The port city of Gdansk is extraordinarily beautiful. Filled to bursting with historical buildings, highly photogenic streets and grand cathedrals it has more things to see and do than you could possibly cover in one short visit.
Besides its sheer loveliness Gdansk is a must-visit destination for the highly significant part it has played in world history. The shots fired during an artillery bombardment here from a German battleship in 1939 were to catapult the world into the greatest conflict man has ever known –World War II. Several decades later Gdansk gave birth to the Solidarity trade union movement which was to eventually topple the country’s oppressive communist regime while also contributing to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The remnants of these legacies can be explored through the original battle site, a number of museums and commemorative monuments to those that fell during these struggles for freedom.
A Morning in Gdansk
Your Gdansk adventure begins with a leisurely stroll around some of the city’s most historically important and beautiful sights. After a pause for coffee you can continue your morning at the highly thought-provoking European Solidarity Center which tells the story of the Gdansk hero Lech Walesa and his communist-toppling Solidarity movement.
A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Gdansk
An ideal way to begin your Gdansk day is by taking a self-guided walking tour. This allows you to get a real feel for this lovely destination, taking in some of the city’s most iconic sights in one glorious stroll and, of course, it is completely free.
The historical building exteriors and outside points of interest on this walking tour have plenty to keep you occupied; many consider the whole mainly pedestrianized stretch where you will begin and the street which follows the two most lovely in Poland. Should you come across something during your morning which you decide merits further investigation and you want to explore inside one of the historic gems you can simply adjust the itinerary here to suit your interests.
Your explorations begin in the main square (Dluga Targ) on Ulica Dluga –the main artery of the Old Town -sometimes called Market Street or Long Street and part of what is known as the Royal Route. From the 11th to the 18th century Poland had a royal family and the Royal Route during those centuries served as the grand entry and procession route for the kings and queens.
Clustered about with several highlights, Dluga Targ or Market Square surrounds you with the highly picturesque and offers 101 photo opportunities in one comparatively compact space.
The Neptune Fountain – Impossible to miss, the bronze sculpture-topped fountain on Ulica Dluga is arguably the city’s most iconic feature. Depicting Neptune poised with trident in hand, this figure has watched over the street ever since he was first placed here in 1633.
Artus Court – Directly behind the fountain you will see the soaring grand triple-arched facade of Artus Court, one of the city’s most striking buildings. With a history which stretches back to the 1300s, Artus Court was originally created to provide a recreational and general revelry space for wealthy merchants and their families. Over drinks or lavish feasts stories would be swapped and the entertainment delivered by way of musicians, jugglers or other artistic performers.
The upper-level exterior architecture is a mix of statues, sculptures and embellishments which were added in the 16thcentury. If you want to take a look inside this iconic building it now functions as part of the Gdansk History Museum. Grand Gothic pillars, majestic arches and a wealth of eclectic adornments – such as its suspended ship model – make it well worth a visit. Highlights include the main hall with its vast murals and a 16th century beautifully tiled stove so tall it almost brushes the ceiling.
The Fahrenheit Thermometer – Opposite the Neptune Fountain can be found a monument which may initially appear to be something of a strange addition. However, this antique piece inside its glass case is placed in honor of the man who invented the Fahrenheit thermometer – Daniel Fahrenheit – who was born in the 17th century in this very city.
The Main Town Hall – Majestic, Gothic-featured and embellished with a grand spire, the Main Town Hall which stands beside Artus Court is the city’s second highest building. Believed to be around 700 years old, this lovely building’s Renaissance features were not part of the original structure but added during renovations which took place after a disastrous fire in the 16th century. Additionally, like so many of its city counterparts which were badly damaged during World War II, it has undergone painstaking reconstruction using old photographs torestore it as genuinely as possible to its original appearance.
Today this beautiful building is home to the main collection of the Gdansk History Museum. If you decide to explore its striking interiors you will find ceiling frescoes, lavish halls and priceless art works as well as many permanent exhibits. You can also head to the viewing tower for some breath-taking views of the Old Town and beyond.
The Golden House – On the other sideof Artus Court to the Town Hall can be found yet another of the city’s most beautiful buildings – the 17th century Golden House. The elegant and elaborate facade features gilded stone carvings depicting battle scenes topped by four imposing statues.
