GDANSK, POLAND: CITY SPOT LIGHT
From the series: The Best & Worst of Poland: The Highs, Lows, and Very Lows of Gdansk, Warsaw, & Krakow
As a travel destination Poland is a godsend for the budget traveller, an unending gift for the historically inclined, and a culinary delight for anybody who enjoys a solid perogie. That being said, when we broached the idea of beginning our two-month excursion through Eastern Europe in Poland with others, what we found was that, outside of a few well-travelled friends, very few people we knew had been to Poland (or knew anybody who had). Poland, it seemed, did not have the same allure as its glitzy Czech neighbor to the south, and had been overshadowed by its domineering German neighbor to the East. Simply put, for many travelling to Europe, Poland gets lost in the smorgasbord of destinations offered by the continent.
Bearing this in mind, it was difficult to find a lot of anecdotal information on the country. While Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor helped us plan our route, and single out the must-see sights, I have always found that these tools only go so far in providing a true experience of the day in and day out in a different locale.
As such, in order to facilitate a more realistic experience of what travel in this country is like, over the next little while I will be focusing the city spotlight column on Poland. More specifically, I will review Gdansk in Northern Poland, the capital city of Warsaw, and my personal favorite, Krakow.
Gdansk is an optimal city to start your Polish vacation for several reasons, the main one being its size. Gdansk is a relatively small city, with many of its historical sights clustered in and around Gdansk’s ‘Main Town.’ As such, Gdansk makes for easy navigating, with the cities highlights accessible in two to three city blocks. You can grab a plate of perogies at Kresowa, peruse a medieval dungeon and torture museum at Gdansk’s Prison House and Torture Chamber, and see the beginnings of a revolution in the Roads to Freedom Exhibition, all before days end. This lessens the hardship of exploring a new city on your jet-lagged ridden body, while at the same time allowing you to slowly immerse yourself in the Polish culture.
Quaint and picturesque ‘Main Town’ is a throwback to centuries earlier, beautifully arranged, ripe for picture taking, and easy to explore. The architecture is stunning, the scenery is beautiful, and the overall ambience is exciting and made the trip to Northern Poland worthwhile.
Outside of Main Town Gdansk is like any other medium-size city in the world. There are schools, grocery stores, parks, and industrial buildings. It is unremarkable, save for the experience of navigating a Polish grocery store and pointing out all the ridiculously low prices.
Most Memorable Moments
Walking over the drawbridge and peering out of the windows at Malbork Castle. It was my first time in a genuine (albeit rebuilt) medieval castle, and along side the cache of medieval weaponry, armor, and furniture within, the whole experience was absolutely surreal. While technically in the city of Malbork (roughly a 45 minute train ride from Gdansk), Malbork Castle encompassed everything I loved about Northern Poland The castle grounds, while compact, were easily accessible, with plenty of exhibits and minimal crowds. You can dedicate a full day to the exploration of the castle, weaving your way in and out of all the nooks and crannies, and taking in the fascinating history.
Best Food Moment
Eating the best perogies I have ever had (tied with Veselka in New York City) at Kresowa. The restaurant, which was located a block away from the centre of Main Town at Ogarna 12, is lodged in what appears to be your Great Aunt Mildred’s home (complete with decorative 19th century curtains, wallpaper and grand piano). Seriously though, eating dinner here was like being back at my grandmother’s house, with porcelain figurines and the unsmiling photographs of long lost family members to match.
The slightly unsettling decor and matching employee dress aside, the food was delicious. If you are looking for authentic Polish food, on the cheap and away from the main tourist drag, this is absolutely the place to go. When we ate here it was not crowded, the staff spoke limited English, and the only other tables were occupied by locals. Simply put, it was an authentic Polish experience.
Where to Focus Your Time/ Sights
Main Town is where you are going to want to spend your time, as it is where all of the main sights of Gdansk are located. There are quite a few museums and pockets of history tucked away in a few short blocks, including the Road to Freedom exhibition, Gdansk’s Old Town Hall, and the Prison Tower and Torture Chamber. The Roads to Freedom exhibition, which highlights the Poland under communist rule in the period between 1956 and 1989, is especially worthwhile, as it sheds light on an interesting period of Polish history that is not as well known outside of the country.
The Main Town is also great for restaurants and shopping. It is impossible to go hungry in these few city blocks, with coffee shops, bakeries, markets, and Polish and international dining dominating the landscape. Likewise, the shopping is excellent. Gdansk’s Main Town possesses your typical tourist spots, where you can grab all the necessary fridge magnets and coffee mugs, but it also has a lot of interesting shops that sell jewelry, woodworking, and all things amber.
