Your guide to Gothenburg: Why you should visit Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city
For most people thinking about travelling to Scandinavia, the images that come to mind are likely to involve Vikings, frozen northern vistas, rugged coastlines and the Aurora Borealis — with maybe the odd singing snowman or princess thrown in for fun.
But Scandinavia is not only about the region’s impressive natural wonders like the Northern Lights and the fjords. It’s not even all about snowmen and princesses — the region is also widely recognised for its incredibly modern and innovative capital cities, each of them more green, sustainable and highly advanced than the other.
Many visitors to Sweden, for instance, often end up spending the majority of their time taking in the endless blend of classical and modern beauty in Stockholm, from its ancient cathedral to its incredibly modern metro, from the gorgeous Old Town to the cutting-edge, Michelin-starred restaurants that proliferate like weeds.
But if you visit Sweden, it’s well worth the trip to get out of the capital and get yourself down to Gothenburg, Sweden for a few days. Located on the western coast of the country overlooking the Kattegat—the arm of the North Sea separating Denmark from Sweden—Gothenburg is a historic shipping centre that has figured heavily in the economic success of Sweden from its very earliest days.
Today, it’s home to a number of international corporations, a pair of world-class universities, a vibrant restaurant and bohemian cafe scene, a kicking nightlife and microbrewery culture, as well as a great music scene. Not to mention that the city is stunningly beautiful in its own right, both the man-made structures as well as the natural beauty of the surrounding area.
Nonetheless, Gothenburg is often treated like that distant second cousin you rarely see, despite it being Sweden’s second-largest city and the fifth-largest city in all of the Nordic countries. Is Gothenburg better than Stockholm? It kind of depends on what you’re after, although in truth, not many people would be likely to make that claim. There certainly isn’t any kind of real “Gothenburg vs. Stockholm,” Biggie vs. Tupac-style beef or anything like that going on.
Nonetheless, far from being a place to be passed by, Gothenburg is in fact a vibrant, unique and beautiful city in its own right, and well worth a trip.
Visiting Gothenburg: Overview
So where is Gothenburg, and how big is it? The city overlooks the western reaches of Sweden’s coast on the North Sea, the arm of the ocean called Kattegat, and the Gothenburg population is some 570,000 residents in the city proper, and 1 million in the metro area. Even getting there is pleasant, as Gothenburg to Stockholm and vice versa is a lovely trip across the heart of southern Sweden — you can zip over in about 3 hours if traveling by express train, or drive in about 4.5 hours.
Gothenburg Airport is serviced by several daily direct flights from London and numerous other European cities, clocking in at just under two hours from Heathrow and often ridiculously cheap depending on the season. A recent random search turned up London to Gothenburg return tickets that were less than £35 ($45) even on short notice. You can also fly to Gothenburg Airport from Stockholm direct in less than an hour.
Once you arrive in Gothenburg, you’ll find yourself in a delightful, easily walkable, historic city, home to top-ranked museums, generous green spaces and parks, a massive botanical garden, the famous hipster hood of Haga with its 19th-century cobblestone streets and endless coffee shops, and much more.
Gothenburg is a unique blend of the largest port in Scandinavia, modern Scandinavian architecture, historic city streets laid out in meticulous 17th-century planning style and a pair of world-class universities. And all of this is situated in a gorgeous setting along the Göta River where it opens up to the Kattegat.
With so much going on in such a compact space, there’s certainly no shortage of things to do in Gothenburg proper. That doesn’t even take into account the rugged beauty of the granite islands dotting the outer reaches of the Gothenburg archipelago where the city sits on the Göta River, including the car-free southern islands.
Add to that the fact that the city of Gothenburg boasts some of the cleanest air and streets of any Scandinavian metropolis—or any city in the world for that matter—due to its green and efficient tram system and all-electric bus fleet, and you’ll quickly see why savvy travellers make sure to include a trip to the Gothenburg region in their plans when they come to Sweden.
The question of how many days do you need to see Gothenburg is of course dependent on the rest of your travel plans, and what you like to see and do when you travel. But even with just a cursory glance, it quickly becomes clear that you’ll want to spend at least a few days in Gothenburg city proper, and perhaps that much time in the surrounding area as well. Here’s more on why visiting Gothenburg has something for everyone!