The Green Gate – After taking in the main square sights you can head towards the Motlawa River and what is known as the Green Gate which marks one end of the Royal Route. Neither green nor a gate, this grand arched structure was once the home of royalty and dates back to the 16th century. Today it houses Gdansk’s National Museum.
Mariacka or St. Mary’s Street – A three minute stroll along the riverside brings you to the Gdansk Archaeological Museum where a left turn then passes you underneath the 15th century St. Mary’s Gate and onto one of the city’s loveliest streets – Mariacka. No matter which direction you turn in this quaint and picturesque spot you are rewarded with beautiful building facades fronted by stone steps, hung with gargoyles and gables and surrounded with plants and flowers.
Today this street – which not surprisingly has been used for many movie sets – is the enclave of the amber sellers – something for which Gdansk is well-known. In former times it was once where some of the city’s wealthiest merchants lived.
St. Mary’s Basilica – The last highlight on your walking tour, 150m from the start of Mariacka Street, is the 14th century St. Mary’s Church, most notable for its red brick construction. Although sources differ somewhat on whether Gdansk’s St. Mary’s is the biggest, second-biggest or third-biggest brick church in the world there is no doubt it is one of the largest to be found anywhere. The church’s vast interior is home to some notable and ancient treasures which include 15th century paintings and sculptures but the ultimate highlight here is the astronomical clock. At 14m high this wooden clock which plots the sun, moon and stars is impossible to miss. Head up the 400 steps of the tower to be rewarded with some lovely views of the city and its historical landmarks.
Morning Coffee in Gdansk
No doubt after treading the cobbled streets of the Old Town and exploring the architectural gems you will now be ready for a pause and you couldn’t be better placed. Beautiful Mariacka offers a wealth of charming cafes in which to take your morning break. One of these is Cafe Kamienica with its lovely wooden deck out front so you don’t have to take your eyes off the loveliness of the street for one minute. If the weather is not so kind the cozy and artsy interior is every bit as gorgeous with bare wood floors, comfortable armchairs, vintage furnishings and antique additions. Head upstairs for a view which overlooks Mariacka Street. As if all this wasn’t enough the coffee quality here is high, the cake selection outstanding and the service friendly and attentive.
If you are a connoisseur to whom coffee is either that of the highest possible standard or nothing at all you won’t have to go far to find the ideal place. Right here on Mariacka you can find Drukarnia which is operated by the coffee-passionate for the coffee-passionate. Inside the décor is elegantly industrial and full of the kind of machinery and coffee-related accessories whose functions will only be familiar to those who can explain the difference between Aeropress and cold drip.
For those to whom the coffee accompaniments are every bit as important as the refreshment take a short stroll from the basilica and you will find yourself at Z Innej Parafii on Targ Rybny.Doubling up as both cafe and cake shop this charming gem offers both a lovely little outdoor terrace and a quaint interior which could almost be a lounge in a private house with a mix of easy chairs and tables. The coffee comes courtesy of a local roaster and the mouth-watering selection of home-baked goods includes muffins, cakes, tarts and other sweet treats.
The Solidarity Museum
Every city has its story though few have one which has given rise to such far-reaching political changes as Gdansk. Here, in 1970, while Poland remained part of the oppressive communist Soviet bloc, one unassuming but charismatic shipyard worker called Lech Walesa began fighting back against the regime, ultimately forming the trade union movement known as Solidarity or Solidarność. For more than 10 years Lech Walesa suffered persecution and repeated arrests while the movement became ever more powerful. Its hugely significant part in the political climate was to lead to the end of Polish communism and bring about the destruction of the Berlin Wall. For his humanitarian struggles Walesa was to later receive the Nobel Peace Prize and eventually served as president of the country for 5 years.
Located next to the very shipyard which played such a pivotal part in world history can be found the excellent and thought-provoking Solidarity Museum which both celebrates the victories of the Solidarity movement and trade unions while simultaneously telling the Gdansk story. Striking and massive from the outside, the Solidarity Museum’s interior is a surprising light-filled space full of trees and plants.
