So gloomy they named it goth? Not in the slightest. This town can certainly do black-eyeliner bleak with the best of them – anywhere with docklands can, and Gothenburg has got the largest port in Scandinavia. But Sweden’s second city is actually a ray of sunshine: friendly, funny, multicultural (23 percent of people living here weren't born in the country) and on the thrilling cusp of massive expansion.
Growing too is the tourist throng – in recent years, visitor numbers have increased annually by the hundreds of thousands. So what’s all the fuss about? Neil McQuillian went to find out.
Halt. Did you just arrive by plane? Then you’ve got it all wrong. Gothenburg’s heritage is as much about water as terra firma, so get out there and gaze upon the city from your vessel of choice. That’s how many a historical Gothenburger got here, after all.
You can kayak on the 17th-century moats and canals, doze along them on a sightseeing tour that also enters the harbour, or take a ferry up and down the Göta. Some ferry trips are free, which is a real city hack – the views are immense, especially at sunset, when the dying light plays on the port’s enormous structures, from the Lilla Bommen “Lipstick” building to the Älvsborg bridge and the harbour crane in Eriksberg.
For further nautical fun, also check out the Maritime Museum and Aquarium or Maritiman, the floating-ship museum.
If you’re a stickler for the “eat local” mantra, then get ready to have a fishy on a little dishy, as the song goes. You can run the full gamut in Gothenburg, from cheap-as-chips to Michelin stars.
In the former camp, the Strömmingsluckan food stand does unbelievable fried mackerel with lingonberries and nutmeggy mash for a pittance. In the city’s Feskekôrka fish market – aka the “fish church” – you can pick up pre-prepared meals such as fish in white wine sauce with peas and potato – microwaved before your very eyes – for about €9. Abundant prawn salads go for the same price.
To really dive deep into the belly of the whale (and your pockets), head to Gothenburg’s most popular fish restaurant (the second favourite, Restaurang Gabriel, is in the Feskekôrka). Michelin-starred Sjömagasinet is set in a gorgeous old wooden building overlooking the river – your dinner might have swum by that morning.
Gothenburg has its fair share of grand 18th- and 19th-century merchants’ houses – testament to the city’s long and profitable legacy of trade – but one of the most appealing neighbourhoods, Haga, was developed for the city’s poorest residents. Associated with Gothenburg’s blue-collar workers, wood-and-brick construction takes precedence over stone, lending this corner of town a warm feel. The courtyards tucked here and there off the main drags are little treasure troves of good eating and drinking.
Just to the west, the four parallel Långgatan streets are still a little bit spit-and-sawdust in parts and good for a casual beer with the friendly locals. But even this area is getting gentrified – for full hipster points, take a tram out to the Majorna neighbourhood where venues such as Matería are still well off the tourist trail. While you’re out here you might as well nip over to cultural centre Röda Sten, tucked beneath Älvsborg bridge, where you can watch the maritime traffic as you’re being edified and watered.
More centrally (a 15-minute meander northeast from Haga), you’ll find Gothenburg’s design district. Here plenty of stores purvey the city’s cool, which is a little more laidback than Stockholm’s. One must-see is Designtorget, where the work of an individual designer is selected by a jury to be showcased for one month in the store. Designtorget sits opposite the Nudie Jeans repair shop, where you can have your local denim patched up for free.
Sweden is all about the fika – a tradition of taking a break with a coffee and a snack. While coffee runs in the country’s veins, it’s not very often of a high quality – usually you’ll get poor beans roasted darkly. But Gothenburg has latched onto the craft coffee scene with relish.
The Magasingatan branch of Da Matteo, a rickety factory of a coffee shop with a cute yard, looks and drinks the part. Their sourdough cinnamon buns are stacked warm in racks, but also keep an eye out for the cardamom version.
If you’re really feeling greedy, though, buy your bun in Haga, which is renowned for purveying pizza-sized kanelbullar – none of this lagom nonsense along here (lagom being the Swedish concept of “not too much, not too little”).
Gothenburg is bracing. In the refreshing sense, for one: it’s built at the waterfront, lashed by sea spray and the influence of fresh-off-the-boat newcomers. But it is bracing in another way too: for change. Enormous change.
The city’s population has long been growing and is set to explode – currently there are around 500,000 residents but that figure should increase by around 30 percent come 2035. To meet the demand, there are some mightily ambitious development projects in the offing.
It’s not often a European city gets the full bulldozer-and-masterplan treatment like this, so if you’ve even the slightest ounce of “urban development geek” in you, it’s worth heading over to the Älvrummet information centre on Kanaltorget (next to Göteborg Opera), where there’s a scale model of the city with all the forthcoming developments mapped.
One tourist-friendly new development is Jubileumsparken, across the river from the centre in Hisingen, which has an artificial beach and a bizarre, industrial-chic sauna.
Gothenburg practically spits you out. Whether it’s a day-trip you’re after or more of a weekend away, there are few cities better placed for, well, leaving. The public transport system funnels you towards the beautiful car-free islands of the southern archipelago, where you can join other escapee Gothenburgers living the good, good outdoor life.
With more time and a rental car on your hands (though doing it by public transport is possible), you might delve deeper into west Sweden and explore the Bohuslän coast. Here, you can experience the semi-aquatic existence beloved of any self-respecting “summer Swede”. Delights await, from gorgeous waterfront design hotels such as Slipens and Gullmarsstrand to tranquil, big-sky kayaking and impossibly cute boat tours to gather mussels and oysters.
Discover more of Gothenburg with The Rough Guide to Sweden. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
Neil visited Gothenburg courtesy of bmi regional, West Sweden and Gothenburg city.
Tram on a street of Gothenburg in Sweden © Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock