“The World is my Imagination”: Gdańsk, Poland

Gdańsk, Poland

I absolutely can not believe it has been TWO years since we visited Poland’s northern city of Gdańsk. Two. Years. How is time so slow yet going by so quickly? A post for another day.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts of my struggle to publish anything travel related last year and now in 2021; thank you for bearing with my absence as I’m continuing to work through those thoughts / feelings.

View of the city from the other side of the Motława River. Gdańsk includes the largest medieval port crane in Europe.

In 2019 we traveled to Warsaw and Gdańsk with our friends–Heather and Chris–and spent a little over a week wandering around Poland. The country was commemorating the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII and both cities included a number of memorials decorated in flowers, candles, and the Kotwica anchor, a symbol of the Polish Resistance and Warsaw Uprising.

Created as a symbol for the Polish struggle for independence, the PW of the anchor means “Pomścimy Wawer(“We shall avenge Wawer”) in reference to the Wawer massacre of 1939, one of the first massacres of Polish civilians by the Germans occupying the country.

Luckily for us, we also happened to visit Gdańsk during the St. Dominic’s Fair, one of the largest and oldest events in Europe; the fair was started in 1260! The 1000+ stalls of vendors and food, art, clothing, and other treasures line the city’s streets for over two weeks at the end of July.

Remember this is pre-Covid times!

We took the train up from Warsaw (highly recommend–get that 1st class ticket only around 30 euro) to spend a few days in the lovely Baltic city of Gdańsk. There’s a lot to see, plus the sweetest streets and coffee shops.

I’ll be discussing a couple of tough topics related to WWII in this post so please read–and feel free to skip–anything that you might not be able to handle mentally or emotionally at the moment ❤

Where are we?

Located in northern Poland on the Baltic coast, Gdańsk is the country’s main seaport and sits on the Gdańsk Bay, connecting to the Motława River, a branch of the Vistula. The city is named for another branch of the Motława, the Gdania, and was first recorded as a settlement in 997. A city (and country) with a history of complex borders and complicated history, my hope here is to provide a little context as to the how the area of Gdańsk became the unique city it is today.

I loved this quote from Timothy O’Grady:

“The first important event took place on September 1, 1939, when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein maneuvered into the Vistula River and began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, just northwest of the city. These were the earliest shots of World War II. After a monthlong blitz, Poland was subjugated and the war was well underway. The second happened at Gdańsk’s Lenin shipyards on August 31, 1980, when the Polish Communist government recognized the free trade union Solidarity, the first independent labor union in a country belonging to the Soviet bloc. Lech Wałęsa signed with a giant pen wrapped in an image of fellow Pole Pope John Paul II. It was the beginning of the end. After a bloodless decade-long revolution, Wałęsa became president of a free Poland. Two events, catastrophic and hopeful, the twin axes between which the country expanded and contracted at the behest of its voracious neighbors, like the bellows of an accordion.

These and other epochal episodes in Gdańsk happened mainly because of where it is, at the point where the Vistula enters the Baltic Sea. Ringed by Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, it was the gateway to the grain fields, forests, and cities at the heart of the European continent. The city took a cut of everything moving in and out, and became immensely rich. It was, in the region, the pivot point for the Hanseatic League, the merchant confederation that linked all of northern Europe from the 13th century until the mid-1800s. In its heyday, the city hosted more trade than even London. Magnificent town houses went up in the Dutch Renaissance style, festooned with reliefs and murals. Gdańsk built superlatives in several categories: largest medieval crane and mill, largest amber altar, most accurate clock, largest brick church (it could fit more than 20,000 parishioners). Frederick the Great said that whoever controlled Gdańsk would be ‘more master of Poland than any king reigning there.’ Napoleon called it ‘the key to everything.’

