Having learnt that locals refer to Gothenburg as 'little London', it's surprising to discover how little the two cities have in common. Sure, Sweden’s westernmost city is home to a buzzing café culture, world-class restaurants and stunning green spaces, but – unlike England’s merry old capital – it’s also got a vintage rollercoaster, an awe-inspiring suburban archipelago and some of the freshest, finest seafood on Earth.
Still, at least the first half of the nickname is accurate – while Gothenburg is Sweden's second biggest city in terms of population, this former ship-building town is still only home to a meagre 550,000 people, with the tightly clustered cobbled streets and squares of the city centre most efficiently – and enjoyably – traversed on foot. But despite its diminutive size, Gothenburg boasts an enviable portfolio of urban distractions, with all the bars, bistros and boutiques you’d expect of the world’s more populous cities.
Best of all, though, is the fact that – like the city itself – a great deal of Gothenburg’s coolest hangouts have managed to remain under the radar. You know that brilliantly quirky secret café/furniture shop/takeaway stand you stumbled across in London/New York/Paris? Imagine a city stuffed with all of these and more, take away the vibe-squashing hordes of tourists and have-a-go hipsters and you’re some way to understanding the appeal of what could well be Europe’s most overlooked city break destination.
Parks and day trips in Gothenburg
As well as helping you get to grips with the city’s geography, taking a boat tour is a great way to see the city’s headline sights all at once. Starting from Kungsportsplatsen square on the main canal, the tours take place on the half-hour during the warmer months, and admission is free with the Gothenburg city card – an all-in-one pass that also grants admission to major museums and unlimited use of trams, buses and ferries. Available from tourist information points and most hotels, the cards cost £25 for 24 hours, £35 for 48 hours or £44 for 72 hours.
Though access isn’t included with the city pass, Gothenburg’s network of Styr & Ställ rental bikes are also well worth making use of. Three days’ access costs just 90p, with trips of half an hour or less free of charge. Better still, with side streets quiet and most major roads sporting dedicated cycle paths, getting around is simple and safe.
First on your two-wheeled tour should be Slottsskogen, a 338-acre park to the south where, alongside numerous makeshift barbecue parties and Wayfarer clad couples, you’ll find sports facilities, a small zoo and, every August, Way Out West festival, headlined this year by Blur, The Black Keys and Bon Iver.
The bikes will also take you out to Liseberg, a small-ish theme park in the south-west that’s home to four rollercoasters, including Balder – a ride that’s twice been named the best wooden-tracked ‘coaster in the world. Entrance to the park is covered by the city card, but once inside you’ll need to buy tickets for the individual attractions.
If you’ve the time to spare, an afternoon island-hopping around Gothenburg’s southern archipelago is also well worth doing. Starting from the centre of town, take the number 11 tram out to the port town of Salthomen at the very end of the line – a journey that takes around 20 minutes. From here, ferries stop at 11 different islands, which mainly serve as summer retreats for Gothenburgers seeking an even more chilled out vibe than that offered by the mainland. A leisurely walk through car-less, hilly Styrsö – all pastel-hued wooden houses and towering firs – will get the blood pumping, while the charming little inn on Brannö is best for those who prefer to take their lungfuls of fresh Scandinavian air with coffee and cake. Be sure to grab a ferry timetable before you board at Salthomen, though, else you could find yourself stranded.
Shopping in Gothenburg
While Gothenburg is home to Scandinavia’s biggest shopping mall – the massive Nordstan retail complex – its somewhat characterless hallways have nothing on the indie outlet-lined streets of the city centre. For fashion and homewares, head to Vallgatan where, among other Swedish brands, you’ll find the flagship outlet of Nudie Jeans, (Vallgatan 15, +46 3160 9360) a Gothenburg-born denim brand launched by former Levi’s designer Maria Erixon. Adjoining street Magasinsgatan, meanwhile, is best for vintage fashion, with Miss Ragtime (Magasinsgatan 15, +46 3177 40232) and Pop Boutique (Magasinsgatan 22, +46 3115 1555) turning generations-old cast-offs into chic, one-off pieces.
Those into second-hand goods should also check out Kommersen Loppmarknad, (Första Långgatan 27, +46 3182 8282) the city’s biggest flea market, located within a street art-covered warehouse at the west end of Första Långgatan. Stock can be hit-and-miss, with the market’s 100 or so tables holding everything from old VHS tapes and analogue cameras to costume jewellery and T-shirts, so arrive with an open mind and be prepared to dig for your treasure.
At the other end of the scale, uniquely Swedish department store NK, (Östra Hamngatan 42, +46 3171 01000) which has a sister store in Stockholm, is the go-to place for high fashion, luxury furnishings and cosmetics.
