Copenhagen’s cool credentials are known around the world, but Denmark’s second city has so far kept just under the radar. This won’t last for long, though – people are starting to cotton on that Århus (or Aarhus) is a compact, accessible city (not to mention a young, happy and well-fed one) with more than enough Scandi cool and culture to charm your thermal socks off. Here’s what you need to know for a weekend in Århus, the “city of smiles”.

What’s the arts and culture scene like?

The EU have named Århus a European Capital of Culture for 2017, and the theme will be “Let’s Rethink”, reflecting the sense of creative liberation which already runs through the city.

Among Århus’s world-renowned museums are Den Gamle By (“The Old Town”), a living museum exploring Denmark’s past, and ARoS, a cutting-edge art gallery (with a particularly excellent food hall) topped by a ring of coloured glass you can walk around to view the city in a rainbow panorama.

Aarhus art gallery rainbow panorama, Denmarkmulti colored by Jenny Han on Flickr (cc license

The whole city balances the old and the new in a clever but also playful way, typified by the Moesgård museum. Here you can view exhibitions on Viking history and human evolution in an arresting modernist building, designed both to evoke the layers of an archeological dig and (with its sloping, grass-covered roof) to be a great place to have a picnic in summer or go sledging in winter.

What about festivals and markets?

There are innumerable ways to get involved in Danish culture in Århus, with event spaces like Godsbanen hosting markets – try to catch the excellent Finderskeepers when it’s in town – and venues all around the city holding art, music and film events year-round.

If you’re in the city in summer you shouldn’t miss the long-running Aarhus Festuge, one of the biggest cultural events in Scandinavia (which also includes an excellent food festival), while in winter you can enjoy a Christmas festival and a slew of Christmas markets.

Market in Aarhus, DenmarkShopping, and shopping again by Brian on Flickr (cc license)

I hear it’s great for architecture and design, what’s coming up?

As well as its charming old docks, Latin Quarter and other picturesque historic districts, Århus holds its own in terms of modern Scandinavian architecture. And it’s not only the city’s public buildings which innovate, but also its residential ones.

In preparation for 2017 the city is undertaking a major harbour redevelopment, and thankfully this is no bland urban renewal. What’s done of the Aarhus Ø (“Aarhus East”) project so far is bold and brilliant, especially the apartment complex Isbjerget (“Iceberg”).

As in any self-respecting Danish city, you’ll see almost as many bikes as cars, and during the summer months you can get in on the action for a spontaneous architectural tour. Hop on one of the free (yes, actually free!) city bikes and pedal your way from the university around the historic centre and on to the waterfront (and Moesgård, if you’re feeling active).

In the winter it may be wiser to explore the city’s interiors than its exteriors, preferably by sipping hot chocolate in a steamy-windowed café; if you want to stretch yourself you could perhaps stop off at Jægergårdsgade or Strøget for some hygge-enhancing Danish homewares – before heading back somewhere cosy with a warm duvet.

Arhus harbour, Denmark

What should I eat and drink?

There are plenty of excellent cafés around town, such as the lovely (largely vegan and gluten-free) Café Gaya, which also holds live music and events. It’s worth seeing if any bakeries catch your eye, too; just a quick glance at the selection of sourdough, rye and cheesy pastries will convince you that there’s a lot more to Danish baking than… well, Danishes.

Any visitor to Denmark should try smørrebrød, literally “buttered bread”, which is basically bread (usually sourdough rye) served with a variety of toppings; think pickled herring, smoked salmon, cured meats, salad and sauces. It’s infinitely adaptable and surprisingly filling – and it’s not to be confused with smörgåsbord, by the way, unless you want to be given a very icy look.

Visitors should also explore the city’s impressive restaurant scene, which offers some intriguing modern twists on traditional Danish cuisine beyond smørrebrød.

Foodie Frederiksbjerg is the go-to district for all of these. You can put together your own smørrebrød using ingredients from the district’s markets and delis, then treat yourself to dinner at cutting-edge Hærværk (on Frederiks Allé) or warm, welcoming Nordisk Spisehus (on M. P. Bruuns Gade).

Nordisk Spisehus, Aarhus, Denmark

Here, the seasonal menus are themed around dishes from Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, alongside original, usually Nordic dishes. It’s the perfect place to discover the range and quality of food in Århus – and the delicate balance the city strikes, innovating without a hint of pretension or stuffiness.

What day trips can I take?

If you somehow exhaust the attractions of the city itself, you can head off into the rest of the Jutland peninsula. For winter walks and wildlife-spotting head to a national park such as unspoiled Thy (Denmark’s first national park) or rugged Mols Bjerge.

Also nearby is the Kattegat coast, dotted with windswept, white-sand beaches, just as appealing in winter storms as summer sun. You could experience a Scandinavian icon by catching a ferry out to the fjords, too.

deer jutlandlovely couple on a morning stroll by Michael Munk on Flickr (cc license)

As a pleasing contrast to Jutland’s glut of stunning scenery and highbrow culture, round off your trip by letting your inner child loose at Legoland in Billund – just another reason people in this part of the world are so happy.

There are frequent flights to Århus from London with Ryanair, and regular shuttle buses between Århus Airport (and Billund Airport) and Banegårdspladsen, by the central train station. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.