Gdansk (Gdańsk) has almost half a million inhabitants and a good three million visitors a year. Together with its sisters Sopot and Gdynia, the city stretches between the green hills of Kashubia and the Bay of Gdansk. That is why the locals call it Trójmiasto. While Sopot and Gdynia were small villages 200 years ago, Gdansk looks back on a history of over 1000 years. Intellectuals write of a special genius loci – the spirit of the place – to which Gdansk owes its love of freedom and liberal views.
Gdansk’s eventful past
World events took place in Gdansk, especially in the 20th century: the Second World War began here, as did the Solidarność union movement, which contributed decisively to the end of real socialism in Eastern Europe. History, sea and Gdansk’s people form that melange that makes Gdansk a visitor magnet. Below I would like to introduce you to some of my favorite things to do in Gdansk.
These are the best things to do in Gdansk
In this article we want to introduce you to the most beautiful sights of Gdansk. If you want to explore the Hanseatic city, which is one of the most beautiful in all of Poland, then take a look at our article with practical travel tips for Gdansk. And if you click here, you will come to a list of the most beautiful sights in all of Pomerania.
Ulica Długa and Długi Targ
What a promenade! Magnificent patrician houses with their cafés, restaurants and small stores are lined up from the Golden Gate to Długi Targ, the “Long Market”. “Pro Invidia – For Envy” is inscribed on the attic of the baroque town house at number 29. Just like the Polish kings once did, a good three million visitors a year are drawn to the heart of the time-honored city today. But appearances are deceptive: the center of Gdansk was almost completely destroyed in March 1945. In the early 1950s, the facades in Langgasse, as Ulica Długa was called in German, were lovingly reconstructed according to historical models. Two photographs in the arch of the Golden Gate recall the destruction of the Second World War.
The most beautiful houses at Długi Targ
If you want to immerse yourself in the splendid past of well-heeled Gdansk citizens, merchants and city councilors, I recommend you to visit the Uphagen’s House, the Gdansk Town Hall or the Artus Court.
Crane Gate Żuraw
Two massive brick towers and a black wooden hoist characterize the silhouette of the waterfront promenade on the Motlawa River. The Crane Gate (Żuraw) is probably the best-known landmark of Gdansk. It is a reminder of the glorious days of the Hanseatic and trading city, through which timber and grain were shipped to Europe and salt, herrings and colonial goods reached Poland. Sea trade once made Gdansk rich. Bowkes, the day laborers of Gdansk, roamed between the warehouses on the Motlawa River, hoping for work. Today, the shore is entirely in the hands of tourists and their service providers.
On the Storage Island – where only a few years ago ruins of old warehouses reminded of the war – a new city quarter with restaurants, hotels and apartments is currently being built. The maritime history of Gdansk is told in the interesting sections of the National Maritime Museum. And if you want to set sail yourself, excursion boats leave from the banks of the Motlawa River for the Hel and Westerplatte peninsulas and Sopot.
Miraculously, magic and romance have been preserved to this day in old ulica Mariacka or Frauengasse, as it was once called. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful street in the city. Crooked and somewhat bumpy, the cobblestones run the few meters from Motlawa to St. Mary’s Church. Narrow town houses adorn the narrow alley.
Richly decorated stoops
In front of them are the richly decorated stoops – those spacious, rather wide terraces through which “the old Nordic city gains an almost southern reputation,” as Johanna Schopenhauer, the mother of the so pessimistic philosopher, opined. The flair of ulica Mariacka is certainly enhanced by the small galleries of Gdansk amber workshops, where elegant, modern jewelry is made from the “gold of the Baltic”.
St. Mary’s Church
It is said to be the largest brick church in the world. It is imposing in any case. If you climb the church tower, you will have an impressive view over the roofs of the old town of Gdansk to the Gdansk Bay. In the nave you will encounter stories from many centuries. Like that of Hans Memling’s altarpiece “The Last Judgment” (today a copy), which was brought to the church after the robbery of the Gdansk privateer Paul Benecke. Or of the astronomical clock, whose creator Hans Düringer was blinded by the people of Gdansk after completion, so that he would not construct a comparable piece again.
