For non-European travelers, Visby is not the most popular destination to travel in Sweden. In fact, many of us have never heard of the place. A lot of American travelers gave us blank stares when we mentioned that we visited Visby. “Is that a name of a place?” Yes, it is the capital of Gotland in Sweden. “Where is this place?” On an island that is still part of Sweden. “Why didn’t you just stay in Stockholm?” We wanted to see more. “Why do you want to visit Visby?” Well, we’re glad you asked! Here’s a few things to do in Visby, Sweden.
Introduction to Visby
The town of Visby is the capital of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea. It is located about 60 miles (90 km) from mainland Sweden. This picturesque island borders Latvia across the Baltic Sea to the east. So you can imagine that it is somewhat remotely located. Visby’s medieval construction reached its peak in the 12th century, and has seen little change since. Visby’s unique background is a blend between the culture of the Vikings and that of the Hanseatic (German trading league). You can see the evidence all over the island.
Today, Visby is considered one of the most well-preserved medieval town in Europe. UNESCO agreed, and made Visby one of its protected World Heritage Sites in 1995.
Things to do in Visby
We really enjoyed our time walking around this special medieval town. There are endless possibilities for routes and itineraries for exploring Visby. Here are a few things that you should not miss out while exploring this town.
- Visby City Wall. Visby began its fortification wall construction in mid-1250, complete with some watch towers. Remarkably, the majority of these medieval constructions are still intact. Many of the towers and entry gates are still standing, and the 3.5 km limestone wall still encircles the old town of Visby. Start from the northern gate and follow your journey in a southwest direction. You’ll pass many well-explained displays that highlight many important points of the wall. You’ll end at the oldest part of the wall – a gunpowder store called Kruttornet, completed in 1150.
- Visby Cathedral. The Sancta Maria Kyrka was built for German merchants resident in town in the late 1190s. It is the only remaining medieval church in Visby. You can see the best view of the cathedral from the stairs behind the building to the hillside.
- Ruins of medieval churches of Visby. Don’t miss these. For us, these ruins were the coolest things to do in Visby. There are fifteen inside the city walls, and two outside – the most in any Swedish medieval town at that time. There are two major styles of architecture: the Romanesque (1150-1250) and the Gothic (1250–1400). Today, many of these ruins are secured with gates and padlocks. You can go to the Visby Visitor’s Center to rent the key to unlock these gates into the churches (it’s not expensive). One of the most preserved ruins, St. Karins Kyrka sometimes schedules musical performances. In the winter time, an artificial ice rink is constructed inside its walls.
- Gotlands Museum. The museum displays many priceless artifacts found around Gotland. Starting from pre-Viking 8th century carved stones, a collection of Viking jewelry, and some medieval wood sculptures. Don’t miss out on the world’s largest collection. It’s the biggest silver horde ever discovered!
- Kuntstmuseet. This is a small art museum and admission is included with your ticket to the Gotland Museum. There are some interesting Gotland related art pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as some work by local artists.
Important Annual Events of Visby
Visby has two especially exciting weeks, , when the sleepy island town comes into the spotlight. These are the highest tourist seasons for Visby. During this time, accommodation and transportation prices quadruple, and are hard to find. Plan well in advance if your goal is to check these out. Avoid these times completely if you’re just going to see the sights of Visby!
- Almedalen Week: Week 27 (July). Almedalen Week is one of the most important weeks in Swedish politics. Annually, Swedish politicians gather in Visby to give speeches, run seminars, and other political activities. Hotels and other accommodations on Gotland Island are always sold out, and locals use this week to rent their apartments as a way to supplement the yearly payments for their homes.
- Medeltidsveckan or Medieval Week: Week 32 (August). On week 32 of each year, this exciting event celebrates anything related to Medieval culture: feasting, knights and maidens, Franciscan monks, musicians and axe-throwing – you get the idea! Head out to Östergravar, a grassy area outside the city wall for the exciting jousts competition!
How to get to Visby from Stockholm
- By Air: There are numerous options you can choose from to fly to the tiny Visby airport. You can fly from Arlanda International Airport or from the smaller Bromma Airport, both in Stockholm. The flight time is roughly 30 minutes, and the frequency varies throughout the year, with more options during the summer. There are also extended direct routes from Gothenburg and Malmo, as well as from international cities, like Oslo and Helsinki.
- By Ferry: Destination Gotland is the only ferry company that serves Visby from the Swedish mainland. From Stockholm’s city center, most travelers go by bus or train to either Nynäshamn or Oskarshamn, where Destination Gotland ferry services depart. You can also take an expensive taxi or a train/bus combo to get to the ferry terminals in either city. The ferry ride was comfortable with plenty of room on board to move around. There are restaurants and coffee shops, and different seating arrangements. You can even booking a private cabin. This ferry service also carries cars, trucks and recreational vehicles. Pets are welcome in certain areas of the ship. The ferry takes about 3 hour journey one way.
Where to stay in Visby
We were lucky to find a wonderful Couchsurfing host who provided us very comfortable accommodations and friendship during our stay in Visby. But if you don’t want to do Couchsurfing, you can stay in an actual prison! The Visby Prison Hostel, Visby Fängelse in the local language, was completed in 1857. It held its intended inhabitants until 1998 before it was converted into a hostel. Other than typical dormitory hostel style rooms, they also have small prison cell bedrooms. They also have several cottages that serve 4-6 people in the prison’s courtyard.
The hostel has three different price tiers: low season, high season, and Almedalen Week. Bed linens and towels are not included, and must be reserved before your arrival. You must book your space way in advance, as this is a very popular place to stay. They are not affiliated with any hostel associations, so you may need to contact them directly.
Things to know about Visby and Gotland
- Pippi Longstocking lived here: Need we stay more? Her house is right here on Gotland, not far from Visby. You can ask for a free brochure from the Visby Visitor’s Center for locations related to Pippi Longstocking. Her TV series in 1970s was filmed here.
- Sweden’s last public execution: Sweden carried out its last public execution in Visby in 1876. The prisoner was incarcerated at the Visby Prison. Ask for a free brochure at the visitors center and follow different self-guided tours, including the “Crime and Punishment in Visby during 600 Years.” That tour highlights 19 criminal sites to visit.
- Day trips from Visby: There are so many other things to do on Gotland, including the popular Fårö, on the north side of Gotland. The best way to sightsee on Gotland is via a rental car. Bike rental is also a popular way to get around the island. Keep in mind that you will have to hop on a ferry to get across a strait to get to the northern side of Gotland.
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