Gdansk, Poland


Gdansk’s pedestrian zone, Dlugi Targ
Gdansk’s pedestrian zone, Dlugi Targ, is a wide strip of sidewalk cafés and bars.


An American arrives in Gdansk expecting the primary attraction to be the Polish city’s history as the birthplace of the 1980s’ Solidarity Movement. While there is no disappointment in visiting the shipyards where Lech Walesa’s dockworkers’ union issued its labor demands and learning about the intense and deadly strikes that defied Poland’s socialist government starting as far back as 1970, there are surprises in store. We found while discovering the warm, inviting maritime atmosphere of Gdansk that it compares favorably with any cosmopolitan European city farther south. 

Experiencing the contemporary excitement of Gdansk made possible by the sacrifices of its heroic late 20th century workers makes the city’s history feel like a backdrop to a much broader visitor appeal. 

The currency exchange value of the dollar at more than three times the local Polish zloty makes this an accessible travel bargain for Americans not to be overlooked. 

At the Gdansk shipyards the new European Solidarity Center—scheduled to open in 2013—is now under construction behind the iron gates, marked by photos of Pope John Paul II and Poland’s iconic Black Madonna, where the movement began. The much-needed facility will include a conference center and an expanded space for the “Road to Freedom Exhibition,” a Solidarity history museum currently situated in a nearby underground bunker.

The museum’s reconstruction of union meeting rooms, government interrogation cells, labor protest signs and a collection of archival documentary films running in simultaneous loops in different underground rooms will be easier to absorb in the new, larger space. It should be noted that the museum conveys the intense heroism displayed by Solidarity in leading its people successfully through the frightening chaos of repressive government in revolutionary times.

The main street of Gdansk is the pedestrian zone called Dlugi Targ (“Long Market”) that by day reveals the charmingly reconstructed Dutch-style houses whose originals dated from the late 15th and early 16th centuries when Gdansk was a leading member of the Hanseatic League of Baltic trading cities. Polish governments, even under socialism, were wise to initiate complete reconstruction of Gdansk in the early 1950s after 90 percent of the town was destroyed by allied bombing in World War II. The rebuilding process was completed after the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain. In the evening the main street in summer and fall is a wide strip of sidewalk cafés and bars. 

On the Waterfront

More cafés and shops line the city’s riverfront, where narrow streets from the old town lead out through historic merchant gates to the scenic embankment, where an iconic 15th century wooden boat crane is considered a symbol of the city. Gdansk is the world capital of amber jewelry and the town’s St. Mary’s Street, headed by the 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica, is home to so many jewel shops that it is known as “5th Amber Avenue.” Polish amber, popular here for centuries, is found along the Baltic coast in quartz, shallow water and clay deposits. 

Given the surprising historic and shopping attractions of Gdansk that invite further exploration, a recommended plan is to hire a guide through the Pomorskie Tourist Board. Our guide, Mariusz Lewy, was able to unveil the historic highlights in a short time, including the history in the Amber Factory Museum situated in the medieval gate to the city that once housed a torture chamber for enemy prisoners. 

The Pomorskie tourist guides also direct guests to memorable rest stops such as the French-inspired Mon Balzac Restaurant serving architectural-style salads and desserts near the city center, and the Tawerna Restaurant, a maritime-themed Polish traditional restaurant opposite the Radisson Blu Hotel serving delicacies such as venison pate, sauerkraut pancakes, roasted halibut and smoked Polish ham.

The 134-room Radisson Blu Hotel, Gdansk, a Rezidor Hotel Group property overlooking the main pedestrian market square, is justifiably considered the pinnacle of Gdansk accommodations. In addition to comfortable rooms looking out on the market street or over city rooftops, the Radisson Blu has two Presidential Suites, one of which Lech Walesa uses for private business meetings, with balconies overlooking the Long Market. 

The hotel has a futuristic spa with a do-it-yourself aromatherapy room that activates with a button click. There are nontoxic rejuvenating solar lights in the facility’s “relaxation zone,” where steam, sauna and gym equipment are included. The hotel has a popular after-work bar and an impressive breakfast buffet laid out near an underground lobby display of ceramic pieces from the 14th and 15th centuries found during the digging of the hotel’s foundation.