Aarhus – city of sliding penguins, rainbows and Iron age sacrifice

If you call a harbourside housing complex Isbjerget, ‘The Iceberg’, you must expect penguins to take advantage of its steeply sloping rooftops. Sliding, somersaulting, eventually discovering super powers to rocket into the grey waters off Aarhus. 

The place is strong in architecture, the final frontier being the redundant dockland of Denmark’s vibrant second city. So on our weekend break we’d trekked down to the tip of the rapidly developing Aaarhus Ø quarter and were struck by the angular singularity of Isbjerget, completed in 2013. So were the creatives of the French film studio 11h45, who based their 2017 penguin-centric animation around it, as if were a real hunk of ice cap. Have a look, enjoy.

2107 was Aarhus’ turn to be European City of Culture. Standard bearer from that perception-altering year has to be the ARoS Contemporary Art Museum, whose Your Rainbow Panorama – a 150-metre-long circular walkway, designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson – dominates the skyscape. An unrivalled 360 degree view of the city is filtered through various coloured glass panels. It adds an unearthly glow to the brutalist concrete clock tower of Arne Jacobsen’s City Hall.

The rest of the world class collection, with the likes of Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry,  is equally rewarding and well set out. If time is short head for Ron Mueck’s five-metre-tall sculpture of a crouching boy, first exhibited at our own Millennium Dome in 2000. Oh, and you can play table tennis among the installations in the basement.

Afterwards we wandered up the hill to the city’s free-to-enter Botanical Gardens with butterfly-thronged tropical houses. From here there are further thrilling views across Aarhus.

Panoramic viewpoints in the city proper include the rooftop terrace and skywalk at the city’s premier department store, Saaling on the Söndergarde. Just take the lift and stairs to the top floor and enjoy reasonably priced wines and cocktails while taking in the whole dock area, redeveloped or working.

Access is less frequent to the spired tower of the Domkirke, but it boasts another splendid view. The vast red brick expanse of this Cathedral dominates the main square, Store Torv. Originally built in Romanesque style in 1201, three centuries later it was given a Gothic makeover at which time it gained its magnificent Bernt Notke altarpiece, the font and frescoes. It’s dedicated to the patron saint of sailors, St Clemens appropriately enough with the waterfront just yards away. 

Our base, the budget hotel, Cabinn, was nearby, handy for the Latin Quarter. The oldest part of the city offers a maze of streets and concealed courtyards to explore, half-timbered, flower-bedecked. It’s laidback by day and fun after dusk when the bars and cafes are rammed.

Designer shopping seems to be centred around the picturesque Graven, where you can also get your Nordic coffee fix at La Cabra, but our favourite thoroughfare was the Mejlgade, home to our Aarhus ‘local’, Mig og Ølsnedkeren, a craft beer mecca.

The Latin Quarter hosts a couple of hip but eye-wateringly expensive Michelin-starred  restaurants, Gastromé and Domestic. We dined handsomely at a more casual New Nordic spot, Langhoff og Juul in Guldsmedgade.

Even more on-trend was Pondus, a bistro spawned by Substans, arguably the city’s best Michelin joint and relocating to the resurgent waterside. Pondus’s set menu was deceptively simple and classy compared with rival establishments along the dining-focused Aarhus Canal.

We visited two food halls too – Aarhus Central Food Market (tip: go for the award-winning Hungry Dane Burgers) and, much jollier, Aarhus Street Food, a more recent arrival, inevitably based in recycled shipping containers. Our visit to the latter coincided with the city’s annual Royal Run, offering a range of sweaty challenges up to 10K. Participants thronged the 30 or stalls in the hall just behind the bus station on Ny Banegaardsgade.

We fought shy of ordering one unique local delicacy, curry dumplings, from ‘Grandma’s House’, settling instead for banh-mi and bao buns, washed down with local micro brews from the Ølfred bar.

To sample a retail produce market with fish, cheese and organic veg head down to Ingerslevs Boulevard in trendy Frederiksbjerg, south of the station. The open air market  is open Wednesday and Saturday 8am-2pm. On the way back where better than a hoppy refresher on trendy Jægergårdsgade at the Mikkeler Bar – an outpost of the globally famous Copenhagen gypsy brewers.

Elsewhere there is so much quirkiness to celebrate. We loved the Dome of Visions on the waterftront Inge Lehmanns Gade. It arrived from Copenhagen seven years ago as a sustainable timber round house, comprised of 588 curved beams with 186 different shapes. Inside it’s a lush greenhouse, hosting a cafe which looks across the harbour at the still working shipping docks. Next door among gardens is a mushroom farm based on spent coffee grounds.

You suspect this whole waterfront site will eventually be developed commercially, bridging the gap between Aaarhus Ø and Dokk1, a monumental events space/library that opened in 2015. It too has its own special Danish eccentricities. Its artwork centrepiece is a 3 ton bronze pipe bell, The Gong, which new parents can ring remotely from the University Hospital maternity ward when a child is born, while the ceiling of the underground car park features a large art installation known as Magic Mushrooms, a downscaled model of an imaginary city turned upside down. Cap that, capital Copenhagen.

A day trip out to the ‘Killing Fields’

All eye-catching but our day had been dominated by an out-of-town homage not on everyone’s bucket list… back into prehistory. Just a bus ride away 30 minutes south, inside another remarkable (Seventies) building, grass roofed and hunkered into the landscape – the Moesgaard Museum.

Awaiting us there ‘Grauballe Man’. Dug from the Jutland bogs in 1952, the body eerily preserved by peat since the third century BC, the throat slashed, suggesting he might have been a human sacrifice. 

The photographs burn into your mind; to see this leathery-tanned Iron Age icon in the flesh, so to speak, is among the most moving experiences on the planet. And blessedly for a while we had the room where he is exhibited to ourselves to mouth the opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s great poem: ‘As if he had been poured in tar, he lies on a pillow of turf and seems to weep the black river of himself.”

The rest of the Moesgaard is a thrilling, interactive journey into Danish, Scandinavian and European history and culture, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and onwards – a treasure house of artefacts but also pandering to the inner kid with some thundering, plundering Viking recreations.

Fact file

Neil Sowerby flew to Aarhus with SAS Scandinavian Airlines, which runs a regular service most of the year from Manchester Airport. For full tourist information visit www.visitaarhus.com and www.visitdenmark.com. An AarhusCard gives unlimited travel, plus free or discounted entry to many of the city’s headline attractions, and costs Dkr 329 (£40) for 24 hours to Dkr 749 (£90) for 120 hours. Cards can be purchased at the bus station and most attractions. The main tourist centre can be found at Dokk1, where you can use free online touch screens for information and ideas.