City slickers heading Sweden’s way will often find themselves deciding between Gothenburg or Stockholm. The two largest towns in the country, they are both pretty enthralling places. But which one should you visit this year?
Well…it’s not an easy choice. Over on the far western coast of the country there’s Gothenburg, an historic student city that’s known for giving the world Volvo cars and hosting the offices of AstraZeneca. In the east, on the isles that fragment into the Baltic Sea, you’ll find Stockholm, the capital of Sweden forged from a UNESCO old town and vibrant districts buzzing with life.
This guide will peer into the souls of both places to help you pick the one that’s right for you and your travel crew in the coming season. We’ll figure out where offers the best sightseeing, the prospect of the most adventure-filled day outings, the liveliest nightlife, and a whole load more…
Gothenburg or Stockholm for ease of travel
Gothenburg is served by Landvetter Airport. It’s a pretty small hub but still offers incoming flights from across Europe, even on low-cost airlines like Ryanair (who fly to Manchester, Prague, Budapest, and Krakow to name just a few). The terminals are located 13 miles southeast of the town, but there are direct bus links with Flygbussarna and Flixbus to the central station. The E6 motorway also offers a road into Gothenburg from the south. It connects to Malmo in about three hours, which is where you can come off the bridge from Denmark.
As you might expect, Stockholm is by far the better connected of these two cities – it’s the Swedish capital, after all. There are actually four airports here: Bromma, Vasteras, Skavsta, and Arlanda. The last of those is the largest. It has long-haul connections as well as premium connections throughout Europe. The others are mainly dedicated to low-cost carriers and are a little further from the city. It’s also possible to catch cross-Baltic Sea ferries to Stockholm from Poland, Estonia, and Finland.
Winner: Stockholm because it’s got four airports!
Gothenburg or Stockholm for sightseeing
Gothenburg is anchored on the muscular keep of the Skansen Kronan. Built in the 17th century, it turned into a jail in later decades, but now crowns a leafy hill in the downtown. Start there before wandering into the tight-knit lanes of the Haga area that’s to the south, where you can spy out wood-trimmed homes from the early 1800s. There are also some striking churches to see, like the Gothic spires of the Oscar Fredrik Church, or colossal Gothenburg Cathedral. There’s plenty to keep you going.
Stockholm manages to match all that and go a whole extra mile. As the rich and historic capital of the country, it’s home to the grand Royal Palace, which soon gives way to the UNESCO district of the Gamla Stan – the moody and atmospheric old core. Beyond that, you can wander the leafy parks of the Djurgarden island, or explore the modern shopping malls of Norrmalm, all before breaking out into the wilder, wind-lashed Stockholm Archipelago. It’s not for nothing that this is considered the sightseeing hub of Sweden!
Gothenburg or Stockholm for food
Gothenburg has started to garner itself something of a reputation for culinary creativity. It’s slowly attuning itself to the edgy subversiveness of New Nordic cooking, but also has plenty of traditional seafood and Swedish eateries on the menu. Some of the best joints in town include Barabicu, an all-American fusion kitchen that’s all about wood-fired cooking, and Koka, a fine-dining haven with tasting menus packed with foraged goods. Oh, and you simply can’t miss the vast Feskekorka hall, Gothenburg’s premier fish market.
Once again, though, the big and bustling capital of Sweden manages plenty more on the gastronomic front. It’s a hubbub of restaurants of all shapes and sizes. There’s New Nordic cooking at Nook and Ekstedt. There’s layer upon layer of international and ethic eating on offer in the hip quarter of Sodermalm – think Sri Lankan curry houses next to Lebanese mezze kitchens. And you can find buzzy food halls like the Ostermalms Saluhall briming with artisan breads and hand-roasted coffees.
Gothenburg or Stockholm for museums
We love the array of museums that are in Gothenburg. You’ll notice that they’re just a touch more unusual and left of field than the ones in Stockholm. There’s the Museum of World Culture, which travels from South America to East Asia in a journey through human anthropology and civilization. There’s the Maritime Museum, where you can uncover the long seafaring past of the town, which still reigns as one of the largest ports in Scandinavia. Oh, and there’s the Volvo Museum, which chronicles the rise of Sweden’s best-loved car brand.
Stockholm has more headline museums. You can take a walk through pre-industrial Swedish life at the Skansen open air museum, a heritage center on Djurgarden island that’s best done in good weather. Talking of Djurgarden…that’s also the home of the Vasa Museum and the ABBA Museum. The first tells the story of a sunken 17th-century warship. The second is all about Sweden’s iconic pop luminaries and most iconic Eurovision winners.
Winner: Draw – both towns have great museums; Stockholm’s more famous, Gothenburg’s more unusual.
Gothenburg or Stockholm for nightlife
Gothenburg’s night-time scene is driven by the city’s huge student population. That means it actually tends to be livelier outside of the summer months when term is still in full flow. The main place to go drinking is down the tram-rumbling Kungsportsavenyen, known to locals as just Avenyn. That has tapas bars, little bistros, and cocktail lounges. Andra Långgatan street is the other hotspot. That’s the area to hit for gritty student dive bars and live music.