Bars and nightlife in Gothenburg
Thanks in part to the central university, Gothenburg is a young city and the majority of its bars are accordingly geared towards those who like their alcohol straight, simple and flourish free. Cocktail bars are fairly uncommon, then, with scene-savvy locals instead gravitating towards the scuzzy beer dens of Andra Långgatan – the hipsterific epicentre of the artsy Linné district, which is also home to numerous dubious-looking takeouts and sex shops. For an interesting pub crawl, try Cafe Publik, (Andra Långgatan 20, +46 3114 6520) The Rover (Andra Långgatan 12, +46 3177 50490) and bar-slash-record-shop Cafe Santo Dominigo (Andra Långgatan 4, +46 3118 8483) for great bar snacks, a huge beer selection and raucous live music sets, respectively.
Elsewhere, legendary Gothenburg gig venue Pustervik (Järntorgsgatan 12, +46 3136 83277) may have lost a touch of its grubby charm since its recent renovation, but upcoming visits from acts like Howler, Shearwater and Of Monsters and Men should soon have it back to its lightly soiled best. DJs orchestrate the young crowds on weeknights, playing everything from classic indie and punk to hip-hop, soul and psychedelia.
Food and restaurants in Gothenburg
Given the proximity of their city to the sea, it’s hardly surprising that Gothenburgers take their seafood seriously. So seriously, in fact, that in 1874 they built a fish market shaped like a place of worship. Located on the north side of the main canal, the heaving ice counters of Feskekôrka (literally ‘fish church’) still pull in the crowds, many of whom also stop by for a bite at on-site eatery Restaurant Gabriel (+46 3113 9051). Operated by a former oyster-shucking champion, the compact spot specialises in simple, fuss-free dishes where the fish is always the star – try the crispy fried plaice with mushrooms for a light but satisfying lunch.
While pescetarianism is the norm in Gothenburg, then, there’s plenty for fish-shunners to get their teeth into. For great vegetarian food, Hagabion (Linnégatan 21, +46 3142 8810) offers a short menu of meat and fish-free dishes including Thai red curry and a decadently creamy mushroom tortellini. The casual dining area may only be small, but there’s the choice of spilling over into either the roomy terrace out front, or upstairs into sister venue Kino – a noisy bar and two-screen cinema, where seats can be hard to come by of a weekend.
Another top lunch spot is Saluhall Briggen (Nordhemsgatan 28, +46 3143 3323) in Linné, which – until renovation work on the main food hall in Kungstorget is finished, at least – is the best place in town to pick up freshly baked bread, salads and meats. With coffee and pastry in the mix, it’s also a popular spot for fika – a uniquely Swedish gastronomic phenomenon which translates roughly as ‘meeting with friends for coffee, cinnamon rolls and a good old gossip’.
For more adventurous fika folk, there’s even a café dedicated to helping the city brush up on its language skills. Sprakcafeet (Esperantoplatsen 7, +46 3177 42150) runs a program of informal theme nights, where those looking to brush up on everything from French to Chinese can turn up and share a coffee with like-minded linguists. Attendees are obliged to spend at least Kr45 in the café, but that’s still a darn sight cheaper than formal tuition.
Galleries and museums in Gothenburg
Given that the city’s artsy vibe is more Banksy than Botticelli, it’s reassuring to discover that Gothenburg still has plenty of respect for the masters. Gothenburg Museum of Art (Götaplatsen, +46 3136 83500) alone is home to works by A-listers as mighty as Van Gogh, Monet and Munch, with a special exhibition examining the link between Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol running until August 12.
Despite the lack of English information panels, the centrally located Design Museum (Vasagatan 37-39, +46 3136 83150) is also worth visiting. Exhibits are arranged over three floors, with ancient Japanese and Chinese arts and crafts giving way to twentieth century Swedish homewares, iconic electronics and fashion. There’s also an impressive exhibit tracking the 200-year history of the city’s best-loved mode of transport, the bicycle.
But if you’re travelling in the company of those likely to turn their snotty noses up at the world’s most celebrated creatives, try the Universeum (Södra vägen 50, +46 3133 56414) – Scandinavia’s biggest science museum and nirvana for curious kids. As well as a huge aquarium and reptile zoo, hands-on exhibits include ‘pulse’ – which teaches science through sport – a rudimentary forensics lab and a floor dedicated to astronomy, which includes a replica space capsule and physical training equipment similar to that used by real astronauts.
Perfectly located by the central canal and within walking distance of all city centre attractions, Hotel Flora (Grönsakstorget 2, +46 3113 8616) is a small, family run operation with sack loads of boutiquey character. Rooms are bright and colourful, with plenty of creative flourishes and bespoke furnishings, some of which are designed by the owners. Rooms start at £115 per night, but it’s worth upgrading to the sprawling ‘Royal Swedish’ suite, which includes a personal Smeg fridge, a sound system and access to an outdoor terrace.
Norwegian flies direct to Gothenburg Landvetter from London Gatwick, with prices starting at £99 return.
For more information and your chance to win a week-long trip to Gothenburg, visit www.liveswedish.com