Visby is a town on the island of Gotland, some 100 kilometers of the Swedish east coast, which makes it geographically close to Stockholm but relatively difficult (read: expensive) to reach. A ferry ride takes around three hours and tickets are often sold out well in advance of attractive holidays, especially those that create a long weekend during the spring/summer season. A plane ride takes less than an hour but often costs more than flying to southern Europe. Each time I visited Visby, I found myself standing at beach under the city walls looking northwest towards Stockholm and thinking “I am so close and yet so far”. This is also in line with how I perceive the town – it is familiar and at the same time rather exotic. All the signs are in Swedish, everybody speaks Swedish, all the common Swedish brands are present. But its architecture and history are closer to those of continental Europe than Sweden. I am completely mesmerized by the place, and in that sense it reminds me of another city that is simultaneously familiar and new – Belgrade (in case you want to read more about Belgrade and why I love it, check it out here).
Since I have had the pleasure of visiting Visby three times, I have found my own routine there – I have a set of places that I always visit and that are the reason why I love the town so much. Here I would like to share these with you. One of the most prominent features of Visby is its fortification – the city walls and its towers and gates. Just north of the city there is a park from which you get a great view of the walls. There you can also climb one of the towers and enjoy a view of the sea. Close to the north wall, you can take a stroll through the serene botanical garden. Make sure you exit to the beach and breathe in the salty sea air (unfortunately Stockholm, being is surrounded by fresh and brackish water, does not deliver when it comes to enjoying this characteristic smell of the sea). Continue the stroll by the water until you reach the Almedalen park. If you know about Almedalen week, you probably appreciate the park’s importance in Swedish politics. Next to it is the city library which offers a relaxing view of Almedalen and the sea, and is a great place for a pit stop with a newspaper or a book and a cup of coffee.
Another defining feature of Visby are its church ruins. The most visited one is probably Saint Catherine (S:ta Karin) thanks to its location at the main square (Stora torget). But there are many more, make sure to visit them as each one is special in its own way. What they have in common is that they provide a special atmosphere thanks to the architectural aspect – a collapsed roof gives you the possibility to see the sky which you normally cannot while standing in a church. But there is also the philosophical dimension, as standing in a church ruin easily triggers you to ponder about the passage of time. If you want to keep to the spiritual domain but want a contrast from the church ruins, visit the Visby cathedral. Do not miss the plateau behind the cathedral which offers another great view of the city and the sea.
The plateau also leads you to one of my favorite parts of Visby – Klinten, a once poor neighborhood which today is a maze of cobblestone streets aligned by cute small houses that feel more out of the Croatian region of Slavonia than out of Sweden. This is the perfect place to just randomly walk around, get lost and soak up the atmosphere and the views. For that matter, wherever you are within the city walls, make sure to wander around, get lost and soak up the atmosphere.
While the article focuses on Visby, I would like to stress that Gotland and its neighboring island of Fårö are well worth a road trip and should not be missed. We have had the pleasure of visiting them in July 2017, here are some photos from the trip.
It is a bit ironic that when you are in Sweden longing for continental Europe, you can find continental Europe on an island just off the Swedish coast!