The Travel Issue: Gothenburg in August

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The Independent Travel

Budget airlines have transformed our idea of the weekend break. In just over a decade the cheap flight has revealed the particular pleasures of a great many less well-known European destinations: Gothenburg is one of the best.

Geography is fate for cities. Gothenburg, which is Sweden's second city, was founded in 1621 when it was the country's only direct access to the North Sea – a narrow strip of coast hemmed in by Norwegian territory to the north and the Danes to the south. Its position at the mouth of the river Gota has made it the greatest port in Scandinavia. Dutchmen were employed by King Gustavus Adolphus to drain the marshes and build the canals for his pocket St Petersburg with elegant neo-classical architecture.

They're still mad for boats here. Much of the city's business and pleasure are still based upon the water. A great network of ferries brings the working population in to the centre from islands in the archipelago; tall-masted clippers on the waterfront remind you that the Swedish East India Company was established here in the 18th century, bringing goods from China; yachts abound, as do canoes, kayaks, speedboats and barges. Even the recently built opera house evokes a great ocean-going liner.

It's well worth taking the hour-long boat-trip around the city, through the canals, the river and past the heroic floating dry docks to see how much Gothenburg owes to its maritime past and present. The city's graceful architecture also looks at its best from water. Beyond the city lies the Bohuslan archipelago of islands, with beaches and pretty hamlets, a natural world of simple summer family pleasures easily reached by the ferries. The other great waterborne experience is to take a trip along Gota Canal. You can also cycle or walk or canoe, but the most comfortable way through the green countryside is on a 19th-century steamer with overnight accommodation and first-rate food.

As a trading port it has always been a cosmopolitan place. The Dutch built it and ran it in its early days, it was a Scotsman who founded the East India Company, and another Scot endowed the Chalmers University, Sweden's top university and one of the world's great research centres for science, technology and architecture. The city is also home to several of Sweden's leading companies, including Volvo and Ericsson.

In the two key areas for visitors of food and culture, Gothenburg rivals and possibly surpasses Stockholm. The area has long been noted for its outstanding fish and seafood and this has made it Sweden's gastronomic centre. In the past decade, seven of the Swedish chefs of the year have been from Gothenburg and four of the many excellent restaurants in the city have Michelin stars. The most outstanding is Sjomagasinet, in a beautiful wooden warehouse built for the East India Company in 1775 near the Gota river. Its chef-proprietor, Leif Mannerstrom, is the elder statesman of Swedish gastronomy and devoted to fish, which he selects each day from the fish quay 200 metres along the waterfront from the restaurant. The tender austerity of traditional Swedish cuisine – simple, high-quality ingredients, salt-sugar savouriness – in Mannerstrom's hands becomes a rich and exquisite pleasure, and his pickled herring is a peak experience. For a more adventurous and internationally influenced cuisine try Fond in the heart of the city, next to the Arts Museum. Chef Stefan Karlsson also has a Michelin star.

Culture too has long been important to the city. In addition to the great opera house on the waterfront it is home to the Gothenburg Symphony – the Swedish national orchestra – and its acoustically brilliant Art Deco Concert Hall. The Arts Museum houses a fine collection of works by leading Scandinavian artists like Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Peter Kroyer. There's a room devoted to the highly original Ivar Arosenius (1878-1909), whose quirky, folklore-influenced paintings and drawings show that his early death may have robbed the world of a brilliant animated film-maker.