Photograph by Dagmar Schwelle,
Photograph by Tobias Gerber,
Above: Tradition reigns in the Gulf of Gdańsk—and history has never looked so good. Café Zaścianek in Sopot, sister city to Gdańsk, is perfect for a spot of tea.
Gdańsk, Poland: Old Town, New Energy
From star Hanseatic trading port to the straw that broke the back of communist rule, Gdańsk’s thousand-year history is evident everywhere you look.
The Scene Gdańsk grabbed headlines back in the 1980s as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, which led to the toppling of communist rule in Central Europe, but the town’s history goes much deeper. Part of a triumvirate of cities, with Gdynia and Sopot, the enclave was founded a thousand years ago and once prospered as a Hanseatic League trading port. The city’s Old Town was rebuilt after intense World War II bombing, but it’s still evocative of its heyday. “Everywhere you go you are reminded about the history,” says Kuba Sikorski, a gallery owner in the Old Town. “When you walk through Mariacka Street, it’s so easy to imagine the merchants in their hurry rushing to the port.”
City Gem In an urban center rich with monuments, St. Mary’s Basilica looms largest. Built between the 14th and 16th centuries, it’s one of the grandest brick churches in the world. The interior is just as inspiring with soaring vaults and a 15th-century astronomical clock built by Hans Düringer. Climb the nearly 400 steps to the top of the tower for a memorable panoramic city view.
Insider’s Tip Get an early start, suggests Sikorski. “I love the Old Town early in the morning, when the city slowly wakes up with the sound of church bells—and there are many here—and pigeons fluttering about.” Amble down storied Mariacka Street and marvel at its Gothic buildings, many of them reconstructed to their former glory from original stone.
Local Flavor Invented in Gdańsk in the 16th century when gold was believed to have medicinal properties, gold-flecked herbal Goldwasser liqueur is the local post-pierogi nightcap at Goldwasser Restaurant.
Nightlife Known for its resort spas, Sopot—Gdańsk’s sister city a half-hour train ride away—has become the spot for nightlife with its street performers, restaurants, and clubs (including the iconic Spatif, open since the 1960s) around Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street.
By Sea Windy and natural, Hel Peninsula—a train ride from Gdańsk or an hour via summertime ferry from Gdynia—is nirvana for kite-surfing and windsurfing.
Ship Shape 29 annual cruise calls in Gdańsk; 72 in the sister port of Gdynia, including ships from Princess, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. —Margaret Loftus
Read "Ports of Call" in the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.