In a few words
The Internet regularly circulates aerial photos of old Gdańsk townhouses with narrow facades and ornate gables, crowded together like candies in a box of chocolates. The thousands of likes under the entries are fully deserved – historic Gdańsk deserves at least one day of unhurried sightseeing. And even more, if you include the completely different, but equally interesting centers of the so-called “Tricity”: Sopot and Gdynia!
The slogans with which to describe the city at the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea are many. Gdańsk is an old merchant stronghold of the Hanseatic League, once one of the largest and wealthier cities in Europe, the place where World War II began and the social movement that overthrew communism in Eastern Europe was born. Among the streets of the old center, you will feel – for good reason – like you are in Amsterdam, and you wiill see some fascinating museums, including one located in a massive post-industrial shipyard complex. On top of that, we will direct you by agglomeration railroad straight to the spa atmosphere of Sopot and modernist Gdynia.
In a word – we will help you find your way around in this perplexity of riches!
Before you start sightseeing
Gdańsk’s Old Town is relatively small and can be walked around. But it is best to get to the Gdańsk Shipyard, home to the European Solidarity Center, and farther afield to Sopot and Gdynia by Fast Urban Railway (SKM) from the main train station. The trains are fast and run regularly. This is one of the main means of transportation for residents of the Tricity. The transfer from Gdańsk to Gdynia will take you about half an hour.
Which way to the sea? The center of Gdańsk is located inland, on the old riverbed of the Vistula and the rivers flowing into it. So, if you dream of walking along the seashore, the best option for you will be a trip to Sopot. In high season, when this spa town turns into a popular resort, it is best to go to Gdynia – now fashionable especially among younger residents. You will not experience crowds there at any time of the year, and there are plenty of pleasant cafes and restaurants.
A moment in the Old Town
Sightseeing in Gdańsk usually begins at the entrance to the Old Town, under the Złota Brama. Even from afar you can see the former wealth of the city, which grew up on the grain trade with Western Europe. Particularly close ties connected the city with the Netherlands, which was the main recipient of Polish grain. This can be seen very clearly in the architecture of the center, whose streets are deceptively reminiscent of Dutch cities.
The most representative part of the center is Długi Targ – a former market square, with a characteristic brick town hall and a fountain of Neptune – the obvious patron for this seaside city. You certainly will not miss the grandiose Artus Court either, once serving as a financial exchange for Gdańsk’s bourgeoisie.
From Długi Targ Street you are only a few steps away from the mighty body of St. Mary’s Church. It is Europe’s largest temple built of brick. Inside, illuminated by white walls and huge windows, it is best to simply sit and ponder – first under the monumental astronomical clock, created entirely in wood, which is crowned by a sculpture of the tree of life, then under the reproduction of Hans Memling’s “Last Judgment” hanging on a pillar. You can find the original of this masterpiece of medieval imagination in the nearby National Museum, where you can view the triptych from all sides. The painting is not inferior in craftsmanship to the most outstanding works of Hieronymus Bosch!
Picturesque St. Mary’s Street leads from under the church to the banks of the Motława River and will be the perfect place for a short break in sightseeing. Characteristic ornate staircases lead to the doors of the tenements here, just like in New York (reminder: long ago a Dutch colony!). At number 36 you will find the popular “Drukarnia” cafe.
A few hundred meters further on, we are already at the river, which winds through the canals here crossed by bridges. Overhead you will see the huge silhouette of the former port crane. This is the oldest surviving port crane of medieval Europe. The area is full of places to sit and eat – including the island on the other side, full of old grain granaries, now turned into a trendy district of lofts and stores.
The National Museum in Gdańsk is primarily worth a visit for the original Memling triptych. The painting, created in Bruges on the order of an Italian banker, was stolen by the crew of a merchant ship from Gdańsk and has been a highlight of the city’s art collection ever since. In the adjacent rooms, you will find antique wooden closets of Gdańsk citizens and objects of daily use from the golden period of the city’s history.
In the modern building of the World War II Museum, mostly hidden underground, you will learn more about the complicated history of one of the most monstrous conflicts in the history of the world at the multimedia exhibition. The spark for the outbreak of World War II was Hitler’s claim to Gdańsk, then remaining a free city on the border between Poland and Germany. Consisting of nearly 5,000 objects, the exhibition is one of the largest in the world, and deserves a longer moment of reflection.
