Planning your Göta Canal Cruise: What You Need to Know

Published Categorized as Sweden Travel, Destinations, Europe Travel, Travel Blog
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Discover the beautiful landscapes of Sweden on a Göta Canal cruise. Read on to find out a little of the history of the Göta Canal and about the towns to visit along the way.

Today, the Göta Canal is one of the most famous landmarks in Sweden and embodies the most idyllic aspects of Swedish summer. Here, you can look on in fascination as boats are lifted and lowered by enormous amounts of water in the locks, book one of many available cycling packages and follow the boats as they glide along at 5 knots. You can also choose to experience the canal on one of the many passenger Göta Canal cruise vessels or hire a boat and take your own time exploring the towns along the way.

This year marks 200 years since the Göta Canal Sweden opened for shipping, and 190 years since it was fully completed and formally opened. It was the culmination of 20 years of hard work, allowing ships to finally sail across Sweden, rather than going around it through Oresund.


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Did You Know?

  • It took 22 years to complete the canal. The construction period was initially estimated at 10 years. After 5 years, however, only a quarter of the route had been excavated, and the costs already mounted to 50 percent more than what had initially been calculated for the entire construction. However, Baltzar von Platen managed to save the canal project several times, convincing Parliament to approve additional funding.
  • 1,900 kilometres – including 87 kilometres of excavated canal (37 kilometres of canal dug out on the western section and 50 kilometres of canal dug out on the eastern section.
  • 26 metres wide at the surface, 14 metres wide at the bottom, and 3 metres deep
  • 58 locks (100 lock keepers are employed during the canal season)
  • 47 bridges
  • The excavated soil volume would have been enough to make a wall, 5 metres tall and 1 metre wide, across the entirety of Sweden, from Treriksroset in the north to Smygehuk in the south.
  • 58,000 Swedish soldiers, a pioneer company of Russian soldiers and a number of private workers built the Göta Canal.
  • Together, they carried out about 7 million workdays, each 12 hours = 84,000,000 hours.
  • As you travel along on a Göta Canal cruise, you will see large stones (ell stones) all along the edge. They are the remains of an old compensation system. The driver who were responsible for the draft animals of course wanted payment for their services. T simplify administration, ell stones were placed along the entire canal section. There were 143 stones, placed 594 metres apart (1,000 Swedish ells). The fee for a pair of oxen towing the ship 1,000 ells was about eight Swedish ore, by the end of the 19th Century.


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Göta Canal Historical Timeline

What events have led to the Göta Canal being built and later becoming one of Sweden’s main tourist destinations? In the timeline below, you can see some milestones from history.


1808: Baltzar von Platen presents his idea for the Göta Canal to King Gustav IV Adolf. Thomas Telford arrives in Sweden to help von Platen stake out the canal.

1809: King Gustav IV Adolf is deposed and the Riksdag decides on the construction of the Göta Canal.

1810: Canal construction begins, starting in Motala and Forsvik.

1813: The first Englishmen arrive to act as supervisors and lead vocational training of the Swedish workers. The first lock is completed in Forsvik.

1819: Karl XIV Johan decides to build Karlsborg Fortress, which will form a key part of the government’s central defence plan. It will be possible for the royal family, the government, the Riksbank’s gold reserves and the crown jewels to be taken to safety via the Göta Canal.

1822: The western part of the Göta Canal, between Sjotorp and Karlsborg, is opened and inaugurated. Motala Workshop is founded.

1832: The construction is finally completely finished after 22 years!

1846: Sweden’s first propeller boat, Linkoping, begins service on the Göta Canal. The propeller vessels quickly outcompete the cumbersome paddle steamers on the canal.

1870: Mail-carrying boats are introduced on the canal. The captain acts as postmaster and stamps all letters.

1920: This year marks the end of organised and large-scale towing of sailing ships.

1970: The decade when tourism with Swedish leisure boats gains proper momentum, thanks to increased prosperity and longer holidays. The canal is renovated at a cost SEK 45,000.000.

1978: The Göta Canal Company is registered, as the Swedish state takes ownership of the canal company. The purchase price is SEK 5,700,000 and the purchase includes the canal facilities, historical housing for canal officials and 3,800 hectares of forest.

