As the capital city of Denmark, Copenhagen laps up many international plaudits: the world’s greenest city, best city in the world for cyclists and most gay-friendly destination, to name just three.
But the country’s fourth largest city, Aalborg, 250 miles to the north west, has deservedly stolen some of the limelight in 2016 after being crowned as Europe’s happiest place to live by the European Commission.
The city, which beat 82 other cities to bag the accolade, is also the gateway to the island of North Jutland, a place renowned for its special quality of light, remote beauty and bigger quota of sunshine than the rest of Denmark. Here are just five reasons to go:
1 Wonders of the waterfront
Known as the ‘little big city’, Aalborg is perfect for exploring on foot, and bikes are a big thing here, too, with many of the city’s 220,000 residents using pedal power to get around on the specially raised cycle paths.
The Aalborgians are justifiably proud of the recently completed, impressive 10-year waterfront redevelopment. Overlooking the Limfjord - a sound created by the North Sea - the area has left behind its industrial past to become a place to take a lazy stroll or check out some culture.
One highlight is the Kuntz museum. If the dramatic, curved roofs of the gallery and exhibition space, the Utzon Center looks familiar, that’s because it’s the vision of Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect responsible for the iconic Sydney Opera House.
The Musikkens Hus (musikkenshus.dk) a major new concert venue, pictured, is a striking building, too, and do peek inside at the ultra-modern red and white auditorium, a nod to the colours of the Danish flag.
2 The Kunsten Museum of Modern Art
Designed by renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, the museum, which opened in 1972, demonstrates his extraordinary ability to harness the Nordic light to showcase around 1500 works of art.
The impressive collection, which encompasses the last 100 years,includes works by Danish symbolist painter Harald Slott-Møller and the so-called Cobra painters – artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam.
There’s also a sprinkling of stellar international artists in the mix, more than justifying the venue’s reputation as a world-class modern art museum. You’ll spot works by American pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, plus the visual musings of surrealists Max Ernst and Picasso. kunsten.dk/en
3 Where two seas meet
Hop on the train from Aalborg and be lilted through the gentle, wide open spaces of the Danish countryside towards Grenen, the sandbar that is continental Europe’s most northerly point.
Around 1.8 million visitors make the pilgrimage every year, to witness where the North and Baltic seas merge. Grenen is just north of the town of Skagen (pronounced ‘skain’) .
As you’d expect, where two vast bodies of waters clash, the atmosphere can get a little ‘elemental’ (read: hold tightly onto something when those powerful winds come ripping along the coastline). There’s also a giant bascular light (an early version of a lighthouse).
The medieval-looking wooden contraption’s days of warning fishing vessels to steer clear are way behind it, but it is still lit on mid-Summer’s night every year. Visit between 26 – 29 January during the Winter Festival and you’ll also see plucky Danes, known as the Isbryderne (icebreakers), diving into the chilly waves.
4 Skagen’s art scene
Another reason to make the trip to Skagen, apart from the sandbar, is its art scene: a thriving artist’s colony sprung up here in the late 19th century, spearheaded by husband and wife painters Michael and Anna Ancher.
The barren beauty of the sea and beaches and the precious ‘blue hour’ (the Danish version of the golden hour; the magical 60 minutes of suffused light after the sun goes down) were undoubtedly a huge magnet for the artists, though the less romantic truth is the fact that the models were cheaper to hire here than in other cities like Copenhagen.
Skagens Museum is home to some superb examples of art, including Michael Ancher’s The Drowned Fisherman, a moving depiction of the price humans often paid when faced with the sea’s unpredictable nature.
Today, the Port of Skagen is still Denmark’s biggest fishing port.
And if you’re lucky enough to stay in the charming Brondrums Hotel (broendums-hotel.uk pictured below), which began life as an artists’ B&B, ask to stay in room 116, where Danish socialite Karen Blixen penned part of her epic love story, Out of Africa – later made into an Oscar-winning film with Meryl Streep as Blixen.
5 Food, glorious food
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to great eating opportunities in Aalborg. Morton Kro (mortenskro.dk), on Mølleå 4, offers a modern take on the traditional Scandinavian open sandwich and delicious toppings include Norway Lobster Tail with Jerusalem artichoke, pineapple, purple basil and chips and Old Fashioned Mature Herring with blackcurrants and rum, soured cream, horseradish and capers. .
Or for a sense of occasion, hop onboard the Prinses Juliana, moored along the waterfront (prinsesjuliana.dk). Built as a Dutch school ship in 1931, it’s now an elegant floating restaurant offering a Danish/French fusion menu (and scallops to die for).
Beer tours are also a bit of a thing around the city, and you take a small Aalborg tasting glass around to micro-breweries offering beers, like the characterful Missing Bell brewery, housed in Soegaards Bryghus (soegaardsbryghus.dk).
The interior features original church fittings, although it can feel strange drinking beer in a pulpit!