(a 21 minute read)

Explore Visby, Sweden, on your own with Backroad Planet’s downloadable guide to the UNESCO World Heritage medieval city, church ruins, and botanical gardens.


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Explore Visby On Your Own


Backroad Planet’s guide to Visby, Sweden, is number three in our “Explore Cruise Port Cities On Your Own” series. The two previously published guides are:

The idea for the series was birthed in conversation with fellow traveler and frequent Backroad Planet contributor Lucy Turner while sailing the Island Princess on a Baltic Sea itinerary. Most Baltic port cities lend themselves to independent exploration, and as I recall, this was my first cruise where I booked zero ship excursions.

For me, the downside of exploring on my own was that I had to spend a lot of time researching sites of interest for each port. So it only made sense for Backroad Planet to begin publishing handy guides for other cruisers that we wish had been available to us.

Although ship excursions are occasionally the best or only options, there is nothing like discovering port cities for yourself. Cruise ship excursions are typically expensive, crowded, and constricting. But when you explore on your own you save money, you don’t have to stay with a group, and you get to decide which sites to visit and how long you will stay there.

Visitors who tour these port destinations by other modes of travel will find useful information in the guides, but they are intentionally designed for cruise ship passengers who typically only have one day in port.


Ground Transportation


Historic Visby is located just a short walk from the cruise port. If you prefer to explore on foot like I do, you are good to go. There are also a few other options.

Bicycle Rentals


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My butt was not made for perching on a bicycle seat, but I know there are plenty of enthusiasts who prefer exploring by bike. There are bike rental locations near the Visby cruise terminal and adjacent ferry terminal. Our Explore Visby On Your Own Checklist contains contact information.

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus


Lucy: There is a HOHO bus service in Visby. The cost is 315 SEK (Swedish Krona), approximately $29.50. In some cases, the cruise line may offer the ability to charge your ticket directly to your shipboard account. On our cruise, Princess offered passengers the ability to do this at a cost of $29.95.

The CIty Sightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off Bus circuit picks up passengers at the cruise port and offers stops at:

    • Hamnplan: a small boat harbor
    • Visby Ferry Terminal
    • Cruise Ship Docks
    • Kneippbyn: a resort area featuring Pippi Longstocking themed attractions
    • Söderport: gate to walled city
    • Visby Bus Station
    • Österport: gate to walled city
    • Lummelunda: Nature park that includes Lummelunda Cave, the largest cave in Sweden. Half-hour tours of the cave are are available at a cost of 185 SEK ($17.25).
    • Gustavsvik: resort area featuring a beach with a jetty out to the sea
    • Norderport: gate to walled city

The entire route takes about 60-90 minutes, depending on traffic. There are limitations to be aware of before paying for this tour. There are only a few buses operating. Our visit was in the fall, and there were only two buses operating the tour. This led to long lines and long waits at the port to get started on the tour. And, it would make actually hopping-off the bus a bit of a risk, since the likelihood of an open seat on a later bus was limited.

Most of the historical and cultural sights on the island are within the walled city, which the bus does not enter. Therefore, unless there is an interest in visiting the Lummelunda Cave, or the Pippi Longstocking resort, the HOHO bus may not be useful to most cruise ship passengers.

In addition, there is somewhat conflicting information about whether the bus will take you back to the ship. The website for the service states that the bus will go back to the cruise port as long as the ship is in port. However, the information provided to passengers by Princess cruises stated that passengers who opted to get off the bus to go into the walled city would need to make their own way back to the ship, a walk of about 15-20 minutes.

Taxis & Rideshares


As with bike rentals, there are multiple taxi companies in town. Uber also operates in Gotland. Just keep in mind that automobiles are not permitted inside the city wall during summer months. Our Explore Visby On Your Own Checklist contains contact information.

Ferries


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Although it won’t help you navigate Visby on your own, frequent travelers may be interested in learning that the Baltic nations have a massive network of ferries connecting their countless seaports.

