German archictecture and Polish culture combine in this wonderful city of gnomes, nightlife and non-stop festivals. Duncan Rhodes reports back from one of his favourite small cities.
Something of a bastard son in Poland, Wroclaw (pronounced Vrots-warv) was born to Slavic parents but raised in Germany as the city of Breslau – before being handed back to Poland as a pile of rubble in the wake of WWII. An inglorious end of an era, the city has been busy reconstructing itself ever since, and whereas the glorious Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance Market Square (check our photos here!) was faithfully restored soon after the war, the redevelopment of Plac Grunwaldzki and the addition of a new marina on the river Oder in more recent times have undoubtedly added lustre to the city’s charms.
Forging a new identity from this once German city, bestowed with cultural treasures from Lwow (now Lviv, Ukraine), has been harder still but with its excellent universities attracting droves of foreign students, its geographical location in the heart of Europe, and a host of international festivals on the annual calendar, the city’s self-styling as ‘The Meeting Place’ seems like a clever pitch. After all with its dozens of waterways, islands and bridges, medieval churches, one of the best looking square’s on the continent and raucous nightlife who wouldn’t want to congregate here for a stein or two of piwo?
Best of the Beaten Track
Rounding up Wroclaw’s guidebook sights doesn’t take too long, although if the weather’s good the weak-willed will inevitably sacrifice the afternoon to the beer gods on the altars/terraces of the Rynek (Market Square). Even then you should still be able to take in the Gothic Town Hall, which is on the square itself.
A waltz around the interior reveals some splendid anterooms and temporary art exhibitions, whilst on the outside pay note to the astronomical clock (anything Prague can do…) and townspeople motifs. If you do manage to part with your Piast, then a short stroll East will then take you to the city’s most visited attraction, the Raclawice Panorama. Housed in an ugly Modernist cyclinder the Panorama is a vast circular painting commemorating the fateful occasion when some Polski peasants rose up and defied the odds to whoop some Ruski rump (sadly a case of winning the battle, losing the war). Audio tour lasts 30 mins. Just nearby find the National Museum (you can enter for free with your Panorama ticket) with a full spectrum of Polish art, whilst a short walk North will take you across the Oder river to Ostrow Tumski (cathedral island) where you can ascend the twin towers of St. John’s for sterling views of the city. A second day of sightseeing is best spent leaving the Old Town and heading further East this time, where Max Berg’s Centennial Hall, Wroclaw Zoo (now with spanking new Oceanarium), and the Szczytnicki Park, with its Japanese Garden, all await discovery.
Wroclaw isn’t quite big enough to boast a distinct Bohemian district, although the area around Wlodkowica street, with its artsy bars and cafes, is a great place to hang out and wax poetic. To this purpose none surpass Mleczarnia with its flickering candlelight, old Jewish portraits and superb smoked-salmon toasties. The White Stork Synagogue occupies the small square behind it.
Otherwise the University Quarter of the Old Town is a nice place to kill time with the city’s academics, or you could go the whole hog and trek across the Grunwaldzki Bridge to the Wroclaw Technical University’s huge campus and wander around aimlessly, in wistful remembrance of your own student days… before heading to Tawerna student club on the river for a pint of watered down Lech and some table football. A geeky alternative would be a trip to the Post and Telecommunications Museum, with its mind-bogglingly complex yet low-tech machinery and a good history in English of the Polish postal service. Finally no city guide to Wroclaw would be complete without mention of the Orange Alternative movement’s mascot, the gnome. The little critters pose and pout on the city’s pavements in the form of little statuettes, and you can read their full story here.
Experience & Events
Wroclaw is undoubtedly waiting for a canny tour operator to start a vodka-fuelled, speedboat treasure hunt along the river Oder in which the objective is to stop the Nazis escaping from the siege of Breslau – but until then experiencing the city will remain a tranquil affair of sinking beers on the square and pleasant waterside strolls.
However if you are feeling brave you could knock on the door of the Free Dom squat at Jagiellonczyka 10d (along with the CRK centre) and spend some time with the counter culture kids, possibly plotting a revolution, although more likely getting high and going to an illegal rave.
