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Travel Back in Time to Gammelstad Church Town

I joined a small group of travel writers on an excursion to Luleå, the capital of Swedish Lapland as the guests of Luleå Tourism Board. One of the most interesting locations we visited was the World Heritage Site Gammelstad Church Town.

Our small group arrived at the Gammelstad visitor’s center after the short ride out of Luleå, excited by the beautifully photogenic red and white wood cottages and the massive stone church. It never fails, but when you gather together a small band of bloggers, vloggers, photographers, and videographers, you can bet it’s going to be a whole lot like herding kittens.

Old red and white town houses in Gammelstad.

UNESCO World Heritage Site Gammelstad Church Town

Most of us sprang out of the van ready for action and already starting to wander off in every direction. Our expert trip coordinator, Camilla, knew better and quickly reeled us in. There would be plenty of time for wandering on our own later, first we would be treated to the grand tour complete with knowledgeable guide and storyteller, Christoffer.

Nederluleå church is the heart of Gammelstad Church Town.
Consecrated in 1492, Nederluleå church is the heart of Gammelstad Church Town

Build the Church and the People Will Come

The massive stone church here was built and consecrated in the late 15th century about the same time Columbus was discovering the new world. It was a period of expansion throughout most of Europe and Sweden was no exception. In fact, Swedish Lapland was an area of contention between Norway, Sweden and Finland as more and more natural resources were being discovered and developed.

The King of Sweden wanted to protect his interests in the area and generate some cash through taxation, so he went to the Church of Sweden and had them build a church in the area. Problem solved. The church firmly established Sweden as the rightful owner of the land and the church would attract (and tax) colonists to the area.

A "newer" well pump in Gammelstad.

The King’s gamble paid off and by 1621 the settlement had grown big enough to be granted a charter and Luleå was officially a Church town and a harbor town. Unfortunately, the ground was rising fast and by 1649 the harbor mouth had risen above sea level and boats could no longer put in at the growing city.

The townsfolk were industrious and not really willing to give up on all they had built so they moved the town 12 kilometers down the river and rebuilt on the new coastline. The “new” city can still be found in this location despite the continuous post-glacial rising of the land (nearly a centimeter per year).

It’s nearly impossible to find an angle in Gammelstad Church Town that doesn’t result in a fabulous photograph. The exteriors are so full of texture and history.

It is easy to imagine a Saturday in the town with children running barefoot through the tall grass while mothers gossip quietly in the shade and fathers are out trading the week’s wares and attending various official functions. This was also the only time young men and women could socialize and meet new friends, so often times their would be youth events, dances, and socials to give the young people a chance to build new relationships.

Gammelstad Today

Life in Gammelstad went on and the old church remained active in the area. The small village of tiny wooden cottages had been built around the church so farmers coming into town for the weekend service would have a place to stay.

The mostly one or two room houses are still there and still being used in the same transitory way. In fact, cottage owners in the church town are forbidden from making these dwellings permanent. While most of them have had upgrades throughout the year, bringing running water, toilets, and electricity the tradition of only spending one or two nights a week still holds.

The Gammelstad town well.
Most of the cottages have running water and electricity but you can still draw a bucket or two from the old town well.
Red and white village houses with the white church tower in the background.
The tall bell tower rises above the clusters of red and white trimmed cottages and can be seen throughout the town.

After our stroll and storytelling tour of the church town and village we headed down the lane to the Open-air Museum Hägnan. Here we found a collection of historic buildings and farm equipment from northern Sweden that had been dismantled at their original sites and painstakingly rebuilt here.

One of my favorite buildings was the 19th century farm house complete with a massive wall sized stone oven where we made flat bread. There were several events for children going on and the whole park like area was bustling and alive with activity.

The path into the Open-air museum is lined with these simple, yet intricate wood pole fences (not a nail to found).
The path into the Open-air museum is lined with these simple, yet intricate wood pole fences (not a nail to found).

If your timing is right you can still visit a few of the little cottages. Marita, our guide at the open air museum, invited us in for coffee, tea, and cakes. We shared the bread and butter we had made in the museum as well.

As we were leaving, she spotted another small group peeking in the windows of her neighbor’s house, so she threw her door open wide and said, “come in, come in, the kettles still hot and there’s still coffee in the pot.” Somehow, I knew this was just another typical Saturday in the Gammelstad Church Town.

Practical Information

  • Gammelstad Church Town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992
  • The town consists of the church and over 400 cottages
  • Gammelstad Church Town is more than 400 years old
  • The site can be reached by car or bus a short drive out of Luleå (bus 2 towards Sunderby Sjukhus)
  • There is a Sami culture shop on the site with artisan wares and crafts from the Sami people in the region.
  • Lunch at the Open-air museum Hägnan is delicious and affordable at Kafé Fägnan

For more up to date information and pricing visit the official VisitLulea website.

Visitor Centre
Kyrktorget 1, 954 33 Gammelstad
+46(0)920 45 70 10

Have you visited Gammelstad? Do you have any tips?

Author Bio: Jim Vail, is a travel, food, and video creator and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 15 years. For many years he lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands, and he’s visited over 90 countries.

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Travel Back in Time to Gammelstad Church Town.


Wednesday 12th of July 2017

The white trim against the deep red of the cottages makes for such striking photos. I like the tradition of keeping them reserved for short-term stays.

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 12th of July 2017

Michele, It's really a beautiful place. You would love it.

eileen g

Sunday 25th of June 2017

this looks like a cool experience. The buildings remind a bit of Iceland, but I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense.

Jim Vail

Tuesday 27th of June 2017

There were some similarities, for sure.

Rhonda Albom

Sunday 25th of June 2017

A very interesting town and history. It sounds a lot more benign than the colonisation taking place in the rest of the world at the time. I guess things can be a bit nicer when your not conquering the locals :)

Jim Vail

Tuesday 27th of June 2017

True, though I'm sure there were some locals that were at least slightly discomfited!


Monday 26th of September 2016

Such a beautiful area! I feel it is one of those places that would surprise me. Lately, I have been into finding places in Europe off the tourist track. The story of the church and the region reminds me a bit of something I learned in Hungary. One of the kings, St. Stephen, decided to become Christian in order to secure his country's future. He knew he was not going to be able they were not going to be able to survive as a nation if they didn't take the religion of the major powers of that time.

Corinne Vail

Monday 26th of September 2016

Ruth, That is the beauty of Europe isn't it...the stories? Love it.


Tuesday 20th of September 2016

Indeed this little town with its little colorful houses takes you back in time, Corinne. I would have like to visit Gammelstad Church Town when we went to Sweden this summer, but didn't have enough time. Sweden was a very pleasant surprise, I think we'll go back to explore more of its great places.

Corinne Vail

Tuesday 20th of September 2016

Anda, We loved our time in Sweden as well. Of course there is always more to do!