In some other parts of hip and cuttingedge Sweden, the country’s medieval attractions are relegated to a touristy strip filled with shops selling kitschy Viking souvenirs. On the island of Gotland, however, the Middle Ages are treated much more reverentially: Gotland is rightly proud of its history, and throughout the island, cultural programs actively perpetuate the time warp aspects of its impressive millennial heritage.
Ground zero for Gotland’s historical offerings is Visby, which offers an intimate encounter with the daily life of an important medieval city and one-time Viking seaport. The atmospheric old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, greets visitors with an imposing ring of 13th-century limestone walls. Along the fortifications, 50 original watchtowers still stand, and the entire circuit is bordered by a moat. Inside the 4km (2 1 ⁄ 2 -mile) circuit lies a pristine skyline straight out of a children’s fable: Visby is a lovingly preserved medieval townscape of shops, churches, and suggestive old alleys. All the architectural elements you’d expect—vaulted stone cellars, steep gabled timber roofs, and Gothic churches—are represented here. There’s even a restaurant, Clematis, occupying a 13th-century warehouse, where you eat off wooden plates, drink out of jars, and eat your food with one utensil only—a knife.
But Visby is much more than a manicured museum: Throughout the year, but especially in the summer, Visby is the stage for all kinds of historical reenactments that bring the Middle Ages to life for all ages and all senses. Medieval Week (usually the first week in Aug;) is the absolute culmination of these events, when jousting tournaments are held in the grassy common, ceremonial parades file down the streets, and a central market offers sideshows and traditional food stalls and crafts displays. Visitors who really want to get into the spirit can even rent period dress from the event’s costume warehouse.
Although the medieval period is the main era promoted on Gotland, the island has a history that goes back over 10,000 years and is thought to be the original homeland of the “barbarian” Goths. Rich archaeological finds include embellished coins and medals and intriguing rune stones. All over the island, some 94 churches in the Gothic and Romanesque styles still stand as evocative witnesses of Gotland’s illustrious past. A visit to the Gotland Historical Museums in Visby helps tie all the centuries of heritage together. And—this being Sweden—you can be assured that even as you relive the Middle Ages on Gotland, you never have to forgo design hotels, cool museum shops, and trendy cafes.