During the summer Gotland comes alive as vacationing swedes come for their summer holidays on this small island off the coast of Stockholm. During the first week of August, the city is taken over by the Medieval Week, as events, demonstrations and tourists all pack the city, dressed in medieval garb and eating like their ancestors.
Eleven church ruins can be found in Visby, in various states of repair, from the 12 and 13th centuries.
Sights & Culture
Visby has been a center for trade since 900AD and evidence suggests habitation all the way back to the stone age. It is Sweden’s best preserved medieval city, with the old town walls surrounding much of the city center, in remarkably good shape and a number of ruins scattered throughout the city.
The town is noted by Miyazaki as being the inspiration for the town featured in Kiki’s Delivery Service, its old streets and shops giving exactly the right impression.
The Old town is not large, with many of the larger shops and chain restaurants sitting outside its walls, but there is plenty of green space within the walls, the western of which overlook the ocean.
Whilst known as the Old Pharmacy, the pharmacy itself is from the 19th Century and moved locations in 1897, the building itself predates the pharmacy by approximately five hundred years and is famous for its medieval stone staircase.
The Main Square in Visby is the site of the handover to the Danish King of the city of Visby, at the conclusion of the Battle of Visby and is used still for the reenactment of this event, the King and his entourage enter the city by the Southern Gate and proceed to Stora Torget, where they are given the city formally. The Swedish crowd can be counted on to heckle and boo the Danish King loudly.
Originally from the 13th century, it has had many updates over the years, Currently a market centres the square with cafes, restaurants and bars all along its edges. The south side is dominated by St. Karins Ruin.
The ruins of Visborg Fortress are very much in ruins, taken over by grass and moss, and a far cry from their splendour in the middle ages. Some of the walls remain standing, but primarily it is foundations.
Gotlands Studentkår Rindi
The students Union building for Uppsala university’s Visby Campus is set in the old hot bath house of Visby and remains a striking part of the Almedalen park. Apparently the old swimming pool still exists under the floor of the Union.
The only remaining gallows in Scandinavia, Galberget at least offers the condemned a lovely view over the ocean before they meet their maker.
An unusual ruin, near to Galgberget and St Goran’s ruins.
Set in a medieval courtyard, a bar hosts its own miniature
marketplace, with specialist craftsmen offering their wears. Worth a
visit, as there is some unique items, and their owns stage with
St. Nicolai Ruin
One of the largest ruins in Visby, St. Nicolai’s Ruins are a 13th Century church and was the home of the Dominican brotherhood in Visby.
Used by the next door medieval banquet restaurant for events, and for music performances, it is not generally accessible to tourists. But eating at Frimis Visby allows you to eat in its shadow.
St. Goran’s Ruin
Outside the town walls, the ruins are in reasonable shape, and are used heavily during medieval week for longsword training, music, and midnight stories over a roaring fire.
Helge ands ruin
A small church ruin in the north of the old town, its octagonal shape is distinctive, but its history is contested and uncertain. Used for a time as a hospital as well as a church, part of it is now used as a hotel.
Construction started in the 12th Century, but ongoing renovations leaves the Cathedral looking comparatively modern, compared to the other historic ruins in Visby. Still in use as the islands main Christian Church. It is one of the largest tourist draws in Visby, bringing in over 200,000 visitors a year.
Built in the 13th Century, but in ruins and looking much older than the Cathedral from a hundred years prior, Drottens Ruin faces the S:t Lars Ruin and Cafe Paradiset. A number of arches remain on Drottens ruin, even with the roof gone, giving it a distinctive profile. The church was abandoned in 1528.
“There is a story about a wealthy merchant in Visby who had two daughters who did not agree. Since they couldn't go to the same church, he had two churches built next to each other, S: t Lars and Drotten. They are therefore called the sibling churches.” - https://www.gotland.net/sv/pla...
St. Lars Ruin
The sister church to Drotten, built for the merchants other daughter. Unlike other churches in Visby at the time, who were stylistically similar to German Churches, the church of St Lars has a byzantine influence.
St. Karins Ruin
The twin peaks of the stonework that would have held up the roof are St. Karin (and arguably Visby’s) most visible and memorable contribution to the skyline. They can, as the Main Square is on a hill, be seen from much of the city.
The Church was Franciscan, built in the 13th century by the beggar brothers, and is perhaps a more impressive building than the Cathedral itself.