O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.
Gdańsk is a member of the Trójmiasto (Tricity), a group of cities in northern Poland. While independent from each other and with their own unique history, Gydnia, Gdańsk, and Sopot are along the Baltic Sea coast and are connected easily by public transport with only 20 km (12.4 miles) between the three cities.
Poland’s first ruler, Duke Mieszko I, achieved control of the Bay of Gdańsk in the 980s and 997 is commonly accepted as the year the city was officially founded (although a number of Slavic tribes lived here prior to their unification by Mierszko I following his conversion to Christianity in 960). While humans lived in nearby Sopot for thousands of years–including constructing a fort around the 7th and 11th centuries–the first written mention of the settlement wasn’t recorded until the 1200s. Just a friendly reminder that people existed here before the written record!
In 1308, Gdańsk fell under the rule of the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights, a Central European medieval crusader state originally established in Prussia, until 1454. After becoming part of Poland again, the city was known as a cultural center and as a hub for trade, with a large population of Polish, Jewish, German, and Dutch inhabitants.
In 1734, Tsar Peter the Great captured the area, completely destroying nearby Gdynia and almost all of Sopot. Austria, Russia, and Prussia partitioned Poland in 1772, and Gdańsk was declared part of Prussia. The city was renamed Danzig and began to decline due to the now-limited access to trade. The second partition of Poland took place in 1793, then a third in 1795; Poland was completely wiped from the map and Polish independence ended for over a century. After yet another partition and the influence of Napoleon–including greater transportation between the three cities and elsewhere–Danzig and the area was absorbed into the German Empire in 1871.
Following the defeat of the German army after WWI, Poland regained independence, leaving Danzig at the middle of a struggle for control between the two countries. Now with a population 98% German (but Germany was unable to provide for them after the war) and fear of the-now Bolshevik Russians influencing Poland, the newly-created League of Nations declared the area as the the Free City of Danzig on November 15th, 1920. Zoppot (present-day Sopot) was absorbed into The Free City of Danzig but Gdynia was placed into the Polish Corridor through the Treaty of Versailles. A thin, narrow strip of land, this corridor provided the country of Poland access to Baltic Sea.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party gained control of the government of the Free City of Danzig (although considered semi-autonomous, a majority of the senate had Nazi allegiance). Tensions escalated between the Germans and Poland; on September 1st, 1939, WWII began when Nazi Germany attacked the Polish military post at Westerplatte and Polish Post Office in Danzig. In June 1941, Hitler rescinded the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, invaded eastern Poland, and used the country as its primary space for genocide and murder. Polish and Jewish people were declared “subhuman” by the Nazis and those who were not able to flee were victims of discrimination, abuse, and extermination. Over six million Poles, including three million of Jewish descent, were killed. The Red Army took control of Danzig on March 30th, 1945, although most of the city was now in ruins.
The Soviets, “Sovietized” Poland from 1945-on. Most cities in Poland were renamed their original Polish names, including Gdańsk, and during the 1950s and 1960s the enormous task of rebuilding the city took place. In the 1980s, after an 18 day sit-in, the first free trade union in the Soviet Bloc was created to meet the 21 demands of shipyard strikers, led by Lech Wałęsa at the Gdańsk shipyards. Known as the strike that “set Poland on fire”, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and this union (membership peaked at 1/3 of the working-age population by 1981) is one of the central influences that lead to Polish independence in 1991. The Solidarność (solidarity) movement in Poland helped Wałęsa become the first democratically-elected, post-communist President.
Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Now one of the top tourist destinations in Poland, Gdańsk is also known for its its unique position as a port city, although the current resurgence of xenophobia and anti-democratic actions threaten the once-admired diversity.

“’I walk in this wonderful place and think that through any laws of probability it has no right to exist,’ [scholar Jerzy] Limon told me. ‘Gdańsk is a kind of miniature of a united Europe. The city has always attracted different nationalities, different religions. Yet it’s also been a mutinous city. Changes started here. We had a bloodless revolution that set an example. This has alienated some people, but it draws in many more.’”

O’Grady, Timothy. 2021. “In the In the Seaside City of Gdańsk, Poland, Change Is the Only Constant.” Conde Nast Traveler.


Brama Mariacka (St. Mary’s Gate):

One of the prettiest views of Mariacka in Old Town is through St. Mary’s Gate.
First mentioned in 1484 and built later in the 15th century, the gate was nearly destroyed in 1945.
During 1959-1960 the Gate was painstakingly rebuilt by  K. Macura and is now home to the Archeological Museum.

Wielka Zbrojownia (Great Armoury):

Built between 1600 and 1609, Wielka Zbrojownia (the Great Armoury) is a gorgeous building located on the city walls and one of my favorite places in Gdańsk. During WWII, the building was badly damaged and was completely rebuilt following the war.

Main Town Hall:

Built in the late 1300s, the Main Town Hall served as the seat for the city authorities and saw a number of visits by Polish kings.
Nearly destroyed during WWII, the Main Town Hall was rebuilt after the war and is now home to the Gdańsk History Museum.
Located on the Royal Route, it is the second highest building in the city (after St. Mary’s Basilica).

 Dwór Artusa (Artus Court):

Built from 1348-1350, the building is located in the main square and was known as the meeting place for merchants, as well as a symbol of social life. Dwór Artusa is derived from the legend of King Arthur’s representation of gallantry.

Mariacka Street:

Located between St. Mary’s Gate and St. Mary’s Basilica, Ulica Mariacka (Mariacka Street) is one of the prettiest streets in Poland. As with many sites in the city, it was completely rebuilt after WWII based on photographs of the area prior to the war. You can see the entrance of the street from St. Mary’s Gate here and then St. Mary’s Basilica below.

