Day 1.  Our first day in Gdansk, Poland

A few weeks ago we noticed that Ryanair was offering bargain priced flights to Gdansk, and as we’d enjoyed our previous visit to Krakow, the opportunity to visit a second Polish destination seemed irresistible.

On the banks of the river in Gdansk

Our flight departed Leeds-Bradford airport promptly at 9.30 a.m. taking just two hours over to Lech Walesa airport.  The airport is named after the former Polish president and its gleaming, spacious arrivals hall was only completed in September 2015.  Accessible to the terminal via a footbridge is the Gdansk Port Lotnczy railway station with services into the city’s main Gdansk Glowny station every hour.  A more frequent service operates to Gdansk Wrzeszcz from where passengers can change to Gdansk Glowny.  Tickets can either be bought from the  machine on the platform or on board the train.  We used the ticket machine which was easy to operate with single tickets costing only 3.80 zl (approximately 80p) for the 25 minute journey.

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The Golden Gate, Gdansk

It was shortly after 1.00 p.m. when we arrived in the city centre so we decided to head straight to our hotel the Gdansk Novotel Centrum to leave our luggage.  We had selected the Novotel because of its position on Granary Island in the middle of the Motlawa river, yet only steps away from the historic old town.  It took us approximately 25 minutes to reach the hotel on foot and after quickly checking into our well equipped room with views overlooking the hotel’s large garden, we were ready for some lunch.

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Inside the cafe where we had lunch

We soon found a cosy cafe near the Gdansk Ferris Wheel where we tucked into bowls of Polish sour soup, dark rye bread and glasses of the local Tyskie beer setting us back just 35 zl (£7.30) for the two of us.  We were unsure what the soup would taste like and hoped it wouldn’t taste sour, in fact it actually tasted delicious and we later discovered that it’s made from soured rye flour and meat and is a traditional recipe of both Poland and Belarus.

Gdansk old town

It was then time for some sightseeing, Gdansk is relatively compact with the majority of its attractions being accessible on foot.  The city was once a member of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of merchants in the late Middle Ages that developed trade routes across Northern Europe.  Despite much of the old town being destroyed after the devastation caused by World War II, it has been painstakingly rebuilt in its original style and is truly beautiful.  As we strolled along Long Bridge, an embankment on the edge of the old town lined with beautiful Hanseatic buildings and apartments, we paused to admire the photogenic views.  Passing through the Green Gate which links the river to the Long Market, we followed the Royal Way which was the route taken by the Polish kings during their visits to the city.

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Dutch inspired architecture in Gdansk

From the Green Gate, we continued along the absolutely beautiful Long Lane (Ulica Długa).  This broad avenue has been the city’s main thoroughfare since the Middle Ages, flanked at each end by its Green and Golden Gates.  This pedestrianised road is lined with delightful buildings reminiscent of the Netherlands with their Dutch inspired style of architecture.  All the way along are attractive cafes and restaurants with their outdoor wooden terraces still operating during the winter months, their guests keeping warm and cosy wrapped in the blankets provided whilst sitting near the outdoor patio heaters.

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The Neptune Fountain, Gdansk

A short distance further along, in the centre of the Long Market, stands the Neptune Fountain, its statue dating back to 1549.  During the Second World War, the fountain was dismantled and hidden away for safe-keeping, surviving the ravages of war intact.  The fountain was finally returned to its rightful place in the 1950’s for everyone to enjoy and is a popular meeting place in the city.

Artus Court, Gdansk

To the side of the Neptune Fountain stands another beautiful Dutch inspired building, Artus Court, dating back to the 17th century.  This building was also rebuilt after WW2 damage and is now a branch of the Historical Museum.  Artus Court takes its name from the legendary King Arthur as it was his meeting place between knights and merchants in the Middle Ages.

