Gdańsk

Gdansk Old Town - Self-Guided Walking Tour

12 Jul 2019
A unique blend of Germannic and Central European medieval architecture, gilded by the wealth of maritime trade, Gdańsk’s historical centre is one of the largest and most-unique, not only in Poland, but in the whole of Europe. Many of the streets in Gdańsk Old Town have held the same position and name for more than 500 years. What were warehouses, workshops and the state-of-the-art factory spaces in their time are now restaurants, cafés and shopfronts, servicing hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the Tri-city area every year. Depending on how much time you yourself have chosen to spend here, chances are it's at least a day (we hope)! For this reason, we've made up a walking route past what we believe are the most important sites and museums in Gdańsk's centre. It's about 1 hour of walking, plus the time you choose to spend at each point. We've also listed the approximate time it takes to see the museums listed on the map. In total, this self-guided walking tour may take you 4-5 hours. So put on your most comfy shoes, make sure you have a fully-charged camera/smart phone and plenty of water!

1. The Upland Gate (Brama Wyżynna)

This 16th-century gate, the main entrance into the Old Town, was the original starting point for 'The Royal Way'. It was here that the Polish king was welcomed and given the keys to the city. The gate was originally surrounded by a 50m moat and was named for its 'upland' location above the water level. The metal pulleys used for raising and lowering the drawbridges are still visible beneath the coats of arms of Poland, Prussia and Gdańsk. The gate has undergone major renovation work in recent years and now houses a tourist information point.

2. Museum of Amber (Muzeum Bursztynu)

Housed in Gdańsk’s medieval Fore-gate building (once home to the Prison Tower and Torture Chamber), this multi-story exhibit delves extensively into the history of Baltic amber. The impressive collection of 'inclusions' (when bugs or plants are caught inside the amber) is intriguing to look at, and the many amber creations, from inkwells to spoons to a stunning Fender Stratocaster guitar, shows the material’s diversity. A large open room at the top of the building houses an impressive array of modern amber jewellery that appears more artistic than wearable. Many find the separate exhibits on the building’s past as a torture chamber uncomfortable – and considering the piped-in soundtrack of pained cries, we understand why – but they are a must-see, if for no other reason to find out what a 'heretic’s fork' and 'thumb screwing' are. The lower part of the building also housed the city's courthouse from where convicted criminals would be sentenced to hang on the square outside. Many of the exhibit rooms throughout the ancient building are small and cramped, and if you happen to visit on the same day as a school group it’s a nightmare, but it's well worth a visit nonetheless. In the summer months take advantage of the viewing platform in the tower. Mondays are FREE admission. Museum time: 1 hour

3. Golden Gate (Złota Brama)

The virtues of Peace, Freedom, Wealth, Fame, Piety, Justice and Concord are depicted in allegorical statues adorning the balustrade of this gate overlooking ul. Długa. Designed by Flemish architect Abraham van den Blocke, it was built between 1642-44, later destroyed during WWII and not restored until 1997. An inscription on the gate reads, "Small states grow by concord, great ones fall by disagreement." As you walk through the gate, you are now on ul. Długa (Long Street) - the heart of Gdańsk Old Town.

4. Neptune’s Fountain, Long Market (Długi Targ)

This popular bronze statue of the powerful sea god was first erected in 1549 and later converted to its current fountain form in 1633. Fortunately, during WWII the fountain was spared from destruction because it was taken apart and hidden with other Gdańsk treasures. Neptune returned here, to the centre of Długi Targ (Long Market), in 1954 and was restored in 2011/12. The 'market' itself is unique because, unlike the 'square' that most European cities have, Długi Targ is more of a narrow, continuous strip. The colourful and ornate houses on either side used to be home to Gdańsk's richest, most elite residents. Assemblies and executions took place on the space in front of Artus Court in place, thus each window on every residence acted as a TV screen of the 17th century!

