Gdansk is an import port situated at the mouth of the Vistula River on the Baltic Sea, existing throughout history as a major trading centre. It's the best known of the Tri-City complex that it forms with the modern seaport of Gdynia and the fashionable beach resort town of Sopot.
Its turbulent history includes the rule of the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century, who then lost it to Prussia, and after the first shots of World War II were fired on the nearby peninsula of Westerplatte, it was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939.
Like many Polish towns, Gdansk lay in ruins after the war, but it was meticulously rebuilt over a 20-year period, returning it to its former glory. The interesting architecture and beautiful painted buildings are part of the town's historic charm, and for those interested in World War II it is a fascinating destination.
The richest architecture is visible in the historic quarter of the Main Town. Its primary thoroughfare, known as the Royal Way, is spectacular. Lined with magnificent buildings featuring beautifully painted facades and entered through grand stone gateways at either end, this was the route along which the Polish Kings paraded during their visits.
The most splendid façade in town belongs to the Golden House, one of Gdansk's most impressive buildings, along with the Town Hall and Artus Court. In front of the Court, the gathering place of the old merchants, stands the Renaissance-style Neptune's Fountain.
Along the waterfront, with its fashionable restaurants and cafes, the huge Gdansk Crane dominates the promenade, the largest crane in medieval Europe which today houses the Maritime Museum.
Parallel to the Royal Way is Gdansk's most picturesque street, Mariacka Lane, lined with quaint 17th-century houses with decorative steps and iron railings. The gigantic St Mary's Church towers over the city and offers splendid panoramic views.
The peninsula of Westerplatte saw the beginning of Second World War. A small Polish garrison heroically held out against the attack of seven days before surrendering to German forces, with the site now a towering memorial to the defenders. With only 180 Polish soldiers, they fought on knowing they had no chance of reinforcement or resupply. A small museum is accompanied by ruins of the barracks and guardhouses left from the shelling, standing harrowing and dilapidated in an otherwise picturesque setting reachable by bus. Surrounding scenery is best appreciated on a boat or bike trip.
Malbork Castle is the world's largest brick fortress and one of the most impressive in Europe. The Teutonic Knights built it in 1276 and slowly began to establish themselves as fearsome rulers, taking control of most of Poland until they were defeated at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The immense brick stronghold incorporates a system of multiple defence walls with gates and towers, guarding an interior of arcaded courtyards, chapels, a treasury, the Knights' Hall, and an armoury. The castle houses several exhibitions of tapestries, coins and medals, medieval sculptures, and weapons. During summer, the courtyard is used as a venue for sound and light shows. Guided tours are available and there are audio guides for those who prefer to explore independently, although the number of audio guides is limited.
Although still very much a well-kept secret on the mainstream tourist scene, Northern European travellers have been flocking to Sopot for many years for its gorgeous sandy beaches on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Primarily a beach resort and health spa town, Sopot buzzes every summer. Throngs of visitors walk along its famous wooden pier while enjoying the long sunny days and numerous restaurants, bars, and shops. There are a few other tourist attractions in the town, like a museum and a water park, but the beachfront is the highlight. With its vibrant nightlife and relative obscurity, Sopot is the perfect cheaper option for budget travellers and backpackers.
Poland's largest open-air cultural event is also one of the oldest in the world, beginning in 1260. St Dominic's Fair is the largest trade and cultural outdoor event in Europe and despite its great size, retains its charming medieval flavour. In the 21st century the annual fair draws about 150,000 visitors per day over three weeks in the peak tourist season, with more than 1,000 merchants, artists, and collectors setting up stalls and doing a busy trade in the picturesque streets of the Old Town.
The fair boasts a huge variety of events in historic Gdansk. The programme includes a brass band festival, live music concerts, street theatre performances, special exhibitions at the galleries and museums of Gdansk, children's entertainment, chamber music, sports events, chivalry tournaments, parades and regattas, fireworks, and many games and contests. The fair takes place during the peak tourist season in Poland (the hottest summer months) and it is a wonderful time to visit Gdansk as everything is at its best. However, tourists should ensure that they book accommodation far in advance as the city is packed over this period; those who dislike crowds should avoid travelling during July and August.
The city centre is small and compact and easy to navigate on foot, but buses and trams operate a frequent and regular service throughout the day. Tickets should be bought at kiosks before boarding.
Taxis are reasonably inexpensive and booking by phone is cheaper than hailing one on the street. As tourists can be overcharged it is best to ask at your hotel what a fair price would be for your journey and agree on a fare with the driver before setting off. Ride-share apps also operate in the city.
The fast train system (SKM) is the most efficient way to get between the three towns comprising the Tri-City area. Trains run pretty much every 10 to 15 minutes between 5am and 7pm through the Tri-City, and less frequently outside of these hours with only occasional trains between 12am and 4am. Tickets for the SKM can be bought at ticket machines which can be found on most platforms and have instructions in English and a few other languages. Children under four travel for free on the fast train system.
The Gdansk-Sopot-Gdynia Plus Tourist Card, which can be bought at tourist information points throughout the city, will allow visitors to use the Tri-City transport network free of charge, as well as providing discounts for many attractions, and is well worth buying for tourists who will be spending some time in the area.
Gdansk is Poland's major historic trading port, and a good place to visit if you want a holiday filled with visual delights. The best thing about a holiday in Gdansk is strolling the streets of the Old Town to admire the beautiful historic buildings, which were restored after being laid to waste by bombing raids during World War II.
Gdansk also has a lively waterfront area where tourists congregate in pavement cafes and excellent restaurants, and a number of other worthy attractions including Oliwa Cathedral, St Mary's Church, Oliwa Park and the quaint and colourful Mariacka Lane, which is lined with 17th-century houses.
Gdansk forms the Tri-City complex with the modern port of Gdynia and the popular coastal resort town of Sopot, Poland's best spot for a beach holiday. The starting point for the German invasion of Poland was the Westerplatte Peninsula, where some of the barracks and guard houses of the courageous Polish defensive force still stand and a huge memorial has been built in their honour. Westerplatte, which can be reached by boat, car, or bicycle, is now one of the region's most popular tourist attractions.
Summer is the best time to travel to Gdansk, when the weather is warm, although it is still a good idea to take a jumper for the cool evenings. Winters are best avoided as they can be frigid and wet and the sun is seldom seen.
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