Resting elegantly on the northern shore of Lake Vänern, KARLSTAD is named after King Karl IX, who granted the place its town charter in 1584. Since then, the town has been beset by several disasters: devastating fires ripped through the centre in 1616 and 1729, but it was in 1865, when fire broke out in a bakery on the corner of Östra Torggatan and Drottninggatan, that Karlstad suffered its worst calamity; virtually the entire town, including the cathedral, burned to the ground – of the 241 buildings that made up the town, only seven survived. Sweden had not experienced such a catastrophe in living memory, and a national emergency fund was immediately set up to help pay for reconstruction. Building began apace, with an emphasis on wide streets and large open squares to act as firebreaks. The result is an elegant and thoroughly likeable town that’s the perfect base from which to tour the surrounding country and lakeside.
It’s best to start your wanderings around Karlstad in the large and airy market square, Storatorget. The Neoclassical Rådhuset, on the square’s western side, was the object of much local admiration upon its completion in 1867, just two years after the great fire; local worthies were particularly pleased with the two stone Värmland eagles that adorn the building’s roof, no doubt hoping the birds would help ward off another devastating blaze.
In front of the Rådhuset, the rather austere Peace Monument, unveiled in 1955, commemorates the peaceful dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905, which was negotiated in the town; when translated, the inscription reads “feuds feed folk hatred, peace promotes people’s understanding”.
Housed on the ground floor of the elegant Residenset (provincial governor’s residence), the Sverige-Amerika Centret charts Swedish emigration to America in general, and in particular, that of the people of Värmland. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, one third of the province’s population left for a fresh start in the New World as a result of grinding poverty and poor prospects at home. In addition to the changing exhibitions, there’s a research centre with documentation on all those who made the journey.
Across Östra Torggatan from the main square, the Domkyrkan was consecrated in 1730, although only its arches and walls survived the flames of 1865. Its most interesting features are the altar, made from Gotland limestone with a cross of Orrefors crystal, and the font, also crystal.
Continuing east along Kungsgatan and over the narrow Pråmkanalen into Hagatorget square, the road swings left and changes its name to Nygatan ahead of the longest arched stone bridge in Sweden, Östra bron. Completed in 1811, this massive construction is made up of twelve arches and spans 168m across the eastern branch of the Klarälven River. It’s claimed the bridge’s builder, Anders Jacobsson, threw himself off the bridge and drowned, afraid his life’s achievement would collapse; his name is engraved on a memorial stone tablet in the centre of the bridge. On sunny days, the nearby wooded island of Gubbholmen, reached by crossing Östra bron and turning right, is a popular place for soaking up the rays and an ideal place for a picnic. Heading back towards town, turn right into Tage Erlandergatan from Östra bron, and carry on until you reach the old bathhouse, Gamla Badhuset, on Norra Strandgatan, which functioned as a spa and swimming baths until 1978; the building’s exterior is worth a quick glance for its impressive red stonework.
At the junction of Norra Strandgatan and Västra Torggatan is the bishop’s residence, Biskopsgården, dating from 1781 and, as such, one of the handful of buildings in Karlstad not destroyed in the great fire. A two-storey yellow wooden building with a mansard roof, it owes its survival to the massive elm trees on its south side which formed a natural firebreak, and to the sterling fire-fighting efforts of the bishop of the time, which gave rise to the local saying “the bishop swore and doused the flames whilst the governor wept and prayed”. The only other houses that survived are in the Almen district of town, next to the river at Älvgatan; though their facades are all nineteenth century, their oldest parts date from the century before.
From Biskopsgården, a two-minute stroll north along Västra Torggatan leads to Sandgrundsudden point and Värmlands Museum, a comprehensive account of the province’s life and times with engaging displays devoted to the discovery of iron during the 1500s which helped to secure Värmland’s economic lifeline for several centuries, particularly in the remote northern and eastern areas of the province. The museum also houses a sizeable collection of local art. Look out especially for Värmland artist Lars Lerin: his watercolour of the harbourside in the Faroese capital, Tórshavn, is particularly pleasing.
Originally based on the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm, Mariebergsskogen, 2km southwest of the centre, was established in 1920 when a number of old wooden buildings from across Värmland, including a smoking house, windmill and storehouse, were relocated here. Today, as well as the original open-air museum, the Lillskogen section (daily 9am–4pm; free) contains a children’s animal park with rabbits, cows, pigs and goats.
It’s the Naturum Värmland nature centre, built right on the water’s edge overlooking Mariebergsviken bay, that really makes a trip here worthwhile. The centre was designed to accentuate the closeness to nature: glass exterior walls offering cinemascope views out over the surrounding trees and the lake help create the impression that you really are out in the wilds. Aimed predominantly at children, it provides a fascinating insight into local flora and fauna as well as the different landscapes found in the province, from marshland to dense forest. For grown-ups, it’s the excellent and informative short film (in Swedish only) about the province’s wildlife that’s the real highlight.
The Karlstad region is renowned throughout Sweden for its relatively long hours of sunshine, something the locals make the most of during the summer months. The sandy beach by the campsites at Bomstad, 7km west of the city along the E18, extends for several kilometres and is known as the Värmland Riviera. It benefits from the sheltered waters of Kattfjorden, one of Vänern’s northern bays, and the shallow waters here heat up quickly during the long summer days, making swimming deliciously enjoyable. Adjoining to the east, Skutberget offers smooth rocks which gently slope down to the lake. There’s also an unofficial – though popular – nudist beach here, at the western end of the beach by First Camp Karlstad Skutberget.
Covering a whopping 5600 square kilometres (four times the size of Greater London), Lake Vänern (w vanerland.com) totally dominates the map of Sweden, stretching 140km in length from Trollhättan, northeast of Gothenburg, up to Karlstad. Travelling along the lake you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on the coast: the endless vistas of water and sky really do resemble those of the sea. Indeed, such is its size that the Swedish Met Office even produces a shipping forecast for the lake.
Vänern was created after the last Ice Age about ten thousand years ago. Very slowly, as the land began to rise following the retreat of the ice, islands formed in the extensive waters that once covered this part of southern Sweden; with further landrise, today’s familiar pattern of forest and lake gradually took shape. Consequently, Vänern – and neighbouring Vättern – contain several species of marine life left over from the Ice Age and not normally found in freshwater lakes.
Karlstad’s boat buses
Karlstad’s boat buses
Between June and August every summer, a flotilla of gleaming, wooden boat buses – båtbussar – ply the waters around Karlstad and make a great way of seeing the city. Though routes vary slightly from year to year, the most popular is the hour-long trip from Residenset, just west of Storatorget, via the Pråmkanalen and the harbour area, to Mariebergsskogen. Tickets cost just 23kr and can be bought on board. Timetables are at w karlstad.se.