Aarhus Or Copenhagen? Denmark’s Two Biggest Cities

Aarhus or Copenhagen
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Aarhus or Copenhagen is a choice between the two largest urban centers in Denmark. They’re both pretty tempting prospects for the city-loving traveler, each bringing stacks of culture, history, gastronomy, nightlife – the list goes on and on. But which should you pick this year?

On the one hand there’s the bustling capital of the country: Copenhagen. One of Scandinavia’s true jewels, this town bustles with life, brims with handsome architecture, has fairy-tale cobbled streets, and more café culture than you can shake a Hans Cristian Anderson book at. But then there’s Aarhus; cool, student-led Aarhus. Go there to find bar-fringed quays, Viking museums, art galleries that blow the mind, and all sorts on top.

This guide is just what you need if you’re trying to decide between Aarhus or Copenhagen. It’s got the lowdown on several key things about each town, from where boasts the biggest nightlife scene to where has the best cultural pursuits. Let’s begin…

Aarhus or Copenhagen for ease of travel?

A street in Copenhagen
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Aarhus has the steadily growing Aarhus Airport. It sits about 40km to the northeast of the city proper, just along a short headland on the coast. Low-cost carriers and midrange carriers are flying there more and more these days, with the most popular routes being the direct links to London and Milan with Ryanair. The other option is to go to Billund Airport to the south. It’s actually the gateway to LEGOLAND, sat just over an hour’s drive away. However, it does host considerably more arrivals, including some from hubs that will let you connect up with long-haul flights from Asia and the USA.

Copenhagen can trump all that, though. Mainly, the accessibility of the capital is down to sprawling Copenhagen Airport Kastrup. It’s the largest in all of Denmark and the second largest in the Nordic region. You can get in on any number of low-costers like Norwegian Air Shuttle and Wizz but also on premium fliers from far-flung destinations like China and West Coast US. Direct trains also go to the Danish capital from Sweden across the strait and there are regular long-distance buses in from Germany.

Winner: Copenhagen.

Aarhus or Copenhagen for general vibe?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Copenhagen looks and feels like a capital city. A population of 600,000 people ensures that it reigns as the largest town in the country and has a real urban buzz about it. But said population is also fantastically diverse. You get young professionals from the UK, French emigres, minority populations of Afghans and North Africans and others, all of which make the town one of the most multicultural on the continent. Summer months tend to be better here in our opinion. Copenhagen comes to life when it gets warm, with open-air cafés and swimming spots on the marina. Colder times can seem a little bit like the city is hibernating.

Aarhus has been content to let Copenhagen draw the crowds while it ticks over to a more alternative, creative beat. It’s about half the size of its capital, but still manages to feel lively and lived-in thanks to a regular population of 336,000. About a tenth of that (around 36,000) are students, which is why Aarhus can maintain such a steady array of eateries and bars. The town has also been named the European Capital of Culture and Capital of Gastronomy, so it’s certainly got some epicurean delights if you’re willing to go searching for them!

Winner: Aarhus. The second city has a boho-student vibe that’s really endearing.

Aarhus or Copenhagen for things to do?

Aarhus Museum
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Your days in Aarhus are likely to be filled with plenty of people watching from the cafés and strolling around the canal-cut center of the city. It’s that sort of place: Void of any major must-sees but extremely pleasant to explore nonetheless. That said, the ARoS (Aarhus Art Museum) should come top of the bill. It’s one of the largest exhibition spaces in Scandinavia and sports an intriguing Rainbow Panorama skybridge. Den Gamle By – an open-air history museum come shopping quarter – is the other top pull in Aarhus, but more on that later.

Copenhagen brings out the big guns. It’s home to some of the most acclaimed museums and attractions in the country. From the ancient weapons of the Nationalmuseet to the Danish National Gallery, where Picasso meets Old Dutch Masters, there’s oodles to get through. Other attractions have a scientific edge, like the Experimentarium or the zoological enclosures of Copenhagen Zoo, said to be one of the oldest on the planet. On top of that, you have lively dining quarters like Norrebro, urban beaches at the Amager Strandpark, and famous greenhouse plant shows at the Botanisk Have.

Winner: Copenhagen – there’s just way more on offer in the bigger city.

