The old town is divided in two by the Stora Hamnkanalen, to the north of which is the harbour, where the impressive shipyards make for a dramatic backdrop. The streets south of the canal stretch down to Rosenlundskanalen and the excellent Stadsmuseum. Straddling the Stora Hamnkanalen is the stately main square, Gustav Adolfs torg, a good starting point for sightseeing around the old town; you can easily see the whole area in a day.
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Gustav Adolfs torg
Gustav Adolfs torg
At the centre of Gustav Adolfs torg, a copper statue of Gustav II Adolf points ostentatiously to the spot where he reputedly declared: “Here I will build my city.” This isn’t the original German-made statue of the city founder however: that one was kidnapped on its way to Sweden and, rather than pay the ransom demanded, the Gothenburgers commissioned a new one.
Lilla Bommen harbour
Lilla Bommen harbour
At the riverside Lilla Bommen harbour Gothenburg’s industrial decline is juxtaposed with its artistic regeneration to dramatic visual effect. To the west, beyond the harbour, redundant shipyard cranes loom across the sky, making a sombre background to the industrially themed bronze and pink-granite sculptures dotted along the waterfront.
Boats leave from Lilla Bommen for the popular excursion to the island fortress of Nya Älvsborg built in the seventeenth century to defend the harbour and the city; the surviving buildings have been turned into a museum and café. On the half-hour guided tours of the square tower, chapel and prison cells (included in the price of the boat trip) you’ll hear about violent confrontations with the Danes, and some of the methods used to keep prisoners from swimming away – check out the set of iron shackles weighing over 36kg.
North along the riverbank is Utkiken; designed by the Scottish architect Ralph Erskine (who also designed the Sydney Opera House) in the late 1980s, this 86m-high office building resembles a half-used red lipstick. Its top storey offers panoramic views of Gothenburg and the harbour, and there’s a café, too.
Walking west along the quay, it’s just a couple of minutes to Maritiman, the city’s engaging maritime museum, which comprises nineteen boats, including the 1915 lightship, Fladen, a submarine and a freighter which once sailed regularly from Gothenburg across the North Sea to the east coast of England, each giving a glimpse of how seamen lived and worked on board. The most impressive ship is a monstrous naval destroyer, Småland, which saw active service until 1979. There’s a rather good café on another of the ships, the ferry Dan Broström, with outdoor seating available on the upper deck.
The Stadsmuseum is Gothenburg’s biggest museum. It is located in the Ostindiska Huset, which housed the offices, goods store and auction house of the enormously influential Swedish East India Company. Envious of the major maritime nations, two Gothenburg-based industrialists, Colin Campbell and Niklas Sahlgren, set up the firm in the early eighteenth century. Granted the sole Swedish rights to trade with China in 1731, the company monopolized all Swedish trade with the Far East for over eighty years, on condition that the bounty – tea, silk, porcelain, spices and arrack (an East Indian schnapps used to make Swedish punch) – had to be sold and auctioned in Gothenburg. As a result, Chinese influence pervaded Gothenburg society, and wealthy financiers adorned their homes and gardens with Chinese motifs. By 1813, unrest caused by the French Revolution and competition from British and Dutch tea traders meant that profits slid, and the company lost its monopoly. The headquarters, however, remain an imposing reminder of the power and prestige the company – and Gothenburg – once had.
Elsewhere in the museum, other main exhibits focus on Gothenburg’s Viking past and include the impressive remains of the Äskekärr longboat, a trading vessel dating from around 900 which was found 30km up the Göta River from present-day Gothenburg. There’s also a breathtaking collection of medieval triptychs from churches across western Sweden, as well as a thorough account of the founding of Gothenburg in 1621 and its development through the centuries.