A self-guided walking tour of old town Ribe in Denmark.
A Two-Hour Walk Through Danish History by Danhostel Ribe
Ribe is both the oldest town in Denmark and Scandinavia – founded around year 700 – and the best-preserved town of the Danish Middle Ages – therefore a walk through Ribe is like a walk through Ribe’s and Denmark’s history. Walking into Ribe Old Town is like stepping into a time warp. You can not see houses from the early 7th century – but you will “return” to medieval times and the Renaissance (11th to 17th.century).
Ribe is one large attraction in itself. More than 100 preserved houses, half-timbered architecture, cobblestone streets, and narrow alleys have awarded Ribe town with two stars from the prestigious Michelin Guide for Attractions.
1. The Head Meadow and Danhostel Ribe
From Danhostel Ribe turn right and cross the parking area. On your right hand – just outside the hostel’s window you’ll see Hovedengen (the Head Meadow), so named because here, at the harbour entrance, beheaded pirates had their heads put on stakes as a warning for others to keep to the straight and narrow. (see photo of the Head Meadow, the river and the hostel at the bottom of the page). Read the story here: Beheaded Pirates
2. Small and narrow alleys and a stone that helps drunk pub guests
Walk across the bridge and you’ll be on the high street, which dates back to the year 1200. Today, it is a pedestrian street. Turn right and on the second street to the right, turn right again to Fiskergade, one of Ribe’s old and beautiful streets.
You’ll pass by some very small alleys, named “slipper”. There are many of those in Ribe town. In the Middle Ages, roof gutters were unknown. Instead, when it rained, the water ran from the roof and down into the small alleys. You can still see houses without roof gutters in Ribe
On several of the street corners leading to the alleys there’s a heavy stone, left there to protect the house walls from the iron-studded wheels when a horse drawn carriage turned the corner. On the corner of Fiskergade 5, you will see such a stone. The house, which dates back to approx. 1540, once a pub, has another stone close to the entrance door. The stone was placed there to help pub guests, who had got drunk. Using the stone, they could just manage to throw themselves up on their horse when it was time to get home.
3. Grønnegade – the King’s street
Continue to Grønnegade and walk back a few steps to Grønnegade 12, which is Ribe’s second oldest half-timbered house (see photo of the yellow half-timbered house at the bottom of the page). The house dates back to approx.1530, while the façade is from approx.1800 (See 19). This old street – Grønnegade – was named after merchants from Groningen in Holland.
Ribe had been an important town of commerce ever since the Viking era and merchants came from near and far. Therefore also the King found it important to build a castle here. This street, Grønnegade, was the street from the Kings Castle Riberhus to Ribe Cathedral.
Riberhus Castle – a castle of the medieval kings in Ribe, Denmark – now rampart, moat and a statue of the famous Queen Dagmar (faintly seen to the right in the photo)
4. The Kings Castle Riberhus and the beloved Queen Dagmar
Turn around and stroll down to the end of Grønnegade and continue to Riberhus Slotsbanke (Riberhus Castle). Here the medieval Danish kings had a castle for several centuries, but all that now remains are the rampart, the moat, ruins and a statue of Queen Dagmar. Once a drawbridge led across the moat to the castle, now you pass a dam of earth.
Queen Dagmar was married to King Valdemar the Victorious (Valdemar Sejr) and died at Riberhus Castle in 1212, only seven years after she came to Denmark. During her short life, Queen Dagmar, became a great favourite by the Danes and several ballads were written about her and King Valdemar. The best known of these, “Queen Dagmar, ill in Ribe lies,” can be heard every day at 12 noon and 3pm from the Cathedral’s carillon.
Dagmarkorset, a lovely piece of jewellery, is named Queen Dagmar.
See videos and listen to the Cathedral’s carillon or organ play “Queen Dagmar, ill in Ribe lies”: Queen Dagmar
5. Storm Surges and Ribe Harbour – an important medieval North Sea port and Denmark’s gateway to Western Europe
Going back towards town, stroll down Skibbroen, Ribe’s harbour. Take a look at the Storm Surge pole (Stormflodssøjlen), where metal rings show the many storm surges that, through time, have flooded Ribe. The top ring – 6.10 metre (20 feet) above the normal water level – shows the 1634 storm surge that washed away several farms and drowned thousands of people. This storm surge is remembered as the Big Drowning.
