Gdańsk travel guide: magical city on the Baltic coastline
One of my favourite cities in Poland for history, architecture and generally a good time has to be Gdańsk, right in the north of the country, flung out so far away from other cities like Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań. Gdańsk is Poland’s biggest seaport and has half-a-million people living here, making it the country’s fourth largest city. Lying on the mouth of the Motlawa River which is connected to the main river of Vistula nearby (Gdańsk likes on a delta), the city combined with a trip to nearby Sopat (a resort town) and the port of Gdynia, there is a heck of a lot to do here. I am fortunate to come to this city not just once, but twice, ten years apart. I got to see the changes in that time…well…there weren’t many. Everything I did on the first trip was still there on the second trip. I still remembered which streets I took in and restaurants I ate at. This post I will tell you the top places which have to be visited and I hope it helps when planning a trip to this amazing city.
But first I need to tell you a little bit about the history (as I usually do on my blogs as it’s nice to know a bit before hitting up the place). Gdańsk has been under the rule of Polish, Prussian and German and there was a period when the city was kinda, independent from anyone and everyone. In the Middle Ages shipbuilding was the name of the game around here whilst being a member of the Hanseatic League (trading movement agreement between cities on the Baltic Sea). Before Warsaw became huge and regarded the country’s capital, Gdańsk was the largest and wealthiest city.
Over the centuries Gdańsk was in the heart of a huge dispute between Poland and Germany. Both countries laid claim to the city. This caused a lot of tension which would eventually lead to the Invasion of Poland in the Second World War (more on that later), before the Nazi Germans gathered up the Jews, some Roma and a lot of Polish people who didn’t agreed with them and took them away, most never to return to Gdańsk.
After the war and under communism, the city was one of the first places in Europe to get away from the red fist of Moscow and the communist government runned by Warsaw. Gdańsk was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement (which eventually saw the fall of the Berlin Wall amongst other things) and a few years later, communist rule was only seen in Russia after the USSR collapsed.
That’s basically the history guys, now it’s time to show you around the city. All the sights are pretty much around the ‘Old Town’ area (as I like to call it) which is around the main street of Długi Targ. This street means ‘Long Market’ and is one of the most beautiful places to check out in the city. I love walking up and down this cobbled street, looking up and checking out all the amazing facades of the colourful buildings. It is here also where you find a lot of good bars and restaurants but remember there are a lot of side streets in this area which also offer good eating and drinking holes, to which some places are slighter cheaper (but not much cheaper, another reason why I love coming back to Poland, it’s great value for money!).
The street has stood here since the thirteenth century and started up as a merchant road which led to the marketplace. Over the years it became known as the Royal Route as Polich monarchs would use this road from the riverfront when visiting the city. Some monarchs even went into some of the houses on the street to be ‘entertained’ and other places would host feasts for them. Even back in medieval times, the street also hosted executions of criminals and witches.
In the middle of the street (towards the western end) is Neptune’s Fountain which has stood here since 1617 and later on, a fence with Polish Eagles was added. However during the Second World War, the fountain got destroyed and moved to a nearby village, whilst at the same time, Nazi Germans took away the Polish Eagles and destroyed them. This was a way to get rid of traces of Polish history. Eventually the fountain was restored and put back together in the 1950s. Whilst standing around here, I noticed the fountain is used as a meeting place for locals and is also a great place for young children to run around chasing the hundreds of pigeons which would wander the street here looking for food.
Overlooking the fountain is the Gdańsk Town Hall. This is surely one of the finest buildings on the street with its Gothic-Renaissance facade. Visitors can go inside the building as it hosts the History Museum for the city.
At the Eastern end of Długi Targ is the Green Gate which separates the street and the river. The designer for the building back in the sixteenth century was clearly inspired by the building in Antwerpen (Belgium), the City Hall. The building also used to host Polish monarchs when visiting but these days life is a little bit calmer as it hosts the National Museum and a few offices which were once used by local politicians.
