Wroclaw was once described as “the Holy Blossom of Europe, a beautiful gem among cities” but has also always been a bone of contention, changing hands many times throughout its long history. In its past Wroclaw has belonged to the Poles, the Czechs, the Austrians, the Hungarians and the Germans. Settlers have included Walloons, Jews, Italians and Ruthenians. The mixture of many different religions and cultures, whilst troublesome at times, has also contributed greatly to the city. Wroclaw lies in the middle of the Silesian Lowlands, where the River Odra branches out forming 12 islands. More than 100 bridges span the city and seen from the deck of a tour boat, Wroclaw looks like a city built on water.
The heart of Wroclaw is its Market Square, one of the most beautiful and largest urban squares in Poland. As in centuries past it is home of large banks, elegant stores and famous restaurants. Wroclaw’s Market Square was built on the crossroads of important transport routes running from the Czech Republic, in the south, to the north and from Western Europe to the East. The wealth of Wroclaw’s residents was built on international trade and the city grew rich from taxes that flowed into its coffers. With over 20,000 residents in the 14th century, Wroclaw was one of the largest cities in Europe at the time. In 1387 it became a member of the Hanseatic League, the powerful union of northern German, Rhineland, Teutonic, Swedish and Polish towns, which monopolized northern European trade and becoming a strong political power. People come to Wroclaw for more than just business. Kings, emperors and presidents have been guests at the “Under the Golden Sun”, the “Under the Seven Electors” or the “Under the Blue Sun” tenement houses which can be found on the Market Square. Visitors have received homage, held political negotiations or borrowed money from the city. Today these former residences are the most beautiful buildings around the Market Square and the Town Hall is recognised as a gem of Gothic-Renaissance urban architecture.
The southern façade of the Town Hall is also the entrance to Piwnica Swidnicka, Wroclaw’s most famous beer cellar, originating from the early 14th century. “Who hasn’t been to Piwnica Swidnicka, hasn’t been to Wroclaw”, as the saying goes. As in centuries past, the Old Town and especially the Market Square, is the focal point for meetings, with close to 200 restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs. Apart from Piwnica Swidnicka, the Spiz Brewery, which is located in the underground section of the New Town Hall, is also worth a recommendation. The bar here offers an excellent homemade wheat beer which is served with an accompaniment of wholemeal bread and smalec – a traditional Polish spread made from lard and spices. Wroclaw has always made a living from trade and so has a number of market squares. Beside the main Market Square, there are the Nowy Targ (New Market) and the Solny (Salt) Square where stalls with salt used to line its northern side. Honey, wax, precious furs, caviar, tea and even goat’s meat were also sold here. The last salt stalls were abolished in 1815 but trading in the square continues to this day. Flower sellers can be found here till late at night and the square is also a meeting place for lovers who arrange romantic meetings by the fountain with the dragon or next to the stone spire.
Wroclaw is full of magical locations. The medieval slaughterhouse has a statue in memory of the animals slaughtered there. On Swidnicka Street, near the pedestrian subway, is the monument of the Dwarf, the symbol of the Orange Alternative, an underground movement famous in the 1980s for its protest against martial law.
Every weekend the old “Baba-Jaga” tram runs every hour from Teatralny Square with a café on board. For the more energetic, we recommend the terrace on top of the tower of St. Elizabeth’s Church (next to the famous Jaś (Hansel) and Malgosia (Gretel) tenement houses) which can be reached by climbing a total of 300 steps. There is also an elevator in the cathedral tower which takes visitors to a 60m high observation platform. In the evening we recommend a walk along the streets of Ostrow Tumski which are illuminated by the hazy light of gas lamps.
Ostrow Tumski, far from the hubbub of the city, is the terra sancta of Wroclaw. To get there, you need to cross the Tumski Bridge, which was once the border of church’s jurisdiction. Representatives of the lay authorities, including princes, were obliged to take off their hats when crossing the bridge. This is an area of monumental churches, a marvellous Gothic cathedral, the houses of the canons and the archbishop’s palace. The terrace on the cathedral’s northern tower (mentioned above) offers a great view of the church towers and the River Odra which winds through the city. When the gas lamps are lit at night and the most striking architectural landmarks are illuminated, Ostrow Tumski is a breathtaking sight. Those who enjoy Modernism will be intrigued by the Ludowa Hall which, at its opening in 1913, was the largest reinforced-concrete structure in the world. Today it is a venue for trade fairs, exhibitions, concerts and sporting events, primarily for matches played by Poland’s leading basketball club team, Slask Wroclaw, the 16-time Polish national champions. Wroclaw is a city where culture plays a special role. Important events include the Wratislavia Cantans Music and Fine Arts festival, featuring oratorio and cantata music, the International Festival of Viennese Music and the Wroclaw Organ Summer Festival. The city has an opera house, a music theatre, other numerous theatres and museums, amongst which the most important is the rotunda housing the Raclawice Panorama. This is a monumental work by Wojciech Kossak and Jan Styka portraying the victory of the insurgents led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko over Russian forces at the Battle of Raclawice.
Excursions to Nearby Castles
From Wroclaw it only takes just an hour and a half to get to the castle complex in Ksiaz. This castle, which has over 400 rooms, was built in the 13th century and later changes only added to its splendour. The castle is surrounded by terrace gardens. Closer to Wroclaw, in the village of Wojnowice, just 10km west from the centre is Poland’s only castle on water.