If we want to fly anywhere we usually have to travel at least two hours to get to the nearest airport. When the Hungarian low cost carrier Wizzair announced that they would be flying to the Polish city of Gdansk from the small regional Groningen Airport near our hometown Groningen we were one of the first people to buy tickets.
For only 20 euro pp return we were going to celebrate my 50th birthday in what turned out to be one of the most beautiful cities in Poland. Many people questioned our choice of a weekend getaway to Gdansk when we announced our trip: why the hell did we want to go there.
Restored to its former glory
Most people only know Gdansk as an industrial city. A city that had suffered a lot under the occupation of Nazi Germany during World War II and under Communism in the decades that followed. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 much has been done, however, to restore the city to its former picturesque glory.
This is evidenced, for example, at the old quay along the Motlawa river, where the historical Zurow cargo crane (dating back to 1444) is the most visible symbol of a great trading past. The crane – which is part of the National Maritime Museum – got destroyed during the war but was rebuilt directly thereafter, like many of the other historic structures along the Motlawa.
Among them the 17th century Golden Gate, that gives access to the even more striking colorful Dutch gabled houses – we immediately feel at home! – at Ulica Długa and Długi Targ, the medieval main street and main square. Some houses are covered by beautiful paintings. At the main square the Neptune Fountain and the Gothic-Renaissance Main Town Hall draw the most attention.
Ferris Wheel for a bird’s-eye view
The best way to get a bird’s-eye view of the historic river bank and inner city is to buy a ticket for the 55 meter high Ferris Wheel. The German operated wheel was launched for the first time during the summer of 2014 and was such a success that they erected it again in 2015. The ticket cost 25zl. and views were amazing. If the wheel doesn’t return then the Main Town Hall tower is a good alternative for panoramic views.
Walking across the city we came across many other nice spots, like the areas around St Mary’s Church – Mariacka street with its small cafes, restaurants and shops being the most picturesque – and Saint Catherine’s Church, but almost anywhere we walked in the historic center was pretty.
Of the many museums in Gdansk we only visited the Gdansk History Museum, located in the Main Town Hall, which was nice for some quick information on the city’s history. Particularly the historic photos of Gdansk just after World War II were impressive; half the city had been shot to ruins.
What we found very pleasant about the city was that everything in the historic center is within walking distance. For me this was a blessing. Because of persistent neck pain and headaches I’d started a three month pain rehabilitation program a few weeks earlier.
After taking x-rays and consulting several medical professionals the general verdict was that no physical cause could be found for my complaints. I’d have to learn how to deal with the pain and the rehabilitation program was going to help me with that. One of the first conclusions was that I didn’t take enough rest at whatever I did: sports, work, computering and also travel.
Sightseeing in a relaxed pace
When I told my therapists of our weekend getaway to Gdansk, they thought this would be a good test case for me. Instead of cramming as many sights and things to do into one day, like I normally do, I’d now have to pace my sightseeing and take regular breaks.
Gdansk’s compact historic center turned out to be the ideal test to change my way of travel. Thanks to the many parks and benches around the city I had many suitable opportunities to sit down and take it easy. Even with a relaxed pace the main sights could be seen in one day.
Side trip to Sopot
At the end of the day we could even take a side trip by boat to the nearby seaside resort of Sopot, where it was too cold though to take a quick dip in the Baltic Sea. Instead we enjoyed the late afternoon sun and walked the almost 200 year old pier – at 511 meters the longest wooden pier in Europe –, were dumbfounded by the Crooked House in the main street of Sopot and had something to eat before we took a local train back to Gdansk in the evening.
Malbork Castle day trip
On Sunday we made a day trip by train to Malbork, home to the largest castle in the world by surface area. When the Teutonic knights built the castle in 1406 it was the biggest in the world. Nowadays it’s the largest brick building in Europe. Malbork Castle was impressive inside and out. We liked the interior’s architecture most, especially the elegant arched vaults.
