Göteborg: from industrial powerhouse to boho chic

Göteborg: the city with a friendly buzz
Göteborg: the city with a friendly buzz

We push the door to Göteborg’s humble cathedral, whose warm sandstone and pale brick façade cuts a slight silhouette against the summer sky. Near the choir, a singer and his pianist are rehearsing. His voice rises in the peaceful, modest interior and fills the cool off-white walls. We sit for a while, thieving a few musical moments of what he later tells us is from Dvorak’s Biblical Songs.

Today’s drive is much shorter than previous days, a mere 80km from Aalborg to Frederikshaven where we take a ferry across to Göteborg. It’s sunny, although not especially warm. We drive on roads lined with more lupins and daisies, aspens and willows. The countryside is gently undulating and, above our heads, white clouds are torn in long hair-thin strips.

Göteborg's modest cathedral
Göteborg’s modest cathedral

On board, half of the passengers stock up on booze while we stock up on marzipan. Four hours later we squeeze under the gigantic Älvsborg suspension bridge, which spans the Göta estuary, sail past huge barges and warehouses, and dock at Scandinavia’s largest port in the early afternoon.

The streets of Sweden’s second biggest town are surprisingly quiet. There are only a few other visitors ambling around the cathedral, which Dr K describes over dinner as “artistically cool but not frigid” (we end up, of all places, at a French bistro opposite the cathedral gardens).

Either side of the entrance, under the first-floor balcony, are two small installations by contemporary textile artists. One is a series of drawings of forest landscapes on acrylic sheets the size of a small paperback. The sheets are aligned in layers of three or four panels creating a three dimensional effect, like a stage set. The other is a collection of embroidered portraits no bigger than my hand, stitched on white canvas.

Göteborg cathedral: acrylic scenes by textile artist Linn Warme
Göteborg cathedral: acrylic scenes by textile artist Linn Warme

There’s a lot more action by the harbour, where the Volvo Ocean Race is drawing the crowds. After nine months of sailing around the globe, competitors are coming home and there are queues on the quayside to get on the shuttle ferry across the river Göta to the ‘race village’.

Göteborg marina
Göteborg marina

Volvo’s birthplace is just around the corner and the Swedish car-maker has brought out a fleet of its latest upmarket off-roader, available to test drive. The lads are so not interested in cars that there is no point even mentioning it; we walk on to the opera house, the original reason why we have trekked this far.

It’s a post-modernist building on the river, interesting enough but not especially striking despite some reviews to the contrary. Neither is a large round building with broad white and red stripes, towering over the harbour and which looks like a maritime authority building. It’s the Lilla Bowmen building, head office of Swedish construction company Skanska, designed by Ralph Erskine, the architect behind the Ark, in Hammersmith. It’s locally known as the lipstick building, owing to the top floors being at an oblique angle and painted red.

We walk back to the centre of town along one of the main avenues, Östra Hamngatan, past the Nordstan shopping centre – apparently Sweden’s biggest at the time it was built in the late 1960s – and down to Gustav Adolf square. On its south side is the last of four canals built by Dutch engineers in the 17th century. It’s an uneven collection of public buildings of different periods, shapes and styles. The one closest to the water is the town hall. Crossing the bridge over the canal we get a wonderful view of grand neo-classical buildings either side, with the spire of the Kristina church reflected in the water.

Göteborg's canal, with the Kristina church reflecting on the water
Göteborg’s canal, with the Kristina church reflecting on the water

By now the old town – which is not so old because most of the area was devastated by a succession of fires in the 18th and 19th centuries – is coming to life, especially the pedestrian area around Kungsports Platz. Cafés and restaurant terraces are teeming with an animated pre-weekend crowd. Shops are getting busy too. In this part of town it’s mostly well-known international brands and on-trend designer boutiques where you can find everything from clothes and modern artefacts to ribbons and party outfits. A young woman comes out of a flower shop with a bunch of peonies in a metal bucket and a small blackboard saying “Friday I’m in love”. We definitely are, with Göteborg, its friendly buzz and its relaxed atmosphere.

It’s not that the region has been without its problems, wonderfully chronicled by journalist Andrew Brown’s, who lived half an hour north of the city as a young man, in his book Fishing in Utopia. But today in the centre of town we see a welcoming regional capital, affluent without being ostentatious.

Göteborg's pedestrianised centre slowly coming to life
Göteborg’s pedestrianised centre slowly coming to life

It’s even more chilled-out in the hip district of Haga, Göteborg’s answer to Shoreditch but without the lingering edginess. We spend the next morning there. The main thoroughfares leading to it are lined with tall, impressive turn-of-the-century apartment blocks.

Haga's main street, Haga Nygatan: trendy boutiques and delis
Haga’s main street, Haga Nygatan: trendy boutiques and delis

Originally a working class area to the south of Sweden’s former industrial powerhouse, Haga is slowly being gentrified. Young men with studiously crafted beards and retro specs are cycling along the cobbled streets, and you can’t walk for cool delis and antique shops and boho craft stalls. The variety of buildings bears witness to the area’s mixed history. British and Dutch merchants started coming to the city in the early part of the 18th century after the Swedish India Company opened new trade routes with China. Some, like the Dicksons, funded housing for workers in this part of town.

The Robert Dickson tenement in Haga
The Robert Dickson tenement in Haga

Today, the old tenements have been scrubbed up and have a friendly commune air to them, especially on a sunny day like today, with their courtyards full of flowers in bloom.

Haga is also famous for its 19th century wooden houses. There are half a dozen streets of them, remarkably preserved, and oddly treeless. The ground floor is built of stone and only the upper floors are timber, as required by new regulations that came in after a fire swept through the area in 1802. The new rules were a pragmatic solution to a practical problem: the authorities wanted the city to be less vulnerable to fires but whole-stone houses would have sunk into Göteborg’s clay soil.

Haga: 19th century wooden houses
Haga: 19th century wooden houses

A bit further out is the city’s art museum, a stripped 1920s neo-classical building. It sits on a square at the end of a long avenue on a slight hill, with the concert hall on one side and the city theatre on the other. Its main attraction is the collection of Scandinavian paintings, mainly 19th to early 20th century. It’s mostly romantic and impressionist, landscapes and scenes of everyday life, many with a Nordic flavour including forests, animals and mythological themes.

Göteborg's stripped neo-classical art museum
Göteborg’s stripped neo-classical art museum

We loiter happily until lunch, which we have outside in the museum café, looking out towards the city centre. On the steps leading down to the fountain in the middle of the square a photo shoot is taking place in the shadow of Carl Milles’ Poseidon statue. Photographers are snapping away at a petite Japanese woman dressed like a Hello Kitty schoolgirl character. They are surrounded by a small group of excited lookalikes giggling and scuttling behind her. This could be the definitive sign that Göteborg has moved on from its industrial past and is now the latest in boho chic.

Göteborg: bicycle shop in trendy Haga
Göteborg: bicycle shop in trendy Haga

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