For my Dad’s 50th birthday, we surprised him with a little weekend trip to Gdansk in Poland. A few days is all it takes to explore this historic city and this is my guide on the best things to do in Gdansk.
The historic city of Gdansk is situated on the northern Baltic coastline of Poland and is the perfect little city for a quick weekend break. I’d never visited Poland before but always thought my introduction to the country would be by visiting the more popular Krakow or even Warsaw so I was surprised we settled on Gdansk as a surprise destination for my Dad’s 50th birthday. Without wanting to revert straight to an age-old cliche, the weather in February didn’t lend it self entirely to long days exploring as it was, and yes I’ll say, absolutely baltic. I think it was regularly between 0 and -6 degrees which meant being as wrapped up as humanely possible.
Most of the city, at the time the Free City of Danzig, was sadly destroyed during WWII but has been immaculately rebuilt in line with how the city originally looked. The ‘burgher houses’ (such as those famously found in Amsterdam) were rebuilt and the facades were designed to look as though they had always been there. However you look at it, even with the rebuilt city being say just fifty, sixty years old, it is beautiful. Trust me when I say that Gdansk really is a perfect destination for a short city break especially when, historically at least, flight, hotel and food prices have been relatively cheap. It’s an entirely walkable city; we realised we’d covered the central area very quickly and there’s excellent train links directly with the airport.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GDANSK, POLAND
ST MARY’S CHURCH
Gdansk is home to one of the largest brick churches in the entire world and is a must-see on any visit to the city. There is room for around 25,000 people within the church which is a little bit crazy when you stop to think about it. When wandering the streets of the Old Town, you’d struggle to miss St Mary’s Church; it’s as though you can see it from every inch of this city. Even if you haven’t got a head for heights (and I definitely do not!), you must climb the 400+ steps to the top of the tower. The view over Gdansk and the surrounding area is perfect; even on an overcast day. This should be one of the first things you do when visiting the city as it will definitely help you get your bearings and you can point out some of the city’s other most famous attractions whilst working out how to get there through the maze of streets below.
This is the main and most popular thoroughfare through the city, stretching from the Green Gate on the banks of the Motlawa River in the East to the Golden Gate in the West. Along this street, you’ll find hundreds of colourful buildings that seemingly stretch right up to the sky; some are six, seven even eight storeys high. These are the buildings that look as though they could easily have been picked up from Amsterdam and placed directly in Gdansk without a second’s thought. I love this street.
One of the highlights of Dluga Street is no doubt Neptune’s Fountain which dates back to 1633. Legend has it that this fountain once poured with Goldwasser, Gdansk’s famous liqueur that contains 23 carat gold flakes, which resulted in many drunk (but probably very happy) locals.
The Golden Gate which signals the Western road of Dluga Street forms part of the Old City’s fortifications. Interestingly, the gate is adorned with eight figures; four on the west side and four on the east side. The four on the west represent Peace, Freedom, Wealth and Fame. On the east the figures represent Agreement, Justice, Piety and Prudency.
Finally, you’ll also find plenty of bars and restaurants here but, as you’ll always find on the most popular streets, some of the restaurants may cater more for the tourists and be a little more pricey than others just a few streets back.
Mariacka Street is a little further north than Dluga Street but is a charming cobbled street famous for little shops selling ‘Baltic Gold’ (amber). Amber is the native gemstone of Poland and Gdansk is said to be the capital of amber with it having been harvested here for over 6,000 years. You’ll find amber in all kind of forms across Gdansk but the best place to scout out a new piece of jewellery or something else amber-related to remember your time in Gdansk by is definitely right here on Mariacka Street.
Even if you’re not interested in checking out Gdansk’s famous amber offerings, this is still a lovely picturesque street to wander down as it leads right up to the base of St Mary’s Church.
GDANSK RIVERSIDE & THE ZURAW CRANE
The embankment area of Gdansk, alongside the Motlawa River, is one of my favourite areas. Despite there being ice floating in the river, I could easily imagine wandering along here on a warm summer’s evening. Part way down the riverside you’ll notice a large unusual looking building overhanging the waterfront. You may have already seen it when planning a trip to Gdansk. This was the largest crane in medieval Europe and was used to load and unload ships. It is said that the crane could lift items weighing up to 2000kg. Now a museum, it is worth a look inside or simply admiring from across the river.
MUSEUM OF GDANSK // GDANSK PRISON
Whilst I’m not ordinarily a big lover of spending too much time at museums during a city break, especially a weekend city break, these were two museums that were great for understanding the history of Gdansk. We didn’t spend long in either but it was great to explore the gothic-renaissance building which houses the Museum of Gdansk; just look at that ceiling!
THE EUROPEAN SOLIDARITY CENTRE
Disappointingly, this museum opened a very short while after our visit though we still wandered out to the European Solidarity Centre for a look at the uniquely designed building. The museum is dedicated to Polish history and, in particular, the Solidarity Union which I understand ultimately led to the fall of communism in Poland.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK IN GDANSK
Whilst there are many bars and restaurants to choose from in Gdansk, these are a few of my favourites from our time in the city.
Taking inspiration from Gdansk’s famous liqueur, this hotel/restaurant serves up beautiful food in a beautiful setting overlooking the Motlawa River. My top tip would be visiting for lunch when it’s slightly quieter (at least it was when we visited) and ask to be seated in the terrace on the first floor. The food is traditional Polish cuisine with a modern twist however we opted for a variety of the very traditional Polish dumplings for a quick and tasty lunch.
Prologue Restaurant [Closed but watch this space]
At the time we visited, Prologue was probably the best restaurant in Gdansk. A place where you always had to book a table and all guests were regularly in agreement that it could have had a Michelin star! The steak was one of the nicest steaks I’ve ever had. However, I’ve come to learn that this place has shut down (though a restaurant may exist in its place with the same name) but it looks as though the team behind the Prologue Restaurant are gearing up for a new opening, something a little different, so watch this space and I am sure that the new restaurant will be a favourite of any visitor to Gdansk.
This bar on Piwna Street will definitely have you returning more than once. The décor is very quirky with reclaimed industrial items and antique items. This is a great place to drink Polish beer and chill out after a long day exploring.
We were more than happy to stumble upon this brilliant basement bar once we couldn’t handle the cold weather any longer. For a unique cocktail experience, you cannot miss Flisak ‘76, a bar that has been at the top of Gdansk’s cocktail scene for over 40 years. The menu entitled ‘Once Upon A Time…’ sets up the evening with the fairytale theme continuing across each and every cocktail. I went with a ‘Bacon Sour’ (I can’t remember the fairytale this was based on?) which essentially was a beautiful mixed whisky sour topped with bacon shavings. One of those drinks that really shouldn’t work but absolutely does!
WHERE TO STAY IN GDANSK
We stayed in a very cute apartment found on Airbnb a short walk from St Mary’s Church. It had all the mod cons plus very comfy beds and, for four of us, cost just £125 for 2 nights. That works out at about £15 per person per night; absolute bargain and I’d definitely look at staying in an Airbnb again when visiting Gdansk.