Gothic Majesty at Malbork Castle: A Cultural Treasure
As a lifelong lover of castles, I have always dreamed of visiting Malbork Castle in Poland. While visiting Gdansk, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally take that bucket list trip and explore this spectacular piece of history. Malbork Castle is a medieval fortress that sits on the shore of the River Nogat and towers over the small town of Malbork with its Gothic grandeur. It’s also one of the most important cultural treasures in Europe and one of the largest brick Gothic castles in the world by land size.
With a rich history, stunning architecture, exquisite artwork, and incredible cultural significance, Malbork Castle is a perfect destination for history buffs and architecture enthusiasts. As far as castles go, this one definitely lived up to the hype and met my expectations.
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A brief history of the castle
Malbork Castle is an outstanding example of Gothic architecture, with red brick walls, moats, arches and towers decorated with stone and terracotta. The castle is jaw-dropping today, so I can only imagine how imposing and grand it must have been to anyone approaching it when it was at its finest. You can’t help but be awed by its size.
The fortress was built by the Teutonic Knights during the 13th and 14th centuries and took about 130 years to complete. The Teutonic Knights, officially The Order of the German House of St Mary in Jerusalem, were a religious, military order of German knights on a mission to Christianize the pagan tribes of Prussia and the surrounding areas. They had far reach across Europe and became very wealthy over time. Malbork Castle was originally called Marienburg after the Virgin Mary, their patron saint, and had served as the order’s headquarters.
Malbork became the seat of power for the order, but as with everything else, nothing lasts forever. As the power of the Teutonic Knights declined, so did their grip on the surrounding area. In 1457, the castle came under Polish rule and stayed that way for the next 300 years. After the Partition of Poland in 1772, the castle fell under Prussian control.
Malbork was renovated, altered and demolished in parts many times over the centuries to suit the function of those that controlled it. There were major restoration efforts conducted during the 19th and early 20th centuries to restore the castle to its medieval roots. Unfortunately, it was heavily damaged and nearly destroyed during WWII.
After the war, Malbork returned to Poland, and major restoration efforts took place to restore the site to its previous glory. In 1997, Malbork Castle joined the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, and today is one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions.
Architecture and design
The castle is actually made up of three separate sections. The High Castle is the oldest part and was used as the monastic centre of the complex. Here you’ll find the Church of the Blessed Virgin and St. Ann’s Chapel, the resting place of several Grand Masters. You can also check out what a medieval kitchen looked like and where the knights went to the loo. Let’s just say you didn’t want anything accidentally dropping down there.
The Middle Castle was added after the order’s Grand Master arrived in Malbork in 1309 to accommodate the growing number of knights living here. Apparently, as many as 3,000 of them lived here at one point. Here you’ll find the living quarters, the Grand Reflectory where they entertained, an infirmary and the Palace of the Grand Masters. The Amber Museum is a modern addition, which is fitting as the knights once were involved in its trade.
The Low Castle (sometimes called Outer Castle) was the last addition to the complex during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Here was the armoury, blacksmith’s workshop, stables, brewery and other operational outbuildings. As the knights were a religious order, there was also a chapel for the servants.
All three were surrounded by moats, defensive walls and massive towers. There is also a very impressive drawbridge which was once the main entrance to the castle. Inside is Gothic architecture at its finest – ornately carved details, columns, banners, gargoyles and geometric patterns along the walls and roofs. You can also admire sculptures and stained-glass windows, many depicting scenes from the Bible or historical events.
Art and treasures
The castle had an impressive collection of medieval art, china, glass, paintings, furniture and tapestries. Here you’ll also find sculptures of religious figures, prominent Teutonic Knights and mythical creatures. Many of the paintings you see here depict the castle’s history and its people, while tapestries illustrate battles, legendary scenes and metaphors.
The castle’s collection of religious artifacts includes icons, chalices, and vestments, which offer further insights into the spiritual practices of the Teutonic Knights and the local population. There is also a large display of military artifacts, including armour, weapons, and artillery.
Legends and mysteries
Like many other castles, Malbork Castle has its share of intriguing stories, legends and mysteries. Our guide told us that many visitors have reported sightings of strange shadows or figures within the castle’s walls. Others have reported unexplained noises and strange occurrences. Sadly, I didn’t notice anything untoward during my visit.