On a board besides Skibbroen 19, you can also see markings from several of the same storm surges.
In spite of the big storm surges, the damage has been somewhat contained since the Ribe Dike was built in 1912. In a 1999 hurricane and storm surge, it became necessary to evacuate the small Wadden sea island Mandoe outside Ribe. In Ribe we were very close to the disaster, but were lucky to escape this time.
Ribe was an important North Sea port throughout the Middle Ages. In the early Middle Ages was especially exports of herring and horses important, but from the 1500s oxen became Denmark’s most important export article and a very large part of these were exported from Ribe.
Most importantly was exports over land via the North Sea Trail to Hamburg and the Elbe area in Germany, but also exports over sea to Holland was very important. According to customs accounts, Ribe merchants earned colossal sums of money in the 1500s and 1600s.
These exports took place in spring when wind and weather conditions were optimum. A big number of ships would often leave at the same day in springtime.
6. Open-air court and Guild Signs
Walk back to the high street Overdammen and turn right. Just before Torvet (the town square), you will find an alley called Tingslippe. Until 1709 it led to Ribe’s open-air moot and City Hall in Grønnegade 2. The moot had aspects both of open-air court and of council meeting.
Now you come to Denmark’s oldest pub, Weis Stue. Built in 1600, Weis Stue became a hotel in 1704 and the existing taproom was added in 1734. Over the main entrance door hangs one of Ribe’s many guild signs – a bunch of grapes – of course! (see photo of the Guild Sign at the bottom of the page)
7. Hotel Dagmar and Porsborg
Walk over to Hotel Dagmar, built shortly after the big 1580 fire and home to one of the two mayors in Ribe. Next to Hotel Dagmar lies the big stone house, Porsborg, now Ribe Tourist Office. Porsborg was built in 1590 by Peder Baggesen, a wealthy exporter of oxen.
8. Old Town Hall and Ribe’s Night Watchman
Now you come to the Old Town Hall on von Støckens Plads in Stenbogade. It has been Town Hall from 1709 to 2007 but was built 1496. Formerly it was a commercial house. On the doors, you can see Ribe’s town arms: the Cathedral and three royal lions.
This building was Denmark’s oldest functioning city hall until 2007. Although most of the official functions have been moved to Esbjerg, official receptions and civil weddings still take place at the Old Town Hall. Here, you can also find the old debtor’s prison, now made into a small museum that tells the stories of Riber ret (The Ribe court): Ribe’s medieval rule of law had a reputation for being very strict and is known from this folk saying by an old hag when she watched her son being hanged from the gallows in Varde town, “ Thank God, my son, that you did not come before Riberret.” (The Ribe court).
In the museum, you can see the executioner’s sword and the Night Watchman’s spiked mace.
Read more about Ribe’s Night Watchmen and their guided tours in Ribe: Ribe’s Night Watchman
9. Maren Spliid (Splids) – One of Ribe’s witches
Turn right and you are on Sønderportsgade. On the corner of Bispegade, you will see the house, where the tailor Laurids Spliid lived. A memorial tablet set into the wall commemorates his wife, Maren Spliid, who was accused of witchcraft and on Nov. 9, 1641, burned on the stake on Galgebakken (Gallows Hill). Maren Spliid became Denmark’s most famous victim of witch trials. About Maren Spliid and witchcraft in Ribe: Maren Spliid – The Witch
10. The Cathedral and the Commoner’s Tower
Now walk towards the Cathedral. You will discover that it is situated far below the street level. The Cathedral was built on a sand dune, a couple of metres above the street level. The accumulation of hundreds of years of debris and disintegrated building materials may have caused the rise of the surrounding area. It is also possible that the rise was created deliberately in order to reduce the risk of flooding.
Ribe Cathedral, started in approx. 1150 and finished in approx. 1250, is the only Danish church with five naves.
We know that, at least, two Danish Kings were buried here: Erik Emune († 1137) and Christoffer I († 1259).
We also know – due to excavations finished in 2013 – that Denmark’s first Christian church was located at the same place as where Ribe Cathedral is now.
