Four Danish cities that aren’t Copenhagen

Having cycled up Jutland from Flensburg (in Germany) to Aalborg I spent a few days visiting the main cities along the railway to Copenhagen. They were all very expensive, but it was worth it just to spend time in places where something like normal pre-pandemic life was still possible (although mask-wearing was fairly normal in shops and public transport).


Aalborg (also spelt Ålborg), the capital of North Jutland, was founded in the eighth or ninth century at a relatively narrow point on the Limfjord, and became prosperous thanks to the herrings that used to flood through the Kattegat (the sea between Jutland and Skåne in Sweden) in their billions and were harvested, salted and exported across Europe. After Norway became independent from Denmark in 1814 the city went into a slump until the arrival of heavy industry at the end of the nineteenth century, notably tobacco and cement, now being replaced by ‘knowledge’ and tech industries, as well as Siemens Wind Power. The waterfront is also being revitalised, with a new promenade and a concert hall and university buildings (the Aalborghus, the sixteenth-century castle, is also here, unexciting on the outside and rather domestic half-timbering on the inside).

 St Budolfi’s cathedral (named after St Botolph, with whom I’m vaguely familiar from Oxford days) dates largely from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and still seems like an overgrown parish church. Just outside the centre, the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art, by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, opened in 1972 and shows mainly Scandinavian art from the late nineteenth century to the present; there’s also a sculpture park, and stairs that lead up a wooded hill to the Aalborg Tower viewpoint and restaurant. 

 There’s not really much more to see, but I recommend the North Jutland History Museum, and especially the new Uproar in North Jutland exhibition on the ground floor, tracing a local tradition of dissent and rebellion. This starts with Skipper Clement’s Rebellion, part of a civil war in 1534-6 when Lutheran nobles feuded with Catholic rebels; Clement was a former privateer captain who won a striking victory when his peasant army lured 1,500 soldiers into a bog, but was later captured and executed. He was largely forgotten until the ballad Skipper Clement’s Morgensang became a hit in 1970. Workers’ choirs were a local tradition from the 1880s, and in July the Alsang public singing protests against the Nazis began here, with up to 30,000 gathering in the city centre, and soon 700,000 were singing nationwide, until it was closed down in 1943, after the Danish government resigned and the Germans finally took total control. Fittingly, from 1999 to 2001, there were singing protests outside a house occupied by a neoNazi group until they finally moved out. More protests about the sidelining of North Jutland in the 1960s led to the establishment of a university here in 1970. Elsewhere in the museum, I couldn’t help noticing that the subject keeps veering back to the Second World War (the red, white and blue RAF berets were a good touch), but the highlight is the Aalborg Room, a splendid example of carved wood-panelling from 1602. There are also lots of paintings of townscapes and views from the hills around the town, as well as a 1920s schoolroom, and a silver collection on the top floor.

 Aalborg has an airport, six kilometres northwest of the centre – it would be useful for hops to Norway and Sweden but in fact is used almost entirely for holiday flights to the Med. A new railway branch to the airport will open in mid-December 2020, as an extension of the half-hourly service from Skørping to the main Aalborg station and across the fjord to Lindholm.

 Viborg, 80 kilometres southwest of Aalborg, is an attractive cathedral town that I mentioned in my previous post.


Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city (overtaking Aalborg in the mid-nineteenth century) and it feels much larger, livelier and generally more significant – partly due to the presence of the largest university in Scandinavia. Since 2017 (when it was joint European Capital of Culture), the city has had quite a buzz because of its food and drink scene and because of the modern ARoS art museum with the striking Rainbow Panorama on the rooftop (see below).

 The name simply means River Mouth, from ár, the genitive of á (river) and oss (mouth) – the river that runs through the city is the Aarhus Å, which is dangerously close to River Avon and other such repeated names (Avon means River, of course). There’s further confusion because from 1948 to 2011 Aa was replaced by Å in Danish – but when Århus went back to Aarhus the river remained as Å, for some reason. A week or so earlier, I had noticed in Groningen (the Netherlands), that the river there was the A, so there’s the A-kwartier, but for some reason the Aa-kerk.

