Gothenburg is Big Five country. The suburbs of Sweden’s second-largest city are wilder than most: serpentine stretches of craggy coast and spits of pine-fringed land that fragment into thousands of islands and seal-populated rocky outcrops, where residents retreat to weekend cottages and sandy campgrounds. Here, where the water is pristine-clean and heart-stoppingly frigid, you’ll find the Nordic Big Five — langoustine, lobster, oyster, prawns and mussels — uniquely thriving in close proximity; superlative seafood much sought-after by restaurants from Stockholm to New York.
North of the city, I follow a stepping-stone trail of pink granite bluffs, one-house islands and windblown skerries along the Bohuslän coast — home to a string of fishing communities — which gradually gives way to wilderness and, after 100 miles, the border with Norway. At the tiny hamlet of Lyckorna, led by fisherman/guide Janne Bark, I join one of the west coast’s growing number of seafood safaris. We boat out onto mirror-bright waters to haul up a five-kilo bucket of farmed mussels, and I watch Janne cook them in a sterkel, a steel pan that looks incongruously Caribbean against the ferny grey-greens of the landscape. I’m back in the city in time for dinner (more seafood, less seaside), salt in my hair, sand on my shoes.
Set on the banks of the Göta River, Gothenburg is a city with a coastal sensibility. With its hulking docks, the defunct Volvo plant and Stena Line’s floating behemoths setting sail for Germany it’d be easy to imagine it as an industrial scar on the oh-so-scenic west coast. But this is actually an elegant place, its handsome layout of streets and canals closely resembling that of Jakarta (the Indonesian capital was also built by the Dutch in the 1600s). Broad boulevards are flanked by palatial 19th-century townhouses made from yellow ‘Gothenburg brick’; neat parkland carpets canal banks, and cobbled backstreets are lined by 17th-century wooden houses. And connecting this urban expanse is a fleet of cheery blue trams, which rattle tirelessly around town from dawn till the small hours.
So often defined by its subordinate relationship to the capital (‘Sweden’s second city’, ‘Stockholm’s little sister’), Gothenburg, in reality, has a strong identity of its own: edgier, artier and more fun than its stylish counterpart to the east. The sizeable student population makes for an arts scene that’s as anarchic as its nightlife is laid-back. Pop-up bar-galleries and micro-brew pubs are favoured over cocktail spots, and indie coffee shops rule. I find time for a fika (the quintessentially Swedish coffee/snack custom) before dinner, selecting from a menu of organic beans before my espresso is cold-pressed and served by a chap sporting a hipster-fisherman’s beard and a pair of locally made Nudie Jeans. Gothenburg: it’s west coast cool.
What to see
Klippan: Catch tram nine to Klippan, the dockside district once home to salting houses, foundries and Sweden’s largest Volvo plant, 10 minutes from downtown. Don’t miss Röda Sten, a vast Tate Modern-style contemporary arts centre set in a majestically rusting 1940s furnace station. rodasten.com
Saluhallen: Pop in for a fika at the 19th century Saluhallen food hall. Pick up a huge wheel of knäckebrot (traditional savoury crackers) at family-run Steinbrenner & Nyberg, and peruse stalls selling artisan cheeses, chocolates and more varieties of smoked/marinated fish than a Christmas smorgasbord. Stora Saluhallen 46. Kungstorget.