The permanent exhibitions here are incredibly well-thought out and purposely designed to be interactive. Such elements manage to achieve a highly successful and engaging presentation of what could otherwise easily come across as a somewhat convoluted and dry subject. Highlights include original footage of the times along with reconstructed apartments showing how people lived during these austere times and the kind of interrogation cells Lech Walesa would have been familiar with. Particularly moving is the hall which delivers very personal accounts of some of the strikers and principal players of the Solidarity story.
There is also a rooftop look-out here which allows you to take in the whole shipyard and imagine the shadows and ghosts of those former oppressive times and the courageous struggles of ordinary men and women who together demonstrated what the human spirit can achieve.
Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers
Right in front of the Solidarity Museum and marking what was formerly the entrance to the shipyard can be found the striking Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. Unveiled in 1980, this soaring 42m tall sculpture pays homage to the people who died in 1970 during the first strikes while fighting for freedom against the communist regime. It remains to this day an important symbol of the city and is significant in that never before had a monument highlighting political oppression been erected in a communist country.
Lunch in Gdansk
Whether a morning’s exploration has left you in need of a hearty lunch or you are looking for something lighter Gdansk has plenty of choice. You really don’t need to wander far either because cafes and restaurants ranging from the tiny and tucked away to the grander scale are almost everywhere.
If you round up your morning and want an elegant lunch choice right on your doorstep you can exit the museum and arrive at Amberside in less than a minute. Decorated and furnished in monochrome tones with splashes of color and the greenery of plants, Amberside combines traditional Gdansk flavors with international cuisine twists.
For those who would rather explore something 100% local in terms of culinary offerings make your way to Josef K in the Old Town. Beloved by locals, this quirky cafe/bar combo with its incredible vintage interiors, memorabilia, old books and antiques covering every surface (including the ceiling) is almost worth a visit just to take a look. The menu here is not extensive but does offer authentic and hearty Polish fare such as the cabbage leaf-wrapped meat and rice dish known as gołąbki or meatballs with potatoes.
Another option for sampling local cuisine but with a wider choice is Gdanski Bowke which is directly riverside and offers a lovely little outdoor patio for when the sun is shining. Inside, the décor has been deliberately and successfully designed to conjure up an atmosphere of the city’s 19th century port past with exposed brick and wooden furniture. The food here is full-flavored Polish with choices for fish, meat and game.
An Afternoon in Gdansk
While your morning finished exploring arguably the most important European struggle against political oppression of modern times your afternoon begins with what was the greatest conflict of alltime – the SecondWorld War. If you have time after this you can take your pick from a tranquil park, an iconic historical remnant, a beautiful cathedral or an incredible outdoor gallery to round up your afternoon.
While many European countries carry reminders of the grand scale tragedy and carnage of WWII Poland – and even more significantly Gdansk – has an extra tale to tell. This is where the events took place which were to finally plunge the world into an all-encompassing six-year-long battle.
In 1939 Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland, simultaneously attacking Gdansk’s Westerplatte and the Polish Post Office along with Tczew, 40km south of Gdansk. Many consider these events to mark the beginning of World War II as this hostility then prompted both Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany.
Today Westerplatte and its ruins are a large open-air museum which make for a poignant and powerful visit. Here you will explore what was once a 19th century medicinal spa retreat and then, 100 years later,the first battle site of WWII.
Although you can wander freely the best way to explore this peninsula is to follow the exhibition trail which is punctuated with excellent interpretive panels complete with maps, photographs and information. In this way you will learn not just what you are looking at but the events before, during and after the battle along with the whole history of the peninsula. The ruined buildings which remain just as they were left after the 1939 bombings have been made structurally sound so you can wander right through them.
There is also a small indoor section to the museum which displays equipment, armory and uniforms from the era housed inside the rooms of one of the former guardhouses. Outside this building you will see some actual shells which were fired from the German battleship on the fateful September day.
The Monument to the Defenders of the Coast
The Battle of Westerplatte began on September 1, 1939 when a German Battleship let loose its artillery on the naval and military transit depot stationed there. The ship had arrived on a supposed courtesy visit and then launched the initial barrage almost a week later. This lead to seven days of aircraft bombings and sustained artillery attack. Guardhouses, stores and other military buildings – the poignant ruins of which you will see during your visit – took both direct and partial hits.
