The island of Björkö (the name means “island of birches”), in Lake Mälaren, is the site of Sweden’s oldest town, BIRKA, which was founded around 750AD and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. For over two centuries, Birka was the most important Viking trading centre in the northern countries, benefiting from its strategic location near the mouth of Lake Mälaren on the portage route to Russia and the Byzantine Empire. Today, a visit here is not only an opportunity to get to grips with Sweden’s Viking heritage, thanks to the site’s excellent museum, but the boat trip to the island also gives you a chance to explore the tranquil waters of Lake Mälaren.
After Birka was founded in the mid-eighth century, tradesmen and merchants were quick to take advantage of the prosperous and rapidly expanding village, and the population soon grew to around one thousand. The future patron saint of Scandinavia, Ansgar, came here in 830 as a missionary at the instruction of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis I, and established a church in an attempt to Christianize the heathen Swedes. They showed little interest and the Frankish monk preached on the island for just over a year before being recalled. Birka reached its height during the tenth century before sliding into decline: falling water levels in Lake Mälaren, the superior location of the Baltic island of Gotland for handling Russian-Byzantine trade and the emergence of nearby rival Sigtuna all led to its gradual disappearance after 975.