Aarhus or Copenhagen for history?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Aarhus doesn’t have the immersive old town that Copenhagen has. The town center is split in two, with the new Midtbyen offering the shopping and the Latin Quarter offering the more historic architecture. There is one trump card for history buffs here, though: Den Gamle By. That area sits to the north of the downtown and is made up of over 70 preserved buildings that date back more than a century. You can go there to transport yourself back in time. Oh, and never forget that Aarhus was founded by the Vikings! The subterranean Viking Museum is the place to go to trace that swashbuckling past.

Copenhagen also probably had its roots in the Viking era but didn’t grow into a prominent city until sometime around the 15th century. That means its old town is riddled with medieval relics. You can get lost in the Indre By area – the heart of the town – to see the grand Christiansborg Palace from the 1100s and the Rundetaarn tower from the 1600s. The colorful houses of Nyhavn showcase the grandeur of the 17th century and also offer a cracking maritime museum that chronicles Copenhagen’s ship-building past. Finally, the Nationalmuseet is a must for those who want to witness Viking weapons and artifacts from the annals of national history.

Winner: Copenhagen

Aarhus or Copenhagen for nightlife?

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Aarhus counts nearly 40,000 students among its 300k population. That’s a hefty contingent and it means that there’s nightlife to match. From big EDM clubs to small, smoky jazz bars, this city has the lot. The main place to know about is the happening Aboulevarden, a riverside run of terrace cafés and beer bars that’s always pumping when term time is on. Castenskiold and the Aussie Bar are two of the top options for pre-drinks there. Later, you can hop over to bigger clubs like Train or early-hours drinking holes like Den Sidste.

Copenhagen’s nightlife is more year-round because travelers will pick up where the students leave off. Nyhavn is the buzziest part of the city in the summer months. It’s pricy, true, but a cocktail or a cold beer by the quaysides here can’t be beaten. From there, you’ve got plenty of choice. Vesterbro is a grittier, local option with punk clubs and beer halls. Norrebro is bohemian and multicultural, touting brewhouses and mezze bars. The Indre By central area also has some clubs up its sleeve.

Winner: Draw. Both have fantastic nightlife offerings but are pricier than other European party places.  

Winner: Copenhagen

Aarhus or Copenhagen for food?

Diners in Copenhagen
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You might think that the capital would win out right away on the food front. But not so fast. Aarhus is a former part of a European Region of Gastronomy that covered all of central Denmark, and any local will tell you that the dining scene of Aarhus really is going places. You’ve got edgy New Nordic at Haervaerk, smoked herring at Kohalen, and all manner of international flavors at the buzzing Aarhus Street Food court that pops up in summer. You won’t go hungry!

That said, Copenhagen probably still claims the culinary crown. It’s not just a powerhouse of New Nordic cooking, but actually one of the pioneers of the art – and it is an art! Multiple-award-wining Noma usually tops the bill (if you can get a table!) but there are way more choices, from chic Selma to the Michelin-starred Alouette. For those that don’t want to fork out loads, the Norrebro area is a food lover’s dream, offering falafel joints, curry houses, pho kitchens and plenty more.

Winner: Copenhagen.

Aarhus or Copenhagen for day trips?

Beaches near Aarhus
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Aarhus and Copenhagen are a chance to visit two opposite sides of Denmark. The first is on the top end of the Jutland Peninsula in the west. It’s great for getting out to see the windblown sandspits of the wonderful Skagen headland, which marks the point where the North Sea meets the Baltic. There are also charming villages and towns, like Skanderborg and Viborg for feeling the more fairy-tale vibes. We’d also recommend the Moesgard Museum, which has – we think – the only bog-preserved ancient body on the continent. Eerie, eh?

Copenhagen is the gateway to eastern Denmark. That’s the Baltic side of the country, where beaches like the Amager Strandpark and Bellevue Beach can offer ample respite from the city hubbub when it’s warmer. There is more than coastline, though. Check out haunting Kronborg Castle to see the spot where Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set. Go to Odense to get on the literary trail of Hans Christian Andersen, who was born there in 1805. Hit Frederiksborg Castle for Baroque grandeur and tales of Danish kings and queens.

Winner: Copenhagen.

Aarhus or Copenhagen? Our conclusion

Aarhus has a lot going for it. A vibrant nightlife scene that’s fueled by students, Viking history, and fascinating heritage quarters all combine there, so we think it’s sure to be a top-class weekend break destination. However, we’d still say that first-time visitors to Denmark should pick Copenhagen. The capital has the more iconic museums and sights, not to mention a whole load of amazing day-trip opportunities that can reveal the jewels of the Baltic region.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.