Gdansk // 5 Things To Do

27.2.20

River views in Old Town Gdansk


If I asked you to name a Polish tourist destination, I'm sure you could conjure up Warsaw or Krakow relatively quickly. It might take most people a little bit longer to come up with Gdansk. Certainly not Poland's most famous city, the sea port of Gdansk is steadily growing as a destination for tourists - helped, I'm sure, by cheap, direct flights from airports in the United Kingdom. It was certainly the low-cost Wizz Air flight from Aberdeen that tempted us to visit a city of which we knew very little. 

Historically, Gdansk turns out to be a city with a complicated and somewhat tumultuous backstory. The country's most  prominent maritime town, it was once a sought after territory, experiencing periods of rule by Poland, Prussia and Germany. In 1939, its depot at Westerplatte became the site of an attack which marked the start of World War II, leading to the persecution of its Polish and Jewish inhabitants and extensive damage to the city itself. 

Since then, Gdansk has faced difficult periods of poverty and downturn, but has continued to rebuild itself into the city it is today. 

Visiting back in October, we found present-day Gdansk to be a strange but beautiful little place. The architecture of the old town reflects both the cultural diversity of its past and the desire to rebuild itself as something new, with its striking buildings screaming 'Amsterdam' more than they do 'Poland'. The main thoroughfare is charming to walk through, while the riverside - with its old wooden shipping crane - provides some very pretty views. It really is a picture-perfect little town. 

I do, however, call it a "strange but beautiful little place," quite deliberately, and for a number of reasons. 

I found it a particularly difficult place to research. I struggled to find things to fill our time, not helped by the shortage of information available online and multiple inaccuracies which made it difficult to plan out. For instance, information found online told us one venue was free to visit on a Monday, but we arrived to a sign on the door informing us that it was closed on Monday but free to visit on Tuesday. 

This may, in part, be due to the timing of our trip, which landed at the very beginning of their winter season where places were perhaps adjusting to shorter opening times, but this was difficult to clarify and frustrating to work around. 

We also found the public transport system difficult to navigate and our trip was somewhat tainted by a substantial fine we received by accidentally buying the wrong ticket for the tram. These things happen, but the manner of the conductors who fined us did nothing to aid our impressions of Gdansk. 

That said, we did enjoy our visit overall. 

Arriving in the early hours of Sunday morning, we had just short of 72 hours (which was as long as we really needed) to explore and see what Gdansk had to offer.

Here are five of the things we enjoyed the most:

River views and the big wheel in Old Town Gdansk

Free Walking Tour

A great way to start any trip in a new city, we kicked things off by joining a free tour of Central Gdansk, led by a guide from the company Walkative

Meeting at the Golden Gate, the 2.5 hour long tour walked us through the main town, taking in a dozen or so sites of historic or cultural interest. Our guide proved to be something of a font of knowledge, sharing a wealth of information about the city and regaling us with stories all the way. 

It was a great way to get our bearings and to gain a greater understanding of Gdansk, both past and present day - most of which I wouldn't have learned any other way. 



Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk

Museum of the Second World War

As I mentioned earlier, Gdansk was a city profoundly impacted by the Second World War and it seems entirely fitting that this museum stands just 200m from the site where the first attacks took place. 

A huge exhibition - divided into some 18 different sections - traces the events of World War II from a primarily Polish perspective, from early Nazi propaganda through to the coming of the Communist era. It is bold and eye-catching, with plenty of written information in Polish and English along the way. Particularly striking displays include two rooms recreated to look like a city street, both before and after the war. It's powerful stuff. 

The collection is enormous, yet laid out in such an engaging way that you won't want to skip a single room. This is worth taking into account when planning a visit as we had allowed ourselves a couple of hours and still left - ushered out at closing time - having missed a good number of rooms. At less than £5 a ticket, it's a great value-for-money way to spend a solid chunk of the day.



Street art murals in Zaspa, Gdansk

Street Art in Zaspa

A 20 minute tram ride from Old Town Gdansk, the concrete-tower residencies of Zaspa are home to one of Gdansk's most pleasant surprises: a collection of more than 60 stunning, building-sized murals. 

Thanks to the Monumental Art Festival (similar to Aberdeen's Nuart Festival), a number of international street artists - from as far and wide as Russia, Japan, Italy and Uruguay - have travelled to Gdansk each summer to leave their creative stamp on this urban community. 

What they've created is a beautiful, vibrant collection of murals in a whole spectrum of artistic styles, making the area great fun to explore (with the help of a handy online map) for a very different taste of Gdansk. 

(If you decide to catch the tram out to Zaspa, be careful not to make the same mistake as us: buy your return ticket in the city centre as there are no ticket machines available on the platform here.) 



Town hall, Gdansk

Visit the Town Hall and St Mary's Basilica

Actually two completely different buildings, I've listed the two together due to their close proximity - just a few minutes walk from each other in the Old Town - and the fact that both are historical buildings offering views from tall towers. 

St Mary's Basilica - a Roman Catholic place of worship - is believed to be one of the largest brick churches in the world, seating some 25,000 people. Built in the 1300s, the building stood strong until 1945, when it was significantly damaged during the Second World War, with its restoration and renovation still ongoing today. This was apparent during our visit with some visible building work taking place, but it still made for a pleasant and peaceful place to pause for a moment, admiring its vast space and pretty stained glass windows. 

Gdansk Town Hall - once host to the city's powers-that-be - today houses the History Museum of the City of Gdansk. Another brick building erected in the 1300s, it too was damaged severely during World War II, but has since been rebuilt in painstaking detail. Sitting on the main, pedestrianised thoroughfare of the Old Town, its 81m tall tower is difficult to miss, but the frescoe-adorned great halls and wooden staircases of its interior are well worth a visit too.

Both of these buildings offer entrance to their towers - at a small cost - for views over the Old Town. My travel buddy is not a fan of heights and so we opted not to visit ourselves, but I'm led to believe the vistas are worth it if you have a head for heights.



Hill fort and Millennium Cross on Gora Gradowa, Gdansk

Walk up Gora Gradowa

I might not have got her up any towers, but I did convince my friend it would be a good idea to climb a hill instead for some city views.

Just a half hour's walk from the Old Town, tucked behind the Hevelianum science centre, Gora Gradowa is a short and pleasant climb at only 46m high, offering multiple rewards at its peak. Not only does it allow for a beautiful panorama of the centre of the city, but it's also home to both the Millennium Cross (a monument marking 2000 years of Christianity and 1000 years of Gdansk) and a 19th century fort. The historic fortifications were once of military significance and are now open as an exhibition maintained by the Hevelianum, which can be visited for free on climbing the hill, though the informational displays are written only in Polish.

Personally, I most enjoyed standing by the Millenium Cross taking in the views on a pleasantly sunny afternoon, and would consider this - along with our visit to the nearby PG4 brewery and Mandu pierogi restaurant - to be my personal highlight of the trip. Sometimes the simplest things really are the best!

Views over Gdansk from Gora Gradowa


All-in-all, Gdansk was a fun place to visit for a short trip and has whet my appetite for Poland as a whole.

xo 

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