Gdańsk: Gateway to Northern Poland
Visiting Gdańsk can mean a lot more than visiting just the city of Gdańsk. It is perhaps the most convenient way to see a lot of Poland in a relatively short amount of time. I recommend it as a great follow-up trip if you’ve already visited Warsaw and Kraków and are looking to explore Poland a little more in depth.
Recently, I spent a week in Gdańsk and the surrounding area. Read on for what you should see in the heart of the city and how to use your trip to Gdańsk as a launchpad to explore northern Poland. Then, read my post on five things to see and do in Gdańsk that will make your trip all the more memorable.
Gdańsk is a port city in Poland located at the mouth of the Motława River, flowing into the Baltic Sea. It has functioned as a major seaport since the Middle Ages and, in 1361, was incorporated into the Hanseatic League. This network of well-connected and wealthy towns and cities (which include Malbork and its Castle) stretched across Europe – from the Netherlands to Poland, Germany, and Russia – and handled trade throughout the continent.
Today, it is the largest seaport in Poland as well as Europe 16th busiest. The city’s old town dates back to the 13th century and lies on the bank of the Motława, where the iconic (and giant for its time) Zuraw, the medieval crane, overlooks the smaller rowhouses and shops. Across the river is the new town of Gdansk, which contrasts sharply with the old town; here, there are modern glass rowhouses three times the size of the ones on the opposite riverbank. The two river banks facing each other project the past and future of this beautiful and historical city.
I recommend entering the Old Town of Gdańsk through the Golden Gate, Złota Brama, which provides you with a striking view and path to the heart of the city. Yes, this is the most crowded and touristy part, but well worth the walk up at least once, and as you become familiar with the city, you can by-pass this area. The gate opens to the so-called Royal Route, Długa Street, which leads you past colourful rowhouses, shops, and restaurants. Along the way, you’ll pass Town Hall and Neptune’s Fountain, as well as the Long Market (Długi Targ) where many street performances take place. The views here are beautiful and offer a lot of photo opportunities, especially around the Town Hall and the Long Market.
Two streets over from Długa is a street that is famous for its amber sellers – Mariacka Street. Amber is plentiful on the Baltic coast and is particularly popular as a unique souvenir in Poland. Amber, which is a natural resin made from fossilized tree sap, has been used in jewelry since the Stone Age; it comes in a variety of colors and clarities. Because it’s a resin and not a stone, it’s very light in weight and, due to its origin, comes in a range of colors from a milky yellow to a deep, dark brown that’s almost black.
Mariacka Street is the most famous place to go for amber, as it has a large concentration of amber shops and vendors in the city and the entire north of Poland. The picturesque street is open only to pedestrian traffic and is named for the Mariacka Basilica which stands at one end of the street.
Mariacka Basilica is well worth a visit even if you have been to plenty of European churches before. It is not called the “Crown of Gdańsk” for nothing; besides its beautiful gothic architecture, it is the largest brick church in the world, measuring 105.5 metres (346 ft) long and dating back at least to the mid-13th century. The structure is so large that it can comfortably fit 25,000 people inside. Now Roman Catholic, it was once the second largest Lutheran church in the world.
Walk Along the Riverbank
Although the river bank is good for a stroll at any time (as long as you’re not expecting to avoid crowds, that is), I especially find it beautiful in the evening. The path running on alongside the Motława River is lined with shops and restaurants – the city has a huge selection of restaurants – and comes alive at night. There is a carousel and a giant ferris wheel that offers a wonderful view of the entire city. You’ll be able to walk by the medieval crane Zuraw (which dates back to 1442 and is now a museum – although it’s currently closed for renovations) or book river cruises around Gdańsk or to Westerplatte.
Gdańsk: the gateway city
Visiting Gdańsk is in itself a worthwhile trip, as the city boasts many beautiful views and rich history. But the city is also a good basecamp for other smaller day trips you can take. Gdańsk is one of three cities on the coast of Poland that make up the Tri-city, the other two are Gdynia and Sopot.
The three cities are connected via shuttle trains, providing quick and convenient transportation between the destinations. The SKM rail line offers a variety of tickets between the cities. I recommend purchasing the 3-day ticket which lets you ride between Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia however often you like for a continuous duration of 72 hours. If you plan your trip right, this ticket is by far the best option and allows you to take advantage of a beach-side morning in Gdynia, lunch and afternoon walk in Gdańsk, and an evening stroll and concert on the pier in Sopot, if you so choose.
Boat and train trips from Gdańsk also allow you to tour some nearby sites of interest. By boat, you can visit Westerplatte, the site of the first battle of the Second World War or take a 2-hour boat ride to Hel, the pennisula that is known as the geographical “beginning” of Poland for a few beach days on the Baltic coast.
Of course, from Gdańsk you can also explore other towns and cities in Pomerania, many of which belonged to the Prussian Empire at one point in history, and have their own distinct characters and architecture. I highly recommend the short train trip to the largest castle in the world, Malbork, for example. This is a place not to miss in Poland, whether you are a history lover like me or not.
Gdańsk is a popular summer holiday destination for many Poles. With its numerous attractions as well as its location in northern Poland, it is absolutely worth planning a trip to this city and exploring more of what Poland has to offer.