Think Gdansk and think home of Solidarity: the labor union that struck a shipyard and started a movement that eventually led to the fall of Communism in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Port of Gdansk
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Over the years, Gdansk was dominated by Prussians and Hanseatics, and was one of the most important ports in the Baltics. For a time after World War I, the city was known as Danzig. The Nazis were here for five years during World War II and battles to liberate the city in 1945 resulted in its near total destruction. Miraculously, the historic center, known as Main City, was rebuilt during the post-war Soviet era with great reverence -- literally brick by brick -- and today it is a lovely architectural venue. Entering the historical quarter is like walking back into history -- in this case, a medieval merchant settlement. Gdansk was once Europe's major center for grain trade.
Huge stone towers are located at the entrances to the city. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's offices are in the tower known as the Green Gate (there's a plaque out front) and the main square is full of colorful, Dutch Renaissance-style mansions. St. Mary's Church in Main City is reputedly the largest brick church in the world and can hold 25,000 for services. The seven-story Great Mill on the waterfront (on Motlawa River) was once the largest mill in medieval Europe. It's amazing to stand on Long Street (ul Dluga) and imagine that what you see now was all rubble after the war. More recently, after the shipyard strikes in the 1970's and 1980, and a 1980 agreement, 10 million Poles (out of about 36 million at the time) joined Solidarity, and Walesa went on to become the first democratically elected president of modern Poland.
Although Gdansk is not the capital of Poland (that is Warsaw to the southeast), it is Poland's largest northern city -- origins dating back to the 10th century -- with a population of 465,000. Gdansk, together with Gydnia and the resort town of Sopot, is known as the Tricity. Gydnia, where the big ships dock, is a former fishing village turned major seaport. It was a Nazi stronghold during the war (a major Naval port where Hitler once planned to build 100 subs before his plans were scuttled by major bombing by Allied Forces and the end of the war). Today it's an industrial and naval town. Sopot, located between Gydnia and Gdansk, is a resort town popular with Poland's jet set.
On the drive to Gdansk you pass a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign (in Gydnia you may also pass a branch of Citibank) and a McDonald's, and after you see the big block apartments built by the Soviets (one more than a half mile long, and another where Walesa raised his eight kids), you come to a Holiday Inn with a TGI Fridays.
Poland, today and yesterday.
Top Gdansk Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in the city of Gydnia, about a 45-minute ride from Old Town Gdansk. Some small ships may dock at Oliwskie Pier in the New Port of Gdansk (about four miles from the town center).
Aside from a few shops a short shuttle ride (or 20-minute walk) from the Gydnia pier, all attractions are in Old Town Gdansk.
Good to Know
As always, be sure to protect yourself against potential pickpockets.
Taxis: available in limited supply at both piers. Make sure you negotiate a price before departing. A cab from the Gydnia port will run $25 - $30 each way.
Shuttles: At the Gydnia port, shuttles may be provided to a waterfront area of that city with cafes and shops, about 10 minutes from the pier.
Trains: There is also train service between Gydnia and Gdansk. Once in Old Town, explore on foot (most streets are for pedestrians only).
Note: According to Polish regulations, you must carry your passport with you in Poland.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Zloty ($1=3.6PLN), but some shops take euros (some even take dollars) and most take credit cards.
Polish. People tend to speak a little English or German (more at the tourist shops, less on the street).
Food and Drink
For Local Specialties: For pierogi mania -- over 15 varieties -- visitors and locals head to Pierogarnia u Dzika; the traditional Polish pockets of dough are filled with mushrooms, cabbage and even sweets such as strawberries. The eatery also serves entrees such as chicken and fresh fish (11 a.m. - 10 p.m., ul. Piwna 59/60).
For a Taste of History: Pod Lososiem is a landmark in Gdansk -- it was established in 1598 and has catered to royalty; menu options include meat, poultry and seafood, but the don't-miss item is "goldwasser," vodka with real flakes of gold (noon - 11 p.m., ul. Szeroka 52/54).
Baltic amber is a good deal here, as is crystal and embroidered items. At the Solidarity museum you can pick up a T-shirt or banner with the union logo.