Our first trip to the Polish city of Gdansk was in early 2016. With its colourful merchant houses, cobblestone streets, and an enormous red brick church it makes a great short-break or weekend destination.
After multiple trips to the city it seemed fitting that we speak to Chris Christensen of the award-winning Amateur Traveler podcast about visiting the city.
Why visit Gdansk?
As a member of the Hanseatic League, this city was a key trading port from the late Middle Ages. Influenced by many cultures and traditions, the city’s architecture reflects these influences making it distinctly different to the rest of Poland, more Germanic than Polish.
More recently, Gdansk has played a significant role in world events. The land on the outskirts of Gdansk was where the first shots of World War II were fired. In Communist times, Gdansk was the birthplace of the Solidarność (Solidarity movement), a movement which lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Read More: Gdansk – The Old Town
Where to go?
Your first stop in Gdansk should be Dlugi Targ (Long Market). This is the main thoroughfare through the city. It was almost completely destroyed in World War II and was subsequently rebuilt in the decades that followed.
Start your journey at Brama Wyżynna (Upland Gate). The original starting point for the Royal Way, the 16th century gate is the main entrance into the Old Town and where visiting Polish kings would be welcomed and given the keys to the city.
From Upland Gate, head south towards the river, bypassing a large redbrick tower. This 14th century medieval fortification, was once the Prison Tower and Torture Chambers. It’s now home to the Amber Museum. If you’re interested in fossilised resin, then stopping here for a visit here is well worth the effort. The Amber Museum includes many items that are called ‘inclusions’. See where bugs, spiders and plants have been captured and preserved in the transparent gum just before it sets.
The Amber Museum is a place to avoid on busy days as rooms are small and corridors can be cramped making the experience less than ideal. Visiting in the warmer months? Don’t miss the viewing platform in the top of the tower.
The torture museum may not be suitable for all ages but the rooms like the one dedicated to thumb screwing and other torture techniques are quite interesting nevertheless.
Continuing south, pass through Złota Brama (Golden Gate). Be sure to stop and look at the photographs on the inside of the arch. The photos were captured after the fighting stopped in 1945, you can still see the damage the city suffered throughout the war. As you continue to walk along Long Market, imagine the restoration efforts required to revive Gdansk from the rubble.
Stroll along the Long Market and admire the picturesque landscape. The impressive red brick building with a cloud-piercing green spire is the Town Hall, inside it houses the Gdańsk History Museum. Don’t miss the Neptune Fountain nearby which dates back to 1549 and the impressive Dwór Artusa (Artus Court), a mansion and seat of Gdansk’s power in the 16th century.
Marking the end of the Royal Way is another medieval fortification, the Zielona Brama (Green Gate). This striking four-arched gatehouse was built as a palace for Polish monarchs, although none ever stayed there. Pass through the arches to reach the Motława River.
To your left, jutting out from a building facing the river is the Gdansk crane, one of the last remnants of the city’s life as a key trading port. A crane was established here in 1357 but burnt down. Subsequently rebuilt, and again restored after sustaining damage in World War II. Inside it houses two massive 6m-diameter wheels which were once powered by men on foot, to lift cargo off ships at a capacity of 4 tonnes.
A couple of streets back from the river is Gdansk’s most visible place of worship, St. Mary’s Basilica. Built in the 1300s and having a capacity of 25,000 people, the walls were whitewashed after the church suffered serious damage during World War II. Be sure to study the astronomical clock dating from 1464. A feat of it’s time, not only displaying date and time but phases and position of the moon, zodiac signs and a calendar of saints.
Feeling energetic? For a small fee, climb the 400+ steps in the 78m tower for breathtaking views of old Gdansk and the Motława River.
European Solidarity Centre
This phenomenal museum attempts to breakdown the complicated story of Solidarity and deserves a few hours if not half a day of your visit to Gdansk. Be sure to take the multimedia guide to help you navigate the five floors of history.
You can’t miss the giant structure and its rust coloured exterior panels built in the shape of a ships hull. The colour and shape pay homage to the lifeblood of the area and to the workers of the Lenin shipyards who protested at the very same site against plunging living standards workers.
Be sure to check out Gate #2, the main gate near the entry to the Solidarity Centre, and admire the 3 towering steel crosses, the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 (Pomnik Poległych Stoczniowców 1970)
Read more: European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk
Excursions outside Gdansk
Gdansk is a one third of the metropolitan area in Poland known as tricity/tri-city. The cities of Gdynia and Sopot make the other two thirds. Sopot is Gdansk’s beachside party pad, with some unique buildings like Krzywy Domek (the Crooked House) and the pier is the longest in the Baltic at 500m jutting out into Gulf of Danzig.
Sopot is hip and trendy with a multitude of restaurants, cafes and clubs to keep you entertained alongside sandy and sheltered beaches. For the active, there are cycle paths and forest paths, visiting in the warm summer months sees loads of opportunities for things to do on the sea. We visited in shoulder season to discover a pretty little town with some very good restaurants and a relaxed vibe.
Malbork Castle, originally a 13th century monastery built by the Teutonic Knights, a German Roman Catholic religious order of crusaders. Malbork is the world’s biggest brick castle and a classic example of a medieval fortress. This UNESCO World Heritage site was badly damaged during World War II however has been restored to its former glory. Allow at least half a day for Malbork castle and be sure to pay the fee for the audio guide.
Despite wanting to visit, we weren’t able to fit in a visit to Westerplatte. This significant location was the scene of the first shots of World War II.
In the 1930s, as the Tri-city area prospers, the government of the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk) comes under the control of the Nazis. Tensions rise between the Free City and over the border in neighbouring Poland. World War II begins in 1939 with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland’s military posts on Westerplatte on 01 September.
Today the memorial site at Westerplatte features some shelled bunkers, ruins and a small museum in the pivotal Guardhouse Number 1. A permanent outdoor exhibition entitled ‘Westerplatte: Spa-Bastion-Symbol’ on display.
Best visited in the summer months when Guardhouse museum is open. Take the Water Tram #5 which stops outside the Hilton in the Old Town and drops you at Westerplatte. Alternatively catch bus 106 from outside of the station all year round.
Who is Amaetur Traveler?
Chris Christensen runs Amateur Traveler, a is a hugely popular travel podcast with over a million downloads. This weekly audio podcast focuses primarily on destinations and the best places to travel. Already with over 500 episodes, it’s my go-to for insider tips on the popular and the obscure.
You might be reading this and thinking Amateur Traveler sounds familiar. Well that’s because this isn’t my first time speaking with Chris. He interviewed me on our home-town of Sydney in 2016.
Keen to listen?
Listen to the podcast here, or download it via your preferred podcast player.
After trying a few, my favourite app is PocketCasts. (Just to be clear, I’m not being paid to say that, I just REALLY like their product!) I auto-download my favourite podcasts straight to my phone and listen to them while commuting in London or travelling abroad.