Turn left and walk along the Cathedral. You pass a statue of the Danish hymn writer and bishop in Ribe, H. A. Brorson. At 8am and 6pm, you can hear Brorson’s hymn: “Now Found is the Fairest of Roses” from the Cathedral’s carillon.
Every day, at 12 noon and 3pm, you can hear the ballad about Queen Dagmar.
By the main entrance to Ribe Cathedral is a statue of Hans Tausen (1494 – 1561). He was bishop in Ribe after the Protestant Reformation and is considered the Danish Reformation’s main figure.
Entry to Ribe Cathedral’s itself is free, but if you wish to climb the tower after you come into the church then there is a small charge. On a clear day, you can see forever on top of the Commoner’s Tower. Read more about: Ribe Cathedral
11. The Latin school – and the birthplace of Jakob A. Riis
Walk to Skolegade. The street is named after the old Latin school of Ribe, founded in the early sixteen century on the corner of Skolegade and Grydergade. For many years the school was known all over Denmark and had pupils coming from near and far.
As a curiosity can be mentioned that in 1848, Jacob A. Riis was born in this house, where his father was a teacher. Later, when Riis worked as a police reporter and photo-journalist in the slums of New York, he published “How the other half lives” and President Roosevelt called him: “New York’s most useful citizen”.
A memorial tablet set into the wall commemorates Jakob A. Riis. On the same house is another memorial tablet to several well-known people, who went to school here from 1500 – 1856. Did you notice that Ribe is full of memorial tablets to well-known people, who lived here?
12. Hans Tausen’s house and half-timbered buildings in Sønderportsgade
Turn left and walk towards Sønderportsgade again. On your left hand you pass a red half-timbered house. This is all that remains of the Danish Protestant Reformer and Bishop Hans Tausen´s residence.
Walk along Sønderportsgade, where you will find several of Ribe’s finest half-timbered buildings, among them, several houses from the beginning of the 16th c. situated on the corner of Sønderportsgade and Puggaardsgade. (See photo of the red half-timbered house at the bottom of the page)
13. Taarnborg and the small “town-houses” – Medieval houses
Now, stroll down Puggaardsgade. On your left, you will see Taarnborg that was built around 1540 by the nobleman, Oluf Munk. Taarnborg is so named because of its tower (taarn=tower). While bishop in Ribe, H. A. Brorson, lived in Taarnborg, he wrote many of his famous Danish hymns. All children in Ribe know the story of Brorson’s insane son, who often sat shouting when he was locked up in the tower, as well as stories about Brorson’s new guitar, whose tones escaped through the windows when he held devotions and provisions in evenings.
The two small, but lovely, half-timbered houses next door, were built around the same time that Taarnborg was built. They are called “boder”. These small houses were owned by the wealthy and rented out to the petite bourgeoisie.
Further down the street and on your right, you will see Puggaard, which is the oldest functioning school in Denmark. Puggaard was founded in 1145 as a convent school and received its name after a charitable institution for poor “puge”, that is to say, school students. Over the main door is the Latin inscription: Litteris et Artibus – mostly translated to “For Science and Arts”. Today, Puggaard is a high school.
The oldest part of the school is the one with the corbie-step gable (“steps” on the sides of gable) from about 1500. (see photo of the school at the bottom of the page)
Now you have passed 3 of Ribe’s preserved stone houses from the Middle Ages: The Old Town Hall, Taarnborg and latest Puggaard
15. The smallest house in Ribe
Turn left at Gravsgade and then left again at Hundegade and on your right, you will see Klostergade. Built in the 16th c., Klostergade 26 is the smallest house in Ribe. Like more other small houses in this street it was built for poor people and this one has not changed very much since then. The inside house area is only 26.5 m² and in 1930 nine people shared this tiny house. (see photo of the house with a blue door at the bottom of the page)
16. St Catherine’s Church and Abbey
Walk along what’s left of Badstuegade to St Catherine square. In the Viking Era and the early Middle Ages it was the most important road that led to Ribe. That was the reason the Dominican Mendicant Friars, also known as the Black Friars, founded their church and abbey here in 1228.
