the top 100 universities by several major rankings. It is part of the Coimbra Group and the Utrecht Network.
The University has over thirty internationally recognised research centres and manifests itself in achieving remarkable results. In 1997 the Danish researcher Jens Christian Skou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Not only is the University internationally highly recognised for its strong educational activities and phenomenal research results, it is also famed for its spectacular architecture and scenic beauty of the university campus. Actually, it has been appointed among the most beautiful universities in the world by the Huffington Post. Its location in park-like surroundings with a lake in the middle of the green, sloped landscape attracts thousands of students and researchers from all over the world.
A number of museums belong to the University, among others the Botanical Garden and Tropical Houses, the Ole Rømer Observatory, the Museum of Natural History, the Steno Museum and the Museum of Ancient Art – the last three can all be found on campus.
Set in beautiful surroundings between the Marselisborg Forests, Mindeparken (the Memorial Park), the Deer Park and the sea, Marselisborg Palace, or Marselisborg Slot, is the treasured summer residence of the Danish royal family.
Marselisborg Palace was built in 1899-1902, designed by the architect Hack Kampmann, on the premises of the old Marselisborg Manor. It was a gift from the people to the royal family on the occasion of King Christian X’s and queen Alexandrine’s wedding.
The name Marselisborg refers to the old manor Marselisborg (originally named Havreballegaard) dating back to the 1500s. It was acquired by the German-Dutch merchant Gabriel Marselis in the 1661, when King Frederik III for financial reasons was forced to hand the estate over to him. Unfortunately, the old manor burned down, and the only ‘remains’ of it are the names Marselisborg Gymnasium, and Marselisborg Palace.
The Palace Park, Slotshaven, is a lovely park designed by architect L. Christian Diedrichsen in a typical English landscape style. It is open to the public when the royal family is not in residence, whereas the Palace itself is entirely private. The park and gardens feature a picturesque pond and intriguing art sculptures, and include both a fine rose garden and a lush herb garden.
Changing of the guard takes places at noon when the royal family stays in Aarhus.
Created for the Sculpture by the Sea event in 2015, the unusual circular bridge has survived during the summer months as a permanent work of art for everyone to use. Situated at the Varna Beach just off Ørneredevej, The Infinite Bridge, or in Danish Den Uendelige Bro, is an unconventional wooden pier for the infinite stroll! Enjoy the views of the sea, the forest, the city and the harbour as you walk round it.
When the Sculpture by the Sea was over in 2015, the bizarre bridge, designed by Niels Povlsgaard and Johan Gjødes, was at first dismantled as planned. However, protests were heard, and shortly, the phenomenal piece of art was reconstructed.
On a sunny day The Infinite Bridge is a popular spot to relish the beach and the seascape in the Bay of Aarhus.
Starting at The Infinite Bridge, you can enjoy a lovely walk along the various small beaches past the Marselisborg Forests towards Moesgaard Museum in southern Aarhus.
More places of interest
Aarhus Concert Hall, or Musikhuset, located next to ARoS, is a venue for music performances, designed by Kjær & Richter and built in the years 1979-1982.
It is the largest concert hall in Scandinavia with a seating of more than 3,600 people. Musical performances take place in one of the six concert halls, including the Large Hall, the Rhythmic Hall, the Symphonic Hall and the Chamber Music Hall, or in the spectacular foyer with glass façades on three sides! The Concert Hall provides the perfect setting and stage for any kind of concert, opera, ballet, musical, show, exhibition or business arrangement.
Exiting the building complex, you will step out into a garden-like sculpture park, designed by the landscape architect Sven Hansen.
The Concert Hall is also home to Den Jyske Opera and Aarhus Symfoniorkester.
A visit to Aarhus Cathedral, or Aarhus Domkirke, reveals the longest (93 m / 305 ft) and tallest (96 m / 315 ft) church in Denmark with a capacity of seating 1,200 people.
Construction of the Cathedral began in the 1190s initiated by bishop Peter Vognsen, and in the years of construction a cathedral school, Aarhus Katedralskole, was also begun. The Romanesque church building was completed in 1300, and it was dedicated to St Clement, who was the patron saint of sailors. Only a few years later, in 1330, the Cathedral unfortunately burned down. It was left in ruins until 1449, when it was rebuilt and enlarged in the new Gothic style.
Aarhus Cathedral is adorned with a number of fresco paintings from 1470-1520, the Lazarus Window, painted around 1300, and a stained glass window by the Norwegian artist Emanuel Vigeland from 1926.
A wrought-iron “Golden Door” separates the nave from the choir. Other noteworthy parts are the copper baptismal font, the carved altarpiece with movable sections and the Baroque-façade pipe organ.
