Experience historic Visby! We have planned out a tailor-made walk inside the walls of the town so that you can experience Visby under your own steam.
Photo: Sveds Signe Söderlund
With the help of the information provided in the text and on the map on this webpage you will acquire a thorough basic knowledge of Visby and its history, and enjoy a lovely stroll into the bargain. Our guide is Lars Kruthof, museum lecturer at the Gotland Museum.
Download the map here (PDF)
The Gunpowder Tower
The building which we today call the Gunpowder Tower (1) is an excellent place to begin your walk. The tower was built in the 12th century, a century before the town wall was constructed, solely for the purpose of defence. Alongside a system of several hundred wooden posts submerged beneath the water off the shore of the town, the Gunpowder Tower was an important defence installation of the period. The name dates to the 18th century when the tower was used for storage of just that: gunpowder.
Photo: Sveds Signe Söderlund
Walk from the Gunpowder Tower towards the Botanical Gardens via Strandgatan (2). On the left-hand side you will soon pass an example of the bole houses (of post-and-plank construction) which were constructed all around inner Visby at the end of the 18th century. Stop here for a moment and you will see before you a complex of tar-clad red-black houses. Today these bole houses are very much characteristic of the landscape of Gotland. In Sweden bole houses have in the past been referred to as “Danish buildings”, and it is possible that the bole house tradition on Gotland originates from the long period in which Gotland was under Danish rule.
Photo: Maria Molin
The spot where you are now standing is known as Gailroten, which in the local Gotlandic dialect means Fish Waste. Local fishermen lived here, and it is conceivable that the name was coined in reference to the stench in the narrow alleyways. If you look up you will almost certainly see on the right-hand side Fiskargränd (3), one of Visby’s most famous streets. This was the site of the sweet shop which Pippi, Tommy and Annika went on a shopping spree in the film about Pippi Longstocking.
Photo: Jenny Kiderud
DBW’s botanical gardens
Continue along Strandgatan and you will soon come to the entrance to Visby’s Botanical Gardens (4). When you step through the arch you will be greeted by the sight of some strikingly beautiful greenery.
Visby’s botanical gardens were constructed in the middle of the 19th century by the local company DBW, De Badande Vännerna (The Bathing Club). A strange name, to be sure, which originates from the fact that the company’s founders swam together every year. The company was founded in 1814 with the ambition of contributing to the development of the local community.
“They funded this enterprise by introducing a fine for members – a kind of penalty charged to those members who arrived late, said the wrong thing or talked for too long,” relates Lars Kruthof.
Photo: Jenny Kiderud
Diagonally to the right you will find Sankt Olof’s ruin (5), which is one of the most decayed ruins in Visby. Only the western tower of the once magnificent church now remains standing. Completely covered in ivy, Sankt Olof’s ruin is a romantic spot which no doubt attracts quite a few young lovers.
“This large thicket of ivy is very old, and it is the romantic image which comes to many people’s mind when they think of Visby,” says Lars Kruthof.
The north section of the town wall
Once you have walked through the Botanical Garden, follow the north section of the town wall.
The Virgin Tower (6) was constructed within the town wall, and served as a watchtower over the harbour.
Note the large decaying sections of the wall which are clearly visible here and there along its length. The north section is the part of the wall which has decayed the most, which is a consequence of the marshy ground on which it stands (7).
Photo: Jenny Kiderud
On this section of the wall can be seen the so-called Silver Bonnet, a tower which takes its name from its silver-coloured roof. You should not pass up the opportunity to go up into the tower of the Silver Bonnet and look out over Nordergravar and Strandgärdet.
Below the wall you can make out the moats which run along long sections of the wall. These moats were of course dug as part of an advanced defence strategy, but it is also notable that the limestone which was excavated to build the moats at this point on the wall was used in the construction of the town wall itself.
A stroll along the town wall is simultaneously a journey through an endless wealth of history, and the various sections of the wall are an exceptionally important part of Visby’s heritage. Over the centuries the wall has been rebuilt, decayed and been restored, and it has seen use in other applications than the purpose for which it was originally erected: defence of the town.
Lars Kruthof describes how the tower was constructed with narrow arrow slits in order to allow its defenders to shoot at attacking soldiers. During the 18th century some of these were removed in order to make way for cannons.
“What very few people know is that as late as well into the 19th century the town wall was sealed at night. This could cause problems for people who lived and worked in Visby, because it meant that if one didn’t make it to one of the entrances in time one would be unable to get in or out of the town. This was the case until relatively recently, and sometimes you hear stories of someone’s grandmother’s grandmother who worked inside the walls of the town as a housemaid or what-have-you, who lived under the constant threat of the town portals being closed for the night before they had made it out,” says Lars Kruthof.
The Catholic Church
The street you are now walking down is called the Silver Bonnet. It soon becomes Norra Kyrkogatan, which leads to Hospitalsgatan. Continue down this street and you will soon reach Smedjegatan. As you approach the end of the block, turn left onto Sankt Hansgatan. On the left-hand side you will soon come to the Roman Catholic church (8).