During the winder months, an ice rink is opened in the ruins, allowing visitors to skate in this historic building.
St. Hans & St. Pers ruins
These church ruins are from the 13th Century, and St. Hans is thought to be the oldest stone Church on Gotland. The churches were demolished in the 18th and 19th Centuries with the stones being used in nearby house building.
The ruins are surrounded in an oval by a road and housing.
The Eastern Gate is one of the main ways into the old town from the more modern area of Visby, facing as it does one of the main bus stops, and a collection of shops. The gate was built no earlier than 1286 and is thought to be the earliest of the gates in the city walls to have been built.
The Österport forms the frame for the reenactment of the Battle of Visby each year, with the grass field in-front of it used as the battleground.
The Mill Tower forms part of the east wall of Visby old town. Its construction date is unknown, but it is referenced in correspondence from the early 17th Century. On the facade, two stones shattered by canon-balls can be seen.
The towers semi-circular nature is unusual in Visby and Sweden, but more common in the Baltic States, indeed you can see it in some of the town wall towers in Tallinn.
The Tar boiler house is set into the east wall, a short distance south of Kvarntornet. The warehouse predates the wall, and was incorporated during its building.
The Emperors Tower dates from at least 1750 and is found south of Tjärkokeriet on the Old Wall. It is the strongest tower on the east wall, and likely served as the central weapons storage. For a time, prior to the 17th Century it was used as the town’s prison, but this was discontinued and a prupose build prison created due to the rise in humanistic penal theory.
Since 2014 it has housed a prison museum, accessed by climbing the outside staircase.
The Southern Gate has the most delicate towers and is thought to be a reconstruction once the town became more settled. The gate itself is large and the main rough into Visby town passes through this gate.
Set at the south end of the western wall, the Fishers Gate gave acess to the fishing harbour. As a larger gate, it gives vehicle access to and from the Old Town.
Also known as the Western Gate, this gate gives access to the Marketplace during Medieval week, and so sees heavy foot traffic. Visitors are able to climb the tower for views over the nearby park and the beach.
Half way between Snäckgärdsporten and Norderport, St. Göransporten has a bridge over the moat, and was previously known as the Abandoned gate. (Ödeporten). Its primary purpose seems to have been the service of the almshouse and leper colony, hence its low usage.
The North Gate is quite narrow, allowing a single car through, and is in the north east corner of the old city walls. The original slot for the toll for incoming goods and traffic is still visible.
Likely not built until 1872, due to the collapse of part of the wall, the Love Gate (so named due to linguistic drift from Tar Gate) has a tradition that couples passing through it should stop and kiss. Walking through, take note of the many romantic inscriptions on the stones.
Museums & Galleries
The Museum is central in old town and spread over several floors. The ground has an excellent display of historic viking rune-stones, in excellent condition and explaining how the subtle carvings, worn by the weather are identified and the full picture is redrawn as best they can and how modern imaging techniques are raising questions on what was once thought to be displayed.
Upstairs, there are cases full of viking artifacts moving into more settled history, in well curated and explained displays. On the top floor a place for children to play and a replica 19th century shop.
In a connected side building, there is a replica of a medieval warehouse you can explore.
Parks & Gardens
A large park on the water south-west of much of old town, there is a theatre and a large lake in the picturesque park making it a popular place to hang out in the sun. A thin sand and rock beach gives access to the ocean.
Paviljongsplan - Medieval Week Marketplace
The large space inside the walls in the north west corner of old town, during medieval week becomes the medieval marketplace. Stalls spring up offering period clothes, foods and weaponry, blacksmiths hammer iron and displays are put on. In the center a food court and the Forum Vulgaris can be found where music and plays are put on for the audience.
Additionally, some of the stalls offer courses you can participate in like blacksmithing, spoon carving and stonework. Check the website for details and bookings.
This is the center point for the medieval week and worth spending time exploring. At the far end of it, the botanical garden can be found, with beautifully curated lawns and flowers.
Strandgärdet - Medieval Week Jousting
A large green field fronting the beach and town walls is turned into the jousting arena for medieval week. A large arena is setup with raised benches and daily displays of jousting, sword-fighting and archery are put on for the entertainment of the masses.
In the same venue, a series of ‘games’ can be found, showing off medieval skills and approaches. Aimed at a younger audience, its still an interesting place to spend some time.
