Gotland & Visby
Gotland is the largest island in Sweden and a very popular holiday destination for domestic tourists in the summer. Despite being located just off the south-eastern coast, it is quite different from the Swedish mainland and a refreshing change of scenery.
The island was originally formed by a coral reef some hundred million years ago when Sweden was located much further south. At that time, the tropical climate created a bedrock of primarily limestone and allowed for a very different natural environment than the rest of Sweden. During the last ice age, Gotland was reformed once again – one side with steep cliffs and the other with shallow beaches, creating a large, flat wedge that cuts in to the Baltic Sea.
Gotland is extremely flat and driving is an excellent way of getting around the island; a trip around the coast takes just a few hours but lets you enjoy plenty of magnificent views along the way. It’s easy to bring your car on the ferry but if you’re arriving on foot, you can also rent a car in Visby – it’s a good option if you’re looking to explore the island without the restrictions of public transportation.
When the weather is nice it’s also very popular to rent a bike as it’s usually a very restful ride on the levelled terrain and smooth roads on Gotland.
People who are just visiting for a few days or less do however usually stick to Visby and the surrounding areas of the city. There are plenty of things to do and see withing walking distance if you’re not planning on heading out the countryside.
(Raukar on Gotland)
Visby is the largest city on Gotland and since 1995 a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it is a very well-preserved medieval city. During the late middle ages, Visby was a powerful commercial node in the Baltic Sea and a majestic stone wall surrounds the city as a remnant of its thriving days. Some parts of the city wall actually dates all the way back to the 12th century which makes it the oldest non-sacred structure in the nordic countries.
The city of Visby has a lot to offer, and simply walking around the old parts of the city is a trip back in time. Take a stroll around the city wall or take a break at one of all the cozy restaurants (you’ll find plenty of them in Visby). Don’t miss the Visby Crêperie, the famous tea shop Kränku or the huge ice-cream bar down by the harbour.
(The city wall is surrounding the central parts of Visby)
Sights & things to do on Gotland
In the summer, Gotland is a very popular holiday destination for mainland Swedes (as well as more foreign tourists). During June, July and August, Gotland actually accommodates an additional 600.000 people, as compared to the modest 60.000 or so permanent residents. A few of the vacationers have summer houses on the island, and many others choose the upliftingly frugal option of camping out at one of all the popular sites along the coastline.
But Visby is surely the main attraction with the city’s alluring mix of beaches, night-life, entertainment, culture and renowned bars and restaurants. It’s unlikely you should miss it, as the primary way to and from the island is the ferry that lands in the city’s harbour. So even if you’re just passing through, you should definitely try to stick around Visby for at least a day or two before moving on.
When out on the countryside it’s definitely well-worth the time to find raukar (or “stacks” in English) located around the coast of the island. These are massive stone formations rising up from the shoreline and an iconic sign of the limestone landscape that once was. One of the most famous “rauk” is Hoburgsgubben (The Hoburgs Man) – a massive, mysterious stone face overlooking the ocean on southern Gotland.
The Lummelunda Cave (Lummelundagrottan) is another popular sight on Gotland. This is a 4 km long underground cave just north of Visby, full of interesting limestone formations that dates back millions of years. Guided tours takes you deep into the passages and are typically available from mid April through September.
If you have the time, it’s surely worth the trip up to the beautiful island of Fårö, former home of the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Fårö is located just north of Gotland and a quick shuttle ferry will take you over the strait (about 50 km drive from Visby and a very short ferry ride). There’s not a whole lot of activities to do on Fårö, but the scenery is amazing with some of the most visited areas with “raukar” around the coast.
(The beautiful Gotlandic landscape is a unique one indeed, photo by: E. Starck)
Beaches on Gotland
Some of the most popular and best beaches on Gotland are located on Fårö (although they’re technically not on Gotland). Sudersand in the northern part of Fårö is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Sweden, with very fine sand and a lovely shallow shoreline (which is great if you’re travelling with kids). Three other great beaches on Fårö worth checking out are Norsta Auren, Skalasand and Ekeviken.
