You may never have heard of Aarhus, but to the Danes it’s their country’s beloved second city. A place of youthful bohemianism and sentimental attachment to a bygone way of life. And now – thanks to a groundswell of artists and entrepreneurs and a sprinkling of Michelin stars – it’s become Europe’s Next Hot Underground Grown Up Scruffy place to be.
On the train ride west from Copenhagen, the Danish countryside turns spare and narrow, like a rubber band being stretched tight, waiting for release. Fields shrink to green stripes, broken by white farmhouses. Blink and there’s water out the windows, the causeway bridge humming tensely underneath. Denmark, by reputation, is the southern soul of Scandinavia: generous, gregarious, and courtly. But to venture from the capital is to feel the landscape pulling you northward, toward its empty coastline and the tightening subarctic sky. Here’s where the Vikings set sail, more than a millennium ago. There’s where Hans Christian Andersen was born. Let the rubber band loose, and it will land in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, which is less than a quarter the size of Copenhagen. If the capital is the heart of Danish culture, Aarhus—youthful, restless—is its whirring mind.
Who comes to Aarhus? Everyone, if you’re a Dane. “So many people know, or have lived in, Aarhus at some point in their lives,” the mystery novelist Elsebeth Egholm said over coffee one afternoon at a sidewalk table in the Latin Quarter, the city’s oldest district. “They connect it with youth, with a boyfriend or a girlfriend they used to visit, with a grandmother.”
A short walk from the Latin Quarter is Aarhus University, one of Scandinavia’s top research institutions. Its main quad (an idyll of grassy hills, shade trees, and an enormous pond where ducklings frolic) sends a stream of students cycling into town all day, infusing the city with warm Nordic charm. For decades, Aarhus—pronounced oh-hoos, like a fond lament—was known as Denmark’s training town: the place you’d find your sea legs before moving to the capital. More recently, though, it has become a destination in itself. Several of Denmark’s leading innovators have planted their headquarters on the city’s revivified waterfront.
Luxury housing has followed suit. Aarhus now has Scandinavia’s largest public library, and some of its best restaurants. (When the Michelin Guide evaluated Aarhus for the first time, in 2015, the city came away with a startling three stars and two Bib Gourmand distinctions.) All at once, Denmark’s best and brightest aren’t graduating from Aarhus but into it.
For such people, the city’s appeal reaches both backward and forward: a nostalgic bond to what Aarhus meant during their younger years and a drive toward its eclectic international future. Egholm’s best-known fictional creation, Dicte Svendsen, an Aarhus newspaper reporter who’s an accidental detective on the side, was recently adapted into a popular Danish procedural; it arrived in America via Netflix in 2014, cresting our national passion for Scandinavian TV. Dicte was filmed entirely in Aarhus, and, like the novels on which it is based, it’s a quirky love letter to an even quirkier town. “A lot of people have a sentimental view of this city, and that’s why I wanted to set my Dicte books here,” Egholm explained, with a wan smile. “I often get the compliment not so much that the books are good but that it’s great they’re set in Aarhus.”