A city defined by broad thoroughfares, peaceful parks and strings of bridges, Wroclaw, Poland, is one of two locations that snagged the well-deserved title of European Capital of Culture for 2016 (the other is San Sebastián, Spain). If you're wondering what this fancy accolade means, it's a designation from the EU, vowing to improve the quality of these heritage cities through year-long projects committed to boosting cultural, social and economic development.
Although it began as a humble Slavic settlement in the 9th century, Wroclaw has since risen to a prominent position in Poland as an economic, cultural and academic center. Wroclaw’s path to success hasn’t always been easy, though. Its location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia made it the perfect victim of a number military coups and an 82-day siege by the Soviets during WWII, which reduced 75 percent of the city to rubble, followed by years of communist rule. It has, however, grown to be one of Poland’s largest and most prestigious cities so stop on by to experience some of Wroclaw's culture for yourself.
One Year, One Thousand Festivals
Wroclaw is determined to live up to its honorary title of European Capital of Culture. Prior to its nomination, it already hosted a number of well-attended cultural festivals like Jazz Festival on the Odra or the famous Wratislavia Cantans, but in 2016, they’re going even bigger. The ambitious plan infuses 1,000 additional cultural events into the city's schedule throughout the year. Some are extremely well-publicized like the European Film Festival (December) or the European Men’s Handball Championship. Others are a more low-key act of community building like artist Iza Rutkowska’s larger-than-life urban puzzle animals. With hundreds of concerts, theater performances and exhibitions (you can find a detailed list here), the city hopes to attract at least twice as many visitors while highlighting the richness of their European heritage.
Rynek (Main Market Square)
The frenzied festivities make Wroclaw a particularly exciting place to be in 2016, but be sure to explore the city’s longstanding landmarks as well. Wroclaw's Main Market Square has been around for centuries and is the heart and soul of the city. A place all visitors will inevitably stumble through, it’s here that both tourists and locals can mingle over dinner, drinks or enjoy the entertainment the street performers provide. The Square was first laid out near the Oder River in the 13th century, right after Wroclaw was razed to the ground by marauding Mongols. As time has passed, iconic buildings have risen and fallen, and trends have gone in and out of style. As a result, visitors are treated to a colorful, patchwork quilt of architectural styles that includes everything from Gothic to Art Nouveau.
Discover the Dwarves
More than 300 miniature bronze dwarves can be found throughout the streets of Wroclaw. Once utilized as part of a protest against Communism, these little guys were eventually repurposed to serve as a delightful modern-day scavenger hunt (much like the quirky mini-horses in Portland). Each dwarf is an original creation and piece of art so while you’ll uncover some sitting on windowsills clutching ice cream cones, you’ll find others perched atop signs and lamp posts. You can keep a casual eye out as you tour the city or if you take your dwarf-discovering more seriously, their website has a map you can use to hunt them all down.
The perfect quiet retreat, this little isle is where life began for the people of Wroclaw back in the 800s and the place the first settlers set up camp to protect themselves from invaders. The spit of land isn’t an island anymore, but after a bishopric was set up in 1000 AD, it became the religious center of the city and remains so today. There are very few shops or restaurants so walking down the cobblestone streets and exploring the magnificent churches and peaceful gardens is the best way to expel your energy. Wroclaw is one of the only cities left in Europe that still employs a lamplighter so keep an eye out as he methodically walks the silent streets, igniting each of the gas street lamps and giving light to the darkness.
The Old Jewish Cemetery
Wroclaw was a Nazi stronghold in WWII and because of that very few Jewish cemeteries survived. A stroll through the five acres of dense undergrowth and 5,000 gravestones can certainly be worthwhile if you have an inherent interest in history, but we recommend purchasing a little booklet by Maciej Lgiewski called “Old Jewish Cemetery” to interpret the depictions. It contains details about many of the symbols and stories etched into the headstones, for instance, a broken candle means a young woman’s life ended too soon. A set of palm up hands means you’re looking at a descendant of Aaron, while a helmet shows the person laid to rest was once a soldier. It's an interesting look at the individuals that comprised the community while following yet another treasure map of sorts.
The Royal Palace Museum
Aimlessly wandering the medieval streets and soaking in the ambience is a must-do, but appreciation for a city almost always increases when you can put what you’re seeing into context. When you’re ready for some local history, head to the most impressive museum in Wroclaw: the Royal Palace. Formerly the residence of the Hohenzollern Kings from Prussia, this yellow and red Baroque structure has been recently renovated and houses four sizable and permanent exhibits. You could easily spend a full day exploring its historical artifacts, the royal apartments and the unique Beyersdorf Room, which is decorated entirely in Dutch tiles from the 17th century.
Panorama of Raclawice
At 400 feet long and 46 feet tall, this painting is one of the only remaining 19th century relics of its kind. The massive panorama wasn't created in Wroclaw but has since become one of its star attractions. It was largely produced by Jan Styka and Wojciech Kossak to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous Kosciuszko Insurrection when the Poles defeated the invading Russian Army. The canvas was woven in Brussels and the iron rotunda that houses the impressive piece of art was built in Vienna. The shape of the building combined with the lighting and details takes onlookers right into the battlefield. Horses fly through the air, men lay inert on the ground and smoke drifts in the breeze. The only things missing are the smell of gunpowder and the cries of victory.