Teutonic knights, Polish kings and queens, majestic castles, Gothic side streets, sprawling market squares, snow-tipped mountain settings and a glaring absence of Warsaw make this list of Poland’s ten most beautiful towns a must-read for anyone thinking of hitting the Slavic East of Europe this year.
In the heart of Krakow’s Old Town Center, the Gothic church spires lurch overhead, peaking their way above a patchwork of Baroque frontispieces and Romanesque buildings. Nearby, the winding Vistula River snakes past the bars and bohemian cafés of Podgorze district, the elegant outline of the great Wawel Castle glowing in gold and ochre and red brick atop the craggy Wawel Hill. Elsewhere, cobblestone alleys give way to smoky jazz joints and bubbling squares loaded with local trinket markets hide in Kazimierz; startling new builds like the ICE Congress Center ooze style and edge, and leafy Planty park rustles in the breeze. No wonder upwards of seven million visitors hit this one every year.
Straddling the border between Poland and Slovakia to the south, charming little Chochołów sits on the cusp between the High and Low Tatra Mountains. It’s famed primarily for its wealth of split-timber homes, which dominate the smattering of streets here in a show of rough-hewn, bucolic woodwork. And just as the town fizzles out at its edges, dense forests of evergreen pines rise in walls of deep and shadowy green, concealing a snow-packed woodland realm in the winter and oodles of enticing hiking trails in the summer.
Shrouded by the ice-caked summits of the great Tatra Mountains, Zakopane has long been hailed as the ‘Winter Capital of Poland’. As soon as the first snows fall, oodles of visitors make their way to its charming center, where the rustic exteriors of traditional Gorale (mountain) cabins ring the roadways and the city’s iconic curled lampposts illuminate plumes of cold air between the snowflakes. The action mainly focuses on bubbling Krupowki Street – a mass of earthy beer halls and aromatic grills touting regional smoked cheeses and blood-red sausages to skiers and snowboarders fresh from the pistes.
While known far and wide for its hedonistic edge (thanks largely to the booming resident population of students from the Adam Mickiewicz University), Poznan is also a chocolate box of historical and cultural treats for the traveler to Poland. Granted, the city’s old town – like Warsaw – underwent huge reconstruction projects following the destruction of World War II, but its display of ice cream colored frontispieces, the exquisite façade of that Gothic-come-Renaissance Town Hall and the lively flagstone central square still all do well to evoke an air of authenticity that rarely fails to impress.
The gateway to the rolling wetlands and lush hills of Warmia, the elegant historic town of Olsztyn can be found draped over some rocky outcrops above the winding course of the Łyna River. Today, its center oozes with all the cultural prowess you’d expect of somewhere shaped over more than 700 years by the Teutonic Order, the Prussians and the Poles alike. Visitors should be able to spy out the historic influence at every corner, with beer halls filling gaps between the Market Square and cobblestone side streets, timber-framed homes dressed in ivy, and that formidable castle bursting at the seams with old Teutonic relics.
Once a grain trading boomtown on the banks of the Vistula River some 150 kilometers south-east of Warsaw, Kazimierz Dolny is now arguably the best-preserved historic center in all of Poland outside of Krakow. Its Renaissance core still feels like the real deal, as if time’s stood still between these verdant valleys on the peripheries of Lesser Poland since King Władysław II first laid the foundations of the city’s charming cobblestone market square and tight-knit web of converging roads. And it’s not just urban beauty that abounds here either: lush green woodland dresses the hillsides all around; sandbars are lapped by the slow flowing waters of the Vistula, and rolling farm fields stretch out as far as the eye can see.
Malbork, in its pretty perch between the wetlands and waterways of the Vistula delta, boasts a beautiful UNESCO-attested castle. Hailed as one of the largest fortifications on the planet by surface area and standing commandingly over the Nogat River, this one really does defy all expectations. Red-brick ramparts rise without end, tapered turrets cap the keeps, 13th-century gatehouses bar the entranceways and the mysterious tombs of Teutonic grand masters lurk in the crypts below – a veritable treasure trove of historical wonders if there ever was one.
The onetime stomping ground of Nicolaus Copernicus, this UNESCO-attested town clinging to the Vistula vein midway between Warsaw and the Baltic Sea has been repeatedly hailed as one of the most beautiful urban centers in the country. Like so many of the settlements in the northern half of Poland, Torun has felt heavy Germanic influence over the centuries. Today, it’s still imbued with many of its original Teutonic fortifications, along with a smattering of exquisite Franciscan churches, eye-watering Gothic façades (just check out that House Under the Star) and some wondrous pieces of medieval revivalism besides.
Gdansk’s reputation as a hotbed of proletarian activism (it was here that former president Lech Wałęsa first raised the Solidarity banner in the face of Communism in the 1980s), along with its sprawling shipyards and industrial districts, have given it something of a bad rap, creating an image of a Soviet relic of Brutalist buildings void of the indelible charm of Poland’s other medieval towns. This is an untruth – Gdansk is adorned with one of the most magical historic centers in Northern Europe and oozes a distinct Germanic character from its soaring Gothic spires, ancient harbor sides and cobblestone alleys. And as if that still isn’t enough: Sopot lurks just down the coast, threaded with golden sanded beaches and some of the liveliest nightlife on the Baltic.
Poking its way deep into the heartlands of eastern Poland, just on the cusp of the border with Ukraine, this proud and splendid city is adorned with a truly sublime array of Renaissance and Baroque constructions (all courtesy of the Italian town planner and architect, Bernardo Morando). Don’t miss that colorful line-up of curiously arabesque municipal buildings that rings the central square, or the opulent Town Hall with its soaring metal spire. Zamosc remains relatively off-the-beaten-track, getting just a fraction of the crowds of nearby Lublin and Krakow.
By Rich Francis