The western Danish city of Aarhus — one of two European capitals of culture in 2017 — is using the year to reinvent itself, as well as tracing its roots.

Perhaps the most exciting way to arrive in Aarhus is by amphibious aircraft, landing in the bay. Waves splash around the small red and white plane as it bobs in the harbour, gateway to a young, creative city, intent on stepping out of the shadow of Copenhagen, Denmark's more hip capital.

"The world's smallest big city" is how the inhabitants of Aarhus affectionately describe their city. Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard says the year is "one of the most ambitious cultural projects of all time in Denmark".

In order to cope, the city of almost 320,000 people that is home to a university, a large container shipping port and a lively music and culture scene, has opted to co-operate with the surrounding region.

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Events under the theme "Let's Rethink" are scattered over 19 municipalities involving several hundred cultural institutions in the Central Denmark Region.

The people of Aarhus want to explore and build on their own history during the year as the city traces its history to an eighth-century Viking settlement.

Programmer Juliana Engberg says she would recommend visitors — both from other parts of Denmark and other countries — explore the city and its surroundings by bike.

"It is a great way to discover the country," Engberg says. "That's how people get around here. "

Suggested routes include riding from the west to the east coast of Jutland. Mayor Bundsgaard also wants to attract tourists — especially Germans — from their summer houses on the Danish west coast.

"You can experience both," he says, referring to the beach and the city. "The distances are not so long."

Along with numerous festivals, concerts and exhibitions, there are also smaller intimate moments for visitors, organisers have pledged.

Aarhus estimates that 5 million people will visit the region in 2017, boosting a rise in recent years.

Bundsgaard is aware that media attention also plays a role. "We hope to leave a lasting impression," he says.

"In Europe, but also elsewhere, there is a trend towards 'second' cities as more and more people visit the second-largest cities because they have already been in the main cities and want to experience something new," Bundsgaard says.

Engberg says Aarhus is a brand of its own and does not have to play second fiddle to the capital, which in 1996 was European capital of culture.

"The city feels quite different from Copenhagen," she says, a bit like Melbourne from where she hails. It has an atmosphere of "young charisma, this really pretty grassroots feeling".

- AAP