A harbour city on the Baltic coast in the north of Poland
. It was here that the first shots of World War Two
were fired and several places within the city commemorate Gdańsk’s role in the war in different forms. The other big mark the city made in modern history was that it was the birthplace of the Solidarność
movement and trade union which towards the end of the 1980s brought down communist
rule in Poland. This then triggered a domino effect of similar developments in other Eastern Bloc
countries that ended with the demise of other communist regimes and eventually the dissolution of the Soviet Union
itself. The achievements of Solidarność are celebrated in a large modern exhibition in the old shipyards of Gdańsk, parts of which have also been opened to the public. So there is plenty to see for the dark tourist – and for the non-dark tourist too.
> more background info
> What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More backround info:
The history of Gdańsk goes back over a thousand years. It was ruled, inter alia, by the Teutonic Knights, the Kingdom of Poland, the Hanseatic League, Prussia, Russia and Germany. After World War One
it was given the special status of “Free City
” by the League of Nations, so it was a self-governed entity. At the time it was known under its German name Danzig
, and the majority of its inhabitants were still German. Poland retained certain rights in Danzig, including use of the harbour, a military garrison at Westerplatte
at the mouth of the river, and a Polish Post Office
It was the latter two places that first came under attack when Nazi Germany
launched its invasion of Poland
on 1 September 1939
, at the beginning of what would soon turn into WWII
. The Poles put up heroic resistance at both Westerplatte and the Polish Post Office but were eventually overpowered by elite forces of the Wehrmacht.
With the German annexation of Gdańsk came the Holocaust
. Many Jews who’d lived in the city had already fled. Children were sent to safety in Britain
on the so-called Kindertransporte
and many adults emigrated
to Palestine (see Israel
). Only a few hundred, mostly elderly Jews
remained in Gdańsk at the start of the war. Almost all of them were then sent to the newly set up concentration camp
to the east of the city and/or were murdered
in a forest to the north of Gdańsk.
became a place for the production of warships, especially submarines
. Hence the city became a prime target for Allied air raids
. By the end of WWII about 90 per cent of the city had been reduced to rubble.
Towards the end of the war, the harbour attracted hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom were evacuated by ship. Some of these vessels were attacked by the Soviets, including the “Wilhelm Gustloff”, a former cruise ship turned floating hospital. It had nearly 10,000 people on board when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine, the largest loss of life of any ship sinking in history.
When the Red Army arrived in Gdańsk in March 1945, the remaining population became the victims of widespread violence, women were raped en masse and lots of looting took place.
This was part of the “shift to the west”, with the loss of territory in the east to the USSR
and new territories given to Poland in former German regions in the west (Pomerania and Silesia). The fact that Poland was left within the Soviet sphere of influence
and hence under communist
rule was seen by many Poles as a betrayal by the Western Allies on whose side many Poles had fought in the war (not least as pilots in the Battle of Britain
The Old Town of Gdańsk, meanwhile was rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s. It was not faithfully restored, though, but German architectural styles were often replaced by more Dutch or Italian looking styles. But many war ruins remained just opposite the waterfront on Granary Island for almost seven decades. (When I first visited the city in 2008, several could still be prominently seen. Meanwhile Granary Island has undergone a massive redevelopment programme and most of the war ruins were either torn down or integrated into new buildings.) Outside the centre the building styles adopted were more like those in other communist cities with rows of uniform apartment blocks dominating.
In the decades after the war and under communist rule there were repeated protests, including strike action at the large shipyards of Gdańsk, especially in the 1950s, the mid-60s and 1970, when some protesters/strikers were even killed by the militia.
, the Gdańsk shipyards again saw strikes
and this time the strike committee managed to force the authorities into negotiations. Out of this came the Solidarność
movement and independent trade union. In this way, Gdańsk (and Poland
in general) came to enjoy unprecedented freedoms
within a communist country, much to the chagrin of the USSR
. As a Soviet invasion was looming, as had happened before in Hungary
and the CSSR
, the Polish regime declared martial law
and started a campaign of brutal crackdowns. The clock had been turned back by force.
But Solidarność continued underground and towards the late 80s had regained enough strength to again force the government into negotiations. In 1989 the first semi-free elections were held in Poland … and the rest is, as they say, history.
After communism, the new market economy created hardships for the old shipyards, but overall Gdańsk, like other Polish cities (see Warsaw
) thrived, also in terms of tourism. Major new museums devoted to the city’s two main historically significant phases have been established in the second decade of the new millennium, so the city is more of a prime destination for dark tourists than ever as well.
