Capital of the county of Västmanland and Sweden’s sixth biggest city, VÄSTERÅS is an immediately likeable mix of old and new. Today, this lakeside conurbation, 100km west of Stockholm, carefully balances its dependence on ABB, the industrial technology giant, with a rich history dating back to Viking times. If you’re looking for a place that’s lively and cosmopolitan, yet retains cobbled squares, picturesque wooden houses and even a sixth-century royal burial mound, you won’t go far wrong here. Västerås also boasts some of Lake Mälaren’s best beaches, all a short ferry ride from the city centre.
From the train station, it’s a short stroll up Köpmangatan to the twin cobbled squares of Bondtorget and Storatorget. The slender lane from the southwestern corner of Bondtorget leads to the narrow Svartån river, which runs right through the centre of the city; the bridge over the river here (known as Apotekarbron) has great views of the old wooden cottages which nestle eave-to-eave along the riverside. Although it may not appear significant (the Svartån is actually much wider further upstream), the river was a decisive factor in making Västerås the headquarters of one of the world’s largest engineering companies, Asea-Brown-Boveri (ABB), which needed a ready source of water for production; if you arrived by train from Stockholm you’ll have passed its metallurgy and distribution centres on approaching the station.
In Storatorget look out for the striking sculpture of a string of cyclists, the Asea Stream, which is supposed to portray the original workers of ABB as they made their way to work; today the sculpture is also a reminder of the impressive fact that Västerås has over 300km of bicycle tracks and is a veritable haven for cyclists.
North of the two main squares, the brick Domkyrkan dates from the thirteenth century, although its two outer aisles are formed from a number of chapels built around the existing church during the following two centuries. The original tower was destroyed by fire, leaving Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (who also built the Kungliga Slottet in Stockholm) to design the current structure in 1693. The highly ornate gilded oak triptych above the altar was made in Antwerp, and depicts the suffering and resurrection of Christ. To the right of the altar lies the tomb of Erik XIV, who died an unceremonious death imprisoned in Örbyhus castle in 1577 after eating his favourite pea soup – little did he realize it was laced with arsenic. Local rumour has it that the king’s feet had to be cut off in order for his body to fit the coffin, which was built too small. Today though, his elegant, black-marble sarcophagus rests on a plinth of reddish sandstone from Öland.
Beyond the cathedral is the most charming district of Västerås, Kyrkbacken, a hilly area that stretches just a few hundred metres. Here, steep cobblestone alleys wind between well-preserved old wooden houses where artisans and the petit bourgeoisie lived in the eighteenth century. Thankfully, the area was saved from the great fire of 1714 – which destroyed much of Västerås – and the wholesale restructuring of the 1960s. At the top end of Djäknegatan, the main street of the district, look for a narrow alley called Brunnsgränd, along which is a house bearing the sign “Mästermansgården”: it was once the abode of the most hated and ostracized man in the district – the town executioner.
A quick walk past the restaurants and shops of Vasagatan in the city centre will bring you to Storagatan, and eventually to the eye-catching modern Stadshuset in Fiskatorget – the building is a far cry from the Dominican monastery which once stood on this spot. Although home to the city’s administration, the Stadshuset is best known for its 47 bells, the largest of which is known as “the Monk” and can be heard across the city at lunchtimes.
Västerås Konstmuseum and Länsmuseum
In new premises at Karlsgatan 2, the town’s compact art museum, the Västerås Konstmuseum, is rather disappointing. It’s worth a quick look for its contemporary collections of Swedish and other Nordic art – but don’t expect too much. Sharing the same building, the Länsmuseum unfortunately also lacks direction, containing a rag-tag collection of obscure items such as children’s dolls and old typewriters, plonked in glass cabinets; you’ll glean little about the province’s history from this load of junk.
The Anundshög burial mound
Whilst in Västerås, try not to miss nearby Anundshög, the largest royal burial mound in Sweden, just 6km northeast of the city. Dating from the sixth century, the mound – at 60m in diameter and 14m high – is said to be the resting place of King Bröt-Anund and his stash of gold. Although unexcavated, the mound is widely thought to contain the remains of a cremation burial and a stone cist. Anundshög was also used for sessions of the local ting, or Viking parliament, and several other smaller burial mounds nearby suggest that the site was an important Viking meeting place over several centuries. Beside the main mound lie a large number of standing stones arranged end-to-end in the shape of two ships measuring 53m and 50m in diameter. The nearby rune stone dates from around 1000 AD though it’s not thought to be connected to the burial mound. The stone’s inscription, when translated, reads “Folkvid erected all these stones for his son, Hedin, brother of Anund. Vred carved the runes.”