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When visitors lament that they have only a few days for the Swedish countryside after seeing Stockholm, we tell them to sail along the Göta Canal to see it all in a nutshell. This is deservedly one of Sweden's major attractions, linking the North Sea with the Baltic and connecting Stockholm with a direct inland water route. The canal is called "Sweden's blue ribbon," and it runs to the province of Västergötland between Lake Vänern and Lake Vättern (often confused because of the similarity of their names).

Stretching for 190km (118 miles) and rising more than 90m (295 ft.) above sea level at its highest point, with a total of 65 locks, the Göta Canal makes for an unforgettable journey. It's preferable to see it by water, but you can also drive along the canal, and we once even cycled it. The shifting scenery along the entire length of the canal provides one of the most beautiful panoramas in Europe.

The Göta Canal was begun for the purpose of transporting goods across Sweden, thereby avoiding expensive tolls levied by Denmark on ships entering and leaving the Baltic Sea. Construction started in 1810 under the supervision of former naval officer Baltzar von Platen, assisted by some 60,000 soldiers, and the first of the locks was built in Forsvik in 1813 and is still in use today. However, soon after it was completed, Denmark waived its shipping tolls, and the railway between Stockholm and Gothenburg was created, allowing for the cheaper and faster shipment of goods across Sweden. The canal's importance as a transport artery began to diminish, and it became more of a tourist attraction than a means of transportation. The idea of using it for leisure activities has fully caught on, and today 4,000 boats a year travel the canal, in addition to a significant number of passenger vessels and even canoes.

The towpaths are almost as busy as the canal itself. Where oxen once could be seen giving barges and sailing craft a much-needed tow, you now find walkers and cyclists making their way to the leafy countryside.

One of the highlights of any trip along the Göta Canal is to take in views of Lake Vänern, an inland sea that has existed since 6500 B.C. (although back then it covered a much larger area than today -- the present-day Lake Vänern took shape during the Iron Age around 300 B.C.). It is the largest lake in Sweden and the third largest lake in Europe, encompassing 2,130 sq. km (822 sq. miles) and measuring 145km (90 miles) long and 80km (50 miles) wide at one point.

Some 20 tributaries of varying size feed water into the lake, although that water is discharged to just one outflow, the River Göta. The amount of water being discharged is just over 500,000 liters per second, which, in effect, means the water in the lake is changed every ninth year. The lake boasts about 20,000 small islands and rocks, forming the world's largest freshwater archipelago.