A Guide to Historical Gdansk (Updated 2024)

If you’re passionate about history, then Gdańsk is a must-visit European destination. Though inhabited by Baltic tribes since the Bronze Age, the city’s recorded history began in 997 AD when Saint Adalbert of Prague baptized the inhabitants of Gdańsk.

Before Adalbert’s arrival, the native Old Prussian (or Baltic Prussian) tribespeople would have worshipped pre-Christian deities. Their settlement would have been a centre of Baltic trade, mainly built around fishing. The Christianisation and official establishment of the town was mostly led by Mieszko I of Poland who wanted a direct connection between the lands ruled by the Polish Piast dynasty and the trade routes of the Baltic Sea.

From this point forward, the history of Gdańsk was to be stormy (to put it mildly) – Gdańsk is the very definition of contested territory. Over the centuries, this strategically important and prosperous city would endlessly be fought over. Control over Gdańsk would often switch between the Polish crown and German Teutonic Knights (in German, the city is known as Danzig). Later, the German state of Prussia, Napoleonic and Russian armies, the German Empire, and Nazi Germany would all play their part in the city’s story.

In our Historical Guide to Gdańsk, we will tour many of the city’s major museums and historical locations. Remember, we have many Day Tours from Gdansk. Please explore our selection of tours and get in touch if you have any questions.

Archaeological Museum in Gdansk

The Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk should be the starting point for anyone wishing to really learn about the city’s past. The museum’s central branch is located on picturesque ul. Mariacka. The permanent collections cover the prehistory of Gdańsk and the Pomerania region and the 1,000 years of Gdańsk’s recorded history with evidence gathered through excavations.

Also within the museum are fascinating sections on amber (a commodity with great significance in Gdańsk’s history) and, perhaps surprisingly, on Sudan. Though not a large museum, the Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk has a lot of charm. The site is open Tuesday to Sunday, and entry to the permanent collections is free on Saturdays.

ul. Mariacka 25/26, Gdańsk 

The Romanesque Cellar in Gdansk’s Old Town

This mysterious little site is hidden in the shadow of the tremendous 13th-century Dominican Church of St. Nicholas. If you’re wandering the streets of Gdańsk’s beautiful old town, it would be easy to overlook the unassuming green office that acts as an entry point down to the Romanesque cellars, but we recommend you make an effort to stop by this museum.

Here, under the city’s central covered market hall (Hala Targowa), we find one of the most atmospheric windows into the city’s distant past. Down a small flight of stairs, you enter the 13th-century cellar of the city’s original Dominican monastery.

It is believed that the city as we know it today began to grow around the market, so the cellars are the closest we can get to firsthand contact with the city’s earliest citizens. Look out for the brick pillar where a monk had carved the symbol of the cross. Try not to feel too spooked as you step into the ossuary, an underground tomb where hundreds of skeletons are said to have been interred; some skulls and bones are visibly protruding from the excavated ground.

pl. Dominikański 1, 80-844 Gdańsk

Malbork Castle – A Day Trip from Gdansk

Although located outside of Gdańsk, the Teutonic castle of Malbork has played a major role in the history of Gdańsk and is easily accessible by trains regularly departing from Gdańsk’s central station. 

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Malbork Castle was built during the 13th century by the knights of the Teutonic Order. This Gothic, red-brick castle is the world’s largest by land coverage, covering an extraordinary 52 acres. 

Originally named Marienburg in German to honour the Virgin Mary, the medieval fortress became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order following their move from Venice in 1309. The knights had initially arrived in Poland with the blessing of the Pope (and Polish aristocracy) during the so-called Northern Crusades, with the aim of converting pagans (often at the end of a sword) to Christianity. But following the persecution of the Templar Knights in 1307, Malbork looked like the perfect place to establish a defensive stronghold, just out of reach of interfering powers. 

Today, the site is home to the Malbork Castle Museum, and it’s a must-visit destination for anyone interested in exploring the history of Gdańsk. The Teutonic Order was, after all, in control of Gdańsk/Danzig for more than two centuries. 

