The scorching heat blanketed the city of Gdańsk like a layer of invisible dust. It was inescapable, merciless and persistent. Just like my taxi driver.
‘… and you understand, miss, I moved out of the city centre because we could not cope with the noise. We have lost the convenience of being able to reach old town on foot but what a blessing that suburbian silence is, what a blessing indeed…’, he kept on going from the moment I asked him if he is free to take me to my booked accommodations. Halfway through the 40 minutes long trip, we ticked off the subject of his apartment, his daughter’s tendency to splurge, excessive consumption and a rather melancholic topic of times changing (we punctuate this one with a great deal of sighing).
The easiest way to get to the city centre at 1.00 am was to take a taxi. I flew to Gdańsk directly from Vienna with Wizz Air, which is the easiest and probably the cheapest way of getting to the capital of the Pomeranian Voivodeship. I paid exactly 132.98 EUR for a return ticket with a 20 kg checked-in luggage (both ways), which is an okay price taking into consideration that the plane will be most likely delayed (the possibility of my completely positive experience with Wizz Air is consistently hindered by the plane never arriving on time). While researching modes of transportation between the airport and the city at the early hours, I concluded that I would just get a taxi. Not an Uber, because I do not want to support that company although this possibility exists. The official taxi airport partner is Neptun Taxi, with company cars stationed just outside of the arrivals’ exit in case you wanted to choose this route too. I paid 90 PLN (tip included) for the trip.
On my way back I travelled with the SKM, a fast municipal railway. Buying the tickets at the main train station was slightly baffling. Don’t queue for the tills as you are most likely face long waiting times- there is at least one ticket machine with the SKM logo, where you can get your tickets. You will have to change once but the cost of the whole trip is 3.80 PLN and it takes approximately 1.5 h. I will warn you that navigating the train stations in Gdańsk was not my favourite activity of the day – whoever is responsible for signage must have concluded that the science of deduction should be the decisive factor in whether or not you will eventually find your platform.
#1 Essential tips for visiting Gdańsk
Gdańsk is a fascinating city. Historically Gdańsk played a major role in the shaping of European empires thanks to its access to both Baltic sea and the Vistula River, the artery of Poland. It has gone through periods of Polish rule, periods of Prussian or German rule, and periods of self-rule as a “free city”. In recent history, Gdańsk became the witness and stage to the birth of the Solidarity movement. This rich cocktail of cultural and political influences is reflected in Gdańsk’s architecture and the stories of very forward-thinking locals. Together with the two neighbouring cities, Gdynia and Sopot, Gdańsk creates a Tricity (Trójmiasto) with a population approaching 1.4 million (Gdańsk itself has a population of 460,427, says Wikipedia).
When to visit – Gdańsk is a popular summer retreat for many Polish families that can’t afford or don’t want to go abroad. I can see the appeal of visiting Gdańsk off-season (I imagine it would be moody and deserted) but even in July, the situation was not unbearable. Although I feel obliged to point out, the number of screaming kids was staggering, especially on any remotely interesting tourist attraction. If you visit in between July and August, you will get to see one of the oldest markets in Europe – the St. Dominic’s Fair. It’s staffed by local producers and designers but also contains your regular tourist trash. Knock yourself out.
English – You will get by without issues in most restaurants and cafes.
Public transport – I am from Poland and the public transport was a bit of a mystery to me. Starting with the train stations that have no information boards or train information available at first or even second or third glance, we waltz towards incomprehensible ticketing system. I did not even bother.
Money – Gdańsk is quite reasonable in terms of prices. Black coffee in the town centre will cost you 8 PLN on average, a pint of Guinness was 18 PLN. Don’t use currency exchange offices because the rates are rarely good. Instead, take money out from a cash point (I described DCC and how to avoid being overcharged in my guide to Budapest). There are plenty of freestanding Euronet Worldwide cash points but if you can, choose ones that are attached to a bank or a post office – I question the security of the cash point-kiosks, as they are meant to be temporary ergo no CCTV.
I feel that perhaps I should run a regular column of ‘Where Not to Stay’ because my recent hotel and hostel experiences have been on the gruesome side (including a room that looked like the inside of a forgotten detention centre in Koblenz, Germany). This time I am torn – I and my friend booked a room with a private bathroom at Zefiro Stajenna Hotel, which was a relatively new place neatly located within walking distance of the city centre.
By the way, if you click here, book and stay with Booking.com we both get £15. Boom.
Our hotel was staffless with the exception of an older lady, who appeared in the morning to clean the rooms and inquire with us about the status of our toilet paper. In general, it’s a good option to choose, if you don’t mind where you are staying because you don’t plan to sleep much – the rooms were clean but soulless, the front door and individual rooms conveniently had unique codes needed to enter but it meant no reception. There was a nice shared kitchen for those, who wanted to cook. If you book Zefiro Stajenna for a longer stay, you might need to ask in person to have your towels exchanged or the trash taken out because it’s just that kind of place.