5. Artus Court

This impressive mansion, a symbol of the city's power in the 16th and 17th centuries, served as an exchange and as the seat of St. George and the brotherhoods of rich patricians. Founded as a meeting place for merchants and dignitaries, it was named after King Arthur, of round table fame, and hosted many a noble guest. Following a fire in 1841, it was renovated into a more Gothic form, complete with ostentatious sculptures and paintings illustrating man's merits and vices. Inside, the centrepiece of the main hall is a 10.64-metre renaissance tiled stove dating to 1546, made of more than 500 individual tiles and the tallest of its kind in Europe. Its adornments portray leaders, coats of arms and allegorical figures. Just to the left is a small pewter surface that claims to be the oldest table in Poland, while two stone lions protect the entrance to the cellars of the court. Artus Court still plays an important part in public life today and is the scene of important receptions and meetings.

6. Golden House (Złota Kamienica)

A few doors down is Złota Kamienica at Długi Targ 41 is like the 'No.10 Downing Street of old Danzig', where a number of the cities historic mayors have resided. It was commissioned in 1609 by the then-mayor of Danzig, Johann Speymann, designed by the architect Abraham van den Blocke and constructed over a 9 year period. The façade has gilded stone bas-reliefs depicting battle scenes and figures of rulers, including Polish kings Zygmunt III Waza and Władysław Jagiełło. In the central part of the relief is the coat of arms of the Speymann family. Above the entrance is a statue of Mercy and inscriptions in Latin: "Love virtue, it will make you happy, if you want to persecute it, it will overthrow you" and also "Act Justly, Have No Fear". Proceeding residents have claimed to have seen the ghost of Speymann's wife, Judyta, in the halls of the Golden House who whispers the "Act justly..." phrase to people she encounters! The four statues waving to you from the balustrade at the top are the classical figures of Cleopatra, Oedipus, Achilles and Antigone. The building is crowned with a statue of Fortune. The tenement house was destroyed in 1945, except for the facade, which was used as a basis for reconstructing the building behind it.

7. Fahrenheit’s Meteorogical Column

An important name and instrument in science! Daniel Fahrenheit (1686 – 1736), the physicist and inventor, was born just a block away from this recreation of his 'Mercury in Glass' thermometer and barometer. Though he was the first to invent the mercury thermometer in 1714, this particular example, as the plaque below notes, was modelled on his improved model from 1752.

8. Historical Zone Free City Of Gdansk

Found tucked away in the shadow of the Green Gate, what looks like little more than a three-minute diversion transpires to be a fascinating insight into the city. From 1920 until 1939 the city was a semi-independent state, better known as the 'Freie Stadt Danzig' (Free City of Danzig). This exhibition aims to celebrate those times because while the rise of fascism will always cast a pall over the city, it must also be remembered this was far from the nationalist hotbed that is always assumed. The campaign for long term Germanization had been reasonably effective, yet still over 80% of the population regarded themselves as Danzigers first and foremost – not Germans, and not Poles, but the citizens of a unique melting pot in which two nations co-existed. This period is remembered by way of dozens of everyday treasures: on show is everything from banknotes to beer bottles, from tourist guides to cigarette packets. The exhibition features multimedia displays as well as exhibits connected with Danzig trams. While all the texts next to the displays are in Polish make sure you ask for one of the guidebooks available downstairs which clearly describe each display in English (or Russian or German). Museum time: 30 mins

9. The Green Gate (Żielona Brama)

Congratulations! You have just completed 'The Royal Way'. This magnificent four-arched gatehouse on the waterfront was built as a palace for Polish monarchs, though ironically no Polish king ever stayed in the building. Lech Wałęsa, on the otherhand, had his office here before moving to the European Solidarity Centre. The gate leads to the Green Bridge, which spans the Motława River and which used to be raised to stop the riff-raff from getting into the Old Town. Following careful renovation, the gate now bears an uncanny resemblance to Amsterdam's central train station, and hosts an art gallery and the Gdańsk Photo Gallery.

