The very definition of quaint.
Gammelstad is a UNESCO World Heritage church town in Luleå, where I spent a year during my MSc studies in Sweden. It is one of the main attractions in the area and was also one of my favourite places, because it is just so pretty, particularly in winter.
Church towns are typical of northern Scandinavia, because the churches there were few and far between back in the day, so the parish of a single church would cover a large area. That was also the case with the Nederluleå church, a stone church which was built in 1492 as the biggest church in the Norrland region. Since its parish encompassed the Kalix, Råne and Lule river valleys, people had to come from far away to attend service and had to stay overnight before returning home. Hence, church towns – clusters of medieval cottages around the church that were used as temporary lodgings during church visits, parish meetings and market days.
With over 400 preserved traditional red and white wooden cottages, Gammelstad is one of the largest still existing church towns in Sweden. It was built in the 16th century and its name simply means “old town”, as that is where Luleå was founded before it was moved to its current location in the 17th century due to a natural land upheaval, which made the previous harbour unusable. That is also why Gammelstad is so well preserved, because it escaped the greedy clutches of industrialization after the town centre was moved.
The church town cottages are actually still in use today and there are special rules in place for preservation of the town just as it was. Most of the houses are privately owned, but you can visit an exhibition cottage from the mid-18th century with authentic interior and the church, as well as an open air museum right next door.
The Hägnan open air museum is built to resemble a reconstructed village with old farm houses from 18th to 20th century, complete with a vintage shop and a cafe. They have some farm animals like sheep, ponies, goats and rabbits depending on the season, but my favourites were the two hogs, Mist and Rist.
Hägnan open air museum
Hägnan is also the entrance point for the trail through the Gammelstadsviken nature reserve, which is a beautiful walk through the swamp (blog post coming soon). It takes about 2 hours and passes a bird watching tower, the Facebook data centre and ultimately ends at the Luleå University campus.
The locals are rightfully proud of their church town and I was surprised by how alive it actually is. There are lots of small, local events organised by the Gammelstad Visitors’ centre and the open air museum, such as the Christmas market, Midsommar celebration and Eldfest (a fire festival). They are mainly in Swedish, but that makes them all the more authentic and you can always get a guided tour in English at the Visitors’ centre if you want to know more. All in all, Gammelstad is the very definition of quaint and picturesque, particularly in winter when the harsh northern winter turns it into a snowy fairytale, so I really recommend you visit then.
Know before you go: Gammelstad can be easily reached via Luleå’s public bus system and is of course free to explore, although you should check the visiting hours for the church and the Visitors’ centre, which has a small souvenir shop and an exhbition. Unless there’s an event, entrance to the Hägnan open air museum is also free of charge, but the houses, the shop and the cafe are usually only open during such events and in the summer. It is still worth a visit if it’s closed though, just don’t expect to be able to buy a coffee.