Wroclaw is not a city that many Americans have heard of, even though it’s over a millennium-old and the fourth largest city in Poland with a population of over 600,000. For many centuries, it was a crossroads of trade from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea and from the Black Sea to Western Europe.
Wroclaw has had many names and has been in maybe more states than any other large city in Europe. It was initially founded in Poland (1000-1335), then a part of the Kingdom of Bohemia (1335-1526), next under the rule of the Austrian Hapsburgs (1526-1741), then to the Kingdom of Prussia (1741-1871), then into Germany (1871-1945) and finally back to Poland. While many nationalities and ethnic groups have lived here, today the citizens are almost all Polish with many international students.
Because of the city’s diverse historical influences, it’s a repository of amazing architecture, numerous museums, imposing churches, several universities, and public attractions. A big plus is it’s less touristy than Warsaw and Krakow, so it can be a pleasurable visit.
This was my first time in Poland, making it my 107th country. I have 90 more!
Where is Wroclaw?
Wroclaw is located in the south-west part of the country, not far from the borders of the Czech Republic and Germany. It’s only 200 km /120 mi from Prague and 275 km /170 mi from Dresden and Krakow and 350 km /215 mi from Warsaw and Berlin.
Wroclaw has direct train and highway connections with all of these places.
Wroclaw has a long list of attractions and here’s a map with some.
How to pronounce Wroclaw?
This is a tough one for English speakers, which is typical of many Polish words. But it’s important to remember not to pronounce the last syllable as a bird’s talon. If you say this, you probably won’t be understood.
There are many variations on how to phonetically spell it but one way is VROT-swaaf. The first W is like a V, O is like the one in rot and the C is like TS in tsunami but split in the syllables. The L represents the Polish letter Ł (L with a stroke) which sounds the same as W. The final W sounds like a soft V or an F. If you come close to this, locals will understand.
Why We Went to Wroclaw
In August and September 2021, my wife Khadija and I went on a five-week drive through Eastern Europe and visited many of the great cities of the region. We were going from Berlin to Krakow but didn’t want to drive that far in one day. We saw Wroclaw on the map, researched it, and decided to spend two full days
Is Wroclaw Safe?
Wroclaw is very safe. The nightlife is made up of mostly young folks partying and drinking, so there’s a chance it can get a little rowdy. Here, as everywhere you travel, employ basic safety precautions and use common sense to avoid problems.
Is Wroclaw Expensive?
In comparison to other major European cities, it’s definitely less expensive. For lodging, if you want to spend your budget on a higher standard hotel, this is a good place.
Where to Stay in Wroclaw
Booking a hotel has not been a problem on our tour of Germany and Eastern Europe, usually done the night before arriving. Surprisingly this place didn’t have many rooms available as there were many Poles themselves vacationing, many of them are families.
There were two reasons why the hotels were almost full. First, it was the last week before children went back to school in Poland. Second, travel for Poles outside the country was way down because of Covid.
How to Get Around Wroclaw
Most attractions are in the center of the city and you can walk to them if you have nearby lodging. We didn’t use them but there are buses and trams with a single or time-limited ticket.
While we were there, there were no free walking tours in English. We found a tourist information office located in the Bike Café on Sw. Antoniego. We got some free maps and bought a walking tour book, then had some cappuccinos while we made our initial plans.
An alternative is renting a bicycle or a scooter, which can be done at the Bike Café. One thing to consider is a scenic boat ride on the Oder River, which runs through the city. It’s a great opportunity to discover the city from a new angle.
Where to Eat in Wroclaw
The one place we really liked was a little bistro called EcoPestka (aka Pestka Bistro) which also sells oils, vinegar, and creams. The area around here probably has the best collection of restaurants and is where locals frequent.
There we met Gerard and Bartek who live there. Gerard is Irish, has lived most of his adult life in New York City, and was transferred there by a bank. Bartek is Polish and works with a company doing clinical trials for a pharmaceutical company. We later had dinner with them in Market Square in one of the upscale restaurants with outside seating.
Market Square (Rynek)
The city has one of the oldest, biggest and most beautiful market squares (rynek in Polish) in Europe.
Much of the city was destroyed or damaged in WWII, but fortunately, the market did not suffer devastating damage. The square was restored according to the way it looked in the late 18th century.
In the center is the magnificent Old Town Hall (pictured at the top of the post), an accumulation of architectural additions from the 1200s to 1400s.
Around the square are colorful townhouses built over a century or two ago in a variety of styles from Gothic to Art Nouveau.
The square is full of performers and activities for children.
Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island)
This is where the city began in the 11th century, where a Slavic tribe settled because the Oder River provided protection. It’s no longer an island, as some passages have been filled. Access to Ostrów Tumski from the town center is by metal bridges, including the bright-red Most Plaskowy (Sand Bridge), built in 1861.
After a short walk by a Russian Orthodox church, a Gothic church and a library, there’s the Most Tumski (Tumski Bridge) leading to the oldest part of the city. Just past a statue of St. John of Nepomuk is the two-spire Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
Construction began in 1244 for this first brick building in Poland. Cathedral building is slow and, in this case, took five centuries to complete. The centerpiece of the beautiful, Gothic interior is the altarpiece showing a sleeping Virgin Mary, which we couldn’t get close to because a service was going on.
Statues Everywhere, Big and Small
This city has a surprising number of interesting statues. The first one we encountered was a sculpture of a ballerina wearing a globe of the earth as a skirt. This appealed to us as we are always crisscrossing the world.
Stare Jatki (Old Butcher’s Stalls) is now lined with art galleries. There’s a monument to when it was a meat market featuring statues of several animals and an odd inscription: “In honor of the slaughtered animals – from the consumers.”
Walking around Wroclaw, you can’t miss some of the appropriately sized statues of gnomes. They first appeared in 2005 and now there are more than 600. You can hunt for all of them with specialized maps and phone apps.
People Watching in Wroclaw
We were there during the covid pandemic, so many museums and other interior attractions were closed. We mainly walked the streets and admired the architecture and enjoyed watching the rhythm of the people. I believe they were all Polish, either locals or visitors including families with grandparents,
and groups of young people, including these men who looked to be part of a club, judging by their T-shirts.
Wroclaw Attractions We Wish We Went To
We wish we were able to go to the National Museum, with its extensive collection of Polish and European art, sit in the beer garden of the Jaś i Małgosia (commonly called “Hansel & Gretel Houses” by foreigners), and see the city from above from one of the many towers.
East of the center of the city is Centennial Hall, completed in 1913, which is accessible by public transportation. It’s a landmark of reinforced concrete architecture and Wroclaw’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearby is a tranquil Japanese Garden, the popular Wroclaw Multimedia Fountain and the Four Dome Pavilion.
We could have easily spent another two days seeing tourist attractions, checking out interesting streets and alleys and finding more gnomes!
My most vivid memory is a little girl listening to a violinist busking in the Rynek.
Here no one was worrying about personal and world problems and just
enjoying the moment. In fact, Wroclaw felt like this to me. I’m amazed
this city is not more well-known!