Maybe it's the sea air, or maybe it's the mixture of the city's cultural importance and political tumult. Whatever the reason, Gdańsk is special to Poles—and to Scandinavians and Germans, who visit the region in great numbers. From 1308 to 1945, this Baltic port was an independent city-state called Danzig, a majority of whose residents were ethnic Germans. When the Nazis fired the first shots of World War II here on September 1, 1939, they began a process of systematic destruction of Poland that would last for six years and leave millions dead. Nevertheless, in 1997 Gdańsk celebrated its 1,000th year as a Baltic city.
It remains well-known as the cradle of the workers' movement that came to be known as Solidarność (Solidarity). Food-price increases in 1970 led to the first strikes at the (former) Lenin Shipyards. The Communist authorities put down the protest quickly and brutally, killing 40 workers in December of that year. Throughout the 1970s, small groups of anti-Communist workers and intellectuals based in Gdańsk continued to organize. By August 1980, they had gained sufficient critical mass to form an organization that the government was forced to recognize eventually as the first independent trade union in the former Soviet bloc. Although the government attempted to destroy Solidarity when it declared martial law in December 1981, union activists continued to keep the objectives of democracy and independence from the Soviet Union alive. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa became president of Poland in the nation's first free elections since World War II.
The historic core of this medieval city can be explored easily on foot. Although Gdańsk was almost entirely destroyed during World War II, the streets of its Główne Miasto (Main Town) have been lovingly restored and still retain their historical and cultural richness. North of the Main Town, the Stare Miasto (Old Town) contains many newer hotels and shops, but several churches and the beautifully reconstructed Old Town Hall justify its name. At the north end of the Old Town sit the shipyards. This site, which captivated world attention during the many clashes between workers and militarized police units during the 1970s and '80s, has now settled back into its daily grind, and the shipyards struggle to make the adjustment to the free market.
Having come to Gdańsk, it would be a crime not to explore the Tri-City further, particularly when it is so easy. Just hop on a commuter train and head northwest to Gdańsk's suburb of Oliwa, which has an amazing cathedral; farther north is Sopot, with its high-life resort atmosphere, and Gdynia, which has some wonderful ships moored in its docklands.