Kanal Raduni (Radunia Canal):

Originally developed in 1338, the canal was built by the Teutonic Knights from 1348-1356. The channel was used primarily to provide drinking water to the inhabitants of the city and today is a scenic backdrop for a wandering stroll through Gdańsk.

Bazylika Mariacka (Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin):

One of the largest brick churches in the world, Bazylika Mariacka can hold up to 25,000 people and was completed in 1502. During the period of martial law meant to squash Solidarność in the 1980s, many members of the movement took refuge here.

Museum of the Polish Post:

One of the defining characteristics of the Free City of Danzig was the creation of its own postal network, including the Post Office established in 1920 as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Originally a German military hospital with several buildings, the “Gdańsk 1” building was the primary Polish post office in the area.
In 1939, as tensions grew between Germany and Poland, the official and volunteer members of the Polish Post Office in Danzig were told to prepare for potential violence; on September 1st, 1939, the staff defended the building from a surprise SS attack. This siege took place at the same time as at the Battle of Westerplatte and the start of WWII. All but four Polish defenders were executed.
Roughly sixty workers fought the German SS for over 15 hours until the building was attacked with flame-throwers. A month after the siege, the Polish workers that survived the attack were executed by the Nazis as illegal combatants.
The execution of the 57 workers was documented by the Nazis and these photographs were used to create the powerful memorial located in the garden of the still-functioning post office.
We first read about the defense of the Polish Post Office at Westerplatte so stumbling on this outdoor memorial was a truly powerful experience.
The Monument to the Defenders of the Polish Post Office was commissioned in 1979 and was designed by sculptor Wincenty Kućma of Kraków.

One site I wanted to visit but unfortunately ran out of time to see is the controversial Museum of the Second World War. You can read more about the decisions on how to present Poland’s position in history here.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Pierogi Making Class:

While in Gdańsk for Chris’s birthday, we booked a pierogi making class with the incredible Judyta of Samo Dobro. We shopped for ingredients with Judyta at the local food market of Hala Targowa before making pierogi and chłodnik (cold beet soup) in her mother’s kitchen, then eating our creations in her library/dining room.
Our version of chłodnik was vegan (coconut milk instead of cream) and was absolutely delicious. Her mom is a retired Polish literature teacher so we were lucky to hear her stories about class and Polish writers we should know.

Pierogarnia Stary Młyn:

One of Chris’s favorite chain of perogi restaurants across Poland is Pierogarnia Stary Młyn, a menu that includes deep fried dumplings, bigos, and potato pancakes.

Street Food:

One of the best aspects of being in the city for the St. Dominic’s Fair is the great food! We visited the Zaika truck while out and about and it was such a lovely lunch.

Paulo Gelateria:

This ice cream from Paulo Gelateria was out.of.control. Perfect for a hot summer day.

Pyra Bar:

A restaurant focused on the best ingredient in the world–potatoes!

Klaster Pub:

Unfortunately now permanently closed, Klaster Pub was a cute, chill spot for drinks and listening to Beyoncé. With the classic “parents’ den from the 1970s vibes”, great playlist, and affordable drinks, how can you go wrong?

Z Innej Parafii:

Translated to “From Another Parish” this cocktail spot had an adorable indoor space plus a gorgeous view of the city.

Cafe Lamus:

Again with the 70s aesthetic! A great place for local beer and a fun spot to hang out, Cafe Lamus is located just across from the local food market where we shopped for our cooking class ingredients.
(Photo via Tripadvisor)

Cafe Szafa:

Gdańsk is truly one of my favorite pub cities. Cafe Szafa is so fun–just my aesthetic obvs–and even has a secret Narnia room you have to find when you visit. With a description of “murky and a little bit shabby” how can you not stop by? There’s also a great kebab stand next door for your walk-home-snack, perfect for this spot as the opening hours are 3pm-PAIN.
Photo Credit here.

Coffee Shops:

Drukarnia Cafe:

Love this intentional coffee shop on Mariacka ❤

Cafe Józef K.:

With its gorgeous view of the Armoury and fun interior, Café Józef K. (named after the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial) was one of my favorite coffee spots in the city.

❤ Ashlyn

Mariacka Street
❤ ❤
swiat jest moim wyobrażeniem (the world is my imagination)
My absolute favorite spot in the city.


Reading: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth (Jason Stanford, Bryan Burrough, Chis Tomlinson)
Watching: Reservation Dogs (Hulu)
Listening: Scene on Radio Season 5: The Repair (The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University & PRX)

3 thoughts on ““The World is my Imagination”: Gdańsk, Poland

  1. The food! The architecture! The incredible history! Wow what a post, Ashlyn – a masterpiece actually. The photo and consequential handprint monuments are so moving. Thank you for this!


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