A social city by the seaside
Gothenburg is the biggest port in Sweden, and as such it has a long history of shipping and manufacturing. That is perhaps why there is such a strong working-class, unpretentious vibe here.
But make no mistake: Gothenburg does just fine for money. As a hub for international shipping, home to the Volvo corporation as well as pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and myriad other businesses in a well-to-do country like Sweden, Gothenburg is by no means economically deprived. And Gothenburg has the kinds of facilities and amenities upper-middle class tech and business people come to expect: you’ll find six Michelin-starred restaurants in Gothenburg — an impressive number anywhere, but especially in a smaller city like Gothenburg.
There is also a ton of culture in the form of world-class museums like the Museum of Gothenburg, a great art museum, a Volvo museum and an impressive maritime museum as well as high art with a never-ending supply of concerts, theatre and more.
But where Stockholm soars in sophistication, showing off its glittering and innovative architectural jewels as well as the wealth and cosmopolitan glamour that comes with being the capital city of one of the most progressive, ecological and socially-conscious nations in the world, Gothenburg by contrast is unafraid of coming off as a little more down-to-earth, exuding a more neighbourly vibe.
In fact, Gothenburg was recently voted the most sociable city in the world in a study that rated 39 cities on criteria like openness, how often people socialise, and their “propensity to party.” To visit Gothenburg is to say goodbye to the stereotype of the cold, aloof Scandinavian!
That social label highlights the youthfulness and vibrancy of Gothenburg. It’s home to a pair of world-class universities, a great cafe culture, awesome music scene, and a microbrewery culture that is quickly gaining the notice of beer fiends around the world. Gothenburg is also home to the Gothenburg Film Festival, the largest film festival in Scandinavia, and plays host to the Gothia Cup, the largest youth football tournament in the entire world.
The city’s friendliness and youthful vibe really come to the fore in the summertime when a seemingly endless run of concert festivals featuring all types of music roll in to town, allowing listeners soak up the stunning beauty of the city, the river and the coastline while enjoying the tunes, including an annual visit from the prestigious Way Out West Festival.
But Gothenburg wasn’t always such a success for Sweden — control of the city was for centuries a bone of contention among not only the Scandinavian nations, but also the English, Scottish and even the Dutch!
The history of Gothenburg
While Stockholm’s founding on the eastern coast of Sweden on the Baltic Sea offered the young nation’s traders easy access to cities and settlements in Germany, Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and Russia, their efforts to make an impact on markets to their west were hampered by geography. Much of the time they were also hindered by politics.
The need for westbound ships setting out from Stockholm to swing around the southern coast of Sweden and pass through the narrow Oresund between Copenhagen and Malmo before reaching the North Sea and beyond that, England, Scotland and other nations put a serious damper on the potential for trade for Swedish merchants — especially given the tumultuous state of international affairs.
Given the near-constant series of ongoing wars and shifting alliances among the trio of Scandinavian nations throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern era, ship captains and traders couldn’t always assume that they would be permitted to skirt the Danish coast so closely.
So establishing a port city further north on the western coast of Sweden was a project that got the continual attention of Sweden’s leaders throughout the nation’s history. Starting in the earliest part of the 1600s Swedish monarchs made valiant efforts to gain a foothold in what is now Gothenburg. In fact, the first church to be built in Gothenburg was completed in 1603, but it was destroyed shortly after in 1611 by invading Danish armies.
At the time of Gothenburg’s founding, the city was built on a small strip of land that was considered part of Sweden’s territory. But trapped as it was between land claimed by the Danes to the south and Norway to the north, it took several efforts to get a real live city up and running. The neighbouring powers were less than enthusiastic about a Swedish stronghold on the western coast overlooking Kattegat, the sea between Sweden and Denmark’s Jutland, and they hindered Sweden’s efforts at every turn.
At long last however, Gothenburg was officially and successfully founded in 1621 by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. But although the Swedish monarchy can claim to have created the city, from the very founding of Gothenburg it has been a truly international place. King Adolphus brought in Dutch engineers and planners to help design and build the city, as they had the expertise needed to create a city from the ground up on such swampy, marshy terrain.
