Do you like holidaying on cruise ships? If so, why not pick one that has the World Heritage city of Visby on its itinerary. Capital of the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, she is sure to captivate you with her history and picturesque streets. If cruising is not your thing and you would like to stay longer, there are regular fast ferries and planes here too from the Swedish mainland.
The twin towers of the cathedral on its hill is what you first notice as Visby appears like a mirage when you first spot land. Then the city below develops in front of you, and you start to make out the towers of the famous, ancient city walls and church ruins. I was mesmerised almost instantly on my first visit and had to return like many others.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the harbour you find yourself immersed in history as you stand in the Donner Square looking at the Burmeister House from 1654, but this feels modern in comparison to what is to come. People have lived in Visby since the 8th century, and in fact, the whole island is dotted with Viking rune stones, the most famous of which have been taken to the city museum and are well worth seeing.
Visby played a big role in the Hanseatic League trade cooperation between Baltic Sea cities in the 13th century, not least due to good routes to Russia. Many German speakers lived here too for that reason, and when the cathedral choir was constructed in 1225, it was in times when locals and Germans shared the church but had separate services. Later the two groups even built three churches each below the cathedral hill. These 13th century gems are in ruins since the time around the Reformation, but are still used for concerts and weddings, and give a very romantic feel to the city.
In the late 13th century, the king heavily taxed successful Visby, and its citizens decided to build city walls from around 1270 to keep farmers and country folk out. It came to some fighting since the farmers wanted access to Visby harbour to sell their produce on the mainland, and the farmers closed the island’s trading centre in Russia as a revenge. This lead to Visby being less important in the Hanseatic League to the advantage of Lübeck in Germany. Still, those Russian routes kept being interesting enough to the Danish King Valdemar who invaded Gotland in 1361 in what became a very bloody battle. Again, Visby citizens and the farmers outside could not stay loyal to each other, and the farmers were butchered outside the walls before the city surrendered to the new king. Gotland was then Danish for almost 300 years before going back to Sweden.
Today you do not see much evidence of this gruesome tale in the quiet alleyways of Visby with their quaint shops and restaurants, and cottages full of roses. Still, you can most certainly feel history everywhere and in particular the medieval. Turn a corner and there is yet another ruin, here an old warehouse…
Parties and Festivals
Many people have heard of the Swedish politician Olof Palme. He happened to holiday in the area regularly, and in 1968 thought it convenient to hold speeches in Visby instead of going back to Stockholm in the middle of summer. He picked the Almedalen park to do so, and this later grew to a gathering of all Swedish political parties. Today, it is a well-established event, attracting NGOs, PR companies and lobbyists as well, and copied in other countries. For this week in early July, it is essential to book accommodation well in advance and the same goes for the so-called Stockholm Week later in July when the city is full of partying Stockholmers and too lively for some.
A medieval city needs a festival and ever since 1984, the Medieval Week in early August has been one of the major annual events, with jousting, a medieval market and lots of food, music and fun.
Visby Food culture
In my eyes, Visby is also one of Sweden’s best places to go to for the food lover. The microclimate on the island, with rather mild autumns, lends itself to a rare flora which, coupled with the limestone landscape is great for both dewberries and wild garlic. Sheep are also suitable for this environment, and lamb is common on the menus of city restaurants – be sure to try the local “glödhoppa”. Restaurants have a high ambition due to a combination of fine local produce and links with Stockholm, and the island’s medieval history has created unusual dishes such as saffron pancake.
Fossils and caves
Just south of Visby, and easily accessible by rental bike, the cliff of Högeklint juts into the Baltic Sea and is a great place to visit for good views. In shelter below the cliff is the lovely 19th century summer cottage Villa Fridhem, which was built for Princess Eugenie. Here you can have coffee and cake in the garden, and look for fossils on the adjacent little beach where you are reminded that Gotland was once in more tropical waters. Should you want to stay the night this is also possible.
If geology is your cup of tea, you might also want to visit the Lummelunda Caves north of Visby and go for a guided tour. The caves are not huge, but big enough for a fascinating walk and children tend to love it. If you travel with the family, you might also want to visit the Kneippbyn amusement park with a water world and the colourful house made famous in the Pippi Longstocking films shot here.