Gdansk Old Town
Think of Gdansk as a bite-sized version of Krakow but with a maritime flavour.
The vast majority of tourist sights in Gdansk are in the Old Town so it’s right that this should always be the first port of call when visiting this area.
There are multiple access points for the Old Town but perhaps the most scenic way of entering is through the Złota Brama (Golden Gate) opposite the Amber Museum
The Złota Brama was built in the early 17th Century but was badly destroyed towards the end of the second world war. It was however, rebuilt in 1957 and once again provides a beautiful entrance to the Old Town.
As you walk through the gate you will find yourself on Długi Targ (Long Market) so named because Gdansk doesn’t really have a market square or town square so the whole length of this arterial street has been designated the heart of the Old Town.
Długi Targ is the main street and leads straight to the Brama Zielona (Green Gate) at the other end. As with many of Europe’s grandest towns your first steps into this area is an assault on the senses as you try to take in the charming architecture, pavement cafes, bars, shops and street artists. Most people meander down the street from side to side but I would recommend you try and grab a table at one of the pavement cafes or bars, order a drink and take the time to absorb your environment.
The finger-like clock tower is the Ratusz (town hall) and was originally built as far back as the 14th Century. The building has played host to many Polish kings but was destroyed during the second world war. It was lovingly rebuilt and now proudly dominates this part of the Gdansk skyline. The building regularly holds exhibitions and in the tourist season it’s possible to climb the clock tower for unparalleled views of the area.
Near to the Ratusz is one of Gdansk’s most photographed landmarks, the Neptune fountain.
The fountain was originally erected as a statue in the 16th Century but was later converted into a fountain. The statue was dismantled, packed and hidden away for safekeeping during the second world war and only restored to it’s original position in 1954.
Directly behind the fountain is the ornate Artus Court. This ancient building first appeared in records in the 14 Century and was used as a meeting place for wealthy merchants and aristocrats. Today it continues to be used for important functions and meetings and also houses a branch of the History of Gdansk Museum.
At this point, Długi Targ widens out a little bit and this space is often used for concerts and other cultural events throughout the year (above you can see some scenes from an Easter Passion Play held next to Neptune’s Fountain).
Here you will normally find street artists selling their paintings and amber stalls. If you didn’t already know by this point then amber is everywhere in the Gdansk area. Most of the world’s amber originates from the Baltic Sea which is why you will see it being sold throughout this region.
Amber prices are cheaper from the street stalls with Mariacka street being one of the most popular places for tourists but by contrast you can expect to find very high quality amber jewellery designs at some of the many shops spread throughout the Old Town.
As you come to the end of Długi Targ then you will find yourself at the foot of the Brama Zielona (Green Gate). This is actually a building in it’s own right and for a modest ticket price you can explore the exhibits that are regularly housed here.
Once you walk through this arch you will see a bridge that crosses the river. As tempting as it may seem to continue your exploration across the bridge the truth is that there isn’t anything of major interest on the other side as this part of Gdansk forms part of the commercial and residential district. The bridge does serve as a popular area for taking photos looking back at the Brama Zielona and of the waterfront and during certain times of the year the bridge will also be lined with dozens of market stalls selling all types of wares.
An area of empty land just on the other side of the bridge has been used recently for a ferris wheel, known as AmberSky, and if you get the opportunity then it is strongly recommended to pay a few zloty and take a ride as the views over the Old Town are amazing !
The tourist trail usually involves walking through the Brama Zielona and turning left towards the Żuraw (the famous Gdansk crane). This is one of the most popular symbols of Gdansk and serves as a reminder of the city’s proud maritime heritage. Dating back to the 15th Century the Żuraw was heavily damaged during the Second World War before being fully restored. The building now houses a department of the Central Maritime Museum.
This side of the river is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants and tends to be one of the busiest places in the city. No doubt you will pass some barges on the river where you can buy a ticket and enjoy a cruise but your eyes are sure to be drawn to the pirate boat that draws plenty of admiring glances from children (and adults). The boat takes regular tours to Westerplatte (the place where World War II was officially started). The cruise lasts about 3 hours and involves sailing past industrial shipyard to Westerplatte. With weather permitting the boat may stop to allow passengers to explore Westerplatte for a short time and in the summer months you can disembark and then catch a later boat.
Although the prices for this tour are very reasonable (around 40 Polish złoty) the feedback is mixed with some tourists commenting that the bleak looking ex-communist shipyards don’t make for a very scenic journey and others saying that the on board folk singer isn’t to their liking. However, if you love history then a trip to Westerplatte shouldn’t be ruled out. On the other hand if all you really want to do is ride on a pirate ship then consider taking the cruise from Gdynia where the trip only lasts 50 minutes or so and is perhaps a little more picturesque.
As you continue to walk along the waterfront you will come across an arch that leads to the beautiful Ulica Mariacka. This narrow street has ornate steps spilling out on either side of you evoking a feeling of being in Amsterdam. This street is usually lined with street merchants selling their wares and it also offers a welcome refuge from some of the more busier areas of the Old Town.
As you approach the end of Ulica Mariacka you will be faced with imposing church of Bazylika Mariacka (St. Mary’s church). Widely claimed to be the largest brick built church in the world the building towers over the Old Town and helps as a handy point of visual reference if ever you find yourself lost ! You can even climb the 400 or so steps to the top of the tower for unrivalled views of the city.