Despite being significantly out-gunned and outnumbered, the Polish forces held out for an incredible seven days with the deaths of German fighters totaling 15 times that of the Polish defenders.
In the 1960s the Soviet Government gifted the Polish people a huge monument to honor the dead of this battle and commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of an almost impossible military defense. To this day – 80 years later – the 23m high Monument to the Defenders of the Coast at Westerplatte is still adorned with flowers and candles which are left as marks of respect and homage to the Polish fallen.
It is possible to walk to the open-air museum if you don’t mind using the time and energy. Otherwise water trams ferry visitors from the Dlugi Pobrzeze riverside during the summer.
Gdansk’s Other Museums
If you are interested in history or museums in general but Westerplatte is not an option due to bad weather there are plenty of other possibilities. These include other World War II themed options such as the Museum of the Second World War which is one of the city’s newest cultural additions. Another choice is the Post Office Museum which is the other Gdansk location on which the 1939 German attacks were launched at the same time as Hitler’s battleship besieged Westerplatte and which still functions as a post office. The museum here is small but informative and of course a highly significant site for history buffs as the attack here led to the full onset of the Second World War.
The Gdansk Historical Museum is located inside the Main Town Hall which you may already have visited during your morning walking tour. The same is true of the National Museum inside the Green Gate, another stop on your morning Old Town explorations. This latter is home to one of the country’s principal art treasures – a 15th century triptych entitled ‘The Last Judgment’ which originally adorned St. Mary’s Basilica.
It is impossible to spend any time in Gdansk without noticing its close relationship with the beautiful fossilized resin known as amber. This relationship is itself an historical heritage story with which the Amber Museum will fully acquaint you. It is also a great place to pick up an authentic and one-of-a-kind amber souvenir.
Some Gdansk Afternoon Alternatives
As Westerplatte is fairly large it is unlikely you will have sufficient time left in your afternoon to squeeze in any more Gdansk sights. However, if you do find yourself with some time to spare before sundowner drinks there are some interesting choices.
One city icon whose image appears over and again on tourist literature is the Crane located in the city center. Now part of the Maritime Museum, this distinctive wood and brick cargo loader for ships has been part of the city’s riverside since the 15thcentury.
Another easily accessed sight is the lovely Oliwa Cathedral. The facade is striking, composed of two tall spire-finished Gothic towers in between which is wedged a Baroque gateway portion. On entering the cathedral the first thing which strikes you is that the church appears to stretch on in front of you forever. The interior has many beautiful features including a great deal of marble and is also home to some ancient art treasures. Although there is plenty to look at the reason most include this beautiful church on their itinerary is to see the sensational 18th century organ here. Taking 30 years to complete, the Oliwa organ features exquisite sculptures and a collection of angels which move mechanically and ring bells when the organ is being played.
Right next door to the cathedral is Oliwa Park which is a lovely oasis of ponds, weaving paths and lush greenery. Within the park’s boundaries you will also find the Modern Art collection of the National Museum of Gdansk housed inside a beautiful historical palace.
For something very different make your way to the neighborhood of Zaspa where you will find a stunning collection of giant murals adorning almost every exterior wall of the apartments and community buildings. Totally free to admire, many of the giant murals hold some political message pertaining to the former fight against communism while others are simply art for art’s sake.
The principal political theme of the murals is no accident either. This neighborhood was where Lech Walesa lived during the rise of the Solidarity trade union movement which he co-founded and which played such a huge part in bringing about the downfall of communism in Poland.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Gdansk
No matter how much there is to see and do in a city there always arrives a point when it is time to find just the right place and relax for a while, with a drink in hand, before dinner. Gdansk truly has this side of things covered and you won’t struggle to find a great spot. Afterward, when its time to dine, the city offers a wide choice of cuisine types ranging from traditional Polish to international options and some truly unique venues in which to enjoy them.
While Gdansk has a plentiful and diverse range of drinking venues with offerings for all-comers it is going to be especially appealing to beer connoisseurs. In fact, beer is such an integrated cultural element that the city has its own Beer Street – Ulica Piwna. Here, clustered all together you can take your pick from a huge number of bars which many consider to be the best the city has to offer.
