21 May Gdańsk: A perfect weekend on Poland’s Baltic Coast
A couple of times a year, I like to have a weekend away with an old friend, to combine two of my favourite activities: long overdue (and usually wine-fuelled) catch-ups, and exploring new places.
My schoolfriend Katie and I have been trying to organise a weekend away for years now, but have always been unable to find the impossible trinity: a free weekend in common, a place we can both get to, and the cash to actually book the thing. But this year, we finally managed it.
We both wanted to head to a city that we’d never seen before, which narrowed the search for a destination down a little. Finding somewhere with flights from both the west of England and the north of Italy narrowed it down some more, and eliminating places which would be far too expensive once we got there, even if the flights were cheap (special shoutout to you, Copenhagen!) brought us down to a very short shortlist.
In the end, the winner was Gdańsk – a tiny little Polish city which had wooed us on Instagram with its pretty, pastel facades (and yes, I am obsessed with ice cream coloured houses – see exhibit A, and exhibit B).
Although we weren’t 100% sure how to pronounce where we were going (if you’re also wondering, this will help), we hoped it would be the perfect place for a weekend of wandering, powered by pierogis aplenty.
And perfect it was indeed.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Baltic coast of Poland, keep reading for some tips on what to see, do, and eat in and around Gdańsk. If you’re not thinking of making a trip, keep reading anyway – you might just change your mind…
Things to see and do in Gdańsk
I’d go so far as to say that Gdańsk is one of the best places I’ve ever come across for a 3-day weekend. There’s plenty to keep you entertained, but the city is so compact that you can get a great feel for it in just a couple of days.
There are a good few things to do, but this little Baltic gem is just as good a destination for chilled-out travellers who prefer wandering and taking in their surroundings to rushing from museum to gallery to museum.
Here are a few things to add to your to-do list:
1. Get lost in the old town
Ok, the old town is pretty tiny, so you’ll probably find it tricky to actually get lost, but go ahead and try – you won’t regret it. At first glance, Gdańsk looks like a miniature Amsterdam, or a little Polish Copenhagen, and with its biscuit box facades and pretty ice-cream colours, there’s no denying it’s a cutie.
But in order to understand Gdańsk – and particularly its architecture – you do need a tiny bit of historical background. I’ll keep it short, I promise.
To the untrained eye, the old town looks… well… old, but many of the buildings are in fact only about the same age as my parents. Considering that Gdańsk was where WWII actually began, it’s no surprise that much of the city was obliterated during the war. Gdańsk had to be pretty much rebuilt from the ground up in the years that followed, and this was – to say the least – a little controversial, with locals divided on whether the place should be returned brick-by-brick to its former glory, or whether this moment in history should be used to reinvent the city completely, to distance Poland from its turbulent past. The result is kind of a mix, with the city as you see it today neither totally identical to the pre-war Danzig, nor totally different.
The overall structure of the old town was maintained (you can see some before and after photos here), and many buildings rebuilt in something close to the old style. However, locals wanted a Polish city, not a recreation of German Danzig, so many references to the city’s Germanic past were erased, with architects instead taking inspiration from Dutch, Flemish, Italian, and French styles.
Although what you see when wandering the streets of Gdańsk may not be anywhere near as old or “authentic” as it first appears, you can’t forget that this is still a historical city, and an important one at that.
While you wander the city centre, make sure not to miss Ulica Mariacka (in picture above) – a super picturesque street full of amber merchants and cute cafés with adorable little outdoor terraces – and the surrounding streets.
If you want the city to yourself, get up early – the streets fill up at around 11am, but are practically deserted before then.
2. Climb the tower of St Mary’s Basilica
I’ve long held the belief that you can’t understand a city properly until you’ve seen it from the top, and as soon as I arrive in a new destination, you can bet I’ve already got my sights set on the highest place around.
In the case of Gdańsk, that place is St Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka), which you can find at the end of Ulica Mariacka in the heart of the old town.
This Basilica is apparently one of the largest brick churches in the world – a fact which doesn’t hit you until you start walking up towards the top (a ticket to climb the tower costs 8 zloty, which I think we can all agree is a reasonable price for enough of a bum and leg workout to last you an entire week).
I decided to make my way up immediately after breakfast on my last day, while carrying 15 kilos of backpack (note to self: nobody needs 3 pairs of trousers for a 3 day trip) which, it transpired, was a terrible idea. Scrambled eggs and 405 stairs do not a happy traveller make.
I wouldn’t say I suffer from debilitating claustrophobia, but I certainly don’t love small spaces, and the first 100 steps or so almost got the better of me – the tiny spiral staircase feels suffocating, to put it lightly, and the fact that there was nobody else on it made me panic a bit more than usual. So if you’re a real claustrophobic, I’d say give this one a miss.
