Poland has changed more than almost any other European country in the last ten years and Wrocław (pronounced “vrots-waff”) is one of its most transformed cities, a go-ahead place with a huge student population and a burgeoning arts scene.
As a place to visit, Wrocław brings together pretty much everything that’s good about contemporary Poland: a thoroughly modernized cross-section of attractions, an increasingly varied dining and nightlife scene, and a sack full of historical influences.
And the fact that Wrocław represents Europe at its most unpronounceable is no longer an excuse not to visit. It’s time to brush linguistic embarrassment aside and hop aboard that plane.
Magnificent main squares (Rynek or ‘market’ in Polish) are something of a tradition in Poland, and Wrocław is no exception. A spacious quadrangle of handsome merchants’ houses surrounds a town hall bristling with turrets and pinnacles. Skirted by shops, cafés and restaurants, it’s the perfect socializing space – a huge outdoor lounge which is all the better for the fact that tourists are (for the time being at least) still outnumbered by locals.
Once you’ve seen the Rynek, the best way to admire the city’s architecture is from the banks of the Odra. The paths on the south side of the river provide excellent views of the gothic spires on the opposite bank. The river’s progress through the city is broken by a series of small islands, linked to each other by a scattering of picturesque bridges – many of them quaint, cast-iron affairs that have become something of a collective Wrocław trademark.
The grassy lawns of Wyspa Slodowa (Malting-House Island) are used for impromptu picnics by the city’s sizeable youth and student population, while indie rock and dub reggae are pumped out by the converted-barge café-bars moored nearby.
The UNESCO World Heritage List is usually associated with old towns and temples rather than gargantuan doughnuts of reinforced concrete. However the latter is what you get in Wrocław, thanks to its one contribution to the list, the Centennial Hall. A vast rotunda built by modernist architect Max Berg from 1911–1913, its enormous, bigger-than-the-biggest-cathedral dome still presides over concerts, conferences and trade exhibitions. Before admiring the main hall take a peek at the Road to Modernism exhibition in the foyer, where photographs of suburban houses reveal something of the city’s architectural ambitions.
Polish chefs are increasingly turning to traditional Polish cooking in their search for a contemporary but locally-rooted cuisine, and Wrocław is one of the best places to sample the kind of treats they’re coming up with. Head for the OK Wine Bar for relaxing riverside views and Polish classics with a global twist; or Ovo for a local take on tapas as well as country-house fare like roast wild boar.
Folksy-but-refined jaDka is the place to push the boat out with Polish feast-day dishes like roast duck with apples. Just be sure to drop any preconceptions you might have about beetroot. The vitamin-rich super-vegetable is ubiquitous in Wrocław, whether you’re eating in the fancy places or the street-corner canteens.
Poland is the sixth biggest per-capita beer consumer in the world (well ahead of the USA and the UK), and Wrocław, with its centuries-old brewing traditions, is one of its heartlands.
Cellar-bound Spiż is one of the city’s most renowned brew-pubs, and there are any number of multi-tap bars in the popular nightlife zone around ulica Ruska.
Dedicated followers of the craft beer scene should head for Stu Mostów, a brewery, restaurant and bar located in a former factory northeast of the centre. It’s the ideal place to drink your way through an entire range of pilsners, rye beers and Schöps, a light but distinctive local ale of medieval vintage that has recently been recreated by Stu Mostów’s brewmasters.
Wrocław was always associated with grand old hotels from another epoch; places like the 5-star Monopol and 3-star Europejski helped define the city to generations of visitors, and it’s only now that they have a genuinely iconic rival. Based in the brand-new and boldly curvy Ovo Centre, the DoubleTree by Hilton belies its international-chain status with a highly individual approach to architecture and design. Bulging up against the city centre like an ocean liner arriving at port, it provides yet another talking point in a city that has never been shy of brusque architectural statements.