 The river is now unattractive and hemmed in (with some confusing two-level bridges), but the former docks immediately east of the city centre are being redeveloped, with the futuristic rhomboid of the Dokk1 cultural centre at the mouth of the river, and the new Aarhus Ø district on former container docks on a peninsula immediately north. They’re linked by a tram-train line, which looks and behaves just like any modern tram here but then runs through the railway station and continues south on the railway (at up to 100km/h) to Odder. Similar regeneration projects include Ceresbyen, on the site of the Ceres brewery near ARoS and Den Gamle By (The Old Town) – this is a very popular open-air museum town that has gathered 75 historic buildings and reopened them with staff acting as butcher, baker, blacksmith and so on. It incorporates clock, toy and crafts museums and is also next to the lovely botanic garden.

 ARoS is one of Scandinavia’s largest and busiest art galleries; founded in 1859, it reopened in 2004 in a modern ten-storey block, with a dramatic atrium and spiral staircase. It’s easily recognised because of the multicoloured rooftop feature otherwise known as Your Rainbow Panorama, added in 2011; created by the Danish-Icelandic Ólafur Eliasson (who came to notice in London with The Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003 and also a pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in 2007), it’s a 150-metre circular walkway that simply gives views of the city, fifty metres below, in a gradually changing range of colours – a simple concept but striking. Otherwise there’s a gallery of Golden Age landscapes (meaning nineteenth-century, nothing to do with the Dutch Golden Age two centuries earlier), including the Norwegian JC Dahl, who still overshadows his Danish contemporaries, nineteenth-century portraits, and Danish artists including Janus La Cour, PC Skovsgaard, Olaf Rude, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Richard Mortensen and Asger Jorn. There are some clever installations – a couple of light pieces by James Turrell, another Eliasson, a mirrored box called Omgivelser (Surroundings; 2003), and Boy by Ron Mueck, an astonishingly detailed crouching figure that just happens to be 4.5 metres high and in a mirrored box. Other big international names include Beuys, Oldenburg and Grayson Perry. ARoS has ambitions to establish itself at the global level, with a big underground extension due to open in 2021, featuring a big sky-dome by James Turrell; its first Triennial took place in 2017 but of course the next fell victim to Covid-19.

 The main sight in the city centre (mainly a shopping district) is the cathedral, the largest in Denmark, which is known for its frescoes (mostly 1470-1520) and for the many grand memorials to local worthies. There was a huge turn-out earlier this year (including the prime minister and some of the royal family) for the funeral of three of the four children of local billionaire Anders Povlsen, killed by a terrorist bomb in Sri Lanka (happily, he and his wife had twins a year or so later) – he was already known to me as Scotland’s largest landowner, with a patchwork of almost 900 square kilometres of estates which he is reforesting and rewilding. He also has property in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (a country I’ve been writing about since 1991), where he aims to boost the populations of bears, wolves and lynx; rather bizarrely, it turns out that he studied at Anglia Ruskin University here in Cambridge.

 Just north of the cathedral, Graven and Klostergade are nicknamed Hipster Hill or the Latin Quarter because there are a few artisan coffee shops and bakeries here; various Aarhus restaurants have been awarded Michelin stars in the last few years. However for me the place to be was Aarhus Street Food, between the bus station and the new tram line, in the former railway maintenance depot – it’s a bustling hall full of vendors selling dozens of different global cuisines (Turkish, Korean, Mexican, Italian, salad bowls, burgers, fish’n’chips) as well as a couple of bars selling good craft beers plus rather more commercial offerings from Brewdog, Brooklyn Brewery and Grimmelberger.


Odense is a pleasant little city that makes a handy stop between Jutland and Zealand. It’s the main city on the island of Funen, which is linked to Jutland by the Little Belt bridges and to Zealand by the Great Belt Fixed Link – fixed link being a term for the hybrid road/rail bridge/tunnel arrangement also used for the Øresund Fixed Link from Denmark to Sweden that I crossed a few days later. (Construction of the final fixed link, from Lolland, south of Zealand, to Fehmarn in Germany, will start in 2021.)

