Taking the blue-eyed blonde into a sea of blue-eyed blondes — 30 hours in Gothenburg

I’m joking. As the stereotype goes, Sweden is waay more full of brunettes than blondes. However there were still plenty of men of a certain generation (circa my dad’s age) who entirely endorsed the chin-length dirty blonde hair over a gruff beard look. I saw a few Swedish walrus moustaches. There were many nipple-brushing grungy heavy metal beards in a variety of auburns and gingers, all displayed by guys wearing band tshirts. Upon expecting to be met with lookalikes of my husband (tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed), I was vastly disappointed. Even more so, I was sensationally let down that the city wasn’t full of these 6-foot tall, blonde-hair swishing, Barbie-figured gorgeous Swedish women that I’d heard so much about — quite annoyingly, I was still one of the tallest women there.

I just spent 30 hours in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. And I can say for sure that Swedish city people sure do a lot of sitting around in cafés drinking strong black coffees. It’s like Friends, but with more hair. Much more hair.

Aside from the persistent cold and threat of sideways rain, me and the blonde American had a wonderful — yet quick — wintery visit to the largest Scandinavian country. By surface, Sweden covers over 440,000 square kilometres (almost 60,000 more km² than the second biggest, Norway), and provides home to 9.9 million citizens. It sure is a country to make you feel small. In comparison, by square mile it is almost double the size of the UK, but has less than a fifth of its population.

As a citybreak, Gothenburg jumped out at me mainly, I’m not the slightest embarrassed to admit, because I could fly there for £19.99 return over a weekend (comparative to about £90 to get to and from Stockholm). Gothenburg’s appeal lay in its “second best” mindset — my dream of a quieter adventure as I’m visiting Sweden’s second largest rather than it’s capital city. Gothenburg however is still the fifth largest Nordic city by population, following Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Oslo. It is still definitively on the map — and as I’ve realised to my consternation, still full of American tourists (Americans sure love Scandinavia, don’t they?).

What Gothenburg could offer me in exchange for my modest payment to the UK’s cheapest airline was a city with a mix of new and old architecture, a trendy vibrant café and bar scene plus the ability to check out the beautiful Swedish coastline, including a spot of island-hopping by ferry. If one even wanted, you could hop by ferry over to northern Denmark.

I kept my schedule simple for the short time we had there — I usually spend my city breaks trawling from landmark to landmark, chasing down buses, taking down coffee like vodka shots, in a mad rush to fit everything in. Gothenburg we took easy. We had a day dedicated to several stops around the city and a day dedicated to islands. What I failed to realise is that winter time = deserted islands with no option to lounge about supping tea or sampling various pastries — rather, nothing is open. Our island visits were short, but sweet, because of this.

Case in point, Vrångö. Out of the Gothenburg archipelago, it is the most southern and most western populated island (if ‘populated’ is the right word). We disembarked the ferry and came face to face with a café that clearly has no interest in feeding people unless it’s July. There were, perhaps, four people on that ferry who got off with us laden with food shop bags, who head off in a determinate stroll toward a known destination — I marvelled and relished at the thought that people living on this island have to take a ferry to go and do their shopping. Other thoughts filled my brain — is there even an island doctor? What if your computer got a virus — is there an IT guy? What if you had a pregnant visitor and her water broke? What if there’s a fire? Living on this island you really would have to be pretty self sufficient by way of actually adulting and being able to stitch up wounds, attend to midwifery requirements or fix plumbing issues. 112 is a pretty useless number to you and you’d better make sure your pantry is stocked to the brim with food.

Aside from these few ‘civilians’, the rest of our group seemed to disperse at will and with little purpose. Ahead of us, a group of Asian youths brandishing selfie sticks (not stereotyping – this actually happened) immediately tried the café, attempting to open the door, and disappointingly walked off away before we reached them, following a path that ran parallel to the sea.

A few couples meandered right, heading towards who-knows-what. Did they even know? Were they just guessing?