Crossing the Motława River. Gdansk

After our early start to the day we were beginning to feel a little tired so we popped back to our hotel for a short rest before eating dinner in a wine bar called Chleb i Wino (translated meaning bread and wine) which was located on the island just a few minutes walk from the Novotel.  Both the food and service were impressive and my main course of pork in a chanterelle sauce was so good that I was already thinking of returning later in the week to try one of their other dishes.

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Day 2. Exploring Gdansk

After a leisurely hotel breakfast we strolled along the riverside promenade known as Long Bridge admiring its historical granaries and huge crane gate.  The Żuraw Crane is one of the finest intact medieval cranes in Europe and, interestingly, it also acted as a city gate and defensive fortification.  It was built to hoist ship’s masts as well as to load them with cargo.  The National Maritime Museum buildings are located nearby and face each other across the river with a ferry boat operating at regular intervals to transport visitors between exhibition halls.

Long Bridge, Gdansk

Moored on the quayside is the museum ship SS Soldek which was the first ship to be built in Poland after the Second World War.  The Soldek was launched in 1948 and served as a coal and ore freighter.

SS Soldek, Gdansk

Continuing our morning stroll, it took us approximately 15 minutes from the ship to reach the Museum of the Second World War which only opened in March 2017.  Overlooking the Motława river, the museum is divided into three sections reflecting connections between the past, present and the future.  The ‘past’ is located underground, whilst the ‘present’ is the large square surrounding the building.  Looking to the future is a futuristic leaning tower with a glass facade rising to a height of 40.5 metres.  The tower contains a library,  lecture and conference rooms with plans for a rooftop restaurant to be opened during the summer.

Museum of the Second World War Gdansk

The museum is one of the largest in the world and is unusual in being 14 metres below ground level.  A broad flight of steps lead down to the entrance with access lifts available if needed.  Admission is 23zl with free admittance on Tuesdays.

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The futuristic tower of the Museum of the Second World War

The galleries present the story of war from a Polish perspective within a broader international context.  The architectural idea assumes that the evil of war is hidden underground and the light of hope appears through an overhead crack, linking the interior with the outside world.

The main corridor through the museum with the crack of light overhead

We spent almost three hours exploring the museum, wandering along recreated streets, peering inside cramped air raid shelters and viewing the huge collection of artefacts. Many of these were personal belongings of families involved with the war which have been donated to the museum.  Even if you are not a history buff I think you would find this museum a moving experience and I would certainly recommend setting a few hours aside for a visit.

Street scene in the Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk

A short walk from the Museum of the Second World War lies the Polish Post Office which has historical significance from its opening in 1920, when it operated until the German invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of WW2.  The building was not only the home of the Post Office but also acted as the intelligence gathering centre for the Polish government.

The Polish Post Office, Gdansk

It was badly damaged and nearly destroyed by the end of the war and was reconstructed in the early 1950’s.  It is still a functioning post office with a small museum dedicated to the local postal history.  We had hoped to visit this museum as it was scheduled to be open on the day of our visit but we were disappointed to find a note pinned to the door announcing a two day closure.  For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you will know that I have a love for anything post related and try to visit as many postal museums as I can on my travels.  The actual post office was open so we were able to look in there and view one of Poland’s original postboxes outside the closed door of the museum but we had to leave viewing the museum itself until a future visit.

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The Post Office counter, The Polish Post Office

Our next stop was for some lunch in a cosy cafe.  Along with Krakow, Gdansk has an abundance of inviting, small, independent cafes with attractive soft furnishings and without doubt the best hot chocolates on the planet!

Lunch in Gdansk

We could easily have prolonged our lunch break but with more places to see, we studied our map and made our way over to the north west of the old town. Here we visited the Gdansk Shipyards where the Solidarity movement was formed that helped to overturn communism.

The Gdansk Shipyard Gates

Arriving in Solidarity Square we viewed the monument to the 42 fallen workers of the 1970’s strikes next to the infamous Shipyard gates.  Even today, people still bring flowers and flags and place them on the gate to express their gratitude to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement.

