Think Sweden, and most people think of Stockholm. But as those in the know will tell you, the hipper side of the Nordic nation is actually to be found in the West.
Once a nondescript port city, Gothenburg has undergone a creative resurgence in recent years. Nowadays it’s home to exciting bands, cool dance clubs, chic vinyl stores, indie hangouts, cool coffee shops, cutting-edge interior design stores, and more.
In short, Sweden’s second city fizzles with the kind of buzz you’d expect from a bigger metropolis, yet retains the feel of a laid-back small town, with its cobbled streets, 19th-century wooden houses and uncomplicated, happy atmosphere.
The centre of Gothenburg is so compact that you can easily walk everywhere you need. If you’re in a hurry, there are always the regular, efficient and wonderfully rickety trams, which offer a great view of the bustling city streets.
And the people who live here are not just friendly and approachable, but speak fluent, perfectly accented English: so much so you’ll sometimes assume they’re actually from the UK.
You’ll find good coffee, healthy, organic food and craft beer at every corner. There is urban art and there are amazing parks. And it’s all just a short drive or train journey to numerous attractions in the region, most notably West Sweden’s stunning lakes and coastline.
We’re not going lie to you. As everywhere in Scandinavia, things are quite pricey here, and the current value of the pound doesn’t help matters. But the friendly smiles, the clean streets and magnificent architecture, they all come for free...
Five great places to stay
If you’re looking for a high-end, designer hotel with spectacular views of the city and a Michelin-starred restaurant, then Upper House Mässans should definitely be on your radar.
Occupying floors 18 to 25 of one of the three Gothia Towers, opposite the Liseberg theme park, the glass elevator offers an amazing panorama of the city, and the rooms are beautifully styled. But the real highlight is the spa’s swimming pool, which juts out from the building and has a transparent floor... so swimming in it feels like you’re about to plummet to the streets below. A thrillingly unique experience.
More affordable, yet still cosmopolitan and stylish, is The Clarion Hotel Post. It’s set in a former post office that's been elegantly converted to a 500-room hotel but retains many of the features of the original building. It also benefits from a great location (next to the railway station) and a magnificent rooftop pool.
At the budget end of the scale, a good choice is Comfort Hotel Gothenburg. A short walk from the train station and right on the harbour, this cool hangout boasts a friendly atmosphere, free WiFi and given the low prices, the rooms and furniture are surprisingly stylish and attractive.
Outside of Gothenburg, the West Swedish countryside is littered with stunning hotels. But few of them are quite as impressive as Bjertorp Castle Hotel in Kvänum, the country’s youngest art nouveau castle. Designed in 1914 by the great architect Ferdinand Boberg, this Downton Abbey-esque location offers high ceilinged aristocratic charm, beautiful furnishings, and a quiet and peaceful retreat, nestled as it is in vast farmlands. It also boasts one of Sweden’s best restaurants.
If you want to travel back deeper into the past, you’ll want to visit Läckö Castle, a medieval castle and national monument on the shores of Vänern, the largest lake in Sweden. You can’t sleep in the castle itself, but you can stay at the adjoining Hotel Naturum Vänerskärgården Victoriahuset, which is just 350 yards away. Offering breathtaking views of the forest, castle or lake, the hotel has been built with natural materials that blend beautifully with its natural setting, adding up to a unique experience for the visitor that can be quite overwhelming.
If you’re looking to buy beautiful things, then Gothenburg is a great place to empty your wallet. With deep roots in the textile industry, the city is today known as a centre for fashion, interior design and product design. And that means it’s packed with the kind of natty little independent stores that offer an eclectic and inspiring browsing experience.
You can’t go shopping in Gothenburg without visiting Artilleriet, a truly local institution. This sumptuous store offers a blend of beautifully handcrafted kitchen products, utensils and unique everyday objects, designed to stay within families for generations.
Rum21, meanwhile, is filled with brightness, colour and a flurry of visual ideas that will have you bursting with creative energy. Here you’ll find an evolving range of chic furniture, lighting and objets d'art made by some of the world’s leading product designers.
For a more calming experience, head to Floramor och Krukatös, a unique garden-cum-interiors store that sells gorgeous ceramics from its own workshop, along with elegant plants and a range of carefully selected items for the home.
Another must-see retail experience is Engelska Tapetmagasinet, Sweden's largest webshop for wallpaper, fabrics and paint. If you think wallpaper doesn’t sound like a fun thing to browse, this shop’s expertly curated collection of exquisite designs will quickly disabuse you of that notion.