We set off straight. Following other groups of people, wandering at will. Two by two, people stopped at a tourist information board several hundred feet down the road, before continuing onwards. We reached this board, realised all it displayed was a map of the whole archipelago, with little information as to what this island encompassed, and carried on. It was sunny with little wind down our street, as the little houses either side sheltered us. We went up the hill. Within minutes everyone had completely dispersed and it felt like we were the only two in the whole place. Houses looked empty and abandoned. Boats were all covered up. The weirdest thing to see was there were no cars anywhere. Most houses had driveways, but no cars sat in them.

It is a carless island.

But my question is: why build wide, paved driveways up to each house, if no car is required to sit on it? Why not build quaint little stone steps? Or a pathway lined with rockery features and garden gnomes? It bit at me, as we wandered past these perfect little houses with featureless driveways.

We reached the opposite side of the island on foot within 10 minutes. A barren and rocky terrain appeared as we reached the western-facing shore. Wet and slippery, neither of us wearing shoes appropriate for the slickness of the rock, we walked like drunkards to the water’s edge. The water was, of course, the same water we saw as we got off the ferry. But here, as the water’s edge was incredibly shallow, we could carefully walk right up to the lapping waves and marvel as they occasionally slapped at the rock, like a horse’s tail whipping at flies. To our right, set back a bit from the water, was a tiny little hut up a steep and rocky hill. There was no definitive footpath up towards it, but there were people up there. A couple, frolicking, taking photos of each other. I ducked my head against the wild wind and sought out the least-slippiest way to get up there.

The hut was a pilot lookout. Pilots guarded this island from 1600 but this hut was built in the 1800s. It was a pilot’s job to guide boats safely into the harbour, avoiding the many islands surrounding Gothenburg. They also assisted boats in distress. No matter the weather — freezing, snowing, raining, hailing. These pilots would go out into those cold waters and save lives. And boats.

In 1931, the pilot station on Vrångö closed down. It moved to another island. This station was used as a lookout post until 1961 which is when it became…nothing. Just how terribly sad is that?

I couldn’t resist peering inside before we had to leave to catch the ferry back to mainland. It was set up as though the guard had just gone off on a lunch break stroll. Mugs and tea cups still sat out. Newspapers and letters strewn about. Thin, pasty curtains were mostly drawn, barr a few centimetres, just enough to block out some of the blinding sunlight. Chair left untucked from a racketedy old desk, as if someone had only just got up to turn on the kettle. It was like a memory, frozen in time. A relic that probably should’ve been tidied up before being left for good, but was abandoned, forgotten about, and it is even the more beautiful for that. I couldn’t help but wonder who had the key.

The ferry took us back and, quickly, without warning, we were back at Saltholmen, the western outcrop where ferries to the southern islands depart. Jumping on tram 11, no more than a half an hour journey heading east, and we were back in Gothenburg central.

*****

Gothenburg as a city offers a variety of entertainment. A decent nightlife with noisy bars and clubs — in fact you could easily forget you were in blissful Sweden and mistake it for being somewhere like Glasgow — but if that’s not entirely your thing (as it’s not really mine, anymore, on a citybreak) there is an assortment of daytime things to appease your need for culture.

I had done a spot of research in advance of our trip, my standard planning via Instagram #hashtags, travel blogs and of course TripAdvisor (just to check for discrepancies), and kept our wanderings short, but sweet.

My Gothenburg at ease timetable brought us first to a giant greenhouse in the middle of a frosty, barely-green and sparse park. This strip of gardens, running straight through the city, separating north from south, is called Kungsparken ‘King’s Park’, leading into the Horticultural Society’s Trädgårdsföreningens. Whilst a relatively bland park in winter (I’m sure it is sprinkled with brightly coloured flowers in spring), the most striking feature of Trädgårdsföreningens has got to be Palmhuset — The Palm House.

