Even though Poland suffered through historical turmoil during the last couple of centuries, the country is still full of historical gems that take one’s breath away when traveling overseas.
While traveling abroad through Poland, it’s easy to notice that practically each and every city has a historical center – it might be smaller or larger than the one before it, but it’s always very charming. Just ask anyone for the way to “rynek” (market square) and you’re bound to end up in the town’s historical center.
Let me take you on a stroll through Poland’s most famous old towns.
Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw Old Town is the oldest section of the capital city. It stretches along the bank of the Vistula River and is definitely one of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the Polish capital. The heart of Warsaw Old Town is the Market Place, full of restaurants, cafés, and stores that are just perfect for souvenir shopping.
The surrounding streets offer a glimpse into the typical Polish medieval architecture – and that’s because the Old Town was established as early as the 13th century, initially surrounded by a rampart and fortified by brick city walls.
Highlights include the city walls, the Barbican, St. John’s Cathedral, and the Royal Castle. During the Second World War, and especially during the Warsaw Uprising, the Old Town was badly damaged and historic landmarks were almost wiped out. But following the war, the Old Town was rebuilt with the use of Bernardo Bellotto’s 18th-century paintings of Warsaw as sources for the reconstruction.
Gdańsk the Capital of Solidarity
Heading north we encounter the marvelous city of Gdańsk. The best way to explore the Old Town is to follow the Royal Route. That way visitors traveling abroad to Poland are able to properly admire all the important buildings and historic monuments that are scattered around the Old Town.
Make sure to visit St. Mary’s Church, founded in 1343, which is actually one of the largest churches in Europe. The extraordinary Gothic sculptures make it a famous landmark. The massive 15th-century medieval crane standing at the Motlawa River is also worth a visit. Inside you will find a museum that contains a wooden elevator and galleries that were used at the harbor during its heyday.
Other Old Town highlights include the Upland Gate (a fragment of the city’s fortifications), the Prison Tower and Torture House that are part of the 15th-century Gothic defense wall, as well as the Long Market – an amazing street full of spectacular mansions that boast meticulously decorated Baroque and Renaissance facades. For shopping, visit Mariacka Street – it’s full of beautiful terraced houses and nice boutiques.
Don’t forget to have a look at the European Solidarity Centre. The impressive building houses a museum and library dedicated to the history of the Polish trade union and civil resistance movement Solidarity, as well as other significant opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe.
Krakow Old Town
Krakow Old Town is simply breathtaking. One of the most famous historical centers in Poland, Krakow’s Old Town was the very core of Poland’s political and cultural life from 1038 until the 16th century.
The medieval historical center is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list and is also Poland’s official national monument. Surrounded by 3km of city walls with 46 towers and seven main entrances, medieval Krakow is full of architectural gems, such as the central Main Square, which is the largest medieval town square in any European city.
Other landmarks include St. Mary’s Basilica, Church of St. Wojciech, Church of St. Barbara, as well as other treasures. The Renaissance cloth hall Sukiennice located in the center of the square is just as breathtaking and definitely worth a visit if you’d like to buy a special, locally-made souvenir to remind you of your visit to Krakow.
Located at the crossing of one of the most important trade routes running through Poland, Biecz is a city where Polish kings and aristocracy would stay at one of the stunning castles that formerly graced the cityscape.
The city witnessed many important historical happenings and, before the Swedish invasion, Biecz served as an important judicial center and the official post of the legendary executioner who, according to a legend, recited Homer and Ovid while torturing the condemned.
Sometimes called “Little Krakow,” Biecz is a beautiful city with a sizable Old Town and market square. Highlights include the late Gothic church with a unique sheet music stand dating back to 1633, one-of-a-kind in Europe. Walk along the narrow streets and make sure to visit the historic hall at Chodor House.
One of Poland’s historic national monuments, Kazimierz Dolny, is a spectacular sight. A visit will take you straight to the Middle Ages. Located at the bank of the Vistula River, Kazimierz used to be one of the most important cities in the region.
Today, it’s a huge tourist attraction thanks to its Old Town, attracting Polish poets, artists, filmmakers, and writers since the 19th century. Highlights include: the Parish Church of St. Bartholomew and John the Baptist (notice the amazing organs dating back to 1620!), St. Anne Church, ruins of the castle dating back to the 14th century, and an even older defensive tower.
The best way to discover the beauty of Wrocław’s Old Town is to simply wander around. Head over to the Market Square that serves not only as the city’s municipal center, but also as its social and cultural hub.
You can enjoy the view from one of the terraced cafes and restaurants. You’d never believe that the square was completely demolished during the Second World War and rebuilt in the 1950s.
However, the amazing 13th-century Town Hall somehow survived, and today it stands in all its glory. When traveling abroad to Poland, make sure to visit the neighbouring Plac Solny, known as the Flower Market. The scores of flower sellers are bound to put a smile on your face.
The oldest town in the land by the Vistula River, Złotoryja dates back to 1211, when it was granted town privileges. The town was famous for gold mining that attracted plenty of German settlers and contributed to the growth of the city that culminated in the 16th century.
The Old Town is home to many historical gems, such as the 13th-century Church of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Smith’s Tower, one of the several leaning towers in Poland. The main Market Square is surrounded by a selection of picturesque Neoclassical and Baroque houses. You will notice that one of these houses is surrounded by seven lime trees. That number is symbolic and it refers to the seven men who, according to a legend, survived the plague that decimated the town in 1556.
Make sure to visit the Dolphin’s Fountain as well, a 400-year-old landmark where you get to enjoy a rather original interpretation of the aquatic animals.
The Old Town of Zakopane, a charming Polish city located at the foot of Gubałówka mountain, begins at Kościeliska Street. The district is called Krupówki, and it has attracted scores of writers, artists and poets since the early 20th century. That’s also where you’ll find the most beautiful historic sights of Zakopane.
Start with St. Andrew and Benedict Chapel (also known as the Gąsieniców Chapel), the oldest sacred building in town – allegedly built with stolen money! Don’t miss out on the small stone chapel surmounted by a turret – that’s easily the most valuable heritage site around.
Other highlights of Zakopane include the Old Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa, full of old folk paintings and a dozen well-preserved cottages dating back to the second half of the 19th century. Check out U Wnuka Inn to get a glimpse of the lifestyle led by the former inhabitants of Zakopane.
Each and every one of these historical centers has its own charm, and visiting all of them when traveling abroad in Poland is bound to help you appreciate the country’s rich history – one that stretches beyond the tragedies of the World Wars back to the fascinating period of the Middle Ages.