Gammelstad church town: a travel guide
Gammelstad church town easily competes for the most scenic village in Sweden and it was one of the highlights on my trip to Swedish Lapland in October. The cute red cottages and large medieval church attract its fair share of visitors, but its location far up north protects it from mass tourism.
Gammelstad church town lies near Luleå, one of the largest cities in Swedish Lapland and close to the arctic circle. Gammelstad literally means old city and this place indeed has a rich cultural history.
The history of Gammelstad church town
Gammelstad is one of the best preserved church towns. Church towns in northern Scandinavia came into existence in medieval times. Because of the sparse population there were very few churches. People had to travel from far away to pay a visit. As a result, simple cottages developed around the church for those that couldn’t make the journey to the church and back in one day.
These cottages were only in use on sundays and religious holidays. As a result the town was quiet during the week, but a lively affair on the weekends. People did not only come here to go to church though. Gammelstad was also a meeting place where people came to trade, to negotiate, to meet friends and family and even to look for a marriage partner.
Gammelstad is also where the city of Luleå once started. In the 15th and 16th century the sea level was much higher making Gammelstad a small harbour town. However, the tectonic plates are coming up as a result of the icecap that melted thousands years ago. The ice was so heavy that it weighed the landmass down and it has been slowly rising since.
By the 17th century the Gammelstad harbour became too shallow and modern day Lulea moved closer towards the sea. Gammelstad remained an active church town though and became a UNESCO World heritage site.
Although it feels a bit like an open air museum, it isn’t. Most of the cottages are still private property, even though permanent residence is still not allowed and they only recently got electricity. During the week, the town feels almost empty, but its owners still return to celebrate religious holidays such as christmas and easter.
Things to do in Gammelstad church town
Gammelstad church town visitor centre
I recommend your first stop in Gammelstad church town to be the small visitors centre. Besides a souvenir shop there is an excellent exhibition about the town’s culture and history. It makes for a great start of your visit and you will have a better understanding of what you see when you explore Gammelstad.
Gammelstad church town walking tour
At the visitor centre you can also pick up a brochure that has a self guided walking tour through town. The walk takes about 1 to 2 hours and it’s a good way to see the most important sights within Gammelstad church town.
There are also guided walking tours through Gammelstad, including a lantern tour in the dark winter. You can book them at the visitor centre or online.
The Nederluleå church is what put Gammelstad church town on the map. Its construction started in the 15th century. The area was sparsely populated at that time. However, with the trade in fur and salmon the small peasant communities in the area of the Lule river valley could afford to build a church with thick stone walls and a rich interior. It remains one of the largest medieval churches in northern Sweden.
The exhibition cottage
There used to be over 70 church towns in Northern Sweden. Nowadays there are only 16 and they have changed in size and function. Gammelstad still has over 400 church cottages and is the only church town that is still in use. I already mentioned that most cottages are still private property and that the owners still visit Gammelstad to celebrate the major religious festivals.
Cottage number 253 – 254 now belongs to the Nederluleå history association who have opened the cottage to the public as an exhibition cottage. It gives a good idea of what the cottages look like from the inside, although you should keep in mind that this was one of the larger and more wealthy cottages in town.
Hagnan open air museum
The Nederlulea church served the small peasant communities in the Lule river valleys. The Hagnan open air museum is all about the cultural history of these farmers. The museum is an example of a 16th century farm including domestic animals.
It’s free and a short walk from the Nederluleå church and therefore a visit won’t hurt. It’s especially nice if you have children.
Gammelstadsviken Nature Reserve
Just behind the Hagnan open air museum lies Gammelstadsviken. A nature reserve between Gammelstad and luleå that is one of the best birdwatching spots in Sweden. This reserve gets few visitors, but it’s a great spot for hiking.
It’s even possible to hike a 8 kilometer trail back to Luleå, combining culture and nature on a great day trip.
Where to eat in Gammelstad church town
Gammelstad is small and has only a few restaurants. The best option is the up market Kaptensgarden that serves local food of high quality. For a cheaper option you can also try the Cafe Fagnan at the Hagnan open air museum.
Where to stay in Gammelstad church town
Because the cottages in Gammelstad are not for permanent residency, there are no hostels or hotels in Gammelstad itself. It’s best to stay in Luleå where I can recommend the Amber Hotel.
How to get to Gammelstad church town
Gammelstad makes a great day trip from Lulea. The most sustainable way to get from Stockholm to Lulea is by train.
From Lulea it is easy to get to Gammelstad by public transport. Bus number 9 towards kyrkbyn leaves every 15 – 20 minutes from the centre of Luleå (Smedjegatan) to Gammelstad. The journey takes about 30 minutes and you need to pay your ticket beforehand with the LLT app.
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