Most British or American people who heard of Gdansk associate with Solidarity, Lech Walesa and shipyards: images of industrial grime, smoke-filled sky and communist-era concrete apartment blocks are a natural association.
And while Gdansk has its own quota of concrete suburbs and several major industries, and the cranes of the shipyard are still visible if not exactly operational, the grim industrial image couldn't be further from the truth.
The city is located in the north of Poland, at the mouth of the Vistula river and on the Baltic sea (in the Bay of Gdansk).
Gdansk (often known under its German name of Danzig) is and old city, first mentioned as far as 997 AD but which flourished in the medieval period as part of the Hanseatic League. From 15th century, it was an autonomous merchant city with an allegiance to the Polish crown, to then go under the Prussian rule during the partitions of Poland in the end of 18th century. After the WW1 and the Polish independence, it was given a status of a Free City under the protection of the League of Nations. Annexed to German Reich during the WW2 (in fact, WW2 nominally started in Gdansk, with the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein firing at the Polish base at Westerplatte on 1 September 1939). The city (or at least its old centre) was almost entirely destroyed when in 1945 the Soviet Army marched in.
Gdansk became a part of the post-war Poland and its historic centre has been painstakingly reconstructed (similarly to the Warsaw Old Town) and now delights locals and visitors who can hardly believe when they see the photos showing the extent of destruction 60 years ago.
Historically, Gdansk always was a cosmopolitan city: its prosperity was built on trading - mostly of Polish grain transported down Vistula river - and its population, culture and architecture was created by a mixture of German, Polish, Dutch, Flemish and many other influences (there was even a Scottish settlement here, still reflected in the names of two districts: Stare and Nowe Szkoty - Old and New Scots).
After the WW2, Gdansk - just like other formerly German areas that became the part of Poland in 1945 - underwent something of an ethnic cleansing. Many of the German population fled in terror of the advanced Red Army and the remaining survivors left or were deported to Germany. The new population of the city included significant number of ethnic Poles deported from pre-war Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union, followed by the Kaszubian migrants for the surrounding countryside and Poles from the other parts of the country, keen to start afresh and attracted by the newly developing maritime and shipbuilding industries.
Post-war, Gdansk's main claim to fame was, indeed, its role in the events of the 1980, the creation of Solidarity and ultimately the fall of the communist regime in Poland ten years later.
Modern Gdansk is a city of 500,000 people, usually regarded as a part of the Tri-City conurbation, being the largest and oldest of the three (the other two are Sopot and Gdynia). It has several universities, music venues and theatres, thriving art and music scene and enough to see (especially with the surrounding areas) to easily occupy a visitor for at least a week.