The UNESCO World Heritage city of Visby on the island of Gotland deserves a place on the itinerary of any vacation to Sweden. Here’s why: It’s one of the best preserved medieval cities in all of Scandinavia, yet as a destination, it’s virtually unknown outside of the Nordic countries. Beyond the rich and palpable history, this quaint Nordic seaside getaway has lots to boast: sprawling green spaces, stone walls and towers from centuries past, museums that do its rich history justice, fine Nordic cuisine, artisan shops and cafes, and stunning Baltic views. It’s no wonder it’s been Stockholmers’ go-to summer getaway for years. With the advent of more and more of the fancy city folk buying property on the island, this place is only getting hipper. Head there now before the rest of the traveling world does. (I promise, it’s only a matter of time.)
The 100-mile-long island of Gotland
Photo by Helen Simonsson CC BY
Just half an hour by plane and three hours by ferry from Stockholm, a trip to Sweden’s most beloved island is a must for visitors to the capital who have a few days to spare. Rent a car there for the freedom to explore the entire 100-mile-long island of Gotland—worth it if only for the impressive rauks (natural limestone pillars that dot the coastline). Yet with half of the total population residing in Visby, that’s where you’ll find the most action.
Photo by Peter Adermark CC BY
A couple days in Visby
Photo by *Psycho Delia* CC BY
Got a couple of days in Visby? Here’s what you should do.
Get up early to stroll along the water on Snackgardsvagan to get your first view of the medieval city wall encircling the old town. Enter via Kiskarplan along the sea, where you’ll find yourself steps away from the well-maintained botanical gardens (Botaniska tradgarden). Stroll over its romantic foot bridges, smell the sweet rose and lavender, and educate yourself on the region’s botany. During the summer months, the gardens host regular musical performances.
Haven’t had enough parks? Picnic in the sprawling Almedalen, which served as the city’s harbor during medieval times.
Typically Swedish: Quaint and Hip
Photo by Peter Lübeck CC BY
Spend a few hours weaving through the town’s sloping, labirynthic streets, which are laid out this way to baffle intruders of eons past (and present). Each building is touched with exquisite archaic details–weathered wood and stone, whimsical color palates, and rose vines weaving every which way.
In a place this quiet and quaint, it’s hard to believe that it can be so hip—This is the Scandinavian standard—a refined, non-decadent celebration of the aesthetic. Visby is no exception.
The city of ruins
Photo by Jens Dahlin CC BY
Weaving within the city walls, you’ll see how Visby lives up to its nickname—“the city of ruins.” The most impressive are perhaps those of St. Catherine’s Church, constructed in the 13th century. Wrap your minds around that, Americans! It can get pretty packed with tourists in the summer months, so get there right at noon when it opens. The church—with its high, open stone arches—is one of those magical corners of Europe that gives you an authentic taste of human life in a bygone era. Do not miss it. St. Catherine’s church is located in the center of town at the Market Square (Stora Torget). If you’re hungry, pop into the adjacent Bakfickan, a cozy, popular restaurant known for its fresh and flavorful seafood options. Sit outside for view of the ruins.
Don’t miss out on the other ruins of the small city—St. Hans, St. Lars, St. Drottens, St. Clemens, St. Gertrud, etc., etc. At sunset, visit the Visby Cathedral and walk up the Kyrktrappan (church steps) for the most stunning view of the town, its great stone walls, and the coastline it hugs.
An afternoon delight
Photo by Andreas Ivarsson CC BY
If you’re into souvenirs, or even if you’re not, you should definitely check out the Kränku Tea Shop—for an extensive collection of local and foreign tea, spices, sauces, coffee, and candy, as well as many a toy, trinket, and kitchen item—each and every a pleasure to the eye.
When you’re tired of shopping, enjoy a mid-afternoon Swedish fika (coffee break) at the sweet Café Amalia just a few feet away. The cinnamon rolls (Kanelbulla) are to die for and the coffee comes with free refills! (They were so excited to tell the Americans.)
A trip through the ages, ice cream in hand
Photo by per egevad CC BY
A trip to Visby is incomplete without learning its fascinating history, easily achieved by a visit to the impressive Gotlands Museum, winner of numerous travel awards and certainly a highlight of my time there. It is simply one of the best historical museums you’ll ever visit. Entrance is a bit pricey, but if you’ve spent half a day in Sweden, you’ll not come to expect a bargain. Explore the museum’s four floors (extensive indeed for such a small city!) which follow the island’s history literally through the ages–Stone to Bronze to Iron to Viking to Medieval to present. You’ll even have the chance to try on a chain metal vest and imagine yourself fighting in the legendary Battle of Gotland against the Danes!
Photo by Jesús Corrius CC BY
Celebrate the sea by spending your last night in Visby walking along the harbor (Skeppsbron). In the summer months, the walk can be improved by a stop at Glassmagasinet, Sweden’s largest ice cream parlor! Try the salty licorice flavor if you’re feeling particularly Swedish.
Some extra pointers:
- Medieval history geek? Don’t miss the city’s extraordinary Medeltidsveckan (Medieval Week) running Sun-Sun in the 32nd week of the year (August).
- Vegetarian: Check out the trendy Leva Kungslador, with a great buffet, an artsy farm shop, and great outdoor seating options. Located just southwest of the city center.
- Head just outside of the wall to Österväg for your standard selection of chain drugstores, clothing stores, fast food fare, etc.