Polish cities – not only Cracow
Kraków (Cracow) is by far Poland’s most popular tourist destination, which is quite understandable given convenient flight connections, beautiful architecture and historic heritage of that city. Nevertheless, there is more to visit in Southern Poland than Cracow. In this article I will try to convince you that you should consider visiting the nearby region of Silesia while planning your trip to Poland. Below I will focus on 3 cities: Wrocław, Katowice and Opole. Each of them has a different character and history and this tour will let you discover different aspects of Southern Poland.
Visit Wrocław – Poland’s Venice
Wrocław – the capital of Lower Silesia – is often referred to as the Polish Venice. Some tourists remember it as the city with an unpronounceable name 😉 In fact, for some foreigners the German version of the name, Breslau, is much easier to read.
In spite of its difficult name, Wrocław is worth a visit while you are in Poland. It’s best to plan at least 2-3 days in this city, as it’s a vibrant place with lots of good restaurants and bars, an important university and a stunning architecture. 65% of Wrocław’s buildings were destroyed at the end of WWII, so today we can admire the old town’s faithful reconstruction.
Historic monuments include the Town Hall and numerous churches. Some of them (the cathedral for instance) offer a viewing terrace on top of their towers, so don’t miss this opportunity! Of course if you are fit enough to climb the stairs 😉 From above you will marvel at the beauty of this city situated on Odra river.
Wrocław’s must sees
As I mentioned before, it’s best to spend at least 2 days in Wrocław, otherwise you may feel unsatisfied. Make sure you don’t miss the most important sites and attractions:
- The Old Town market square
- The Cathedral Isle (Ostrów Tumski)
- The Synagogue (the district of 4 religions)
- Panorama Racławicka (a monumental cycloramic painting from the 19th century)
- Hala Targowa (contemporary market hall)
- Wrocław Zoo (and especially Afrykarium)
As you already know, many Poles like to call Wrocław the Polish Venice, so you already know what to expect: bridges, canals, islands and cruise boats. And you won’t be disappointed, as the city has 100 bridges and some of them are very picturesque. I strongly recommend you to do a catamaran cruise as it’s an unforgettable experience!
Visiting Wrocław with children
Wrocław is a perfect place to visit with children. Why? Because of 2 things: the dwarfs and the zoo.
Walking in the streets of Wrocław you will see hundreds of small figurines that have become the city’s symbol. In the tourist information office you will get a special map for “dwarf hunting“. And you will need it, because the dwarfs often hide in unexpected places. In this way you can combine looking for dwarfs with visiting historic monuments, so both parents and children will be happy.
The second place you should visit, especially when you visit Wrocław with children, is the zoo and its Afrykarium. The oldest zoo in Poland has the first oceanarium in the country, called Afrykarium. You can observe there around 5 000 animals, mainly fish, including seven species of sharks. I can assure you will have a lot of fun both with children and in a group of adults.
Discover Opole – the capital of Polish popular songs
Opole is a much smaller town (1 hour from Wrocław by train), which is mostly known for the festival of Polish song. This famous event, very important for the Polish culture, has been organized here since I remember. However, Opole has much more to offer and makes a perfect 1-day trip destination from Wrocław. Moreover, it’s also situated on Odra river, which makes it very picturesque.
Plan your 1-day visit in Opole
If you drop by for a 1-day visit, I recommend you to start with Baszta Piastowska (Piasts’ Tower). Although it doesn’t look very impressive from the outside, it’s worth a visit because if the marvelous view from the top of it!
Than you can have a walk along Młynówka canal and, if you have time and energy, don’t hesitate to rent a bike and visit the Isle of Bolko with its natural reserve.
Last but not least, stroll around in the reconstructed Old Town and say hello to Casimir I of Opole, the duke whose monument dominates the old town square. It’s also a good place to stop for a coffee or to grab something to eat.
As for the Polish Song Museum, I understand that it may not be very interesting for a foreigner, so I don’t include it in the must sees. Nevertheless, you may consider it as an option.
Visit Katowice and see how Polish cities are changing
Another idea is a trip to Katowice (2 hours by train from Kraków). The capital of the Upper Silesia is a perfect example of successful revitalization of the former coal mining area. In fact, it’s no longer a coal mining center, but a modern city. Moreover, it becomes more and more green and start to be considered as an important culture and conference hub. The region offers more and more job opportunities for young people, as it is gradually becoming a leader in innovation and new technologies.
Discover an authentic coal miners’ settlement
What to visit in Katowice? For me the must see no. 1 is Nikiszowiec settlement, situated 10 km from the center. It was established 102 years ago for coal miners and their families. The settlement, now entered on the list of Monuments of History, is the background of many films on Upper Silesia. If you want to see how miners and their families lived at the beginning of the 20th century, don’t miss this place! Especially if you like industrial style. Stay there for lunch and try local specialties!
Visit the Museum of Silesia
If you have enough time, I strongly recommend you visit Muzeum Śląskie – the Museum of Silesia. Established on the site of the former Katowice coal mine, it marks the so-called Culture Zone. The zone also includes seat of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the International Congress Centre. For the price of 12 PLN (3 EUR) you can visit several interesting exhibitions: The Gallery of Polish Art 1800-1945, The Gallery of Polish Art after 1945, The Gallery of Non-Professional Art, The Gallery of Silesian Religious Art, The Light of History – Upper Silesia over the ages and a presentation of the most significant achievements of European theatre from antiquity until the contemporary times.
The Light of History – Upper Silesia over the ages tells you a captivating story – the one of Upper Silesia and its people. The industrialization and its price – devastation of natural environment, hardships of daily life. On the other side – fortunes of mine owners. In 1918 Poland regains its independence and Upper Silesia is claimed by both Poland and Germany. The Polish inhabitants organize a series of armed uprising against German rule. Finally, the people of Silesia have to decide, by means of a plebiscite, to which country they want to belong and the region is divided. You will also find out a lot about life under communism and strikes organized in the coal mines.
Discover beautiful Art Nouveau houses
If you still have time for a stroll around the city center (the railway station area), I recommend you take a moment and marvel at the beauty of Art Nouveau houses built for rich factory and coal mine owners at the beginning of the 20th century. Some of them could use renovation work, but still they are beautiful!
Street art in Katowice
Walking around the city you will find interesting examples of street art. Some of them are abstract, while the other ones commemorate great Poles or people important for the history of Silesia, such as Wojciech Korfanty – a politician, leader and activist in pre-war Poland, known for organizing the Polish Silesian Uprisings.