Gdansk has a complex history, with different Polish, Prussian and German eras, and even periods of autonomy as a free city-state. Different rulers mean different names and the Germans called it Danzig until it returned to Gdansk at the end of World War II. The first shots of WWII were fired here and when the Russians came to the end of the war they flattened it.
Extensive reconstruction took place in the years that followed and the historic main town was fully restored. The tight network of medieval streets on the Motława River preserves the atmosphere of the Hanseatic settlement as it was in the late 18e century. Boats still ply the river, although they carry tourists rather than goods.
People familiar with recent history may recall the struggles against communist rule beginning with the shipyard strikes in 1980. Viewers may recall that Gdansk looked like a dark industrial city marred by the Soviet-style architecture, but luckily that picture was completely wrong.
The best way to discover Gdansk is to stroll through its lively and colorful streets. The legendary Długi Targ, known as the Long Market, is the main thoroughfare and is filled with colorful pastel buildings, lively bars, underground restaurants and the iconic Neptune Fountain. At its eastern end, the medieval Green Gate opens onto the bank of the Motlawa River where a replica pirate galleon offers tours of the surrounding area.
St. Mary’s Church
St Mary’s is one of the largest brick churches in the world and its 78m high tower dominates the Gdansk skyline. You can climb its 408 steps for a magnificent view of the city and the Baltic Sea. Inside is a fascinating astronomical clock dating back to 1464 and at 14m tall it might just be the tallest clock in the world. Enter on time to hear the strike and watch biblical characters come out to play.
Gdansk is known as the capital of amber and a new museum inside the Grand Mill details the history of Baltic amber with multimedia installations. Exhibits over two floors include ‘inclusions’ (where insects or plants are captured inside amber) and numerous amber creations, including a stunning Fender Stratocaster guitar, show the diversity of the material. A large open room at the top of the building houses an impressive range of modern amber jewelery and of course there is a shop where you can buy your own to take home.
10 km downstream on the Baltic is the peninsula of Westerplatte. On September 1, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein sparked World War II when it opened fire on the Polish garrison. They managed to hold out for 7 days, hoping for support from France and Great Britain which never came. Largely outnumbered by 3,500 troops on the ground, they surrendered after losing the lives of 15 Poles. Today an imposing 25m monument commemorates the dead and the area has been turned into a historic park, complete with ruins and burnt bunkers.
Polish post office
At the same time, in the old town, the large brick building of the Polish Post Office is attacked. 50 armed postal workers were trapped inside, but after a 17-hour siege, the 34 who were still alive surrendered. They were then tortured and executed by firing squad. Outside, a stainless steel monument recalls their sacrifice and inside, a small museum tells the story.
World War II Museum
200m away is the huge modern WWII museum, opened in 2017, its structure of glass and jagged terracotta resembling a giant bomb hitting the ground. Yet the main exhibit is housed underground in themed cavernous spaces that take you through history in chronological order. The museum’s 2,000 objects include an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a wooden German railroad car displayed in faithfully recreated locations. Particularly moving is a wall of stacked suitcases next to a huge explosion from the gates of Auschwitz.
European Solidarity Center
Gdansk also played a leading role in the collapse of communism. In 1980, the Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, shut down the shipyard with strikes that spread across the country. The world held its breath waiting to see if the Russians would intervene. Fortunately, everything was resolved relatively peacefully and Walesa was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1983.
He later became Polish President and still works inside the Lenin Shipyard – not on the docks but in the gigantic European Solidarity Center which opened in 2014. He tells the story of Solidarity and other movements of opposition from communist Eastern Europe. There are over 2,000 exhibits and the library contains around 100,000 books and documents.
Outside, the museum is clad in rusty metal cladding, echoing the scale and size of the ships that were built here. The theme continues inside with angled steel plates lining the hallways. Films and photographs are used creatively and a military truck is parked in front of twisting barricades as a reminder of the struggles.
These days, the shipyards are quiet, but the famous No. 2 gate is still there, preserved exactly as it was in 1980, with a list of workers’ demands chalked on a piece of plywood. Next to it stands the Monument to the shipyard workers who fell in 1970an impressive 42-metre, 13-tonne steel sculpture commemorating the 42 workers who died in an earlier protest.
From the end of the 19e century Sopot, just 15 minutes from the city, became a vacation spot for wealthy aristocrats from all over Europe. Baths, sanatoriums, hotels and restaurants were opened, and the wooden pier was extended to 511 mm, making it the longest in the world. The casino at the Grand Hotel attracted gamblers and famous losers committed suicide in the nearby park. Starting in 1961, the Sopot Music Festival was communism’s answer to Eurovision and today the tree-lined waterfront, white sandy beaches and refreshing Baltic Sea air still attract the tourists.
INFORMATION: Travel to Poland has information about the country:
Visit Gdansk contains information about the city.
STAY: The Radisson Hotel & Suites makes a good base on the riverside.
TO EAT: Chmielna Restaurant has good fish.
Restauracja Kubiki is the oldest restaurant in Gdansk
Restaurant end serves inventive modern cuisine
Gdanski Bowke is a traditional restaurant.
Gvara restaurant has good food and music
Big Blue Sopot offers fine dining at Grand Hotel Sopot.