10. Long Waterfront (Długie Pobrzeże)

The waterfront promenade in Gdańsk Old Town, formerly named Długi Most (Long Bridge), stretching along the western shore of Motława. Each 'water gate' along the street is very characteristic of architecture in old Danzig. The first mention of the Marina on this Motława shore comes from the fourteenth century. For many centuries, this promenade was made of wooden platforms of varying height, used for unloading and unloading of ships. In the 17th century, they merged into one bridge. In 1858, during a visit to Gdańsk, the Poet Jadwiga Łuszczewska described Motława along Długie Pobrzeże as being "so crowded with boats that the water is barely visible". It was around this time that the Bówke, harbour thugs and drunkards, used to operate.  After WWII, the street was rebuilt from concrete elements and paved with polished marble slabs. After the summer season 2019, a renovation of Długi Pobrzeże has been planned with expected completion by November 2022.

11. Chlebnicka Gate (Brama Chlebnicka)

Of all the gateways in Gdańsk, this one that’s the best preserved, and that’s no small feat considering the pounding the Russians gave this city at the end of the war. Thought to have been completed in 1450, this signature piece of Gothic style features curved cornices and a pointy arch. On the Motława side of the gate, a beady-eyed scan will reveal the oldest coat of arms on show in the city - a crest of two silver crosses imposed on a red shield added in 1457. That’s not the only piece of identification stamped on the structure. Duck through the passage and you’ll find a lily, once the symbol of the Dukes of Pomerania.

12. Mariacka Gate (Brama Mariacka)

If there’s a more scenic street in Gdańsk we’ve yet to find it. Mariacka is, without a doubt, the jewel in Gdańsk’s crown, a picturesque street of gabled houses and gruesome gargoyles. Towering over it, St Mary’s, the largest brick church in the world. And there’s no better way to approach it than through Brama Mariacka, a shadowy Gothic gateway that could have been built with Dracula in mind. First mentioned in 1484, this place took a hammering in 1945, and pics from that time reveal an image not unlike Hiroshima. Painstakingly rebuilt between 1958 and 1961, after which time the side-wing has served as seat of the Archaeological Museum. The gate has been renovated and the shiny polychrome you see of two lions holding the Gdańsk coat of arms aloft was restored in 2006.

13. Mariacka Street

Locally known as simply 'Mariacka', this cobbled street lined with amber galleries and cafés, runs from Długie Pobrzeże up to the bottom of St. Mary's Basilica. It was badly damaged during WWII, though unlike other streets in Old Town Gdańsk which were reconstructed with new materials, ul. Mariacka was pieced back together with salvaged-debris from elsewhere in the neighbourhood. The most notable relics on this street are the ornate gargoyle rain gutters on the gabled terraced houses, known locally as Rzygacze (English: Spewers). The exquisite detail of the railings, front stoops and stone terraces lining the street are characteristic of Gdańsk Old Town. Gdańsk is the amber capital of the Baltic states and you will see many stalls selling this curious mineral all over Tri-city. However, ul. Mariacka is where the most knowledgable and prestigious amber dealers can be found. Take a look at Galeria Wydra, Manufaktura Bursztynu S&A and Amberstyl just around the corner. Some of the best coffee houses in Tri-city reside here as well, most notably Drukarnia in the old printing house. Next door there is the charming abode of Café Kamienica and Literacka is a cosy wine bar that offers wild boar and other impressive items on their food menu.  ul. Mariacka is a must visit in Gdańsk!

