Exotic, historic – and sunny!    

By the early 20th century, artists, poets and writers of the Romantic period had discovered the attractions of this beautiful and mysterious island, which quickly became one of Sweden's first major destinations for beach and culture tourism, a distinction it maintains to this day. It helps that Gotland is blessed with possibly the sunniest weather in the country.

The island – Sweden's largest, and the largest in the Baltic, measuring 125 km long and 55 km across at its widest point – is rather an exotic place, abounding in ruins, artefacts and folk memories from its period of greatness during the Viking era and the Middle Ages. About 90 kilometres off the Swedish mainland, Gotland was a sovereign country for many hundreds of years, and its capital Visby was one of the most important cities in the Hanseatic League.

In fact, the land of the Gutes (or Gutar in Swedish), as the original population was known, has been inhabited at least since the Stone Age. Some historians are convinced that the Gutar were in fact the original Goths, the barbarian tribe whose depredations helped finish off the Roman Empire, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages.

Easily the largest town on Gotland is Visby, with all of 22,000 residents – who become host to half a million visitors during the summer months. Visby is a World Heritage site: in effect, one great museum, with ruins and medieval buildings on almost every street, the whole enclosed within a beautiful ring wall incorporating 44 towers, including the famous 12th century Powder Tower (Kruttornet).

Gotland is known for being child-friendly, which makes it especially popular with young families. There is no shortage of safe beaches, and an enormous range of activities makes the county a delight for parents and offspring alike. Kneippbyn, a theme and water park, is just one example. Others include the famous little trains of Visby and the caves known as Lummelundagrottan and Knattegrottan.

Pippi Longstocking
But the top attraction for the kids has to be the fictional heroine Pippi Longstocking. Her home, Villa Villekulla, is a place of pilgrimage for small fry, who delight in following the "Pippi Trail" on organized walks during the season. Children – and their parents – also love Kapitelhusgården, the medieval Chapter House courtyard in Visby's town centre, where they can try their hand at ancient crafts such as leather working and blacksmithing and spend the day as a princess or as one of the Knights of Botulf at the Knights' and Princesses' School.

For marvellous overall views of Visby and the coast, first-time visitors might start with a stroll on Trappgatan, winding above the town. An impressive introduction to the island's history is Gotland's Fornsal museum, whose collections include jewellery and other artefacts dating back thousands of years. In the centre of town the ruins of St. Nicolai Church (one of over 90 churches on the island, none of them built later than 1350) is also a popular attraction.

Away from the capital, the Bunge open-air museum, one of the nation's largest, comprises more than 50 old buildings typical of the island, plus some unusual runestones. Gotland's east coast is famous for its sandy beaches and for its spectacular limestone pillars created by natural erosion. The best known is probably Hoburgsgubben, "the Old Man of Hoburg", one of several stone trolls each of which has become the subject of many folk tales.

Ancient breed
Kattlund's Farm, dating from the early 15th century, is one of several farmsteads of varying ages open to the public as exhibits and activity centres. Lojsta moor is a bucolic wooded area, home to a semi-wild herd of Gotland ponies, an ancient breed native to Sweden: the annual round-up is a colourful event.

The smaller islands in the vicinity of Gotland are fascinating destinations in themselves – most notably Fårö, off the northern coast, where the iconic Swedish film and stage director Ingmar Bergman lived for much of his life, and where a number of his movies were set.

Photo: Stig Hammarstedt
A range of activities

Photo: Mikael Dunker Photo: Mikael Dunker Photo: Kalle Kirstilä
Medieval city wall, Visby Abounding in ruins... Stora Karlsö island