Sweden's Second-Largest City Is a Big, Sustainable Playground
Going green put Gothenburg on the map, while top sights, prime eats, and icy cold plunges add to the appeal.
It’s hard to get more nautically charming than a cluster of Swedish islands in the summer. Neat white houses with terracotta roofs line a pier bobbing with boats. The ceiling of a nearby seafood shack is strewn with fishing nets, buoys, and anchors. A sauna floats in the ocean just a few feet from the shore, swaying gently in the breeze. And a small red house sits on top of the highest cliff, almost like a lighthouse overlooking clean beaches.
The beaches are, in fact, almost unusually clean. And the reason for this becomes apparent quickly. Håkan Karlsten, the owner of nearby Kajkanten Hotel, has briefly disappeared from the group of kayakers he leads, but quickly emerges around a hump of rocky shoreline, the front of his kayak strapped with a pile of trash. "Sorry!" he calls out as his powerful strokes easily catch him up to his hotel guests, "I saw some litter over there." Later, on a trail circling the edge of the island, Karlsten scoops up a used juice bottle lying beneath a bench. Picking up small bits of trash is something he—and many people on the island of Vrångö—do on the regular.
It’s not just the ground that’s clean—the air quality is crisp and water looks ready to pour into a glass. That’s because this archipelago surrounds Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city. Ranked as the most sustainable destination on the planet by Global Destination Sustainability Index six times in a row, the west-coast city strives to be as green as possible and makes things easy for those who don’t want to rent a car. Tourists can easily take the scenic trams across the city (95% of which run on renewable energy), pedal down protected bike lanes using the city-wide bike-share system, and hop on a ferry to cruise around the islands. Some of the islands are also car-free, and hotel owners like Karlsten pick up guests and luggage from the ferry in golf carts.
In Gothenburg, you’ll also find initiatives working on developing energy from ocean waves, hotels powered by renewable energy, and many restaurants that go meatless during lunch time. Whether you stay on the surrounding islands or check out the center of Gothenburg, here’s what to do in the most sustainable city in the world.
How to get to Gothenburg
The best way to keep Gothenburg—and the rest of the world—as clean as possible would be to take the train. Luckily, if you happen to be visiting some of northern Europe’s better-known cities on a European tour, the train is also the cheapest option. Tickets start around $30 from Stockholm or about $50 from nearby Copenhagen or Oslo.
However, for those of us starting on the far side of the pond, at least one flight will be necessary. Luckily, Scandinavian Airlines launched a direct flight from New York to Gothenburg, meaning fewer carbon emissions than previous route options. Fun fact: Gothenburg was once called New Amsterdam and so was New York City, so in some confusing hypothetical mismash of history, it would’ve been like you’re flying from New Amsterdam to New Amsterdam.
Take to Gothenburg’s streets
Home to Volvo and with signs of its industrial history on display throughout the city, Gothenburg is relatively compact despite housing nearly 600,000 residents. It’s home to a thriving music and underground art scene, sprawling greenspaces, bustling shopping centers, historic sites, world-class museums, lauded restaurants, secluded lakesides, and pristine seaside beaches. And the best way to get on the city’s laid-back, welcoming wavelength is to simply walk around its neighborhoods, some of which are charming, cutting edge, or historical.
Start in Inom Vallgraven, which means "within the city wall" and is also known as Old Gothenburg. This neighborhood is surrounded by canals and is full of boutique shops, flower stalls, cafes, and pubs, particularly down trendy Magasinsgatan street. It’s in this oldest part of the city where you’ll find a 19th-century cathedral, a giant market full of food stalls, and the famous Fish Church seafood market, which will again open to business—and the occasional wedding—in autumn after a lengthy renovation.