All along the western edge of the city, the beach can be found, the beach is primarily sandy, though there are a number of rocks and it is not very wide and being protected by the mainland, the water is generally calm (though cold). Facing the setting sun, the sunsets are beautiful over the water, and the scattering handful of dark rocks jutting out of the water break up the clean lines of the ocean.
Restaurants & Bars
A small cafe near to the north gate, it has a dated vibe, but deliberately so, it offers good coffee and breakfast sandwiches and is also, with its proximity to the campsite one of the only places to get an early morning coffee and phone charge going.
Gotland Museum Cafe
A surprisingly large cafe in the Museum, it offers a full on buffet lunch experience in the Swedish style. Popular with older locals.
A great burger joint next to the Musuem, split into two rooms. The bugers are a good size and come with a pile of fries.
Facing Drotten’s ruins, its worth sitting outside for the view if you can. A fairly basic cafe, but with a good ice cream selection.
Restaurang Bageriet Café & Tapasbar
Set in the main square, the cafe’s best feature is the stoneware cups that they serve coffee in. Something different and fun.
Likely the most famous restaurant in Visby, Frimis is set in the grounds of St. Nikolai’s ruins and is a bar, and a all you can eat lamb restaurant. Go back as often as you like for lamb steaks, sausages, chops etc. Also offering a wide salad bar, you will eat your weight in meat.
Medieval Banquet Frimis Visby
By pre-booked ticket only, the Medieval Banquet is hosted in the historic cellar, or in Nikolai’s ruins depending on popularity and gives you a five course meal. The food is excellent, and you’re sat with strangers, who you get to know over sheep heads, soups and fish. Finished with the local delicacy of saffron cake.
Drink tickets need to be purchased ahead of time at the upstairs bar, and due to the busyness, it can be a challenge to get served during the meal if you plan on really hitting the booze. During the meal, various entertainment occurs, close up magic, music and fire eating.
A small ice cream shop on Stora Torget, it offers a range of flavours, as well as typical cafe fare. The perfect place to stop on a hot day, or whilst waiting for the town handover ceremony to begin.
Kärlek Café & Bar
On a side street, this cafe has a small outside seating presence and a good sized interior.
Brooklyn Burgers & Bar
Sweden loves a good burger, and this is another excellent place for one in Visby. The lunch time deal offers a sub-set of their burgers for a lower price, and at a smaller size. Perfect for lunch.
Sports & Activities
Battle of Wisby
The staging area is available all week, where you can see people living as they would have in the middle ages.
One of the major events to witness during the Medieval week is the reenactment of the Battle of Wisby on the final Saturday. Reenactors from all around the world don their best clothes and armour, some on horseback and demonstrate how the Danes and their mercenaries took the city of Visby.
Viewing is via tickets, though many people stood on the public road and watched from a distance. The finale gives every country that participated with reenactors the chance to come forward and cheer.
On the final day of Medieval Week, there is a reenactment of the handover of the town to the King of the Danes. Count on much heckling of the hated Danes by the locals, even 500 years can’t dull their dislike of a foreign king taking over.
This marks the symbolic end of medieval week, though a few things do continue after this point, largely people have already packed up.
In 2019, I plan to see 12 new counties in Sweden that I've not previously visited.
2019 - Seeing Sweden
Starting in November 2017 and finishing in October 2018 I spent a long weekend, each month, seeing a new city in a foreign country. Calling it my 12 Cities in 12 Months challenge, I ended up seeing eight totally new countries out of the twelve. I also spent a few weeks driving through the alps as an Alpine Adventure adding Austria and Lichtenstein to my new countries visited in 2018 and then ended the year seeing Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
Having done all this, and bringing my total countries visited to 58, I realised I'd not seen nearly as much of my new home country of Sweden, despite being here almost three years. I've visited a reasonable number of the snowboarding locations near to Gothenburg (Åre, Branäs, Romme Alpine, Ulricehamn and Isaberg) and the big cities of Gothenburg, Stockholm and Malmö) but I've not seen much else that Sweden has to offer.
In 2019, I plan to see 12 new counties in Sweden that I've not previously visited. I've been to seven, and so by the end of 2019 there should be only two counties in Sweden I've not visited.
After my first trip, to Halland south of Gothenburg, I have already noticed a few differences to my international travel. The chains I've come to recognise in Gothenburg are also in these new cities, making it too easy to slip into comfortable locations. The lack of air travel means no restriction on wearing contact lenses and going to less cosmopolitan places should give me more chances to improve my Swedish.