Wroclaw in the Silesia region of southwestern Poland was a hotbed of 1980s anti-Soviet resistance. It retains a proper rebellious streak. But that melds with a chill vibe befitting an ancient university town (the city has a population of approximately 635,000—135,000 of them students).
The city was, in turns, under Bohemian, Austrian, and Prussian rule. Though it has one eye on its rich history, charm, and beauty (colored Renaissance buildings, cobblestone streets, and gas lamps that at night are lit by hand), the other is focused on a strong avant-garde streak with a vibrant and creative cultural scene thrust into the spotlight this year as a European Capital of Culture. Fabulous exhibitions, installations, and events are going on everywhere.
Spend a weekend basking in Wroclaw’s warm, appealing atmosphere, and witness firsthand why it is becoming known as the mellow but cool cousin of Krakow. One tip before your arrival? Don’t wait to master the pronunciation of the city—that’ll take a big chunk of your time. Instead practice at home: Vrotz-wahv.
Check into the sleek new DoubleTree by Hilton, part of OVO, a retail, residential, and hotel space that is the boldest addition to Wroclaw’s buzzing architectural scene. Designed by Franco-Israeli firm Gottesman-Szmelcman, OVO is a sweeping half block–size modernist complex with a historic post office occupying the second half of the street.
OVO Bar and Restaurant offers a first look at how Polish cuisine’s reputation as stodgy is being swapped for one of food with a lighter touch. Try the wild boar with artichoke puree and molasses gel, dried cabbage and fig jam, or an easy dinner of Polish tapas like linseed oil, marinated herring, black potato, and cheese curd. After dinner, get a feel for Wroclaw’s nightlife. If you’re in the mood for a taste of late-hours bohemia, try the legendary Art Cafe Kalambur. During the day the beautiful original Art Nouveau place is an eatery. At night it morphs into a club with art, theater happenings, and DJs on the weekends. If you feel like something a little mellower, stop in at Kontynuacja, one of the newest of the city’s multi-tap pubs, for a taste of Wroclaw’s growing craft beer culture.
Spend the morning on a meandering self-guided stroll through charm-filled streets—Wroclaw is compact and easily walkable. As is usual in Poland, the city changed hands a number of times, and its magnificent architecture is shaped by that. Much of it was ravaged at the end of WWII, and a long period under Soviet rule didn’t do much to enhance its beauty. But Wroclaw overcame its history, expertly restoring ancient buildings and squares so that only a trained eye might spot the difference between postwar reconstruction and the original.
Start at sprawling, beautiful Market Square, which traces its roots to the 12th century and where building styles span medieval to modernist. Move on to the equally color-saturated Solny Square, which is made even more vibrant by the flower vendors who set up there.
Contrasting with much of the classic Gothic and Baroque buildings is a new generation of modernist spaces, transforming Wroclaw into a hub of contemporary Polish architecture. Check out the University, a mix of grand 300-year-old buildings and groundbreaking new ones. Stop by the old railway embankment, a great place for lunch, if you can find a table at one of the atmospheric local-filled restaurants in the brick vaults under the overpasses lining Boguslawskiego Street.
German architect Max Berg has left his imprint all over Wroclaw, and it’s his Centennial Hall—a UNESCO-protected concert and exhibition space built from 1911 to 1913—that is the most famous. The reinforced concrete domed structure was lauded as one the most radical modernist designs in Europe in its day. Take time to explore the surrounding Szczytnicki Park and the cool multimedia fountain next to Centennial Hall that was built in honor of the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in post-Communist Poland. A show with animated projections on water shooting out of 300 nozzles takes place every hour.
The National Forum of Music, opened last fall, is also a place of astonishing architecture. Inspired in part by a violin’s sound box, its warm brown walls and sleek exterior hint at the modern space within. Architect junkies also need to check out WuWA, an experimental modernist housing area that influenced European home building and urbanization ideas for decades. And don’t miss the Architecture Museum itself, located within a 15th-century former monastery and Benedictine church.
Along your walk, you’ll probably notice a gnome sculpture, then another, then another, until you realize that they are just about everywhere: peeking out of doorways and alleyways and on street corners, in any number of poses and situations. They were inspired by an act of political protest in the 1980s by the anti-Stalinist Orange Alternative underground movement, and these days you can get a map from city hall that leads you on a tour of all 300 of the subversive little statues.
Wroclaw shopping is made for antiques and vintage lovers. That includes lots of shops selling Solidarity-era clothing and trinkets. Look for Antyki or Antykwariat stores, which are spread all over the city with a good concentration in the old town and the streets around Market Square. Antyki Przy Szewskiej sells serious Art Deco, Chippendale, and Biedermeier pieces. Antique diamond earrings, fine porcelain, and glassware might be unearthed at the intimate Salon Sztuki Antyki. Moher Vintage & Design is a huge but curated selection of vintage clothing near Market Square. Lumpex De Lux has an assortment of vintage from big labels like Gucci, as well as lots of fast-fashion brands. The Fu-Ku Concept Store & Foto Studio sells creations by young local designers as well as an assortment of cool kitsch. Poland is known for the graphic design of its old theater and film posters, and Polish Posters (polishposter.com) has a huge selection from the 1940s on.
Make time to squeeze in some art. The MWW, the main museum of contemporary art in Wroclaw, is located in an impressively restored old air-raid shelter, and The Train to Heaven sculpture by Andrzej Jarodzki (depicting an old, real steam locomotive standing upright) stationed outside has become one of the city’s most famous icons. Galeria DNA is a launchpad for the work of emerging Polish and international artists; Galeria Entropia, a cultural institution, presents contemporary and new media art, films, and concerts. Galeria Arttrakt focuses on contemporary and emerging Polish artists, including Ireneusz Walczak and Dawid Czycz.
Options for dinner, if you feel like carrying on in an arty vein, include the sixth-floor restaurant Cafe Muzeum at MWW, accessed via an aboveground bunker that is now an elevator. Or have dinner with a sweeping view of the city at the Food Art Gallery, a refined restaurant–cum–contemporary art gallery with eye-catchingly prepared cuisine that highlights Polish flavors. If you want to check out emerging neighborhood Nadodrze—once home to prewar tenements and now a hive of makers—there’s the great Znasz Ich Cafe Bistro. It’s run by a chef collective, which includes Wroclaw culinary bloggers and cooking aficionados.
Get a taste of Wroclaw’s cosmopolitan nature and student-fueled optimism by spending a relaxing morning on one of the island parks on the River Oder, which are connected to the rest of the city by charming bridges. Join the many young people lolling on green grass in the shadow of grand historic buildings, or park yourself on a bench under the blue sky and an apple tree. The most famous island is Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island—the neighborhood dates back to the 10th century and is dotted with sculptures, gardens, and churches.
Sunday is also flea market day. The market near Mlyn Sulkowice at Boleslawa Krzywoustego, 126 is best for vintage clothes. The biggest market takes place near Centennial Hall the last weekend of every month and is the place to unearth antiques and all manner of vintage finds.
As your weekend comes to an end, wind down with a salt cave treatment—nearby salt caves have been used in health and beauty treatments in the region since the 19th century—at the subterranean spa in the Art Nouveau Hotel Monopol.
Finish the day in a proper food coma with some pierogi (dumplings) and zurek (sour rye soup served in a hollowed-out bread loaf) at Konspira. The brick walls of this beloved restaurant/pub are decorated with political cartoons and police shields that defined the days of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.
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