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 o