Although on Ulica Piwna it really is most advisable to just wander and then find what suits, one option is Browar Piwna which brews its own beers and has a great terrace out front for warmer summer nights.
Another great city destination for pre-dinner drinks with plenty of different options is the beautiful Mariacka Street which you visited this morning during you walking tour. With a wealth of bars and alcohol-serving cafes to choose from, wherever you plant yourself here your surroundings are going to be lovely to gaze upon. If wine is your preferred sundowner head to the two-storey Literacka which offers wines from all around the globe including Poland. The interior spaces are elegant, while the outdoor deck with its gorgeous Mariacka Street views is the place to be during the summer months.
Those looking for cocktails and love trying something new and inventive should check out Flisak 76. Take your pick from the lovely vintage basement complete with armchairs to relax in or grab a table outside on the street.
Should you have a refined drinking venue with a view in mind you can head to High 5 which perches atop the Hilton Hotel. The classy open-air wood-decked terrace here is exceptional, delivering the loveliest of views over the historic Old Town and the river. While sundowner drinks of all kinds are on the menu the bar’s specialty is cocktails and despite the sophisticated surroundings surprisingly affordable.
Like many cities Gdansk has some dining hotspots where restaurants are found clustered together allowing you to easily check out a few before making your final choice. The riverside is one such location and the restaurants here are understandably popular for their great settings. The Royal Route and the pedestrianized Ulica Dluga of the Old Town which you walked this morning is also full of restaurant choices as you will no doubt have noticed earlier.
A slight wander away from these main arteries will often uncover some lesser known gems which will especially suit those who want to sample authentic Polish cuisine.
If you want to combine beer from the city’s most famous brewery made on-site, high standard European cuisine and a lovely location make your way to Brovarnia. Sitting on the marina, Brovarnia’s excellent beers and its Oktoberfest hostings are what the venue is most famous for but its restaurant is also getting something of a name for itself. The menu isn’t huge but is extremely diverse offering such things as cod bathed in prosecco, rosemary goose dumplings and Gdansk duck along with inclusions of salads, pastas and barbeque ribs.
Those looking for an exceptional romance-infused fine-dining venue may find the Abbots Palace in Oliwa Park the perfect spot. This gorgeous 15th century palace with its French-styled gardens out front was once home to medieval monks and is where today can be found a branch of the National Museum of Gdansk. The eastern wing is where you will find its lovely restaurant which is so picturesque it is frequently used as a wedding reception venue. Spread over a series of rooms, the palace offers highly-refined dining beneath glittering chandeliers and surrounded by gilt-edged mirrors with attentive staff who make every diner feel like royalty.
An Evening in Gdansk
While you may have already visited many of the Gdansk sights during the day strolling the same routes in the evening is almost like finding yourself somewhere totally new. Places such as the gorgeous Mariacka Street with its endless succession of highly photogenic historical buildings becomes romantically magical after the sun sets, lit by lanterns and lined with people enjoying drinks on small patios.
The river embankment is another lovely place to stroll after dark when the city lights are reflected in the waters while Ulica Dluga – always buzzing – takes on a different air again.
For those who prefer something a little more laid on you might be surprised to learn that this beautiful Polish city has its very own Shakespeare Theater, purpose-built and designed to evoke elements of the original and world-famous Globe Theatre in England. It is known that Gdansk has a long history of staging Shakespeare plays with some actually performed in the city during the famous bard’s lifetime and quite possibly on the very site that the modern theater now occupies.
Hosting an annual Shakespeare Festival, the venue has a full calendar of performances, some of which are in English.
If you would like to fill your evening hours with live music Gdansk has several venues to pick from most of which are of the casual variety. Some well-known spots which host almost nightly music performances include the wonderful and highly quirky Josef K and the Brovarnia. This latter was one option for dining so if you want to make life easy you can transition from high-quality food to live music without making any effort.
If you happen to be in town in summer your visit may coincide with the sensational St. Dominik’s Fair which has been in existence in some form since the 13th century. During the fair the historical streets become filled with food and drink stalls while after-dark hours buzz with live music, entertainment and firework displays.
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