Meanwhile Wroclaw loves to host a big event, and there are plenty of wonderful, and quite a few weird, festivals to time your visit with. The Nowe Horizonty (New Horizons) in summer is arguably Poland’s best film festival and a nice time to mingle with local culture vultures, whilst the headline grabbing Thanks Jimi Festival in May is an annual World Record attempt for the most guitarists playing a tune (Hey Joe) in concert. Bring your own six-string. For more festivals check out Local Life Wroclaw.
Mleczarnia’s hostel is not only beautifully decorated but has the distinct advantage of being right on top of Mleczarnia bar (see Hipster’s Guide above!). In the mid-range category Hotel Tumski is reasonably priced and sits pretty on one of the city’s islets, over the river. Charismatic and central four star choices include Art Hotel, just off the Market Square, and Dwor Polski, where King Sigismund III is said to have indulged in a bit of premarital rumpy-pumpy with Anne of Habsburg. Despite improving options, overall the city still has a slight dearth of hotel rooms, and apartments are certainly a viable option.
Poland isn’t famous for gastronomic greatness and, whilst Warsaw might be able to challenge conceptions, Wroclaw’s eating scene is decent rather than decadent. Naturally Polish is done best, whether you want the authentic ‘milk bar’ experience (ie. surly babcias dishing out sloppy soups and dumplings with withering looks), or upscale dining in the manner of former Polski princes. Try Mis for the former and Vincents for the latter. Thanks to a sizeable number of both Italian and Asian expats visitors can also dine at the likes of Cantina and Darea. If you’re looking for the wow factor take a taxi south of the old town to Wieza Cisnien, an upmarket eaterie in a water tower that could double as a Disney set.
Whilst swanky joints exist in Wroclaw, such as Papa Bar (formerly Paparazzi), catering for the city’s cash-splashing business folk, undoubtedly students rule the roost on the nightlife front, and generally speaking partying with these friendly alcoholics is a lot more fun. Start on at Wlodkowica 21 (hint: the name is also the address) where a retro salon attracts good looking Bohemian types. There’s a slew of good bars in the area, and you’re not too far away from Pasaz Niepolda – where the mayhem begins! This dingy courtyard/alleyway boasts the highest concentration of bars and clubs in the city, and a trip to Bezsennosc in particular is a Wroclaw rite of passage. For my zloty however there’s only one place to end a big night out in Wroclaw – and that’s Manana, aka my favourite bar of all time (and trust me I’ve been to a few!). Dolled-up divas, dread-locked drifters and moustachioed Lotharios dance ‘til dawn to everything from Chemical Brothers to Ella Fitzgerald’s It don’t mean a thing, if you ain’t got that swing…, whilst Botticelli’s Venus smirks approvingly on. Like all self-respecting Polish bars the party ends only when people stop drinking.
Ryanair fly from London (Stansted), Liverpool, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin and Shannon as a fair few continental European destinations like Girona (popular with Poles who want to visit nearby Barcelona!). Wizzair fly from London (Luton), Sheffield and Cork. Painfully slow trains will take you to Warsaw and Krakow, slightly better ones to Berlin and Prague.
Historian Norman Davis wrote a huge tome called Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City about the ebbs and fortunes of Wroclaw, and if you’ve fallen in love with the city this is one fountain of knowledge that will slake your thirst (possibly drown you). You’ve seen the gnomes dotted about the city pavements, now read about the Orange Alternative movement that spawned them… Orange Alternative – The Dwarf Revolution includes commentary by oddball anarchist himself The Major, and charts his attempts at undermining the Communist system. Singing Stalinist anthems to chimpanzees anyone? Finally Death in Breslau by award-winning Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski paints a fascinating picture of the city in the grip of the Gestapo pre-WWII.
Despite the residents enthusiasm for all things cinema – witness the Nowe Horizonty Film Festival and now the American film festival – it seems Hollywood execs haven’t decided to sent their stars over for filming just yet. I’ve heard a rumour of a film about Germans fleeing the Russian army at the end of WWII featuring Wroclaw’s train station… I’ll let you know if I ever find the title!
Soundtrack to the City
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Continuing your travels in Poland? You can access more free guides to Warsaw, Krakow, Poznan (coming soon!), Lodz and Lublin from our City Breaks page (…along with guides to other great cities around the world!).