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A Short Guide to Gdańsk

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

Tumultuous History

'Gdansk' is, by Polish standards, an easy city to pronounce for foreigners. In many other ways though, it is perhaps the most complex of all the cities in this country, and one which demands your attention and exploration. In its thousand-odd year history, it has swapped hands between the Germans and Poles several times (and changed its name from Gdansk to Danzig and back again), has been a free city, has seen the first shots fired in the second world war, and has been the centre of the solidarity movement whose electrician leader Lech Wałęsa sparked off the strikes that would lead, ten years later, to the dissolution of Communism in Poland and central Europe, and the toppling of the Berlin Wall. More recently, and tragically, Gdansk again hit the news in January 2019 as its popular liberal mayor Paweł Adamowicz was stabbed and killed in front of a crowd of hundreds whilst making a speech at a charity event. The people of Gdansk showed a huge outpouring of grief for this vicious attack, but two months after the event, the city is only just returning to a sense of normality.

Gdansk Old Town
Gdansk's old city is completely dominated by the massive St. Mary's Basilica

Add to all that its near-total destruction during the war and its stunning post-war rejuvenation, and you have a city where history is never far away. Yet its maritime air (it is one of the Baltic's main ports), student-y atmosphere and general feeling of upward mobility makes it feel very forward-looking, a city with its eye on the west and its heart in the east. It's a fun city boasting enough pubs, cafes, restaurants and clubs to keep the liveliest party animal happy. A superb base to explore the surrounding 'Troj Miasto' (Tri-City) area which comprises the adjoining Gdynia and Sopot, and nearby Malbork with its huge Teutonic castle, Gdansk has more than enough to keep you going for a long weekend. In fact, forget that - book a week instead; you'll need it. This is one city (and area) that you'll want to spend plenty of time acquainting yourself with fully. Like the amber that is produced along the Baltic coast around here, this city is a bit of a gem.

Gdansk Waterfront
Gdansk's waterfront and distinctive 15th Century (non-functioning) wooden crane building

Best of Gdansk

What better place to start exploring Gdansk than by the waterfront, where you get a real feel for the city and its lifeblood: the sea. The marina houses some splendid yachts and is a great place to just stroll around, offering some superb views of the city. Perhaps the most iconic sight in the city is its 15th century wooden crane, which, though no longer functioning, is perfect for a picture. It also attests to the city's former importance as an industrial port. Next to the crane is the Central Maritime Museum, containing various sea-going exhibits. You can even visit a ship, the MS Soldek, which is moored in front of the granaries. It's a working port, with ferries and ships plying their trade up and down the Motława river, and has a real feel of hustle and bustle. The new ferris wheel in this area is fantastic for a bird's eye view of the city too.

Gdansk ferris wheel
Gdansk's massive ferris wheel looms high above the quayside

In summer, an adjacent large crane allows people to take a scenic bungee jump. Next stop should be the 'Royal Way', which takes in ul. Długa and Długi Targ (Long Street and Long Market), and some of the most stunning architecture in northern Poland. Start at Brama Wyżynna (Upland Gate), and head downhill towards the river. The fact is that this is one of the most handsome streets in Poland, containing some of the finest examples of 'kamienicy' (stone-built tenements) in the Hanseatic style you'll see. When you consider that this was a pile of rubble at the end of WW2, it will make you doubly impressed. It's all been done with painstaking attention to detail. The Golden House ('Złoty Kamienica) is probably the most ornate and richest facade in the city, containing multiple friezes and statues. Also worth pausing at for a snap or two is the Neptune Fountain, next to the Town Hall. It's rumoured to have gushed forth with locally-produced Goldwasser beer in the past, which perhaps explains why it's now fenced off. Once you reach the waterfront, take a detour and walk along the pretty ul Mariacka, the most atmospheric street in Gdansk.

