Polish cities are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Thanks to a combination of urban renovation, bold contemporary architecture and blossoming nightlife, there’s never been a better time to travel around Poland. And never a better time to travel by train. Here’s why:
Poland’s cities all have very different personalities, and you can’t really get to grips with the country’s culture until you’ve visited a handful of them.
However, it would be a shame to miss out on the Gothic canal-side warehouses of Gdańsk; the Baroque magic of Lublin; the grand architecture and ebullient nightlife of Wrocław; or the magnificent red-brick factory buildings of post-industrial Łódź.
The joker in the pack is the gruff coal-and-steel town of Katowice, home to a fabulous semi-underground museum and hedonistic weekend nights. And it’s all an easy train ride away.
Gdańsk boasts a delightful nineteenth-century Neo-Renaissance pile, while Warsaw Central is an archetypal slab of grey 1970s brutalism (recently spruced up, it’s now an asset rather than an eyesore).
Many stations have been totally rebuilt in recent years – the semi-submerged glass-and-concrete palace that is Łódź Fabryczna is one of those temples to modern travel that make you wish you could take the train more often.
Big-city stations such as Katowice, Kraków and the alien spaceship that is Poznań Głowny have been redeveloped in conjunction with large shopping malls, which – whatever your views on consumer culture – have returned the railway station to the heart of urban life.
Warsaw is the hub around which Poland’s railway network revolves – and travelling the country by train offers the ideal excuse to stop off in what is one of Europe’s most underrated cities.
Walking out of the subterranean hive that is Warsaw Central Station brings you face to face with the city’s contradictions: the overwhelming, Stalinist-era Palace of Culture stands opposite contemporary high-rise towers such as Daniel Libeskind’s sickle-shaped Złota 44.
Warsaw’s effervescent riverside drinking scene means it’s worth staying the night.
There are a lot more heritage railways in Poland than you might think; the Forest Railway at Cisna in the Carpathians and the steam engine museum at Wolsztyn near Poznań are just two of the most famous.
For a real taste of vintage travel head for Chabówka, south of Kraków, where you’ll find a huge collection of old locos and a variety of (frequently steam-hauled) excursions in beautiful sub-Carpathian countryside.
You can still walk out of a station such as Kraków and find yourself surrounded by a handsome selection of places to stay, many of which were built before World War I.
The 1884-vintage Hotel Europejski has an old-school feel and is eminently affordable to boot. The real star, however, is the unashamedly modern Andel’s, a cool slab of a contemporary design that is, in many respects, the twenty-first century answer to the grand old railway hotels of yore.
Travel from Gdańsk to Warsaw and there are plenty of reasons to get your camera out. The landmark turreted bridge across the Vistula at Tczew was the longest in Europe when constructed in the 1850s.
Equally breathtaking is the bridge across the river Nogat at Malbork, where one of Europe’s biggest surviving medieval castles rises spectacularly into view.
Until a few years ago it took the best part of a day to get from one city to the next on slow-moving, uncomfortable trains. In fact, Poland was one of the least rail-friendly countries in Europe.
But journey times have now been halved and Poland is becoming something of a contemporary showcase for train travel.
Travelling from Gdańsk in the north to Kraków in the south now takes just over five hours (it used to take more than eight). Most other inter-city journeys are shorter still, ensuring that you can travel in the morning and explore a new destination in the afternoon – perfect for avid city hoppers.
Polish trains come in all shapes and sizes. The country’s biggest model railway layout is Kolejowko (“Train Town”), located in the former suburban train station of Świebodzki in central Wrocław.
As well as an impressive roster of O-scale locomotives, the layout features recognisable bits of Wrocław and the highland resort of Karpacz. More than 2000 miniature figures bring life and humour to the scene.
National operator PKP Intercity introduced sleek Pendolino trains two years ago to operate its EICP (express intercity premium) services. They also run EIC (express intercity) trains; slightly less fancy but just as fast.
For budget travellers, PKP provide TLK economy trains which use old-style compartment carriages – you might not get much legroom but at least you’ll meet some new people. The TLK trains are a lot cheaper than the EIC and EICP services, but are almost as fast.
Almost every mainline station in Poland now has free wi-fi, too. So if the wheels ever begin to come off your travel plans, you can at least surf your way out of trouble.
The Polish railway timetable can be found at www.rozklad-pkp.pl/en. Inter-city tickets can be booked online here.
Header image: National Stadium in Warsaw built for football competition Euro 2012. View over Vistula river and train on the bridge © Darq/Shutterstock