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Copenhagen is sometimes called the Venice of the North, thanks to its cozy charm and canals—but like Venice, the city can feel like a victim of its own success, with nearly a million cruise passengers visiting last year, in addition to fleets of EasyJets and Ryanairs delivering cool-hunters.
For those looking for a more leisurely urban experience, the trick may be to check out Europe’s 2017 Capital of Culture: Aarhus. Like an ingeniously designed piece of furniture, Aarhus is both young and old, industrious and easygoing—a compact, almost petite city just minutes from dense forests and empty beaches.
As much as any city in Scandinavia, Aarhus is intensely maritime in character, with the busiest container port in Denmark. The city’s name is derived from ár-óss (pronounced AW-hooce), which means “river mouth” in Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, whose ninth- century settlements in the area predate Copenhagen’s founding by 300 years.
Yet it is also home to Aarhus University, Scandinavia’s largest institution of higher learning, balancing the heavy industry with a decidedly bohemian vibe. Aarhus is a city dedicated to the art of hanging out, with much activity taking place along the restored harbor area, whose redevelopment started with the Isbjerget, a spectacular residential complex in the old docklands. Built in 2013, the Isbjerget resembles, well, an iceberg, with its craggy roofline and blue-white exterior. Nearby, the Harbor Bath (visit aarhus.com), designed by Bjarke Ingels, is the city’s latest architectural draw, hold- ing up to 650 people (free of charge) in its trio of pools—one for lap swimmers, one for divers, and one for children. Said to be the largest seawater-fed bath in the world, the stadium-sized complex is surrounded by an elliptical wooden walkway where nonswimmers can enjoy an ice cream or natural champagne from one of the nearby food stalls.
Almost as Instagrammable as semi-clothed Danes lazing on a giant public work of art is the Aros Aarhus Art Museum (en.aros.dk), whose prismatic circular skywalk, designed by Olafur Eliasson, looms over the city. A stroll inside the skywalk feels like stepping inside a rainbow, with the Kattegat bay in the distance. The museum itself houses a stunning permanent collection of contemporary art, with pieces by James Turrell and Shirin Neshat. Less than a mile away, the four-year-old Comwell Hotel (rooms from $260) features panoramic views and interiors by design house Hay.
Aarhus definitely has something going on with circles. Ten minutes from the city center, on Ballehage Beach, stands the Infinite Bridge, a 360-degree wooden walkway that creates awareness of the relationship between the city and majestic Aarhus Bay as you navigate its perimeter. The pebbled beach beneath is a favorite hangout for picnicking couples.
Proximity to beach and forest is very much part of Aarhus’s identity. Chefs like Rune Lund Sørensen, co-owner of Hærværk, a no-frills restaurant where dishes change according to season and supply, love being able to duck out to forage for wild herbs or mushrooms and be back in their kitchens an hour later.
Also serving a seasonally ordered menu, Michelin-starred Domestic hides in a quiet courtyard of the Latin Quarter, its warm, pared-down interior packed with jars containing the fermented delicacies the restaurant specializes in. Not unlike Aarhus itself, Domestic finds ways to unite seemingly unlikely pairings of simple ingredients: pork and unripe plums, flounder with gooseberries and cucumber, mackerel, and strawberries.