Not one city but three, the “Tricity” of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia is Poland’s gateway to the sea. Major redevelopment since the Second World War has restored the historic heart of the town, where a gridiron pattern of cobbled streets runs between elegant townhouses and towering copper-roofed churches. There is a touch of Hamburg to the waterfront, with its skyline of cranes, and the similarities are more than superficial: like Hamburg, Gdansk was a member of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, and belonged to Prussia in between spells of Polish rule.
A duo of top-class museums help to make sense of the city’s complex history. The Solidarity Centre, built in the shipyard that sparked the chain of political events that would eventually bring down the Iron Curtain, is worth a visit for its spectacular foyer alone – a cathedral of glass, rust and natural foliage.
The Second World War Museum, opened last year, should also not be missed. With cultural draws such as this year's centenary celebrations of Polish independence, a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre (teatrszekspirowski.pl/en/) and a strong restaurant scene, there is plenty to do outside the busy summer season.
A comfortable bed
The key decision to make is whether to base yourself in Gdansk itself, or in Sopot or Gdynia; the three settlements are linked by a regular suburban train service. Sopot, an elegant spa town with stretches of the softest Baltic sand, is the most immediately appealing and accessible of the three. Commanding the best spots on the seafront are the Sheraton (www.sheratonsopot.pl/en; double rooms from 545 zlotys/Dh590 per night) and the resplendent Sofitel Grand Sopot (www.sofitel.com). Graced by the great, the good and the not-so-good, from Charles de Gaulle to Conor McGregor, the Grand Sopot's cheapest rooms start from 545 zlotys (Dh590) per night, all the way up to the de Gaulle suite for about 2,400 zlotys (Dh2,586). Both the Sheraton and Grand Sopot have excellent spa facilities open to non-guests.
A boutique option in Sopot is the Villa Antonina (www.villaantonina.pl), a seven-minute stroll from the seafront. Rooms start from 540 zlotys (Dh582) and there is a stylish in-house restaurant, although the rooms are let down by over-firm beds.
In Gdansk itself, the Hotel Sadova (www.hotelsadova.pl/en) is a comfortable four-star choice with facilities including a small indoor pool and sauna. It's an easy 10-minute walk from the old town – double economy rooms from 300 zlotys (Dh323) a night.
Find your feet
The historic centre of Gdansk (referred to as the "main town") is compact and can be comfortably seen in a morning. A walking tour (www.freewalkingtour.com/Gdansk) will help you make the most of it. Walk past the Great Mill – the largest in medieval Europe – and on to the Grain Island, grain being the commodity that turned the city into one of the wealthiest Baltic ports. The heart of the main town is the pedestrianised Long Marke, with its bronze statue of Neptune and old town hall, and the nearby waterfront overlooked by its renowned wooden-clad crane.
Meet the locals
As a Polish waiter joked to me, the only Poles you'll meet in the main town of Gdansk are those working behind a bar. To see outside the tourist bubble, jump on the suburban train at Głowny (main) train station and hop off at Wrzeszcz (Ver-zhest), seven minutes to the west. With its smattering of vegan cafes and hipster barbers, it has the feel of a neighbourhood on the up. There are plenty of food options on and around Wajdeloty street: try delicious vegan cakes at Fukafe (Wejdeloty 26) and smart modern dishes at Miod Melina (www.facebook.com/miodmelina).
While in Wrzeszcz, don't miss the bronze statue of Nobel prize-winning German writer Günther Grass, who was born in the city. He is perched on a park bench in Wybickiego square next to Oskar, the hero from his best-known novel, The Tin Drum.
Book a table
Food is one of the Tricity's strengths. Herring, cod and other seafood from the Baltic offer a lighter alternative to the meaty staples of Polish cuisine: game, goose and dumplings. In the centre of Gdansk, one of the best places to eat is Piwna 47 (www.piwna47.com), under the imposing tower of St Mary's church.
Come here for refined takes on Polish and Kashubian regional dishes – the grilled sea bream is particularly good. A more straightforward option is Brovarnia, in Hotel Gdansk, directly on the waterfront. In Sopot, Bulaj (www.bulaj.pl) serves delicious fish dishes in cosy surroundings cooked by well-respected chef Artur Moroz. His pickled herring is the best I've tasted.
Gdansk describes itself as the "world capital" of amber and the main centre is crammed with souvenir shops offering jewellery of varying quality. For the real deal, head to AmberModa in Sopot (www.ambermoda.com). Mariusz Gliwinski is a third generation craftsman who makes Baltic amber jewellery in the small workshop at the back of his shop. His pieces travel to fashion shows around the world.
What to avoid
If time is limited, drop Gdynia. I was told by Poles the city symbolises hope, aspiration and possibility, but I struggled to see its charms. Non-nautical buffs can in any case pass on the two boat museums, the Witamy (www.muzeummw.pl) and Dar Pomorza (www.nmm.pl/dar-pomorza), where the only thing that overwhelms is the smell of engine oil.
The nearby aquarium (https://akwarium.gdynia.pl) could be a decent bet for children if the weather is bad though and the Emigration Museum (www.polska1.pl/en) is well worth a visit. It is built on the edge of the sea in the old marine station, the departure point for many of the 20 million Poles who now live overseas.
Even in winter, make sure you get a blast of Baltic sea air. Wrap up warm and join the crowds promenading along Europe’s longest wooden pier in Sopot, or take the suburban train to Orłowo, where there’s another picturesque pier and a natural headland cloaked in beech forest. Follow the short hiking trail through the woods to the top for sweeping views across the whole Tricity.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies to Gdansk via Warsaw from Dh4,395 return, including taxes. The flight takes about eight hours.