Is it old or is it new? That’s what you continually wonder when walking around in the walled city of Gdansk. The former merchant town was bombed to pieces in the Second World War, but is rising again as a perfect weekend getaway.
The history of the city was completely determined by the port, or even more the docks there. Building ships and submarines was the biggest economic sector for decades. It is also what led Gdansk to the brink of disappearance, as the allied forces wanted to destroy the docks where the military vessels of the Germans were constructed.
(the entire photo album of Gdansk can be viewed here)
The beautiful old town, with its canals, was in ruins as well. And the reconstruction is still ongoing, though in recent years at an increased pace.
There are still plenty of genuinely old brick buildings to admire. Parts of the city walls, watchtowers, churches, they make for some scenic walks. The cobblestoned street of Mariacka is a tourist’s favourite for example.
But when you move to the island in the heart of the city, Wyspa Spichrzow, you notice many buildings in an old-fashioned style but with new materials. Some of the old warehouses have been restored, others were beyond saving. There is vast construction work still going on here, in an area that is made for mass tourism.
That is also a huge trap for Gdansk. I tend to call it the ‘Krakow’ problem, where budget flights have led to an increase in tourism and ‘nudie bar’ and ‘strip show’ is what is on offer for you all the time. Gdansk isn’t that bad yet, but runs the risk of sliding down that path.
Which is a pity, because there is much more than cheap beer and old houses. Actually, the exciting projects are north of the city centre. Opposite Olowianka island, connected by a spectacular retractable footbridge every thirty minutes, is a new area that tries to mimic Hafen City in Hamburg.
There it is the Elbphilharmonie that catches all the attention, here it is the red World War Museum, a spectacular almost sculptural building with a huge main exhibition that takes hours to see.
From there it is only a short walk to the Imperial Harbour, where the old docks are. Most of the production halls are dilapidated, in some there is still construction of luxury yachts ongoing. Serious ship construction happens on the Mlyniska island, which is closed for tourists.
But it’s much more interesting to walk through the mix of old factories and new apartment blocks. There are several old warehouses now filled with street art, techno clubs and concert Venus or food courts. And the spectacular and massive European Solidarity Centre, clad in rusty steel, tells the story of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s that led to the fall of communism.
That’s not even everything, because Gdansk extends northwest along the Baltic Sea. The suburb of Zaspa is one of the biggest urban art galleries of Europe. Sopot is a classic beach town, and Gdynia another port city only ten minutes further north by train.
Things to do in and around Gdansk:
- World War Museum: apart from the final propaganda video by the new government, it is a pretty fair description of the war ad its causes
- European Centre of Solidarity: excellent and free audio guide
- Old city: highlights are the philharmonic (on Olawianka island), the basilica, and Mariacka street
- Zaspa: suburb where Lech Walesa lived. The apartment buildings now feature huge murals, making this one of the biggest urban art galleries of Europe
- Plenty of bars and restaurants in the old city centre, though very touristy and along the water quite expensive
- 100cznia: street art gallery, outside food court, indoor basketball and more. In old warehouses in the docks, close to the Gdansk Stocznia stop of the SKM train
- Ulica Elektrykow: beach bar, food court (W4 Food Squat), techno club (Club B90 and more), this is a great outdoor and indoor option. Also in the docks, close to the Solidarity Centre
- WL4 bar: right on the waterside, this gallery and bar is perfect on warm summer nights
- football: the gold-hued stadium to the north of the city centre is home of Lechnia Gdansk. The arena was built for Euro 2012 and way too big for the local pride, so it’s easy to get tickets
- Concerts: in Sopot is the Ergo Arena, a multifunctional venue with a 10-15k capacity used for the bigger pop stars in the world. Good excuse to visit the city as well
- Around Gdansk
- Sopot beach: with a famous pier. Easy to reach by SKM train
- Sobieszewska island: east of the city, a massive natural reserve ideal for longer walks
- Westerplatte: north of the city at the beach, former military area and the site of the First World War II invasion
- You can pay with card almost everywhere
- For public transport, there are several apps you can use to buy tickets: Jak Dojade, SkyCash, Koleo and more
- the SKM trains are suburban trains, and a fast and cheap way to take you to Zaspa, Sopot and Gdynia
- Gdansk has an airport but also good train connections. www.intercity.pl gives you the latest train schedules. Trains though are packed, so make sure to reserve a seat