Thinking of heading to Gammelstad Church town, just outside Luleå in Swedish Lapland? Here’s your ultimate guide to the best things to do there, how to get there, and where to stay during your visit.
Ever wondered about the secret lives of rural Swedes in the middle ages?
No? Truth be told, neither had we – until we spent a day exploring the Gammelstad Church Town, just outside Luleå in Swedish Lapland.
You see, it’s not often that you can visit a site that’s over 400 years old and still be a part of the traditions that made it so special to begin with. But peek inside one of the quaint red timber cabins scattered around the medieval Nederluleå church on a weekend, and chances are you’ll find a family sitting down to share a fika with their neighbours – just as residents have been doing here since the 1600s.
Church towns like this were once commonplace throughout Scandinavia, providing farmers and other locals from rural areas with weekend accommodation so they could attend Sunday services then return home. Today, Gammelstad is the best preserved of Sweden’s 16 church towns and offers a brilliant step back in time to what life in Swedish Lapland was really like in the 17th century.
If you’re thinking of visiting Gammelstad yourself (and we hope you do!), here’s everything you need to know about this unique North Sweden town:
YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE GAMMELSTAD CHURCH TOWN
THE HISTORY OF GAMMELSTAD CHURCH TOWN
While it’s now viewed as a sign of former religious and social life, Gammelstad church town’s origins were actually based far more in practicality. Up until the early 15th century, ownership of the Lapland territories was still very much up for debate between Sweden and its neighbouring countries. As more and more natural resources were discovered through the region regularly, the King of Sweden had the stone Nederluleå Church commissioned, which was inaugurated in 1492 (a wooden chapel would likely have existed before then!) – thus solidifying Sweden’s claim to the northern region.
What many people don’t realise today is that Gammelstad actually used be at the heart of Luleå’s town centre. When rising land made the Gammelstad harbour too shallow for ships to access, the whole town was moved closer to the coast in 1649, where present-day Luleå still lies today. The church, however, wasn’t moved – and has remained in the same location ever since it was first opened.
These were the days when regular church-going was mandated in Sweden, and the cottages were built around the church to house the churchgoers who travelled from farms far and wide to attend services. Locals would travel to the town on a Friday or Saturday, attend church on a Sunday, and then head home on Sunday evening or Monday morning again. Gradually, Gammelstad (and other church towns like it) became the centrepiece of social life in Northern Sweden; a place to forge new friendships, sell some wares, share a fika together, and for youngsters, even find a suitable husband or wife from another village!
Today, about 400 cabins remain standing at Gammelstad and while it’s possible to purchase one today, the tradition of only being allowed to stay a few days is alive and well (and, we’re told, very well policed by other cabin owners!).
WHAT TO DO IN GAMMELSTAD
Stop in at the Gammelstad Visitors Centre
The Visitors Centre is a pretty good place to start with any explorations of Gammelstad church town.
Upstairs, there’s a free exhibition about the unique history of Gammelstad, including a model of what the town and church looked like around the time of its founding. There’s also a slideshow room that runs short films about the area, and lots of maps and brochures to help guide you around the area. There’s also a cute souvenir shop on the ground floor that stocks postcards and a range of locally-produced goods.
Take a guided tour
Of course, you can wander around Gammelstad by yourself, but this is one occasion where we feel that going alone would be doing yourself a disservice. After all, a collection of 400-year-old cabins is just that – until someone is able to breathe some life into them.
As you wander amongst the cute log cottages with a guide, you’ll gain a real insight to the lives of the parishioners who used to call them home (temporarily), visit a cottage and a farm still furnished in the traditional style, and even share a fika together as the residents back then would have. After all, it’s not just the cabins here that are special; it’s the social lives that were constructed around them that make Gammelstad church town a UNESCO world heritage site.
When: Tours run year-round, but timings vary depending on season
Where: Purchase tickets at the Visitor Centre (drop in bookings okay, but for large groups give them a ring).
Cost: Between 80-100 SEK (around 8-10 GBP)
Take a lantern-guided tour (winter-only)
What could be more magical than wandering around a quaint Swedish cottage town? Wandering around said cottage town with a guide dressed in traditional 1800s clothing, by lantern light, and when it’s covered in snow!
When: Lantern tours run on weekends through December, and take a similar path to the standard guided tours above.
