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Gdansk – past and present

Gdansk – past and present

The history of Gdańsk is that of being squeezed between the great powers and peoples of Europe. Its fate has been on the table of high level negotiations on several occasions. It was a cosmopolitan city for centuries – receiving settlers and visitors from near and far. Today it is one of the finest tourist destinations in Europe.

This is the first of several articles from my visit to Gdańsk. It will offer a brief historical outline, a summary of what else there is to discover in the region, and finally introduce my map with attractions and suggestions for a couple of city walks. The content of the map, the actual descriptions of the sights and my impressions, are explained in the next articles of this series.


A short history of Gdańsk

On two occasions, it was a state in its own right. On two occasions, it was in the midst of world events: It was here that the first shots of WW2 were fired and forty years later the Iron Curtain began to crack because of the strikes organised by the Solidarity movement on the Gdańsk shipyard. It prospered because of its strategic location on the Baltic Sea and mouth of the Motława River and the nearby Vistula River. The latter drains 60% of Poland and connects Gdańsk with the Polish capital, Warsaw.

In the 10th century it was a small fishing village. In the year 997 the inhabitants were christened and this is recognised as the year that Gdańsk was founded. More than two hundred years later the Teutonic Knights moved in to gain control of the region. They established their headquarters at Marienburg (now Malbork) 60 km upstream. This German influence is accentuated by the arrival of the Hanseatic League in 1361. They were at the time expanding their influence throughout the Baltic region and Scandinavia.


Poland - Gdansk - Neptune Fountain - Artus Court

Neptune Fountain – Artus Court


The status as a Hansa city led to a further growth as a trading city. In the 16th century Gdańsk enters a golden era, flourishing with a rich seaport and as an important centre of trade and culture. The population is made up of Germans, Poles, Dutch, Russians and Jews, and even a number of Scotsmen.

By the 18th century Russia was becoming a large player in the countries bordering the Baltic Sea. In 1734 Gdańsk is besieged by the Russian army. In 1772 Austria, Prussia and Russia impose the first partition of Poland and the whole area becomes part of Prussia. Gdańsk (or Danzig as it was called at the time), loses its trade routes and falls into decline. Napoleon however, on his advances into Prussia, established Gdańsk as a free city. On his defeat Gdańsk is handed back to Prussia.

After the First World War, there is another partition of Europe that involves Gdańsk. Poland is reestablished as a sovereign nation, but the majority of Gdansk’s population is considered to be of German origin. The League of Nations decides that Gdansk should be the Free City of Danzig. As such it existed until the outbreak of the Second World War. In the Treaty of Versailles Poland is given the neighbouring town of Gdynia and sets about building its own harbour there, in what is called the Polish corridor.


Poland - Gdansk - Restaurant Kresowa

Appetizer at the Restaurant Kresowa


On September 1st, 1939, Germany stages an attack on the Poland’s military posts on Westerplatte, right outside the Free City, and subsequently invades Poland. Gdańsk (Danzig) is liberated by Russian forces in 1945, but only after a massive destruction of the city. After the war, all Germans (and during the war all Jews) were driven out of Gdańsk.

In post-war Poland, Gdańsk was formally given its Polish name. Like many other cities, including Warsaw, there was a huge effort to reconstruct the buildings that had previously been defining the cities. From 1970 and all through the 1980’s Gdańsk was at the centre of civil disobedience and outright negation of Communist rule. The electrician on the Gdańsk shipyard, Lech Wałęsa became world famous. He was in 1983 awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became Poland’s first freely elected president in 1989.


Exploring Gdańsk and the region

Poland - Malbork Castle - The Middle Castle Courtyard - Statues of Grand Masters

Grandmasters of the Teutonic Order, in bronze at the Malbork Castle (formerly Marienburg)


Gdańsk is the largest, oldest and most famous of the Tri-city (Trojmiasto) conurbation that spreads over a distance of 40 km along the Baltic coast. Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia have grown together as one, and many visitors would want to seek out attractions in all of them. It all depends on the time you have available, and time of year.

Sopot developed as a spa resort, a playground for the rich and famous. This is where you want to come during the summer, even stay here and make excursions into Gdańsk and Gdynia. The latter is less than a hundred years old, developed as a Polish harbour representing Polish independence and giving the country access to the sea.

My map is concentrated on the centre of Gdańsk, because this is where I spent my couple of days. In fact I also went to Malbork, a splendid castle/fortress south of Gdańsk on a day trip. In any case, most sights are concentrated in the city centre, and my two walking trips should leave you enough time to get a taste of what Gdańsk has to offer. You will need to zoom in to find it.



The chapters in this series:

(1) Gdansk – past and present (THIS)

(2) A walk in Gdansk, part 1

(3) A walk in Gdansk, part 2, plus Westerplatte

(4) Malbork Castle on a day trip from Gdańsk


The Malbork castle is also presented in these two posts:

World Heritage #0847 – Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork

VIDEO – Poland – The Malbork Castle


There are more articles on the Sandalsand website from Poland. Check them out too.

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