What’s the secret to being one of the world’s happiest countries? I set out to explore “lagom” that summarizes the Swedish way of life in Gothenburg – a city that is calm but knows how to have fun as well.
I need to begin talking about my trip to Gothenburg from a more conceptual place, the philosophy of lagom. The origin of this word dates back to the days of the Vikings and their “laget om” ceremony based on sharing their drink around a fire and the principle that every individual should equally benefit from all resources.
Having become a cornerstone of Swedish way of living and known in short as “lagom,” this principle can be translated as “not too much nor too little; in moderation.” Described as “a kind of personal life thermostat” by Gören Everdahl, the author of the book The Book of Lagom: The Swedish Way of Living Just Right, lagom can be found in all aspects of life from each individual's responsible consumption preferences to social state policies. As a foreigner, I intend to explore the beauties of lagom.
On the bus from Landvetter Airport to the center, I feel lucky to meet Gothenburg on a sunny day. I head towards Magasinsgatan – accessible via pedestrianized and parallel Kungsgatan, Södra Larmgatan, and Vallgatan Streets. Here, I find many local and international stores, mostly selling home décor and kitchen appliances. The balance I mentioned before is present in all showcases. Adorning interior spaces with colors that can be plain without being pessimistic, patterns that bring motion without tiring the eye, and a dim yellow light are only a few of the essential décor preferences in Gothenburg. Considering the fact that the Swedes spend most of the year missing the sunlight, it’s not very hard to understand why they are such big fans of candid spaces with dim lighting, called “mys.”
In order to return the favor of the sun which shows its face instead of hiding behind the clouds, I decide to visit Trädgårdsföreningen, a park at least as peaceful as Gothenburg’s interior spaces. One of the well-preserved green spaces in Europe, the park is home to many sculptures and a rose garden presented with a Michelin Green Guide award. But I’m most curious about the elegant greenhouse called Palmhuset. Built in 1878 with an inspiration from the Crystal Palace in London, this impressive greenhouse cultivates exotic plants. Spanning nearly 1,000 square kilometers, the building is made from cast iron and glass. Kept at a tropical temperature, the greenhouse’s Mediterranean section displays olive and fig trees, and grapevines while the tropical section is home to edible plant species such as cocoa and pineapple. The building is named after the middle section which exhibits palm trees, the tallest one being 14 meters.
Time for my first dinner in Gothenburg! I leave the park and head for the indoor market Saluhallen, about 10 minutes from here. Built in 1888-89, the market houses about 40 shops that sell everything from meat and cheese to herbal products. After wandering around the stalls to satisfy my curiosity, I sit at one of the eateries and enjoy the famous Swedish meatballs served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. I make a mental note to buy a jar of lingonberry sauce to take home.
I begin the next day at an early hour. I plan to spend the day exploring the pedestrianized historic streets of Haga Nygata but, before that, I climb the stairs to Skansen Kronan, a bastion with a gilded wooden crown at the top, both to take some pictures and to enjoy the city’s idiosyncratic morning tranquility. This hexagonal granite structure was built to protect Gothenburg but, happily, the cannons inside have never been used for the city has never been attacked. It’s situated on a small hill – a perfect place to look at the cityscape! The leaves of the trees reddened by autumn meet the red roofs of the 19th-century wooden houses in the district of Haga spanning across the foot of the bastion – a hint, I later realize, of the scent of cinnamon that follows me around in almost every street.
I follow the path down the bastion and walk through Landsvägsgatan towards Haga Nygata. It wouldn’t be wrong to describe this district as the city’s old town. With the emergence of new industries in the 1840s, the area received an influx of workers, giving birth to the first workers' district in the city. Undergoing a comprehensive renovation during the 1980s, the district is now frequented by both locals and tourists. Of course, what makes Haga so charming is not just its numerous interesting stores lining cobbled streets but the nearby cafés as well that have become a meeting place for the locals who keep the fika culture alive. Fika is a Swedish version of the afternoon tea, with coffee instead of tea and a sweet pastry. I sit at one of the tables outside Café Kringlan and order a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll called kanelbulle. As a pastry fan, I can safely say Gothenburg has once again stolen my heart with this tradition which serves as an excuse to have conversation in the fast-paced hustle of daily life.
To justify this small and “sweet” mischief, I go on a stroll around Haga Nygata, mingling with the youth who seem as pleased as I am about the sunny weather, parents who are enjoying the weekend with their babies in strollers, and middle-aged locals who find Haga’s transformation into modernity as great as the younger generation. In this age when being fast has almost become a reflex for us, Gothenburg’s tranquility offers me the freedom of not having to rush anywhere. As I think about using time efficiently and not missing the moment, I explore another one of lagom’s blessings.
Next morning, I hop on the iconic blue tram to visit Gothenburg Museum of Art, the first stop of my last day in the city. Situated on Götaplatsen Square at the southernmost end of the main boulevard of Avenyn, the museum houses one of the world’s most comprehensive Nordic painting collections. For those interested in different eras in the history of art, it’s a great place to examine a variety of works from Swedish modernists to French impressionists, Old Masters to Picasso.
My next stop is Röda Sten Konsthall, the city’s contemporary art center. Located at the foot of Älvsborg Bridge, the structure was built as a boiler room in 1940. When it was announced that it would be demolished in the 1990s, a non-governmental organization stepped into action, inspired by the global movement to turn old factories into venues for culture and arts events. Today, the building welcomes numerous contemporary art exhibitions and workshops. After losing track of minutes among the graffities from the '80s and '90s covering the façade of the building, I head back to the city center.
An indoor “fish and shellfish market,” Feskekôrka was built as an architectural experiment by Victor von Gegerfelt in 1874. Inspired by Norway’s wooden stave churches and Gothic buildings, the market has everything that comes out of the sea: fresh jumbo shrimps, lobsters, oysters, mussels, crabs… The daily catch is sold at the auction and the stalls here. The market’s mezzanine also hosts a restaurant named Gabriel, which is perfect to try these fresh products.
As a big fan of amusement parks, I wouldn’t even imagine not visiting Liseberg, the city’s historic amusement park. Neighboring the famous Gothia Towers, this legendary amusement park was opened in 1923, and has been entertaining millions of people since then. Home to 42 rides in addition to gambling games, music stages, restaurants, and cafés, Liseberg resembles a small town built for those who are looking for a sense of excitement. Open in three seasons – summer, Halloween, and New Year’s – the park is as fun for children as for adults. I decide to try everything out. And for the rides I cannot build up the courage to try, I console myself by saying, “Think lagom - neither too dangerous nor too boring!”
Gothenburg is a perfect city for those like me who enjoy different paces of life. It’s as calm as the cinnamon-scented streets of Haga and as fast as the roller coasters of Liseberg. I may have learned about lagom in Gothenburg, but I will surely take it back with me to Istanbul, my hometown.