Gdańsk is a fascinating city with a rich history blending tradition and modernity flawlessly. Together with the neighboring cities of Sopot and Gdynia, it forms one of the largest agglomerations in Poland called Tricity.
While walking down the streets, you will see outstanding architecture featuring both old tenement houses dating back to the previous centuries and stylish contemporary buildings, all of that reminding you of the intricate events Gdańsk had to face. It is a perfect gateway for everyone, be it history enthusiasts, foodies, sea lovers, or amber shopaholics.
I have been to Gdańsk multiple times as a kid, as it is a trendy spot for holidays and school trips. But as we all know, kids are more interested in waffles and ice creams than the history of the place, so it was pretty refreshing to see the city from an adult perspective. I also discovered that visiting Polish cities with my Danish boyfriend feels different and is quite refreshing. I catch myself explaining things that are obvious to me and totally surprising for him, going to places I would probably never venture on my own. Rediscovering Poland is quite fun, to be honest 🙂
This time we just hopped onto the plane for an extended weekend and tried to chill and enjoy the great weather without much of a plan of what we would like to do. There is much more in Gdaśk to see than what we managed, but we will definitely be back!
Without further ado, let me introduce you to a short history of Gdańsk and show you the places that caught my interest.
Gdańsk is a fairly old city dating back to the 9th century, but people inhabited the area even before Gdańsk gained its city rights. The town is well known for the amber (a fossilized tree resin), also called Nothern Gold, a sought treasure in the ancient and modern world. That rare material gave many growth opportunities to Gdańsk, which lay at the Amber Road, an ancient trade route connecting Baltics to Rome.
Gdańsk is located near the sea, making it a perfect seaport city, becoming one of the leading trading hubs in the area in the 14th century, trading mainly wood and grain.
For some time (14th century), Gdaśk was ruled by the Teutonic Order, which built several impressive castles in the area. One of them is Malbork Castle holding the title of the biggest brick castle in Europe. After the military defeat of the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (1410), the city passed into the hands of the Polish kings and started to flourish even more.
Gdańsk’s golden age fell in the 16th century. The city was one of the largest and wealthiest in Europe, with merchants, sailors, and people of science and art from all over Europe coming to the city. It was then that the most magnificent buildings were erected. The fortifications surrounding the town were among the most powerful in Europe. You can still see parts of them to this day. Among the Baltic cities, only Copenhagen at that time could equal Gdańsk.
The dark clouds started gathering over the Gdańsk in 1772 when Poland got partitioned for the first time. After the second partition in 1793, the city fell into Prussian hands. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars (in 1807), Gdańsk became Free City, with war and shipbuilding industries developing rapidly.
Attack on Westerplatte, a large protective peninsula shielding Gdańsk’s Nowy Port to its south, marks the start of II World War and the period of the almost total destruction of the city. The city was bombed twice during the war, but it suffered the most in 1945 after the Red Army and Polish Soldiers stormed the city. As a result of shelling and arsons, 80-90% of the town got destroyed and razed to the ground. Half of the damage was caused by air raids during the war or artillery fire during the fights, and the other half was the destruction and burning of the city by Soviet troops. After the war, Gdańsk, after 153 years apart, became a part of Poland again. Most of the inhabitants that survived were displaced and moved to Germany, while repatriates from the East and people from Pomerania and central Poland moved in.
Just take a look at the photograph to see the vastness o the destruction.
I got so impressed by how the city rebuilt itself. It is so crazy to think this is the same place! Take a look at the other photo I took on my last visit (2022), showing the same area.
When planning the reconstruction, the architects considered the lack of functionality of the old buildings. Before the war, there were houses in the old town without sewage systems, dark. The new old town was supposed to be modernized, but still looking historic. The results of their hard work are impressive!
Gdańsk made one more significant mark in recent history. In 1980, a strike started in the Gdańsk Shipyard, and as a result, Solidarity (Solidarność), the largest and the only independent social movement in Central Europe, was legalized. This movement, completely independent of the communist authorities, led to the political transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, and the liberation of countries of the Soviet block from the shackles of communism.
Nowadays, rebuilt Gdańsk is a city bustling with life, welcoming visitors from Poland and all over the world. You can still see a little bit of the shadows of the war and destruction, but to be honest, the city did a remarkable job at rebuilding itself and finding itself.
I have only written a short summary of the history; Gdańsk went through many turbulent times, and its history is fascinating.
What to see
The Old Town is the oldest part of town and currently is a residential and service area, which, although charming, is less interesting for tourists. The main attractions there are the Great Mill, the Little Mill, and the Bread Bridge. Check out also the statue of the famous astronomer Jan Heweliusz who lived and worked there.
Main Town in Gdańsk is the central tourist hub in the city, and you will find there the flagship attractions of Gdańsk. Many mistake Main City for the Old town and inaccurately call it that way.
