As an avid lover of architecture and culture, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of Gdansk Old Town. Gdansk is one of the most beautiful cities in Poland, with its centuries-old buildings and stunning architectural masterpieces, and is a must-see destination for any traveller looking to explore incredible historical sites. Walking around is not just an opportunity to step back in time, it’s also a feast for the eyes.
Most magnificent buildings here look straight out of the 16th and 17th centuries – the period during Gdansk’s greatest prosperity. From Gothic spires to Renaissance archways, one can find examples of almost every European style here. So, if you love architecture as much as I do, Gdansk Old Town offers a unique opportunity to uncover some spectacular architectural gems and get a glimpse of the city’s magnificent past.
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A brief history of Gdansk
Gdansk is a city of immense historical importance, with origins dating back to the 10th century. It was an important trading port and a shipbuilding centre during the 14th century. As part of the Hanseatic League (a confederation of merchant guilds and market towns), Gdanks became one of Europe’s most prosperous cities.
Over the centuries, Gdansk has been part of the State of the Teutonic Order, Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and Prussia. Between the two world wars, Gransk, also known as Danzig in German, existed as the Free City of Gdansk. After World War II, it returned to Poland. It was here that the Solidarity movement started and eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, leading the democracy movement through what was known as Eastern Europe in 1989.
Today, Gdanks is a popular tourist destination and offers visitors an opportunity to uncover spectacular architectural masterpieces from centuries gone by. Gdansk Old Town is a living testimony to the city’s long and turbulent past. As you explore its streets, you are bound to be spellbound by the remarkable spires, gabled facades and archways as much as I was.
Gdansk Old Town’s Unique Architecture Styles
Like many other cities in Poland, Gdansk was heavily damaged during WWII and had to undergo significant reconstruction. After the war ended, there were discussions on how to rebuild the city. The consensus was to restore it to its former glory. Since the war had just ended, many wanted to erase all German influences and opted for Dutch and Flemish designs instead. Gdansk has had historic ties with the Netherlands and Flanders (now in northern Belgium) going back to those Hanseatic League days, so this made sense.
Due to the city’s large geographical size, they decided to focus their reconstruction efforts on Gdansk Old Town. They brought in master crafters, artisans and architects to do the job. To ensure they got it right, architects relied on old photographs and paintings to reconstruct buildings accurately according to their original design features. I ran into a delightful old lady who told me that her neighbour was one of the key architects in restoring the city and shared many stories with her before he died.
Gdansk reminded me of Brussels and Amsterdam with its ornate row houses and gables. It’s hard to imagine that it was all rebuilt from ruins. Knowing that makes the architecture in Gdansk even more intriguing.
Gothic architecture in Gdansk
Gothic architecture emerged in the 12th century and flourished across Europe, lasting well into the 16th century. This architectural style is characterized by tall structures, pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, ornate decorations, soaring towers and turrets. You often find this style in Medieval churches and castles.
The St. Mary’s Basilica, built in the 13th century, is one of Gdansk’s most striking examples of Gothic architecture. The exterior features various gothic elements such as pointed arches, rib vaults and flying buttresses. The church is recognized as one of Europe’s largest brick churches, with soaring towers and turrets reaching up to 80 meters. The church was one of the first buildings to undergo restoration after the war.
The Amber Museum, located in a building that once housed a dungeon and a torture chamber, is another great example of Gothic architecture in Gdansk. The Gdansk Main Town Hall mostly consists of Gothic architecture with Renaissance influences. It features large windows, doors and gables. Today it’s a museum of the city’s history. Make sure to check out the reconstructed Red Hall chamber, where the council meetings were held, which is quite impressive. It was originally designed by Izaak van der Blocke and features magnificent ceilings.
Renaissance architecture in Gdansk
Renaissance architecture is one of my favourite styles. It emerged in Italy during the early 15th and 16th centuries and spread across Europe. It’s characterized by symmetrical designs inspired by classical antiquity. In Renaissance architecture, you’ll find grandiose facades that often included columns or arches and ornate decorations such as frescoes and sculptures. In addition to gilded mouldings or cornices, it featured domes or cupolas, which had not been seen since the Romans.
Here you’ll find gorgeous Renaissance buildings, including Artus Court, initially built in the 14th century with significant reconstruction in the 16th century, the Green Gate, with decorative elements and elaborate facades, and the Uphagen House, a mix between Renaissance and Baroque, is another must-see.
Baroque architecture in Gdansk
I have always been fascinated with the Baroque. It is a sight to behold with its grandeur, dramatic contrasts, gilded finishings, bright colours, and richly painted ceilings. It’s a style where more is more, and anything goes. You often find Baroque in churches, palaces and tenement houses in many European cities.
Gdansk’s Old Town is a treasure trove of Baroque architecture and makes you feel as if you’re in some sort of fantasy. A prime example of the Baroque style in Gdansk is the Royal Chapel beside the Gothic St. Mary’s Church. I couldn’t get enough of this architectural eye candy. With gilded embellishments and a gable decorated with statues, it looks more like a mini palace than a church. Other notable examples of Baroque architecture in Gdansk include the many tenement houses along Dlugi Targ (Long Market) with ornate facades and gilded reliefs.
Dutch and Flemish architecture in Gdansk
The Dutch and Flemish architecture in Gdanks is why the city feels like you’re in the Netherlands or Belgium. This style is characterized by brick or stone facades, ornately decorated gables, symmetrical designs and steeply pitched roofs with multiple gables and dormers.
