The best preserved church village in northern Sweden is a World Heritage Site and a very busy wedding venue. Tourists are not particularly welcome.


I hadn’t planned to go to Luleå, but when an older Swedish lady in the hostel in Jokkmokk told me I must go there so I could visit Gammelstad and then the hostel owner said the same thing, I changed my plans.

I hadn’t had the best of starts in Luleå and so far wasn’t impressed. After a few trials and tribulations I finally got on the bus that would take me to Gammelstad.

Gammelstad map

The bus driver put me off at the main stop near the church in Gammelstad and showed me where to wait to get the bus back.

Gammelstad church

As I was near the church, I thought that should be the first place I visited. Unfortunately a wedding was just about to start so, rather than crash the wedding, I wandered over to the tourist office and museum.

Gammelstad is the best preserved and largest of the unique church villages found in northern Sweden. So much so, that it is now a World Heritage Site.


Church villages grew up because parishes were spread far over inhospitable terrain, making it difficult for church-goers to pop in for a quick visit. Instead, people built small houses around the church and would stay overnight when they came for Sunday services. The villages not only provided a place a to sleep, but a sense of community for neighbours who lived too far apart to socialise during the week.


Four hundred and twenty four tiny red houses are packed in tightly around the church. The wooden sides are painted with ‘Falu red’, a paint that originated as a by-product from all the copper mines in the northern parts of Sweden. It was found that mixing copper with paint protected the wood from the elements and people would make their own paint, mixing up the ingredients on the stove.


Window frames were (and still are) painted white making for a very striking look.

Gammelstad window

The houses in Gammelstad were used as intended up until the 1950s. Now most of them are privately owned by people in Luleå who use them as weekend getaway cottages. They are under contract to keep them in a good sense of repair and to not change the look of them.

One cottage is open to visitors and has been kept as it would have been.

Gammelstad house interiorGammelstad house interior

I wandered in and out of the maze-like gaps between the houses and then took off over the fields to check out some of the barns and other farm buildings that form part of the site. Various brides were leaning up against the buildings with their new husbands having their photos taken.


It would have been nice to sit in a little cafe and have a coffee, but the cafe was closed. Saturday afternoon at a World Heritage Site, why on earth had I expected it to be open? Silly me.

Gammelstad bike
This was advertising a shop that wasn’t open

The larger pub/restaurant was in full swing with the wedding party. I didn’t know if they would’ve served me or not, but didn’t particularly feel like going in and sitting amongst all the wedding guests anyway.

Going back to the 15th century stone church, there was yet another wedding in progress. I sat outside and waited for it to finish, watching another wedding party arrive as I waited. It all seemed a bit like a factory production line. Feed them in one end and out the other.

As the bride and groom exited the church, I dodged the confetti and slipped in behind them. The church was beautiful, but some kind of manager guy was not happy with me being there.

Gammelstad church interior

I pointed out that I’d come an awful long way and it’s not as though I could just pop back another time. I also pointed out that there was no wedding in progress and I’d been considerate and patient enough to wait until it was between weddings to have a look around. And I pointed out that surely anyone choosing to get married at a World Heritage Site on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of August is going to expect a few tourists to be around. And the people setting up for the next wedding didn’t seem bothered by me at all. But still, I felt like I was being thrown out. I snapped a few photos and left feeling rather frustrated that I hadn’t been able to have a proper look round.

I’d pretty much exhausted the ‘things to do’ in Gammelstad by this time and a bus was due so I headed back to the bus stop and back to Luleå.

I just liked this arty use of old sewing machine table

Was Gammelstad worth my lengthy diversion to Luleå? I seemed to spend most of my time there feeling very frustrated (the only time and place I’ve ever felt like this in Sweden), but the church village was interesting and I’m glad I’ve seen it. I’ll probably never go there again so I don’t regret taking a few days out of my trip down the middle of the Sweden to head to the coast to see it whilst I had the chance.

Author: Anne

Join me in my journey to live a life less boring, one challenge at a time. Author of the forthcoming book 'Walking the Kungsleden: One Woman's Solo Wander Through the Swedish Arctic'.

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