That said, after the initial spiral nightmare, the stairway opens up, and you start to climb along the 4 sides of the brick tower, past the bells and beyond. Visitors returning in the opposite direction will, without any shadow of a doubt, either give you a wide-eyed look of understanding, or utter something along the lines of “good luck”, which will not fill you with joy… but keep on going because the view from the top is so worth it.
3. Visit the (huge) Second World War Museum
Considering the city’s history, it’s no surprise that Gdańsk has one of the most famous and most comprehensive WWII museums around.
Katie and I spent the whole of our first morning together wandering the Museum of the Second World War, a beautifully-designed 5,000m2 exhibition, housed underneath a rather snazzy piece of geometric, modern architecture, 5 minutes’ walk from the city centre.
The exhibition is a mix of traditional artefacts and modern, interactive exhibits, and focuses on all aspects of WWII, putting pieces together that you may not even have realised were connected. Even if you think you’re already pretty clued up about this period of history, I promise you will still feel like your brain has grown by 2 sizes by the time you leave.
Tickets cost the equivalent of about €5 each, which is an absolute bargain for what is without a doubt one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.
…or any other of the city’s museums, for that matter
With only 2 days together, and lots of other things to see, Katie and I only made it to the WWII exhibition, but the European Solidarity Centre, Archaeological Museum (with panoramic viewing tower), National Maritime Museum, and Amber Museum all made the shortlist.
For museum nerds, there are plenty to see in Gdansk, and you can even get your hands on a Visit Gdańsk sightseeing card for discounts if you think you might go to a few while you’re in town.
4. Explore an open-air art gallery
If you’re a fan of street art, don’t miss the Zaspa district – a residential area 10 minutes away from downtown Gdańsk on the train.
The sides of the buildings in this ex-Soviet apartment block complex have been brightened up with the addition of enormous, colourful murals by various local and foreign artists, and you can easily spend a morning wandering around the area trying to find them all (the murals also make excellent backdrops for photos – if in doubt, do it for the ‘gram).
A comprehensive guide to Zaspa is coming soon to The Gap Life Diaries – stay tuned!
5. Spend an afternoon at the seaside
If the weather’s nice (we were very lucky with non-stop sun and mid-20s temperatures for our mid-May mini-break), don’t miss the opportunity to head to the Baltic seaside, even if only for a couple of hours.
Most guides and blogs describe the town of Sopot as a “day trip” destination, but at only a 4 zloty, 20 minute SKM train ride from the centre of Gdańsk, it’s definitely possible to pop to the beach for just a couple of hours if you’re tight for time.
Sopot is, in many ways, a typical seaside town, so you can expect kilometres of soft sand, plenty of hungry seagulls, and hoardes of locals going for a wander down the pier or gleefully burning to a crisp on the beach. The town itself is very small, so there’s not much risk of getting lost here either.
Was the sea beautiful, clear, and swimmable? Well, let’s just say there’s no doubt that this is the Baltic Sea and not the Aegean. That said, the sand is lovely, the beaches clean, and the pier pleasant to wander down (don’t be surprised when you have to pay 8 zloty to walk along it, though).
We only spent an afternoon at the Polish seaside, but were both glad we did – Sopot or Santorini, a bit of sunshine and sea breeze is always good for the soul.
Food & drink
(yes, we’re getting to the pierogis)
Poland is – I think it’s safe to say – not famed for its cuisine, so food-wise, I was considerably less excited about this trip than I had been about, say, my weekend in Palermo.
But thanks to some top tips from friends and locals, and a little bit (ok, a lot) of online research in the days leading up to our trip, we were able to find some really great places to eat and drink in this little Polish city.
The best thing about eating and drinking in Poland is the cost – if you’re on a super tight budget, it’s very easy to survive, and if you’re prepared to spend as much as you would at home on meals per day, you can expect to be able to eat in much fancier restaurants than you’re used to.
Poles really know how to do breakfast, and we found a great one at Anima Café, in the city centre but slightly outside the most touristy areas. Lovely interiors, fresh juices, big plates of eggy goodness, enormous and delicious-looking cakes, Anima has it all. You can expect to pay under €10 for a yummy, filling breakfast including drinks.
Neighbours Kitchen is actually an all-day kinda place, but we popped in for breakfast. It’s by the harbour, across the river from the more touristy side of town, so again, you’ll be able to have a quiet, peaceful breakfast. Katie had a cooked breakfast, and I went for a yogurty-fruity-granola bowl, which was delicious. Again, you can expect to pay €10 or less for a really filling breakfast.
Lunch and dinner
One of two culinary highlights of the trip was our lunch at Prologue restaurant – a stylish little place on the city centre waterfront, which had been recommended to me by a friend who’d been to Gdańsk with his Polish girlfriend last summer. This restaurant is a great example of Polish pricing – it’s a pretty fancy place – obviously not intended for budget travellers – but the bill won’t amount to any more than a regular restaurant lunch would cost you at home, and the fish was just so juicy and delicious.