14. St. Mary Basilica

Gdańsk's most visible place of worship, St. Mary's Basilica is believed to be the largest brick church in the world. The interior vault supports 37 windows, over 300 tombstones and 31 chapels. It can hold up to 25,000 people, which was useful during the period of martial law between 1981 and 1983 when members of the Solidarity movement sought refuge here. The church can be accessed through seven gates with intriguing names like the Purse Maker's Door. Interestingly, the sculptor who carved the crucifix of Christ nailed his errant son-in-law to a cross so as to add realism to his work. St. Mary's was seriously damaged during WWII and the original frescoes have since been whitewashed, which far from leaving an impression of stark emptiness bring out the best in the relics throughout and creating a marvellous feeling. Of note is the enormous astronomical clock dating from 1464. Its complex dials show the time and date, phases of the moon, the position of the moon and sun in relation to the zodiac signs, and the calendar of saints. Adam and Eve ring the bell on the hour. According to legend, the clock's creator had his eyes gouged out so he'd never make a clock to better than this one. You'll hear this story about every astronomical clock in Europe, and it makes you wonder why mediaeval clock-makers ever accepted commissions. The 78-metre tower, which involves climbing 405 steps, houses a viewing platform with cracking views of old Gdańsk and has benefited from a 3.3 million Euro renovation. The church is FREE to enter, but the tower will cost 10zł. If you want to go up, pace yourself! Climb and view: 30mins

15. Świętego Ducha Street

As you duck through the alleyway between the church walls and follow it along the right, back to the main street, you are now on ul. Świętego Ducha (Holy Spirit Street). As you proceed down on the route, take a look at the buildings. Unlike ul. Mariacka, this is what a replicated 'old' street in Gdańsk looks like. Restoration has been done with varying success. Most notably, the concrete-rendered fronts were done during the Communist-era. 

16. The Crane (Żuraw)

The Crane is one of the defining symbols of Gdańsk and represents what little is left of the city’s great trading age. First mentioned in 1367, the original structure burnt down in 1442 before its current design was created between 1442-1444. As a working crane, it was used to transfer cargoes and to put up masts on ships. At one time this was the biggest working crane in the world but it also served a defence function and as one of the gates to the city. It had a lifting capacity of 4 tonnes to a height of 11 metres and this was achieved by two huge wooden wheels at its heart each with a diameter of 6 metres. These wheels were originally powered by men walking inside of them to turn the lifting mechanism. It remained a working crane until the middle of the 19th century and was 80% destroyed in 1945 during the Battle for Gdańsk. After the war, it was rebuilt and donated to the Polish Maritime Museum of which it remains a part today. You will be able to view a collection of permanent exhibitions inside including one on port life between the 16th and 18th centuries. In Polish only, displays include models of lighthouses, the old port, life-size recreations of counting houses and old port life in general plus access to the crane's two huge drive-wheels. Museum time: 30 minutes

17. Brama Straganiarska (Trader's Gate)

Built between 1481 and 1492, this brick beauty comes crowned with two turrets and was obviously inspired by the gates to Mariacka and Chlebnicka. The unique feature here is a heraldic coat of arms seated over the entrance, bearing the emblems of Gdańsk, Prussia and Poland (taking centre bow), proof if any were required to the peaceful coexistence these rival communities enjoyed for such long spells. Almost completely destroyed at the tail end of WWII, this Gothic-style gate was reconstructed from close to nothing. It is interesting to note that, in keeping with the reconstruction policy of post-war Gdańsk, the gate was not rebuilt to look like it did in 1939 Danzig but instead using an 18th-century painting as a basis. In this way, the gatehouse would resemble the way it had looked the last time the city had been Gdańsk! Since reconstruction, it has been used for residential housing since then. Attesting to this is a plaque confirming the presence of one of its more famous residents, Zbyszek Cybulski. Unknown in the west, Cybulski was basically Poland’s answer to James Dean - a non-conformist rebel known for his intense style, black coat and too-cool-for-school specs.