Again completely reconstructed from the rubble from the original design, it looks incredibly authentic. It's a great place to have a relaxing coffee and cake and soak up the atmosphere, or buy some amber jewellery – amber being a Baltic gem. It's also the place to find some of the best stalls during the Baltic Fair. At the end of the street is St Mary's Church (Koscioł Mariacki), believed to be the biggest brick church in the world. Gazing up from outside at the massive structure, it's not hard to believe. It took over 150 years to complete, and has stood here since 1343. Inside, the walls are disappointingly whitewashed so there isn't too much to see, but climb the 405 steps to the tower if you have the energy to get fantastic views of the city and surrounds. Just to the north of St. Mary's, and completely overshadowed by its massive neighbour, sits the small Royal Chapel (Kaplica Krolewska). The only Baroque Church in old Gdansk, this little beauty was built in accordance with the will of the Primate of Poland in 1681 for the city's Catholic minority. St. Catherine's is probably the next most striking church in the city. This 14th century brick church, the former parish church of the Old Town and where one of Gdansk's most famous sons, Hevelius, was once church administrator, is also his final resting place. You will find his tomb at the rear behind the altar along with an epitaph funded by his grandson nearly 100 years after the great man's death.

Away from the crowds

Gdansk also has a lot to offer those who seek to get off the beaten track, and it rewards anyone who makes the effort to explore its extensive surrounds. Of course, it is part of the 'Tri-City' agglomeration which also includes Gdynia and Sopot, each of which are cities in their own right and deserve a guide to themselves. Concentrating on Gdansk itself, though, will take up at least a long weekend. Where better to start to get to know the city's recent history than the Solidarity Centre? This permanent exhibition tells the story of Solidarity; where it began, how it grew and ultimately where it led the people of Poland and the occupied countries of the Communist Bloc. Set in a 5-storey building, which has been designed to give the impression of walls cracking and tilting and is covered in rust-coloured sheet metal reminiscent of a ship’s hull, this is a must-see if you want to gain any insight into the importance of Gdansk in the struggle, not just in Poland but in central and eastern Europe in general, against the yoke of Communism. A viewing terrace on the roof allows visitors to look out over the remains of the Lenin Shipyards where the Solidarity movement was born. 

The shipyards are where your tour of Gdansk should in fact proceed next. This is not just an industrial zone, but a major fragment of 20th century history, for it is from here that the first waves of discontent with the oppressive Soviet regime emanated in the late 1970s, and from where on Lech Wałęsa originated to front the Solidarity movement which eventually brought the Communist system to an end, not only in Poland, but like a domino effect, all across eastern Europe. Just in front of the shipyard gates is a Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, commemorating workers killed in the riots of 1970. Back towards the Old Town is the Roads to Freedom exhibition, a collection of multimedia displays and artefacts illustrating Poland's path to democracy, from the 1956 uprisings to Martial Law and the collapse of Communism.

Gdansk shipyards, Poland
Gdansk shipyards at dusk

To complete your historical education in Gdansk, you'll want to visit Westerplatte - a long peninsula to the north of the town at the river Vistula's mouth to the Baltic Sea. WWII broke out here at dawn on 1st September 1939 when the German battleship Schleswig Holstein started shelling military positions here. The site is now a memorial, with some of the ruins left after the bombardment, plus a massive monument put up in memory of the defenders. There are many information boards scattered around the site giving background about events that took place, and a surviving guardhouse houses a small exhibition, including a model of the battle labelled in English. You can do organised tours that take you the 7km up the river by boat, through the shipyards and to Westerplatte. It makes for an interesting half-day excursion.

Westerplatte Monument - a place for sober reflection

Around Gdansk

Another boat trip you can do is one to the Hel peninsula, across the bay of Gdansk. It takes about 90 minutes to sail across to the little village at the tip of this 40km spit of land poking into the Baltic Sea, and on a sunny day is a lovely trip. There's not a whole lot to do in Hel except wonder around, get an ice cream, have a photo taken by the 'Hel' sign (the road to Hel etc) and have stroll around the end of the peninsula, shrouded in pine trees and with little but seagulls for company. The soft white sand and calm sea makes for good swimming opportunities though. Another place good for chilling out, but much better for hiking, is the Kashubia area, which lies 30-40km west from Gdansk. Like a miniature Masuria (Polish lake district) without the crowds, this under-rated area is a sublime combination of low-lying hills and lakes, excellent for long rambles and also a haven for fishermen and water sports enthusiasts. Closer by, Sopot is a much more typical seaside town, with bigger crowds and far more amenities. It's quite a traditional place really, with a pleasant wooden pier and some characterful 1920s wooden villas. if you avoid it during the peak months of July and August you can find plenty of spare sand to call your own. Go during those holiday months though and you'll be surrounded by parawany (wind-breaks). Gdynia is a rough-edged port town with far less character than Gdansk. It is a mostly 20th century city, and has a little too much concrete for most tastes. However, it has a pretty good restaurant and bar selection, and justifies a day trip if you're in Gdansk, Also, it hosts Poland's premier music festival...

