The charming city of Gdańsk is situated on Poland’s coast, looking out to the Baltic Sea and is a wonderful place to spend a weekend. Yet, since its roots in the 10th century, the city has suffered a tumultuous history over the years. Gdańsk has spent time being ruled by various groups (including autonomously) due to its location at the mouth of the Vistula River. The Westerplatte peninsula in Gdańsk saw the start of World War II with the Battle of Westerplatte which left almost 90% of the city destroyed. Look to your right as you exit or enter through the Golden Gate for photos showing Gdańsk in 1945.
Years of transformation and rebuilding have given us a beautiful city to enjoy today. Enchanting buildings reach up high to the sky, each decorated uniquely and tables sit along the streets to enjoy an afternoon drink. There are plenty of historic churches and cathedrals to visit, waterways to explore and view points to savour. Plus, delicious food (lots of potatoes and dumplings) and drink to taste! Read on for the 11 best things to do on a visit to Gdańsk.
1. Długi Targ
Długi Targ translates to Long Market and whilst this street is now lined by restaurants, bars and shops, it was once the Main Market in Gdańsk. At the eastern end of the street towards the Motława River is the tremendous Green Gate (which, confusingly, is not green) and was originally built to be a palace for Polish kings & queens.
There are so many lovely facades along this street to admire although most are post World War II due to the extensive damage the city was subject to. From ornate decorations to detailed frescoes, dressed all in black to pastel shade, the question is which is your favourite?
Top Tip: for a few hours of people watching grab a front row seat at one of the many cafes & bars that line Długi Targ.
2. Neptune’s Fountain
The focal point of Długi Targ is Neptune’s Fountain. A bronze statue of the Greek god holding his trident tops the fountain. It was unveiled at the entrance to Artus Court in 1633 as a symbol of Gdańsk’s power. During the Second World War, the statue was dismantled and hidden which means it was saved from destruction. It was reinstalled in 1954 and is now a popular, must-see attraction in Gdańsk’s Old Town.
Neptune’s Fountain is in a beautiful setting in the wider section of Długi Targ at the Green Gate end of the street. The ornately embellished building behind the fountain is the Artus Court. The name comes from the legendary King Arthur and was a place where merchants and visitors met together and more than likely took part in a lot of merriment and revelry. This location becomes very busy during the day so visit early to enjoy the peace of the morning with just the gentle sound of the water flowing from the statue.
P.s. Our assumption was that the scarf he was wearing was in support of a local football team but we have no idea which one!
3. Main Town Hall
The Main Town Hall of Gdańsk and specifically its spire dominate the skyline of Długi Targ. The building is beautiful and the view from the top of the spire is well worth the hike up (this was our second spire of the day!). In particular you can get a great view back to the imposing structure that is St Mary’s Basilica (see 5).
The Main Town Hall also houses the History Museum bu I must admit we didn’t have time to go inside.
4. Mariacka Street
Mariacka Street runs parallel to Długi Targ but is considerably narrower, made even more so by the numerous tables, stalls and terraces that jut out into the cobbled street. Its one of the most picturesque spots in Gdańsk with charming buildings lining it as well as the arch and tower of St Mary’s Gate guarding the Eastern from the waterfront. Look out for the ornate facades and the infamous gargoyles that spit water into the street when it rains!
Amber is an enchanting orange or yellow stone that has the largest deposits in the Baltic Region and can be found along the southern shores of the Baltic Sea on which Gdańsk sits. With shops selling amber souvenirs and jewelry along its length, Mariacka Street is the place to come to shop for this precious stone.
Come early in the morning for the soft morning light and to avoid the crowds. Given its central location, Mariacka Street can become quite busy as the day goes on!
5. St Mary’s Basilica
At the opposite end of Mariacka Street (from St Mary’s Gate) is the back end of St Mary’s Basilica. It’s a formidable building which is not surprising since it’s one of the largest brick churches in the world!
If you’re feeling strong and particularly active then climb the 409 steps to the top of the tower for some impressive views over the church and out across Gdańsk. Unfortunately the view is restricted somewhat by the barrier around the top (at least you’re safe!) but you can still sneak a look down at the gorgeous facades of the buildings in central Gdańsk.
Step into the interior of St Mary’s Basilica (a ticket up the tower also lets you inside) and the sight that greets you is very unusual for a church building of such large external proportions. You may enter expecting ornate designs and exquisite frescoes but in fact St Mary’s has quite the opposite. Instead, the high stretching walls are a stark white and there are very few decorations which gives an overall more minimalist and simplistic feel to the church.