Built in 1878, from the outside it looks like a massive conservatory. In the mist and cloudiness it appeared grey and wind-beaten and forgotten about, a cold structure made of glass and wrought iron. Inside, on the other hand, it has the largest display of exotic plants that I’ve seen. Palmhuset, within its 1,000 square metres, is mothering species from Peru, Bolivia, New Zealand, Taiwan, China and Mexico. There is a Mediterranean area, a tropical zone, and water-based, with a pool of fish and pondlife. It is incredibly warm inside — to cater to these exotic rarities — and I was quick to unload my coat that I’d needed for Gothenburg’s -1°c climate.

Palmhuset was built in Scotland, I was in awe to read. It was delivered in parts, by boat, across the sea. The Gothenburg Garden Society have done a fantastic job of keeping this place a plant lover’s dream. There are benches and picnicking tables dotted around. The Palmhuset is totally free to enter and it doesn’t even have a café to attempt to expel money from you. Instead, locals and tourists alike took their seats inside, some with friends or in a couple, some solo, and ate home-prepared lunches.

It was mid afternoon when we exited Palmhuset and we were both peckish. Heading south, the next stop was the Haga district. The oldest part of Gothenburg and possibly the best place to get pastries, Haga is easily a place you can wile away an afternoon sweeping over cobbled streets and photographing 19th century houses. Whilst relatively bare in winter, the streets were lined with little bohemian independent stores (I purchased a Moomins cookie cutter from one, for a bargain price of 45 SEK — circa £4). They of course sold souvenir gifts and trinkets but, stone me, were they lacking in tackiness and plastic. Souvenirs appeared to be handmade and made with care and love, rather than being mass-produced in China.

We stopped for a ‘fika‘ coffee break — at Café Husaren. Well known for their giant, sweet ‘kanelbulle‘ cinnamon buns. As big as a plate and enough sugar to fuel a child’s 10th birthday party for all his pals, we were absolutely gutted that they had sold out of whole ones when we arrived! Instead we settled on a quarter — and we were incredibly appreciative of this as we literally took the last chunk!

This café is not unknown — actually it is pretty famous for its buns. I recommend if you want to visit to get here early, buy a takeaway bun and wander up to Skansen Kronan to eat your picnic on a park bench. Why? Because a) it’s free, and b) you’ll have an awesome view over the city.

I missed out the traditional ‘best rooftop view of Gothenburg’ Google search during my research. Skansen Kronan appeared on my list purely because it is a stone fortress built in 1697, complete with hillside canons, and who the hell wouldn’t want to see that?! I knew it was a bit of a trek upwards on the hill from Haga, but was surprised at how far you could see across the city from the fortress. Views north over Haga and its wooden houses to the river and port, east over all of the residential area with its red and orange-topped buildings, and to the south, Slottsskogen, a wonderful 137 hectare park. We had the whole hill to ourselves barr one other couple — though I can imagine in summer this place is heaving.

*****

Food plays a big part in Gothenburg, and not just pastries. A place that kept popping up — literally — in every line of sight was the Feskekyrka (the fish church). We visited it as a matter of principle upon arriving, and after that the gorgeous little white building appeared everywhere we went in the city. There seemed to be no escaping it.

If you don’t like fish, skip past this section. Feskekyrka is a wonderful indoor (yes! godsend!) seafood market — with shellfish galore. Sweden is literally the bomb at freshwater fish. There are so many seafood restaurants, and what you’re eating on your plate is likely to have been caught that morning. Due to the closeness of the North Sea, you’ll probably never get fresher fish than this — it is wonderful and I wish we’d stayed for longer solely (no pun intended) to sample more of this wonderful food.

The building itself is super cool. Built in 1874, the architecture was based on stave churches in Norway — designed to have no pillars. Despite looking like a church, it has only ever been used to sell seafood. Originally, fish sales took place directly from boats. The stink from this was awful, and therefore the ‘fish church’ was commissioned to enable fishermen to sell their wares. There is a wonderful restaurant now inside — Restaurang Gabriel — but it is small and fills up quick so I recommend booking ahead!