Sopot, Poland
Sopot - a more typical seaside town. Stake out your turf in summer.

Events and Experiences

Since 2002, Gdynia has been the setting every July for Open'er, the biggest music festival In Poland, regularly attracting crowds in the tens of thousands for the four day event. Attracting bands and artists of the calibre of Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, Arctic Monkeys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam in the last five years, it has become one of central Europe's greatest music events. This year, sadly, the lineup looks a bit lacklustre, with bands of the dubious distinction of The 1975, Idles and Kodaline headlining. Smashing Pumpkins keep it slightly respectable. Also in July, Studio Panika (Panic Studio) from Gdynia is organising Festival Muzyki Elektronicznej. Gramy z Winyli  (Electronic Music Festival. Vinyl Records). In mid-August, the premises of Stocznia Gdanska (Gdansk Harbour) are once again going to turn into unique concert stages during the Soundrive Festival, a real treat for alternative music fans in industrial spaces, with the B90 club at the helm. For foodies, Gdansk is somewhat lacking and it could certainly do with more festivals. However, attempting to fill that gap partially is the Restaurant Week event between 3-17 April 2019. Actually two weeks, this allows people to try fancy restaurant dishes they may not otherwise have tried for the bargain price of 49zl (€12) for three courses.

Hitting the Hay

Gdansk certainly does not lack for cheap accommodation, and is on the backpacker radar enough to justify quite a few hostels. Probably the pick for location, atmosphere, quality and price is Mama's and Papa's Hostel. Central, cosy and with a common room stocked with books and films, it's a comfortable place to hang out. Dorms start at €9, while doubles go for €22-30. Moving up the scale, Kamienica Gotyk has character in spades. This gothic guesthouse claims to be Gdansk's oldest house, and its narrow red brick facade is flanked by angels carved onto large stone tablets. Rooms are compact and neat. Location is everything, with St. Mary's Church looming just outside the door. Doubles start at 300zl (€75). At the top end of the scale, why not try the palatial Dwór Oliwski if you have cash to burn. This magnificent five star manor house is set amid extensive gardens, and offers sophisticated rooms and sauna facilities. The restaurant has a fantastic reputation for its French cuisine. Doubles start at about €150, and suites go from about €350 a night.

Eating Out

Although some foodies turn their noses up at Gdansk, claiming it's not a patch on either Warsaw or Kraków when it comes to culinary greatness, there are still a few exceptions to that general rule. A good place to start is Tawerna Mestwin. Serving up local Kashubian food in rustic surrounds, it certainly doesn't break the bank either. The menu is decidedly meaty though, so veggies may want to steer clear. Instead, healthy eaters might want to make a beeline for Guga Sweet & Spicy, which serves up an excellent and imaginative menu of vegetarian/vegan food. The menu is a mixture of Asian and western street food, and is priced at mid-range. Piwna 47 is also a pretty good option. This is much more in the fine dining section of the market, with a fine selection of meat, fish, pasta and salad dishes, and the option to sit outside or in the elegant conservatory. Caramelized ribs in honey with baked potatoes is a treat. Along the waterfront, Brovarnia Gdańsk is famed for its excellent beers, made onsite, but is also a great spot for food – the fresh cod in Prosecco sauce with Bavarian mustard is particularly good. One of the most iconic and oldest restaurants in the city, Pod Łososiem (loosely translated as The Salmon) boasts a long history of heritage. The 16th century premises it stands in used to house the distillery of Goldwasser, a vodka infused with pieces of 22-carat gold that was once all the rage across Europe’s courts. Today, Pod Łososiem still produces the precious Goldwasser and remains faithful to its royal heritage with luxurious period furniture, tall candles and paintings, as well as menu of royal delicacies. The boar tenderloin with cabbage and mushrooms, or saddle of doe in a sauce of gingerbread and grilled vegetables, are especially recommended.