Aarhus Theatre is one of the historical theatres in Denmark. It was designed by Hack Kampmann in the Art Nouveau style popular at the time, and inaugurated in 1900. The Holberg characters appearing on the façade fresco are attributed to professor Hans Tegner. The construction of Aarhus Theatre was initiated by a group of eager citizens and replaced an old theatre, known as ‘Svedekassen’.
The theatre features four stages and has around 100,000 visitors annually. A varied repertoire is played during the season September-June. Both own productions and guest performances are part of the broad repertoire.
Aarhus Theatre is a popular cultural offer in Aarhus, which with its wide range of performances is aimed at all age groups.
Built after the design by Arne Jacobsen, Aarhus City Hall, or Aarhus Rådhus, has with its unique architectural style become a landmark of Aarhus. Arne Jacobsen and Erik Møller won a design competition in 1937 to design the new City Hall. At first the project didn’t include a tower.
Nevertheless, people required a tower! So the architects had to add this element, resulting in the present 60-metre rectangular structure. In the beginning the Aarhus citizens did not really like the scaffolding-like tower, but with time the remarkable marble tower with six balconies and two clock faces has become real iconic in Aarhus.
Today, the City Hall stands as a functionalistic building which houses Aarhus Municipality. In addition to being an administration building, it hosts a wide range of events and guests throughout the year.
Guided tours of the City Hall are available.
The Botanical Garden in Aarhus features plants from distinct habitats in Denmark, a section of old medicinal plants and a rockery with plants from mountainous regions found worldwide. It is a lovely park, frequented by tourists, students, families and other citizens who use the green spaces for a picnic or other leisurely activities.
One of the more recent approaches is the establishment of a new Tropical House section, Væksthusene, of the Botanical Garden. It boasts some amazing greenhouses with tropical and subtropical plants from the rainforest. You will find vegetation from all four different climate zones. Explore the stunning flowers and fascinating plants here and learn about their functions in their respective natural habitats.
The cobblestone picture-postcard Latin Quarter is one of the oldest quarters in Aarhus. It arose in the 14th century as one of the first new parts of Aarhus after the Viking Age. Meandering around, you will notice the still-existing, old street names such as Klostergade, Guldsmedgade, Mejlgade and Graven.
It is the perfect setting for cosy cafés and small boutiques, which you will find along the streets located around the main square Pustervig. Some of the current houses date all back to the 16th century.
Aarhus Latin Quarter features a pronounced cultural life with live music, studios and galleries for everyone to visit. Its name can be attributed to the comparable, although much bigger, neighbourhood in Paris, the Quartier Latin – the Paris Latin Quarter.
Nowhere else in Aarhus will you find such a cool roof terrace as on top of the Salling department store – featuring both lounge areas and a stage. With its location above the city roofs, it offers the rare opportunity to get a 360-degree panoramic experience over the city of Aarhus.
At the same time it is a popular open-air bar and café, particularly on sunny days, where you can enjoy a meal, a drink or a cup of coffee. You may listen to the DJ’s music if you are here on the right day or evening.
Step out from the building on a glass platform and enjoy the views of the pedestrian street from above. This may well be a transboundary experience!
Godsbanen (meaning ‘goods station’) is one of the newer projects and creative spaces in Aarhus. It is a centre for cultural productions in terms of artistic disciplines such as theatre, dance and photography.
The site is the old goods station in Aarhus from 1923, which for many years handled all the freight trains transporting goods to and from other places in Denmark along the rail lines. It was originally built on the swamp-like grounds outside the city, after filling the area up with appropriate material. Hack Kampmann was one of the influential people behind the project. The goods station operated right until 1997, when an accident unfortunately happened. From year 2000 there were no longer any train activity at the former station.
After the close-down the buildings were transformed into the current cultural production centre, and it is today a popular site for creative purposes – one of the really hip projects in a new Aarhus neighbourhood! At Godsbanen you will find studios, project rooms, stages, dance halls and auditoria, beside an unpretentious café and restaurant.
Aarhus Street Food opened in 2016 in an abandoned bus garage near the Central Station. In an authentic setting a wide range of the world’s cuisines are sold here under the same roof. It is a blend of international simple quality food served between the concrete walls in the spacious building.
Most often bustling with people, the food market is a vibrant place with all the soft smells mixing around the central tables. It is both an affordable and fast experience to have a bite here together with students, families, tourists and whoever finds their way to the new gastronomic market in Aarhus.
It ranks high and is definitely an enticing food option to squeeze in between other activities in Aarhus.
Would you like to visit the cultural spots in Copenhagen? Then check out this article: 9 Cultural Things to Do in Copenhagen – or if you have 3 days, you may find this itinerary useful: Nyhavn, Tivoli Gardens, Christiania & Rosenborg Copenhagen 3 Days
Read more about the Vikings in Aarhus: Danish Viking Kings Still Play Around Moesgaard Museum
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