Despite having undergone so much suffering and destruction during the Second World War, Poland remains a fascinating placesto explore. Magical old towns with their cobbled streets and beautiful architecture sit next to communist-era buildings and delightful Gothic churches. Fantastic restaurants can be found wherever you go and there is an abundance of lively nightlife spots throughout the country. With beautiful mountains on offer, as well as lovely seaside resorts, the diverse landscapes that surround the best cities in Poland add yet more possibilities to visitor’s itineraries.
Map of cities in Poland
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Once home to a thriving Jewish population, Poland’s cities are now home to poignant memorials and monuments to the victims of one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th Century, with many visitors heading to sites such as Auschwitz to pay homage to and learn about the atrocities of the past.
Founded in the 14th Century, Olsztyn has a long and varied history, as is evidenced by its picturesque Old Town. Wandering through the cobbled streets past delightful old buildings is a relaxing way to spend your time, and there are numerous sites alluding to the days when it was ruled by Prussia. An important city in the area, Olsztyn has all the usual facilities and services on offer for a city of its size. Often overlooked by tourists, most people who head here use it as a base from which to visit other attractions in the region.
Lying on the lower slopes of the Tatras, Poland’s most famous mountain resort is a great place to visit if you love the outdoors. However, due to Zakopane’s fantastic hiking and skiing, it can get a bit too crowded in the high months of both summer and winter. Well worth a visit though, lovely wooden villas can be found around the city, and the picturesque setting only adds to Zakopane’s charm. Due to its lovely features, many artists, poets, writers and painters used to head here for inspiration.
The largest city in Podlasie, Bialystok’s proximity to Belarus means that it has a captivating mix of both cultures present within its confines. Born out of the textile boom, the city was once a much more diverse place to visit – its various languages and cultures inspired the creation of Esperanto. Sadly, the Nazis destroyed much of Bialystok and murdered half of the population, putting an end to this intoxicating mix of peoples. Now, historical sites are understandably scarce, although it is a friendly and welcoming place to stop by. Many people use Bialystok as a base from which to explore the nearby national parks.
Having become a city relatively recently, Gdynia’s development only really took off once the government built a deep-sea port here in the 1920’s, so there is a very Modernist feel to the architecture here. With a very long seashore, Gdynia has some lovely promenades and waterfronts to enjoy, as well as the fantastic beaches themselves. The second largest Polish port, there is some great nightlife on offer, as well as some sumptuous restaurants to check out.
A popular seaside resort, Sopot attracts the rich and famous with its elegant villas, posh restaurants and pounding nightlife. Formerly a fishing village, its packed and overdeveloped seafront now obscures the relics of the past, but you can still find traces of what it used to be like hidden around the city. Lying on the Baltic, Sopot has some nice beaches. In summer, droves of people head here to enjoy all the pleasures on offer.
Lying between Berlin and Gdansk, this busy port city has an eclectic mix of different architectural styles and is seldom visited by non-German tourists. Although renovations are ongoing, Szczecin is falling apart a bit – old art nouveau mansions now lie side by side with modern glass shopping malls, derelict buildings and empty plots. The city center has lots of shopping and dining options and its large student body and busy port mean that there’s a youthful vibe in town.
The third-largest city in the country, Lodz’s industrial past, coupled with German occupation and communist rule, has resulted in grim and decaying streets and buildings. Hope is at hand, however, as a massive renovation program has led to shopping malls and business centers springing up amongst the ruins of the past, with a nice pedestrian street now running through the heart of the city. This mix is fascinating to witness, and you can find some hidden gems scattered around the old industrial warehouses. For visitors interested in Jewish history and heritage, the city’s monuments and cemetery are now a sad and poignant reminder of Lodz’s once-thriving Jewish population.
A relatively new city, Katowice owes its current standing to its location at the center of fourteen cities in its region of Poland, and the industrial boom of the 19th Century. Consequently, it is a commercial and cultural center within the region, although it lacks historical sites due to its relatively recent emergence. With lots of restaurants, bars and cafes to choose from, as well as some interesting cultural sites, Katowice is well worth a visit and has great transport links to the surrounding area.
