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In the wake of the Euro 2012 football tournament, the world saw the true face of Poland – welcoming, charming and exciting.

Poland’s long, fascinating and turbulent history is noticeable everywhere, whether you’re strolling past ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks in Łódź or sipping a coffee under the midday sun in Kraków’s historic Rynek Główny.

Babie Doly, Gdynia, Poland
Babie Doly, Gdynia, Poland (Photo credit: jan.mikolaj)

One place above all else embodies Poland’s spirit. That place is called Gdynia and it’s located on the country’s northern coast. Why is Gdynia so special? For one thing, it’s a unique mixture of modern concrete and steel, lacking historical charm. On the other hand, its home to some of Poland’s most spectacular coastal scenery. Delve beneath the city’s modernity however, and you’ll uncover some of the most important events in Polish, and indeed in world history.

Gdynia is situated within a metropolitan area known as ‘Trójmiasto’ in Polish and ‘Tricity’ in English, along with Gdańsk and Sopot. The three cities are mere miles apart and travelling between them is quick and effortless. Gdańsk is renowned worldwide for its splendid old town and medieval buildings, while Sopot is famed for having the longest pier in Europe and the wonderfully puzzling ‘Crooked House’. Out of the three, Gdynia is sometimes overlooked, yet there’s something to discover around every corner in this charming city.

Gdynia, Poland - restaurants on Skwer Kościuszki
Gdynia, Poland – restaurants on Skwer Kościuszki (Photo credit: yorkville)

One of the first things you’ll notice in Gdynia is a distinct lack of historic buildings. There are two reasons for this – Gdynia itself remained a village until the 1920s when the Polish government started construction of a deepwater port, so grand buildings were never really afforded priority. Secondly, immense wartime destruction resulted in the disappearance of what little historic buildings there were. The city was rebuilt from the rubble of the Second World War in a distinctly Soviet fashion.

While the streets are broad and straight and the buildings are shabby and grey, the friendly locals fill the place with a vibrant sense of warmth. If you’re lost in Gdynia, don’t hesitate to approach somebody on the street and ask for directions. Many younger Poles will be keen to practise their English skills. If you’re lucky, you might get invited to one of Gdynia’s cosy pubs for a pint of Żywiec, a delicious Polish lager. Amid all the modernity, you can still spot some historic buildings like St. Michael Archangel’s Church in Oksywie, a charismatic old structure with red roof tiles and a wooden belfry.

Świętojańska street - Gdynia, Poland
Świętojańska street – Gdynia, Poland (Photo credit: yorkville)

Getting around Gdynia is very easy. A fleet of white and blue electric trolleybuses and conventional buses service the city, with a 24 hour ticket costing 10 zł or €2.40.  Gdynia is one of only two cities in Poland with a trolleybus network, the other one being Tychy. If you wish to travel to Sopot or Gdańsk, hop on the Szybka Kolej Miejska or SKM, a fast and cheap commuter train.

Most of Gdynia’s key attractions can be found at the seafront, so make this the very core of your trip. The port really breathes history and there’s a multitude of museums that put all of the pieces together. It was here in December 1970 that scores of striking shipyard workers were killed by the army, profoundly impacting workers across Poland and eventually resulting in the emergence of the Solidarity movement. Memorials stand to the massacred workers in Gdynia, Gdańsk and Elbląg.

Two impressive museum ships stand in Gdynia’s harbour – the Dar Pomorza, a sailing frigate dating from 1909 and the ORP Błyskawica, the oldest preserved destroyer in the world. The tall white sails of the Dar Pomorza are highly impressive and it’s well worth a visit. The ship was operated by Britain and France before sailing around the world in 1935. It served Poland for several decades, and was decommissioned in 1982. The ORP Błyskawica had a much more violent and glorious existence on the other hand, fighting throughout the Second World War. In the process, it shot down four German aircraft and damaged three U-boats.

Sea Towers, Gdynia, Poland
Sea Towers, Gdynia, Poland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing at the harbour and looking out towards the horizon, many visitors to Gdynia remain unaware of a gargantuan maritime tragedy that took place close to the city in 1945. While in the process of evacuating civilians from East Prussia, a German ship named the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine soon after departing Gdynia. It sunk with the loss of an estimated 9,400 people, making it the deadliest ship sinking in recorded maritime history. Most of the dead were civilians, including upwards of 4,000 children.

If you’re keen to experience a more light-hearted and relaxed side of Gdynia, head to the aquarium. Its home to more than 1,000 of species fish, amphibians and reptiles from every corner of the world. The building is very spacious and modern, located a stone’s throw away from the museum ships in the port. One of the best things about visiting Poland is how much money you can save. Everything is very cheap and in fact, Poland actually has the lowest food prices in Europe.

If you want to explore the great outdoors, Gdynia is the perfect place. Miles of beautiful sandy beaches stretch out in every direction, dotted with marinas, promenades and restaurants. Make sure you take a stroll at Plaża w Orłowie, a wonderful white sandy stretch of coastline located under the Orłowie cliffs. There’s an old wooden pier here, a great place to relax and take in the views. Colourful little fishing boats bob up and down in the tide while a massive brown tree trunk lies across the beach. It contrasts wonderfully with the cream coloured cliffs in the background, a spot of stunning beauty. Sitting on that tree trunk at sunset, you’ll find yourself in the most radiant spot in all of Poland.

Walk up into the hills and cliffs overlooking the beaches and enjoy marvellous views over the Baltic Sea. It’s very tranquil along the paths overlooking the roaring Baltic, and you can walk for hours on end. In the summer, it does get crowded and noisy, nowhere moreso than the beaches themselves. Poles flock to Sopot more than Gdynia, so if you’re after a more relaxing summer experience, find yourself a spot on the sand at Plaża w Orłowie or the wild beach at Osada Rybacka.

Bulwar Szwedzki - Gdynia, Poland
Bulwar Szwedzki – Gdynia, Poland (Photo credit: yorkville)

In terms of buzz, vibrancy and life, Gdynia is hard to beat. Move away from the beaches and walk back towards the city where you’ll find Cyganeria, an old and much loved bar noir. Budding student revolutionaries used to plot coups in this bar, and its sofas provide the perfect place to relax with a cold beer or warm cappuccino, depending on the weather. If you’re hungry, go to Barracuda. This modern, stylish place serves the very best seafood in Poland and its terrace has an unbeatable atmosphere during summer. Gdynia offers plenty of exciting events, like Heineken Open’er, an early summer music festival attracting the industry’s top names and up to 70,000 fans. For cinema lovers, the Gdynia Film Festival is the highlight of the year, culminating in the award of the Golden Lion trophy for the best film.

After a short visit, Gdynia is easy to gauge. Beneath its initially off-putting façade, you break into a city full of spectacular history, friendly people, buzzing events and alluring seaside strolls. Its deepwater port is literally Poland’s lifeblood and some have described Gdynia as the gateway to the country. Yet Gdynia isn’t just the gateway to Poland, it’s so much more. It’s a summer holiday resort, an important logistics base, rapidly developing economic force. Gdynia is experiencing its very best days right now, so go and enjoy everything it has to offer!

Seamus Murphy writes for Trenditionist.

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