This is an extraordinary example of Northern Gothic architecture and an absolute dream destination for history lovers who enjoy exploring castles. Reserve enough time for your visit, as the fortress is exceptionally large. 

Starościńska 1, 82-200 Malbork

The National Maritime Museum in Gdansk

Spread across several sites, the National Maritime Museum in Gdańsk covers the city’s rich history of shipbuilding and maritime trade.

The most famous of the museum’s locations is undoubtedly the Gdańsk Crane, one of the city’s most iconic buildings. This 15th-century port crane houses exhibitions on the city’s role as a port, and guests can climb to the top of the crane to see how it would have operated in its heyday.

The main branch of the museum is located across the canal in the granaries on Ołowianka Island. This extensive collection is divided into three galleries: “Poles on the Seas of the World”, “Underwater Archaeology and Diving” and “Maritime Gallery”, with each containing paintings and models depicting maritime themes, alongside historical artefacts. The views from the building’s windows are worth the price of admission alone.

Outside the main building, you will find the steam-powered coal carrier, SS Sołdek, harboured on the waters of the Motława. Climb aboard this historic ship and learn about its construction and seafaring history.

 Ołowianka 9-13, 80-751 Gdańsk

The Shakespeare Theatre, Gdansk

Built on the site of a 17th-century theatre known as The Fencing School, the Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski) was designed by Italian architect Renato Rizzi and opened its doors in 2014.

The driving force behind the theatre’s creation was the literary scholar Jerzy Limon, who championed Gdańsk’s unique history as a centre of the dramatic arts. During the 1600s, Gdańsk became one of Europe’s primary destinations for travelling English actors who would perform a repertoire of Shakespearean works and other popular plays.

The building itself is magnificent. Inspired by medieval treasure boxes, the heavily buttressed, black-brick building features a fully retractable roof, so plays can be performed in the open air during good weather. The walls of the theatre can be climbed via stairwells open to the public, making this a destination for your list even if you cannot attend a performance. 

Wojciecha Bogusławskiego 1, 80-818 Gdańsk

The National Museum in Gdańsk

Housed within a late-Gothic Franciscan monastery, the National Museum in Gdańsk is part of Poland’s National Museum system. This is the city’s largest collection of paintings, prints, and drawings from Old Masters and other significant European artists.

However, one jewel in the museum’s collection stands out above all others: Hans Memling’s masterpiece, The Last Judgement. Many visitors to the city will have the National Museum on their list of things to do for this painting alone. Created between 1467 and 1471, an agent of the Medici family had commissioned Memling, but a Gdańsk pirate later stole the painting, and it came into the ownership of the Hanseatic League. 

Toruńska 1, 80-822 Gdańsk

Museum of Gdansk

Perfect for guests spending the day in Gdańsk’s Old Town, the Museum of Gdańsk is stunningly located within the restored Gothic and Renaissance building of the Main Town Hall. If the grandeur of merchant townhouses that make up Gdańsk’s fairytale centre has impressed you, you’ll love the experience of stepping inside and admiring the interiors. 

Many Polish kings have walked through these halls. There’s no more atmospheric place to enjoy learning about the history of the city and the wealthy Hanseatic merchants who held sway over the city’s fortunes.

The rooms are filled with 16th and 17th furniture, which gives a sense of what everyday life would have been like for these members of the Gdańsk high society.

Długa 46/47 St., 80-831 Gdańsk

Free City of Danzig Historical Zone

Located in the heart of Gdańsk’s Old Town, the Free City of Danzig Historical Zone is a fascinating window into the city’s time as a semi-autonomous city-state. Between 1920 and 1939, Gdańsk (then still known as Danzig) was to remain separated from post-war Germany and the newly independent Polish Republic. Given protection by the League of Nations, the Free City of Danzig (or Freie Stadt Danzig) was formed to give Poland access to a significant seaport. 

As we touched upon in our last article, the ethnic makeup and identity of Gdańsk had been complex for centuries. But by the late 1930s, almost 98% of the city’s population was ethnically German. That being said, Polish culture was still prominent in the city, and the Polish Party represented the minority Polish population continuously polled rather well despite many obstacles being placed in their way. 