Walk along the colorful streets of old tenement houses and marvel at the facades’ intricate design. Take a look at the ever-present gargoyles, also known in Polish as pukers (rzygacze). They were used to drain rainwater and took the form of heads of animals or fantastic creatures.
One of the most famous streets is unofficially called King’s Road. It owes its name to the fact that Polish kings traveled this path during their visits to Gdańsk. It leads from Brama Wyżynna (Upland gate) to Brama Zielona (Green Gate), situated on the Motława River.
Main Town Hall
This magnificent building was the former seat of the authorities, serving many Polish kings; it was rebuilt multiple times throughout the centuries. Today, it houses the Historical Museum of the City of Gdańsk.
You can climb on top of the tower to marvel at the breathtaking views of the city from high above. Unfortunately, it was not open when we went there, so I guess we will climb up next time.
Artus Court, with its name referring to the legendary Round Table of the knights of King Arthur, was an important center of social and commercial life in former Gdańsk. It was the seat of merchant brotherhoods, wealthy patricians, and craftsmen. In 1742 became the first stock exchange in Poland.
Today, the Artus Court houses the Historical Museum of the City of Gdańsk. Inside, you will see the largest tiled stove in Europe, being almost 11 meters high, adorned by 520 beautiful tiles.
We ventured to this building just by accident, and I must say it was a fortunate coincidence. The rooms and decorations took our breath away.
Neptune, the god of seas and oceans with a characteristic trident, is the most iconic symbol of Gdańsk and one of the most photographed spots in the town. If you visit Gdańsk, you have to see Neptune Fountain.
The fountain was built in 1615 according to the design of Abraham van den Blocke, the designer of the Golden Gate, and is standing in front of Artus Court. Interestingly, during World War II, the fountain was hidden, with some of the fragments being taken away, while the canopy and some figures were bricked up in the fountain basin.
The local legend says people often tossed coins “for good luck” into the fountain. That angered Neptune, who struck the trident and smashed coins into small pieces. This is how the Gdańsk Goldwasser tincture, a herbal liqueur with golden flakes, was created.
One of the most beautiful places in Gdańsk is the Long Embankment, a promenade along the Motława river bank, where you will see a series of gothic water gates on one side and modern buildings on the other side on the Granary Island.
The Crane Gate, a medieval port crane, is one of the most recognizable and spectacular symbols of Gdańsk. However, it is a reconstruction as the Crane was set on fire and burned down during the Red Army storm of the city in 1945. Luckily, the brick structure survived, but the original wooden mechanism was lost. The Crane Gate now houses a branch of the Central Maritime Museum. Click the link for opening hours and tickets.
The charming, narrow street perfectly illustrates the character of the old buildings of Gdańsk. You can find numerous shops and stands offering amber jewelry along the road.
St. Mary’s Basilica
St. Mary’s Basilica is believed to be the largest brick church in the world! Erected gradually within the period of 159 years (1343-1502), the church is so vast it could easily fit 20,000 people.
Inside the temple, you can see a magnificent triptych, “The Last Judgement,” painted by Hans Memling, the biggest medieval astronomical clock, frescos, and sacral art.
Climb the 408 winding stairs to the top of the 82 m tower and get rewarded with breathtaking views of Gdańsk.
Gdańsk Shipyard and European Solidarity Center
The European Solidarity Center tells the story of the Solidarity movement established here. Make sure to visit if you want to know more about the movement’s history that stopped communism and started the change in Europe.
We, unfortunately, run out of time and had to skip the shipyard 🙁
DeJa Vu Muzeum
It is an Interactive Museum of optical illusions in Gdansk. It is not a must-see spot, but we did have a lot of fun, even though it was quite expensive. One of the best parts of the museum was the rooms surrounded by and filled with mirrors and lights. I could stay there for hours but as it is a pretty instagramable place, many wanted to enjoy the room too 🙂 It reminded us a little about the TeamLab Borderless exhibition in Tokyo called “Forest of resonating lamps”.
Follow the link for more info.
The best viewpoints
- The Tower of St. Mary’s Basilica
- The Olivia Star skyscraper in Gdańsk Oliwa
- Prison Tower and Torture House
- Gradowa Mountain – 46 meters hill with old fortifications
- AmberSky Ferris wheel
- The roof of the European Solidarity Center
Day trips from Gdańsk
If you are looking for day trips from Gdańsk, you might want to consider visiting:
- Gdynia – port city, with is the oldest preserved destroyer in the world (ORP Błyskawica – Lightning)
- Sopot – a spa resort with sandy beaches and the longest wooden pier in Europe.
- Malbork – a city where you can find the biggest brick castle in the world built by the Teutonic Knights.
- Westerplatte – a Gdańsk peninsula that bore a witness to the first clash between Polish and German forces and became the first battlefield of II World War.