Offering a different type of shopping is Grandpa, which the founder describes as a “concept store without a concept”. This achingly hip store has a range of cool clothes, books and fun little objects for West Sweden's youngsters to drool over. It’s also committed to sustainability and environmentally friendly methods of production.
Five touristy things to do
Aside from just walking the streets, the easiest and most traditional way to see the picturesque sights of Gothenburg is via a Paddan sightseeing tour. These boats take you on a gentle journey through the city’s canals, and ducking to avoid the low bridges is all part of the fun. Why jostle with road traffic when you can enjoy the lapping of the waters and take things at a more leisurely pace?
Art lovers are well catered for in Gothenburg, with alternative galleries including Oro, Skup Palet, Röda Sten, Urban Artroom, Jarnhallen and Galleri Lugnet. They’re all great places to check out what’s exhibiting in advance of your trip, so you can prioritise the artists that interest you most.
For a more traditional art experience, you’ll want to head to The Museum of Art (Konstmuseet). Featuring the world’s foremost collection of Nordic painting from around 1900 onwards, the collection also contains older and modern Western art including works by the likes of Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Louise Nevelson.
If you have time to travel outside of Gothenburg, we’d urge you to visit to the Textile Fashion Center inBorås, about an hour's drive away. This is home to the quite brilliant Textile Museum, which takes you through the history of Sweden's textile industry and acts as a museum of textile design from the 20th century on.
In the same building, you’ll also find the Smart Textile Showroom, a cool exhibition of the latest ‘smart textile’ technologies: ie materials that have the ability to react to various stimuli and interact with the user. Could this be the future of fashion? Come and see for yourself. Oh, and while you’re in Boras, it would be remiss not to take a walking tour of its fabulous street art: book a tour or download a free map here.
West Sweden is also famous for its longstanding porcelain tradition. And the place to find about that is Rörstrand Museum, in what’s known as ‘Porcelain Town’, Lidköping. The impressive and well-presented collections here span almost three centuries, from 1726 to the present day.
Where to eat
Ask a Gothenburg local where to find some tastiest food and they’ll point you towards Saluhallen in Haga, Gothenburg’s historical district. Home to the city’s largest marketplace since the mid 19th century, this lively food hall bustles with dozens of different stalls selling locally produced meats, spices, and cheeses.
For a quite different culinary experience - although still based around locally grown food - try Atelier, a fine dining restaurant that strenuously avoids any hints of predictability. Instead, it has a constantly changing menu and a focus on seasonal ingredients. If they get our hands on something special, they might even create a dish that is served only once.
There’s more fine dining to be had at SK Mat & Människor, one of Gothenburg’s many Michelin starred restaurants. Although the food is high end, the owners have aimed to create a relaxed, cosy atmosphere that’s more like eating at home. So there’s no standing on ceremony here: just sit back and enjoy their legendary six-course meals.
For both these venues, you’ll need to have a full wallet, of course. If you’re on a budget, though, you’ll find cheap and tasty eats at Gourmetkorv, which is across from the university and specialises in Swedish-style fast food such as venison sausage and currywurst. In the medium range, we’d recommend Hello Monkey, a family run Asian fusion restaurant that has some great vegetarian options.
Where to drink
Gothenburg is a small city that can be easily explored by foot, so it’s a great place to go on a pub crawl. Most bars here offer Swedish beers, including local microbrews, and many hold "After Work" parties on Friday, where you’ll find cheaper drinks and free food. Note, though, that a lot of places don’t let in anyone under 22, and some you even need to be 25 to enter.
To hear some great music, it’s worth checking what’s on at Pustervik, a well known rock’n’roll spot with an on-site bar and restaurant. This is where most international bands perform when they visit Gothenburg, plus they also host a popular alt-country night called Woody West. Or there’s Nefertiti, a jazz club that also has techno nights that attract a range of international DJs.
If you just want a pint though, then you may prefer Publik, a local favourite where the food and beers is cheap and the crowd eclectic; or Kino, a popular venue with an outdoor terrace, affordable vegetarian food and hip clientele.
Also worth checking out are Kafé Magasinet, a backyard cafe/bar with a wonderfully laidback feel; and Boulebar, where locals enjoying sinking a beer while playing boules. Meanwhile, if craft beer’s important to you, then head to the well-stocked restaurant-cum-bar Olrepubliken, or Brewdog Göteborg, which is housed in a converted Chinese takeaway.