Gothenburg has always had to fight for its place on the map. Sweden's second city, and home to Scandinavia's largest port, was so often invaded by the Danes and Norwegians that eventually it was moved further inland to its present location. Becoming a fortified town in 1621 with protecting moats and city gates, it prospered in shipbuilding and trading in iron and copper and, most famously, herring. Today, while maritime activities are still prominent Gothenburg is also the original base of giants such as Volvo and SKF, and is now enjoying a boom in IT and media business with new developments across the Gota Alv River.
For visitors to Sweden, Stockholm has the easy draw of a capital, while Gothenburg has the burden of struggling to keep up with the popularity of its older sister. It is also, according to Anders Jimgren, director of sales for Gothenburg Convention Centre, a misunderstood city: "People see Gothenburg as cold, dark and expensive. These are myths... Gothenburg is in a similar position to cities like Birmingham and Manchester. Both of those cities have done a great job to change their image over the last few years and that is the challenge for Gothenburg."
This image began to change in 1995 when the city hosted the World Athletics Championships. Kerstin Nordh, an official city guide and long-time resident of Gothenburg, says: "It was the World Championships that put Gothenburg on the map. Now it is known as a place for events."
The city seems to have found its niche. It has just welcomed home the final leg of the Volvo Ocean Race and in August is hosting the European Athletic Championships. Around 1,400 athletes will descend on the city and a further 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers will help with the event.
All these people will have to find a bed, which shouldn't be a problem: the city has 6,690 rooms. The four-star Hotel Gothia Towers and the Gothenburg Convention Centre are both connected to the Swedish Exhibition Centre. They are in what Jimgren calls the "events quarter" of the city, a 20-minute walk from the city centre and close to the Ullevi Stadium, Gothenburg's largest sports arena. Hotel Gothia Towers is the largest hotel in Scandinavia, with 704 rooms, and hosts around 1,600 conferences and events a year with a delegate capacity for 9,000. There are plans to build a third tower by 2010, boosting the number of rooms to 1,254 and making the hotel the largest in western Europe (the Park Inn Berlin is a strong contender with over 1,000 rooms).
Jimgren says: "Gothenburg is really up and coming. The hotel will have 550 new rooms in the third tower. Also there is the new Avalon hotel [a design hotel] with 120 new rooms due to open in 2008, and the old post office building will be converted into a Clarion with 500 rooms and conference facilities for 1,000 people; that will be 2008-2009. We are increasing the capacity with the demand."
Indeed, if all goes to plan there will be around 1,200 new rooms in the next four years. Other MICE (meetings, incentives and conferences) venues are the Radisson SAS Scandinavia Hotel, which overlooks the main square and canal and can accommodate up to 500 people, and the Elite Park Avenue Hotel. Another attractive option, an hour from Gothenburg, is the picturesque and once exclusive Marstrand Island, which has the stunning wooden Grand Hotel. It would be ideal for an overnight stay and has its own meeting facilities; numbers can spill over into the Society House, which takes up to 400 people.
So what makes Gothenburg special? Why would anyone fly to Sweden's second city when they can just hop over to Paris or stay in London? For a start, with its nickname as the "little big city" it is surprisingly easy to negotiate, being compact and served by an efficient tram and bus system (there is no metro because the muddy earth near the sea would not support it). To get a feel for the city, though, I chose to wander slowly through the streets to soak up its character. The main avenue Kungsportsavenyen stretches from Konstmuseum (the Museum of Art) on Gotaplatsen down to the King's Gate, which guarded the moat surrounding the old town.
The broad pavements were alive with laughter and chatter from the shops and cafés stretching out into the sun's path. Cyclists pedalled slowly, balancing ice creams on their handlebars, and break-dancers showed off their moves to the beat on the street – all apt activities for a city emerging from hibernation into the warm arms of summer. I noticed a crowd of people leaning over the bridge on the moat and when I got closer I heard a strange wailing. Below, a young man covered in feathers was floating in a small rubber dinghy, singing enthusiastically through a megaphone.
Lena Sjostrand, project manager at the Gothenburg Convention Bureau has the answer to this amusing performance: "There are two huge universities here in Gothenburg. It is the most popular university city in Sweden and as a result the town has a young feel." Students make up around 10 per cent of the 484,102 population of Gothenburg. The feather-clad wailer had been celebrating graduation day.
Sjostrand adds: "The thing with Gothenburg is that it is so compact there is high visibility of events, so you really feel [part of them]. At the moment with the World Cup you can really feel it in Frankfurt, and that is what this city is like – you feel what is going on."
But the real beauty of the city is the pockets of calm that you stumble across. A few moments' walk from the lively centre is the old district of Haga, with original wooden houses, cobbled streets, sun-trapped courtyards and stylish boutique shops and cafés. It's like stepping back in time. There are no cars, and young families and friends sit chatting over a fika – coffee with a sweet cake. Then there are the parks: there are 175 square metres of green space per person in Gothenburg.
After my stroll I began to understand why a recent survey found that 59 per cent of Swedes want to live in this city. So two of the myths are dispelled: Gothenburg is not cold or dark – although the long winter months, similar to those in the UK, may be trialling for some. So is it expensive? A recent survey by the Convention Bureau found that for a business traveller attending meetings and events, Gothenburg is cheaper than London, Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam, and Brussels and is just a little more expensive than Prague. Eastern Europe is, in fact, Gothenburg's biggest rival where expense is concerned.
Gothenburg is also fresh, says Jimgren: "I have heard people saying they are tired of some destinations. We need new destinations for meetings and events. People are tired of going to Vienna, Barcelona and London."
The city is certainly well connected. From the UK there are direct daily flights from Stansted with low-cost carriers Flyme and Ryanair as well as SAS. Flyme and SAS serve the international Gothenburg-Landvetter Airport, a 20-minute drive from the HotelGothia Towers and the centre of town, while Ryanair serves Gothenburg City Airport, an old military airport on the north of the river, 15km from the centre. There is also the option of taking the ferry from Newcastle.
Gothenburg is taking the increasing international interest in its stride and is growing fast, with new developments shooting up on the north side of the river in the old shipyards area. The "IT" village started developing about six years ago. Volvo Technology, Ericsson, SemCom and Chalmers all have a foothold here, and luxury apartments have appeared, with mooring facilities for boats and a quick bus link over the bridge into the city centre.
You can get a good vantage point from the top of Keiller's Park on this side of the city, looking back over the whole area and down into the port with the cranes, like shadowy old men bowing in the sea mist.
Kerstin Nordh says: "This area is growing fast; it is estimated that at least 30-40,000 people will live and work here when they have finished building in a couple of years."
The main problem Gothenburg faces is getting people to hear about the city and believe in it. Jimgren tries to explain an old Swedish saying, which is similar to the adage "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't". Jimgren sums it up: "People are scared to take a gamble with new destinations."
After my visit I didn't feel as if I had taken a risk at all. If anything, boarding the flight home, I felt as if I had gained something, an insight into a city emerging from a quiet cocoon and ready for a new lease of life.