Gotland: Sweden’s Baltic beauty

Gotland: Sweden's Baltic beauty
If you’re looking for an island paradise there’s no need to travel to the other side of the world. Just a few hours’ ferry ride from Stockholm, the island of Gotland has it all, writes René Rice.

From the moment I caught a sun-drenched glimpse of Visby’s arches and spires and the island’s majestic wind farms from the ferry, I knew I had fallen in love with Gotland.

The Swedish island’s capital city, Visby, would in fact become the backdrop for our honeymoon just a year after our first visit, which may give you some idea of the impression it made on us; all talk of the Caribbean had gone out the window. Some found this to be a strange choice as we had actually moved to Sweden by that point, but I still can’t imagine a more romantic setting for newly-weds, or indeed a wedding.

Visby is steeped in culture and history – the Baltic island was a prominent trade centre for the Vikings – and boasts a medieval city wall, some beautiful architecture, cobbled streets, market places, pastel-coloured houses and panoramic ocean views, giving the city a truly Mediterranean feel. In fact if it wasn’t for the language and the occasional ICA supermarket or Systembolaget booze store, you’d be hard pushed to know you were in Sweden at all.

One of Visby’s most appealing aspects for me is its balance of historic culture and entertainment; after a day admiring the museums or sightseeing you can relax over a decent meal at one of the city’s restaurants, or take in the local nightlife – which is surprisingly buoyant. Munkkällaren is a popular haunt during the summer months, a stylish restaurant and bar/nightclub that hosts live bands and deejays and serves good food and excellent local draught beer from the Gotland brewery.

I had heard that Gotland was home to some of Sweden’s best restaurants and am glad to say I was not disappointed.

We enjoyed some wonderful meals in many tranquil Al Fresco environments during our stay – particular favourites were the tapas dishes at Vinäger and the traditional Swedish fried herring with melted butter and mashed potatoes at Bakfickan. Even our lunchtime pizzas were of an exceptionally high standard.

There does, however, seem to be a lack of good seafront restaurants so every evening, before we ventured into town to dine, we would sit by the beach with a glass of wine and watch the sunset over the Baltic, something I can highly recommend.

Visby is amazingly well preserved and the hoards of tourists it attracts over the summer months have in no way detracted from that, indeed many of the city’s restaurants and cafés have been stylishly built in or around the medieval ruins – one restaurant even houses sections of the city wall in its main dining area.

Even more impressive is the fact that most of Visby’s souvenir shops, fast food restaurants and supermarkets have been built outside of the city wall, leaving the natural beauty and heritage of the central part of the city intact.

Other highlights of our trip to Gotland included an amble through Visby’s botanical gardens; a coastal run to the sandy beach at Snäck, where we braved an invigorating dip in the chilly water; a day trip to Stora Karlsö – a small island off the south-west coast of Gotland, home to a variety of rare birds where puffins fidget on the cliffs and the sea is an amazingly clear blue-green, and a day at Kneippbyn amusement and water park.

The island is a very popular student and tourist destination during the peak summer periods so we visited in late August, when the sea is cooler but there are fewer tourists – just enough to feel that you’re on holiday, but not too many to inhibit any of your activities. We unfortunately didn’t have time to visit one of the island’s most well-known tourist attractions, the large natural stone tower formations called raukar found on beaches around the island, but plan to do so during our next visit.

If you’ve already been to Gotland you’ll know exactly what I mean when I say it’s special. If you haven’t had the chance or inclination yet, pay the island a visit and experience a truly wonderful and different side to Sweden.