A highlight of our trip has got to be our wonderful dining experience at Bord 27, despite an initial misunderstanding with regards our booking (here’s a tip — if you book and receive an email saying “Booking from Totale” — well, Totale is not the name of the booking system as I suspected, it is actually Bord 27’s sister restaurant that is a 15 minute walk away).

Bord was full but we weren’t keen on having to head back out in the cold to find this sister restaurant, especially since we were both starving. Wonderfully, despite at max. capacity, Bord offered us two seats at the bar to eat instead — and we gratefully obliged.

Sitting at the bar, alongside another couple, we not only had easy access to ordering wonderful cocktails a-plenty (the Old Fashioned is sublime) but we also had a personal 1-on-1 service from the owner/manager/barman (I don’t know who he was — he was serving drinks, but knew enough about the establishment that he could’ve easily been the owner). Thanks to his chat and helpful translations, we had easily one of the best dining experiences ever.

Bord 27 is a tiny little restaurant. It is a mix of fine dining and quirky bohemianism. A place for hipsters but equally my snobbish father would’ve happily eaten here.

The menu (offering just 5 starter options and 5 main options) is all in Swedish with no English version — this means our server explained, in his own words, what each dish comprised. Using words such as “tender” and “melting” and “sticky” and “creamy” he had us practically drooling all over the bar and it made the choice very difficult. Ideally what I wanted was a taster menu of all five starters and mains, but, alas, I had to pick just one of each.

For the first time in my life, I had steak tartare. I wasn’t brave enough to have it as a main, so I sampled the ‘mini’ version as a starter. Arriving without the traditional raw egg yoke, it involved something crispy perched on top, a few crunchy things throughout, a gooey sauce and who knows what else. I’m not afraid to try different or raw things but I admit I was nervous on ordering it — however this was a phenomenal dish. I’ve since read it is labelled the best steak tartare in Gothenburg.

Since trying the dish for the first time, I’m now dying to go back to France and have the food of their land. I’m a total convert and would have it over and over again. As I write this, I managed to persuade the American to nip out to the shop to find a decent fillet steak so we can actually try it at home…here goes nothing.

I have to just mention — as our main we both opted for the pork belly which was perfectly cooked just as I like it — with a crispy fatty bit and juicy meaty bit. Our dessert (to share, I was getting a bit full) was a brown caramel ice cream with biscuity things and a sweet sticky sauce. It’s just one of those restaurants where they throw together a mismatch of ingredients that sound bizarre, but expertly put together like so, and it is an orgasmic mouth adventure. I’m not quite entirely sure what they fed me, but boy was it good, and I would go back to Gothenburg to visit here again. A small menu, they change it frequently and I can’t wait to see what they share next.

Pastries and bread and all other goodness is a big thing in Gothenburg and we lucked out finding the gorgeous bakeries Da Matteo. The first visit we walked out with an armful of brown paper bags full of different bread rolls and muffins (honestly, so good). It made a perfect lunch as we strolled around the city and discovered new places. We even went back right before having to leave and came away with more armfuls of muffins – seriously they’re seedy muffins are to die for. I was in heaven.

Still not done talking about food….

We had a friend recommend we visit the main food market in the city. We actually almost forgot. Shoot — we were having so much fun just wandering we actually forgot to go and see stuff. Luckily as our tram pulled back up into the centre after island-hopping, we managed to jump out super close to the market — as it turns out the building is one we’d already walked past three times (how does that happen?).

The Market Hall // Saluhallen is a lively, jostling, bustling kinda place. Like an fancier version of London’s Borough Market, it was sparkling clean, busy, well lit and decorated in warm amber colours. Each stall was marked with large upmarket plaques with capitalised letters — these were not your ‘pitch up and find a spot’ market sellers, they were permanent stalls. A glass ceiling beamed down today’s sunshine.

Absolutely starving as it was getting close to lunch, we plonked ourselves down at the first seats we could find. We were sat at a bar that offered five different options for food. The most Swedish-sounding were meatballs and herring. One of each, please.

