Gdańsk: Culture and Beaches on the Baltic Coast
by Harriet Reynolds
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Gdańsk is a port city located in the north of Poland, on the Baltic coast. It is the largest of the three urban agglomerations which make up the tri-city area (the other two being Gdynia and Sopot). It has beautiful architecture, a fascinating history and easy access to Sopot’s sandy beaches – no wonder it was chosen as one of the European best destinations of 2017. And if that isn’t reason enough to visit, it’s also easy and cheap to get to.
Getting a feel for the city
As with most places, the best way to get to know the city is to wander through it. Walk along the marina to see “the crane” (one of the few remnants of Gdańsk’s former trading prowess) and admire the many gates leading into the city. This is also a great place to sit for a scenic drink or meal, so long as you don’t mind paying higher prices for the view. Walk through one of the gates to enter the old town. The main, and most impressive, is the old Royal Way. It runs from the Zielona (“green”) gate on the marina, up “długi targ”, past the Neptune fountain and town hall and up to the Złota (“gold”) gate. Mariacka street is also considered to be one of the most beautiful streets in Gdańsk, but that doesn’t mean that the other streets around are any less interesting.
For those who don’t feel like they’ve visited a city until they’ve had a good panoramic view, you can climb to the top of St. Mary’s Basilica, or go up the tower of the town hall and museum on długi targ. I opted for the town hall and was not disappointed with the view I got for my 5zł.
There are several museums in Gdańsk, but the two most significant ones, and which I would highly recommend, are the World War II museum and the European Solidarity Centre.
Some of you may be thinking “oh God, not another war museum”, but seriously, if you only go to one more war museum in your life, let it be this one. The museum is modern, attractively laid out and has the right balance of written information to films and other interactive material. Poland is of course given a strong central role in the museum, as indeed befits the role it played in reality, but it is not self-centred. The museum shows how soldiers, civilians and prisoners across Europe and the world were linked by themes such as oppression, terror and hunger, and it does a really amazing job of pulling all the different events, stories and suffering into one coherent narrative.
The Solidarity museum is dedicated to the Solidarność movement, which began in Gdańsk. It shows the long struggles of Polish freedom fighters under Communism, and how their eventual success led to the fall of the Communist regime in Poland, starting a domino effect which would reunite Europe. Again, the museum is modern and well-laid out, with an audio-guided tour to narrate the story in an engaging way.
Sopot and the beach
Sopot is the smallest of the tri-cities and lies between Gdańsk and Gdynia. It takes just 20 minutes to get there by train from the main station in Gdańsk by the SKM (the regional rail service that links the three cities), and trains run every 10 minutes or so. At Sopot you will find several miles of wide, white sandy beaches, with plenty of restaurants and cafés along the way. Sopot also boasts Europe’s longest wooden pier (which unfortunately you have to pay to walk along). If you’re looking for a good quality beach resort that is more charming than tacky, then Sopot is definitely a great choice.
If you were expecting Gydnia to look similar to Gdańsk then you are unfortunately mistaken. Gdynia was only founded and built up in the last century so it’s far from resembling the beautiful architecture of Gdańsk. It is, however, worth a visit if you’re interested in either the emigration museum or the aquarium.
To Hel and back
If you have a bit of extra time you could consider going to Hel – a seaside town on a peninsula with the same name. There you can find white sandy beaches and a “fokarium” (seal sanctuary). The seal sanctuary only costs 5zł, so it’s hard not to be worth the money spent, but don’t go in with high expectations. Inside you will find a pool with three seals and a little education centre. The seals are fed at 11 am and 2 pm, when, if you’re not stuck at the back of the crowd, you can see them do a few tricks in return for their fish and you can learn a bit about them; if you speak Polish that is.
To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed with the town as it seemed to mostly just be a line of cheap souvenir and fast food stands with a small harbour. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I left that I realised I should have kept on going past all this to get to the wider beach and the beach promenade, which I’m sure would have made the visit much more worthwhile.
To get to Hel, you can take the regular SKM to Gdynia and then get a direct train from there, which takes about an hour and a half. The trains from Gdynia to Hel run about every hour and a half to every two hours, so it’s best to check in advance when the next one’s going (which you can do here). Alternatively, during the summer months, there’s a “water tram” between Gdańsk or Gdynia and Hel.
If you want to make your trip to Gdańsk part of a longer journey across Poland, you’re in a good position to explore more of the north of the country. Take the train a few hours south to get to the historic city of Toruń, or go south-east to Olsztyn, a good starting point for exploring the Mazurian lake district.