On a side note, Gdansk is obsessed with amber. You can learn about amber in the Amber Museum (housed in the Prison Tower and Torture Chamber, naturally), buy an amber necklace, and eat amber infused Polish food. Okay, the last one is not true, although it may be if the Gdansk people find a way to safely ingest the substance.
For those wishing for an after dinner waterfront walk, the Main Town stretches to Kanal Raduni, the canal that drains into the Gulf of Gdansk and Baltic Sea. Walking alongside the canal, and in amongst the shops and restaurants, gives you a stunning view of Main Town and the rest of the city beyond. Here, benches are abundant, providing opportunities to sit and people watch, as well as take in the city and view the Old Crane, a 15th-century device used to hoist cargo and deliver it into the city.
Finally, any mention of things to do in Gdansk is not complete without mentioning things to do a short train ride from Gdansk. That includes Malbork Castle, which the Internet tells me was built in 1274 by the Teutonic Knights. Since then, it has been used as a headquarters for the various dynasties that have ruled the area, was bombed and badly damaged during World War II, and was rebuilt and refurbished to its current glory after the war.
Having failed to enter a castle in any other of our adventures, this was our first experience inside a genuine medieval artifact, and it absolutely did not disappoint. As I noted above, the exhibitions inside the castle are well written and interesting, the array of weaponry and furniture on display seems never-ending, and the condition of the castle makes the whole thing seem genuine. Walking the corridors and entering each of the rooms, it was easy to forget what time period we were in, allowing us a glimpse into history that a picture or movie could never provide. Simply put, it felt like being in a living breathing thing, and it was an experience that any person who goes to Northern Poland should take part in.
Accommodations: Generally and Specifically
When we visited Gdansk we stayed in a motel called Villa Angela, a relatively cheap spot located about an hour walk from the main town. While Villa Angela was basic, serving its purpose as a place for us to sleep and adjust to Polish time, its location so far from everything made things difficult. That being said, Gdansk has an excellent transportation system, with buses running throughout the city, making it possible to stay anywhere in Gdansk and be in the main town in a matter of minutes.
Special Tips/ Tricks
Most of your time in Gdansk is going to be centered in and around Main Town. This is the hub of activity in Gdansk, it is where all the museums and shopping is, and it is also where the train station is located. This is especially important as the train station is not only the local sights (Malbork Castle) but a quick and cheap way of getting to Warsaw.
Given the above, it is wise to try and obtain accommodations anywhere around Main Town. While public transportation is easily accessible, most of your time is going to be spent in Main Town, or at least, walking around it, so finding somewhere to stay nearby lessens the anxiety of counting out Zlotys on the bus while a group of angry Polish men lineup impatiently behind you.
This includes one full day at Malbork Castle. Gdansk’s compact size makes for easy navigating, which allows you to speed through the sights and museums in relatively quick fashion. Even allotting a day to relax and meander through the shops and restaurants, after 3 full days in Gdansk you will be ready to move on to see what the rest of Poland has to offer.
When We Visited
What is Gdansk’s most attractive feature, it’s accessibility and denseness of its sights, might also be one of its negatives. As noted above, it is easy to see most of what there is to see in Gdansk in one or two days, requiring you to hop on a train to Malbork Castle to extend your vacation an extra day. Outside of Main Town, there is very little to do, which may find you stretching the time you spend in Gdansk, taking extra long in museums that you would normally think twice about entering in a larger city.
Another negative is there was also a severe lack of tours of any kind in Gdansk when we went. I firmly believe that one of the best ways to see a city is to take a walking tour from a guide who is from, or has some experience, with the place you are in. This was conspicuously absent in Gdansk, which was a shame because I felt that in a place seemingly bursting with history, that I was doing the city a disservice not knowing more about it.
Kristen’s added remarks
From reviewing this blog, there’s a reason why Trevor is our Review Coordinator, as he provided a very thorough description of our time in Gdansk that will be helpful to many people. I agree that Malbork Castle was an amazing experience, as you can see from the 1945 picture of the bombing, it’s incredible to be able to be there and experience it, even if it is reconstructed. I think however, my favorite part was the Road to Freedom exhibition. Of course I knew about World War II, and Germany’s impact on Poland, and I knew about the Iron Curtain, but when you put it all together, I didn’t realize what this meant for the Polish population who survived. This exhibition brought that to life for me and really drove me into anticipating what we were going to experience in Warsaw and Krakow, and learning more about the history of Poland. Although Gdansk can be completed in 2 days, and is lacking on the walking tour side like Trevor said, it is worth the visit as it gives a more fuller, rounded picture for the history of Poland.
PHOTO HIGHLIGHTS OF GDANSK:
NEED MORE RESOURCES?
Join our newsletter to get access to our resource library