It’s difficult to get to know a city without knowing its history. So before you go out to see Gdansk, first read a few words about the unique places filled with a captivating past.
Our journey begins with the Golden Gate which, in spite of its name, is built of light-coloured stone. Built in 1612, it opens Długa Street. The Gate has a Latin inscription that says: “In agreement small republics grow, in disagreement great republics fall.” It’s worth noticing the figures of the facades with symbolic meaning. Those on the Coal Market (Targ Węglowy) side symbolize peace, freedom, wealth and fame, while those on the Długa St. side stand for agreement, justice, piety and prudence.
After crossing the gate, you have a magnificent view of the most famous boardwalk in Gdansk. On Długa Street we can find shops, cafes, restaurants, as well as organ grinders, artisans, jugglers and street musicians. The place was meticulously rebuilt after the horrific destruction during the war - today it is again thriving and charming people with the richness of the elevations of bourgeois tenement houses.
Walking in the direction of the always surrounded by tourists Fountain of Neptune, you will see the Main Town Hall on your left, which today is the residence of the Gdansk History Museum. You can climb up its tower and admire a spectacular view of the Long Market (Długi Targ) and St Mary’s Church. The tower boasts its modern carillon with 37 bells. The first such instrument was installed here 450 years ago but it was destroyed during the Red Army assault in March 1945. The museum exhibits items of the city’s history. The Red Hall has a ceiling with majestic plafonds by Izaak van den Blocke from the early 17 th century. The most famous one is the Apotheosis of Gdansk, an idyllic panorama of the city on a triumphal arch, under which a Gdansk patrician and a Polish nobleman shake hands.
From the Town Hall, Długa Street widens into the Long Market. The first building on the left is Artus Court, the historic meeting place of the Gdansk elite. It was here that the heads of the town’s merchant guilds and city patricians would confer, often richly fuelled by beer. Here were also received important guests, including the kings of Poland. A noteworthy element of the place is 11-metre-high stove, made of 520 tiles and decorated with portraits of 16th-century European monarchs. The building was damaged in World War II, later restored and now serves as a department of the Gdansk History Museum.
Only a few steps ahead you can find the bronze statue of the King of the Seas in front of the Artus Court. Built in 1633, the sculpture inspired by antiquity soon became one of Gdansk’s icons. Initially, the fountain was turned on only occasionally (it was necessary to first fill the water tanks in the attics of the Town Hall and Artus Court). However, since the city’s waterworks started running in the second half of the 19th century, the water cascading round the statue can be admired all summer long.
When you go through the Green Gate and turn left, you’ll find yourself on the Motława riverfront. The place used to be the heart of the Gdansk’s old port. This is where merchant ships docked, carrying goods from around the entire known world. Today, this is a promenade filled with life, and often also with stalls. Across from the Long Riverfront (Długie Pobrzeże), behind Granary Island, is the Gdansk marina.
Walking from the Green Gate, you will see a wooden building ahead, which looks a little like a windmill without its sails. This is the restored 15th-century port crane. Inside the crane is a clever mechanism – two pairs of tread-wheels, that is cylinders driven by human power. Thanks to this, the Crane could lift two tonnes up to a height of 27 metres! Most often, the Crane was used to hoist beer and wine barrels, stone ballast or masts. Today, it is a branch of the National Maritime Museum. Note that tickets can be bought in the neighbouring building of Maritime Culture Centre (Ośrodek Kultury Morskiej).
If you go back a couple of dozen steps from the Maritime Culture Centre to a gate that leads from the Motława riverfront towards St Mary’s Church, you will find the kingdom of amber, Mariacka Street. You can buy there the precious fossil set in silver and gold: rings, bracelets, pendants and brooches. On sunny days, the shops set up stalls with their goods out in the street. Take a look at the majestic gargoyles and the stone stoops in front of the townhouses. Wealthy townspeople would eat there especially for their neighbours and the passers-by to marvel at the sophisticated and expensive food that the merchants were able to afford.