What there is to see:
There are basically two categories of dark sites in Gdańsk, a) those relating to WWII, and b) those relating to Solidarność, the shipyards and the end of communism
In addition, there are several relics from WWII
, e.g. in the form of bunkers
, such as the one on ul. Olejarna 3 near the Polish Post Office. This is now used as a gallery and nightclub, so its interior is accessible for guests. The bunkers on Grodzisko Hill, ul. Kochanowskiego or the ones in the harbour remain off limits.
Other war relics are the few remaining war ruins
of buildings destroyed by Allied or Soviet bombing. Granary Island just opposite the Old Town’s waterfront used to feature plenty of such red-brick empty shells and remnants of warehouses. But the redevelopment programme that has “revitalized” the district also meant that most of those ruins are no more. Some still standing facades have been integrated into new construction projects, others had to make space for entirely new edifices. The look of the island has changed completely between my first visit in 2008 and my return trip in 2019! I can’t really say it’s a change for the better. In economic terms it must be, but looks-wise I think it could have been much more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Some vague allusions to the more classic architecture of the Old Town (although much of that is by no means authentic either – see above
) are in evidence, and some of the integrations of architectural remains work better than others. But overall it all seems rather artificial and forced. At the time of writing, a few ruins still remain, one with a leaning thick brick wall seen in the gallery below
apparently still stands but is now surrounded by new developments, and an empty shell of a former warehouse could still be seen to the south-western end of Granary Island. But these now look like anomalies rather than the characteristic elements of their locale that they once were.
The damage done by bombing is also one of the topics in the Gdańsk Museum in the Main Town Hall.
The main burial place for the victims of the Nazis, including from the Stutthof concentration camp
as well as the reburied remains of the defenders of the Polish Post Office
, is at Zaspa cemetery
in the north-west of Gdańsk (take tram 3 to Kolonia Uroda and then walk west on Wincentego Pstrowskiego – on the tram route you also pass a Soviet T-34 tank on a plinth on your right just before the Uniwersytet Medyczny 2 stop).
In addition to the Solidarność
-related sights listed above, you also pass the Gdańsk HQ of the organization when you walk from the train station towards Plac Solidarności
. Outside stand two bits of historically significant walls: a section of the Berlin Wall
and a segment of a brick wall – the latter being the very wall
that Lech Wałęsa
scaled to join the protests at the shipyards
in 1980! Set into the pavement are inscriptions including the line “Road to Freedom”, which was the name of the exhibition
that preceded the new European Solidarity Centre
An endearing monument to look out for is the Kindertransporte memorial
near the main train station (which is somewhat similar to its equivalent outside Friedrichstraße station
in Berlin, but is less dark and a bit cuter).
Finally, the huge St Mary’s Basilica in the centre of the Old Town, believed to be the largest red-brick church in the world, is also worth a look, not just for its size but also for a number of monuments, some of which look pretty sinister. The newest addition I found when I was there in August 2019 was in a corner that was dedicated to Paweł Adamowicz, the Gdańsk mayor of 20 years who was murdered by stabbing in January 2019 during a charity event.
in the north of Poland
, by the Baltic Sea, and in fact one of its major ports. It's a bit over 200 miles (330 km) north-west of Warsaw
, and a good 300 miles (500 km) east of Berlin
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: quite easy to get to, but not necessarily as cheap as one might expect.
Details: there are good transport links of all kinds, by road, rail, air and sea.
Gdańsk has its own international airport named after the city’s “hero” Lech Wałęsa, with several international connections, including by budget airlines, as well as domestic connections to Warsaw
A very good alternative to air travel is going by train, especially when coming from the south or neighbouring countries, via Warsaw, which has frequent and affordable rail connections to Gdańsk. The main train station is within easy walking distance to the Old Town and various attractions just outside it.
Overland coaches also provide cheap services between cities. If you’re driving your own (or hired) vehicle you can make use of improved roads in and out of the city but parking in the inner city can be problematic (in the Old Town parking is for specially licenced cars only!).
can largely be done on foot. The Old Town is certainly compact enough, and the major attractions outside it are mostly within walking distance. There are a couple of exceptions, though, in particular Westerplatte
, for which you have to use public transport, namely a bus or a boat, either the regular “water tram” line 5 or the touristy (and pricier) mock “Pirate Galeon” (the latter comes complete with commentary and often even live music and has a bar – in short, it really is a tourist trap).