#3 Things to do in Gdańsk
Walk around – This city’s architecture is simply stunning. While the long history of Gdańsk explains the mixture of architectural trends and styles, what you see in the town centre are mostly buildings reconstructed or built post-II World War. Gdańsk was heavily bombed and damaged (you can see the chilling before and after photos taken by Kamil Nienartowicz here) but the rebuilding efforts do not disappoint. If you are interested in finding out more about the architecture in this harbour city, visit this website. I especially recommend that you walk the Long Street (Długa Ulica), which connects the Golden Gate (Gdańsk) (Złota Brama, Langgasser Tor) to Long Market (Długi Targ, Langer Markt) and Green Gate (Brama Zielona, Koggentor).
Skip the Crane – While the majestic shape of the Gdańsk’s Crane is probably something you will know the city for (it’s the equivalent of Vienna’s Giant Ferris Wheel), the inside of it is highly overrated. Unless the smell of old wood is something you live for. Oh, and don’t expect nice views from the top of the Crane either.
The European Centre of Solidarity – Devoted to the history of Solidarity, the Polish trade union and civil resistance movement, and other opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe, this museum is built next to the entrance to the Gdańsk Shipyards and right at the Solidarity Square. This beautiful rust-coloured building contains a stunning permanent exhibition telling the story of the Polish Solidarity movement through actual memorabilia collected from the witnesses of the legendary events, photographs, movies, maps, interactive displays, and even vehicles and equipment from the old shipyard. Once you are inside, you step into a spacious honey wood adorned atrium with real trees, a beautiful library, a small cafe and an elevator that takes you up to the roof from where you can admire the industrial panorama stretching on the horizon. Allow for 2-3 hours to view the permanent exhibition and a bit more time to hang out at the library.
Museum of the Second World War – The museum was opened last year and is a sight to behold. A slanted structure protruding from the ground does not let on that the exhibition is actually located three storeys underground. The challenging construction took 8 years including digging a watertight excavation. The exhibition is meant to tell an unbiased story of the II World War rather than taking on the Polish perspective on the happenings of one of the most tragic events in the human history. For those unaware, the current government makes long-winded attempts at whitewashing history, at the same time victimising and glorifying Poland. I suggest reserving at least 4 hours to look through the permanent exhibition (do take the audio guide) and treating the movie showed at the very end of it as Polish fanfiction.
Going to the beach – Take the water tram F5 to travel all the way to the lighthouses in Brzeźno. You will see the still operating shipyards and the Westerplatte monument. You can then take the long walk along the beachside or take some time off at the beach before heading to the Brzeźno Pier. There are plenty of restaurants serving fresh fish in this area. The water tram costs 10 PLN one way and it’s really popular in the season so make sure you walk up to the first ferry stop to avoid disappointments.
#4 What to eat in Gdańsk
My favourite subject!
Breakfast – For locally sourced creative food go to Pomelo Bistro – the breakfast menu is not large but I consider this a plus. They serve vegan food and provide allergen information on the menu. Another interesting location is Klatka B, tucked away behind a passage off the popular promenade that runs alongside the river. Here you can choose between an amazing breakfast buffet and à la carte breakfasts. Do try their sourdough bread! Side note: there is a tiny designer store in the cellar of the restaurant, perfect for gift shopping.
Coffee and cake – You HAVE to go to Umam Marina. Amazing desserts created by a popular Polish confectioner made famous by the local version of the Great British Bake Off. Most of the cakes are not gluten-free, not even mentioning vegan options. If you feel like getting out of the city centre for a much bigger selection of Umam cakes, go to the actual cafe owned by Krzysztof Ilnicki – details here. I can recommend the following cafes for quick (or long) coffee breaks – Schopenhauer, Kafëbë , and Drukarnia. All of them are located in the slim Dutch style buildings with cosy stoops characteristic for Baltic cities, which were converted into small gardens with tables. People staring spots, if you ask me. Not central but worth visiting is Fukafe – the best coffee and vegan cakes one could ask for.
Late lunch anyone?– Due to really high temperatures, I spent most of the days powered by coffee and tourist interest. I would combine lunch and dinner when it cooled down for a relaxing finish of my busy sightseeing trips. If you are looking for lunch spots, I can recommend going back to Pomelo Bistro or Klatka B. Vegans will love Vegan Port, Buddha Lounge Restaurant & Bar and Avocado Vegan Bistro. If you want to try Polish cuisine, you have to go to Bistro Kös, and the traditional Milk Bar Neptun. I also recommend Guga Sweet & Spicy (close to the II World War museum!). The honourable mention goes to Canis Music&Wine – it was the most pleasant experience of my whole stay. Slightly pricier than the rest of the recommendations here, Canis is worth visiting because of the following reasons: beautiful interior, amazing food, live music and the nicest staff you could have ever wanted.