On the north shore of Europe’s largest freshwater lake, the city of Karlstad promises a feast for culture lovers. Some giants of Swedish art and literature have ties with Karlstad, like the painter Lars Lerin or 19th-century poet Gustaf Fröding. Go a bit further and you’ll be at Mårbacka, the childhood home of Selma Lagerlöf who was the first female Nobel Prize-winner for literature.
In the city you can explore the banks of the Klarälven and canal that links the river with Lake Vänern. There are beautiful parks like Mariebergsskogen, with fun for kids in summer and ice-skating in winter, and a line-up of museums to capture your attention for a few hours. And of course Vänern is your go-to for boat trips, bathing, fishing and exercise in breathtaking scenery around the shore.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Karlstad:
1. Sandgrund Lars Lerin
Sandsgrund, an iconic former nightspot beside the Klarälven now houses a gallery for one of Sweden’s most treasured artists.
Lars Lerin is a celebrity in Sweden, and is famed for his phenomenal watercolour landscapes, which are the star of the show here.
He has also made a name for being a restless traveller and there are watercolours, oil paintings, drawing, collages, and photographs composed in far off locations the world, from Siberia to Iran and the Antarctic.
The museum is a retrospective of Lerin’s career and has the single largest collection of his works.
2. Värmlands Museum
As the county capital, Karlstad is home to the Värmlands Musuem, which uncovers the history and culture of this corner of Sweden.
The museum has a reserve of more than 40,000 artefacts, as well as 9,000 artworks and up to a million photographs.
At the time of writing in 2017 the historical galleries were temporarily closed.
But at any rate the Cyrillushuset is the indispensible bit.
This hall from the 1920s was designed like a Chinese temple, and boasts the museum’s considerable art collection.
There are pieces by Chagall and Miró among works by Swedish artists like Lerin, Anders Zorn and Lena Cronkvist, dating from the 1700s to the present.
The museum also stages temporary shows on any number of topics: In 2017 the main exhibition was about the children’s authors Inge and Lasse Sanberg.
3. Karlstad Cathedral
Dating to 1730, Karlstad Cathedral is the seat of the Karlstad Diocese, which spreads across both Värmland and Dalsland.
The 65-metre whitewashed tower and its black spire are ever-present on the Karlstad skyline and like the facade the interior walls are completely white.
This stems from Enlightenment ideals that the church should be an expression of reason, morality and eternity.
Some of the fittings worth a closer look are the pair of angels at the old altar, carved by the respected Neoclassical sculptor Johan Tobias Sergel, oil paintings from the 18th century and the gilded pulpit from the 1790s.
4. Alsters Herrgård
A little way east of the city you can stop by the graceful lakeside home of the 19th-century poet Gustaf Fröding.
This mansion was an ancestral home, built in the 18th century, and Fröding was born here in 1860. You can tour the house and the outbuildings dotted around the extensive gardens that look out over Lake Vänern.
Inside there’s an exhibition about the long history of the house, while an art gallery in the east wing is open in the summer months.
Also in this season there’s a rich cultural programme of poetry readings, theatre, music and dance.
And from the property you’ll have easy access to hiking trails and bathing areas on the lake.
Opened in 2013, this museum tells the engrossing story of Sweden’s military organisation and development during the Cold War.
The exhibition delves into the period from 1945 to 1991, revealing the military hardware that was rolled out at this time, but also showing everyday life during momentous events like the Vietnam War and fall of the Berlin Wall.
Military historians can glimpse some proper hardware, like personnel carriers, tanks and artillery.
You can also go down in to a bomb shelter and test your aim on a shooting simulator, firing a machine gun from 1942 or a modern anti-tank gun.
On an inlet of Lake Vänern, south of the centre of Karlstad is a park that is several attractions rolled into one.
What awaits you here depends on the season.
Summer means music and children’s entertainment at the open-air stage, miniature train rides on the Conrad Höök, a themed “Troll Walk”, swimming in the lake, mini golf and more.
When the days get shorter the park becomes a winter wonderland, and an ice rink is open throughout the winter.
The lake also freezes over so people hit Mariebergsskogen for longer skating trips around this inlet.
Open all year is the Lillskogen zoo, which has ponies, potbelly pigs, goats and rabbits, which all move into cosy stables in winter.
7. Östra Bron
“East Bridge” in English, this crossing on the Klarälven is one of Karlstad’s most photographed landmarks.
At 168 metres and with 12 arches it is Sweden’s longest stone-built bridge, and replaced a succession of wooden crossings that were routinely washed away during the city’s spring floods.