The city's increasing popularity means that prices for accommodation
and food & drink
have caught up more or less with Western levels; although there are some budget options still to be found. When eating out you may want to seek out places that serve regional specialities, in particular local Kashubian cuisine. And for drinking try the various newly popped up craft beer joints (and Polish craft beer is world class!) especially to the east of the market hall on Straganiarska.
To cover the city's dark sites/sights you need at least three days, plus another day if you want to add a visit to Stutthof
as a day-trip excursion. It's worth allowing a bit of time for exploring the Old Town as well, though.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
An excursion to the concentration camp
memorial of Stutthof
can be done as a day-trip from Gdańsk. Nearby Gdynia has an intriguing Emigration Museum that might be of interest to some,
Otherwise a wider itinerary could combine Gdańsk with e.g. Warsaw
, which is easy to reach by road or rail, and provides the perfect hub for further travels in Poland
, e.g. Kraków
If driving straight east along the Russian
border (Kaliningrad oblast), Gierłoż with the Wolfschanze
is only about a day's drive away. Going west, the border with Germany
isn't so far, and e.g. Berlin
can be reached fairly easily from Gdansk.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Gdańsk is a prime mainstream tourist destination in its own right. Its attractions are mainly concentrated in the Old Town, which isn’t actually that old, as the city was largely rebuilt after its destruction in WWII, and in many cases not in the form of faithful recreations of what was there before (see above). But it’s certainly a very attractive place.
The No.1 landmark is the Old Crane on the waterfront, which has been restored to an authentic look. The waterfront is one of the main attractions, so it can get quite crowded there in high season. The same goes for the main drag in the Old Town, Długi Targ. At No. 25/27 near the waterfront is a curious museum about the city’s time as the “Free City of Danzig” in the interwar years. There is also a Maritime Museum (with several branches), an Amber Museum as well as art galleries and house museums.
The “revitalized” Granary Island opposite the waterfront has now been added to the tourist radar with several new hotels, eateries and cultural institutions. This has been made more easily accessible through a movable footbridge connecting it straight to the Old Town. The same applies to the island north of Granary Island, where the Maritime Museum, the Baltic Philharmonic and a large Ferris wheel are located.
In summer, much of the inner city turns into a sprawling flea market, interspersed with countless beer and food stalls. Peace and quiet it is not.
Outside Gdańsk proper you may also want to visit the sister cities of the “Tricity” trinity, namely Gdynia and Sopot, which are actually right on the Baltic Sea coast, with Sopot a proper beach holiday classic.
East of Gdańsk the smaller city of Elbląg (formerly Elbing in German) may be worth a look. South of Elbląg, a quirky but immensely popular tourist attraction beckons: the Elbląg canal, where boat tours partly go overland! Explanation: boats, with passengers remaining on board, are put on rails and are pulled up (or lowered down) by ropes along slipways – these cover some greater differences in elevation between sections of the canal, which good old-fashioned locks couldn’t cover – it’s a pretty unique tourist draw indeed.
To the south and south-west of Gdańsk lies the area of Kashubia
, home to an ancient minority, and a land of lush lakes and undulating hills.
- Gdansk 01 - classic view
- Gdansk 02 - old crane
- Gdansk 03 - train station
- Gdansk 04 - Kindertransporte monument by the station
- Gdansk 05 - big brick church
- Gdansk 06 - incomplete tower
- Gdansk 07 - inside
- Gdansk 08 - memorial to the mayor who was murdered by Neo-Nazis
- Gdansk 09 - torture or S&M
- Gdansk 10 - bunker
- Gdansk 11 - Granary Island
- Gdansk 12 - redevelopments
- Gdansk 13 - by daylight
- Gdansk 14 - only further upriver are there some ruins left
- Gdansk 15 - refurbishment by the river
- Gdansk 16 - on Granary Island in 2008
- Gdansk 17 - Granary island war ruin in 2008
- Gdansk 18 - another ruisn in 2008
- Gdansk 19 - yet another one
- Gdansk 20 - vintage bus
- Gdansk 21 - Old Town
- Gdansk 22 - Old Town
- Gdansk 23 - Hanseatic architecture
- Gdansk 24 - narrow
- Gdansk 25 - palatial
- Gdansk 26 - sun dial
- Gdansk 27 - water dragon
- Gdansk 28 - market hall
- Gdansk 29 - Old Town by night
- Gdansk 30 - harbour
- Gdansk 31 - active shipyards
- Gdansk 32 - shipbuilding
- Gdansk 33 - outfitting
- Gdansk 34 - scrap
- Gdansk 35 - Wisłoujście Fortress
- Gdansk 36 - solidarity with Britain