Poland’s sixth largest city, Gdansk is also known by several other names – Danzig (its German name), Gdunsk (in the local Kashubian language), Gedania/Gedanum/Dantiscum (in Latin), Dantzig/Dantsic (its former English names), and the Triple City or Tricity (since it is made up of the three cities of gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot)! This city packs in quite a punch!
Gdansk has been Poland’s main seaport since medieval times and a principal ship-building center. With the nearby port of Gdynia, Gdansk is now an important industrial center in the country. It is the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship and is known as the place where the Solidarity movement started and spread to other parts of the world, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, which played a major role in ending the communist rule in the Eastern Bloc.
The city lies on the coast of the Gdansk bay of the Baltic Sea. The name of the city is said to mean ‘the town located on the Gdania River’, which was the original name of the Motlawa River on which the city is located. The Motlawa is connected to the Leniwka, a branch in the delta of the Vistula whose waterway network connects most of Poland. This gives Gdansk a great advantage and has been instrumental in making it the vital seaport that it is. These days you could take the SKM commuter train that connects Gdansk to its sister cities – Gdynia and Sopot.
The city is connected to the continent by the Lech Walesa Airport just 14 km from the city. There are buses every 30 minutes that will take you to the central station. You could also opt for the train which will take you to all important Polish cities and other European destinations. The main station, Gdansk Glowny is a magnificent historical building in itself.
The beginnings of the city goes back to the year 980 but the complex combining a castle-town, city, and port began to take shape in the second half of the tenth century.
Gdansk was being ruled by Pomeranian princes and had a mixed population of Slavs, and merchants and craftsmen that arrived from the west. By the 12th century Gdansk had grown to a large prosperous settlement.
Prince Swietopelk II the Great granted Gdansk local autonomy. His son Mestwin bestowed his land to the Prince of Great Poland in 1282 which enabled the unification of the Polish territories. However, due to the chaos that spread in Gdansk following the death of the Czech king Vaclav, the governor of the castle called on the Teutonic Knights for help. They captured the castle in 1308.
Under their the many improvements were made in the city, like the Radunia canal and the Grand Mill built upon it, which is the most imposing secular structure of the port and castle town. The city also gained membership in the Union of Hanseatic Towns.
After the Teutonic Knights were defeated in the battle of Grunwald, Gdansk pledged allegiance to the Polish king.
King Casimir the Jagiellonian incorporated Gdansk into the Crown and conferred numerous privileges onto the city. Gdansk even began to mint its own coin.
In the early 16th century, radical religious changes took place and the Protestants who fought for freedom of faith were triumphant. The city became more religiously tolerant city and gave shelter to various religious dissidents such as the Dutch Mennonites, Huguenots and Jews. The city was a melting pot of cultures and faiths.
In 1734 the city was once again besieged, this time by the Russians and Saxons. Following the second partition of Poland the city could no longer escape Prussian annexation. It was taken over by the French in 1807. Gdansk became a ‘Free City of Danzig’, as arranged by France amidst the Napoleonic Wars, but only until 1814. In 1871, Danzig became part of the German Empire.
In June 1919, under the Versailles Treaty, Gdansk once again became a Free City supervised by the League of Nations. The 1930s saw a mounting wave of Nazism and terror. On 1st September 1939 the armored ship, Schlezwig-Holstein, began shelling the Polish military post on Westerplatte. This was the breakout of the Second World War.
Recaptured by the troops of the II Belarus Front in 1945, Gdansk was all but destroyed. It took builders, conservators, and artists some 50 years to restore the city to its former glory. In 1980, the ‘Solidarity’ movement started here with mass strikes by the trade unions that led to the signing of the August Agreement. This formed a crack in the Eastern Block that gradually led to the end of communist rule.
On a full stomach
If you can’t pronounce it, point it out on the menu, but make sure to try out some of the local fare like smalec (fried lard), zurek (sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes floating in it), barszcz (beetroot, occasionally with dumplings thrown in), bigos (stew made using meat, cabbage, onion and sauerkraut), pierogi (pockets of dough filled with meat, cabbage or cheese), and zapiekanki (Polish pizza).
Out on the town
This historical city will keep you on your toes. You will not have a moment to spare if you want to take in the city in its entirety. Here are some of the things you can see and do in the city. We daresay you will find many more once you set off on your own!
Long Street and Long Market: Together, these streets form the Royal Route, marking the residential area of the wealthiest Gdansk parish, and are considered among the most beautiful boulevards in the city. Perpendicular to the Motlawa River, they start at the Golden Gate and end at the Green Gate. The oldest authentic buildings here date back to the Middle Ages.
The Golden Gate: Built in the Renaissance style in 1614, the stone figures along the parapet represent allegories of citizen's virtues—caution, justice, piety, and concord. Next to it is the Saint George's Brotherhood Manor, erected in 1494.
The Green Gate: The site was previously occupied by the oldest gate in town, the 14th century Cog Gate, which was pulled down in 1564to make room for the current Mannerist building. The gate was designed to provide residence for monarchs during their visits to the city.
The Hall of the Main City: It was built between the years 1379 and 1492. The spire over the 80m high tower is crowned with a gilded figure of King Sigismund Augustus.
The New City Hall: It was built in 1901 for the Prussian garrison in Gdansk and has been used for many purposes. After World War I and the establishment of the Free City of Gdansk, the building was the main office of the League of Nations.
