100 years in Gdańsk, Poland

Eimear Feeney details how Gdańsk’s history informs the pulsing cultural scene

After spending most of your summer pushing yourself to work busy night shifts, a holiday is necessary before starting a new college year. Let me invite you onto the picturesque streets of Gdańsk, Poland. Yet in your enjoyment of the sights, don’t overlook the city’s historical background. Instead, as you wander Gdańsk’s winding streets, let the past colour your imagination.

Exploring the Old Town 

To begin, you pass through the Renaissance Golden Gate of Gdańsk. You are filled with awe as the sun glistens down on the majestic landscape of Długi Targ. Hearing the soft tune of a piano accordion, you follow the blissful laughter and walk past Uphagena House, once home to Dom Uphagen, an 18th-century City Councillor. You have officially been transported back in time to an archaic city. Passing Artus Court, once the centre of communications in this affluent merchant city, you realise how small you are compared to the grandeur of the architecture and history. Before visiting the beautiful St Mary’s Basilica, take an enjoyable detour to the closest ice cream and waffle shop to fulfil your craving for something sweet and prepare for the day ahead. 

“Gdańsk offers travellers and tourists a pulsing cultural scene and an enchanting historical landscape.”

Gdańsk offers travellers and tourists a pulsing cultural scene and an enchanting historical landscape – the city charms history buffs through its connection to WW2 and the 1980 Polish Solidarity movement. For the nocturnal creatures, Gdańsk is saturated with exciting themed bars and nightclubs. Compared to other European cities I have visited, Gdańsk offers an inexpensive tourist experience. Poland is fantastic for its affordable alcoholic drinks and cocktails, which are ideal for students. Beers are 15-20 zł (€3-5), and cocktails are roughly 25-40 zł (€6-10).

When arriving in Gdańsk, don’t hesitate to see the Gdansk Royal Way in the Old Town. Part of the Royal Way is the infamous Długi Targ, translating to the Long Market. This key attraction in Gdańsk displays vibrant ornamental facades built in the 13th century. Długi Targ was a prosperous and wealthy merchant street and is now a hotspot for bars and restaurants. The predominant architectural styles displayed are Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance, with Dutch and Flemish influences. The city’s historic centre was reconstructed due to the destruction caused by WW2. 

“It is said that the God Neptune became so angry that people were throwing coins into his fountain that he broke the coins and turned all the water into vodka.”

The infamous symbol of Gdańsk is the Neptune Fountain. This bronze sculpture of the Roman God has long-standing ties to the city. The statue, built from 1606 to 1613, is Poland’s oldest secular monument. We learned from locals that the origins of the local beverage Goldwasser relate to a folktale. It is said that the God Neptune became so angry that people were throwing coins into his fountain that he broke the coins and turned all the water into vodka. 

Mariacka Street should be on every traveller’s list to visit in Gdańsk. With its aesthetically pleasing cobbled streets, gargoyle head rain gutters and terraced houses, it is a stunning street to wander around. Gdańsk is the amber capital of the Baltics. Many markets are propped up around the city, but Mariacka Street contains the best amber jewellery shops, galleries and cafes. A fabulous amber necklace cost me only 134zł (€29). Drukarnia is a lovely cafe to visit on this street with gorgeous coffee. The cafe follows a minimalist aesthetic which compliments the rustic brick exterior.  You can sit and gaze out onto Mariacka Street while drinking your coffee to achieve that “main character moment.”

The wonderful cafes and food 

The cafes in Gdańsk display a stark contrast between the exterior and the interior. Many of the cafes we saw resided in old townhouses or tenement houses, but the interiors burst with a modern flare. We visited Kaffe Perro Negro and had delicious iced coffee with cream. One thing I thought was unique to the Gdańsk cafes was the effort to create cosy and warm interiors to enhance customer experience. Walking into Perro Negro you meet sunflowers at the entrance, and inside, you are greeted with Frida Kahlo portraits, low-hanging, warm lights and colourful faux deer heads. 

I wanted to fully experience Polish culture through the cuisine during my stay. City meal prices range from 40-70 zł (€8-15). The focal point of Polish cuisine is the pierogies. What was once considered peasant food is now a national delicacy. Boiled pierogies are traditional, but I discovered fried pierogies are equally appetising. Some common fillings I tried were potato and cottage cheese, spinach and cheese, and duck. I also had the opportunity to try dessert pierogies with strawberry jam and cream. I would recommend Restauracja Scampi and Pierogi Lwowskie for scrumptious Polish/ Eastern European food. Beef goulash with potato pancakes was another delicacy that I tried. 

Historical connections to WW2

Gdańsk has significant historical connections to Germany and WW2. The city was separated from Germany and placed back in Polish hands after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The first attack of the war occurred at the Westerplatte peninsula, in the port of Gdańsk, in September 1939. On the same day, the Germans attacked the Polish Post Office in Gdańsk, with 50 postmen defending it. The battle lasted 14 hours and concluded with the Post Office bursting into flames, after which 45 of the postmen surrendered. The Post Office is now a small museum commemorating the fallen heroes.

One of the trip’s highlights was visiting the gigantic Museum of the Second World War. The museum itself is very educational and enlightening. It showcases a plethora of information about the war, from the rise of political regimes to the use of terror and the aftermath. We found ourselves intrigued by the layout and interactive exhibits. Although the amount of information and artefacts could have been daunting, the technological aspects helped keep our attention and engagement high. It uses staging and visual displays to showcase changes in the war, like the recreation of a Polish shop street pre-WW2 and an air raid shelter. While time-consuming, the museum proved an essential component of our trip. 

The thrilling nightlife 

Sightseeing is a valuable part of travelling, but partaking in the city’s nightlife is also vital to the student travel experience. The night-time social scene in Gdańsk is exhilarating, and there are no limits to the number of dynamic bars and nightclubs. I loved the unique atmospheres and aesthetics you could find in venues around the city. One of my favourite places was Cybermachina. This gaming bar offers interesting cocktails under the theme of video game culture. While you enjoy your drinks, you can play any board game from their selection, Xbox or even guitar hero. The next place I would recommend is 100cznia, which is this fantastic social and cultural space with many bars and a street food market. This venue has turned rustic shipping containers into an innovative social setting where you can shop, play arcade games and relax on the beach.

Some other recommendations to visit include Jungla Cocktails and Food and Bunkier. Jungla gives its customers a fantastic skyline view of the city, serving heavenly cocktails and food. The interior mixes the aesthetic of a tropical rainforest with a modern city hangout. Another gem to visit on a night out in Gdańsk is Bunkier, a nightclub converted from an air raid shelter. This club has three floors, with each one offering a different experience. There is no issue travelling back to accommodation after a joyous night out. I found the Bolt app easily accessible and helpful for travelling in and out of the city. The Bolt taxis were surprisingly cheap, ranging from 20-30 zł (€4-6), which suits a holiday budget. 

“This charming city’s commitment to preserving the past is apparent from its Old World architecture to its classic cafes.”

Ultimately, I truly enjoyed my time in Gdańsk, and through this guide have captured every moment to enrich your visit. This charming city’s commitment to preserving the past is apparent from its Old World architecture to its classic cafes. Forward-looking student travellers who appreciate history will consider their time here well-spent.