The Hanseatic Town of Visby is the largest settlement on the island of Gotland, with around 25,000 residents. From the 12th to the 14th century it was the main centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltics. Today it is the best-preserved fortified commercial city in northern Europe with over 200 buildings and homes dating back to the Hanseatic League days, which is why the town centre was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Though established in 1875, the historical artifacts on display at the Gotland Museum date back much further. The museum has several locations both in Visby and beyond the town’s borders, yet the main attraction is the Historical Museum, locally known as ‘Fornsalen’, which translates to Hall of Antiquities. The museum’s collection includes the hedgehog girl from the Stone Age, picture stones found nowhere else in the world, Viking Age silver hoards, church sculptures, medieval armour from the Danish invasion in 1361 and more.
The museum takes you back to the very beginnings of the island and the coral reefs which form the bedrock of the island, and through 9000 years of human history. The museum is fun for all ages and can be visited on your own or with a guided tour. Children will be amazed by the skeletons and treasures, and can play in boats, fishing huts and cargo ships at the Ship o’Joy exhibition.
Once the town’s main port, today Almedalen is a lush park great for a relaxing stroll or a picnic on the grass, except during Almedalen Week. In the 27th week of the year, the park becomes the site of the most important forum in Swedish politics. During the week, representatives from the major political parties in Sweden take turns to give speeches in the park. Though the first official Almedalen Week took place in 1982, the tradition dates back to 1968.
Visby Old Town is surrounded by a 3.5 kilometre long, 11 metre high City Wall with 36 towers and three main gates, many of which are still in their original 13th century state. The oldest tower in the city wall is the Powder Tower, ‘Kruttornet’, which was built in the 1100s. During the Middle Ages it offered protection to the harbour at Almedalen. It the 18th century the Swedish state stored gunpowder in the tower, which gave the tower its name.
The three main gates in the town wall are the Norderport, Österport and Söderport, though there are many other smaller gates. The Österport is nearest the RED Sightseeing shuttle bus stop and is a great place to enter the old city. As it is at a higher elevation, it allows you to walk down the hill and see the best views first.
Gotland is sometimes referred to as the Island of churches as it has the highest concentration of medieval churches in northern Europe. The Sankta Maria Cathedral, also known as the Visby Cathedral, is both a place of worship and a cultural treasure dating back to the late 12th century, though updated through the years. It has baroque cupolas, beautiful stained-glass windows, carved floor slabs and ornate carved reredos, and is best seen from behind.
Across Gotland there are nineteen known church ruins, twelve of which are in Visby. One of the most stunning and largest is the St Karin Church ruin, which dates back to 1233, has high arches and is now often used for performances. Other church ruins within the City Wall include St. Drotten’s, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and St Nicolas, which was the abbey church of a Dominican abbey.
It should not be a surprise that a town so well known for its medieval history, celebrates it with one of Sweden’s biggest historic festivals. Since 1984, during week 32 of the year Visby becomes a paradise for all who enjoy jousting, markets, concerts, street-theatre, fire shows, storytelling and much more. During that one week, the town holds 600 events and welcomes 40,000 visitors.
Medieval Week, or Medeltidsveckan, is held mainly in Visby’s medieval neighbourhoods but the rural areas of Gotland join in too. During the week, people dress in medieval costumes, transporting the whole town back in time with minstrels, noble people, paupers and many more.
Visby’s Botanical Garden was founded in 1855, inside the City Wall, and has since been a popular oasis. The garden is home to both native and non-native plant species, which can thrive there because of its unique location.
The garden includes figs, mulberry and walnut trees as well as the more exotic tulip trees, emperor trees, Chinese trees and magnolias. On the south side the garden is clearly connected to the medieval city, as the ruins of St. Olof’s church are covered by the country’s strongest ivy.
Visby has more restaurants per inhabitants than any other place in Sweden, which has made it a well known foodie hotspot. Gotland’s history as a trading post has allowed it to develop a fondness for ingredients from distant shores, including saffron. This is represented by the restaurants and cafés that focus on specific international cuisines as well as in local classic dishes, such as the ‘Saffranspannkaka’.
As it is an island there is a natural fishing tradition, with all sorts of seafood available on the menus around town. At the same time the rearing of sheep on the island dates back to the Viking-era and today the Gotland’s lamb meat is known for its texture and flavour. The local ‘Gotlandsdricka’, a smoky-sweet, juniper-flavoured traditional ale, has been made on the island for centuries and other types of locally brewed beer are never out of reach.