Upon arrival in Visby, the capital of the Swedish island of Gotland, visitors feel transported back in time to the Middle Ages. The port city is located in the west of the second largest island in the Baltic Sea. With an area of almost 3.000 square kilometers, Gotland is more than three times the size of the Baltic Sea island of Rügen. In contrast to Rügen, Gotland is relatively sparsely populated. A total of 60.000 people live on the island (estimate as of 2020); around 25.000 people live in Visby.
Visby - Panorama with Baltic Sea ferry
Visby - history in a nutshell
Historical evidence shows that the area around Visby has been settled regularly since the Viking Age, at least in the warmer seasons. Gotland and Visby have been inhabited all year round since the 11th century AD. Thanks to its strategically favorable location, the place quickly developed into a trading center between Western Europe and the Baltic States. In the middle of the 12th century Visby had risen to become a leading trading port. Cloth, wine and spices from southern and western Europe as well as Swedish iron, furs and wax were traded in the Hanseatic city. It got even better: In the 13th and 14th centuries, Visby was one of the most influential cities in the Baltic Sea region. Thanks to the local merchants, including many Germans, the city grew rich. Many secular and sacred buildings gave evidence of prosperity. In its heyday Visby had around 15 churches and three monasteries.
Visby - residential street off the Packhusplan
Such prosperity aroused desires among privateers. The city countered the pirate attacks by building a city wall with numerous defense towers. The total length of the intact wall is currently more than three and a half kilometers; the height is between six and nine meters.
Visby - historic city wall with a defense tower
Visby in the present
Visby adorns itself with the claim to be the best preserved medieval city in Scandinavia. The foresight of the Swedish government, which placed Visby under monument protection as early as 1805, proved to be advantageous. But that's not all: In 1995, UNESCO included the city as a World Heritage Site because of its numerous medieval buildings, including granaries and merchant's villas.
Visby - Strandgatan
Visby - Strandgatan
The sights of Visby
Visby's attractions and sights are mainly the city wall, the cathedral and several church ruins. Further features are narrow streets and cozy-looking houses in green, blooming gardens. In short: Visby is a tourist destination of great importance. In addition, the city is the administrative center of the Swedish province "Gotlands län" and the location of the Gotland campus belonging to Uppsala University.
Old town street in Visby
The city of Visby is a sight in its entirety. However, the following attractions require a special introduction:
Visby's St. Mary's Cathedral is the only surviving medieval church in the city. The construction of the three-aisled Romanesque basilica began in the 12th century. German seafarers and merchants initiated and promoted the construction project. This explains why a false ceiling with a storage floor was drawn into the nave. In this way, the valuable trade goods were protected and kept safe. The first services were celebrated in 1225. In the course of the centuries that followed, the cathedral was expanded and rebuilt several times. One example of this are the rounded tower domes from the 18th century, which replaced the previously pointed domes of the church towers.
Visby - domes of the cathedral church
Visby - nave of the cathedral church
In the second half of the 16th century, Saint Mary became the Episcopal Church of the Visby diocese, and since 2003 the Church of St. Mary has represented the Church of Sweden as a cathedral abroad.
The decor of the Lord's house looks lavish. The high altar and the baptismal font from the 12th century are particularly noteworthy. The pulpit, carved from walnut wood, is a 17th century work. Similar to the Tallinn Cathedral Many epitaphs (memorial plaques) from previous centuries adorn the walls of the church. The stained glass windows emerged only in modern times.
Visby - splendor of bygone centuries
Visby - nave of the cathedral church
It is said that Visby had more churches than any other city in Sweden during the Middle Ages. Of the original variety of churches, only the cathedral has been preserved. The other places of worship fell victim to an assault by Lübeck troops in 1525, caught fire and burned out. To commemorate the places of worship, some of the ruins have been saved from decay.
Visby - Ruins of the Sankt Clemens Church
City wall and medieval week
The city wall was built from the middle of the 13th century to protect the Hanseatic city. Thanks to the maintenance work carried out in the 19th century, the wall is currently considered to be one of the most complete and best preserved European city fortifications.
Visby - ramparts next to the Domkyrka
Denmark conquered Gotland in 1361. To commemorate this, the “Medeltidsveckan”, the medieval week, is celebrated on Gotland every August. Every year around 200.000 visitors take part in the festivities. The organizers' program includes medieval markets and concerts as well as historical spectacles such as knight tournaments.
The botanical garden
Visby has a botanical garden with trees and bushes that tend not to thrive in northern climes. Similar to Svaneke Bornholm (see also Bornholm sights), mulberry trees and figs grow in the gardens starting from the north-west section of the city wall. At the edge of the gardens are the ruins of St. Olaf's Church. The remains of the Basilica of S:t Olof are barely perceptible, blending into the green of the surrounding trees and shrubs. The church was originally dedicated to the Norwegian saint, King Olaf. The spread of Christianity on Gotland goes back to him. St. Olaf's Church was also destroyed when Lübeck's troops attacked in 1525. The stones of the church were later used to build houses.
Visby for cruise ship guests
In 2019, the last year before the outbreak of the corona pandemic, 103 cruise ships called at the port of Visby, according to the port administration. The statistics portal "statista" reports 1,82 million passengers who arrived in the city on ferry and cruise ships for the same period. From this it can be concluded that Visby is a popular travel destination. No wonder: after all, a well-tended cityscape, good restaurants, galleries and attractive shops await visitors.
Although Gotland offers beautiful landscapes and enough sights for longer stays, cruise ships often only stop for a few hours in Visby. For passengers who are inclined to take individual excursions, we recommend a city tour, which starts in the center at Stora Torget, due to lack of time. Pedestrians walk two kilometers from the berth of the cruise ships or the landing stage for the tender boats to the town center.
We know from our own experience that cruise ship guests enjoy a pleasant and entertaining stay in Visby. The city is worth the trip.