“The really remarkable thing about the Catholic church is that it is situated slap bang in the centre of a ruin,” says Lars Kruthof and explains that the architect drafted the plan for the church on almost exactly the same spot as the ruin of a medieval building. There was no indication of the presence of the earlier building in the plans of the site, and it was only when the work began of excavating the site in order to lay foundations for the church that parts of an earlier building were discovered. When the church building was extended in the 2000s a well was discovered. Instead of demolishing the ruin it was incorporated into the new building. The old well then came to serve as a baptismal font.
“That is the wonderful thing about Visby. There are so many treasures hidden beneath the ground, and we have no idea what is there under our feet waiting to be discovered until we begin to dig,” says Lars Kruthof.
Photo: Jenny Kiderud
The Queen and St. Lars
Continue along Sankt Hansgatan, and after a short walk you will reach the twin ruins The Queen (9) and St. Lars (10), which are two of Visby’s most well-preserved ruins.
“After the reformation there was, understandably, a loss of interest in the Catholic church buildings. At the time Visby was experiencing an economic downturn, and largely as a result of this the churches were allowed to remain. No new construction was planned in the town, and if not for this the churches would doubtless have been torn down and the materials reused for the construction of new buildings. Instead they were spared demolition, and were taken into use as storehouses and repositories. Some of the ruins were used as stables and cattle houses for the town’s horses and livestock.
The town square (Stora Torget)
St. Karin’s ruin (11) was at one time home to the Grey Friars of the local Franciscan order of monks. After the reformation the church was taken into use for hospital work.
Photo: Petra Jonsson
The Russian Church (12). Beneath a restaurant on the town square lie the ruins of Visby’s Russian church. It is possible to visit the ruins accompanied by a guide. If you are interested in seeing the ruins please contact the Gotland Museum for more information.
The Donner House and Donners Plats
The Donner House (13) was inhabited from the middle of the 18th century by a rich mercantile family by the name of Donner. The German merchant Jörgen Hinrich Donner married into a local Gotlandic family. His wife, Anna Greta Lytberg was renowned for her humility. The couple had two sons together.
“Unfortunately Jörgen Hinrich Donner died early in their marriage. What is more, he died before his sons were old enough to take over the family business. For this reason Anna Greta Donner decided to take over the helm herself. In so doing she became something quite exceptional in the context of 18th century Sweden: a woman who ran the largest trade empire in the Baltic. In order to be able to do business with her, her German trade partners addressed her as “Madame Mister Donner”.
The ruins of St. Hans’ and St. Per’s
Just a stone’s throw from Donners Plats lie the two ruins of St. Hans’ (14) and St. Per’s (15) on what is, to say the least, a site of immeasurable historic importance, for this was the site on which the very first church in the whole of Gotland was constructed, in a period when the inhabitants of the island were still predominantly heathen.
“As early as the 11th century Botair of Akebäck saw to the construction of the very first wooden church in all of Gotland, on his own farm, but it was burned down shortly afterwards. However, only a short time passed before he made a fresh attempt, and succeeded in building a stave church at this very site, which at that time was called Wi. When the local people marched on Wi with the intention of burning down the new church, Botair stood on the roof of the church and proclaimed:
“If you burn down the church you will have to burn me with it,” relates Lars Kruthof with great authority in his voice.
But Botair’s father-in-law, who was a well-regarded man in the community, lent Botair his support, and thus the church was allowed to remain standing.
Soon afterwards St. Per’s was built, and a few years after that St. Hans’ was constructed. The two churches were left in peace until it dawned upon people that they could be occupied in the event of an attack. There was thus too great a risk that the enemy would make use of the buildings to shoot directly into Visborg Castle (16), which lies just a few metres south of the site of the church buildings. The church tower was torn down and the churches left to ruin as early as the 16th century. Yet these are not the only events to have taken place on this site which are of significance to church history, for the great religious shift of the 16th century took also place here.
“In Sweden during the reign of Gustav Vasa, Catholic bishops began to find themselves in hot water. Gotland belonged to the diocese of Linköping, and the bishop of Linköping, Hans Brask, travelled to Gotland to inspect his part of the diocese. He never returned, however. In a letter to Gustav Vasa he wrote that the winds had taken him in another direction.”
If you wish to extend your walk then the Dalman Tower (17), amongst other things, is well worth a visit. This tower was from day one constructed as a fortified tower unassailable from the outside, with a portcullis and oak doors, whilst having an open construction on the inside. The Dalman Tower was rebuilt in the 18th century, and was used for the storage of grain.
If you find yourself on the outskirts of Visby you may like to visit Solberga Abbey (18). Here you can see the memorial cross which stands as a monument to the natives of Gotland who fell in battle against the Danish king Valdemar Atterdag.