Gdańsk is one of the most scenic, cultural and historically significant cities in Poland situated on the country’s Baltic sea coast. From most interesting places to see and things to do to the best restaurants and cafés, these are the top things to do in Gdańsk.
The History of Gdańsk
Throughout its history, Gdansk has been part of Prussia, Germany and Poland, and was a semi-autonomous state known as the Free City of Danzig, between 1920 and 1939. Gdańsk is nowadays Poland’s 4th largest city, but it has been a cosmopolitan city for centuries. For a long time, it was the wealthiest city of Poland and the largest harbour on the Baltic Sea, with wealthy merchants coming here from all corners of Europe. At the time, the city supplied the whole of Europe with grain, timber and amber.
Gdansk is remembered in the history books as the city where World World II started. Indeed, the world’s largest military conflict began here with strikes from the Third Reich army. After the war, Gdańsk became part of the Polish State and was incorporated in the Soviet Bloc. During the Sixties and Seventies, the city became the stage of widespread strikes and protests organised by the shipyard workers and led by Lech Wałęsa. This movement, known as Solidarnosc, heralded the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe.
We had four days to explore Gdansk and the Tri-City area, but you can easily see all the main sights over a weekend. Here are my top tips on what to do and see, where to eat and drink, in Gdansk in 48 hours.
What to See and Do in Gdansk
1. Explore the main town
Take a walk through the cobbled streets of the Main Town with its elegant buildings, charming terraces and cobbled streets. Almost completely re-created after WWII, mostly on the basis of old documents, photographs and illustrations of the 17th century city.
Długi Targ and Ulica Długa lie at the heart of the main town. The pedestrian streets connect around the new Town Hall and Neptune’s Fountain, a mannerist-rococo bronze masterpiece and one of the biggest attractions for tourists.
Walking along the streets of Gdansk main town reminded me of cities like Ghent, Bruges or Amsterdam, and that’s because architects from the Netherlands worked in the city in the 16th-17th centuries. After the war, it was decided to rebuild the main town in that same style, rather than opting for a modern approach.
The Upland Gate (one the western end of Long Lane) was, in the 16th-century, the main entrance into the Old Town and the starting point for The Royal Way: where the Polish king was welcomed and given the keys to the city. The Golden Gate, a triumphal arch ornamented with eight allegorical statues, was designed by Abraham van den Block, son of the man behind the decoration of the Upland Gate.
At the opposite (eastern) end of the Long Land and Long Market, you will find the Green Door. Built in the 1560s, this iconic city gate is the largest in Gdańsk & houses the National Museum.
2. Visit a museum
The European Solidarity Centre is a museum devoted to the history of Solidarity (Solidarność), the Polish trade union which set in motion a civil resistance movement that spread around Poland and ultimately led to the fall of communism. The centre opened in 2014 and is extremely well designed to guide visitors (with audio guides that detect your location and automatically start the voiceover as you move through the seven halls). Allow at least two hours for the visit, plus more for the queue to get tickets (museums are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid19 distancing measures). Before you leave, take the lift up to the rooftop to get a view of the shipyard.
The Museum of the Second World War, opened in 2017, is located in a symbolic space: 200 metres from the historic Polish Post Office and 3 kilometres across the water from Westerplatte, both of which were attacked in September 1939. The museum offers an extensive, detailed overview of the 20th century’s biggest conflict, which began here in Gdansk in 1939. Get the audio-guide, it is essential to make the most out of your visit. We spent three hours in this museum and had to rush through the last ten rooms – it is huge, but very interesting.
3. Walk up the tower at Bazylika Mariacka
St Mary’s Basilica is a Roman Catholic church and the largest brick church in the world. The 78-metre high viewing tower offers the best in the city, and though getting up there involves climbing 405 steps, it is really worth it!
4. Shop for amber at Ulica Mariacka (Amber Street)
Gdansk is know around the world as the capital of amber. Ulica Mariacka, between the Motława river and St. Mary’s Church, is home to a number of artisan shops selling amber jewellery. Always buy amber from a shop (on this street or ul. Długa) and never from a street seller, to avoid rip-offs.
If you want to know more about the history of Baltic Gold, visit the Amber Museum on ul. Długa.
5. Take a walk by Gdansk waterfront
After the main town, the main attraction of Gdansk is without a doubt the the city’s picturesque Motława river front. Start from the Green Bridge and walk north along Długie Pobrzeże (Long Waterfront), past cafés, restaurants and amber shops. The footbridge to Olowianka island is open for pedestrian crossing every 30 minutes (then it opens to let the boats out of the city, and towards the Port).
At night, the 17th century style buildings light up, the pink sky reflects on the water, and the riverfront is full of charm and beauty!
