The place where Visby later was built, was a marketplace already in the 7th century but excavations at Stora Torget have found settlements dating back to Stone Age. In 1161 the place was mentioned as “Coast of Gotland” in the treaty between the German Duke Henry the Lion and the Gotlanders. This treaty was the beginning of what came to be the powerful and important Hanseatic League. Visby had a leading position until mid 1300's and is then considered the most powerful city of Northern Europe. The name Visby appears for the first time in a Latvian chronicle from 1203. Already in 1231 Visby had a German and a Gotlandic city council, each with their mayor, which shows the importance of the city. Gotlandic Law was valid on the merchant's side of the river in Veliky Novgorod – trade between Gotland and Novgorod flourished already during the Viking Age.
A number of churches and monasteries were build during the first half of the 13th century. Both the Dominicans and the Fransiscans built centrally located premises and St Mary's Church was inaugurated in 1225 as the main church of the German merchants. An evidence on the importance of Visby for the Hanseatic trade on Novgorod was a chest with four locks that stood in this church, and contained the important trading documents. The four keys to the locks were in the hands of the mayors of Visby, Lübeck, Soest and Dortmund. They – or their representatives- had to come together in Visby twice a year to open the chest.
In 1361 Gotland was conquered by the Danish king Valdemar. The final battle stood outside Visby's city walls. Many Gotlanders were killed but the merchants of the town didn't take part. They paid a contribution to the Danish king and were allowed to go on with their businesses as before.
Towards the end of the 14th century the Hanseatic trade had diminished and Visby had lost its position in the Hansa. The German Order came to power on Gotland and held the island during 10 years (1398-1408) but ceded it to the ruling Kalmar Union ( union between Denmark, Sweden, Norway). During the next decade a castle was built in Visby, that was destroyed when Denmark finally lost Gotland in the late 17th century after a vain attempt to conquer the island once more. Piracy ruled along the shores of Gotland. Sören Norrby, Danish governor, is the most renown pirate.
In 1645, after a war between Denmark and Sweden, Gotland became Swedish. By then the glorious days of Visby belonged to the past and the city declined even more during the next two centuries. The reformation closed the monasteries and the city could afford to maintain only one church: St Mary's Church. During the 19th century the interest for Visby as valuable historical site awoke, and towards the end of the century an arising tourism could be noticed.
Visby is a charming authentic medieval city. Narrow lanes, medieval ruins, the cathedral, well-kept buildings, shops, cafés, restaurants make Visby to an attractive destination. In the County Museum you can follow the rich past of Gotland and Visby. A walk along the 3,5 km long city wall is a unique experience all the year round. In St Mary's Cathedral services and concerts are available most days of the week. St Nicolas is now being converted into a modern concert hall without losing its character of a ruin. In the summertime concerts are frequently offered here.
Besides its long and interesting history Visby is also well-known for its gardens, especially the abundance of roses that adorns the city during summer and well into late autumn. The Botanical Garden, which dates to 1855 offers a wide range of different roses in all the colours.
One of the largest Medieval Festival in Northern Europe is held here every year. The Medieval week attracts every year about 40.000 visitors to Gotland. During this festival the Hanseatic times are revived: historical markets, theatres, concerts, tournaments fill both days and nights. Medieval costumes are as frequent as modern clothing in the streets of Visby during this week.
Although Visby is at its liveliest during spring and in the summer months, there is plenty to do at any time of the year, not least visiting its many excellent restaurants, bars and cosy cafés.
The calcareous soil of Gotland and a favourable climate contribute to plenty of fresh, local produce. In the spring, asparagus will be on the menu in all forms.
Even truffles grow on the island and if you’re a fan, you won’t want to miss the late autumn months, when truffles appear on restaurant menus and in shops. If you happen to be on Gotland in November, there are also tastings, truffle hunts and lectures arranged by the island’s Truffle academy.
Also, for the young visitors there is something special to explore: the film Pippi Longstocking was mainly filmed on Gotland and the original house of Villa Villerkulla can be visited just south of Visby.