Sitting here and telling you about the Top 10 Things to Do in Gdansk feels rather odd, because up until 2 months ago, I hadn’t even heard of Gdansk. Which is shameful, considering this is where World War II began. The German Nazis attacked the Polish naval depot of Westerplatte, just outside the free city of Danzig (as Gdansk was known back in 1939).
Quick history lesson:
- Middle Ages: It was a cosmopolitan city with a mixed bag of wealthy residents from all over Europe.
- 16th and 17th Centuries: It was Poland’s wealthiest town frequented by Hanseatic merchants and kings alike.
- World War I: Thanks to its bi-cultural identity (part Polish, part German) it was left to itself as a free city.
- World War II: Being 80% German, Hitler attacked at Westerplatte, violating the treaty of Versailles, starting the war.
- Liberation: Then the Soviets arrived, and in vengeance against the Nazis bombed the city to the ground.
- Communist times: It was then rebuilt, using old paintings and photographs to match the old buildings to a T! You really need to see it to believe it.
So we landed in Gdansk with a quick flight from Krakow and found ourselves in a city with two sides. The tiny old town for tourists, and the larger workaday bustling hub of locals. We’d gotten really lucky with a last minute hotel booking, and found ourselves at the very tip of the pedestrian zone. Most of the sites and things to do in Gdansk listed below were on the main strip, in the order that you will come across them – the old Royal Way and are doable in one rushed and long day or two leisurely days.
The Gdansk City Card
We’ve realized that City Cards can be a great way to pack in more sightseeing in a very convenient way across Europe, and it’s the same in Gdansk. The Gdansk City Card doesn’t just work in the town of Gdansk, but across the other 2 that make up the Tri City area – Sopot and Gydnia. We got the Sightseeing Package that gave us free and reduced entry across several of these things to do in Gdansk (and also saved us precious time). You can pop into any of the TIs across town to pick yours up, or buy the Gdansk City Card Online.
While we didn’t step in, we soon realized Amber is big in Gdansk (and probably all of the Baltic) as a precious item of trade, so this museum that traces its story and showcase some incredible items made of Amber should be interesting, even over and above the fact that it’s located inside the old Torture Chamber and Prison Tower.
You know just how obsessed we are with trawling luxurious old mansions of all styles across Europe. And the Uphagen House was no exception. Pre-empting the imminent war, locals hid the precious pieces of furniture, paintings, crockery and other elements from this nobleman’s house across the countryside. After the war, it was all brought back and is now being restored, room by room, using pre-war photographs.
Main Town Hall
A Polish travel writer friend of ours had given us his top tip for Gdansk – “Don’t miss the Red Room in the Main Town Hall”. And he left it at that mystery. Beyond an intricately carved spiral wooden spiral staircase and door, we found the Red Hall. And just wow. This is where the city council would meet in the summer. Intricate panels all around us, and an exquisitely painted ceiling that could rival the opulent Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Every painting has symbolism, stories and scenes from Polish life over the centuries.
This building, located right in the middle of the old town was once the home of the trade guild, like a business club today. Decorated sumptuously, we enjoyed trawling the hall’s interesting walls, where little lockers for each guild sat behind wooden doors. But what was most fascinating were the ship models, suspended from the ceiling.
Further at the end of the main street, passing through the Green Gate and strolling along the embankment, we passed the Archeological Museum and in a little green patch just outside, we found the famous five. Five mysterious stones, that date back to the second century. These are known as the Prussian Hags and while they look strangely unremarkable, their mystery is most curious.
We’d been in Gdansk a while before we walked across to Mariacka Street. All this while I’d been wondering about the conspicuous absence of a “restaurant street” that most touristy towns have. This one is by far the prettiest. Lovely lights, amber stalls and terraces outside each building with Gargoyles spitting rainwater. If you’re in Gdansk, you certainly want to spend a few evenings here.
Gdansk has so many medieval red brick churches, you’d probably think one is no different from another. But that’s where we were wrong. This was the largest brick church in the world, (it’s ridiculously tall) and has a very interesting astronomic clock inside apart from several other noteworthy memorials and features.
We stepped inside and gawked at the opulent baroque interiors. This church is probably the only one that survived the Red Army’s destruction when they blew up everything else in Gdansk, so it’s also the oldest.
European Solidarity Centre
Charles had grown up in a time when international news from the Soviet Bloc was filled with stories of a brave young man – Lech Walesa who was leading a resistance against the Communist regime. This later gained Poland independence and we know the rest as history. Naturally, then, he was most fascinated by the Solidarnos movement and this large and excellent museum traces the entire story in vivid descriptions and interactive exhibits. It’s definitely among the best things to do in Gdansk.
Museum of World War II
This was the biggest surprise of all for us in Gdansk. We’d chosen to visit Poland because of the importance this country holds in the World War II story (something that we’ve been increasingly interested in). But back when we’d been doing our travel planning, we hadn’t read about this Museum anywhere. Primarily because it’s brand new, but also because of the debates it’s been embroiled in. With the Government changing, naturally not everyone agreed on the picture of Poland it paints with reference to the war. It is among the most exceptional museums we’ve visited in the world, and if it’s still around when you visit, you must spend half a day here.
There’s still so many things to do in Gdansk that we haven’t been able to cover here, including a meal that took us back in time – along the old Merchant Route at the Mercato Restaurant at the Hilton. While Gdansk is famous as a summer resort town, our winter experience here shows it is definitely a good idea to spend a couple of days, no matter the season. Have you been to Gdansk? What are your top tips?
This post was made possible by Visit Gdansk. Opinions as always, are our own.