Maybe it's the sea air, or maybe it's the mixture of the city's cultural importance and political tumult. Whatever the reason, Gdańsk is special to Poles—and to Scandinavians and Germans, who visit the region in great numbers. From 1308 to 1945, this Baltic port was an independent city-state called Danzig, a majority of whose residents were ethnic Germans. When the Nazis fired the first shots of World War II here on September 1, 1939, they began a process of systematic destruction of Poland that would last for six years and leave millions dead. Nevertheless, in 1997 Gdańsk celebrated its 1,000th year as a Baltic city. It remains well-known as the cradle of the workers' movement that came to be known as Solidarność (Solidarity). Food-price increases in 1970 led to the first strikes at the (former) Lenin Shipyards. The Communist authorities put down the protest quickly and brutally, killing 40 workers in December of that year. Throughout the 1970s, small groups of anti-Communist workers and intellectuals based in Gdańsk continued to organize. By August 1980, they had gained sufficient critical mass to form an organization that the government was forced to recognize eventually as the first independent trade union in the former Soviet bloc. Although the government attempted to destroy Solidarity when it declared martial law in December 1981, union activists continued to keep the objectives of democracy and independence from the Soviet Union alive. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa became president of Poland in the nation's first free elections since World War II. The historic core of this medieval city can be explored easily on foot. Although Gdańsk was almost entirely destroyed during World War II, the streets of its Główne Miasto (Main Town) have been lovingly restored and still retain their historical and cultural richness. North of the Main Town, the Stare Miasto (Old Town) contains many newer hotels and shops, but several churches and the beautifully reconstructed Old Town Hall justify its name. At the north end of the Old Town sit the shipyards. This site, which captivated world attention during the many clashes between workers and militarized police units during the 1970s and '80s, has now settled back into its daily grind, and the shipyards struggle to make the adjustment to the free market. Having come to Gdańsk, it would be a crime not to explore the Tri-City further, particularly when it is so easy. Just hop on a commuter train and head northwest to Gdańsk's suburb of Oliwa, which has an amazing cathedral; farther north is Sopot, with its high-life resort atmosphere, and Gdynia, which has some wonderful ships moored in its docklands.
The Tri-City is not a shopping destination. Nevertheless, Gdańsk and Sopot are good places to look for amber jewelry. You'll find souvenir shops and stores specializing in amber everywhere in town. In fact, they can't be missed they are so ubiquitous.
Because the parts of the Tri-City (Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia) are linked by good public transit, it's quite easy to dine in any of the three regardless of where you are staying.
Behind the red door (that's what "Czerwone Drzwi" means in Polish) is an elegant café-cum-restaurant, a favorite with Gdańsk's fashionable people (with well-stocked wallets). The menu changes with the seasons.
"The Salmon" is certainly the most famous restaurant in Gdańsk, with a long-standing reputation. It is memorable for its elegant baroque-era dining rooms, well-oiled maître d', attentive service, and excellent seafood (the menu also extends to game and fowl dishes). Try the salmon or smoked eel to start, followed by flounder or grilled trout. You may want to try the famous Goldwasser vodka—after all, this is its original source.
If you do not insist on staying in Gdańsk's Old Town, there are some great classy hotels in beautiful surroundings in Gdańsk-Oliwa, Sopot, or Gdynia-Orłowo. The city transportation system makes it easy enough to travel between the important sights of the three cities, using the combination of convenient commuter trains and fairly inexpensive taxis.
Although Sopot is where the Tri-City really goes to have fun, there's also good nightlife in Gdańsk. On summer nights, the Old Town teems with street musicians, families, and high-spirited young people. Look for the English-language publication The Visitor for information on more timely events.
Muzeum Archeologiczne Gdańska
Gdańsk's small archaeological museum displays Slavic tribal artifacts, including jewelry, pottery, boats, and bones.
Katedra w Oliwie
The district of Oliwa, northwest of the Old Town, is worth visiting if only for its magnificent cathedral complex. Originally part of a Cistercian monastery, the church was erected during the 13th century. Like most other structures in Poland, it has been rebuilt many times, resulting in a hodgepodge of styles from Gothic to Renaissance to rococo. The cathedral houses a museum as well as one of the most impressive rococo organs you're ever likely to hear—and see. It has more than 6,000 pipes, and when a special mechanism is activated, wooden angels ring bells and a wooden star climbs up a wooden sky. Demonstrations of the organ and a brief narrated church history are given almost hourly on weekdays in summer (May through September), less frequently on weekends and the rest of the year.
Kościół Najświetszej Marii Panny
The largest brick church in the world—and the largest church of any kind in Poland—St. Mary's is on the north side of ulica Piwna. The sanctuary can accommodate 25,000 people. This enormous 14th-century church underwent major restoration after World War II. Although it originally held 22 altars, 15 of them have been relocated to museums in Gdańsk and Warsaw. The highlight of a visit is the climb up the hundreds of steps to the top of the church tower. The church also contains a 500-year-old, 25-foot-high astronomical clock that has only recently been restored to working order after years of neglect. It keeps track of solar and lunar progressions, and it displays the signs of the zodiac, something of an anomaly in a Catholic church.
Muzeum Narodowe w Gdańsku
The former Franciscan monastery, just south of the old walls of the Main Town, exhibits 14th- to 20th-century art and ethnographic collections. Hans Memling's triptych Last Judgment is the jewel of the collection.
One of the city's most distinctive landmarks is the elaborately gilded, 17th-century fountain at the western end of Długi Targ. The fountain itself is perhaps the best-known symbol of Gdańsk, emphasizing its bond with the sea. It was sculpted by Peter Husen and Johann Rogge. The general conceptual design was developed by Abraham van den Blocke. The magnificent surrounding fencing was added in 1634. Between 1757 and 1761 Johann Karl Stender remade the fountain chalice and plinth in the rococo style and added a whole array of sea creatures.