 It claims to be Denmark’s leading cycling city (although I suspect Copenhagen may have struck back with all the cycle bridges it’s built in the last few years) and is currently building a light rail (ie super-tram) system – the first 14-kilometre line is due to open in late 2021, and much of the city centre is currently a construction site. Certainly there are excellent cycle routes east and west from the centre on former railways, there’s a striking new cycle bridge across the tracks to the Danish Railway Museum, and cycle lane markings include provision for ‘left hook’ turns far more commonly than in other towns.


 It’s the birthplace of both the writer Hans Christian Andersen and the composer Carl Nielsen – I was more interested in the latter, but not only has the Nielsen museum closed for a couple of years, but there was a sense that the place has been taken over by the Andersen industry – there are a couple of HC Andersen (as he’s known here) childhood homes here, an excellent museum and lots of Asian pilgrims (with street signs in Chinese too). I’m not very interested in Andersen, but yesterday by chance I found myself listening to The Snow Queen, a new opera derived from one of his stories by the contemporary Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen (and written for the splendid Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan) – it was eerie and exciting, but I still have zero interest in the Little Mermaid and so on.

H C Andersen’s childhood home

 I was happy to come across the former Brandts textile factory (closed in 1977), which has been transformed into a lively and stylish arts and entertainment quarter – my 2014 Rough Guide tells me it comprises the Kunsthallen, the Museet for Fotokunst and the Danmarks Mediemuseum, but in fact the art, photography and media museums had merged in 2013 to form Kunstmuseum Brandts, also absorbing the Funen Art Museum with its collection of nineteenth-century Danish art. There’s an excellent shop and café in the museum, and the complex also includes an education centre, auditorium, an arty cinema and its Café Biografen (why the Danish word for cinema is Biograf I have no idea), and other classy food shops and restaurants. For a great variety of interesting beers and also some reputedly overpriced food, you could also head for Anarkist Beer & Food Lab, opened in the summer of 2018 just south of the centre. It incorporates Microbrewery Flakhaven, where at least twenty world beers are always on tap as well as four of their own.

 There is of course a cathedral in the city centre, rebuilt in red brick between roughly 1300 and 1500; it houses a superb gilded altarpiece (1515-25) and more funerary memorials, but to Danes it’s most significant as the resting place of King Knud the Saint (also known as Canute IV) and his brother Benedict, who were both killed by rebels in 1086, due to his far from saintly treatment of them. These Danish cities all have a Slot or Castle as well, but they tend to be little more than a white-painted mansion that can easily be confused with a monastery.

 Not far north of the centre, the harbour area is being attractively redeveloped with modern apartments; there’s a new streetfood option here too (though smaller than in Aarhus), with food stalls, bars and arty boutiques and studios in the old Storms Pakhus or warehouse. There’s also a havnebad, a pontoon with changing rooms for cold-water swimmers, another common sight in Danish cities. What’s unusual here is that you are also allowed to fish for sea trout year-round – the subtext being that the local anglers aren’t good enough to dent their numbers.


The former capital of Denmark, Roskilde is not far west of the present capital and is still the country’s ecclesiastical centre – a sort of Canterbury or Etchmiadzin. It’s also home to the Viking Ships Museum, which is excellent in itself but even more impressive through its programme of building replicas of all types of medieval sailing vessels. The cathedral, founded in about 1200 and added to over the next eight hundred years, was the first Gothic building in Denmark, in classic Baltic red brick style. Alongside, the Yellow Palace, built in 1733-6 as a guest residence for the royal family, became Denmark’s first Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991, with both excellent collections and touring exhibits.

