Of all the cities in southern Sweden, the grandest is the western port of Gothenburg. Designed by the Dutch in 1621, the country’s second largest city boasts splendid Neoclassical architecture, masses of sculpture-strewn parkland and a welcoming and relaxed spirit. The cityscape of broad avenues, elegant squares, trams and canals is not only one of the prettiest in Sweden, but also the backdrop to Scandinavia’s biggest seaport, making the city a truly cosmopolitan destination. There is a certain resentment on the west coast that Stockholm wins out in the national glory stakes, but Gothenburg’s easier-going atmosphere – and its closer proximity to western Europe – makes it first choice as a place to live for many Swedes. Talk to any Gothenburger and they will soon disparage the more frenetic lives of the “08-ers” – 08 being the telephone code for Stockholm.
At the heart of the city is the historic old town: this is the best place to start your sightseeing, although Gothenburg’s attractions are by no means restricted to this area. Tucked between the Göta River to the north and the zigzagging Rosenlundkanalen to the south, the old town’s tightly gridded streets are lined with impressive facades, interesting food markets and a couple of worthwhile museums, most notably the Stadsmuseum and, up by the harbour, the Maritiman, a repository of all things nautical. Just across the canal that skirts the southern edges of the old town is Trädgårdsföreningen park, in summer full of colourful flowers and picnicking city dwellers.
Heading further south into the modern centre, Avenyn is Gothenburg’s showcase boulevard, alive with flashy restaurants and bars. However, it’s the roads off Avenyn that are the area’s most interesting, with alternative-style café-bars and some of Gothenburg’s best museums, including the Konstmuseum (Art Museum) further south in Götaplatsen. For family entertainment day or night, the classic Liseberg Amusement Park, just to the southeast of the Avenyn district, has been a meeting place for Gothenburgers since the 1920s.
In Vasastan, a small district to the west of Avenyn, crammed with intricately decorated late nineteenth-century apartment buildings and peppered with appealing little cafés, you’ll find the Röhsska Museum of applied arts. Vasastan stretches west to Haga, the old working-class district, now a haven for the trendy and moneyed. Haga Nygatan, the main thoroughfare, leads on to Linnégatan, the arterial road through Linné. Fast establishing itself as the most vibrant part of the city, it’s home to the most interesting evening haunts, with new cafés, bars and restaurants opening up alongside long-established antique emporiums and sex shops. Further out, the rolling Slottskogsparken park holds the Naturhistoriska Museet (Natural History Museum), as well as being an alluringly pretty place to sunbathe.
Founded on its present site in the seventeenth century by Gustav II Adolf, Gothenburg was the Swedes’ fifth attempt to create a centre free from Danish influence. The Danes had enjoyed control of Sweden’s west coast since the Middle Ages, and extracted extortionate tolls from all vessels entering the country. Sweden’s medieval centre of trade had been 40km further up the Göta River than present-day Gothenburg, but to avoid the tolls it was moved to a site north of the present location. It wasn’t until Karl XI chose the island of Hisingen, today the site of the city’s northern suburbs, as the location for Sweden’s trading nucleus that the settlement was first called Gothenburg.
Over the ensuing centuries, the British, Dutch and German traders who settled here during left a rich architectural and cultural legacy. The city is graced with terraces of grand merchants’ houses featuring carved stone, stucco and painted tiles. The influence of the Orient was also strong, reflecting the all-important trade links between Sweden and the Far East, and is still visible in the chinoiserie detail on many buildings. This trade was monopolized for over eighty years during the nineteenth century by the hugely successful Swedish East India Company, whose Gothenburg auction house, selling exotic spices, teas and fine cloths, attracted merchants from all over the world.