48 hours in: Gdansk
Poland's handsome Baltic port, at the centre of European history, possesses abundant architecture and atmosphere — plus beaches a short hop away, writes Cathy Packe
Why go now?
This Baltic city is full of historic intrigue: a Hanseatic port, a free city, and the place where the Second World War began. Gdansk opens up in spring, with the nearby beaches an ideal complement to the busy city streets.
Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com) flies four times a week from Dublin. The city's Lech Walesa airport is nine miles west of the city centre. The journey takes up to half an hour by taxi for a fare of around 60 zloty (PLN60/€15.55).
An airport bus (0048 515 181 161; airportbus.com.pl) runs several times a day from outside the terminal, coinciding with international arrivals and departures and dropping passengers at the city terminal on Jana Heweliusza, opposite the Hotel Hevelius (1). A single ticket costs PLN9.90 (€2.54).
Get your bearings
Gdansk is the dominant part of an area known as the Tri-City: Gdansk itself, the coastal spa resort of Sopot five miles to the north, and the modern port of Gdynia another three miles beyond that. The three areas are connected by the yellow and blue SKM trains, which operate frequently in and out of the Gdansk Glowny railway station (2). This is a very confusing station -- SKM trains serve the group of platforms to the right as you go in. Buy tickets (very cheap) from the machines.
In Gdansk, the boundaries of the attractive old city centre are formed by the Motlawa river and the Motlawa and Raduna canals, with main roads to the south and west. The city was once walled; its main artery, the combination of Dluga and Dlugi Targ -- Long Street and Long Market -- cuts through it from west to east.
The tourist office (3) at 28-29 Ul Dlugi Targ (0048 583 014 355) sells Tourist Cards, which, for PLN35 (€9.05) for 24 hours, cover travel on the whole public transport network in the Tri-City, free entry to museums, and discounts on other attractions.
The Gotyk House (4) was built in 1451 and claims to be the oldest house in Gdansk. This comfortable establishment has seven rooms, and is located on Gdansk's most attractive street, Ul Mariacka1 (0048 583 018 567; gotykhouse.eu). Doubles here are available from PLN220 (€56.55), singles from PLN190 (€49.75); prices include breakfast.
The Hanza Hotel (5) at Tokarska 6 (0048 583 053 427; hotelhanza.pl) is an appealing modern building on the river. Doubles here start at PLN465 (€121) and singles at PLN395 (€102.90), including breakfast.
The Scandic Hotel (6) is larger and cheaper, and its location opposite the railway station at Podwale Grodzkie 9 (0048 583 006 000; scandichotels.com) is convenient for anyone keen to explore the Tri-City area. Double rooms here start at PLN375 (€97.25), singles at PLN300 (€78.05), including breakfast.
Take a hike
Start your exploration of the city centre at the main entrance to the old town, the Brama Wyzynna or Upland Gate (7). The brick building immediately beyond was once a courthouse and prison; now it houses the Amber Museum (8), which opens 10am-3pm on Tuesdays, until 4pm Wednesday-Saturday and 11am-4pm on Sundays (0048 583 262 153; mhmg.gda.pl; PLN10/ €2.60; free on Tuesdays).
Amber has been important to the economy of Gdansk for many centuries, and the museum contains a fascinating collection of amber pieces. Beyond the museum's courtyard is the main street, Dluga, restored after the Second World War to something like its original glory, all pastel colours and ornate gabling.
At number 12 is the Dom Uphagena (domuphagena.ovh. org) (9), an 18th-century town house decorated and furnished in period style. It opens 10am-3pm Tuesdays, 10am-4pm Wednesday-Saturday and 11am-4pm on Sundays; admission PLN10 (€2.60), free on Tuesdays.
On the other side of the street, and with the same opening hours, is the Artus Court (10), once used as a meeting place for the medieval guilds who each had their own benches. Among the striking features of the two halls are a carved spiral staircase and a 16th-century ceramic heating stove with embossed tiles.
Turn left just before the Town Hall (11) towards St Mary's (12), believed to be the largest brick church in the world. It opens 6am-7.30pm Monday-Saturday and 8am-7pm on Sundays.