 Just east of the cathedral, the Roskilde Museum covers the history of the city’s origins and the way that power gradually shifted to Copenhagen (something that isn’t covered in the national museums in Copenhagen). Appropriately, the museum is free to bearers of the Copenhagen Card. It turns out that Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, was actually set in Leire, an even older royal capital ten kilometres south of Roskilde, while Beowulf was a Geat or Goth, from Götaland in Sweden. Roskilde itself was founded in about 980 when Harald Bluetooth (yes, really) founded a church here, and it became a royal seat twenty years later. Cnut (Canute) the Great was King of England from 1016, of Denmark from 1018, and of Norway from 1028, and died in 1035; his brother-in-law Ulf was regent of Denmark, but was executed after a row with Cnut in Roskilde in 1026 – Cnut’s penance to Ulf’s widow apparently paid for the city’s first stone church, possibly Sankt Jørgensberg (see below). A civil war broke out in 1157; the three claimants to the throne met to feast in Roskilde but Sweyn attacked the other two; Knud was killed but Valdemar escaped and then beat Sweyn in battle (if the scribe Saxo Grammaticus was telling the truth). From 1158 six successive bishops came from the royal family, five abbeys were founded, and the city grew in size, with Wendish (Slav) raiders perhaps beginning to settle peacefully by the fjord. From the fourteenth century Copenhagen was more important, with Roskilde’s mint closing in 1356, and the Bishop of Roskilde being forced to give up revenues from Copenhagen in 1416. Copenhagen became the capital and royal residence in the fifteenth century, with its university founded in 1479, and the diocese moved from Roskilde in 1537.

 Denmark fought many wars with Sweden and lost many of them; perhaps the most humiliating defeat came in February 1658 when a Swedish army managed to cross the frozen sea to take the Danes by surprise and imposed the Treaty of Roskilde, whereby Denmark-Norway gave up a third of its territory. The city stagnated, suffering fires and plague outbreaks, until 1847 when the country’s first railway opened from Copenhagen to Roskilde; as further lines were built Roskilde became an important junction, and industrialisation followed from the 1870s. Actually, the museum’s most interesting exhibit from this period is the collection of winners’ discs from the Popinjay (parrot) Shooting Company’s competitions.

 From the hilltop cathedral area, a path leads down to a park and the harbour, now dominated by pleasure boats, as well as a floating havnebad, as in Odense, and the replica longboats of the Viking Ships Museum. The museum itself is just to the east, housing the bare remains of five ships that were sunk around 1065 to form a defensive barrier across the fjord about twenty kilometres north of Roskilde. The story of how they were recovered and preserved is fascinating, but they also have a brilliant programme of building replicas of all kinds of vessels – with a museum ticket you can watch the craftsmen up close and ask questions, but even without a ticket (and when the museum is closed) you can see the boats and feel the buzz of the work under way. Not to mention the buzz of their café-restaurant (see below). Ship no.2 was an ocean-going longship that was built near Dublin in 1042, using oak wood that was felled near the ancient monastery of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains; a replica named Sea Stallion was sailed from Roskilde to Dublin via Orkney in 2007, returning via the English Channel.

Replica longship, with the museum in the background

 To the west of the harbour is the Sankt Jørgensberg quarter, with an attractive church dating from around 1035 and some very attractive thatched cottages; it’s been well traffic-calmed, so is delightful to wander around, but it doesn’t seem to be much mentioned.

 There’s another regeneration area south of the station, where a former cement factory is now the Musicon creative quarter, and home to the Ragnarock museum of pop, rock and youth culture, opened in 2016; this takes inspiration in part from the famous Roskilde Festival, founded back in 1971 and still one of the largest in northern Europe. Naturally there’s a microbrewery here, Musicon Mikrobryggeri, which brews a full range of IPAs, sours, stouts, wheatbeers and so on; but I was impressed by a couple of eating places down by the harbour (where there’s an excellent modern hostel too) – Snekken is an excellent Italian restaurant, but the Viking Ship Museum’s Café Knarr is more interesting. It offers New Nordic Viking Food, so without New World vegetables such as potatoes and tomatoes but using pearl barley and flatbread instead, along with flavourings such as angelica and sea buckthorn. It doesn’t open in the evenings, except for special bookings, so you’re looking at lunchtime specials and sandwiches, salads, cakes and drinks, including organic beers.

 I finished by cycling to Copenhagen – the cities are linked by an excellent and dead straight off-road cycleway, and it takes just a couple of hours, but it’s not signposted as a through route and few people seem to make the journey by bike. It was obvious that Amsterdam cyclists were happy to pop over to Haarlem (a similar distance, which I also cycled) on a Sunday, but alas, that doesn’t seem to happen here.