The Monument to the Fallen, Gdansk Shipyard

The 1970 protests ended in the death of workers and the birth of what was to become Solidarity.  Ten years later in 1980, Lech Walesa led his workers on a series of demonstrations, fighting the forces of Soviet communism in the name of solidarity and contributing to the collapse of the system.  He was the co-founder of the Solidarity movement which grew rapidly to 10 million members, over a quarter of the Polish population.

Exterior of European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

Walking through the gates, we came to the European Solidarity Centre which has been constructed on the very spot where opposition to the communist regime was born.  The shape of the building has been designed to resemble one of the ships that was built there.

Interior of the European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

The centre contains exhibition rooms, a library and conference facilities telling the story of the Solidarity movement.  One of the rooms is dedicated to Pope John Paul II who gave people hope and motivation during the darkest days of the regime.

View from the European Solidarity Centre viewing terrace

We took the lift to the rooftop observation deck which is 25 metres high.  From the viewing terrace we had good views over the former Gdansk Lenin Shipyard and the old town.  During the summer months it would be pleasant to sit on one of the benches in the rooftop garden but on our visit it was too cold to be able to relax there.

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The European Solidarity Centre viewing terrace

After a fascinating day learning about the history of Poland we returned to our hotel for a rest before going out to eat.  The old town of Gdansk is beautiful both day and night and later we enjoyed an evening stroll wrapped up warm to protect us from the cold.  We returned to our hotel through the Golden Gate which leads onto Granary Island where the Novotel is based.

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The Golden Gate, Gdansk Old Town

Day 3.  A visit to Sopot and Gdynia

Gdansk and it’s nearby sister cities of Sopot and Gdynia are collectively known as Tricity, so after breakfast we set off to Gdansk Glowny station to embark on our journey.  Trains in Tricity are operated by SKM and have a distinctive blue and yellow livery.

SKM train to Tricity

Tickets need to be bought either from the SKM desks or from a machine.  If you buy the ticket from a machine then this must be validated in the yellow machines located on platforms.  The SKM platforms are to the right as you enter the station and depart from the same part of the station as the airport service.  Single tickets to Sopot cost 3.80 zl (80p) each and run approximately every 15 minutes, the journey taking 20 minutes.

Church of St. George, Sopot

On leaving the station it was just a short walk to the centre of town along the tree lined Monte Cassino which begins at the neo-gothic church of St. George continuing down to the sea.

Monte Cassino, Sopot

The town has a refined air with beautiful 19th century villas and summer houses dotted along neighbouring streets.  It boasts fashionable shops and inviting cafes and I’m certain it’s a very popular resort during the warm, summer months.  Walking a little further, we reached Spa Square with its centrepiece 20m high fountain and opulent, art-nouveau Grand Hotel.  Where Monte Cassino ends, the pier begins and we enjoyed a stroll along  the longest surviving wooden pier in Europe.  The pier was originally built in 1829 but has been extended over the years and now stretches 515 m (1690 ft) out into the Baltic Sea.

Sopot Pier

It’s original function was to serve as a boat harbour but in latter years it has been transformed into a leisure facility.  More recently lower and side decks have been added from where we admired the yachts moored alongside the pier.  The town is twinned with Southend-on-Sea in the south east of England which is home to the world’s largest pleasure pier constructed of iron which is 2160 m (7086 ft) in length.  I’ve not visited Southend but now that I’ve heard about it’s pier, I need to go and see it for myself.

Spa Square and fountain, Sopot

It was lovely strolling along Sopot pier, breathing in the cool, fresh air.  Sopot is a well known spa town noted for its effects of high concentrations of iodine in the air, so hopefully we were feeling the benefits.  Reaching the far end of the pier,  we climbed some steps to a raised platform where a cafe operates in summer.  From this viewing platform we had splendid views looking back towards the town and of the sheltered cove and wide, sandy beach stretching along the coast.