The city-state status of Gdańsk would go on to be one of the main reasons for Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 when Hitler decided he wanted to close the so-called Polish corridor by taking back full control of the city and reuniting East Prussia (present-day northeast Poland) with the rest of Germany.   

For anyone interested in WW2 or 20th-century history in general, the Free City of Danzig Historical Zone is worth visiting for giving insight into a pivotal moment in European history alone. But there is much to enjoy here. While the collection may be small, few museums capture a period so evocatively. This is a perfect time capsule of the Free State period, from toys and household appliances to street signs, vintage photos, and 30s advertising.

ul. Długi Targ 25/27, Gdańsk

Westerplatte, Gdansk

This is where the first shots of the Second World War were fired. No event in human history is more cataclysmic, shocking, and tragic than WW2. And here, on the peninsula of Westerplatte, is where the hell was unleashed. 

Ironically, throughout the 19th century, the Westerplatte was home to spa facilities and a popular beach, much like nearby Zoppot (today, Sopot). However, in 1924, the Polish were granted permission to use the peninsula as a military depot. Throughout the 20s and 30s, the site was developed as a military fort where up to 200 Polish troops could be stationed at any given time.

The plan, should any emergency event occur, was that the soldiers of the Westerplatte would quickly be assisted by reinforcements from mainland Poland. This was not, though, to be the case on that fateful day in 1939. 

On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Following initial aerial bombardments along the German and Polish border, the German pre-dreadnought battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the barracks at Westerplatte. The artillery fire began at around 4:45 AM and was supported by a land invasion conducted by marines who had disembarked the Schleswig-Holstein several hours earlier. 

Despite thinking the Westerplatte conquest would take only a few hours, the Polish soldiers inflicted heavy losses on the Germans in the early stages of the battle and heroically held out for seven days. It wasn’t until 7 September that the Polish Gen. Sucharski decided that the white flag of surrender must be raised. Food supplies were beginning to run out, and multiple Polish soldiers had serious wounds in need of proper medical treatment. 

The German commander Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt was so impressed by the Poles’ resistance that he allowed the surrendering Gen. Sucharski to keep his officer’s sword. By the battle’s end, German casualties amounted to 50 killed and 150 wounded, while the Poles had lost just 15 men and sustained 40 wounded. Though ultimately a Polish defeat, the battle was to go down in Polish legend, and the heroism of the men of the Westerplatte was to become an inspiration for future Polish resistance fighters. 

Today, on the Westerplatte, the ruins of the barracks and other military buildings can still be visited. There’s a small, seasonal museum in one of the guardhouses, and the impressive Monument of the Coast Defenders (pictured below) acts as a viewpoint over the area. It is walking in the shelled-out barracks, however, that is most affecting. As you explore the ruins, you’ll experience that special atmosphere that comes with locations closely linked to momentous historical events.

Majora Henryka Sucharskiego 70, 80-601, Gdańsk

Polish Post Office of the Free City of Danzig

Created in 1920 with the establishment of the Free City of Danzig, the Polish Post Office served the minority Polish population of Danzig and was one of the few institutions in the city run solely by the Polish state. In fact, the post office’s buildings even counted as extraterritorial Polish land. 

Given what the site symbolised and represented legally, it is perhaps not surprising that Nazi authorities made its conquest one of their priorities when the time came to attack Danzig and bring it fully within German control.

The Polish authorities, too, had realised the importance of the building and had sent a combat engineer to put a defensive plan into place. The man in charge was Army Reserve Sublieutenant Konrad Guderski. He helped enlist volunteer and professional military defenders and develop fortifications across the site. His task was to defend the Post Office long enough for Polish military support to arrive.

On 1 September 1939, only hours after the Germans had begun their assault on the Westerplatte, the Polish Post Office came under attack. Fifty-seven people were inside at the time. They had a cache of weapons, including machine guns and grenades, but much like the soldiers of the Westerplatte, the assault on the Polish Post Office was expected to be over almost as soon as it began. 

