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 Rosenlundskanalen 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 on 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 Slottskogsparkenpark is 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.
Running all the way from Rosenlundskanalen southeast to Götaplatsen is the wide, cobbled length of Kungsportsavenyn. Known more simply as Avenyn, this “avenue” teems with life and is Gothenburg’s showiest thoroughfare. The ground floor of almost every grand old nineteenth-century home has been converted into a café, bar or restaurant, which the young and beautiful inhabit whilst sipping overpriced drinks and posing at tables that, from mid-spring to September, spill out onto the street. Avenyn is arguably one of the best places in the city for people-watching, and no visit to Gothenburg is complete without a stroll down it.
At the southern end of the avenue is Götaplatsen, modern Gothenburg's main square, centred on a vast statue of Poseidon and flanked to the east and west by the Stadsteatern (Theatre) and Konserthuset (Concert Hall) respectively, and to the south by the fascinating Konstmuseum, which contains a fine collection of international art from various periods.
Behind Poseidon stands Götaplatsen’s most impressive attraction, the superb Konstmuseum, its massive, symmetrical facade reminiscent of the fascist architecture of 1930s Germany. This is one of the city’s finest museums, and it’s easy to spend half a day absorbing the diverse and extensive collections, the highlights of which are picked out below. A delightful little park, Näckrosdammen, lies just behind the museum; with its late-spring rhododendrons and big, duck-filled pond, it’s a lovely place for a stroll.
On the ground floor, to the left of the ticket desk, the Hasselblad Center contains excellent exhibitions of contemporary photography. Displays are temporary and aim to showcase the work of internationally renowned photographers as well as those from up-and-coming Nordic artists.
The Konstmuseum’s collections of European art date from fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries and fill a total of six rooms. Pride of place is taken by Rembrandt’s Knight with Falcon, although Rubens is also well represented with works such as Adoration of the Magi on display. Elsewhere, you’ll find paintings by the celebrated masters of French Impressionism and artists closely linked to them: Monet, Gauguin, Renoir and Cézanne, for example. Look out, in particular, for Van Gogh’s Olive Grove, Saint Rémy from 1899 which is widely considered to be one of the artist’s most powerful works in terms of vitality and expression. Collections of Swedish art are dominated by Alexander Roslin who is represented by a portrait of French aristocrats and a group portrait of the well-to-do Grill family.
Best of all, and the main reason to visit, are the Fürstenberg Galleries on the top floor, which celebrate the work of some of Scandinavia’s most prolific and revered early twentieth-century artists; well-known works by Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn and Carl Wilhelmson reflect the seasons and landscapes of the Nordic countries, and evoke a vivid picture of Scandinavian life at that time. Paintings to look out for include Larsson’s Lilla Suzanne, which touchingly depicts the elated face of a baby and is one of his most realistic works; Anders Zorn’s Bathers, flushed with a pale pink summer glow and exemplifying the painter’s feeling for light and the human form; and the sensitive portraits by Ernst Josephson, most notably his full-length portrait of Carl Skånberg – easily mistaken for the young Winston Churchill. The Danish artist Peter Kroyer’s marvellous Hip Hip Hooray again plays with light, and a couple of works by Hugo Birger also deserve your attention. One depicts the interior of the original Fürstenberg Gallery, while his massive Scandinavian Artists’ Breakfast in Paris, dominating an entire wall, puts some faces to the artists’ names – a pamphlet in the room will help identify them. Also worth a look is an entire room of Larsson’s bright, fantastical wall-sized paintings.
The city’s oldest working-class suburb is Haga; once so run-down that demolition was on the cards, today it’s one of Gothenburg’s most enjoyable quarters. The transformation took place in the early 1980s, after someone saw potential in the web of artisans’ homes known as “governor’s houses”, distinctive early nineteenth-century buildings constructed with a stone ground floor and two wooden upper storeys.
Haga is now a miniature version of Greenwich Village, with well-off and socially aware 20- and 30-somethings hanging out in the style-conscious cafés and shops along its cobbled streets.
