Gdansk Old Town is one of the prettiest historic centers I have seen. A self-guided walking tour is the perfect way to take in its beauty at your own pace. Gdansk Old Town is so pretty you’ll want to stop every few minutes to exclaim over the colorful facades and take a million photos. You’ll find many things to see and do here, so read on to discover what you must not miss on a self-guided walking tour of Gdansk Old Town!
Gdansk is a mix of beautiful architecture and a fascinating history spanning many centuries. Your walk will be all the more fun if you know some of Gdansk’s history before you visit.
A little bit about Gdansk’s tumultuous history
Seeing Gdansk Old Town today, you would not think it’s a phoenix, risen from the rubble and ashes of World War II. But it’s true: almost all of Gdansk Old Town was decimated in the war. Painstakingly reconstructed in the 1950s and 1960s, some of it with materials salvaged from the rubble, Gdansk Old Town stands proud today, its gorgeous facades a magnet for travelers from all over the world.
Of course, Gdansk’s history goes back much further than WWII. In fact, it goes back all the way to the 10th century, when it was founded by Mieszko I, a savvy Polish duke, who saw Gdansk as a useful conduit to the trade routes of the Baltic Sea. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Gdansk developed into a very influential city, trading with other Hanseatic cities.
Politically, Gdansk was controlled sometimes by the Poles, sometimes by the Germans, and sometimes it was a Free City: the Free City Of Danzig, as it was called then. In 1939, it was a Free City when the Germans fired the very first shots of WWII at Westerplatte, just outside Gdansk city limits.
Following Germany’s defeat in WWII, Gdansk came under the control of Poland. The reconstruction tilted heavily toward Dutch/Flemish design, with some French and Italian influences as well. The Dutch had strong historical ties to Gdansk, and Dutch architects had, in fact, designed many of Gdansk’s pre-war structures. So if you are reminded a little of Amsterdam or Antwerp when you see the buildings in Gdansk Old Town, you now know why!
Self-Guided Walking Tour of Gdansk Old Town
The historic center is compact, so you can weave in and out of streets and through the numerous gates in the town…part of the fun of wandering Gdansk Old Town is getting lost in the old streets. But within the area, there are some absolutely stunning historic sights you must be sure to take in as part of your self-guided walking tour.
Start your walk at the historic riverfront
Gdansk Old Town sits by the Motlawa river. As you approach the river, you will see the Gdansk Amber Eye, a Ferris Wheel on Granary Island that has been operating since 2014. We didn’t go for a ride, but it must offer spectacular views of Gdansk Old Town from the top!
Straight ahead across the bridge, you will see the Green Gate, with its four beautiful arched entrances. You will see it up close later, but first you must explore the pretty riverfront!
First walk out a little ways on the side of the river opposite to the Old Town, for great views of the buildings across the water. Then retrace your steps to the bridge, from where you will get great photo ops: views of the beautiful buildings on both sides, as well as the Green Gate ahead. Finally, cross over the bridge to admire the historic buildings from up close.
Walk along the riverfront promenade, called the Ulica Dlugie Pobrzeze. Here you will see some gorgeous medieval facades, so remember to look up from time to time! Eventually you will come to Zuraw, the historic port crane of Gdansk and one of the enduring symbols of its glory days as a medieval maritime trading powerhouse. Operated by human power, the treadwheel crane was used to load and unload cargo. Today it functions as a museum. It’s a huge imposing structure!
On the pretty promenade, you will pass by restaurants and cafes, and in the evenings you will be entertained by street musicians as you walk.
Browse amber on Mariacka Street
Next, retrace your steps a little bit, and enter Mariacka Street through the Mariacka Gate near the river. You’ll love Mariacka Street: it’s one of the prettiest streets in Gdansk Old Town. Walking here, you will get a sense of what the town must have been like in medieval times.
We found it bustling with activity as we walked it on a beautiful afternoon in May. There are cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating. At the end of the street you’ll see the red brick exterior of Bazylika Mariacka.
Mariacka Street is known for being one of the amber markets of Gdansk Old Town. The entire street is lined with amber merchants, with shops on either side. Tables and stands overflowing with amber jewelry spill out onto the stone porches and the side of the street.
Amber reminds me of cognac, caramel and honey, with its yellow-gold-brown color. It’s a tree resin, fossilized over a long period of time. Gdansk, like other Baltic ports, is famous for its amber. In fact, Gdansk has an interesting museum devoted to amber.
The narrow street is very picturesque, with tall facades in different colors and ornate detailing. Pots filled with flowers sit on porches flanked by iron railings. Gutters have gargoyles for mouths. Cobblestones complete the picture of a charming medieval street. The medieval atmosphere is so real that you will have to remind yourself that what you are seeing was built just a few decades ago!
Be awed by the enormous St. Mary’s Church
At the end of the street you will come to St. Mary’s Church, one of the largest brick churches in the world. It is so gigantic that you will find it impossible to get all of it into the frame of your wide angle camera lens. It took over 150 years to complete.
The large tower of St. Mary’s Church rises majestically into the sky. If you have the time and the inclination, after your walk around town you can return to the church, to climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views. Be warned though, there are 400+ steps to the top, and the climb isn’t easy. If you do go inside, don’t miss the gorgeous astronomical clock from the 15th century.
Gawk at the spectacular facade of the Great Armoury
Next, cross over to Piwna Street, which runs parallel to Mariacka Street and is just one street over, and prepare to be stunned! One of the most ornate structures in Old Town Gdansk is the Great Armoury, anchoring one end of pretty Piwna Street, with its restaurants and bars.