Nearby, in the impressive building of a former mill, the Amber Museum has its place. The fossilized pieces of pine resin that linger on the beaches of the Baltic Sea are a hallmark of these parts of Europe. Amber was prized as far back as the Romans, sending caravans to fetch this beautifully flaming (German: Bernstein) brown and orange stone. At the museum you will learn about the history of human fascination with amber and show-off examples of its use, from an amber chess board to ship models.
In the landscape of Gdańsk, the towers of the Old Town’s churches are interspersed with the distinctive silhouettes of harbor cranes. It is said that there are more than 120 of them in the entire city! The local shipyard was the apple of the eye of Poland’s communist authorities, and ships built there were exported all over the world.
What came as even more of a shock to the party dictatorship was the rise of Solidarity, a movement that grew from a protest by shipyard workers dissatisfied with the country’s dire economic situation into a force that inspired democratic change in Eastern Europe. The history of the social project, whose face and icon became Lech Wałęsa, can be explored at an exhibition in the unusual facility of the European Solidarity Center. From afar it resembles a huge rusty tanker, inside it delights with architectural solutions and, above all, with an exhibition that enriches the understanding of the history of our continent.
The old docks of the shipyards around the European Solidarity Center have in recent years become the site of a flourishing club culture. Particularly worth approaching is Elektryków Street, where several popular music, alcohol and food venues operate during the season.
Catch a breath in Sopot
The spa town of Sopot is the main resort of Gdańsk. It can be crowded in high season, especially on the main promenade on Monte Cassino Street, but it is also full of secluded streets with fantastic spa architecture reminiscent of the best fin de siècle times.
The main strolling area is the huge pier, the longest on the Baltic coast, which took its present shape in the 1920s. If the weather is good, you can go for a stroll along the beach from there, preferably to the north, towards Gdynia’s Orłowo district. The coast narrows there, the forest comes up to the edge of the sea, dropping down with picturesque cliffs. The round-trip hike will take you about two hours, and you can still eat or drink at one of the seaside taverns along the way. Sounds like a good plan!
But Sopot is best explored without a specific program, going off the main routes. For fans of Werner Herzog’s films, we recommend approaching 10 Kościuszki Street. It is the location of the house where Klaus Kinski was born – a charismatic German actor, the protagonist of many of the brilliant director’s films. We also recommend a visit to the atmospheric Sierakowski Manor House. The young Frederic Chopin used to visit there, and today there is a charming cafe called Wolny Stolik, where you can rest after a city wander.
Gdynia – for a change
The city of Gdynia was established by the authorities of interwar Poland as the country’s main port and its window on the world. At the time, Gdańsk was outside the borders of a country of 30 million people, which needed a sea route for coal exports and contact with Britain, America and the rest of the world.
In a short time, an impressive modernist city with modern, functional architecture was created. The townhouses designed by the best Polish architects resemble naval ships in form – if you look at the buildings in the center, you will see numerous semicircular balconies and captain’s windows in the walls.
The city is full of greenery and quiet, villa-like neighborhoods, the streets are wide and clearly delineated. This is appreciated by young Poles, who are particularly fond of Gdynia as a place to live. You will find many trendy places where you can eat and drink well. In addition to strolling through the representative part of the port and the seaside boulevard, we recommend you to take a tour through the streets of the hilltop villa district of Kamienna Góra. Stop for a coffee at the charming bar Uboga Krewna (6 Krasickiego Street) and have a delicious dinner at one of the popular restaurants in Gdynia’s downtown. You will be delighted!
Also in Gdynia, fans of narrative museums will find something for themselves. One of the former port buildings houses the Emigration Museum, which tells the 19th- and 20th-century history of migration from Europe to America in a striking exhibition. Gdynia, a busy interwar port was a gateway for many fleeing poverty and growing, nationalist tensions. By viewing the exhibition, you will learn more about the motivations of the people who decided to run away from their previous lives and move to meet the unknown.
With a festival rhythm
A great time to visit the Tricity is at the beginning of summer, when the great music festival Open’er takes place in Gdynia – popular and rock music stars from all over the world are drawn to the old airport in Babie Doły. We write more about this festival here. A suggestion for fans of early music is the Actus Humanus Festival held in Gdańsk in the spring, and for theater fans – the Shakespeare Festival, which takes place in late July and early August.