The first stone was laid in 1761 and it would take another 50 years before the bridge was finished.
For the best perspective, come to the north bank of the Klarälven where you can get a shot of the bridge, the river island Gubbenholm and Karlstan Cathedral in one image.
For all of Karlstad’s waterside-side greenery, the prettiest place for a picnic in spring and summer is the Stadsträdgården.
This English-style park has a circuit of gravel paths bordered by flowerbeds and some 800 different species of trees and shrubs, all well-tended and identified by labels.
The Stadsträdgården started life as horticultural school in the 1860s, and was acquired by the city in the 1920s.
In summer there’s a adorable cafe/kiosk in a little wooden pavilion on one of the lawns.
9. Stora Torget
At Stora Torget, Karlstad has one of the largest city squares in Sweden.
This was laid out in 1865 following a fire that devastated the city.
And the reason for its size was to prevent the spread of future blazes.
On the western side of the square is the town hall, designed by the Stockholm architect Ernst Jacobsson when he was still in his 20s and in place of the former town hall destroyed in the fire.
Note the pair of eagles on the facade: These were cast at the Ludwigsberg foundry in Stockholm and weigh 900kg each.
In February the square is the finish line for a special stage of Rally Sweden, a WRC event.
10. Inner Harbour (Inre Hamn)
When it’s warm and sunny Karlstad’s quaysides and jetties are real joy.
You can idle along the rivers and canal where there’s outdoor seating for a host of cafes and restaurants.
This is particularly trendy just east of Stadsträdgården, a part of Karlstad that has witnessed a lot of development over the last decade or so.
Restaurants here even have their own jetties, and yachts are berthed right beside the outdoor tables.
A little further up, the banks of the Pråmkanalen are very pretty at Badhusparken where the canal joins the Klarälven River.
11. Lake Vänern
Europe’s largest lake is epic in every sense: Vänern is mentioned in Beowulf, and the Norse sagas recount a battle on the ice in the 6th century.
May to September the lake bustles with activity, and the choice of things to do goes on and on.
Boat trips are available, including a cruise on the Stella Polaris, which departs the inner harbour for 3.5-hour tour of the lake as you dine on fresh shrimp.
If you enjoy fishing you’re in for a treat here, as Lake Vänern abounds with salmon, and the largest lake salmon ever caught (20kg) was reeled in at this lake.
You can also skirt the lake on foot or by bike, and there are countless sandy bathing areas around the shore.
Monday to Friday, from the start of June to the end of September you can hire a bike in Karlstad without paying a penny.
During the day the Solocykeln scheme allows you to hire up to 20 bikes in one go for free, and all you need is photo ID. Thanks to its many waterways and a high volume of students, Karlstad is an easy and safe city to see by bike.
You can get out to the shore of Lake Vänern, coast along the Klarälven or shuttle from one sight or attraction to the next in the centre of the city.
Tandem bikes are also available if you’re sightseeing with someone who has reduced mobility.
Golf is a serene way to get out and appreciate the majesty of the Karlstad’s countryside and there are seven courses inside 30 minutes of Karlstad.
If you’re up for a round in spring, summer or autumn, many hotels in the city provide golf packages.
Midsummer is always a special time to be in Sweden, and you could spend it in the most unforgettable way possible playing golf in sunlight at midnight! For seasoned players, Kils Golfklubb is ranked in Sweden’s top ten courses and has an idyllic location on Lake Fryken.
Closer, Karlstad Golfklubb has three nine-hole courses.
Two of these combine to form an 18-hole loop that you need to book for, while at the other you can just show up and play when the mood strikes.
Another cultural trip into the Värmland countryside will lead you to the estate of author Selma Lagerlöf.
In 1909 she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and she used the money to buy back this property where she was born and grew up.
The writer of Jerusalem and Gösta Berling’s Saga turned what had been a relatively humble cottage into a rich mansion.
The house, gardens and interior are exactly as they were when she passed away, in accordance with her will.
And they shed new light on Lagerlöf, not just as an author, but as an employer and businesswoman
15. Rottneros Park
In the same neck of the woods, Rottneros Park is a fabulous sculpture park and patchwork of gardens around a manor house.
This makes a great partner for Mårbacka, as the estate was the inspiration for “Ekeby” in Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling’s Saga.
Later, in the 1950s it was redesigned to fit the Romantic description in the novel.
The sculptures are all from the first decades of the 20th century, and adhere to the philosophy that art should interact with its environment.
There are more than 30 in all, and more than half were created by Carl Eldh, one of the most beloved sculptors of the period.