Toilet Facilities


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Pay toilets are a welcomed site for travelers exploring on foot. This one was located near Söderport Gate. Additional facilities are mentioned in descriptions below.


About Visby


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I love exploring the grand capitals of Europe, but lesser-known ports can be equally impressive. Prior to my Baltics cruise, I had not heard of Visby, but it did not disappoint.

Visby is a Swedish city on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Despite its tiny size, Visby has the largest number of ruins in all of Northern Europe and is considered the best-preserved medieval town in Scandinavia. For these reasons, Visby is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The old town of Visby was built on a steep slope facing the Baltic Sea, and the upper town offers a stellar view of Visby’s lower town.

Early construction of Visby’s ring wall dates to the 12th century. Work to raise the wall and build additional towers continued through the 15th century. Today the ring wall remains largely intact, and I found it incredible that modern construction has been attached to the ancient wall in many places.

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The flag of Gotland has many variations, but all bear the Gotland coat of arms.

During the summer vehicles are restricted inside the city walls, making the medieval streets even more inviting to pedestrians.

Visitors may be interested in learning that Gotland is the setting for Pippi Longstocking‘s adventures, and the author Astrid Lindgren lived on the island.

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman‘s 1971 film The Touch was shot in Visby. Although a bit pricey, the film is available as part of the Criterion Collection’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema 30-movie boxed set.

Before reporting back to ship, I walked nearly all of the perimeter of the town wall, both inside and out. The day was alternately sunny and overcast as reflected in photos throughout the guide, but it was close enough to perfect for me.


Visby Key Sites to Visit


I walked from the port into town. The path I took led me first through an arched walkway in the city wall. Then a hairpin turn led me up an incline and along the inside of the wall where I caught my first sighting of modern construction attached to the old city wall.

Visby City Wall


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Approximately 2.14 miles of the original Visby city wall’s 2.2 miles remain. Upon completion, the city wall boasted 29 large and 22 small towers. Today, 27 large and 9 small towers remain.

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Although this guide is not intended to be an exhaustive reference for the city wall’s many gates and towers, a few highlights are in order.

When consulting maps and interpretive panels on the ground, you may find it helpful to know the Swedish word for gate is “port,” and the word for tower is “torn.”

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Kasartornet was the first ground-based tower built in the wall. It dates from the 13th century and was built as a 4-story arsenal. Between 1681 and 1859 the tower served as the town prison.

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Kvarntornet was the mill tower where locals came to grind their grain beginning in the 17th century.

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Kruttornet (The Gunpowder Tower) constructed between 1160–61 AD is the oldest tower in the city wall.

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Jungfrutornet (the Maiden Tower) is Visby’s smallest remaining structure.

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Snackgard’s Gate and its sentry walk, retrofitted with stairs in 2009, make the tower a great observation point with views of the Baltic Sea and lands beyond.

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St. George’s Gate gave access to the hospital, leper asylum, and the Church of St. George situated outside the town walls.

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Reaching a height of 56 feet on the wall’s upper slope, Dalman”s Tower (and Gate) also served as a navigational aid for ships sailing into Visby.

Almedalen Park


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Almedalen Park is a large greenspace situated between the city wall and the Baltic Sea.

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The park’s perennial borders are breathtaking, even in the fall.

Almedalsbiblioteket (Almedal Library)


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Visby’s integrated library, Almedalsbiblioteket, serves both the public and students enrolled at Uppsala University Campus Gotland.

I occasionally visit public libraries in port cities for two reasons: 1) to use their restroom facilities and 2) to use their WiFi for syncing my iPhone photos to iCloud. Alas, ship WiFi is typically too slow.

Campus Gotland Student Union Rindi


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Rindi: the Campus Gotland student union building, situated diagonally across the street from the library, has restroom facilities that open to the street.

The library and student union building are both situated adjacent to the Almedalen Park.

Burmeister House


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Merchant and alderman Hans Burmeister immigrated to Visby from Germany in 1647, and his house was completed in 1653.