You’ll also want to explore Haga. This pedestrian-friendly historic neighborhood is full of old-timey wooden buildings housing cozy cafes, bookstores, and shops. For vintage clothing, art galleries, and youthful bars, head to the student neighborhood of Vasastaden, known simply as Vasa. From there, walk over to Götaplatsen, which is the cultural center of the city, with a theater, art museum, library, and concert hall. Further afield, hop a tram to ultra-hip Majorna, considered Gothenburg’s answer to Brooklyn thanks to its wealth of restaurants, bars and boutiques.
For a taste of the city’s unique embrace of urban greenspaces, take a tram to Slottsskogen: Gothenburg’s answer to Central Park, the vast park right in the middle of the popular Linné neighborhood is home to old-growth hiking trails, sea views, and even a free zoo. It’s also the site of Way Out West, a hugely popular international music festival that takes over the city each August. Visit the nearby Botanical Garden, then head further west to the end of the line in Salthomen to see where the city meets the sea and explore rocky trails and hidden beaches.
Wherever you go, you’ll probably notice the hodgepodge of architecture from different eras— from Gothic churches to chic modernist homes—which is sort of by design. Every 100 years since 1621, the city of Gothenburg has celebrated its founding by constructing new buildings, so each century is quite literally set in stone (or concrete, glass, graphene, etc). Locals have a cheeky reputation for nicknaming some of the more unique-looking buildings, so be on the lookout for “The Lipstick” and “The Zipper,” which will rank as Scandinavia’s tallest skyscraper upon completion.
To see it all and hear the history along the way, take a Paddan sightseeing boat tour. These open-air boats cruise along the canals, across the Göta River, and into the North Sea, offering a lovely way to see the city from sea level. Just be ready for a few groaners: Gothenburg’s pun-intensive sense of humor has earned it the reputation of Europe’s dad-joke capital, and the Paddan guides lean heavily into schtick.
Dine on cured fish, coffee, briney pickles, and some more coffee
We’ll get to the cured salmon and bleak roe delicacies in a moment, but first, fika. Fika is more than cafe culture, it’s a coffee break that’s considered pretty much as necessary as lunch or bedtime. Swedes typically enjoy fika twice a day, usually around 11 am and 3 pm, where a cup of steamy energy is paired with a decadent baked good. Join in by heading to a cafe like Brogyllen or da Matteo, where blankets are thrown over wooden seats and the cardamom buns quickly fill up the ovens.
For lunch in an urban garden-like setting, Kafé Magasinet dishes out popular individual pizzas in a leafy, sun-soaked courtyard. Go classic with margaritas and prosciuttos or treat yourself with the whitefish roe pizza topped with crème fraîche.
To taste classic Swedish food with modern innovations, head to SK Mat & Människor. In addition to staples like arctic char and summer berries, you’ll find creative touches like fermented white asparagus, pureed nettles, or estragon oil. The minimalism and moody low-lighting of the interior is surprisingly homey, with an open kitchen to watch the chefs at work.
On the opposite end is Gurras, which is full of colorful wall murals, spices from all over the world, a few jokes on the menu, and quite a few tattoos. The concept here is elevated street food, so you’ll find dishes inspired by Korean, Mexican, or Hungarian cuisine. This is a place for sharing many plates, but don’t miss the deep fried langoustine or Sticky Karaage Chicken.
And at some point, you’ll want to track down Gothenburg’s most famous signature dishes. The iconic räkmacka puts Sweden’s signature pink prawns front and center: You’ll find the shrimp piled impossibly high on dense bread with hard-boiled egg, roe, dill and mayo at most cafes and restaurants. Meanwhile, the signature street/drinking food is the halv special, a hot dog served on a tiny bun piled with a hefty helping of mashed potatoes. Find it and the even-bigger hel special at kiosks throughout the city.
If you’re budget conscious, the “dagens lunch” special is Sweden’s great equalizer. Most every restaurant in the city—from mom & pop shops to fine-dining halls and seafood specialists—offer a “dish of the day” for under $20,including coffee and salad. Consider it a low-risk way to sample Scandinavian fare without overpaying in this famously pricey corner of the world.