7. Lublin Where to Stay
While not the prettiest place in the world, Lublin has more than enough to justify a visit to the city. Heavily bombed in the Second World War, the post-war communist era buildings give Lublin a slightly drab look, although there are some nice town houses to be found here and there. The largest city in the southeast of the country, there are lots of bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs, as well as a number of cultural attractions which are worth a visit. Once nicknamed the ‘Jewish Oxford,’ as it was a thriving Jewish center of learning, Lublin still has a number of interesting sights relating to its Jewish past, despite the horrors of WWII – which tragically put an end to this rich cultural heritage.
6. Torun Where to Stay
Located on the Vistula, this lovely city is an absolute delight to wander around – its peaceful streets seem a world away from more popular tourist destinations in Poland. A walled city, Torun’s Gothic old town has some fantastic architecture for visitors to view. Unlike many cities in Poland, it thankfully emerged relatively unscathed from WWII. Tucked away amidst its winding streets you’ll find lovely atmospheric bars and restaurants, as well sights and images related to two of Torun’s claims to fame – Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born here, and the famous gingerbread that originated from the city.
5. Poznan Where to Stay
Buzzing with energy and a youthful feel, Poznan is a fun city to hang out in. The capital of Wielkopolska, its old town has lots of great historical sites to visit, as well as some fantastic museums. The city’s large student population means that its restaurants, bars and clubs are full of life, while the trade fairs that are hosted in Poznan attract a different clientele entirely. From here, there are great transport links from which you can explore the surrounding region.
4. Wroclaw Where to Stay
A charming place to visit, Wroclaw’s diverse influences have resulted in a unique look and culture to the city. With Austria, Bohemia and Prussia all having had an impact on the city’s development, the architecture reflects Wroclaw’s past, as evidenced by the spectacular Rynek market square. Located on the Odra River, Wroclaw has a plethora of bridges and lovely parks lining its banks, which make it a picturesque place to relax – the delightful Cathedral Island is definitely worth stopping by. The fourth-largest city in the country has a lively arts and culture scene, with lots of festivals and events taking place here throughout the year. With a large student population and bustling nightlife scene, Wroclaw has everything you could want in a city.
3. Gdansk Where to Stay
Unlike any other city in Poland, Gdansk’s tumultuous history has resulted in a unique identity and look. Due to its large port, wealthy merchants coming here to trade left their mark, while its strategic location meant it was once fought over by Teutonic Prussia and Poland. Consequently, there are a lot of diverse architectural styles on show, and the post-WWII reconstruction of Gdansk only added to this. A popular destination, its cobbled streets are lined with delightful old churches and elegant buildings, while interesting museums lie side by side with shops, restaurants and cafes. You can kick back and relax at some of the lovely beer gardens, or take a boat cruise from the port. From here, you can easily explore other places along the Baltic coast.
2. Warsaw Where to Stay
Almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, the city’s old town has been painstakingly restored to some of its former glory. A mishmash of different architectural styles, Gothic churches, fantastic museums and modern edifices can be found amongst the drab grey concrete buildings of the communist era. With some lovely parks and diverse neighborhoods to wander around, Warsaw has many different sides to it. The nation’s capital is a fun and interesting place to explore, with a plethora of great, cheap restaurants, bars and clubs for visitors and locals alike to indulge at. For a great view of Warsaw, head to the top of the domineering Palace of Culture and Science that towers over the tiny buildings below.
⇒ related: Warsaw Attractions
1. Krakow Where to Stay
An atmospheric place to visit, Krakow’s gorgeous Old Town is mesmerizing – delightful churches and old buildings line its picturesque squares. In fact, it has the biggest market square in Europe, in the shape of Rynek Glowny. A popular tourist destination, the former royal capital has lots to see and do, with Wawel Castle being just one of the highlights. Myriad restaurants and bars can be found throughout the city. There are endless options for great nightlife here if you get tired of exploring its historical sites and fantastic museums. The former Jewish quarter with all its synagogues is somber to walk around, and many tourists visit Krakow to take a trip to Auschwitz – a haunting yet important experience.