The other culinary highlight was Mandu – a pierogi restaurant located a little outside the tourist centre. This one was recommended to us by my Polish colleague, whose words were along the lines of, “Most pierogi places are bullshit to take tourists’ money, but this one is like my grandma is cooking”. We had to go. This restaurant is super simple, and was surprisingly empty on the evening we went there. We ordered two dishes to share – some traditional Polish pierogi with wild boar and mushrooms, and some more exotic spicy Thai flavoured ones, with sides of kimchi and sauerkraut, all unceremoniously washed down with Aperol Spritz because, Toto, we’re not in Italy any more.
Lunch at Canis was a happy accident, to tell you the truth. Katie was already well on her way back to the UK by this point, and I found myself wandering around solo, taking a few final photos before making my own way to the airport. I stopped at a random point on a random street, bent down to take something or other out of my backpack, and spotted the open window of this restaurant as I stood back up again. I wasn’t even sure the place was serving food – it was totally empty – but went inside to ask anyway, and was pleased to find that lunch was very much on. Canis is a weird little place, with fun lighting, fisheye mirrors, and a mix of wood and velvet and metal and glass all over the place. I sat down to a not-particularly-cheap (for Polish standards, anyway) but very delicious lunch of goats cheese salad, with a glass of wine, and soaked in my last taste of Gdańsk.
Drukarnia came highly recommended by both of my friends who’d recently visited Poland, and right they were to point me in the direction of this place. The café is located on Mariacka Street (the pretty one, with the amber stalls and the cute terraces, remember?), has a sweet little outdoor terrace and a small seating area inside, and they specialise in great coffee. Katie had dropped by while waiting for me to arrive on our first day, and reminded me on several occasions during the weekend that she’d had the best iced coffee of her life there. On my last day, when Katie had already headed back to the airport, I dropped by for an iced latte in the sunshine and have to say (and this comes from someone who hate hate hates milk) it was absolutely divine. Bonus points for the super friendly waitresses and good-looking cakes, too.
At the top of the Puro Hotel is INK Above – a half-inside-half-out cocktail bar with a different view of the city and deeeelicious drinks (I went for a green creation called KOKU and would highly recommend it!). The bar opens at 5pm – we didn’t know this, but luckily happened to arrive at 4.55 just as the doors were about to open – and many of the best seats are already taken by 5.15, so I’d recommend showing up early if you want to be sure of an outdoor seat. Not super cheap, but totally worth it.
Just down the road from our Airbnb, Café Lamus is the perfect place for a chilled-out after dinner drink, or even a coffee or a beer during the day in their outdoor seating area. If you’re a fan of retro interiors, you will fall in love with this place. I mean, check out that wallpaper!
Josef K was recommended for its cocktails by a friend who’d visited the city a couple of months ago. Located in one of the most touristy areas of town, I was initially a bit hesitant that it’d be a rip-off, but I have to say we loved this place. The vibe is vintage-bric-a-brac-chic, with decorations including dressed-up mannequins and piles of old books. The cocktails were great, and the quirky vibe made it a super spot for an after dinner drink.
How to get to Gdańsk
Despite the majority of people not even being able to point out Gdańsk on a map, the city is surprisingly easy to get to. Katie flew out on a Ryanair red-eye from Manchester, while I arrived with WizzAir from Milan’s Bergamo airport, but there are direct flights with various low cost airlines from all around Europe.
From the airport, you have a few different options – taxis cost a very reasonable 70PLN (around €20) to the city centre, but if you’re on a tight budget it’s very easy to get the train too – the journey from Gdańsk Port Lotniczy station (right outside the airport) to central Gdańsk Główny station takes around 40 minutes, and you’ll need to change train at Gdańsk Wrzeszcz. Trains run very regularly (at least a couple of times an hour) and are very safe and efficient, as well as cheap.
Once you arrive in downtown Gdańsk, you probably won’t need to use a lot of public transport – the city is small and safe enough to be easily explored on foot. If you need to leave the city centre (for example, to visit the Zaspa district, or the seaside) the SKM train network works really well, and only costs a few zloty per journey, so will probably be your best bet.
Where to stay
I’m a big fan of Airbnb, and there were a few lovely, reasonably-priced options in Gdańsk. We stayed in a little studio apartment on Tartaczna Street – a nice quiet area which is just a couple of minutes’ walk from the waterfront.
In terms of location (this may sound like a stupid thing to stay, but bear with me) the city looks much bigger on a map than it is in real life, so while a hotel or apartment may not look like it’s in the city centre, chances are it’s only a 10 minute walk away. If in doubt, double check in walking time on Google Maps (consider St Mary’s Basilica as the centre of town).
Psst: If you’ve never used Airbnb before, you can use my link to get €25 off your booking.
So there you have it, a perfect weekend in pretty Poland. If you’ve visited Gdańsk recently and found any other gems, I’d love to hear from you!
More photos coming soon on Instagram.
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