The beach, Sopot

Retracing our steps to the station we noticed a very strange building, so strange in fact that it was selected as one of the 50 strangest buildings in the world!  It’s called Krzwy Domek (crazy house) and this fairytale inspired building is home to cafes, shops and a local radio station.  In my opinion, it looked totally out of place in such a beautiful town and its appearance must certainly divide opinion!

Crazy Building, Sopot

Back at the station, we bought onward tickets to the port city of Gdynia taking a further 15 minutes with tickets again costing 3.80 zl each.  Leaving the station in Gdynia it was a 15 minute walk to the marina.  Passing the market hall, we glanced inside and found it to be large and functional but lacking in charm.  Gdynia is a young city, formerly a sleepy fishing village until construction commenced in the 1920’s to develop the city into a large port.  Because of this, there is quite a mix of architectural styles from 1920’s art-deco, post-war Soviet building to modern post-communism style developments.

Tall Ships moored in Gdynia

As we arrived at the marina it started raining and there was a stiff breeze as we strolled along the almost desolate stone jetty.  Along here we found two tall ships and some naval vessels.  One of the tall ships, the Pomorza acts as a museum ship during the winter months but it was closed as we wandered by.

Gdynia probably looks more appealing during the summer season as during our visit many of the cafes and wooden kiosks overlooking the beach were closed.  The marina is also home to the Gemini leisure complex and the national aquarium.  On our way back to the railway station we found an attractive cafe where we warmed up with bowls of soup accompanied with slices of delicious rye bread.

We then caught the train back to Gdansk after an interesting day out.  I would definitely recommend a visit to Sopot whatever the time of year but unless you have time to spare, I think I would probably only visit Gdynia during the summer months.

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Day 6.  Viewing the Tall Ships in Kotka 

Day 9.  Visiting Turku and seeing the Tall Ships once more

Day 4.  A visit to Malbork Castle

I’d read about Malbork Castle and was eager to visit whilst staying in Gdansk.  It is the largest brick built castle in the world and was constructed in the thirteenth century.

Malbork Castle

Malbork lies 69km from Gdansk and is easily accessible by train with numerous services daily.  It’s on the main line to Warsaw, so tickets vary in price depending on the type of train selected.  We opted for the inter-city (TLK) service, tickets costing 17 PLN each for a single journey.  I suggest arriving at Gdansk railway station early as there was a lengthy queue at the ticket counter to purchase tickets.

Castle walls surrounding Malbork

Taking the 10.07 a.m. train, we were able to reserve seats even though we were only buying the tickets a few minutes in advance.  Finding our seats, we were pleased to note that they were in one of those old fashioned small compartments, seating only 8 passengers which we shared with just two others.

Bridge connecting sections of the castle

Malbork is the first stop and the medieval castle can be seen from the train window on the left hand side shortly before arriving at the station.  It was then an easy 15 minute walk to the castle, passing through the centre of the small town on the way.

Statues of Tuetonic Knights at Malbork Castle

Entrance tickets can be purchased in the visitor centre and these are priced at 39.50 PLN in the summer and 29.50 PLN during the winter months.  Tickets include free audio guides which are available in English and I would definitely recommend using one as it has built in navigation, tracking your route and guiding visitors to the next location on the map.  If you do not wish to listen to something, we found we could just move on and the device would then re-calibrate to our new position.  Do remember to hold on to your tickets as these need to be scanned before entering the High Castle.  We had to sit down on a bench for a few minutes to search for ours, but eventually found them in a coat pocket!

Castle courtyard

We learnt that Malbork Castle was originally built as a fortress by the Teutonic Knights who were a religious order in Germany.  Since then, the castle has been used as a Polish royal residence and a poorhouse by the Prussian army.  The castle was badly damaged during the Second World War and has since been completely restored and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction.