Among medieval Ribe’s many churches, abbeys, chapels and hospitals, St. Catharine Church and Abbey and Ribe Cathedral are the only still preserved buildings. The present church is from the 14th c. and the third church built on this location. In 1536, after the Reformation, the church became a parish church, and the abbey was used as a hospital. The abbey is named after the holy St. Catharine, and a statue of her is placed between the church and the abbey. In her right hand she holds a sword and in her left hand, a wheel. St. Catharine was the patron saint of the Black Friars. St. Catharine died for her strong faith. In the year 307, she was tortured while strapped to a wheel and then beheaded.
17. Koelholt Slippe
Walk along Sortebrødregade and then into Kølholt Slippe. Here, on an old wall, hangs a fire hook and an old ladder to help extinguish fires. These tools were hung on the wall after the big fire in 1580, when most of Ribe burned down. Eleven streets with 213 farms and small houses were laid waste by the fire. The half-timbered farms and houses with thatched roofs and open fireplaces were built so close together that fires were one of the biggest dangers in the Middle Ages.
The Night Watchman’s most important job was to keep an eye out for fires and by raising alarm, to help prevent fires.
Kølholt Slippe ends directly by the river, where there used to be a narrow wooden bridge, used for clothes washing and also as a public lavatory; clothes washing on the side where the river flowed against the stream and lavatory on the other side. (see photo of this alley at the bottom of the page)
18. Ebbe Mogensen’s gable house and Ribe Brackets
On the corner of Sortebrødregade and the pedestrian street, Overdammen, stands Ebbe Mogensen’s gable house, built after the big fire in 1580. The yellow gable faces the main street (photo below) , but the rest of the house is almost completely unchanged both inside and along Sønderportsgade. Look at the half-timbering. The wood used for the half-timbering was secured with large wooden nails. This special wooden construction was the bearing element. Afterwards, the gaps in the wooden construction were filled out by, for example, first inserting branches braided together and then building the wall up with wattle-and-daub or maybe clay bricks. The wealthiest building owners commissioned different brick patterns.
On the second floor, the house is somewhat wider: the floor beam projects out from the main beams to protect them against rot from oozing dampness. A strong wooden triangle was also used to protect against dampness and to help hold the roof in place. This wooden triangle is called a bracket. These brackets have different patterns. The pattern seen here was especially used after the big fire that in 1580 swept through Ribe and is therefore called a Ribe bracket. At the bottom of this bracket you will see a cross. It was made by the residents of the house in the Middle Ages to protect themselves from witches, but you can read more about that on this link: Maren Spliid – the witch
19. Gable houses in the main street
You are now, once again, in the pedestrian street. Then, as well as now, the street is the main street in Ribe. Building a home on the main street has always been more expensive, so when building, it was cheaper to only have the gable face the street and the rest of the house behind the gable. Along the main street, stood the wealthy merchants’ gable houses and farms. Since it was not so fine “only” having a gabled house, most gables are changed since then, so the houses look like longhouses. This also applies to Ebbe Mogensen’s gable house. The gable facing the city’s main street is completely changed, while the house – as mentioned before – is almost unchanged inside and along Sortebrødregade.
You can still see gable houses on Mellemdammen 16 and 18 and also the three buildings in Overdammen 1, 8 and 10.
20. Nederdammen 31
The oldest half-timbered house in Denmark is the building that stands in Nederdammen 31 (the half-timbering can only be seen in the gateway). The house was built between 1486 and 1489. (see photo of white half-timbered house at the bottom of the page)
21. Ribe main street, the dam and the river
The pedestrian street – Ribe’s main street – is named Overdammen, Mellemdammen and Nederdammen. The street was made in the 12 hundreds to create a dam across Ribe River. The dam divides the river into three small, roaring streams with strong rapids used to drive the King’s and later the commoner’s water mills. A single water wheel is still in evidence at the end of Nederdammen, close to Sct. Nicolaj Gade.
22. Ribe’s Northern gate
On Nederdammen, by Postgården, stood the northern city gate. A stone is embedded in the sidewalk with the legend: “Here, until 1843, stood Ribe’s Northern gate. (see photo of the stone at the bottom of the page) Inside the gate, Riberret prevailed.” (Riberret – the Ribe Court)
Large embankments surrounded Ribe and together with the city gates is was possible to control the people and the traffic coming into Ribe town. The gate that stood here was built around 1280 and marked the boundary between the old part of town – Ribe Viking Town – that was situated on one side of river, and the new part – The Medieval Ribe Town – situated close to Ribe Cathedral.