However, despite being cut off from all lines of the support they needed, the defenders of the Polish Post Office held on for 15 hours. The Poles defended the building bravely, repelling the first couple of German assaults. But in the face of Polish defiance, the gathered German forces resorted to increasingly brutal methods.

Danzig Police Commander Willi Bethke ordered that gasoline be pumped into the basement of the building; the doused building was then ignited by a grenade. After Poles were burned alive inside the building, the defenders of the Post Office decided to surrender. However, German soldiers would murder Dr Jan Michoń, the building’s director and commandant Jósef Wąsik as they tried to wave the white flag of capitulation.

Only after these senseless killings was the surrender agreed. But the survivors of the assault would not be spared for long, the Nazis put them all on trial, and they were sentenced to death as “illegal combatants”. The defenders were executed on 5 October. Only four of the Post Office defenders managed to escape and survive the war.

Today, the defence of the Polish Post Office is remembered as an act of defiance and bravery. The story has been captured in films, such as the Palme d’Or-winning The Tin Drum (based on Gunter Grass’s masterful novel of the same name), and television shows like the BBC’s World on Fire

plac Obrońców Poczty Polskiej 1/2, 80-800 Gdańsk

Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk

Few World War Two-related museums can rival Gdańsk’s Museum of the Second World War. Opened in 2017, the museum’s management set out to tell the war story from the perspective of both combatants and civilians. The museum captures the tragedy of war, the civilian suffering, and the bravery and sacrifice of the forces who gave their lives to fight the evil of Nazism.

The museum welcomed contributions from leading names in Central and Eastern European WW2 history, such as Norman Davies, Timothy Snyder, and Tomasz Szarota. The authoritativeness shows, and perhaps the only weakness of the museum, that they don’t offer multi-day tickets, such as the scale of the exhibition space.

Visitors are met with wartime artefacts, multimedia presentations, expertly written texts, and interactive features from one room to the next. The presentations are poignant, dramatic, and enlightening. Even those well-versed in their WWII history will find themselves with a more nuanced, deeper picture of the conflict by the time they reach the end of this mammoth museum. 

Our recommendation is that you reserve plenty of time to explore.

plac Władysława Bartoszewskiego 1, 80-862 Gdańsk

European Solidarity Centre, Gdansk

One can begin to sound like a broken record when talking about the global significance of the historical sites in Gdańsk, but there’s no other way – this city has been at the centre of so many momentous moments.

Founded in Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyard in 1980, Solidarity was the first independent trade union to be recognised in the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Within just one year, the union’s membership had reached 10 million (one-third of the adult population), and by 1983, its leader, Lech Wałęsa, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement, funded generously by the USA and the Vatican, gathered momentum throughout the 80s and guaranteed Poland its first pluralistic elections since 1947. In 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected the president of Poland. 

It is no overestimation to say that Solidarity’s meteoric rise in the 1980s played a major role in the collapse of European communism. The European Solidarity Centre was established to tell Solidarity’s story, along with the stories of other anti-communist movements.

Spanning five floors of an imposing, purpose-built building, the European Solidarity Museum’s fascinating collections include over 2,000 objects from the communist era. Interactive exhibits throughout mean that the museum remains engaging for visitors of all ages. The museum is located on the site of the former Leningrad Shipyard, and outside, you can see a replica of the iconic shipyard gates in addition to an enormous monument to protesters killed by police during the shipyard strikes.  

And if you’re particularly interested in the history or staying in Gdańsk for a longer period, the European Solidarity Centre is home to an extensive library open to the public. The library’s collections include thousands of items relating to Polish history under communism but also feature up-to-date periodicals and newly published works. It’s also just a nice space to take a book and spend some time reading.

Plac Solidarności 1, Gdańsk

This brings to a close the second part of our guide to the historic city of Gdańsk. We hope we’ve given you a range of possible things to do when you’re next in this extraordinary city.

If you have any questions, please get in touch.

Continue exploring the history and culture of Polish cities with our Historical Guide to Wrocław.

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