1981: The film ‘Göta Canal or Who Pulled the Plug?’ premieres in Swedish cinemas.

2000: The Göta Canal is named the Swedish Construction of the Millennium.

2022: 200 Year Anniversary!


Before the First Ground Was Broken

It is not known with certainty who first had the idea of building a waterway across Sweden. It is said the Gustav Vasa talked about it during his first years of government, 300 years before the first ground was broken.

“A cut shall be made between the Lakes of Vattern and Vanern, for the Sake of Shipping Costs and Merchants Goods.”

This is what the Bishop of Linkoping, Hans Brask wrote, as early as the 15th Century, about the desirable waterway between Lake Vattern and Lake Vanern, after Denmark had introduced tariffs for foreign ships passing through the Sound. The customs system had thus created the need for a free passage across Sweden for Swedish merchant vessels and warships.

The question has always been, why did it then take more than 300 years of investigations, surveys and debates before someone acted on these ideas?

One of the reasons was that the canal projects often collided with other and powerful interests, such as owners of sawmills and mills, eel fishermen and farmers who earned a handsome living by providing horse-drawn transports. Another reason was the heated disputes on whether it was best to let the canal follow existing rivers and streams, or to proceed with dry excavation of a fully artificial canal.

In addition, there was a lack of active leadership as there was nobody stubborn or persistence enough to be able to push through a project of this magnitude. However, both of these qualities were found in Baltzar von Platen, who eventually managed to make the ideas a reality.


Baltzar von Platen

It was a meeting with the king that made Baltzar von Platen decide to try to push through the construction of a canal from Lake Vanern to the Baltic Sea. Von Platen first had the idea in 1801 and the triggering factor was when he saw king Gustav IV Adolf’s fascination with the Trollhatte Canal.

Baltzar’s family originally came from German Pomerania, but his father, who was a nobleman, invested in a career in Sweden. As a 13-year old, Baltzar enrolled at the naval cadet school in Karlskrona and about 20 years later, he left the navy and the military service, with the rank of colonel. He then bough the Frugarden estate at Vanersnas, married Hedvig Elisabeth Ekman and had three children with her. He was also elected to the Board of Directors for the Trollhatte Canal Company.

At the beginning of 1808, von Platen personally presented his ideas about the Göta Canal to the king. This resulted in an ordinance that gave him the task of calculating costs and time consumption as well as staking out the canal route. He then contacted Thomas Teflord, one of Britain’s foremost canal builders, to ask for help.

During a very intense journey of only 20 days, von Platen and Telford completed measurement, levelling, route planning, and decided on locations for locks. In addition, the duo produced the documentation that would form the basis for the Riksdag’s decision on the feasibility of canal construction.

On 6 December 1829, Baltzar von Platen died in Kristiania (now Oslo, Norway), where he was serving as Governor-General of Norway. Sadly, this was three years before the Göta Canal was opened in its entirety.

gota canal cruise boat in front of hotel
Image by Annica Lindtourse from Pixabay

How the Göta Canal Was Built

The Göta Canal was mostly dug out by hand by 58,000 Swedish soldiers from 16 different regiments. The work consisted mainly of digging but also of blasting and masonry. The soldiers were equipped so that in the event of war or other unrest they could be relocated without delay.

Baltzar von Platen invested in new technology in the form of various tools and technical aids from England, and several skilled English supervisors were hired.

Each group was led by its own commander and sub-commander. Additionally, there was a work manager, directly subordinate to the canal director, at each workstation along the line. Above them all, as the supreme authority over crews, officers and managers of various kinds, sat the canal company chairman Baltzar von Platen, controlling the realisation of his vision.

With the exception of a few free hours, the canal diggers worked from 4 in the morning until 8 in the evening. The gigantic construction project claimed its victims and unfortunately work accidents were many. In the event of death or disability, the canal company assisted the victim, or his surviving family members, with a small pension.


The Canal Becomes an Important Transport Route

It is often said that the Göta Canal was outdated even when it first opened. However, the canal was an important Swedish transport route for at least 100 years and worked wonders for logistics in Sweden.