The Grand Armoury is one of Gdansk’s most easily recognizable examples of Dutch Renaissance architecture. It has octagonal towers, gabled roofs, corner turrets with domes and a richly decorated facade. The massive red brick building was a working arsenal until the 1800s. I was unprepared for this exquisite delight, and honestly, it left me standing with my mouth gaping open.
Neptune’s Fountain, an iconic symbol of Gdansk, was built to commemorate the coronation of King Augustus II. It was designed during the 16th century in the Flemish Mannerism style, and the statue of the sea god Neptune was cast in bronze. The sculpture you see today is the original. It was dismantled and stored during the war and reinstated in mind 1950s.
Top Must-See Landmarks in Gdansk Old Town
One of the best ways to experience Gdansk Old Town is with a self-guided walking tour. I’ve done this walk a few times simply because I wanted to take pictures of everything, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. So bring your camera, wear comfortable walking shoes and don’t forget to look up.
Green Gate (Brama Zielona)
Start your walking tour at the Green Gate, at the bottom of Long Street (Ulica Dluga). Located between the Motlawa River and Long Market (Dlugi Targ), the gatehouse marks the entrance to Gdansk Old Town and the end of the Royal Route. It was initially built in the 1560s as a residence for the Polish kings, however, none of them actually lived here. It reminded me of Amsterdam’s central station, which makes sense as it was designed by Regnier of Amsterdam and Hans Kramer from Dresden.
Long Market and Long Street (Dlugi Targ and Ulica Dluga)
Long Street (Ulica Dluga) is the city’s main artery and was part of the Royal Route. The royals entered the city through the Upland Gate, then the Golden Gate and made their way to the Green Gate. Long street is lined with stunning buildings that were once homes to Gdansk’s wealthiest citizens. It almost feels like you’re in a different time, wandering in a fairy tale.
Artus Court (Dwór Artusa) and Neptune’s Fountain (Fontanna Neptuna)
Walking along Long Street, you’ll find two most iconic spots in Gdansk Old Town – Neptune’s Fountain and the Artus Court. Artus Court is one of the most recognizable historic buildings in the city and used to be the gathering place for wealthy merchants and the local elite. The statue of Neptune was erected in 1549 and was later converted into a fountain in 1633.
Main Town Hall (Ratusz)
The Main Town Hall is beside the fountain and houses the Museum of Gdansk. As I mentioned, this Gothic-Renaissance building was restored after the war. If you have time, I recommend visiting inside as the architectural detail there are outstanding.
Uphagen House (Dom Uphagena)
I love visiting former residences as they give you an idea of how the rich used to live. The 18th-century Uphagen House is one of the only former residences open to the public where you can see what it looks like inside and how it was decorated. This is one of the buildings that miraculously survived the war, which makes this an even more special spot. As the people of Gdansk had very deep pockets, you can just imagine how magnificent all the other buildings must have been inside.
Golden Gate (Zlota Brama)
At the end of Long Street is the early 17th-century Golden Gate. The gate is a classic example of Dutch Mannerism in grayish-blue with gold accents. There are four columns in the facade, each topped with a sculpture. It creates a wonderful contrast to the brick late-Gothic style of the Court Saint George’s Brotherhood.
Torture House and Amber Museum (Muzeum Bursztynu)
Facing the Golden Gate is a Gothic brick tower that used to be the city dungeon. Today, it houses the Torture House exhibits (pretty self-explanatory) and the Amber Museum. You can view the various torture devices and then shop for some amber.
The Grand Armoury
Next, make your way to the spectacular Grand Armoury. I recommend spending some time here to appreciate the intricate craftsmanship that went into restoring this building. The Armoury is home to the Academy Of Fine Arts and has a bar on the main level. Alternatively, you can grab a drink on the patio on Piwna Street as you take a break.
St. Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka) and Royal Chapel (Kaplica Krolewska)
Continue down Piwna Street to the St. Mary’s Basilica. You can’t miss this brick church as it towers over the neighbourhood. Inside, you can admire Medieval-style interiors and climb the tower to enjoy the views of the city.
On the other side of the basilica is the Royal Chapel. You can’t miss the orangey-red exterior with a richly decorated facade. The building is lit at night, which plays up its opulent decor, making it look more like a palace than a church.
Next, make your way to Mariacka Street for more architectural wonders. Mariacka starts behind the St. Mary’s church and stretches to the river. Here, you can really feel like you are in a different time. While the street was also damaged during the war, the buildings here were reconstructed using salvaged materials from other parts of the city. I loved the terraces houses with detailed railings, front stoops and ornate gargoyle rain gutters. Here you’ll also find stands with amber jewellery, charming cafes and shops.
Long Embarkment (Dlugie Pobrzeze)
Go through the gate at the end of Mariacka street to the riverfront. You can make your way back to the Green Gate, or you can wander around. I recommend crossing any of the bridges as the views are great from both sides. There are many bars, restaurants and shops along the way, including the famous Crane building, which today is part of the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk.
Pro tip: During the day, the smaller bridges are often lifted or mechanically moved to allow ships to pass. It takes quite a while for them to move back, so if you’re on one side of the river and want to cross, you might have to wait.
Final thoughts on Gdansk architecture
Gdansk has quickly become one of my all-time favourite destinations for history and architecture. One of the most interesting things I learned was that during the reconstruction efforts, they used old photographs as a guide for what the building looked like. If an older image of a building was found, they added more details to capture its historical essence. This resulted in magnificent and diverse buildings that mix features from different eras.
While it saddens me to think of all the magnificent architecture destroyed during the war, it really makes you appreciate the tenacity and skill used to meticulously recreate so much of it. It’s a great place to glimpse the past and discover a new city to love.
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