The Artus Court: This 14th century structure was given its present shape in 1477, following the fire that had destroyed the building. The doorway is adorned with royal portraits and its interior boasts of a huge, 12m high Renaissance tiled stove. The decorative tiles were painted to portray the eminent European rulers of the times. You will also find several coats of arms, personifications of virtues, and planets. The site was once the meeting place of the city’s nobility.
The Neptune Fountain: This fountain in front of Artus Court was built in 1633. Neptune is symbolic of Gdansk’s bond with the sea. The magnificent surrounding fencing was added in 1634. Around the 18th century, the fountain chalice and plinth were modified in the Rococo style and a whole array of sea creatures was also added.
The crane over the Motlawa River: The crane used to play the double role of a port crane and a city gate. The structure was given its present shape in 1444. A huge wooden wheel inside could be set in motion by men walking in it. The crane helped in reloading cargo and was also a device to put up ship’s masts.
The Golden House: Built in 1609, it ranks among the most exquisite buildings in Gdansk. Its founders were Judith of the Bahrs and her husband, Jan Speymann, a rich merchant and a sponsor of the arts.
Saint Mary’s Street and Saint Mary’s Church: Starting at St Mary's Church at one end, the street leads onto Long Embankment through the medieval St Mary's Gate. The narrow houses, with their terraced entrances and richly decorated facades, once belonged to affluent merchants and goldsmiths. The Church of the Virgin Mary is the largest brick church in the world. The interior displays many exquisite pieces of Medieval and Baroque art, including the stone Pieta from 1410, and a copy of the Last Judgment. The church is 105m long, the main tower is 77.6m high, and the vaults soar 29m above the floor.
Saint Nicholas Church: It is the oldest church in Gdańsk and was erected in the late 12th century. This Gothic church was the only survivor of the wartime destruction.
The Grand Mill: Built around the 14th century on the Radunia canal, the structure had three functions— that of a flour mill, granary, and bakery. It was equipped with 18 overshot water-wheels, each 5m in diameter, and was a great technical achievement for its time.
Saint Catherine’s Church: this is the oldest parish church of the Old City, erected in 1239. Until its destruction in 1945, the shrine had dazed visitors with its internal decor brimming with Gothic, Mannerist, and Baroque treasures. The historic structure is now fully restored. You can marvel at the paintings by Anton Moller and Izaak van den Blocke, and here you will also find the 1659 tombstone of the famous astronomer, Jan Hevelius.
Oliwa Cathedral: This Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary, and St Bernard's Church was first erected as a Cistercian shrine back in the 13th century. Reconstructed in 1350 after a great fire, it has remained almost unchanged since then. The Gothic interior was extremely damaged in the 1577 fire and was replaced with the Baroque fixtures we see today. Oliwa Cathedral is 107m long, making it the longest church in Poland. The piece de resistance here is the Rococo organ from the 18th century which was the largest in Europe at the time.
Oliwa Park: It was started in the 18th century and now has plant specimens from almost all over the world. You can stroll among the alpine gardens dating back to 1920, the winter gardens, grotto, and cascade, and the hornbeam alley.
The Nowy Port Lighthouse: It was first used in 1894 when it showed ships the entrance to the port of Gdansk. Inside, you can still see authentic optical instruments and an exhibition of ‘Gdansk Lighthouses over the Centuries’. The view from the top of the port, Westerplatte, and the entire Bay of Gdansk extending up to Gdynia and Hel is exquisite. The lighthouse was also used as a port pilot tower, and a support for the time sphere that was removed in 1929. The time sphere was hoisted every noon and then let fall. This was the signal for all captains mooring at the port to set their bard chronometers to the precise time, vital for navigation.
Gdansk Zoo: It is the largest zoological garden in Poland and has one of the best recreational and educational facilities. The gardens are spread aver 100 ha of park and wood land stretching along the Big Mill Valley not far from the Oliwa district.
Sobieszewo Island: Situated just 15 km from the city, there are two bird reserves here, ‘Ptasi Raj’ (Bird Paradise) and ‘Mewia Lacha’ (Gull Sandbank). Flocks of gulls, terns, ducks, waders and swans make this their home. Rent a boat, bicycle or horse to go around this little town to fully appreciate its beauty.
The Amber trail
Gdansk has cultivated the tradition of amber craft for ages. The local masters have developed their own amber processing school, and the quality of their works is unrivalled. The Baltic amber is a hardened mineral resin formed some 40 million years ago. Gdansk has always been a major centre of mining and processing this unique mineral.
The city houses the main offices of the National Amber Chamber of Commerce and the International Association of Amber Masters. Gdansk also hosts the world's largest amber fairs—AMBERIF and AMBERMART. The beginnings of first amber collections in the city date back to the 17th century. In recognition of the city’s fascination for amber, one of the varieties of the stone was named ‘Gedanit’ after the city.
You can witness some precious works of art in some of the city’s museums and workshops
- The Amber Museum formed by the The Gdansk History Museum
- The Town Hall of the Main City displays Lucjan Myrta's amber works. This famous amber artist has one of the largest amber collections in the world. The works of art range from miniatures to huge. The most beautiful exhibit is undoubtedly ‘A Naked Woman after A. Rodin’ weighing 2.5 kg and is the world's largest sculpture carved in a single piece of amber.
- The Archaeological Museum has a regular exhibition entitled ‘Amber through the centuries’. It is arranged in two sections picturing amber in nature and culture.
- The Museum of Amber Inclusions displays specimens of prehistoric life captured in amber inclusions.