At the Western end of the street is the lesser known Highland Gate as most visitors believe the street ends at the Golden Gate. This Gothic-style gate was built in the seventeenth century along with the Highland Gate and the Prison Tower close by, which were part of the old fortification walls for this part of Gdańsk. The gate unfortunately like most places in the city was destroyed in the Second World War by Nazi Germans but was restored in the 1950s. I love the inscription here written in German (which was originally put onto the gate during the war) – Es müsse wohl gehen denen, die dich lieben. Es müsse Friede sein inwendig in deinen Mauern und Glück in deinen Palästen which means in English: “They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.”
Away from the street and down by the riverfront, another noticeable landmark worth checking out is the Gdańsk crane. This is the only fully restored crane from medieval times in the world. It was intact until the Second World War but needed to be reconstructed due to the damage made. The Zuraw Crane (in Polish) is open to visitors during the summer months but here is a handy tip, it’s free to visit on a Saturday.
Want views on the city? Then head to St. Mary’s Basilica. This place is one of the largest brick churches in the world but a lot of visitors (especially those from outside Poland) tend to go up the 405 steps in the seventy-eight metre high tower. The views from up here are just amazing (however this was the moment in time my camera battery went dead and I have no photos to show my readers…ffs!).
Another place in Gdańsk if you are interested in Second World War history like I am is the Post Office which is on the outskirts of the Old Town. When the Nazi Germans were firing the first shots of the war at Westerplatte nearby, the troops also targeted the Post Office. The workers here (with no military training but had guns) held off the Nazis for an amazing seventeen hours before they surrendered. Then we all know what happened after that, Poland fell very quickly and came under Nazi control for a while (despite a few uprisings in Warsaw). These days there is a large memorial at the front of the building and behind the building is a display of all the postal workers who were captured and killed by the Nazis. It’s very moving and one to see.
One place of huge historical interest is at the shipyard. Here is the European Solidarity Centre which is a newish feature to the city however I came here to see the famous Shipyard Gate number two and the monument of the fallen shipyard workers of 1970. All of these are situated in the same area. In December 1970, this was the place of a huge anti-communist demonstration but during the protest, the military and police opened fire on the protesters and a lot of people were killed (hense the monument). Ten years later the shipyard was the birthplace of the Solidarity trade union movement. Eventually this movement turned more politically and eventually by the late 80’s, the communist party was ousted and the leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Wałęsa became the president of Poland from 1990-1995. He is still highly regarded and respected by a lot of Polish people (some may differ but isn’t that the case with all politics across the world).
Day trips from Gdańsk
A lot of people in the summer months go to the resort of Sopot as here there are beaches, hotels and just a nice place to chill out. However I still haven’t visited the resort and if I return (hopefully in the summer months) then I will make the trip. Both of my trips to Gdańsk have been in the winter months when it has been briskly cold with the wind of the sea. However one day trip I can recommend is the largest bricked castle in the world, Malbork which can be done by train, bus or via a tour company.
How to get to Gdańsk
Gdańsk can be easily reached by all modes of transport. By air there is the international airport on the outskirts of the city which covers a lot of major European cities with no-frills airline carriers such as WizzAir and Ryanair. There are trains to other major cities within Poland such as Warsaw (three hours journey), Krakow (six hours) and Poznan (four hours). To travel by train to other countries such as Belarus, Russia and Germany, a change in Warsaw is needed. There is a ferry port near Gdańsk which has services to Southern Sweden and Stockholm. The cheapest way (and longest way) is bus/coach services to Lodz and Warsaw.
There are plenty of hotel and hostel options throughout the city but on my recent visit I stayed at the Scandic Hotel Gdańsk which is located opposite the main train station. There is a shopping mall nearby and about a 10-15 minute walk to Długi Targ. The service I received here was amazing and reminded me of the other Scandic hotels I have stayed in whilst traveling around Norway and Sweden. The rooms had all the basic amenities available and I got a very good night sleep on the comfortable beds. For more information, click here.
There you have it guys. Gdańsk. Full of history, beautiful architecture and welcoming locals. An all year round destination (if you like the wind of the Baltic Sea then it isn’t a problem) and there is so much to do here. Like I said, I’ve been here two times and still haven’t done everything. And I can’t wait to get back there.