Watering Holes

Like all Poland's major cities (and most towns), getting a drink is not going to be a problem. Picking exactly where to go during your limited time here is more likely to be though. A good place to start is Jozef K. Named after a character in a Franz Kafka novel, this bar's quirky design with a mix of stained-glass windows, multicolored light bulbs and a few trees planted in flower pots guarantees a good, fun and slightly weird environment to have a drink. There's a good selection of reasonably-priced beers, and the vibe is set to relaxed. Another cool bar is Pixel. Famous not only for serving up some of the best drinks in town but also for its fun and geek-chic atmosphere. The walls are decorated with quirky vintage posters, there are plenty of console and board games to suit anyone’s taste and you can even customize the lights in the toilet. Whether you’re there for a Super Mario match or a lush-looking Mojito, you will not be disappointed. For a place which serves food and beer together, why not try Browar Piwna. It serves its brew homemade and with a range of tasty meals. Situated in the old town close to St. Mary’s church, this local brewery offers fresh, rich-tasting beers, described by some as the best in town. One of the things to try are flavoured beers, like the well-loved cherry beer. Red Light Pub is another great bar. Frequented by very friendly locals, the place has a great atmosphere with a small dance floor in the basement and a mismatch of seating upstairs. It's like having a pint in your own living room, if you had a sense of style. Search it out on a backstreet between Piwna and Długa. A good spot for a bit of live music is The Old Gdansk. Frequented by a slightly older clientele, this place pulls in the crowds due to frequent live performance of Jazz, Blues, Rock and occasionally Folk music every Friday and Saturday night. Over 30 bottled beers available. Most people consider Gdynia and even Sopot superior for clubbing, so count on a late night drinking in Gdansk and a hop into a taxi if you fancy shaking your booty beyond about 3am.

Getting There

Gdansk is well-connected these days by Ryanair from several cities in the UK and Ireland including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Dublin just two and a half to three hours away, it's become a stag-night alternative to some, though it's some way from Prague or even Krakow in that respect. Trains also serve Gdansk well, and it's only three and a half hours by express from Warsaw now and about six from Krakow. Road connections are slightly less good, and if you're heading here from the west it might be time-consuming. It's about three hours to Poznan and six to Berlin. The Tri-city is inter-connected with a system of excellent trains, trams and buses running frequently between the three urban centres. This is a link to useful info there.

Further Reading

As usual, both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are reliable companions to your stay in this Polish city. The latter probably has the edge on detail and background. For online info, the excellent In Your Pocket has a guide to Gdansk:

Famous son Gunter Grass came from the free city of Danzig (pre-war Gdansk) and wrote the so-called Danzig Trilogy, most well-known of which is The Tin Drum, which is a key text in European magical realism.

First published in 1959, it is a melange of bildungsroman, memoir, allegory, grotesquerie and pure reverie. On a superficial level it tells the story of Oskar Matzerath: incarcerated maniac, self-created dwarf, paranoiac, possessor of supernatural gifts, vindictive genius, fallen angel, miniature tyrant, obsessive beater of the titular drum. Oskar is all of these things and none of them; the ultimate unreliable narrator. At a deeper level, the book charts his progress, and that of the independent port city of Danzig/Gdansk, and greater Germany, and the world as a whole. For a bit more historical background, reach for Forgotten Land by Max Egremont. Subtitled "Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia", it is the story of a place and people that no longer exist. Baltic East Prussia stretched from Danzig/Gdansk in the west to Memel on the border with Latvia in the east with Königsberg as its capital. This book serves as a reminder of these lost German lands and which, as the scene of Stalin’s ‘terrible revenge’ it came to embody the turbulence of the twentieth century, was carved up between Poland and the USSR after World War II – and passed abruptly into history.


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