The facade of the Great Armoury will leave you speechless, with its dusty pink color and brilliant gold embellishments. Built in the Renaissance style, the Great Armoury was destroyed in WWII and had to be restored.
Walk the Royal Way
The Ulica Dluga (Long Lane) and Dlugi Targ (Long Market) contain a number of stunning sights, so you will want to leave yourself plenty of time to wander around here. This area is also called the Royal Way, because Polish Kings walked this route in ceremonial procession when they visited Gdansk. You’ll feel like royalty yourself as you walk the beautiful route!
Enter through the Highland Gate
At one end of the Royal Way is the Highland (or Upland) Gate, a beautiful structure with three arches. It dates back to the 16th century. In medieval times, the gate functioned as the official entrance to the Old Town and part of its defense system. It was closed at night or when an attack was feared.
Kings and other important personages received keys to Gdansk Old Town at Highland Gate. The keys indicated that they were welcome visitors at any time.
Tip: Make sure you see the gate from the front and the back! On the front side, at the top, you can see the coats-of-arms of Prussia, Poland and Gdansk. From the Great Armoury, take Targ Weglowy to the Highland Gate.
Explore the Torture House and the Prison Tower
Next you will come to the Torture House and the Prison Tower, where you can still see some of the equipment used to bind prisoners. Executions were carried out here all the way into the 19th century. Now the buildings are home to the Amber Museum and the Torture Museum. The viewing tower is open during the summer, so here’s another place to get those rooftop views of Gdansk Old Town after your walk!
Gaze at the Golden Gate
Gdansk Old Town has so many gates! They are everywhere, and offer great frames for your photos. Of course, in medieval times, the gates had a function. Gdansk was a prosperous city, and its merchants had all these gates built as a means to protect their city. The Golden Gate, which is actually gray with touches of gold, comes next.
The Golden Gate is built in the Dutch Mannerism style. At the top are eight statues. I recognized Justice, holding scales.
Inside the Golden Gate, you can see photos of the city just after the war. They will make you appreciate what you see even more! The Golden Gate leads into Ulica Dluga (Long Lane), with its beautiful townhouses on either side.
Admire the graceful Town Hall
You can see the tall spire of the Town Hall from almost everywhere in the Old Town. It stands at the junction of Long Lane and Long Market. It is a Gothic-Renaissance structure, and like many of the historic buildings in Gdansk Old Town, today houses a museum, the History Museum.
The original structure, built in the 14th century, burnt down in 1556. It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again in WWII. Following the war, the Town Hall was painstakingly restored along with the rest of the town. The bells of the carillon chime on the hour. The top of the tower is open during the summer.
Marvel at the beauty of Dlugi Targ
The main “square” of Gdansk Old Town, Dlugi Targ is actually a street that formed part of the old Royal Way. It is a spectacular place, lined on both sides with tall narrow townhouses sporting gorgeous facades. Cafes, shops and restaurants occupy both sides of Dlugi Targ at street level.
Homes were taxed in medieval times based on the size of their streetfront, so the canny merchants built their houses narrow and deep. I was enchanted by the detail on the facades of the houses here. I had to take pictures of almost every facade!
The Fountain of Neptune
On Dlugi Targ, you’ll the see the Fountain of Neptune, a nod to Gdansk’s maritime importance. The bronze statue was created in the 16th century, and turned into a fountain some years later.
During the war, the statue was taken down and hidden, to keep it safe. It was restored to its current position in the 1950s, when much of Dlugi Targ was rebuilt.
Story has it that Neptune, tired of people throwing coins into his fountain, swung his trident through the pile of coins, causing flecks of gold to flow everywhere, creating Gdansk’s famous Goldwasser liqueur. The more prosaic fact is that the gold-flecked liqueur was concocted by Ambrose Vermolen, an alchemist of Dutch origin.
Just near the statue of Neptune is the pale blue facade of Artus’ Court, where wealthy merchants used to meet, and social events were held. Today it contains a branch of the Gdansk History Museum.
Artus’ Court is built in the Dutch Mannerist style. It was destroyed in WWII, but rebuilt, with a lot of the original material, hidden away by residents. The name comes from King Arthur’s Court, symbolizing the meeting place of the aristocrats and the wealthy.
Dlugi Targ ends at the Green Gate, a magnificent structure with four arches that leads out onto the waterfront where you started your walk. It marks the end of the Royal Way on the river side. It was originally built as a residence for Polish royalty, but not used much as a royal residence.
It was designed by Flemish architect Hans Kramer and built by Reiner van Amsterdam, a Dutch architect, and you can clearly see the influence of Flemish architecture here. Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity Movement and former Polish President, has an office in one of the rooms here. Today the Green Gate houses the National Museum.
As you exit Gdansk Old town via the Green Gate, click one last photo through the arch. Then walk over to a cafe on the waterfront, to enjoy a well-earned drink and reflect on your lovely walk through the historical center of Gdansk Old Town.
TIPS FOR YOUR GDANSK OLD TOWN SELF-GUIDED WALKING TOUR
Allow two to three hours for the tour. You will want to linger to soak in the atmosphere, marvel at all the architecture, and take photos. If you plan to visit a museum or climb a tower, allow for another couple of hours. I enjoyed just doing the walking tour from end to end, leaving other activities for another time.
Gdansk Old Town is crowded during the summer months. Visit in the shoulder months of May and September if you can. We visited in late May. The weather was gorgeous. It was crowded but not unbearably so.
For more information on Gdansk, click here.
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