With its interlocking timbers and red tar paint, the house is one of the best-preserved log buildings from the period in all of Sweden.

Both floors of the house feature decorative paintings by Johan Bartsch and profusely sculptured sandstone fireplaces. The historic home remained in the Burmeister family until 1851. In 1905, the town of Visby acquired it and restored it. During summer months, the upper floor is shown as a museum.

DBW’s Botanical Garden


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DBW’s Botanical Garden in Visby was first proposed in 1854, and the current gardens began taking shape in 1930.

I love botanical gardens almost as much as historical sites, so when I discovered that the ruins of St. Olof Church were located inside the garden, I was able to kill two birds with one stone.

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The park features thirty themed gardens and hardscaped spaces that beckon visitors to linger for awhile and inhale the fragrance of roses and other blooming botanicals.

One impressive feature of the garden is its collection of exotic trees. Perusing the park brochure later, I read that the collection includes a Giant Sequoia from the US. Somehow I missed it!

Visby Cathedral


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Of the many churches that crumbled to ruins in Visby, Saint Mary’s Cathedral is one that didn’t. In fact, following the Reformation it was the only medieval church left in use. Now known as Visby Cathedral, the church has survived for centuries and has been lovingly restored and maintained.

More about Visby’s amazing church ruins later in the guide.

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First built as a Catholic house of worship for German traders, construction began in the 1100s AD, and the church was consecrated on July 27, 1225 AD. It was designated a cathedral in 1572.

Today the church belongs to the Church of Sweden, an Evangelical Lutheran denomination.

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The church was beautiful from so many angles that I could not stop taking pictures.

Johan Målares House


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The Johan Målares House is attached to one of the arched entrances to the gardens surrounding Visby Cathedral.

In most cases, interpretive panels at Europe’s historical sites include English descriptions in addition to the local language. The panel attached to this house, however, was only in Swedish. So I opened my handy Google Translate app, took a photo of the text on the panel, and with a few edits produced the translation below.

The free Google Translate app is freaking amazing!

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“The Johan Målares House is actually two limestone houses from the 13th century, a single-story house in the east and a tower house in the west. The building is one of nearly 200 buildings with medieval origins that, together with the ring wall, contribute to Visby’s UNESCO World Heritage designation.

The name comes from Johan Bartsch, who lived and worked in the house during the mid-17th century. Some of his most famous works can still be seen. The earliest known works are the paintings in the Old Residence, which have been dated to 1648. The paintings in the Burmeister House and the altarpiece in Fole Church are among other known and preserved works.

Johan’s son, (also) Johan Bartsch and his grandson Rasmus Bartsch followed in his footsteps and worked as painters on Gotland. Johan has paintings in Visby Cathedral and fifteen rural churches in Gotland that are known. The work of grandson Rasmus Bartsch has been found in twelve Gotland churches.

The house, which was declared a listed building in 1966, has had several different functions and areas of use during the 20th century. Tile kilns, residences, hotels, and showrooms are just a few examples. Today the Johan Målares House is owned and managed by Corem Property Group AB.”


Visby Church Ruins


One of the contributing factors to Visby’s UNESCO World Heritage designation are its historic church ruins. In fact, Visby has more churches within its walls than any other town in Sweden.

The churches, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, are all different and in various stages of ruin. Most of the sites are open to the public, and some of them are still used as event venues. At least one ruin on my tour appeared to have regularly scheduled worship services.

The obvious question is: Why did so many stone churches in one town fall into disrepair? With a bit of research, I learned that it was a combination of several factors and events. There were years of economic decline. German troops from Lübeck plundered and pillaged the city in 1525 AD, and the churches in all certainty suffered damages. Some churches merged and others were abandoned during the Reformation.

Although I had only a few hours to explore, I set out on a scavenger hunt to find all of the church ruins. Assisted by two paper maps and my Google Maps mobile app, I was able to locate all ten sites within the city wall and one site outside the wall. According to ancient records, there were three or four additional churches in Visby, but their ruins are either subterranean or yet to be located.

