Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk is one of Poland’s oldest cities, founded in the 7th century as a collection of small fishing hamlets. The rise of Gdansk began in 997 when Bishop Aldebert of Bohemia arrived and christened the residents. During subsequent centuries, the settlement developed into a port city, with its busy harbor located in what is now the Old Town.

Thanks to the strategic location of Gdansk at the mouth of the Vistula River, it became an important trading center and a central post for the powerful Hanseatic League in the mid-14th century. Also known as the Hansa, the Hanseatic League was a European trading alliance established by prominent merchants in the Baltic region to protect their mutual interests against rival traders and rulers.

Like in most European cities, the politics of Gdansk grew more complex in the following centuries. In the 1400s, locals fought alongside Polish armies and effectively halted German expansion by overthrowing the Teutonic Knights, razing their castle and pledging allegiance to the Polish monarchy. This marked the beginning of Gdansk’s Golden Age, during which it prospered for centuries as a rich seaport and one of the most important trading centers in central Europe. In 1793, the city fell into the hands of Prussians and, 80 years later, Germans. During these periods the culture was largely Germanized and the city became better known by its German name, Danzig.

Following World War I, Gdansk was not returned to Poland or Germany, but instead established as the Free City of Danzig. It had its own currency, postal system and parliament. With the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the city became an important stronghold for the Third Reich. After World War II, Gdansk was Sovietized. It remained under communist rule for the next few decades during a period of major reconstruction.

In December 1970, the city of Gdansk played a critical role in the upheaval of Communist Europe as protestors demonstrated against the regime. They were unsuccessful, but ten years later the uprising of the Solidarity trade union at the city’s now famous shipyard led to the end of Communist rule in Poland. An independent nation emerged in 1989, electing Lech Walesa its president. Today, Poland is a member of NATO and the EU, and a prosperous, modern nation.

Gdansk Sights and Landmarks

The Teutonic Knights began construction of the red-brick castle of Malbork along the Nogat River in the late 13th or early 14th century. Today, Malbork is the world’s largest Gothic brick castle and a classic example of a medieval fortress. It has been restored extensively following significant damage in World War II, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

A somber relic of the Nazi occupation, Stutthof Concentration Camp was established in 1939 as the first camp built outside of Germany. Located about 22 miles east of Gdansk, it was the last camp liberated by the Allies in 1945. As many as 100,000 people were deported to Stutthof and approximately 60,000 perished there during six years of war. Today, Stutthof is a museum chronicling this dark period in European history and a tribute to its victims.

Gdansk Entertainment and Activities

Gdansk’s Amber Museum, a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Gdansk, traces the natural and cultural history of Baltic amber. Here, you will learn how the gemstone is created through fossilization and see some spectacular and intricate amber pieces.

Gdansk’s Old Town lies north of the modern city center. Post-war conservators masterfully preserved and recreated the streets of Gdansk from its most prosperous days as a merchant city. Long Market Street lies exactly where it did centuries ago and has remained the center of Gdansk’s civic life. Walking past the multicolored buildings that line the stone streets of Old Town, you may feel as if you’ve been transported to the Middle Ages.

Located in Old Town Gdansk, St. Mary’s Church is the largest brick church in the world, and dates back to 1379. The church’s massive tower soars 260 feet and the building can hold more than 25,000 people. Illuminated by natural light from 37 large windows, the interior is stunningly bright and spacious.

Like much of Gdansk, St. Mary’s was greatly damaged in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Its thirty-plus chapels are home to many outstanding works of art. A wooden 15th-century astronomical clock adorns the northern transept. Many believe it is the largest of its kind in the world. Adam and Eve ring the bell every hour, while its many dials reveal more than just the time, date and phase of the moon. They also mark the calendar of saints and the positions of both the sun and moon relative to the zodiac.

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