The Dutch engineers, having built Amsterdam, Jakarta, and Manhattan on similar landscapes, knew how to drain the swamps and build canals in such a way that the structures would be protected and people would still be able to navigate the city streets efficiently.
But fast forward a few decades and suddenly descendants of those former hired-gun Dutch engineers were sitting on the city council and largely calling the shots for the nascent port, along with powerful English and German traders who were also involved in city planning.
Even with such an international make-up, during this period it was really the Dutch who came to the fore when it came to controlling the city. They were so powerful in fact that they managed to push through laws to run Gothenburg in alignment with Dutch town laws, and nearly succeeded in having Dutch declared the city’s official language in the first half of the 17th century.
However, the Swedes apparently didn’t mind biding their time, and by the mid 17th century the last Dutch city councilman had died off and the Swedes gained more control of the destiny of Gothenburg, although the Swedish still weren’t alone in wielding power over what was ostensibly their city.
That’s because a bloc of Scottish businessmen and traders was also heavily influential in the early work of carving out Gothenburg from the western marshes. The influence of one of them, William Chalmers, can still be seen today in the form of Gothenburg’s Chalmers University of Technology, which grew out of a bequest granted by Chalmers, the son of a Scottish immigrant.
The city of Gothenburg was also naturally of huge importance to the Swedish fishing industry, as it still is today. And Gothenburg also quickly became a player in other sectors as well. Starting in 1731, ships setting out from Gothenburg under the aegis of the Swedish India Tea Company traveled far and wide, including highly-successful trading expeditions as far as China and other Far East nations.
But fishing and trade aren’t the only things ships sailing from the harbour of Gothenburg engaged in over the centuries. As emigration to North America grew in Sweden and other countries, Gothenburg played a vital role in sending Swedes off to make their way in the wild new country on the other side of the Atlantic.
So successful were Gothenburg’s efforts to help emigres make the passage that there is to this day a town named after it, Gothenburg, Nebraska. To visit Gothenburg in that far-off U.S. state you’ll see that blond-haired, blue-eyed descendants of Swedish immigrants and their imported traditions and foods continue to dominate the social landscape to this day.
These days Gothenburg, Sweden is a modern industrial city, home to bustling manufacturing, fishing and shipping industries, and is still a vital cog in the overall economic health of Sweden and all of Scandinavia. But even with its impressive business and shipping bona fides, Gothenburg tourism nonetheless is also a vital link in the economic chain that makes the city so successful. That means that visiting Gothenburg is generally seen as a delightful, easy-to-manage affair that offers a ton of variety and exciting options for most people.
So where is Gothenburg?
The geography of the city is part and parcel of why it has been such a success and why it was so coveted for so many centuries. It’s unlikely that old King Adolphus could have seen this coming in the early 1600s, but the fact is that his placement of Gothenburg exactly where it is puts it just about halfway between the capitals of Oslo, Norway and Copenhagen, Denmark.
That strategic spot along with the access Gothenburg has to the Gota River, and from there to the Kattegat and the North Sea with the wide Atlantic and the rest of world waiting beyond has made Gothenburg an important player in the world of trade and business for centuries now.
That coastal location also gives Gothenburg weather a relatively mild aspect, especially for the Scandinavian part of the world. If you visit in summer, you’ll likely encounter weather in Gothenburg that is quite pleasant, with average summertime temperatures ranging from the high 60s into the low 70s (18.6 ºC – 21 ºC).
Although the summer months here have an average of around ten days of rain each, Gothenburg weather in summer can also get downright balmy, with record highs reaching into the low 90s in July and August (34.4 ºC). And even though the winters there are relatively mild for the region—average lows in the winter months dip into the mid 20s (-3 ºC)—the best time to visit Gothenburg is definitely from June through August, with the months of May and September also offering relatively mild weather in Gothenburg, though not quite as warm.
When visiting Gothenburg, you’ll find that the city is easily navigable on foot or by Gothenburg’s public transport, rated among the best in the world for a city its size. Walking along the broad, leafy avenues and canal-side streets, you’ll pass cafes and restaurants as well as international and Swedish artisanal shops, especially along the Avenyn, the city’s main boulevard. There you can shop for all manner of items, ranging from original Swedish designs at high-end stores to used clothing in thrift shops, to Swedish-designed home furnishings and housewares as well.
