“Come to my house, my mother will make a traditional Danish supper for you! I just have to call her first”. This generous invitation came from a young twenty-something lady we met on the train from Copenhagen to Aarhus. In the three-and-a-half-hour journey, we struck up a conversation, mostly talking about food. (Although she also admitted she once invited a total stranger to their house, who ended up staying with them for six months. Apparently this was something she did often.) My husband and I were hesitant to intrude on a family’s meal. But she insisted that we would be welcomed and fed heartily.
Alas, it was not to be, as the young lady was unable to contact her mother before the train reached our destination. (Or, perhaps her mother refused to feed more strangers, for fear that we, too would take up semi-permanent residence in her home). We did, however walk away with some restaurant recommendations. This included what she swore was one of the best bakeries in Aarhus.
As we came to learn, the bakery was actually on the premises of an open-air living history museum called Den Gamle By. This actually worked in our favour, since we were planning to visit it anyway.
Den Gamle By is Danish for The Old Town. A teacher and translator named Peter Holm founded the museum in 1909. It all started when the historic Mayor’s House in Aarhus was marked for demolition. Holm managed to have it dismantled and moved instead. Holm opened the Old Mayor’s House to the public in 1914 as the world’s first open-air museum. Over time, the collection of buildings began to grow. Now there are over 75 buildings on site, representing construction from as far back as 1550, all the way up to a 1970s low-rise apartment.
When you enter the park, you’ll visit the oldest part of the town first. Buildings here range from 1550 to the late 1800s. The half-timbered buildings and workshops have such a romantic, village vibe:
Here’s a close-up of some of the old-style construction. I love the carved wood cornice elements:
For the most part, Den Gamle By feels like you’re stepping back in time. But from some vantage points, we were reminded that the museum is right in the heart of Aarhus, as some modern buildings peeked out around the perimeter. It’s location makes growth and expansion a bit difficult. But with 75 buildings, there’s plenty enough to keep you busy for an afternoon.
The museum also offers a gentle, short-range boat ride. It’s a bit difficult to see in the photo, but the boat is attached to a sort of pulley system. You use it to guide the boat from point A to B.
The oldest section of the museum includes a real apothecary garden. There are almost 100 different plants here, which were used in various healing treatments. As you can see here, the plants are labeled with different coloured sticks. Wonder what the different colours indicate?
Luckily, the interpretive signs explain the colour-coded labels. Hopefully you read this sign before you try tasting any of the medicinal plants here:
Den Gamle By has the feel of a real working town-within-a-town. There’s a blacksmith, a watchmaker, a shoemaker, and a carpenter, as well as retail shops and houses to explore. If you’re lucky, you might even catch them on laundry day:
There’s also a modest midway with rides and games for the kids. The rides look pretty tame though:
Inside the chandler’s shop, you could see how melted tallow, or sheep’s fat, was used to make candles and soap. The museum uses a combination of live interpreters, mannequins, holograms and audio-visual equipment to bring the stories to life.
And of course, you needed a place to sell the final products. This was the Soap House, circa 1925. The interior is set up as it would have looked in 1927, when it was originally located in the town of Stoholm. (It was actually one in a chain of over 800 stores under the company name of Schous Saebehus. They sold laundry soap, cleaning products and personal fragrances.) The shop closed in the 1940s and was brought to Den Gamle By in 2007 for restoration.
The great feather in the Den Gamle By cap by far, is the recently acquired Mintmaster’s Mansion. For some reason, I didn’t photograph the exterior. I have no idea why. But it can be seen here.
The mansion was originally built in Copenhagen in 1683. Restoring this building has been the largest and most expensive the museum has undertaken so far. While the rooms themselves were relatively sparse (but full of visitors, making good photography nigh impossible), one element that stood out were the painted ceilings. Specifically, the paintings in the room known as the avian ceiling room. Unfortunately the original boards from the 1600s were in poor condition and couldn’t be salvaged. But the beams are original, and the paintings are exact copies, right down to the use of pigments:
After exploring all these shops and buildings, we made sure to stop in at the shop that came so highly recommended by the woman we met on the train. The bakery!
The cakes and pastries are made from traditional recipes. We picked up a few sweets, but I’ll admit, they didn’t even make it out of the museum gates. This pastry had a layer of raspberry jam in the middle!
They also had honninghjerter, or honey hearts. They’re similar to gingerbread, or pain d’epice. It’s made year round, but at Christmas they’re made into heart shapes with a picture of Santa or the name of a loved one drawn on top. (The cherub on top wasn’t edible, btw.)
Open air museums aren’t usually named as places to go for great food; but this one was. If you’re in Aarhus and want to experience some old-town charm, Den Gamle By is a great attraction on its own. But if you’re there anyway, you may as well swing by the bakery and pick up a few sweet treats for yourself!
You can now download this article at GPSmyCity here: Den Gamle By – A Glimpse of Old Town Aarhus