Beautiful architecture at the castle

The castle is divided into three sections, the High Castle, the Middle Castle and the Outer Bailey which are separated by a series of dry moats and towers.  The castle overlooks the river Nogat which allowed easy access by barges and trading ships arriving from the Vistula river and the Baltic Sea.

Gothic passageways at Malbork Castle

Malbork was expanded several times to host a growing number of knights as at one time there were more than 3,000 residing in the castle which became the largest fortified building in Europe.

Interior of the chapel at Malbork

We spent over two hours touring the castle and found our way around with the assistance of our audio guides.  There didn’t appear to be any signs indicating which way to go round so I think we would have found it confusing without our tracking devices. Information boards were only in Polish too, so we were able to benefit from the English translations.  Museum staff were to be found in some of the rooms but few of them seemed to speak English.  At one point we thought a large oak door was locked as we were unable to open it, but a female member of staff came to our rescue, indicating that the handle was very stiff and hard to turn.

Stained glass on display at Malbork

Before leaving the castle we visited the stained glass exhibition which was located just off the main courtyard.  Here we saw some fine examples of pre-war designs that had decorated the castle church.

Malbork Castle viewed from the bridge

We returned our audio guides to a desk in the gift shop and then walked around the perimeter of the castle until we came to a bridge across the Nogat River.  Looking back from the bridge, we had some excellent views of Malbork.

Pub in Malbork where we had lunch

We then strolled through the town centre and enjoyed a late lunch in a pub on the high street.  Our return train time of 3.19 p.m. we had pre-arranged was just about right providing us with ample time to explore the castle and have a meal.

Malbork station

We really enjoyed visiting the castle and I would recommend adding Malbork to a weekend city break in Gdansk as it is both easy and inexpensive to visit by train.

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Day 3. Castell de Bellver, Palma

 A visit to Savonlinna 

Day 5.   Our final day in Gdansk

On our final morning in Gdansk we took the SKM train to the suburb of Oliwa, located 5 km to the north of the city centre.  Single tickets cost 3.8 zl (80p) for the short journey to this prosperous neighbourhood.

Oliwa Railway Station

Leaving the station, we headed to the main road from where it was only a ten minute walk to the entrance of Oliwa Park.  This public park is a calm, green space and we enjoyed our stroll following pathways beside attractive flower borders and ornamental ponds.

Flower borders in Oliwa Park, Gdansk

At the far end of the park we visited Oliwa cathedral which dates back to the 12th century.  Wandering around the exterior, we thought the church was closed as its heavy door was shut, but luckily we noticed some people leaving and realised that the door was only closed to keep out the cold.

Oliwa Cathedral

We were so pleased to have had the opportunity to look inside as the interior is exquisite and contains one of the largest organs of its type in Europe with an incredible 7,896 pipes and registers.  Admission to the cathedral is free and it is open to view unless a service is taking place.

Interior of Oliwa Cathedral

Also located on the western edge of the park is the beautiful rococo Abbots’ Palace, parts of which date back to the 15th century.  It is now home to the Museum of Modern Art, admission 10 zl with free entrance each Friday.  Sadly, there was insufficient time for us to visit this museum as we needed to collect our luggage and return to the airport for our afternoon flight back to the U.K.

Abbots Palace, Oliwa

We returned to the airport by direct train (3.80 zl) taking 25 minutes, and it was just as well that we had allowed extra time as there were lengthy queues through security taking us much longer than expected to reach our departure gate.   Hopefully this doesn’t happen too often but I suggest arriving early just in case there are any unforeseen delays.

Our return flight back to Leeds-Bradford airport departed on time and a few hours later we were back home after a delightful few days in Gdansk.  Our city break had exceeded expectations with its characteristic old town charm, superb museums and easy rail access to the coastal resort of Sopot and the magnificent castle at Malbork.  Coupled with its attractions, Gdansk remains an inexpensive city to visit with hotel and restaurant costs much lower than in many European cities so I’m certain we will be back before too long.

Day 1 Visiting Kraków at Christmas