Stockholm’s nightlife is fueled less by students and more by the city’s resident crowd of young professionals, along with the huge cohorts of backpackers that pass through between May and September. The Gamla Stan has some options, but it’s better in the modern area of Norrmalm. That said, we don’t think anywhere really beats the hipster hub of SoFo. On the south side of the city, it’s blocks are awash with more bars than you can shake a pickled herring at!
Winner: Gothenburg. It’s more intimate, the city is walkable, and it has the student scene.
Gothenburg or Stockholm for day trips
Gothenburg is the gateway to the wild western shores of Sweden. The area is very undeveloped, save for a couple of industrial port towns like Floda. Beaches abound, like the ones on the rock-ringed isle of Marstrand, which is less than 45 minutes north of the city by bus. You could also venture inland to see the quaint small town of Alingsas, which is famed for inventing the Swedish routine of fika (AKA drinking coffee ALL THE TIME!). There are also lovely lakes for the budding wild swimmers at Alingsas.
Stockholm is sat on its very own archipelago. That’s the playground for day trippers here and there really is loads to get through. You can ferry or drive all the way east to the open shores of the Baltic Sea, where isles like Skarpo and salt-washed towns like Stavsnas offer wooded banks by the lapping waters. The archipelago is also home to the wondrous UNESCO complex of Drottningholm Palace, which is just to the west of the downtown, and the ancient town of Sigtuna to the north, which is widely considered to be the oldest in the country (it was founded in 980 AD!).
Winner: Stockholm – the archipelago has so much day tripping potential.
Gothenburg or Stockholm for price
As is usually the case, it’s the capital of the country that comes out as the most expensive of these two cities. In fact, some estimations have it that Stockholm is a whole 25% pricier than its compadre over on the western shores of the country. A lot of that is driven by the uptick in hotel rates, which can sometimes be double what they are in Gothenburg in the big city, especially if you travel in the peak summer months and want to stay in the middle of the Gamla Stan.
One piece of good news is that the price of alcohol in shops is controlled by the state in Sweden. You’ll pay the same for a beer from one of the government-owned booze markets no matter where you are. That said, drinks out can be VERY pricy in Stockholm – you’re looking at about $12 a pint in the center. The same goes for eating out, which we think will end up around 30% more in Stockholm than in Gothenburg. TL;DR: Gothenburg is the budget-friendly pick here.
Gothenburg or Stockholm for nature
One of the things that will strike you about Swedish cities is just how close they are to nature. Even in the heart of the capital, you can jump in the car or hop on a bus and be out in the wooded reaches of the archipelago in as little as 20 minutes. Some of the closest places of all are the Flatens naturreservat, which has wild swimming and sylvan hiking paths, and the Gålö naturreservat, which is a doozy for sea kayakers and sailors. Longer trips can whisk you over to islets known for their lovely beaches – Sandhamn is especially famous.
Gothenburg has a similar situation. There are nature reserves in abundance on the outskirts of the town. There are probably fewer reserves in all here but that’s balanced out by the fact that they should be a touch easier to reach if you have your own car. We especially love spring and summer days up on the ridges of the Delsjöområdets naturreservat, a land of spruce forests and inky lakes. But you can also go to swim in the North Sea, by heading to Sillviksbadet and the rocky coast scapes of Ersdalen.
Winner: Draw. Both cities have plenty!
Gothenburg or Stockholm for general vibe
We hear a lot of people say that Gothenburg is the more friendly of these two Swedish cities. While we’ve got a real soft spot for the buzzing capital, it’s certainly true that the smaller one in the west is more bite-sized and manageable. There’s a pervading local buzz about it that means the people are generally a little more chilled. What’s more, you don’t get the massive cohorts of travelers and city breakers in the European summer descending on the parks and marinas, helping Gothenburg stay charming all throughout the year.
Stockholm, especially around the uber-popular districts of Gamla Stan and Sodermalm, is far more touristy. You’ll see tour groups, camera-snapping sightseers, and even stag dos on the streets here. On top of that, you have to remember that this is the economic and political capital of the country. That brings with it another level of energy and edge, which means there’s all-round more hustle and bustle.
Winner: Gothenburg, mainly because it’s a touch more relaxed and doesn’t get packed with tourists in summer.
Gothenburg or Stockholm – our verdict
Gothenburg or Stockholm? Tricky one. We’d probably say that first-time travelers to Sweden should pick the capital of the nation. It’s one of Europe’s most amazing cities, hosts royal complexes, buzzy hipster districts, and the old-school Gamla Stan neighborhood. If you’ve already been and done that, then Gothenburg is a great alternative for your next trip. It’s the second city of Sweden, has a great nightlife scene, and offers access to the pretty beaches of the western coast.