Continue down Mariacka, with its cobbles and attractive buildings, and through the gate at the bottom, turning left for a short detour to inspect the medieval wooden crane (13). From here, retrace your steps along the river bank and turn right, through the Green Gate (14) and back into Dlugi Targ.
Lunch on the run
In a city full of coffee shops, locals reckon the best coffee is on Ul Piwna. It is also a good place for a quick lunch. Head for Kos (15) if you fancy pizza or salad, or across the road, the Balsam Cafe (0048 583 220 401; balsamcafe. home.pl) serves soup and salad.
Take a ride
The entrance to Gdansk harbour is close to a headland called Westerplatte, where the first shots of the Second World War were fired by a German battleship on September 1, 1939. A monument on the cliff, overlooking the Baltic coastline, marks the event. Boats to Westerplatte sail in summer from the landing stage by the Green Gate (14) on the hour from 10am to 5pm; PLN30 (€7.80).
Write a postcard...
... from the old post office (16) at Ul Obroncow Poczty Polskiej 1-2. In September 1939, a small group of postal workers heroically resisted the German forces for nine hours before they were forced to surrender. They are commemorated in a crumpled steel monument in the courtyard outside.
Amber is Gdansk's most prominent export, and there are shops devoted to it all over the city; Ul Mariacka is a good place to start. Get an 'amber passport' to make sure your purchase is genuine. If you prefer a modern mall, try the Madison shopping centre (17), open 9am-9pm daily (10am-8pm on Sundays).
The only beer brewed in Gdansk can be tasted at Brovarnia (18), a bar with microbrewery, in the Hotel Gdansk on Ul Szafarnia 9 (0048 583 201 980; brovarnia.pl). There are three beers -- light, white and dark -- but if beer is not to your taste, order the local Goldwasser vodka for PLN12 (€3.10) a shot.
Dine with the locals
Stay at Brovarnia (18) and choose from the bar or restaurant menu, or explore some of the city's eateries. Reservations are advisable at the popular Monbalzac (19), at Ul Piwna 36-39 (0048 586 822 525; monbalzac.pl). For traditional Polish food, try Velevetka (20), in the basement of Ul Dluga 45 (0048 583 056 106; velevetka.pl).
Sunday morning: go to church
Gdansk cathedral is in the residential suburb of Oliwa, north of the city centre and easily accessible from Gdansk Glowny station (2) on the SKM train. The one-way fare is PLN3.10 (80c). The cathedral is a tall Gothic structure with a Baroque altar and a vast, 18th-century organ that is being restored. The building had its origins in the 13th century, when it was part of a Cistercian monastery.
A walk in the park
The cathedral is by Oliwa Park, an area of woodland and formal gardens that is popular with locals. There are several sculptures and a bandstand for concerts. It opens until 8pm (until 11pm in the summer).
Out to brunch
Return to the station and take a northbound train to Sopot, five minutes away. This resort on the Baltic has a sandy beach and a long pier that claims to be the longest in Europe. The Wave restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel at Ul Powstancow Warszawy 10 (0048 587 671 961; sheraton.com/ sopot) serves an eat-as-much-as-you-like brunch for PLN130 (€33.95).
For a more modest meal, go to Pijalnia Czekolady Wedel on Sopot's main thoroughfare, the Boulevard Monte Cassino 36 (0048 585 500 335; wedelpijalnie.pl).
Gdansk became synonymous at the end of the 20th century for its role in the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The Lenin Shipyards (now Gdansk Shipyards) were the focal point of the Solidarity movement.
In front of the main gate of the shipyards is Plac Solidarnosci (21), where a monument commemorates the workers who died in the 1970s riots which led ultimately to the political events of the 1980s.
Close by, at Ul Waly Piastowskie 24, is Roads to Freedom (0048 583 084 428; fcs.org.pl) (22), a fascinating exhibition explaining the development of Solidarity and its importance.
It opens 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday, until 6pm from May to September, and costs PLN6 (€1.58).
The icing on the cake
Go to Hel, the resort at the extreme end of the Hel peninsula. You can make a terrific circular trip: by boat or hydrofoil from Gdansk, Sopot or Gdynia. A train runs back from Hel to Gdansk, giving you a cheap circuit of the bay.