If shopping isn’t your bag, Gothenburg is also home to Liseberg, Scandinavia’s largest amusement park. They’ve got the Helix, the longest and fastest roller coaster in all of Scandinavia, as well as Balder, rated the best wooden roller coaster in the world.
The Port of Gothenburg is also vitally important, playing host to some 30 percent of the nation’s imports as well as a constant turnover of cruise ships. And as the waterfront is such a vital key to the history of Gothenburg, Gothenburg tourism follows right in its footsteps, with attractions like the Museum of Gothenburg featuring the recovered timbers of a 10th-century Viking longship, as well as the Deutsche Kirk, or German Church, founded in 1748.
And when you visit the older neighbourhoods of Gothenburg, the memory of those long-ago Dutch city planners is never far away. One big draw for visitors is to ply the waterways built into the structure of Gothenburg, with an endless variety of ferries and tour boats plying the waters throughout the municipality so you can see the canals up close before stopping off at waterside restaurants to enjoy the sunset and a beverage.
Dutch planning and the history of Gothenburg is also clearly on display when you visit Haga, one of the oldest parts of the city. Haga Nygata is a pedestrian-only street, lined with cobblestones and well-preserved houses in the traditional Gothenburg style, with first floors constructed of stone and upper floors crafted from wood. Haga is also home to an explosion of cafes, and the smell of strong, Swedish-style coffee permeates the air as you stroll through the compact neighbourhood. Here is also the best place to try a hagabullen, the massive traditional cinnamon bun that’s nearly the size of your head.
If you manage to kill off an entire hagabullen, you’ll definitely want to enjoy the Swedish tradition of fika or an extended, luxurious coffee break here while you digest. Once you recover from your hagabullen hangover, you’ll find that there are also a ton of shops of all kinds and varieties here, with chocolatiers offering their wares alongside marzipan and other sweet delicacies, traditional toy stores, specialty tea vendors, olive oil merchants, antiques, high fashion, used and vintage clothing and much more.
Once you’ve built up an appetite again, it’s time to remember that Sweden and Gothenburg are big on fish. But did you know they’re so into fish here that there is actually a church dedicated to fish? Okay, not exactly, but the Feskekôrkaor Fish Church is a fish market built in 1874 with a design that strongly resembles a house of worship — and which houses some of the best seafood on offer in the entire Scandinavian world.
But visiting Gothenburg isn’t just about the city. As you move further out to the coast you’ll notice right away that the regional geography is pretty typical of the coastal areas of the region, featuring stunning, Instagram-ready vistas at every turn. Gothenburg also offers a great many opportunities to have fun outside of the hustle and bustle of the city itself. The Gothenburg archipelagoon which the municipality was built is a rocky, barren area, marked by sharp cliffs and granite outcroppings offering spectacular visuals, especially as you approach the coast.
The entire region is peppered with charming fishing villages, and there are a variety of means to take you out to the islands in the archipelago, including by car, ferry or bus, all easily reachable in under an hour. The southern part of the archipelago is famously car-free, and here you can truly revel in the wildness of the Nordic coastal regions.
There are tons of great activities on offer, including not only visiting the little fishing villages that seem to spring up everywhere, but also taking part in deep sea fishing expeditions yourself, as well as joining in on boating excursions through the islands — there’s even a seal photo safari! You can also see some of the most pristine and remote beaches in this part of the world, enjoy peaceful hikes, or tool around on a bike for hours on end.
Whatever you do, if and when you visit Sweden, make sure you pencil in a good block of time to visit Gothenburg. While it may not hold the same international cachet as its better known neighbour Stockholm, Gothenburg is nonetheless a hugely popular draw for visitors, bringing in loads of tourists all year round.
From Gothenburg’s restaurants to the bar and club scene to the coffee culture of hipster Haga to the museums and waterfront—to the chummy bohemian neighborliness of the town as a whole—Gothenburg is a must-see destination that should be on every traveler’s short list!
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