6. Raduni Canal
Less than a ten minute walk north from the Golden Gate on Długi Targ you will come across the Raduni Canal. It slices a tranquil stretch of green and blue through this part of the city and feels like you could have been transported out to the countryside. This is the perfect place to take a bit of time out and walk past some more unusual buildings.
Cross over the lovers bridge which, much like similar bridges throughout European cities, is laden down with padlocks. To your right is a picture book scene with a lovely black beamed white building with the dreamy tower of St Catherine’s Cathedral sticking up behind.
Stroll past the Great Mill which, before the canal was built, was powered by slaves. Despite being a great historical site being constructed in the 1300s, the mill is unfortunately closed and awaiting its next redevelopment.
7. Museum of the Second World War
Gdańsk has been considerably affected by the World War’s with large swathes of the city almost entirely destroyed and rebuilt. It even played a role in the beginning of World War II as the first battle between Polish and German troops in World War II took place at the Westerplatte Peninsula. So it’s only fitting that Gdańsk holds a vast and impressive Second World War Museum. It’s a must visit for anyone that wants to learn more about this period of the 20th century that scarred history forever.
The Museum does not shy away from the atrocities of World War II and at times is incredibly graphic which some (myself included) may struggle with. Make sure you dedicate a good 1-2 hours if you are looking to spend in depth time here.
Top Tip: stop off for a drink or a bite to eat at Guga Sweet & Spicy. If the weather’s nice you can sit out by the river and watch the world go by.
8. St Catherine’s Church
Our third tower of the day (yes really, third) was up the tower of St Catherine’s church. We sped walked across town to be able to make it to the top before the church closed! It was well worth it (and well worth the aching legs that came the next day with climbing ~ 1000 tower steps in one day) as the views stretched back across the Old Town of Gdańsk and beyond as well as along the Raduni Canal.
St Catherine’s Church is in fact the oldest church in Gdańsk. Despite only being a 10 minute walk from Długi Targ, this church was much quieter than both St Mary’s Basilica and the Main Town Hall towers so we enjoyed an unhindered view all to ourselves!
Fit a stroll along the beach into your Gdańsk city break by hopping on a train to the neighbouring town of Sopot. Sopot is another of the cities in the Tricity area which Gdańsk sits in and there is a saying that you live in Gdynia, work in Gdańsk and party in Sopot which probably tells you all you need to know! It takes around 15 minutes on the train and then a 10 minute walk from the station to the beach.
Stretch your legs and walk out along Sopot pier which, at over half a kilometre in length, is the longest wooden pier in Europe. Unfortunately it was a little too chilly for us to spend much time on the beach but it was nice to see the sand and sea. In the middle of Summer it may be a more pleasant experience!
Sopot has some intriguing buildings to spot. Look out for the luxurious Grand Hotel on the beachfront, it seems like it could have come straight out of a Wes Anderson movie! On the main street spot is the bizarre Krzywy Domek (crooked house) which is the weirdest location for a Costa Coffee Shop I’ve ever seen!
10. Żuraw & Motława River
Not every city can say that its most famous landmark is a medieval crane but Gdańsk can. The zuraw sits on the Motława river and is a striking feature of the waterfront, especially at sunset when the above was taken. Originally, the crane dates back to the medieval period but it had to be rebuilt after it was almost completely destroyed by the Second World War. It was once the largest working crane in the world and used to transfer goods onto waiting ships.
Make sure you allow enough time during your stay in Gdańsk to enjoy a leisurely stroll along the Motława river. It flows right through the heart of Gdańsk and you’ll surely cross multiple times during your visit. The buildings here are some of my favourites and make you feel as though you’ve stepped into the streets of Amsterdam. Above, you can see St Mary’s Gate and the Archaeological Museum of Gdańsk. Find this view from the footpath that hugs the Motława on the opposite side of the bank.
Gdańsk has its own ‘city sign’ so follow the river further up to Ołowianka to snap your photo and let everyone know where you are! You can also find the amber wheel (like a little and faster version of the London Eye with amber tinted windows) that gives you views over the city. We had already had our fill of views of Gdańsk so we gave this one a miss!
11. Gradowa Hill
After we’d taken the train to Sopot we decided to walk up Gradowa Hill. If the views aren’t enough to convince you to go up then the fact that it’s only a 10 minute walk from the train station ought to do it (as well as being free). The 20m high cross that you can’t exactly miss standing at the top of the hill is known as the Millenium Cross and was built to celebrate 1000 years of Christianity in Gdańsk.
You really get a sense of Gdańsk as a whole from up here with the industrial green cranes to your left reaching out towards the Baltic Sea and the skyline on your right dominated by towers and churches extending upwards towards the clouds above. There were only a couple of people here so it was a quiet escape from the bustling streets below.
Have you visited Gdańsk?