For the record, the following church descriptions draw heavily from local interpretive panels, but they provide valuable information about these majestic ruins.

St. Peter and St. Hans


The churches of St. Peter and St. Hans together made up the largest church in Visby. St. Peter dates to the mid-12th century. At the beginning of the 13th century, by which time it was too small, St. Hans was erected to the north. The two churches shared a wall and were partly united—an unusual arrangement.

Runestones and part of a pre-Christian petroglyph were discovered in St. Hans Church, which undoubtedly occupies the site of a former pagan center. Both churches fell into decay after the Reformation of the 16th century.

St. Olof


St. Olof Church dates from the early 13th century, and in its day it was among the grandest churches in Visby. The church is named for the canonized king of Norway, Olof Haraldsson. St. Olof is believed to have played a part in the conversion of Gotland to Christianity, and he is portrayed in many of the island’s churches.

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St. Olof was a basilica with a tall nave and lower north and south aisles. Parts of the west tower are all that remain. The walls of the church were demolished after the Middle Ages and the stone was used for the construction of other buildings in Visby. St. Olaf’s ruins are located on the grounds of DBW’s Botanical Gardens.

St. Clement


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St. Clement Church has had several precursors. The oldest, a Romanesque church built in the 12th century.

The church was named for St. Clement (Pope Clement I) who was martyred in the 2nd century, thrown into the sea with an anchor lashed to his neck. He is the patron saint of seafarers.

The architectural style, which developed in 13th century Visby under the influence of Westphalian churches, later set the pattern for several of Gotland’s country churches.

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The earliest gravestones in St. Clement Church, all with Gotland names, are from the 12th century. Following the Reformation, the church was abandoned and used at various times as a cattle shed, an outhouse, and a quarry for building materials.

Drotten Church


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Drotten Church was built in the 13th century and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It is commonly known as Drotten, an Old Norse word for “ruler” and “God.”

The upper floor of the tower was probably fitted out as a chapel with a quint looking down into the body of the church.

The chancel is decorated with dogtooth carvings and an Anglo-Norman zigzag pattern to be found nowhere else in Gotland. The church was abandoned at the Reformation in the 16th century.

St. Lawrence


St. Lawrence Church has a distinct design that sets it apart from the other churches of Visby. Other churches were inspired by German ecclesiastical architecture, while St. Lawrence’s resembles Byzantine churches of the east.

Note the newer buildings constructed against the ruins.

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The church, built in the 13th century, is dedicated to St. Lawrence, who was martyred in the 3rd century, roasted on a grid.

For all its exotic design, it was the work of the island’s own craftsmen, evidenced in the dressing of the stone and masonry technique.

The numerous staircases and passages in the walls are a distinctive feature. The passages lead from one level to another, almost the entire way around the building. St. Lawrence was abandoned at the Reformation in the 16th century.

Audio and lighting techs were setting up for an event the day I toured St. Lawrence.

St. Catherine


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The Gothlc interior of St. Catherine Church is considered the most beautiful of all the ruins of Visby. During the Middle Ages the north front overlooked a narrow lane, which accounts for it being more plainly executed.

The church was fronted by Visby’s courthouse until the end of the 17th century.

St. Catherine Church belonged to one of Sweden’s first Franciscan monasteries, founded in Visby in 1233 AD. The friars were a mendicant order. Both the church and the monastery buildings to the south were completed by about 1250. The small monastery survived until the 16th century.

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By the early 14th century, the popularity of the Franciscans was calling for a new church. St. Catherine was widened and fine windows were installed in the chancel.

St. Catherine Church is dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Holy Ghost Church


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Helge Ands (Holy Ghost) Church got its name from the infirmary which lay to the south of the church.

This octagonal church is the only one of its kind in Sweden. The magnificent upper story opens onto the chancel, giving a clear view of the service below. Churches like these existed in palaces and castles during the earlier medieval period, in the Europe of Charlemagne.

