Like so many of my travels, my visit to Aarhus, Denmark, began with food. Specifically, with a spring pilgrimage to the foodie Mecca, Noma, in Aarhus’s sister city, Copenhagen. At that moment, I fell in love with “new Nordic cuisine,” hook, line, and minimalistically designed sinker. That first visit included a four-hour, life-changing experience at Noma, an extended walk around the city walls and dinner at the Danish steakhouse, Mash. I returned to London the next day in awe of what I had experienced and eager to return. My next visit, a few months later, was longer, better-researched and included Höst and Manfreds & Vin. On this second visit I was becoming a little more adventurous, a little more frugal and a lot more obsessed with Scandinavian ethos.
So when I read that those harbingers of busy reservation lines, the coveted Michelin stars, had just been bestowed for the first time ever in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, I was intrigued. When I then found that there had actually been three different one-star ratings given simultaneously, I booked my flight. Since I loved what I had seen thus far of Denmark through Copenhagen, I thought I knew what to expect. In a lot of ways Aarhus was indeed very similar Denmark’s capital city, but in so many ways it was a tremendous amount more.
To begin with, Aarhus is fairly small; it takes only a weekend to do a good job of exploring it. If you stay centrally, you can cover the entire city without really going more than 30 minutes from your hotel on foot. The city has a population of about 319,000, which puts it on par with New Orleans, Louisiana (a city to which it sometimes bears an interesting resemblance). Within that population it holds a strong café culture (frequently credited to the 45,000 students who attend Aarhus University), high taxes as well as a high “happiness rating”––consistent with its Scandinavian cousins.
Visitors arriving in the tiny airport find little fanfare and less signage. Straight outside the terminal, a bus can be found conveniently idling outside of the airport, waiting to collect the new arrivals and take them on a 45-minute journey through the woods to Aarhus Hovedbanegård, the Central Train Station. This is where it starts to sink in. The cleanliness. The order. The similarity of architecture. The bicycles––bicycles everywhere.
Spending time in a city already proud of their culinary heritage and discoveries that has also just received the nod from Michelin is a unique experience. On our visit, the restaurants all exuded an energy like a rubber band pulled taut. The waiters (who are frequently managers and sometimes owners) are all excited about what the new Michelin guides mean to the city. “Maybe they will soon discover what is happening outside of the city too,” one such waiter/manager suggests while we dine on confit of halibut topped with Jerusalem artichokes and soured cream. He then takes my notebook and writes down 10 obscure restaurants in the Danish countryside that he swears are worth the drive––and a future star of their own.
The restaurants that have already received their Michelin blessing from are proud. They have been perfecting their style for years now, sitting lamentably undiscovered while watching the press, the cognoscenti and the tourists all descend upon Copenhagen. Now it is their moment to shine. Tasting menus with wine parings are expertly executed. Timings are nearly perfect. Staff is well-educated and empowered.
But while the restaurants already bestowed a star are buoyant, the ones that see the exalted award well within their grasp are reserved. They see what is possible now that they are, literally, on the Michelin map. One such example is Restaurant Domestic in Aarhus’s Latin Quarter. The restaurant is owned and operated by two cooks and two servers, and occupies a stark and cavernous former pig butcher shop in a space that most recently was the popular gastronomic destination, Svineriet, a restaurant that had been open for 15 years and closed just before this prodigious change in the local restaurant scene. The decor is predictably warm neutrals and raw woods, with the staff in the very popular leather aprons. At some points, Restaurant Domestic feels like Michelin-by-numbers; like in the already recognized restaurants, there is both creativity and huge soul put into every tiny plate of brined local seafood.
Above: Restaurant Domestic
Aarhus is a destination like no other; somewhat difficult to get to, strong in its independence and full of food, wine and coffee––yet still rather undiscovered by the foodie tourists. There are many layers to Aarhus, and there is much more to do in the town than simply eat (although you’ll be tempted to just do that), but 48-hours is a good start to scratching the surface and ensuring a return trip.
