Crossing Sweden by Century-old Boat on the Göta Canal

Remember when getting there really was half the fun? It still is, I found, on Sweden’s 120-mile Göta Canal. The other half, of course, is being there, but traveling aboard the world’s oldest operating passenger ship at barely 10mph, the being there and the getting there become almost indistinguishable.

The canal, hand-dug by 58 000 soldiers and completed in 1832, crosses Sweden, connecting with lakes and rivers so ships can traverse the country between the port of Goteborg (Gothenburg) on the west, and Stockholm on the east. The 40-passenger M/S Juno, on which we sailed, has been carrying passengers across it since launching in 1874.

In Your Bucket Because

  • The canal meanders through the rural heart of Sweden at a pace that invites discoveries along the way.
  • M/S Juno is the world’s oldest ship carrying overnight passengers.
  • Good for adults who love history, small towns and a leisurely pace.

We embarked – it was really a lot more like hopping on board a friend’s yacht for the weekend – from the delightful little city of Goteborg, itself a good introduction to a week in rural Sweden. Juno was docked next to the Maritime Museum, an essential stop for boat-lovers, and few steps from the Stadtmuseum, housed in the former headquarters of the East India Company.

Cozy Cabins

Fortunately I had read the pre-trip information carefully, and was prepared for the tiny cabin – not much space, but one of the nicest interiors I have ever slept in, with rich wood paneling and a sink encased in brass-fitted mahogany. Suitcases slid under the lower bunk to be used as drawers, and hanging space was large enough for one evening’s dinner wear and our jackets.

By dinner wear, I don’t mean long dresses – jackets and ties were rare except the final night at the captain’s dinner. Everyone was “in the same boat” for closet and storage space, so informal pretty well sums up the atmosphere.

Juno descends the locks at Langkanalen (Photo by Stillman Rogers)

The ship is really sweet, most of its cabins opening onto the two decks, with a few below. Cabin size was not a problem, since we were rarely in them except to sleep. “Remember that you are on an historic vessel, traveling as people did in the 1880s,” a crew-member reminded us, and everyone fell quickly into the spirit. Knowing that kings and queens, Hans Christian Anderson and Hendrik Ibsen traveled on these same little boats made their history even more enticing. The biggest drawback to this historical authenticity was the lack of en suite facilities, but the down-the-hall bathrooms were kept spotless and never had waiting lines.

The tiny cabins brought the very international clientele onto the decks and into the library, which quickly built camaraderie among passengers, even though we spoke many different languages.

We followed the route and its sights with multi-lingual announcements, daily briefings and a very thorough booklet detailing the entire route. The upper deck gave us a vantage point well above canal level, so the passing scenery included long views in addition to the charming waterside vignettes that we saw at eye level from the lower deck.

Time on the River

As we left Goteborg, sailing up the Göta River past forts from as early as 1308, we were almost immediately in the countryside. Houses along the river and canal vary from small typical board-and-batten cottages (red and yellow are popular house colors here) to stately homes, such as Strom Manor. A thatched tavern sits beside the first lock we entered, at Lilla Edet, shortly before we began the climb through the dramatic Trollhatte locks.

These raise the ship 100 feet, through cuts bordered by cliffs. At the top we toured the old locks, a deep narrow canyon that was bypassed by later locks. We could see several different flights of locks built here at various times, and visit the Trollhatte Canal Museum, with displays of canal-related artifacts and models of the lock system. A guest book lies open to the signature of King Gustav IV Adolph, dated 1801.

Shortly after, we slip into Lake Vanern, Europe’s third largest, and weave through the continent’s largest inland archipelago. In the long summer twilight, we stray from our route to see Lacko Castle, rising grandly from the lakeshore.

A family group serenades the Juno as it passes through the lock at Forsvik (Photo by Stillman Rogers)

Into the Canal

On the far side of Vanern, the last remaining hand-operated lock is at Tatorp, and the oldest house on the canal is at Forsvik, where a family of singers came to serenade us. Since the 1930s, three generations of Kindboms have greeted each passing steamer with folk songs and hymns. They end with a hymn familiar to most passengers and we all join in our own languages. Villagers stand in the light rain, some under umbrellas, and sing with us. It’s a lovely scene, and makes us feel less like a ship full of strangers floating through.

At Lake Vattern the Juno stops in Vadstena. A castle dominates the canal bank, and beyond is the old town with tiny houses set along narrow streets. A little tourist train takes us to the cathedral and convent founded by St Birgitta, where a local tour guide recounts the saint’s story and gives us an insider tour. All admissions and tours are included.

Medieval Streets

Near Berg, a walk along the canal and across a meadow leads to Vreta Cloister, where the 12th-century abbey is Sweden’s oldest. While the boat made its way through a series of locks, most passengers jumped ship to walk along the towpath to Soderkoping, wandering its Medieval streets, with houses dating from its days as an important city of the Hanseatic League. The 13th-century brick church has stair-stepped gable ends and an unusual free-standing timber bell tower.

The last part of our journey takes us into the Baltic, through an archipelago and into Lake Malaren, stopping at the island of Birka. Founded in the 7th century, Sweden’s oldest town was an important Viking trading center, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our walking tour of the island was guided by an archaeologist.

Just before sailing into beautiful Stockholm, the Junopasses Drottningholm Castle, the grand royal residence dating from the late1500s, another World Heritage site. By the time we disembarked right in the middle of the city, we’d floated through eight lakes, two seas, a river and three canals with 66 locks.

More even than our fascination with this waterway and all the historic sites, the cruise was about the everyday life we saw along its banks, and the leisurely pace that allowed us to explore towns on foot, admire gardens over back fences and join a local family singing hymns in the gentle spring rain.


  • Four- and six-day cruises cover the same itinerary, but vary the number and length of stops.
  • Pack light, since luggage space is limited, but be sure to bring a waterproof jacket.
  • For travel information: Travel in Sweden For itineraries, dates, and other information: Gota Canal.

Leave a Comment