When Sweden’s industrialisation took off in the middle of the 19th Century, the need for transport increased. The only problem was that the roads were often in poor condition, and there was still no railway or cars. Shipping was instead often horse-drawn. If the horses were instead tasked with towing a barge on the canal, it’s carrying capacity increased from 120 kilos to 50 tonnes.

Some of the goods transported include herring and fish, cereals, firewood, coal and coke, zinc ore, stone, crude iron and scraps, and wrought iron and steel.

It was not until the 1930s, when the Swedish road network improved and trucks took over, that the canal’s importance as a transport route diminished.

During the Second World War, the need for boat transport temporarily increased again, but from the end of the 1940s, road traffic took over completely.

It then took until the 1970’s before the canal saw a real resurgence again, when the use of leisure boats increased sharply in Sweden. It had become a popular and appreciated tourist destination.


The Göta Canal Today

Over the years, canal traffic has changed its character. From the 1850s on, canal traffic carried as many passengers as all the country’s horse-drawn carriage lines combined. Lots of American emigrants, not only Swede’s but also Finns and Russians, took the canal route to Gothenburg.

When rail traffic developed in the 1870’s, it began to pose an increasing threat to canal traffic. A train journey from Stockholm to Gothenburg took 14 hours, compared to the canal journey of 56 hours (a journey which, however, was significantly cheaper).

Today, the boats carry exclusively tourists. What was once passenger transport is now leisure travel. Around 2000 leisure boats cruise on the Göta Canal every year, and the passenger ships still service it.

In fact, Rederi AB Göta Kanal is still active (the shipping company that has its origins in Angfartygs AB Göta Kanal, which was founded in 1888). The company owns the passenger boats Juno, Diana and Wilhelm Tham. These three large white canal boats are all purpose built to operate on the Göta Canal, and to fit the locks exactly. They operate on the Stockholm to Gothenburg route and are very popular with tourists, both to watch and to travel aboard.

In addition to the three large canal boats, there are also a number of smaller passenger boats for day trips, which are operated by independent shipping companies.

gota canal cruise boat on canal in front of hotel with other sail boats
Image by Annica Lindtourse from Pixabay

Order of Towns on a Göta Canal Cruise Including Those With Historical Significance

Sjotorp

Start and finish your canal journey in Sjotorp!

The Sjotorp shipyard was built by the Göta Canal Company in the 1820s, when a dry dock was also built. The professional skills of the workers were great from the very beginning and ‘Sjotorp builds’ became renowned for their high quality. For almost 100 years, the shipyard was run by three generations of the Groth family, but in 1921 the last steamship was manufactured. After that point, the business consisted mainly of repairs and conversions. The last newly built wooden ship was delivered to Russia in the early 1960s. In 1979, the canal company moved its operations back to Sjotorp, from Hajstorp, and once again took over the shipyards and the dry dock. Today, the business is completely focused on maintenance and service work related to the canal facilities.

In the old red harbour warehouse in Sjotorp lies the Göta Canal’s Canal and Maritime Museum. Here you can experience history and hear exciting stories about the history of maritime operations on the Göta Canal, Lake Vanern and Lake Vattern. Admission is included in the canal ticket for leisure boats. Other visitors can buy a ticket at Café Baltzar von Platen which is located on the ground floor of the building.


Lyrestad

Stop for a Swedish fika in Lyrestad. You mustn’t miss the local history museum near the canal.


Norrkvarn

Just by the lock in Norrkvarn you will find an exhibition that tells the story of the workstation in Norrkvarn. About 300 soldiers and officers lived and worked here between 1810 and 1824. Here you can discover old mechanical tools, see the early ideas about the Göta Canal and experience the life and work of soldiers. The exhibition also marks the start of a 500-metre culture trail, which is also a good way to experience the exciting history of this place. The exhibition is open from 9am to 6pm during the Göta Canal cruise high season and admission is free.


Hajstorp

For a long time, Hajstorp was the main locality on the Vastergotland section of the Göta Canal. It was home to a repair workshop, a smithy, carpenters and a warehouse. The Head of Canal Engineering, also head of the western section, had his official residence in the large, white engineer’s huge that was built in 1902 and still stands today. The building also includes an adjacent carriage driver’s house, a carriage house, stables, barn and a laundry room.