We wandered around for several hours, the audio guide giving us explanation about each room. At the end we rushed a little to get back to the train station on time for the train we thought was going to bring us back to Gdansk. Our lacking Polish language skills (read: completely absent) had gotten the better of us though. There was no train on the anticipated time.
The next train would go two hours later. What to do? We decided to walk the 15 minutes back to the castle and admire it from afar from the other side of the river. After the morning had passed with overcast skies, the sun chose this moment to finally show itself again allowing us to shoot some beautiful photographs. Malbork Castle sure made for a pretty picture.
Street art in Zaspa
Back in Gdansk it was already well past five o’clock in the afternoon. To lose no valuable daylight we immediately decided to take a local train to the suburb of Zaspa, a typical Communist era city district characterized by many rows of concrete apartment buildings. Most of the time these neighborhoods appear drab. But not Zaspa.
Since 1997 apartment buildings in Zaspa have been brushed up (literally) by huge murals on the sides of the buildings. We had two hours of fun trying to find the graffiti art before hunger and a slowly surfacing headache (I had fallen back into old travel habits) drove us back to Gdansk for dinner. We’ve posted a photo gallery of the murals here.
European Solidarity Centre
The next morning we concluded our weekend getaway to Gdansk with a brief visit to the European Solidarity Centre that opened its doors in 2014. The center has a permanent exhibition on the struggle against communism in Eastern Europe and the history of the Solidarity trade union movement that under its leader and later Polish president Lech Walensa played a pivotal role in the collapse of communism in the 1980s. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to see the whole exhibition.
We had to fly back home in the early afternoon. Landing on Groningen Airport we experienced to advantages of flying from a small regional airport close to home: just a 3 minute walk from airplane to airport exit (we only brought hand luggage of course) where the shuttle to the parking lot (2 minutes away) was waiting followed by a quick drive home. It resulted in our fasted transfer ever: 25 minutes from airplane to front door.
We visited Gdansk in July 2015
Travel tips Gdansk
Sleep – We rented a small apartment for three nights, just outside the historic center (still only a 5-10 minute walk away). Clean and spacious Apartament Grobla is on the third floor of a residential low rise apartment building and has a roomy live-in kitchen – ideal to prepare your own breakfast –, a bedroom with a double bed and a living room with a sofa bed. Wifi was good.
Eat – There are many restaurants to choose from in Gdansk. Our favorite spot was the quay along the Motlawa where many nice eateries can be found with terraces overlooking the river. As it’s a popular spot for both locals and tourists alike to promenade in the evening it’s also great for people watching.
We also had dinner at Swojski Smak, a restaurant serving traditional Polish food, a 20-25 minute walk from the city center en route to the European Solidarity Centre. By ordering the ‘Essence of Polish cuisine’ for 2 people you can try several national and local dishes. At only 89zl. (about 20 euros) pp it was tasty value for money.
Transport – Gdansk’s Lech Walensa Airport is a 20-30 minute drive outside the city. There are buses to take you to the city center, but we booked a transfer through our apartment rental (hey, it was my birthday!). The daughter of the owner drove us to and from the airport for a small fee, which was convenient.
Trains to Malbork leave from beautiful 19th century Gdansk Glowny (Central Station) several times per day at irregular intervals. Be sure to check the times and what kind of train you take. The slower (and cheaper) local trains take much more time than the intercity trains to Warsaw (which are much more expensive). If you travel on Sunday (like we did) you have to double check the train schedule as not all trains go on Sunday (as we found out…).
Regular local trains to Sopot and Zaspa are cheap and leave from Gdansk Glowny as well. You can buy tickets at ticket vending machines before you board the trains (this also goes for tram and bus) and validate your ticket on the platforms. In trams and buses tickets can be stamped as you board (sometimes it’s also possible to buy a ticket at a machine inside bus or train).
Boats to Sopot sail from the Motlawa quay near the Golden Gate only a few times per day and only at weekends (daily in July and August). The trip takes about one hour. You arrive at the far end of the pier in Sopot. Entrance to the pier is included in your boat ticket. If you leave the pier and want to get back later you have to pay for a separate ticket.