Sweden’s swanky compact second city is a perfect weekend getaway. Easy to navigate on foot, Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish) has a cool laidback charm and a burgeoning food and arts scene. It’s impossible to get lost in the tiny old town, as it has the old industrial harbour to the north, and the Rosenlund Canal to the south. Wander the atmospheric streets of Vallgatan, Södra Larmgatan and especially Magasinggatan to browse the minimalist and high end design store Artilleriet, or über cool Nudie Jeans (they have a repair shop on site and will patch up your well-loved jeans for life). Drop into tiny Victoriapassagen for fantastic coffee at the original da Matteo, and then cross the pretty canal to the main boulevard Kungsportsavenyn, known as Avenyn. It’s here that you’ll find the majority of designer shops and chains, alongside expensive bars and restaurants.
At the very end of Avenyn, with Carl Milles’s 7m-high bronze Poseidon standing guard outside, is the Gothenburg Museum of Art, which has an amazing collection dating from the fifteenth century. Make a beeline for the sixth floor dedicated to Scandinavian art, where it’s all very form meets function with sculptures dotted about and walls packed with artworks by the likes of Edvard Munch, Ernst Josephson and Carl Larsson. The modern arts video-based pieces are hypnotising. If all this piques your interest in the Nordic Arts, check out the current exhibition “A Painted History”, a retrospective of nineteenth-century Swedish paintings.
When Gothenburg was founded in 1621, it was a heavily fortified town surrounded by a deep moat (today’s Rosenlund Canal). The population expanded beyond the city walls, which were all but demolished in the early nineteenth century, replaced by the parks and green spaces you see today. Supplies for a picnic can be bought at the Stora Saluhallen where more than forty stalls and shops jostle to sell cheese, meat, fruit and vegetables, or head to the wonderfully pungent Feskekôrka, or “Fish Church”, which, since 1874, has been filled to the rafters with every imaginable raw, smoked or cooked seafood.
Since 1902 electric trams – they roll out the antique ones for tourists in summer – have trundled out to the surrounding districts. Not to be missed is the once-working-class Haga, with its gorgeous cobbled streets and timber buildings. This is the place to buy huge cinnamon buns, browse vintage shops and soak up the café culture – not far from here, Andra Långgatan is where the hip young things flock in the evening for a drink or two. Back in the old town, right around the corner from Centralstation, stay in the brand new Hotel Pigalle, set in an eighteenth century building with belle-epoque designed rooms, each with an individual touch that might include a comfy window seat or double shower. On the rooftop, the chic restaurant-bar is a destination in itself.
Slow down in the West Coast archipelago
Thirteen inhabited islands form the southern part of Sweden’s West Coast archipelago; car-free and with a distinctly Scandinavian feel of light and wide open space, incredibly these blustery little islands were closed to non-Swedes until 1997 and are still relatively unknown to outsiders. Once home to tiny farming and fishing communities, wealthy Gothenburg residents have been visiting since the mid-nineteenth century and today the islands are scattered with picturesque holiday homes that are kept in the same family for generations.
It’s forty minutes by tram #11 (or #9 in summer) from Centralstation to Saltholmen, the pretty embarkation point for regular ferries to the offshore islands. The little café hidden in the trees is a great place to get information and maps and have a bite to eat.
Vrångö is a birdwatchers paradise and the most southerly and quiet of the islands. The unspoilt nature reserves to its north and south have little pathways and craggy coastal islets to explore and the beaches are perfect for lazing and swimming. The main village and its charming harbour is across the island from the ferry dock and an easy stroll; it’s here that you’ll find a small grocery store, a family run food stall selling freshly caught seafood and dinky fisherman huts selling various arts and crafts.
A quick trip on the ferry takes you to the larger island of Styrsö and its three old-fashioned hamlets. It’s a great place to explore on two wheels and if your hotel can’t loan you a bike, then head to Café Öbergska. If you get weary, stop at a quayside café or bar in Tangen or Bratten, or take a swim from a pier or sandy beach. For a wonderful view you can scramble up to Stora Rös or Svea Lund’s Trappor, viewpoints not far inland from the sophisticated but with a family-feel hotel, Pensionat Styrsö Skäret. Island life is about taking in the beautiful scenery and sea air, and slowing down.
SAS has flights to Gothenburg from London from £120 return. Book at flysas.co.uk. The Gothenburg City Card provides unlimited bus and tram travel within the city; ferry transport to the southern archipelago and free entry to all the city museums. Buy the card from the tourist offices on online (355kr for 24hr, 495kr for 48hr; 645kr for 72hr).
Explore more of Sweden with the Rough Guide to Sweden. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.