Discover traditional farm life at Hägnan Open-air museum
Just down from the edge of Gammelstad is the Hägnan open-air museum, a collection of buildings from the 1700s to the early 20th century that provide an insight into what farm life in the north of Sweden was like at the time. There’s a beautifully furnished farmhouse and former stables to explore, along with a bakehouse and a blacksmith’s shop too.
When: Hägnan is open daily during Summer from 10am-6pm. It’s only open in winter for special events (like the Christmas market below)
Where: Just northeast of the church
Visit the Nederluleå Church
Obviously, a visit to a Swedish church town would be incomplete without a visit to the very building that gives it its purpose – and the Nederluleå Church is no exception.
The current stone building was finished in 1492 (though an earlier timber and stone structure likely occupied the same place prior), and aside from the addition of a stone bell tower in the 1800s remains largely the same. If you can get inside, the interior of the church is quite elaborate too, with restored medieval frescoes and intricate wooden carvings. The whole site is even more impressive when you remember that this building really was the catalyst for both Swedish ownership of the region, and the development of Luleå today!
When: Monday – Wednesday from 11am-3pm, obviously with breaks for services. Services also run on Sundays at 11 am.
Where: At the heart of Gammelstad – you can’t miss it!
Visit the Gammelstad Christmas Market
Generally held on the second weekend of Advent, the Gammelstad Christmas Market is a chance to experience traditional Swedish festive celebrations. Held in the open-air museum at Hägnan, the market includes horse-drawn sleighs, local crafts, delicious home-baked treats, and even a surprise appearance by the jolly man dressed in red!
When: Second weekend of Advent (9-10 December 2017)
Where: Hägnan, the open air museum at Gammelstad
Enjoy Midsummer celebrations (summer)
If you’re in the area during the longest day of the year, it’s definitely worth checking out the midsummer festivities at Gammelstad.
The local Luleå historical society leads a fun day and evening of traditional activities, including dressing and raising the maypole, bread and craft making classes, lots of dancing and games, haystack jumping, and you may even learn how to make your own traditional flower-crown!
When: Midsummer Eve
Where: Check the full event details closer to the time here
Take a step back in time at the show cottage
Many of the cottages are still privately owned today, which makes getting in to see them much trickier. However, if you can’t take a guided tour but still want to get a feel for what life in the cottages was like 400 years ago, be sure to go past the show cottage at 253–254 Framlänningsvägen.
The small cottage (though large by the standards of the time!), is furnished in the traditional style, including a Scandinavian ‘cupboard bed’, traditional clothing, simple cooking dishes, and the all-important cast iron coffee pots for fika gatherings. After all, the social aspect was an integral part of life in the church towns, with neighbours gathering to share a coffee and pastry break, and catch up on the previous week’s news.
When: The show cottage is only open in summer (trust us, they’re chilly – even in early autumn!)
Where: 253–254 Framlänningsvägen
Take a traditional cooking class
When it comes to cooking, the Swedish way is local, hearty, and sustainably sourced. It’s all about traditionally good, honest food that warms the bones and the soul. Hunting is also a huge part of the culture here, so Moose, game bird, and Reindeer form a huge part of the food culture.
On the outskirts of Gammelstad Church Town, you can take a traditional cooking class at Kaptensgården with head chef Johan Thingvall, and learn how to make some delicious Swedish meatballs from scratch. In true traditional style, we made ours from Elk meat that his wife had hunted – definitely a unique experience, and we daresay, far better than the meatballs in IKEA’s fridges!
HOW TO GET TO GAMMELSTAD CHURCH TOWN
Given that it’s only 9km from the heart of the city, getting to Gammelstad from Luleå is a pretty easy task.
A number of bus services (the #1, #403, and #2) run every 20 minutes between Pontusbadet and Gammelstad town. The trip should only take about 9 minutes, and costs between £3-5.
Travelling by car? No problems. You can leave your mechanical chariot at the carpark just down from the open-air museum.
WHERE TO STAY AROUND GAMMELSTAD
If you’re keen to stay in Gammelstad itself, your only option is to book an Airbnb rental as for the most part, the town has been left as is (which means no hotels!). Don’t forget to use our Airbnb code for £30 credit when you go!
If you’re after somewhere to stay with a little more ‘buzz’ to it (aka running water, electricity, and shops nearby), stay in Luleå and do a day trip to Gammelstad instead. From safaris to cruises with a whole lot of outdoor fun in between, there’s also plenty to do in Luleå, so stay a few days to explore.
Check out the range of hotels in Luleå on HotelsCombined now.
Thinking of visiting Swedish Lapland? Read these posts for inspiration!
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