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According to one theory, this church was built around 1200 AD by Bishop Albert of Riga as a meeting point for pilgrims and crusaders traveling to Livonia.

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After the upper parts of the church were destroyed by fire in 1611 AD, what remained of the building was turned into a barn and cow shed. Now it appears to be used for meetings.

St. Nicholas


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St. Nicholas Church was one of the largest monastic churches in Sweden. It was built c. 1230 AD by the Dominicans, a mendicant order known from their habit as the Blackfriars. Here they founded their first monastery, as a base for their Baltic mission.

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The Dominicans took over the buildings of a church which had probably been started by a merchant guild in the town and converted it into a large three-aisled building. The guild was named after St. Nicholas, patron saint of the merchants and seafarers.

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The monastery wings to the north have vanished, but one can still see where they and the cloister joined onto the church. The Dominican foundation suffered badly when Visby was attacked by the Lübeckers in 1525 AD, and the fire-damaged monastic buildings were torn down.

St. Gertrude


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When Google Maps led me to this spot, I did a 360° rotation and did not see ruins. Then I looked closer and finally spotted the ruins for Saint Gertrude Chapel hiding in plain sight.

The chapel was built during the second half of the 15th century and sanctified to St. Gertrude of Nivelles (her likeness is carved into the tympanum of the chapel).

There are also frescoes of Ivar Axelsson Tott and his wife Magdalena. The chapel was part of the St. Jacob’s monastery and destroyed by the Lübeck army, as were many other churches in 1525 AD.

St. George


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The Church of St. George was built in the 13th century, and you will have to travel outside the city wall to reach it.

St. George (Göran, Jörgen) was an immensely popular saint during the late Middle Ages. His protection was invoked against disease and accidents, and he was the patron saint of lepers.

St. George Church was affiliated with a leper hospital. Due to the risk of infection, the buildings were located outside the town wall. The hospital remained in use until 1542 AD. Nothing remains of the hospital buildings.

If you have a full day in port, you can easily tour all of the locations in this guide on foot.

As fate would have it, I am now booked on another Island Princess Baltic Sea itinerary and will once again explore Visby on my own. This time I plan to visit the Gotland Museum and then head outside the town wall to Galgberget (Gallows Hill) where public executions were held from the 13th through the 19th centuries.


Explore Visby On Your Own Downloadable Checklist


With its nearly-intact medieval ring wall, nearly a dozen medieval church ruins, and UNESCO World Heritage status, Visby is a not-to-be-missed port destination.

Download Backroad Planet’s Explore Visby On Your Own Checklist! This handy resource lists all of Visby’s key sites mentioned in this guide and puts their website links and GPS coordinates at your fingertips.

For additional information, navigate to the Region Gotland website, or when you arrive in port, head to the tourist information center in town (see map below).

Also be sure to check out Backroad Planet’s Explore Skagen (Denmark) On Your Own and Explore Riga (Latvia) On Your Own guides for downloadable checklists on two additional Baltic ports.


Map It!



We Would Love to Hear From You


We enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they respond to our published content. If you have suggestions for enhancing our “Explore Cruise Ports On Your Own” series, we invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!


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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel website Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with houses including Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill.

Retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, classic movies, autumn, sandhill cranes, Florida springs, rain, gloomy days, log cabins, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, castles, cathedrals, Civil Rights history, cold sheets, National Park Passports, quotes, Reba Rambo, Dionne Warwick, most things Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists.

And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.

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Lucy Turner started traveling at age 3 on road trips in the back seat of the family station wagon. She inherited a serious case of wanderlust from her dad. Lucy now travels the world via planes, trains, cars, and ships, always searching for great deals to interesting places. Lucy sometimes shares her travel adventures and tips on the Practical Points Traveler Facebook page. Before retiring in 2015, Lucy practiced law for 30 years, somehow surviving on just 2-3 weeks of vacation a year. Having completed more than 40 cruises and land tours since then, she is making up for lost time now.
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