The first part of our Denmark road trip took us to Odense, a relatively quiet city compared to what was next: Aarhus. Home to Aarhus University, the majority of the Jutland city’s population are students and it’s known for being a bit of a party town. While I did find some worthy cultural and historical attractions in Aarhus, I also ended up spending a night bar hopping with a group of college freshmen who were wearing Hawaiian leis. How did this come to be?
Despite being the second largest city in Denmark, Aarhus seemed to be pretty lacking in terms of affordable and stylish accommodations. We opted to stay in an apartment from Airbnb located a short walk from the city center. It was relatively easy to find free parking on the street nearby, even though most online guides directed us to pay for public parking.
Surprisingly, we were some of the only tourists in town. Almost everyone we met expressed disbelief at the thought that we had traveled there all the way from the USA for “no reason.” But I personally thought that even though it was certainly no Copenhagen, there were plenty of cool things to do in Aarhus.
The view of Aarhus from the top of the ARoS Museum
Students laying out by the canal in a park in Aarhus.
The weather was absolutely brilliant the entire time we were there, which meant students were laying about by the canal, on campus lawns or in one of the city’s many beautiful parks. It made me feel a little nostalgic, a little jealous of their carefree lifestyle, and…. old. Seriously, it seemed like everyone in Aarhus was an undergrad. For a very few brief moments I missed being 21. That is, until I found myself later that night having a drink in a loud, sticky bar where people were tripping over each other and top 40 music was blasting from the speakers.
“This place is slightly more sophisticated, with an older and more stylish crowd,” a guy I had met explained to me when I asked him about the Aarhus nightlife situation. “The other bars cater to younger kids who are like 18.” I took a look around at the stumbling coeds swilling vodka Red Bulls and swaying to Lady Gaga and refrained from snorting and revealing the snobbish New Yorker inside of me. Stylish, sophisticated and older are definitely not words I would use to describe that place!
So where should you go in Aarhus if you’re craving something a little more refined? The Danish city actually makes a great foodie travel destination. There are a ton of amazing restaurants, but the student population means it’s much more affordable than Copenhagen. We wanted to eat at a place that several people had raved about called Oli Bistro, but they were fully booked for the evening. Instead we settled for a three-course meal at another popular French restaurant that was just down the street called Den Rustikke. It was worth the splurge! FYI, many of the best restaurants in Aarhus serve pre-fixed menus, and you’ll need a reservation if you want to snag a table.
Course #1 at Den Rustikke… yum!
If you want to eat by the canal, it’s a little more touristy but we absolutely loved Restaurant Grappa. The modern Italian restaurant offered accessibly priced half portions of pasta, which were quite filling, affordable bottles of wine, and a waiter who looked like Charlie Hunnam. After just having spent two days in Norway, I was nearly giddy about the fact that I was getting an entree for less than $15!
There are also plenty of cozy and adorable wine bars tucked away in Aarhus, providing nightlife options for the older crowd. And when I say older, I mean mid-20s to 30s – Aarhus has the youngest population in Denmark. One particular place that we loved was Love’s Bog og Vin Cafe (Book & Wine Cafe). Offering a combination of, you guessed it, book readings and wine, it definitely drew a mature crowd that was more chic than granola.
We decided to follow up our fancy three-course meal at Den Rustikke with a little college bar hopping to help get our budget back on track for the evening. The first stop was Heidi’s Bier Bar, chosen simply because it was absolutely packed. We figured it was the place to be on a Friday night, and we were right! The entire past week in Scandinavia I’d never seen anyone get remotely wild – the Danes and Norwegians are pretty reserved – but at Heidi’s there were people doing the Macarena on tables, people wearing leis, and a general celebratory atmosphere. We soon figured out why: all the beers were FREE that night! The residents of Aarhus were obviously taking full advantage of this deal, since many of them were past the point of no return. I’m talking eyes half open, words slurring and drinks spilling.
The loudest, craziest person of all at the bar turned out to be the sole other American in Aarhus, who was studying abroad. We met her when she approached us and asked us, “Do you want to get LEI’D?” before throwing a lei around my neck. When we responded in English, she got excited and started introducing us to her friends and soon we were leaving with a group of belligerent youth to hit up the next spot. It was all well and good until they asked me what year I was at university. After answering truthfully that I had in fact graduated, I went from being one of them, with my deceiving underage-looking face, to quickly becoming that creepy older kid hanging out in a college bar.
If you are over the age of 22 and occasionally enjoy sobriety, you are definitely going to feel out of place at most of the Aarhus bars. But luckily this city offers plenty to do besides drink. My absolute favorite place in Aarhus was the ARoS Museum, a modern art museum that’s famous for its Rainbow Panorama. The Rainbow Panorama is the creation of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, and it’s beyond cool to walk around inside it and trying out different shots with your camera. There’s also a pretty great view of the city from up there.
Aside from the Rainbow Panorama, ARoS has plenty of interesting exhibits to explore. The Wes Lang exhibit, which is there until September, is definitely worth checking out if you are in town. They transported his studio from LA to Aarhus, so it feels like you are in the artist’s workspace as you browse his Americana-inspired pieces featuring bikers, babes, and skulls.
There was also an exhibit on illusions that included a room completely surrounded by mirrors. Time for a #selfie.
Another fun way to pass an afternoon in Aarhus is at Den Gamle By, aka the 1800s version of Aarhus recreated in an expansive open air museum. When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I used to put our hair in braids and pretend we lived in the 1800s, so this was like a childhood dream come true. (Please stop judging me now. I had a vivid imagination, OK?). We spent a few hours strolling the cobblestone streets of the city’s past and discovering what was behind each door, from old homes to shops and even a saloon. Den Gamle By was relatively empty when we visited, except for a pair of ducks that followed us around suspiciously as we took photos. I’m pretty sure they were giving me the evil eye.
If you happen to hit up ARoS and Dem Gamle By in the same day, make sure you stop at VW Cafe on the way for lunch. This casual, bright cafe is right in the middle of the two and serves some delicious sandwiches along with free WiFi. Being more of a local student hangout than tourist restaurant, they didn’t have an English menu. We asked the cashier to recommend the best thing to order, and what she whipped up for us was a combination of pepperoni, vegetables and cheese that might have been the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
One thing on my to-do list that I didn’t get to in Aarhus was Dyrehaven, a forest a few minutes from town that is known as a great place for spotting deer, wild pigs and other animals. If you have time during your visit, grab one of the city’s free bikes, head over and let me know how it is!
Other than the above mentioned things to do in Aarhus, the best way to explore the city is simply wandering around the winding streets of the historical “Latin Quarter.” There was a much bigger cafe culture there than in Copenhagen, which made for excellent people-watching. I almost felt like I was in less-sophisticated version of Paris.
Aarhus was lovely to look at and quite a bit of fun, but I only wished I had discovered it when I was 19. I know I would have had a blast visiting this town when I was in college. But after two nights in Denmark’s youngest city it was time to hit the gas and head on to the next destination. Stay tuned for our final stop on our Denmark road trip before returning to CPH – Ribe!
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