How can the fourth largest city in Poland be undiscovered?
Good question. A really good question. Indeed, I should turn that question around and pose that to you. How is this place undiscovered? Why does it register little more than a flicker or a blank stare? It is somewhat mind-boggling to think of all the hidden gems on Earth, but even more so when they are ‘hidden’ in the form of a sizeable city in the centre of an extremely well connected area of central Europe. Somewhere between the urban playground of Warsaw, historical sights of Krakow and port solidarity of Gdansk this place slips through the net. Perhaps most of Poland hasn’t settled sufficiently on westerners radars just yet. This was something I touched on in a previous article on the lovely (and barely known about) city of Lublin. You have a situation where the British can reel off a dozen small towns each in France and Italy, even Germany but not register a major Polish city as notable, or of potential interest.
When’s the last time you heard a British person remark “Oh I was in Wrocław last week…”? Precisely. It’s just not really there, somehow. Yet there’s no reason at all cities such as Lyon, Frankfurt, Malmo, Rotterdam, Oslo should receive the tourists they do in comparison to Wroclaw. It remains extremely easy to get to, less than two hours by plane, is packed full of fluent friendly English speakers, has an already saturated craft ale scene, and boasts a varied but equally enjoyable series of sights and activities that will fill a long weekend comfortably. Is it pleasing to the eye, is it nourishing, culturally and historically? Absolutely yes.
Firstly, you’ll need to say it like “Vrots-wav” – very important, this. W is v, c is ‘ts’, and that dodgy ł character is more like a ‘wuh’ sound, sometimes with the hint of a l still lingering in there somewhere. Vrotswav. Go fetch a Polish person for the finer tuning.
Why is it so important I go here above Krakow?
This isn’t about me telling you to avoid places that are of obvious historical interest. If you want to head to Krakow then believe me, that’s a great decision you’ve made. Go! But once a person has been to Krakow, or Warsaw, or Gdansk, I must impress on you Poland doesn’t stop there and neither should you.
I was persuaded here by a succession of Polish people urging me to visit, which piqued my interest, as aside of the anticipated beauty of the Rynek I didn’t know much about the place, or why I ought to visit. Going only on word of mouth at the time, I was naturally quite skeptical. Then, after some idle digging I discovered via google streetview a network of victorian wrought iron bridges, islands, waterways and parkland, each with its own views and angles of the town. I discovered Ostrów Tumski and its quiet cobbled old town that had eluded my attention. I discovered the Witches Bridge a vertigo-inducing pathway linking the top of two church towers. I discovered a 360-degree painting on a mind-bogglingly epic scale. I discovered a monumental UNESCO World Heritage site I had never heard of, with a huge park, fountain display and Japanese Garden.
Sounds alright actually.
Mmhmm. Well then throw in not one but 3 breweries located not just in the city centre but on the Rynek itself, the best of the three being the Germanic (Wroclaw has been in German control for long periods, and it shows) and excellent Spiż (link plays audio) , where you can sit outside admiring the view of the Ratusz, not to mention the beautiful locals, or go down to the basement and enjoy the good cheer and classic central European cellar atmosphere. It’s the number one destination in the city, so for some locals quite passé, but there is a residual fondness for it. The beers come in a selection of Germanic and central European styles. All the ones I tried were either good or very good.
You see that little gnome above? Jesus wept. Yes, these bastards are everywhere, keeping the children entertained and some of the more inane adults too. Every city needs a thing I suppose, unfortunately Wroclaw’s is gnomes. This means postcards and souvenirs are unreasonably gnome-centric.
Moving on to far cooler matters now, you see that exciting night photo above – this is a shot from Neon Side, a must see bar/art gallery nestling in an alleyway off Ruska ulice. In the 70s and 80s the government installed neons across Poland to brighten up what were some pretty grey and depressing districts. Spin on to the 90s and these neons became attached to the old regime, hated, neglected and torn down, as if to prove socialists didn’t have the final say on cultural vandalism. Thankfully some people with common sense preserved these and after some careful curation, these have landed in the one venue. The street is like stepping into a sandbox version of Blade Runner, and anyone with an interest in vintage/retro design and logos will find it a must see. The bar itself isn’t bad either, with kind of a disused New York apartment feel.
In addition to Neon Side there are a number of very good bars on offer. These tend to fall into two camps – either multi-tap craft keg pubs selling the cheapest ‘craft ale’ anywhere in the world, (two of which are brewed in Wroclaw itself) – ZUP being a great example, or retro atmospheric bars with the focus on either Soviet or vintage/antiquey feel such as Mleczarnia. Some even combine the two such as the excellent well-rounded Graciarnia. There are another dozen like this. Expect to pay 7zl for a standard Polish lager and up to 13-15 for a strong hoppy IPA brewed by a Polish or Czech craft brewery.
Wroclaw has a free city bike scheme which is great because it’s such a perfect city size wize to traverse by bike. Although the traffic light system in Poland is irritatingly, glacially slow, twinned with police actually enforcing jaywalking laws (impatient British people will find the endless waiting intolerable to an almost reflexive level), there is plenty of park land around the stare miasto meaning smooth cycling around. The city is also more or less flat making it appropriate for any standard of cyclist. Download the nextbike app, pay 2 quid and supply card details, and they text you a password. Input the password at the bike dock and type in the number of the bike you want, and hey presto! It’s free for up to 20 minutes, and only 4 zloty per hour after that, less than a pound a time. You will likely not need it for hours as there are stations dotted about the city everywhere, and your app will tell you where they are.
Aren’t you forgetting the rows and rows of grim relentless towerblocks?
I am yes, but I didn’t think you wanted to visit those specifically. As with every Polish city, the residential areas are largely comprised of towerblock living, some of which are quite spruced and well-maintained, others are simply grim and down at heel. Some of the cheaper accommodation in Wroclaw is based in this district on the edge of the old town. Also, even in the centre itself there is the odd eyesore inexplicably sticking out amidst the delightful burgher houses and painted facades. But this is just how it is – ever been to Barcelona? It’s the same there. Taken the Docklands Light Railway in London? Yep, getting the picture? Big cities need to build upwards to house everyone, and unfortunately the last 100 years has been characterised invariably by countries doing that really badly. So, have I tidied up the last flickering remnants of doubt? Packed your toothbrush?
Go on then.
I knew I’d persuaded you. Plenty of attractions and scenic areas, idiosyncratic features, friendly locals, a strong sense of history and cultural positioning, and great nightlife. Go to Wroclaw, you won’t regret it!