6. Join a Free Walking Tour with Walkative
I’m a big fan of Walkative free tours, which are available in all the main Polish cities and around other European countries too. We were lucky to join one of the first post-lockdown English tours in Gdansk. The group was small with just 10 people, as opposed to the 50-60 people that usually join these tours on summer days. The guided walking tour is free to join and you tip your guide at the end, how much you think is fair. During these coronavirus times, you are required to book tickets in advance (it’s free to do so on the Walkative website).
The walking tour took us around all the main sights of the Main Town, from the prison tower to Uplands Gate, from Golden Gate to the Great Armory and St. Mary’s Basilica, and along the riverfront. We stopped by the famous 15th century crane, which is the largest medieval crane in Europe and one of the defining symbols of Gdansk.
7. Visit Westerplatte
The tour ended at the old Polish Post Office which is remembered one of the first sites attacked by the Germans on September 1, 1939, hence marking the start of WWII. The other site which was attacked the by Germans on that same day was Westerplatte.
Westerplatte is a large peninsula shielding Gdansk port from the Baltic sea. It is located in the north-eastern corner of Gdańsk, around 10 km from the main town. Today, the beach and park of Westerplatte are popular destinations for locals and tourists. You can get there by bus, water tram (in summer) or by bicycle.
8. Explore Wrzeszcz neighbourhood
After you have visited all the main sights Gdansk’s main town, I urge you to get off the tourist trail and explore Wrzeszcz, around 4km north of the city. Gdansk’s student community lives in this lively and vibrant neighbourhood, where you will find some of the best cafés, bars, restaurants and shops (including the city’s biggest shopping centre, Galeria Baltycka). Walk down Ulica Wajdeloty, surrounded by 19th century houses, and stop for brunch at Avocado vegan bistro, gelato at Slony Karmel, and coffee at Nieczapla Coffee Roasters or Kawana Palarnia.
9. Spend a day in Sopot and Gdynia.
Together with the city of Gdynia and the resort town of Sopot, Gdansk forms a metropolitan area called the Tri-City. The three cities are spread over 20 km of shoreline and are well connected by public transport, making it easy for tourists to visit them all in just a day.
Sopot is a 30-minute train ride from Gdansk. A former fishing village, it was founded in 1926 and became a salubrious part of the region with its modernist architecture and seaside location. It is home to Europe’s longest wooden pier. Stop for coffee and vegan cakes at Las café in Sopot.
There isn’t much to see and do in Gdynia, but if you happen to pass through this city, stop for breakfast or lunch at Happy People coffee shop (where you can get the best croissants I’ve ever had in Poland!).
Where to Eat and Drink in Gdansk
There is a street in Gdansk literally named after beer, so naturally this is a place you should come a drink! On Ulica Piwna you will find plenty of cafés, bars, pubs and restaurants.
While it’s not on Beer Street, Labeerynt is a great place to find great, local craft beers. The basement interiors aren’t pretty, but if you visit on a warm evening and can sit at the tables outside, then it’s a fab place for drinking and people watching.
For breakfast or lunch, head over to Pomelo Bistro, a laid-back café with lots of vegetarian options, tasty homemade kimchi and delicious lemonades; Ducha66, is a great option for breakfast since they open at 8am and serve speciality coffee from Polish roasters like Hard Beans and Coffee Lab. For dinner, I highly recommend Nie Miesny (even though it’s a bit off the beaten path): the menu is divided in vegetarian and meat-based dishes, both featuring amazing mezze platters and other Middle Eastern inspired dishes. For a more refined dining experience, book a table Winne Grono, a modern Polish & European restaurant in the main town, close to Amber Street.
Many of Gdansk’s speciality coffee shops are located outside of the main town, in the student district of Wrzeszcz. If you are looking for a great coffee near the Long Market, your best choices are: Leń and Drukarnia.
If you are looking for fresh produce and food products to buy, visit Hala Targowa, the indoor market hall.
Nearby, you will find the tiny shop of Paulo Gelateria, which I highly recommend (ask for chocolate sauce inside the waffle cone!). Polish people LOVE ice cream (called lody in Polish), so expect some queues here.
Where to Stay in Gdansk
Just across the river from the Long Market, Granary Island once was the centre of Gdańsk trade and a major source of the city’s historic wealth. Following decades of decay, this area is being brought back into public use, thanks to a series of developments, including private apartments, offices, hotels, a food hall, restaurants and bars.
How to Get to Gdansk
We live in Wrocław in the south western Poland and drove to Gdańsk in around 6 hours. A train from Warsaw Central Station to Gdańsk takes approximately 3 hours; from Poznan is about 4 hours.
You can fly to Gdansk from London (direct flights with Wizzair, 1 hour 50 minutes), Manchester, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Bristol.
If you are just staying in Gdansk, you won’t need to use public transport, as you can easily walk or cycle everywhere. Many hotels, like PURO, offer free bicycle rental.