Poland was never on my short list of countries to visit, and when it comes to places the majority of Americans tend to visit, it’s just not really on the radar.
Which is exactly why you should go.
Gdansk is a port city on the Baltic coast that many Americans will know as Danzig, its name from a former life when it was part of Prussia, one of the German states.
Poland has a pretty depressing history, with the height of Polish power being when a multinational force led by the Poles relieved the city of Vienna, Austria, when it was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1529. And the Austrians took credit for the victory. Since then, it has been repeatedly invaded and conquered. Aside from a brief stint between the world wars, the 20th century was a pretty awful time for Poland, being occupied by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union.
That history, however, has also been full of some truly inspiring moments, and the most famous one in recent memory took place in Gdansk – the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa that was a major contributor to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Gdansk stands today as a quaint small town that is proud of its culture and heritage. Most of the buildings you will see when you visit are reconstructed, because when the Soviets “liberated” Poland from Nazi Germany in 1945, Gdansk/Danzig was almost completely destroyed. It has, however, been reconstructed according to archival photos, and it boasts some of the most pleasant streets to stroll in Europe. And it hasn’t yet been overrun with tourists.
English speakers will not have too much trouble navigating the city. Like most of Europe, English is taught in Polish schools, and the mainstream restaurants will have English menus.
When I landed in Gdansk, I got a taxi into the city. One enterprising person stood at the exit to the airport and was trying to get three times the fare into the city, so be sure to read up on what the going rate is so you can come to an agreement beforehand and not get scammed.
On the note of scamming – that was the only time I encountered it in a week in Poland, and I felt totally safe in Gdansk at all times.
I stayed in a hotel a few buildings down from Gdansk’s iconic sight – a medieval crane. This hulking structure along the canal that gives Gdansk a lot of its charm is a reconstruction, but it’s been faithfully rebuilt and can be toured. It’s fun to see the human hampster wheels that served as the power for the crane in the Middle Ages.
The first sightseeing stop I made wasn’t in Gdansk at all. I hopped on the local commuter train to the largest medieval building built of bricks in the world – Malbork Castle (formerly known as Schloss Marienburg). It was built y the Teutonic Knights when they ran things in the area, and is definitely worth a trip to tour the grounds, see the amber artwork the region is famous for and get into more rural Poland. But that’s a subject for another post.
Returning to Gdansk, I went for a walk at random, which I think is the best way to immerse yourself in unfamiliar cities.
Strolling down the streets, I was struck by how Gdansk felt like a cross between Amsterdam and small-town Germany. I was also struck by the music.
It was a cool summer evening, and it seemed that there were local musicians on every major street – and they were quite good. Poland is the country that gave the world Chopin, and while I didn’t hear any piano music in my time there, it’s clear that the country has a rich musical culture, and it’s definitely worth stopping to listen and tossing a few zloty into the occasional guitar case.
As I continued to wander, I found my way to the canal, which is a beautiful waterfront, and I joined the happy-hour crowd of locals out for a walk past the square-rigged sailing ships (one is a dinner cruise/bar), a docked cargo ship that is part of the maritime museum, and plenty of restaurants and bars with patios shaded by umbrellas bearing the names of Poland’s leading beers – Zywiec and Tyskie.
I had to try the beer, so I sat down for a half-liter at one bar and watched the people pass by as I drank the refreshing pilsner.
As sun began to set, I sat down at a restaurant near the crane and looked forward to my first true foray into Polish cuisine. In California, my experience with Polish food was pretty much limited to kielbasa and knowing that something called pierogi exists.
The Chateaubriand steak was definitely more French than Polish, but it was delicious.
Once dinner was over and I was sufficiently stuffed, I continued wandering until I found my way to a section of canal that served as a marina and had plenty of ships docked along one side of the walkway, with lively bars on the ground floors of apartment buildings. Looking forward to kicking off a full day in the morning, I went back to the hotel and caught some sleep.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I headed to the town hall, where there is a museum of the city’s history and a tall belfry with great views of the city.
Following a walking tour in the “Rick Steves’ Poland” guidebook, I visited the old jail, checked out the facade of one of the city’s original buildings that wasn’t destroyed in World War II, and took a tour of a restored and fully furnished nobleman’s house.
By then it was time for lunch, and I stopped at an outdoor restaurant on one of the main streets and had potato pancakes, which are another staple in Poland’s excellent cuisine.
Next up was a stop to tour the medieval crane, which was well worth the time for a history geek like me, and also for anyone interested in machines or fun local experiences.
I’d saved the star attraction of the city for the end – the shipyard.
Taking a walk outside the old city to the shipyard takes you through a portion of workaday Gdansk and is definitely more fun than taking a taxi. Arriving at the shipyard almost felt like I was at the wrong place, because the gateway is small and has no obvious signage (at least in English) hinting at the site’s importance.
It wasn’t until a little later that I learned the reason is that it’s the same gateway Lech Walesa and the other shipyard workers walked through every day as they went to work.
Once through the gate, my eyes were drawn to the three tall anchors that compose the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970. Constructed in 1980, the monument honors the 45 people killed in the violence that followed their protesting of the communist regime. It’s notable that this is the first monument ever allowed by the Soviet Union to be erected to honor people killed by the government.
After viewing the monument, it was time to head to the recently built museum in the rusty-looking building behind it.
The Solidarity Museum is a must-see. It tells the story of a group of common shipyard workers who dared take a stand against the mighty Soviet Union and, through protest, strikes and negotiations, served as a catalyst to the Soviets’ relaxing of their authoritarian regime, which ultimately sounded the death knell of communism in Europe.
Inside, you’ll learn the background of the movement, see heart-wrenching artifacts like the bullet-riddled leather jacket of a 20-something worker, and uncover the inspiring story of people who stood up for themselves, discovered they had power, and wielded it in a way that set their country free.
Many exhibits are interactive, and it’s full of artifacts from the shipyard and video displays (subtitled in English) of interviews with workers, government officials and other people who lived through the times.
I could have spent even more time in the museum (I think I was in there for close to two hours), but it was reaching closing time, and also dinnertime.
Back in the old city, I had a dinner of pierogi – in this case the pasta was stuffed with cheese and beef and topped with parmesan cheese – salad and a Tyskie lager. It was excellent, and pretty friendly on the wallet, as the same caliber meal in France, Italy or the United States would run about twice as much.
Once again, I spent the evening walking around the old city, soaking in the atmosphere and truly enjoying myself. The breeze off the Baltic Sea kept things cool even though Europe was at the time experiencing a pretty intense heat wave.
Gdansk was my first exposure to Poland, and even though I feel like I’ve seen it, I would go back in a heartbeat just to soak it all in again. If you’re considering a trip to Gdansk, do it, and do it soon. The city has a lot of charm, and I’m glad I got to see it before everyone realizes what a gem it is, and the tour companies start pushing it.