A World Heritage Site, a real huge medieval city wall, its own mild climate, the scene of the Battle of Visby between the Danes and the Swedes, a Hanseatic town and a Medieval week. What not to like about the Swedish city of Visby on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
We visited Visby on a summer trip to the two Swedish islands of Gotland and Fårö. The old Hansetic town is a great for a summer trip with the family, but also as a couple or for single travellers, but go in summertime.
I have chosen some highlights, where to stay and eat – especially for families.
WHAT TO SEE & DO IN VISBY
Right now there is Medieval Week in Visby. (You’ll find the word “medieval” extensively throughout this article.) Unfortunately, when we visited in 2014, we arrived just one week before and missed it! And fortunately, we arrived just one week before and missed it! Why is that? Well, this place doesn’t have room for too many tourists, and we already had trouble finding accommodation. So if you want to visit the festival book well in advance. Both hotel and ferry.
But of course, what cultural traveller doesn’t love a medieval fair with meat on spikes, shooting with arrows, heavy swords, drinking weird beer from wooden cup and men in armour (yes, I have been to many). Read more on Medieval Week here.
A MEDIEVAL TOWN
But if, you just missed the fair, no worries, there is plenty of medieval atmosphere in this old town. The most famous sight in the city (and on the island) is the town wall.
Just building a wall like this was unusual in Scandinavia. Sweden only has 3. But on top, this is the strongest, biggest and best preserved medieval city wall in Scandinavia and an important part of the city’s UNESCO stamp. It is huge. It was built in the 13th and 14th century and there use to be over 50 towers! You can enter some of the towers. Make sure to see the Gunpowder Tower.
For someone from Denmark, the history is extra interesting, since Danes and Swedes use to be sworn enemies. Especially in this city, they don’t like us Danes. Because we massacred them (not in a cool gamer way, but in horrible medieval way) in the Battle of Visby just outside the city walls.
You can learn more more about the massacre and other interesting historical facts in Gotlands Museum. Especially the Viking collection, some pictures stones I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world and medieval armour from the Danish invasion in 1361. If you are not such a big fan of medieval times, you can learn more on the unique natural surroundings. It’s also great for kids. Find skeletons and treasures or learn about seafaring.
You’ll find both the ruins of the old castle called Visborg and many of old churches. Visborg was built by king Eric of both Denmark, Norway and Sweden. This is a history that involves queen Margrete I, who is buried at my workplace (Roskilde Cathedral), but that’s a long story. But it shows that Visby played a key role in the Scandinavian power struggle. And regretfully, the Danes blew up the castle as a revenge after they lost control of Gotland in 1679. Shame on us.
One of the most impressive churches is the St. Karins church. When we were there there was art fair and modern installation was exhibited inside. Good idea to match the new and the old like this. Concerts are also being played in some of the ruins.
CHURCHES NOT IN RUINS
There are a huge amount of churches on Gotland and the island is famous for it. Gotland has the highest concentration of medieval churches in northern Europe – 92! And many still have medieval frescoes, like Muhammed below in Gothem Kyrka. Cool mustache!
Visby Cathedral or St. Mary’s Cathedral is in Roman style and the towers look like they have black hats on. It was built in 1225 as a church for German traders (this makes sense if you know that Visby was part of the Hanseatic league – a mostly German trading network). Today, it is the only medieval church still in use. Which meant, we didn’t have much time in there, because there was to be a wedding. Damn locals.
Visby has more churches than any other city, and most are built during the height of the Hanseatic league in 12th and 13th century. Some are in ruins, while others are just not that visited. Outside Visby you’ll pass many a church. We stopped by a few like Gothem Church with frescoes from 1300. Usually the door was just open…
This is a summer island and there are some nice sandy beaches all long the coastline.
We stayed right next to a nice small pebble beach just south of Visby.
But a large part of the east coast is great sandy beaches and the west coast more rough. For kids try Tofta or Ljugarn.
You can also find quarries filled with water perfect for a more adventurous swim.
As a family, our two favourite things was visiting the museum and climbing on the old ruins. My son always love to climb. But he doesn’t like too many people and noise, so we didn’t visit the most famous family attraction Kneippbyen juts south of Visby. Even though we stayed like only a few km away. You can stay here, but more importantly you can meet Pippi Longstocking. This would also be a great island for a family biking trip.
Food first. There is some really boring generic food on the island, but if you research, you can find the most delicious organic local food. In Visby, I can recommend Bakfickan (means back pocket) for relaxed atmosphere and fish. St. Hans Café and Restaurant is not great food, but you can (or could) sit inside the ruins or lie in a hammock, sooo. Around Bolaget is a popular place for drinks. Creperie & Logi will give you delicious pancakes.
But the best food absolute was in Lilla Bjers outside Visby. You need a car to get there and it’s a little difficult to find. But so worth it. The call themselces a green, organic oasis and it’s true. You sit inside a green house and the grow their vegetables themselves. Expect around 55 Euro for 3-course meal. Great wine too. Our son liked it as well – although you might not want to go if you have 4 kids.
Remember to buy some local products in Kränku Te & Kaffe in Visby.
You have eaten and now you’re tired. If you bring kids or don’t have a car, stay inside or as near the walls as possible.
We had a small room at Fridhem Pension. As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t book this trip well in advance, so we would have preferred to stay in the city, so we didn’t have to drive back and forth every time, using time, money and energy – especially with a kid. But too bad. Instead, we felt so lucky to find this incredible place overlooking the water just oozing with history. It was build in 1862 and was the summer residence of the Swedish and Norwegian princess Eugénies! Yes, stay in the princess’ house!
Super, but due to our late booking, they didn’t have any rooms inside the beautiful old wooden hotel, so we were moved to a room in an ugly little house down the road owned by the hotel. We were not happy, since it was the same price. Fridhem is located beautifully and the historical atmosphere is very special, but make sure you get a room inside the house.
There are also camping sites near the city like Visby Strandby, that seemed pretty good. But without car, I would rent a room in a small B&B or hostel near or inside the old walls.
But how do you get to the island?
To get to Gotland you can fly, but I recommend taking your car with you. We drove from Denmark to Oskarshamn and took a ferry – it took about 3 hours. You can also take the ferry from Nynæshamn near Stockholm. Otherwise if you arrive by plane, go to Stockholm, rent a car on mainland Sweden and take it on the ferry. I would think that taking your bike is way better, if you don’t bring a kid like mine who won’t bike.
Visby is one of my Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Europe! But if you’re more interested in Swedish islands? Just a small ferry ride away is the secret summer island of sheep & Bergman: Fårö, Sweden!