Haga is now a miniature version of Greenwich Village, with well-off and socially aware 20- and 30-somethings hanging out in the style-conscious cafés and shops along its cobbled streets.
There are a couple of good cafés along Haga's main thoroughfare, Haga Nygatan, which is really somewhere to come during the day, when there are tables out on the street and the atmosphere is friendly and villagey – if a little self-consciously fashionable. Apart from the boutiques, which sell things like Art Deco light fittings, calming crystals and nineteenth-century Swedish kitchenware, it’s worth noting the intervening apartment buildings; these red-brick edifices were originally almshouses funded by the Dickson family, the city’s British industrialist forefathers who played a big part in the success of the East India Company – Robert Dickson’s name is still emblazoned on the facades.
To the west of Haga, the cosmopolitan district of Linné is named after the botanist Carl von Linné, who created the system for classifying plants used the world over. To get here, turn south off Haga Nygatan into Landsvägsgatan, which joins up with Linnégatan – the main thoroughfare. In recent years, so many stylish cafés and restaurants have sprung up along the main drag that Linné is now considered Gothenburg’s “second Avenyn”, although without the attitude; the street is lined with Dutch-inspired nineteenth-century architecture, tall and elegant buildings interspersed with steep little side roads. However, it’s the main roads leading off Linnégatan, prosaically named First Long Street (Första Långgatan), Second Long Street (Andra) and so on up to Fourth (Fjärde), that give the area its real character; the not-very-long Second and Third streets contain a mix of dark antique stores, basement cafés and sex shops.
On the right as you head up Linnégatan away from Järntorget is the forbidding building at no. 9 (at the corner of Fjärde Långgatan and Linnégatan) where King Oskar II had his private royal apartment – and his women. Directly opposite is a modern apartment block that’s worth a second glance; it replaced a property whose republican owner so hated both the monarchy and the morals of the king that he had a run of colourful ceramic panels depicting the devil installed, facing the royal apartment. Sadly, the Gothenburg propensity for doing away with its own past meant the “devil building”, as it was known, has now been demolished, but two of the grotesque panels have been incorporated into the new apartment block.
Southeast of Avenyn is the Liseberg Amusement Park, alive both during the day and at night throughout the summer. In its shadow to the south is one of Gothenburg’s most engaging museums, Universeum, particularly fascinating for children, while the absorbing Världskulturmuséet is just next door.
Just a few minutes’ walk southeast from Götaplatsen, Liseberg Amusement Park is a riot of party lights and bubblegum-pink paintwork. Opened in 1923, this is Scandinavia’s largest amusement park, and with its flowers, trees, fountains and clusters of lights, it’s great fun for adults as well as children, and leagues away from the neon and plastic mini-cities that constitute so many theme parks around the world. The old and the young dance to live bands most evenings, and although the park is louder and more youth-dominated at night (especially on Saturdays), it’s all good-humoured. Pride of place at Liseberg goes to its two roller coasters: “Kanonen”, which reaches its top speed just two seconds after being fired bullet-like from its start point, before plummeting 24m at a ninety-degree angle; and the equally hair-raising Balder, a wooden construction that’s twice been voted the best of its kind in the world – travelling at up to 90km per hour, it includes a seventy-degree drop.
If you’re around between mid-November and late December, head for Liseberg's enjoyable Christmas market, where stalls selling handicrafts and presents are lit by around three million fairy lights. This being Sweden, the commercialism is remarkably low-key, and the pervasive smell of glögg (mulled wine), roasted almonds and freshly made waffles adds to the enjoyment. This is also a good place to sample the traditional Swedish julbord, a Christmas smorgasbord full of hams, cheeses and heavenly cakes (booking required for the julbord, t 031 40 02 00).
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 Stora Saluhallen. 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.
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.