Another popular legend associated with the castle is the story of the hidden treasure that is said to be buried within its walls. According to the legend, the Teutonic Knights hid a vast treasure trove in the castle before they were forced to abandon it. To this day, treasure hunters continue to search for the legendary fortune of gold, silver and jewels, although no one has ever been able to find them.
The castle wouldn’t be a Gothic fortress without secret tunnels and passages beneath the castle, linking it to other places in and around Malbork. While some of these rumours have been proven false, others have been confirmed by historians and archaeologists, adding to the castle’s allure and intrigue.
Malbork Castle in Polish culture
The fortress played an important role in Polish history. In 1457, it was captured by Polish forces led by King Casimir IV, putting an end to the rule of the Teutonic Knights in the area. The castle was then turned into the residence and the seat of the Polish monarchs and held that function for the next 300 years until the partition of Poland in 1772.
Today, Malbork Castle is considered a symbol of Polish national identity and a reminder of the country’s struggle for independence and freedom. The castle’s history represents the centuries-long conflict between Poland and the Teutonic Knights and the country’s triumph over foreign rule.
The castle was severely damaged during WWII and has been meticulously rebuilt, over the years, with restorations continuing until 2016. During restorations, many of the medieval construction and craft techniques were rediscovered. Although it was damaged during the war, almost the entire complex stayed intact, making it easier to restore. So, what you see today is pretty much how it looked over six centuries ago.
Tips for visiting Malbork Castle
Malbork is a small town about 60 km from Gdansk, and it’s the perfect day trip. You can drive, take the train or avoid the hassle altogether by booking an organized tour. Parking at the castle gates is available, but during summer months, you might find it challenging to get a spot. From what I hear, it can also be pricey.
I took the train from Gdansk Central station, which was the cheapest and easiest option. Depending on the type of train you choose, it can take anywhere from less than 30 minutes to an hour to get to Marlbork. The castle is about an easy 10-minute walk from the station.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Book your train tickets online. You can also get a return ticket which is a better deal. Check out the timetables and prices here.
Admission fees and guided tours
You can visit the castle either on a guided tour or a self-guided one. If you opt to explore on your own, you have to pay for the audio guide (PLN 15). The guides have GPS, so you know exactly what you’re seeing and get clear directions for where to go next. They are available in Polish, English, German, Italian, French, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Russian and Czech.
|Route||Duration||Days + Time||Admission|
|Historical Route||3.5 hours||Tue-Sun, 9:00-15:00 |
(last entry at 13:00)
|Normal ticket – PLN 70.00|
Family ticket (2+2) – PLN 220.00
|Green Route||1.5 hours||Mon, 9:00-17:00 and Tue-Sun, 13:15-17:00 |
(last entry at 15:30)
|Normal ticket – PLN 30.00|
Family ticket (2+2) – PLN 90.00
|Self Guided tour||2-3 hours||Mon, 9:00-17:00 and Tue-Sun, 13:15-17:00 |
(last entry at 15:30)
|Explore the castle grounds on your own with an audio guide (PLN 15)|
|FREE Mondays |
|2 hours||Mon, 9:00-17:00|
(last entry at 15:30)
|Free, but you have to pay PLN 15.00 for the audio guide|
You can definitely explore the castle grounds on your own. You won’t get to see all the indoor exhibitions, but that might be enough for you. To fully benefit from the visit, you need about 3-3.5 hours. During high season, there are a lot of tourists, so your visit might take longer as you try to navigate the crowds.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Book your castle tickets online, especially during high season. As prices and times can change, always check out the official site for more information.
Another great option is to book an organized tour, which includes transportation, a tour of the caste with an English-speaking registered guide and admission fees.
I had a great time exploring the castle. I visited during the week in October, so I managed to avoid large tourist crowds and felt like there was enough time to explore the grounds. The architecture here is spectacular, and when you think of all the meticulous work that went into the reconstruction efforts, it really makes you appreciate it even more. I don’t think that even the knights themselves ever imagined that their fortress will be here centuries later, awing visitors with its grandeur.
If you love castles, this one is definitely worth adding to your list. And if you love to explore more of Poland, you might like my post on castles in Poland. Be warned, there are a lot of them to see, and it might require more than one trip to Poland to see them.