18. Ołowianka Island

Ołowianka gets its name from the Polish word 'Ołów' (English: Lead) due to the fact that lead metals, sailed upriver from Olkusz in Silesia, were stored on the Island in the Teutonic era (1343 - 1454). Centuries later, these warehouses were used as granaries, examples of which you will see later. As you cross over the footbridge, look at the building to your left: the Ołowianka Inn is a pre-WWII building in a typical half-timbered architectural style, which features a 'Prussian-wall' façade. You will see this all over Gdańsk and later on Granary Island as well.

19. The Philharmonic Hall

The Philharmonic Hall is a neo-gothic red-brick building that used to house the city's hydroelectric power plant, built between 1897-98 by the Berlin company Siemens & Halske. Suffering but surviving the damage done to it in 1945, The plant was in operation until 1996, when it officially closed. The idea to transform the derelict plant came from Prof. Roman Perucki, who had attended a concert in an abandoned power plant in Norrkoeping, Sweden, and immediately envisaged the Ołowianka plant in the same light. Today, the Philharmonic puts on a range of shows around the tri-city, including their building right on the Motlawa river. Tickets to this powerhouse of music can be bought at the building at the times listed below or at the venue four hours before show time.

20. The Royal Granary (Spichlerz Królewski)

Granary buildings were a symbol and a major source of the city’s wealth. These glorious landmarks existed from the 15th-century onwards until 1945, when these buildings have been levelled by Russian bombers. The Royal Granary was the only building in this area to remain relatively intact. Its construction began in 1606 and was managed, once again, by our Flemish friend, Abraham van den Block. After a two year construction, the result was a seven-storey building, erected on the banks of the Motława River. It is equipped with numerous windows that allow lighting, and above all, excellent ventilation of the interior, which was necessary for the storage of grain. Later you will see the re-development on Granary Island, the true centre of Gdańsk's old grain industry.

21. Sołdek - Ship Museum

The first steamship built in Polish Gdańsk after 1945 at what was to become the Lenin Shipyards, the Sołdek has been turned into a living museum. Launched in 1948 this old ship was an ore collier before retiring to become a museum ship and just about every inch of it can be accessed from the cramped engine room to the bridge to the pokey little cabins the crews lived in. You also have an opportunity to view and snap some photos across the Motława canal at Długie Pobrzeże, where you can see the Crane and other buildings on the waterfront. On the port side of Sołdek and a little further up the dock, you can see more examples of Prussian Wall granary buildings that now house the Maritime Museum. Museum time: 1 hour

22. Gdańsk Marina

Gdańsk is a port city with a strong maritime history. This heritage is shared by alot of locals and so boating is a hobby that many take rather seriously.  In the Marina are hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes. Some are old, some are new. Built in 1997 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the city, this area is also alot quieter than the hustle-and-bustle of Old Town. If you are privy to an afternoon beer, consider visiting Brovarnia (pg.114).

23. Stągiewna Gate / Granary Island

Stągiew is Polish for 'Milk Can' and the gate is shaped like that, hence the name 'Stągiewna Gate'. As you pass through, you are now entering Granary Island. The afore-mentioned grain industry was most prevalent in this area and, by 1643, there were 315 granaries on the island capable of storing up to 250,000 tons of grain and servicing over 200 ships. This is what helped make Gdańsk the largest harbour on the Baltic and one of Europe’s richest cities. In the final months of WWII, the island was levelled and most of the warehouses were destroyed and the damage remained untouched for 6 decades.

24. Słony Spichlerz  /  25. Green Bridge (Zielony Most)

Only recently has this island been redeveloped and key granary buildings have been recreated with a new purpose. Most notably, Słony Spichlerz (English: Salty Granary) is now home a 'restaurant market' and offers a wide choice of cuisines in the first food hall concept to be created in the city. It's open at all hours, however, before proceeding over the Green Bridge (25) back into Old Town, you may want to consider taking a right onto the waterfront and witnessing the rebirth of the area (or have a bite to eat).
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St. Mary's Basilica

ul. Podkramarska 5, Gdańsk
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