Haga: Wander the cobbled streets of Haga, lined with 17th-century redbrick and clapboard houses. Gothenburg’s oldest suburb is home to cool cafes, art studios and Café Husaren — the place to buy oversized Kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). cafehusaren.se
Röhsska Museum: The church-like Röhsska design museum is absolutely heaving with textiles, furniture, glass and porcelain dating from the 1700s to the present day. It’s not a place to dash through — there’s no English signage — but the gallery of 20th-century Swedish design alone, including a staggering collection of chairs, makes this slightly fusty museum well worth visiting. rohsska.se
Göteborgs Konstmuseum: Head straight for the sixth floor of this imposing neoclassical museum for the best of its impressive Nordic art collection, including works by the influential Tor Bjurström, a protege of Matisse whose own students went on to establish the pioneering Gothenburg Colourists school in the 1920s. The ground floor Hasselblad Center is also a must for its innovative photography exhibitions. konstmuseum.goteborg.se
Break for the beach: Gothenburg’s efficient transport system sends out a web of trams, buses and boats into the far reaches of the surrounding coast, making gloriously unpopulated archipelagos and sandy bays easily accessible. For a civilised day out, head to the car-free island of Marstrand, a royal bathing resort in the 1800s and home to exquisite wooden, whitewashed cottages, an impressive hilltop fort and gorgeous coastal walking trails. For an overnight stay, check into Marstrands Havshotell, home to a waterfront restaurant and spa. marstrands.se
Like a Local
Local insights: Stay with a Swedish household, with the chance to join in classic Swedish pursuits — fishing, boating, Kanelbullar baking and midsummer parties. meettheswedes.com
Viva Volvo: Immerse yourself in Gothenburg’s industrialist, ship building, car manufacturing past, with a superbly insightful guided tour in a vintage Volvo. timetravelgbg.se
Nudie Jeans: The landmark sustainable brand launched by former Levi’s designer Maria Erixon, complete with repair shop, offering free overhauls for weary denims. nudiejeans.com
Emma & Malena: A handpicked collection of Nordic labels, many lines sporting plenty of anchor and fish prints. A must buy: the classic thick cotton fiskarskjorta, a modern take on a traditional fishermen’s shirt. emmamalena.com
Floramor & Krukatös: This florist and interiors shop set in an old attic has a flower-filled cobbled courtyard that’s rich with the heady perfumes of hyacinths and artisan coffee from da Matteo next door — the place for a quick fika fix. floramorochkrukatos.se damatteo.se
Where to stay
£ STF Göteborg City: Rooms at this new, central hostel/hotel are small but the beds, showers and breakfasts are superb. If you’re not a member of Sweden’s hostel association, STF, there’s a SEK50 (£4) surcharge. svenskaturistforeningen.se
££ Hotel Flora: Next to the leafy banks of the Rosenlund Canal, most rooms are designed by Rasmus Larsson, mixing rock ’n’ roll, kitsch and sleek native aesthetics. Friendly, family run and home to a buzzing bar/cafe. hotelflora.se
£££ Clarion Hotel Post: Formerly a vast 1920s neo-classical post office. Set among gilded teller’s windows and long, elegant post halls, its sceney Norda Grill is the best place to enjoy modern west coast-cum-New York cuisine. Elsewhere, its 500 rooms feature dark wood and charcoal soft furnishings. clarionpost.se
Where to eat
££ Familjen: This buzzy brasserie serves inventive cocktails, superb house-baked breads, plenty of fish dishes plus a selection of locally reared meats. restaurangfamiljen.se
£££ Wasa Allé: Great for top modern Swedish dishes, with seasonal menus, organic wines and locally sourced produce. Veggie tasting menus are a unique evening treat, while pennies can be saved at the lunchtime food bar. wasaalle.se
Café Santo Domingo: Start your bar-hopping at this cafe-cum-record-shop and you’re likely to catch a loud live set from a local band. cafesantodomingo.se
3 Sma Rum: Expect the best beer from this beer hall’s wide menu of microbrews. 3smarum.se
Pustervik: Catch a gig by a big indie outfit at this live music theatre, or rock up for a late drink and absorb the post-show buzz. pustervik.nu
Dorsia: For something different, pop into this outlandish belle epoque hotel/bar, serving 1920s-style cocktails against a palate of velvets, silks, brocades and riotous floral camp. dorsia.se
There are direct flights from the UK to Gothenburg with Air France, British Airways and KLM from Heathrow, with Norwegian from Gatwick, Ryanair from Stansted, and KLM from Edinburgh.
Average flight time: 2h.
Gothenburg has two airports: Landvetter to the east, and Gothenburg City in the north. Most airlines use Landvetter; both have shuttle bus connections to the city’s central Nils Ericson Terminal. One-way from Landvetter costs SEK 99 (£9), SEK79 (£7) from Gothenburg City. Taxis cost around SEK400 (£35).
Gothenburg is a sprawl but most sights are central and accessible on foot. The city’s comprehensive tram network, however, is an essential part of the experience. Hop on and off at leisure with a Gothenburg City Card, allowing travel on trams, buses and ferries plus free entry to most museums. Well worth the SEK315/£27 (24hrs), or SEK795/£69 (five days).
When to go
Gothenburg doesn’t get snowbound like much of Sweden, although winters can be icy and rainy. April-October is the best time to visit, while summer temperatures are around 22C over long sunny days.
Need to know
Currency: Swedish Krona (SEK or Kr). £1 = 10.64 SEK.
International telephone code: 0046 031.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Sunvil offers five nights, staying at Hotel Vanilla in the centre and the Pensionat Styrsö Skäret, on the island of Styrsö, from £758 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, private transfers, B&B and a 48-hour Gothenburg City Pass.
Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)