Toreboda

The railway and the canal met in Toreboda so the area flourished due to the large quantities of goods that were reloaded or placed in storage there. In 25 years, this rural area was transformed into a densely populated town where Toreboda became one of Sweden’s most important transhipment sites during the second half of the 19th Century. From and to Gothenburg, all kinds of goods were transported by rail and reloaded for further travel along the canal. Toreboda was therefore nicknamed “the town that ties together Sweden’s blue and black ribbons”.


Jonsboda

The café in the old bridge keepers cottage is a fantastic stop for fika and waffles!


Tatorp

During the period 1830-1864, there was a post office called Wassbacken, located by a junction where the canal met the old country road. The postal stagecoach between the governor’s town of Mariestad and Wanas on Lake Vattern (now Karlsborg) stopped here to deliver and collect mail. A small house located in the lock inspector’s yard had security bars installed and became a post office, with the lock inspector serving as postmaster. Today, the post office is a small museum run by the Moholm local history associations, and here you will find exhibitions about the Göta Canal and Vassbacken’s postal history.


Forsvik

Here you will find the Göta Canal’s highest and oldest lock. On 14 October 1813, the Forsvik lock was completed. About 500 soldiers had worked for three years to complete it, but even so, the lock was far too short. All the while the locks in the Göta Canal were larger than those in the Trollhatte canal, it worked, but not when those locks were later extended. At the beginning of the 1850s, Forsvik’s lock was therefore extended by moving the masonry of the upper gate chamber.


Karlsborg

Experience Karlsborg with its restaurants, shops, events and exciting adventure tours at Karlsborg’s Fortress.


Motala

Here you will find Baltzar von Platen’s grave, as he himself had decided that he would be buried next to the Göta Canal. Baltzar’s own wishes for a simple funeral were ignored by Charles XIV Johan. He made sure that von Platen was buried with due pomp and circumstance. The body was carried out to its grave and during a salute by 800 grenadier soldiers, he was laid to his final resting place next to his life’s work. This site is also the resting place of von Platen’s family, as well as the Göta Canal’s Head of Mechanical Engineering, Gustaf Lagerheim. It also said that von Platen’s horse was buried at the same time as himself, not far from his grave. Today, the site is marked with white posts.

The headquarters of Göta Canal Company was built in 1820 and has been an office and archive for the canal company. Over the years, the house has also been home to a museum, as well as to the lock inspector and the Head of Engineering. IN fact, half the upper floor and attic served as the residence of the Canal Director up until the mid-1980’s. His old kitchen is now the staff’s coffee room.


Motala Verkstad / Workshop

The Motala workshop was introduced just before the western section of the canal was opened. The ability to carry out repairs was essential for the Göta Canal. Motala workshop came to have a decisive role in the Swedish engineering industry, as several generations of engineers and mechanics received their education here, at a time when technical education was otherwise almost non-existent in the country. From its origins as a service workshop for the canal company, the Motala workshop then grew into a manufacturing company that gained global renown and sowed the seeds for the Swedish manufacturing industry. All over the world there are bridges, ships, steam boilers, hydraulic presses, traverses, locomotives, pressure vessels, crankshafts and stainless-steel sinks with the company’s characteristic signature “MW”.

The Göta Canal exhibition From Idea to Reality in Motala is located in the old Motala workshop, between the Borenshult locks and the Motala guest harbour on Lake Vattern. Here you can see how Baltzar von Platen took the 300-year old idea of building a waterway across Sweden and made it a reality. You will be introduced to the people who made it possible to build the canal and get acquainted with the technology they used. Admission is included in the canal fee for leisure boats, and the Service Card can be used to enter the exhibition. The entrance fee for other visitors can be paid at Café Mallboden just next door.


Borenshult

Borenshult’s lock staircase is the canal’s second largest with 5 locks and a level difference of 15.3 meters and is a very popular destination in Motala.


Borensberg

In Borensberg, one of the small lakeside towns by the Göta Canal, you will find the most things you could ever need, in a friendly environment. This is also a popular section of the canal along the 20-kilometre cycling and hiking path from Lake Boren in Borensberg to Berg by Lake Roxen.  