Commemoration of the deceased
Recent graves bear witness to two national tragedies: Maciej Płażyński (1958-2010), a respected Gdansk politician, died in the Smolensk plane crash that also claimed the life of Polish President Lech Kaczyński. Gdansk’s long-time mayor Paweł Adamowicz (1965-2019), who was murdered by a knifeman, also found his final resting place in St. Mary’s Church.
European Solidarność Center
In 1980, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Confederation “Solidarność” was founded on the site of the Gdansk shipyard after a wave of strikes. Under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa, it organized resistance to the communist regime in Poland and won an overwhelming victory in the first reasonably free elections after World War II. The European Solidarność Center tells this story in a gripping multimedia exhibition at the historic site. It vividly demonstrates how Polish and European history was written in Gdansk. It is one of the most important sights in Gdansk!
Museum of the Second World War
The Museum of the Second World War is overwhelming: to present the history of the war from a global perspective and connect it with the Polish point of view – no less was the goal of the museum director Paweł Machcewicz. And he succeeded! In three large sections, the exhibition tells about the Second World War, its prehistory and consequences. Vivid, depressing, frightening. Machcewicz, however, is no longer head of the museum. The founding director was ousted shortly after it opened in 2017 because the PiS government in Warsaw felt the museum did not adequately honor the patriotism and sacrifice of Poles. And so the new director then had the film at the end of the exhibition replaced by a kitschy Hollywood-style heroic epic. A first step towards the creeping rededication of the museum. Nevertheless, the visit is worthwhile!
The Second World War began on September 1, 1939, with the shelling of Westerplatte from the German training ship Schleswig-Holstein. At that time, a Polish ammunition depot was located on the peninsula in front of the Free City of Gdansk. For seven days Polish troops defended the Westerplatte until they surrendered to German superiority. In Poland, this battle became a symbol of resistance against Germany. A monumental memorial has been commemorating the events since 1966. If you want to visit the memorial, take the ferry! This way you can combine the trip with a tour of Gdansk harbor.
Wrzeszcz is a lively, up-and-coming district of Gdansk, though tourists are much less likely to encounter it than in the city center. There are few classic sights in former Langfuhr and no deep red brick. If you come to the neighborhood, be sure to stop by ul. Wajdeloty! The chicly renovated street has some cozy cafes and bistros serving vegan treats.
Günter Grass and the Tin Drum
Langfuhr is inseparably connected with the writer Günter Grass (1927-2015). The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature grew up here (parental home: ul. Lelewela 13), as did his novel hero Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum. “Langfuhr was so big and so small that everything that happens or could happen in this world, happened or could have happened in Langfuhr” Grass said. At Generała Józefa Wybickiego Square, the people of Gdańsk have erected a monument to him and Oskar.
Oliwa Castle Park and Cathedral
A short break on the way to the seaside resort of Sopot or to the beach of Jelitkowo? Then stop in Oliwa and visit the organ concert in the Oliwa Cathedral. Every day at the top of the hour (at least in the summer months) the angels are made to dance there with their trumpets! When the 7876 pipes of the imposing 18th century organ sound, their basses boom and bright bells resound, the whole nave shakes. Afterwards, a stroll through the beautiful castle park offers peace and relaxation. By the way, until 1926 Oliwa was an independent town, which for centuries was dominated by the monastery of the Cistercian Order.
The old city and the sea
I lived in Gdansk for a year and a half, and if you ask me what the special charm of this 1000-year-old city is, I will say without hesitation: the sea! It takes less than half an hour by streetcar to reach the beaches of the Bay of Gdansk: To the quiet Stogi on the 8, to the small pier in Brzeźno on the 3, or to Jelitkowo on the 6 or 8. A kilometer-long promenade connects the latter two stretches of beach with the fashionable spa town of Sopot, where a magnificent pier with a marina juts almost 500 meters into the sea. But more beautiful than the promenade is the beach! Nothing beats a walk right on the water – and a cool drink in the beach bar (or a hot soup in winter).
But more beautiful than the promenade is the beach! Nothing beats a walk right on the water – and a cool drink in the beach bar (or a hot soup in winter).