Going down Mariacka Street will take you to the back of St Mary’s Church. The main entrance is on the other side of the building. It is one of the largest brick churches in the world, with 155,000 cubic metres and an 82-metre-tall tower. St Mary’s Church took over 150 years to build, starting in 1343. Even today we can see the gothic severity of the temple dominating over Gdansk. You should climb the top of the tower (turn left past the main entrance). First you have to go up the 150 narrow stone stairs inside a slender pillar, but then there is a wide and comfortable staircase to the top. From there, you can also see how gothic “crystal” vaults were built. St Mary’s Church has many valuable works of art but the most impressive is the astronomical clock in the left transept. It was built by Master Hans Düringer from Toruń in 1464-1470 and at the time was one of the world’s most modern timepieces.
Modern history is also highly important to Gdansk, that is why The World War II Museum was created. It is a innovative institution which tells the story of the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century, combines the Polish perspective with the experiences of other European nations. It focuses on the story of individuals, communities and nations to convey the unique tragedy of the World War II experience where civilians were the ones who suffered most. The heart of the museum is its main exhibition, located 14 metres underground, one of the largest displays in any of the world’s historical museums. The building’s modern architecture fits into the Gdansk cityscape; its body and colour refer to the gothic towers and brick churches soaring above the Main and Old Towns.
Tkacka Street takes you to the most popular boardwalk of the Main Town, Długa Street. Whatever the season, you will always hear music played here by the street artists. Turn right. Now pass the Golden Gate and after a few steps you’ll be standing by the gothic tower, which was once the city prison and nowadays houses the Amber Museum. Its five floors display not only rough, unprocessed fossil resins from all over the world but also works of art made in Baltic amber, which has always fascinated people and been a source of income for Gdansk. The Torture House, a separate wing of the museum, includes a collection of torture devices. You can see there an exhibition that shows what happened in the Prison Tower for centuries.
Wojciech Bogusławski Street will lead us from the Prison Tower to the Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, one of the most incredible cultural institutes in Poland. Its massive brick building conceals a reconstructed wooden interior of the Gdansk theatre from the 17th century, topped with a retractable roof, so the performances can take place in daylight in the open air, just like in the Elizabethan theatres of the 16th and 17th century. In August, the Shakespeare Festival is held here, which attracts artists and spectators from all over the world.
Let’s go offshore and take a trip by the Gdansk Water Tram. You can take your bike onboard and sail across to the historic fortress, one of the few such places left on the southern Baltic coast.
For centuries, the Wisłoujście Fortress protected access to Gdansk, shielding the city from the sea. The heart of the fort is a cylindrical Gothic tower, which today has an observation deck at the top. The brick circle was expanded into a vast system of fortifications that are today partially open to visitors. Especially worth seeing is the reconstructed room of the fortress commander. Wisłoujście Fortress was often attacked and besieged. It came down in Polish history as a shelter for the Royal Navy in the 17th century.
Here is the last stop on our “journey to Gdansk’s past”. It’s Westerplatte. It would be a good idea to go there by bike, as from the Sucharskiego Street leads here a picturesque cycling route. Westerplatte is a symbol of Gdansk’s heroic resistance. It was here that on 1 September 1939 at 4:45am began the World War II. Despite being crushingly outnumbered by the Germans, air bombed and shelled by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein and two motor torpedo boats, a handful of Polish soldiers guarding the Military Transit Depot on the peninsula at the mouth of the Port Canal withstood thirteen assaults. With no hope of succour and the wretched condition of 50 wounded soldiers, Major Henryk Sucharski surrendered Westerplatte only on 7 September. Today, you can visit the ruins of the barracks, Guardhouse No. 1, now converted into a museum, and the Monument where the outbreak of the World War II is commemorated each 1 September.
As you already know, Gdansk offers not only beaches and beautiful views, but also rich history awaiting the world’s explorers. Following Gdansk’s historical trail, you can go back in time and see the buildings from 17 th century. The historical journey into Gdansk will show you how many secrets the city holds and how many of them still wait to be unlocked. Interested? Use your opportunity and start discovering what else hides inside Gdansk’s walls...