Poland in and of itself is a country that I think gets unfairly overlooked by travelers. But if you want that quintessential European aesthetic of cobblestone streets and gorgeous centuries-old buildings without lighting your wallet on fire, then you go to Poland.
Warsaw and Krakow are a couple of the first cities to come to mind (though some, unfairly I think, deride Warsaw’s old town as a Disneyland for tourists). But those towns are just the tip of the pierogi, if you will. In fact, one of the most impressive cities I’ve seen––across Western and Central Europe––is Gdansk, a seaside city where you can get your fix of Polish culinary classics alongside fresh fish and Baltic beach access.
Hankering for some pierogis, Baltic beach, and a train ride, we hopped on Deutsche Bahn Eurocity’s EC59 for a lumbering six-hour ride through western Poland and into Gdansk.
When to visit Gdansk
Like anywhere else in the world, it depends on what you want to get out of Gdansk. Me, I have a general rule of not visiting European cities in the summer. That’s when the rest of the world crowds into old town centers. But also like most places in the northern hemisphere, it gets hot in the summer. I’d rather be lost in the woods, staying cool underneath the shade of the forest. Wandering around under the punishing sun, sweating through my clothes, isn’t quite my jam.
Gdansk was a recent exception to my rule. One, things were finally opening up again following a locked-down winter thanks to COVID. I was eager to travel wherever and whenever possible. But second, and more importantly for the long run, you’ve got beach access. When else am I going to wade into the freezing waters of the Baltic? If it’s not happening in July and August, it’s not happening.
The downside is that yes, the city center is and will be packed with shuffling tourists this time of year. But you can always see it at your own pace earlier in the morning before hopping on the train to spend the afternoon at the beach.
Where to eat in Gdansk
Pierogarnia Stary Młyn
Although Gdansk definitely has its own vibe distinct from cities like Warsaw and Krakow, it’s still Poland. After dropping our bags at the hotel, I had to get some pierogis in front of me. Fortunately, Pierogarnia Stary Młyn was just around the corner and had a couple of free tables.
It’s not all pierogis at the Pierogarnia, but as you can see, it’s definitely in the name. They specialize in offering pierogis in two different styles. You’ve got oven-baked pierogis and traditional boiled pierogis briefly sautéed to give the pillowy dough a bit of a crunch.
I’m not sure if I’d ever had oven-baked pierogis before. To play it safe, we ordered a little of both styles. If I had to pick, I think I’d be Team Tradition, but the combination on my plate was everything I wanted shortly after my arrival to Gdansk. The boiled ones came with this honey mustard that I wanted to spread over everything. But I resisted the urge.
Spoko Restaurant & Pub
After breakfast, we hopped on the 8 tram on the edge of the city center for the 40-minute ride to the end of the line where Jelitkowo Beach is just on the other side of the adjacent park. Jelitkowo Beach is just one of the many sandy options in and around Gdansk. The train we took in from Berlin actually ends further north in Gdynia with a stop in Sopot that’s especially popular with beach travelers. From Gdansk, you could also take another train to Hel at the tip of a thin peninsula that dips into the Baltic. Or, there are more wild beaches east of the city that are easily accessible by bus.
Tip: Download the Jakdojade app to easily purchase transit tickets on your phone.
The problem with more distant, remote beaches is that you’ve got to bring your own food. But I was eager to eat, so we opted for Jelitkowo with its promise of beachside restaurants. Beachside restaurants in popular parts of town can always be a crapshoot, but we lucked out with Spoko Restaurant & Pub. We started with a halloumi spread and grilled pineapple to share. For my main dish, I opted for locally sourced Baltic herring with mashed potatoes. I scarfed that thing down, enjoying the general beachy ambiance of the open-air patio alongside the cycling-pedestrian path that traced the edge of the beach. If you would’ve dropped me there without context, I wouldn’t have had a clue that I was in Poland. Of course, that says more about my ignorance of Poland’s geographic and cultural diversity than anything else.
If you’re inclined to enjoy the local brew, you can do precisely that at Gdański Bowke. Here you can try a variety of traditional and local craft beers while people-watching passersby on the strip along the dock. Come hungry because they’ve got a massive menu that’ll appeal to anyone, whether you’re looking for meaty staples or to stick with that new vegetarian diet you’ve been trying out. I for one went with the salmon underneath a chunk of herbal butter after starting with some pierogis. Whatever you do, finish up the meal as we did with a plate of apples from the orchard in a home-baked pie served with ice cream.