Brama Złota Just behind the Brama Wyżynna, the Golden Gate was the second through which the king passed on the Royal Route. This structure dates from 1614, and combines characteristics of both the Italian and Dutch Renaissance. It was built to the design of Abraham van den Blocke. The stone figures (by Pieter Ringering) along the parapet (on the Wały Jagiellońskie facade) represent allegories of the city's citizen's virtues: Prudence, Justice, Piety, and Concord. On the Długa street facade there are allegories of Peace, freedom, fortune, and fame—the pursuits of Gdańsk city over the centuries. Next to the Golden Gate squats the house of the St George's Brotherhood, erected by Glotau between 1487 and 1494 in the late-Gothic style.
Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej
Two museums can be found in a beautiful park surrounding the cathedral in Oliwa in the former Abbots' Palace. The Modern Art Museum has a large collection of works by Polish artists from the inter-war period onward. The Ethnographic Museum has the same hours and contact information but a separate admission fee.Muzeum Etnograficzne. Connected to the Modern Art Museum, administratively and physically, is the Muzeum Etnograficzne, in the former Abbots' Granary. The museum display has fine examples of local crafts from the 19th century and also has an interesting display of amber folk jewelry. It has a separate entrance from the Modern Art Museum and a separate admission fee, but the hours and other contact information are the same for both museums. ul.
Behind the Fontanna Neptuna on Długi Targ, one of the more significant of the grand houses was constructed over a period from the 15th through the 17th centuries and is now a museum. The mansion was named for mythical English King Arthur, who otherwise has no affiliation with the place. This and the other stately mansions on the Długi Targ are reminders of the traders and aristocrats who once resided in this posh district. The court's elegant interior houses a huge, 40-foot-high Renaissance tiled stove, possibly the world's largest, a mid-16th-century masterpiece by George Stelzener. The mansion's collection also includes Renaissance furnishings, paintings, and holy figures. The building was the meeting place of the Gdańsk city nobles.
The eastern entrance to the medieval city of Gdańsk is at the water's edge. Construction, supervised by Regnier of Amsterdam and Hans Kramer of Dresden, lasted from 1568 to 1571. This 16th-century gate also doubled as a royal residence. Unfortunately, the name no longer fits: the gate is now painted brown.
Kościół świetej Brygidy
This church, a few blocks north of the shipyards, is a prime example of the fundamental link in the Polish consciousness between Catholicism and political dissent. After the Communist government declared martial law in 1981 in an attempt to force Solidarity to disband, the union's members began meeting here secretly during celebrations of mass. A statue of Pope John Paul II can be seen in front of the church.
Stocznia Gdańska Three huge and somber crosses perpetually draped with flowers stand outside the gates of the former Lenin Shipyards, which gave birth to the Solidarity movement. The crosses outside the entrance to the shipyards are the Pomnik Poległych Stoczniowców (Monument to Fallen Shipyard Workers) There are also plaques that commemorate the struggle, and a quotation by Pope John Paul II inspired by his visit to the monument in 1987: "The Grace of God could not have created anything better; in this place, silence is a scream." Formerly inside the shipyard gates (and now a bit further away), the Roads to Freedom exhibition once consisted of a number of symbolic gates, which until recently led to a multimedia exhibition in the historic BPH room on Plac Solidarności, where the Gdańsk Agreements were signed. The BPH room, which has been renovated, reopened in 2007 in a new location at Wały Piastowskie Street (a short walk from the shipyard itself, halfway between the shipyards and the Main Railway Station). The exhibition traces the beginning and development of the Solidarity movement, taking you on a virtual tour through 1980s Poland.
Kościół świetej Katarzyny
The former parish church in Gdańsk's Old Town is supposedly the oldest church in the city: its construction was begun in the 1220s; the tower was constructed in the 1480s; the carillon of 37 bells was added in 1634. The 17th-century astronomer Jan Hevelius is buried in the presbytery of the church, below which lies what's left of the town's oldest Christian cemetery (which dates from the 10th century). At this writing, the church is undergoing renovation but can still be visited.
Although Gdańsk's original town hall was completely destroyed during World War II, a careful reconstruction of the exterior and interior now recreates the glory of Gdańsk's medieval past. During the summer season the tower is accessible to visitors and well worth climbing for the view. Inside, the Muzeum Historii Miasta Gdańska (Gdańsk Historical Museum) covers more than five centuries of Gdańsk's history in exhibits that include paintings, sculptures, and weapons.
Żuraw Gdański Built in 1444, Gdańsk's crane was medieval Europe's largest—and today it's also Europe's oldest. It used to play the double role of a port crane and city gate. The structure was given its present shape between 1442 and 1444. Today it houses the Muzeum Morskie (Maritime Museum), with a collection of models of the ships constructed in the Gdańsk Shipyards since 1945. At the museum ticket office, inquire about tickets for tours of the Sołdek, a World War II battleship moored nearby on the canal.
The historic entrance to the old town of Gdańsk is marked by this magnificent Renaissance gate, which marks the beginning of the so-called "Royal Route," along which the king passed through the city on his annual visit. The gate is adorned with the flags of Poland, Gdańsk, and the Prussian kingdom. Its builder, Hans Kramer of Dresden, erected it as a link in the chain of modern fortifications put up to frame the western city borders between 1574 and 1576. The brick gate was renovated and decorated in 1588 by Flemish sculptor Willem van den Blocke, whose decorations you can still see today.