On the western edge of Gustav Adolfs torg stands the Rådhuset, which isn’t a town hall as the name suggests, but has housed the criminal law courts since 1673. The dull Neoclassical facade is dramatically improved by an extension designed by the ground-breaking Functionalist architect Gunnar Asplund in 1937.
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.
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.
Following the zigzagging Rosenlundskanalen that marks the southern perimeter of old Gothenburg – a moat during the days when the city was fortified – makes for a fine twenty-minute stroll, past pretty waterside views and a number of interesting diversions.
The stretch along Stora Nygatan is the most scenic; to one side are Neoclassical buildings all stuccoed in cinnamon and cream, and to the other is the green expanse of Trädgårdsföreningen park.
Continuing west from Trädgårdsföreningen park, you’ll pass Kungsportsplatsen, in the centre of which stands a useful landmark, a sculpture known as the “Copper Mare” – though it’s immediately obvious if you look from beneath that this is no mare. A few minutes further on, and one block in from the canal at Kungstorget, stands Stora Saluhallen, a pretty, barrel-roofed indoor market built in the 1880s. Busy with shoppers perusing the forty-odd stalls and shops and full of atmosphere, it’s a great place to wander, as is the market outside.
Well-groomed Trädgårdsföreningen park contains a number of attractions, the most impressive of which is the 1878 Palmhuset (Palm House); designed as a copy of London’s Crystal Palace, and looking like a huge English conservatory, it contains a wealth of very un-Swedish plant life, including tropical, Mediterranean and Asian flowers.
Elsewhere in the park is the Rosarium, which, with nearly three thousand varieties of rose, provides a myriad of colours throughout the year; in summer it hosts lunchtime concerts and a special children’s theatre (details are available at the tourist office).
Just north of the main entrance to the park, across the canal, is Kungsportsplatsen, in the centre of which stands a useful landmark, a sculpture known as the “Copper Mare” – though it’s immediately obvious if you look from beneath that this is no mare.
Slottskogsparken is a huge, tranquil expanse of parkland with farm animals and birdlife, including pink flamingoes in summer. On its south side are the impressive Botaniska Trädgården, a vast glasshouse akin to London’s Kew Gardens, which, at almost two square kilometres, are the biggest in Europe. The gardens hold some sixteen thousand species of plants; highlights are some of Sweden’s biggest orchids, the summer flower plantations and the adjoining arboretum.
Having explored the city centre, don’t miss the opportunity to wander into the Vasastan district, where the streets are lined with fine nineteenth-century and National Romantic architecture, and the cafés are cheaper, more laidback and much more charismatic than those in the centre. The area also boasts Gothenburg’s collection of applied arts, the Röhsska Museum, and several fine university buildings.
Along Vasagatan, the main street through the district, and parallel Engelbrektsgatan to the south, you’ll come across solid, stately and rangy buildings that epitomize Gothenburg’s nineteenth-century commercial wealth and civic pride. White-stuccoed or red-and-cream brick facades are decorated with elaborate ceramic tiles, intricate stone-and-brick animal carvings, shiny metal cupolas and classical windows. With the detail spread gracefully across these six-storey terraces, the overall effect is of restrained grandeur. Many of the houses also have Continental-style wrought-iron balconies; it’s easy to imagine high-society gatherings spilling out into the night on warm summer evenings. In contrast, interspersed among all this nineteenth-century swagger are some perfect examples of early twentieth-century National Romantic architecture, with rough-hewn stone and Art Nouveau swirls in plaster and brickwork; look particularly at the low-numbered buildings along Engelbrektsgatan.
The excellent Röhsska Museum is Sweden’s main museum of design, fashion and applied arts and an aesthetic Aladdin’s cave, with each floor concentrating on different areas of decorative and functional art, from early-dynasty Chinese ceramics to European arts and crafts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most arresting is the first floor, which is devoted to twentieth-century decor and features all manner of recognizable designs for domestic furniture and appliances from the 1910s to the twenty-first century – enough to send anyone over the age of 10 on a giddy nostalgia trip.