Wake up early at Hotel Royal and go for a brisk run along the Aarhus River. Detour on your way back to stop at Great Coffee and cool down as you return to your hotel for a quick shower. Later, stroll 15 minutes to Langhoff & Juul for either a traditional Danish brunch plate heaped tall with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, curry chicken salad, fresh fruit and a brownie, or opt for a smaller open faced sandwich of duck confit with an orange and lovage pesto and another cup of coffee. Walk off brunch with a trip to ARoS, the outstanding contemporary art museum; ascend to the very top for the rainbow room and then descend down the nine levels of exhibition space (representing Dante’s nine circles of hell). By the time you’re through, it should be time for a cocktail at the AroS Food Hall (where, naturally, the meat is all organic and is dry aged on premises).
Klostergade 32 H, st., 8000 Aarhus C
www.greatcoffee.dk | +45 28498323
Langhoff & Juul
Guldsmedgade 30, 8000 Aarhus C
langhoffogjuul.dk | +45 61101112
ARoS Aarhus Art Museum
Aros Allé 2, 8000 Aarhus C
www.aros.dk | +45 87306600
After a quick rest and a freshen-up at the hotel, make a left out of the main entrance of Hotel Royale and tap, tap, tap along cobblestone streets about 200 yards to the subtle entrance of Gastromé, the first of the three newly Michelin-starred restaurants in town. It is immediately warm and welcoming with brown leather chairs, some decorated with cozy sheepskin covers, and a bright open kitchen. The wine pairings are perfect––both interesting and well chosen with generous pours. The staff is warm and helpful. On the night we visited, we accidentally showed up an hour and a half early for our table and lucked into having a new manager looking after us. He was eager to show off his knowledge, and my husband and I were thankful to hear it.
Store Torv 4, 8000 Aarhus C
www.hotelroyal.dk | +45 86120011
Rosensgade 28, 8000 Aarhus C
www.gastrome.dk | +45 28781617
Scandinavian countries occupy five of the top 10 highest coffee-consuming countries. And while the artisanal coffee movement in Denmark is famed, residents of Aarhus claim with confidence that it started in their city, not Copenhagen as is frequently suggested. Bearing this in mind, take morning walk to the Nordic roaster and coffee shop, La Cabra, in the Latin Quarter for a morning caffeine and pastry fix.
Graven 20, 8000 Aarhus C
www.lacabra.dk | +45 42 92 49 25
And of course one cannot visit Denmark without exploring the Danish ceramics and textiles. There are a few shops that feature only singular artists, but to catch a few at once, 1+1 Textile is a minuscule storefront with dozens of artisans represented. Allow time to chat to the lovely owner who can speak to every single piece and artist behind it. After that, walk over to Designer Zoo, a smaller offshoot of a large ceramics and design store from Copenhagen. It also features a variety of artists, ceramics and Scandinavian furniture.
Grønnegade 41, 8000 Aarhus C
www.1x1design.dk | +45 70201042
Badstuegade 19, 8000 Aarhus C
www.dzoo.dk | +45 33259493
Grab a quick Danish Smørrebrød (sandwich) at Kähler Spisesalon and then block out the afternoon for strolling and shopping along Strøget, the pedestrianized main street before heading to dinner at Restaurant Substans. Book early (6:30pm) to get the most of your evening; choose from one of the three pre-fixe options (Major, Simple or Not So Big), and add the wine option.
Frederiksgade 74, 8000 Aarhus C
www.restaurantsubstans.dk | +45 86230401
With extra time…
Make way to South Aarhus, to Moesgaard, an international cultural history museum based on archeology and human life. The building itself is architecturally stunning and is surrounded by the woods and sea. After a walk around the grounds, grab the bus 15 minutes to F-Høj Deli, a sandwich shop run by Restaurant Frederikshøj (the third recipient of one of those feted stars, and held up in local lore as being the most likely to get a second), for a late lunch before grabbing a high speed train to Copenhagen and departing Aarhus.
Moesgård Allé 15, 8270 Højbjerg
www.moesgaardmuseum.dk | +45 87394000
F-Høj Deli / Restaurant Frederikshøj
Grønnegade 2, 8000 Aarhus C
frederikshoj.com | +45 86142280