Glasbruket

Here you will find the famous Summer Café Glasbruket which serves waffles, home baked goods, ice cream, and locally produced drinks from Brunneby musteri and coffee, of course!


Brunneby

Here you will have the opportunity to taste first-hand the amazing natural products produced for more than 70 years by Brunneby Musteri. This small family run business presses a great variety of apples, berries including strawberries, rhubarb, blackcurrant and raspberries from home gardens and local farmers to produce their amazing ciders, juices and jams.


Ljungsbro / Malfors

The marina is next to Malfors bridge in Ljungsbro, within walking distance, approximately 1 kilometre to Cloetta Chocolate Factory Outlet.


Berg

Bergs’ number of locks is Göta Canal’s main attraction. The large flight of locks at Berg consists of seven interconnected locks, making it the largest flight of locks on a Göta Canal cruise. In it, boats ascend or descend 18.8 metres between Lake Roxen and the guest harbour in Berg. Its name, Carl Johan, stems from king Charles XIV John (Carl Johan is Swedish), who visited the construction site with his son Oscar and laid down two foundations stones for the locks.

In the centre of the lock area at the Berg locks you will find the lock gate exhibition which consists of five lock gates set up on the land. Here, you can learn more about the large gates that keep the water in place in the canal and how technological developments have changed them over the years. You also get to experience the mighty gates up close! Each gate tells its own story of how different building techniques have been used throughout the years.

The exhibition A Beautiful Tale tells 200 years of canal history and shows how the engineers overcame every challenge along the way. You are given an insight into how the canal has been experienced and aged throughout the years, from its inception until today, and how it is prepared for the future, through the extensive renovation project Göta Canal 2.0. It is free to enter and view the exhibition, which is open at the same times as the tourist information office in the same building.


Norsholm

Norsholm is a little green gem along the canal! There is a marina inside the lock with marina facilities in Kapten Bille’s Café and hostel. There is also a floating sauna for hire!


Soderkoping

The lock that boats travel through at Soderkoping today is not the original one. The first lock in this location was built in 1832, but not on sold enough ground, which is why is started to sink almost immediately after completion. It was therefore replaced with the lock that is still here today. That is also why the lock is relocated more towards the northern side, rather than at the centre of the canal.


Mem

Idyllic Mem is where your canal adventure starts, or ends.


In Summary – Planning your Göta Canal Cruise

With so many amazing things to do and activities to experience in Sweden, you will be spoilt for choice! However, a truly unique experience not the be missed is a Göta Canal cruise. Not only is the scenery spectacular, the history is fascinating as you will discover during your visits to the small towns along the way.

Are you planning a Göta Canal cruise? Have you been on a cruise along the Göta Canal, or think we should add something above? Post your tips and questions below.


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DISCLAIMER: This article contains affiliate links and Exit45 Travels are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. That means if you click a link and make a purchase, we make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Please see our disclosure policy for more information.


Essential Travel Planning Resources for Sweden

Below are our favourite companies to use for planning our travels to Sweden. They consistently turn up the best deals and overall, are better than their competitors. These are always our starting point when we need to book a flight, accommodation, tour, transportation etc.

Book a Tour:
We prefer to travel independently, however, sometimes the best and cheapest way to see the highlights of a city / country is to book a tour or package. For Sweden, we always use GetYourGuide and Viator for our tour bookings. If we are only going to be in a city for a day or two and want to make the most of our time there, we book through Big Bus Tours.

Always Carry With You:
When travelling in Sweden, we always carry a daypack for excursions, and the Lonely Planet Guide!


By Peta Wenzel

We are Peta (Australian) and Jonas (Swedish/Australian), a couple in our mid 40’s / early 50’s who have been travelling the world fulltime since January 2018. We met and lived on the Gold Coast, Australia and spent many evenings researching and watching YouTube vlogs about travel and dreaming of the day we would retire and be able to enjoy a lot more travel ourselves. Over the years, a number of events happened to family and friends and an opportunity arose which made us decide to not wait but to instead take a “Gap Year”. We are now in our 3rd year of travel and still hunger for new adventures and embrace the uncertainty that comes with full-time travel. If you want to know more about who we are, why we choose this lifestyle and how we do it, please follow our adventures and see how you can do it too.

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