Sweden is home to many thousands of lakes. Its largest one, Vänern, is located in the southwest of the country. This body of water harbours secrets from the last ice age, was the subject of an epic ice battle written about in the Edda and Beowulf, was home to Vikings and contains fascinating natural and man-made sights. Without further ado, here are 7 facts about Lake Vänern.
1. Vänern is the third largest lake on the European continent
Vänern is the third largest lake on the European landmass. And because it’s beaten by Lakes Ladoga and Onega in Russia, it’s also the largest lake in Western Europe. It has a surface area of over 5500 square kilometres, a coastline of 4800km and stretches through three of Sweden’s provinces: Värmland, Dalsland and Västergötland. The lake supplies water for 800,000 people – approximately 10% of Sweden’s total population.
2. Vänern salmon can’t be found anywhere else in the world
Vänern was formed during the last Ice Age approximately 10,000 years ago. Before the ice began to melt, Vänern was part of a large body of frozen water that stretched across Sweden. But, as the ice melted, forging the spectacular fjords of neighbouring Norway, Vänern became isolated and turned into a freshwater lake. Some of its inhabitants were also cut off from their former ocean habitat.
As a result, there are some species in Vänern that aren’t typically found in freshwater environments. Atlantic Salmon and Brown Trout are typically born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean where they reach adulthood before returning to fresh water to spawn the next generation. But the species in Vänern spend their entire lives in fresh water. They are related to their cousins living in the Baltic Sea but have been cut off from their cousins for many thousands of years. Scientists at Karlstad University have been studying the fish, whose populations suffered severe depletion during the twentieth century but are now beginning to recover.
3. Vänern’s archipelago contains 22,000 islands
As Sweden’s largest lake, Vänern is unsurprisingly also Sweden’s largest lake archipelago. In the middle of the lake are thousands of islands (you’ll know they’re islands by the suffix -ö or -ön in their names. For more on this see my guide to Swedish place names). Some of these islands are merely rocks in the water, while others are inhabited and serve as popular summer holiday destinations for Swedes complete with walking trails, campsites and shops.
Several islands are located close to shore and are easy to reach. The tiny Jäverön, accessible via ferry from Skattkärr, offers beautiful walking and biking paths. Hammarö is a short drive south from Karlstad, its southernmost point offering a lovely backdrop for weekend picnickers and brave swimmers.
The Lurö archipelago in Säffle has been inhabited since the 9th century and was a stopover for pilgrims travelling to St. Olaf’s resting place in Nidaros during the Middle Ages. Today, Lurö is privately owned by two families. Visitors can make their way to the archipelago by boat and enjoy wandering past ancient ruins and tasting local produce. On the island of Kållandsö in southern Vänern, you’ll find Läckö Castle, which dates to the late 13th century and was once owned by Gustav Vasa.
4. Vänern feeds into the Göta Canal
The Göta Canal is a canal just short of 200km in length that was constructed during the 19th century. It runs from Sjötorp by Lake Vänern all the way to Mem on the Baltic Sea, connecting Lake Vänern with the smaller Lake Vättern to the east. The Göta Canal forms part of a larger canal network of over 600kms stretching from coast to coast. If you start at Mariestad, you can make your way to the canal’s entry point at Sjötorp. You can cycle along the canel or explore the waterway from a passenger boat.
5. A Picasso sculpture overlooks the lake
By the shores of Vänern near a small Swedish town is perhaps the least likely place you would expect to find a Picasso artwork, but find one you will. Standing on some rocks at Vålösund just outside of Kristinehamn is a 15 metre high sculpture made of concrete. The sculpture is one of a series of works titled themed around Picasso’s wife and is one of the largest Picasso sculptures of its kind in the world. It was inaugurated in 1965 and was constructed by Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar.
6. Vikings once lived here
Marine archaeologists uncovered a remarkable find at the bottom of the lake in 2009: a 20-metre long ship, believed to be the first Viking shipwreck found in Swedish waters. Reports from the time are not 100% clear whether it actually was a Viking ship and I haven’t been able to find any recent confirmation. Whether it was built by the Vikings or not, the infamous raiders were certainly around Vänern at some stage; the remains of Viking forts have been discovered at Värmlandsnäs, an isthmus that juts out into the lake.
7. Vänern was the scene of a 6th century ice battle for the Swedish throne
Lake Vänern was the site of violence and bloodshed well before the arrival of the Vikings. The lake makes a dramatic appearance in Norse sagas, including the Icelandic Prose Edda, and is also mentioned in the Old English epic Beowulf. In an event that could very easily take place in a Game of Thrones episode, the sagas record the occurrence of a winter battle, which has been dated to the year 530. After King Ottar Vendelkråka died, his brother Onela usurped the throne and killed Ottar’s son Eanmund. With the help of Beowulf, Ottar’s other son and Eanmund’s brother, Eadgils, took revenge on his uncle. He killed him on the frozen surface of Lake Vänern, becoming the new king of Sweden.
How to Explore Lake Vänern
The best way to explore Lake Vänern is obviously by boat during the summer. The weather is mild and ferries travel regularly from towns and cities along the lake’s shoreline to the various islands. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do the rest of the year round. Take a car and drive around the lake, stopping off at various lakeside cities to explore by foot or bicycle.
Karlstad, the largest city on Vänern, is an obvious starting point and offers many activities for visitors. But don’t forget about smaller destinations that offer a little more tranquility. One of my favourite places is a hiking trail in Liljedal near Grums that offers beautiful views of the lake.
There you have it: 7 facts about Sweden’s largest lake. Do you have any more to add? Let me know in the comments!