Ferry to the surrounding islands
It’s a quintessential Gothenburg experience to go to at least one of the 20 or so islands in the surrounding archipelago. The northern islands (Hönö, Öckerö, Hälsö, Rörö, and others) are more populated and allow cars, so the real seaworthy adventure is going south. You can board the ferry right from the harbor in Old Gothenburg at the Stenpiren public-transit terminal. It takes about one hour and 35 minutes of scenic cruising to sail past the larger islands of Asperö, Brännö, Köpstadsö, Styrsö, and Donsö until you get to the last big isle of Vrångö.
About 60% of Vrångö is a nature reserve, so it’s the ideal island for basking in nature. While there, rent a kayak to circle the rocky shores or hunt out one of many beaches. There are about five or six large beaches and around 15 smaller strips of sand (all of which are public), and you won’t find any rip currents or tides in these calm waters. The southeastern side of Vrångö has less wind, or the west side has more of a breeze for those hot summer days. You could also hike the easy, five-mile path that circles the island, going past rock carvings dating back 1,000 years ago and a 3,000-year-old grave from the Bronze age.
You can get tickets for the ferry (including a tourist-friendly day ticket option) using the same card used to access the tram that runs through Gothenburg (many of which are old-timey, with a conductor’s uniform to match). And in case you were worried about fitting in your requisite coffee break, fika is also served on the ferry.
Where to stay in Gothenburg
Gothenburg is full of hotels, especially of the business convention variety, like what you’ll see at Gothia Towers, whose strategic location at a tram hub across the street from Liseberg—Scandinavia’s largest amusement park—make it an ideal home base.
To get more of a vacation feel, take the all-glass elevator past all the boardroom-filled floors until you get to the very top of the skyscraper, where you’ll find a separate “elevated” mini hotel called Upper House. The bedroom views up here make for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Upper House also has a jaw-dropping spa, where in addition to a sauna, steam room, cold-plunge buckets, and a hamam, you’ll find an outdoor, heated glass-floor pool that protrudes out the side of the building. There’s even a bee keeping operation on the roof, producing the hotel’s own skyscraper honey, which sometimes finds its way into cocktails at the Heaven23 restaurant—home to perhaps the best shrimp sandwich in the city.
If you want an excuse to stay the night on any of Gothenburg’s islands (which, of course, you do), Kajkanten Hotel on Vrångö is reason enough. Meaning “edge of the Pier,” Kajkanten sits on the water and offers several rooms in cozy cottages, equipped with their own kitchenettes. Spend time in the hotel’s floating sauna, heated by a wood-burning stove and equipped with a hot tub on the back, next to a ladder dipping down into the icy ocean for those brave enough to cold plunge like the Swedes do. Hotel owner Karlsten is a local whose family has been on the island for 500-600 years and are descendants of sea captains. Karlsten is also a historian, so take advantage of his depths of lore knowledge, including a story of a female pirate Johanna Hord, who ran an intricate ship hijacking operation and whose last name, appropriately, means “hard.”
The best time to visit Gothenburg
Sweden usually conjures images of bright summers and snowy winters. That’s only about half right. As a temperate coastal city, Gothenburg’s winters are less “winter wonderland” and more “endless rain and wind.” While it’s very nice to experience the iconic Christmas markets of Haga and Liseberg, the near-constant darkness and rain can really dampen the late autumn, winter, and early spring (the saunas help). Which is to say, the window to visit and truly experience what makes things special is short.
The Sweden you truly crave comes to life from around mid June to late August, when the sun takes center stage, the flower blooms explodes, and famously reserved Swedes’ moods turn gregarious with the introduction of sunshine, six-week vacations, and snapps. Time your trip for Midsommar—the country’s biggest holiday—to see the whole country in a celebratory mood. Or wait until the summer dies down in late August or September for a chance to explore the city and the archipelago with fewer tourists.