Travel

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.

anderm/iStock/Getty Images
anderm/iStock/Getty Images
anderm/iStock/Getty Images

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.

Photo courtesy of Gothenburg & Co.
Photo courtesy of Gothenburg & Co.
Photo courtesy of Gothenburg & Co.

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.

Martin Wahlborg/iStock/Getty Images
Martin Wahlborg/iStock/Getty Images
Martin Wahlborg/iStock/Getty Images

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.

Johner Images/Johner Images Royalty-Free/Getty Images
Johner Images/Johner Images Royalty-Free/Getty Images
Johner Images/Johner Images Royalty-Free/Getty Images

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.

Gurras
Gurras
Gurras

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.

Paolo Graziosi/iStock/Getty Images
Paolo Graziosi/iStock/Getty Images
Paolo Graziosi/iStock/Getty Images

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.

Kajkanten Vrångö
Kajkanten Vrångö
Kajkanten Vrångö

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.”

Peter Vahlersvik/iStoc/Getty images
Peter Vahlersvik/iStoc/Getty images
Peter Vahlersvik/iStoc/Getty images

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.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Danielle Hallock is former editor at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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