If you haven’t got the time to travel up to Fårö, there are several great beaches close to Visby as well. Just north of the city, reachable on foot, is Norderstrand which hosts regular after-beach hangouts in the nearby beach club, as well as plenty of brisk summer activities and water sports. Naturally, it’s a very popular leisure spot during the holidays in Visby.
Two other nice options near Visby, both located a bit further north along the coast, are Gustavsvik and Snäckgärdsbaden (a child-friendly beach great for families with younger kids).
If you’re looking for something completely different, you might want to consider visiting the Blue Lagoon on the northern tip of Gotland. This is an old, abandoned limestone quarry that is now waterfilled, serving as a beautiful turquoise swimming lake. As it’s completely isolated from the nearby ocean, its temperature is usually quite warm.
(Sudersand beach on Fårö, just off the northern coast of Gotland)
Best time to visit?
Summer is definitely the most popular time to visit Gotland and many hotels and restaurants are even closed down for the rest of the year. Be sure to book your stay well in advance if you’re visiting during the peak of the season, which usually occurs between week 25-33.
Visby is famous for its “theme” weeks during the summer that completely changes the city every year. The three most famous ones are:
- The medieval week (usually week 32) – thousands of people dress up to live like they did in the middle ages. During the festival, you can expect jousting, archery, medieval markets, jesters, merchants and lots of grilled meat and tankards of beer. Why not dress up yourself for a refreshing journey back in time? If you don’t feel like it, it’s totally fine to just spectate the archaic festivities the way you please.
- The Stockholm week (usually week 29) – the prominent youth of Stockholm travel to Visby for a week full of night-life and parties. This is the unofficial party week on Gotland every year, and if you’re looking for fast-paced evenings you will not be disappointed. Nightclubs such as Kallis (Kallbadhuset), Burmeister, Terassen, Gutekällaren or Kharma offers everything from “after beach” clubs, DJs and concerts, all day and all night. Just remember that some special events will require pre-booked tickets or your name on the guest list.
- The Almedalen week (usually week 27) – a week full of politicians and press. An important week for Sweden’s governmental parties but not a whole lot of fun for the “uninitiated”. So, if you’re not particularly interested in Swedish politics it might be a good idea to avoid Visby this week. The rest of the island is however unaffected.
(The name Almedalen comes from the lovely park in Visby where all the debates and speeches are held during the week.)
The rest of the summer offers something for everyone and you can either spend the day relaxing at the beach, sightseeing around the city or simply drive around enjoying the scenic countryside. In the evenings there are tons of options for dining out, drinking, night-life, cultural attractions and family entertainment throughout the entire summer in Visby. Safe to say, you will not be bored.
When not to visit? As the holiday season comes to an end in late August, during the rest of the year (September – May) Gotland doesn’t have a whole lot to offer if you don’t have any connection to the island – for example family or friends living there. However, if you plan on just looking around, checking out the ambience, you can of course visit whenever you like. Just be prepared that a lot of establishments and venues might be closed down.
(A couple dressed up during the medieval week)
Accommodation in Visby
There’s no shortage on quality lodging in Visby. A great stay inside the city is Hotel Slottsbacken, which is situated in an old, charming building with the perfect Visby ambiance. Another good option is the popular Clarion Hotel Wisby; which is a very comfortable hotel with pool and a spa, located close to everything you need in the very center of Visby.
A few minutes walk north of Visby you’ll find TOTT Hotel, which is a great option during the summer. It’s situated close to the beach and offers “apartment” style rooms with a kitchen and all necessary appliances.
A slightly less “pricy” option is the Best Wester Solhem, also situated in the central parts of the city and conveniently close to the port and the ferry to the mainland.
So, how do I get to Gotland and Visby?
The easiest way to travel to the island is to take the ferry from either Nynäshamn just south of Stockholm, or from Oskarshamn on the east coast in southern Sweden. Both options will take you straight to the port of Visby city. The ferries are quite large and bringing your car is no problem. The trip takes about 3 hours and tickets can be booked at Destination Gotland. If you feel like leaving your car you can also take the short flight to Visby Airport.
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