Both the starting point of World War II and the setting of the famous strikes against Communist control, Gdańsk has played more than a fleeting role on the world stage. Traces of its past are visible in the steel skeletons of shipyard cranes and the Hanseatic architecture of the old town. After all the social and political upheavals of the last century, the city is now busy reinventing itself as a tourist hub.
With its medieval brick churches and narrow eighteenth-century merchants’ houses, Gdańsk certainly looks ancient. But its appearance is deceptive: by 1945, the core of the city lay in ruins, and the present buildings are almost complete reconstructions.
Huge stone gateways guard both entrances to ul. Długa, the main thoroughfare. Start from the sixteenth-century gate at the top, Brama Wyżynna, and carry on east through the nearby Brama Zlota. You’ll soon come across the imposing Town Hall, which houses a Historical Museum (June–Sept Mon 10am–3pm, Tues–Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 11am–6pm; Oct–May Tues 10am–3pm, Wed–Sat 10am–4pm, Sun 11am–4pm; 10zł, free Mon June–Sept & Tues Oct–May) with shocking photos of the city’s wartime destruction. Further down, the street opens onto the wide expanse of ul. Długi Targ, where the ornate facade of Arthur’s Court (same hours as Historical Museum; 10zł) stands out among the fine mansions. The surrounding streets are also worth exploring, especially ul. Mariacka, brimming with amber traders, at the end of which stands St Mary’s Basilica (Mon–Sat 7.30am–6pm, Sun noon–6pm), the largest church in Poland.
At the end of ul. Długi Targ the archways of Brama Zielona open directly onto the waterfront. Halfway down is the fifteenth-century Gdańsk Crane, the biggest in medieval Europe, part of the Central Maritime Museum (July & Aug daily 10am–6pm; Jan–June & Sept–Nov Tues–Sun 10am–4pm; Dec Tues–Sun 10am–3pm; 8zł; w www.cmm.pl) spread over both banks of the river. Highlights include an exhibition of primitive boats; for an extra 8zł you can also tour the cargo ship SS Soldek docked outside. Further north loom the cranes of the famous Gdańsk shipyards, crucible of the political strife of the 1980s. Poignantly set outside the shipyard gates is the monument to the workers who formed the anti-Communist Solidarity movement, many of whom were killed during riots in the 1970s. It was here that Poland’s struggle to topple Communism began, a story detailed in the Roads to Freedom exhibition in the Solidarity offices at ul. Piastowskie 24, across from the shipyard gates (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; 6zł; Wed 2zł).