Walled island town in the Baltic Sea home to Viking treasure hoards and fascinating tales of pirates, knights and plagues.
I’m not sure what motivated me to decide on journeying to Visby when I was travelling through Scandinavia in 2014. I was going to be heading from Stockholm to Gothenburg and Visby is most certainly not on the way. Not in the slightest. If you look at a map you’ll see it’s a city on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, roughly south of Stockholm. But I do like to look at maps and have random places jump out at me, so maybe that’s why. I think the only thing I knew about Visby going in, was that a lot of Viking burial sites had been uncovered nearby and hoards of treasure recovered. So maybe that’s it. I mean, who doesn’t like treasure!
Regardless of the reason, I made my way to Visby for a couple of nights. Visby is the “big city” on the island of Gotland and home to an old town with medieval walls considered to be one of the best medieval sites in Scandinavia. In fact the old town is actually on the UNESCO heritage list. While Visby is fairly popular with Swedes in summer, it’s a tad cold in April and as such was reasonably quiet during my stay. Apparently during August, the town hosts a Medieval Week complete with period costumes and jousting. More than a little disappointed I missed that.
Walking the streets of Visby, you’ll soon come to realise the city has a thing for churches. Around every corner you’ll find a church, many of them in ruins. dating back to the Middle Ages. Visby actually had more churches than any other city of Sweden during the medieval period, owing to the various denominations followed by the swathe of international traders that lived there. Eventually the need for so many churches disappeared and many fell into a state of disrepair.
A real highlight of my visit was exploring the Gotlands Museum, which takes you through the island’s fascinating and checkered past. The museum will explain how this merchant island switched hands over and over again throughout the centuries, from Swedes to Danes to pirates to knights. Seriously, Visby was the scene of a battle between pirates and knights in the 14th century. Lest things get boring, the island was also struck with plagues and great fires. All done by outside forces wanting to control this strategic island when the locals simply wanted to trade.
On display in the museum you’ll also find plenty of ornately carved Viking rune stones and piles of Viking treasures excavated from the island. I found the museum’s treasury section to be fascinating and was amazed at the size of the treasure piles that they’ve found on this island.
A great example is the Spillings Hoard – the world’s largest Viking silver treasure – on display in the museum. Discovered in 1999, this treasure of silver and bronze found on a small farm was immense. The silver hoard alone weighed 67 kilograms – that’s more than the weight of an average adult female! Among this weighty find you’ll see coins from across the Western world as far as North Africa and even Afghanistan, all dating back over 1000 years. Even if you’re not a history nerd like me, the incredible nature of this exhibit shouldn’t be lost on you. One of the best museums I’ve ever been to.
When it comes to dining in Visby, you’re not going to find anything too surprising. Expect to find standard swedish fare, seafood, pubs and international cuisine. A good place to start looking for restaurants and cafes is around the Stora Torget (Main Square) or on Strandgatten. One thing that you should actively look to try though is the island’s wonderful dessert dish, Gotland pancakes. This delicious and fluffy dessert is made with saffron and to me looks more like a frittata than a pancake. Either way, good stuff! There’s also a strong local beer culture in Visby, which I’m sure will be welcome news for those that enjoy a drink or two.
Regarding getting to Visby, the ferries with Destination Gotland run from the small towns of Nynashamn and Oskarshamn. To get the car ferry from Stockholm, you’ll need to take the train down to Nynashamn. Thankfully the ferry port in Visby isn’t too far from the old town so it’s basically walking distance. There is also an airport in Visby with domestic flights to Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo but the ferry is likely to be the cheaper option, plus you can take your car on the ferry for convenient exploring of wider Gotland.
With a lively history to explore through its museums and ruins and a friendly, positive atmosphere, Visby is sure to leave you feeling glad you ventured all the way out to reach it.
For more information on visiting Visby:
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This post is part of the Weekend Wanderlust linkup put together by A Brit and A Southerner. Please follow the link for more great posts.