The American isn’t a fan of fish. At least not oily, smelly fish. So I had a whole plate of sweet and salty herring with smooth mash potatoes and lingonberry sauce to myself. His Swedish meatballs were huge and chunky and moist (insert wink emoji here). We were totally happy with our decision, and this was the cheapest sodding meal we’d had all weekend – each dish cost less than 7 Euros. As we sat amongst the locals, we had a great spot to people-watch as everybody went about their weekly food shop.

With little time left in Gothenburg it was difficult to decide what to do next. The shopping streets were packed with plenty of choices, but that’s just not my thing. Throwing a metaphorical pin at Google Maps, we opted for the infamous Universeum (not the university, as I had expected).

Essentially it is a wildlife experience. Yes, it was an incredibly kid-friendly thing to do. There were screaming brats running everywhere, barging into you and running right through you because they were having way too much fun to let a human body barrier stop their play. It was noisy and crowded, but actually turned out to be great fun and a good time-killer before our trip home (the American always gets antsy leading up to a flight as he’s so worried we’ll miss the bus to the airport).

There was a fantastic aquarium — I stood and watched the sting rays for what felt like hours. They had so much character and seemed to be playing with the others. One in particular kept doing rings around the giant pool, brushing up close to the edge and ‘flapping’ one fin through the air, like a dolphin or a sea lion might do at a water show. It was mesmerising to watch. I wish I had a sting ray psychology expert standing with me to explain why these fascinating creatures do the things they do. Was the sting ray bored? Complaining about the lack of room? Is that what they do when it’s close to dinner time?

Most magical of all, I saw a sloth. A pair of sloths actually. One lived up to its sloth-like reputation by snoozing in the same spot all afternoon. The other one was relatively active and kept moving about for a stretch and a clamber across the branches. Sloths are adorable and I was so happy to get to see them up close.

Bringing kids to Gothenburg? The Universeum is a must-do. It is an adventure playground for kids, allowing them to get up close and personal to wildlife you do not see in most zoos. It’s pretty educational and can definitely wear out the little uns whilst they run around chasing butterflies and exotic birds. Not got kids? We, we don’t. And we survived. And it was real fun — something totally different that I wouldn’t normally do on a citybreak. It gets the thumbs up.

****

And so brings to a close our 30 hours in Gothenburg.

We had a totally, surprisingly, eventful journey back to the airport — here’s a tip: if you’re heading to the bus station to grab your transfer back to Göteborg Landvetter Airport, instead of walking out onto the bus park to where your drop-off point had been (y’know, where you’d expect pick-up to be), make sure you walk straight down to the very end of the pedestrian walkway where there is actually a whole building where you can wait for your bus. Worried we were going to be late, we didn’t even see the main entrance door (it’s well hidden!) and just walked through an easy-access open gate onto the very empty bus park to look for clues as to where the bus would pick us up. Within minutes a loud tannoy announcement chimed out, in Swedish, and a man came rushing over to scold us for being in this ‘Maximum security area’. We were ushered into the bus station building (where suddenly it all became incredibly clear to us where we needed to wait). Clearly the Swedish are incredibly particular on their rules — however it would’ve been helpful if there was a sign or two asking pedestrians not to be in that bus park (after all, I don’t think I’ve ever been to any bus station before anywhere in Europe where you’re not expected to queue up in the spot where your bus is meant to be). Embarrassed about our public fuck-up, we gratefully got on the bus when it arrived and slunk down in our seats. 20 minutes later, we were back at the airport we’d arrived in 30 hours previous, weary, tired, wind-beaten, but happy to have ticked off the amazing city of Gothenburg, and the gorgeous country of Sweden, off our travel lists.

It was a wonderful trip made up of coffee, pastries, fish, new dishes to tantalise the taste buds, exploration, boat trips, cocktails, 17th century pilot huts, island hopping, statue hunting, sloth-watching and more. And, must to my delight, I managed to tick yet another Hard Rock Cafe off of my Europe visit list ✓.

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