As sports fans flock to Euro 2012’s host cities in Poland and Ukraine, here’s our essential primer on Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan and Wrocław, taken from the brand new Lonely Planet Poland travel guide. These tips will see you eating, sightseeing and sleeping soundly all around Poland long after the final whistle blows. Check out our guide to Ukraine's host cities here.
Sprawling Warsaw may be an acquired taste and your first impressions straight off the train may not be positive. But the vibe and drive of Poland’s capital are infectious.
The annual calendar is filled with funky street fests, edgy art openings, and lots of highbrow, Chopin-inspired music festivals. The best museums are here too. The Warsaw Rising Museum set the standard for a new generation of engaging, interactive exhibitions. Two new museums, one on Chopin and the other on Jewish history, raise the bar even higher.
See: Royal Castle
This massive brick edifice, now a marvellous copy of the original that was blown up by the Germans towards the end of the war, began life as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century. Today it is filled with period furniture, works of art, and an army of old ladies watching your every move.
Eat: Fret á Porter
The menu is a mix of Polish and international favourites, so you can start out with an appetiser of pierogi (dumplings) and choose something like salmon or steak for a main dish. The terrace is a perfect spot for a meal on a nice evening; there’s live entertainment - usually a singer - some nights.
Sleep: Castle Inn
This nicely done-up ‘art hotel’ is housed in a 17th-century townhouse. All rooms overlook either Castle Sq or St John’s Cathedral, and come in a range of playful styles. Our favourite would be No 121, ‘Viktor’, named for a reclusive street artist, complete with tasteful graffiti and a gorgeous castle view.
Like a mini-state all to itself, Gdańsk has a unique feel that sets it aside from all other cities in Poland. Centuries of maritime ebb and flow as a port city; streets of distinctively un-Polish architecture influenced by a united nations of wealthy merchants who shaped the city’s past; the to-ing and fro-ing of Danzig/Gdańsk between Teutonic Prussia and Slavic Poland; and the destruction of WWII have bequeathed this grand old dame a special atmosphere millions now come to enjoy.
Travellers come from far and wide to wander the narrow cobbled streets of the Main Town, to gaze in wonder at monster red-brick churches, to scatter along its historical thoroughfares lined with grand, elegantly slender buildings, and to duck and dive in and out of characterful cafes, amber shops and intriguing museums.
See: Royal Way
Lined by the city’s grandest facades, the Royal Way was the route along which the Polish kings traditionally paraded during their periodic visits.
Go Kashubian at this delightful new eatery opposite the Town Hall, which manages to evoke a rural theme without a single ancient agricultural knick-knack or trussed waitress in sight (www.velevetka.pl).
Sleep: Hotel Podewils
The view from the Podewils across the river to the Main Town can’t be beaten. Guestrooms are a confection of elegantly curved timber furniture, classic prints and distinctive wallpaper.
Everyone loves Wrocław and it’s easy to see why. Though in some ways it’s a more manageable version of Kraków, with all the cultural attributes and entertainment of that popular destination, the capital of Lower Silesia also has an attractive character all its own.
Having absorbed Bohemian, Austrian and Prussian influences, the city has a unique architectural and cultural makeup, symbolised by its magnificent market square. Wrocław’s location on the Odra River, with its 12 islands, 130 bridges and riverside parks, is idyllic, and the beautifully preserved ecclesiastical district is a treat for lovers of Gothic architecture. But Wrocław is not just a pretty face. It is Poland’s fourth-largest city and the major industrial, commercial and educational centre for the region; virtually everything in southwestern Poland starts, finishes or is taking place in Wrocław.
See if you can spot the diminutive statue of a resting gnome at ground level, just to the west of the Hansel and Gretel houses in the northwestern corner of the Rynek. A couple of metres away you’ll spot some newly installed firemen gnomes, rushing to put out a blaze. These figures are part of a collection of over 150, scattered through the city. Buy a ‘dwarf map’ (7zł) from the tourist office and go gnome-spotting.
This lively split-level bar-restaurant is a cut above its Rynek rivals. It serves a selection of upmarket comfort food including burgers, steak and fish dishes, along with a Polish choice or two; all washed down with the in-house lager. There’s live music most nights, and a breakfast menu from 10am to noon (www.bernard.wroclaw.pl).
Stay: Hostel Mleczarnia
This hostel on a quiet road not far from the Rynek has bags of charm, having been decorated in a deliberately old-fashioned style within a former residential building. There’s a women-only dorm available, along with a kitchen and free laundry facilities. Downstairs is the excellent Mleczarnia cafe-bar.
If you arrive in Poznań any evening and stroll into its central market square, you’ll receive an instant introduction to the characteristic energy of Wielkopolska’s capital. The city’s Old Town district is buzzing at any time of the day, and positively jumping by night, full of people heading to its many restaurants, pubs and clubs.
The combination of international business travellers attending its numerous trade fairs and the city’s huge student population has created a distinctive vibe quite independent of tourism. In addition to its energetic personality, Poznań offers many historical attractions in its centre, particularly museums, and its plentiful transport links make it a great base from which to explore the quieter surrounding countryside.
See: Historical Museum of Poznań
This museum inside the Renaissance town hall displays an interesting and well-presented exhibition on the town’s history. The town hall itself, topped with a 61m-high tower, instantly captures your attention, particularly the enormous crowned eagle on top of the spire.
Eat: Warung Bali
Excellent Indonesian restaurant not far from the main square, with a tastefully decorated interior full of blonde wood furniture, hanging gold cloth and shadow puppets. Indonesian music plays softly while you order gado gado, satays, nasi goreng and other delicious classics from the former East Indies (warungbali.pl).
This multi talented hotel also operates as a restaurant and bar, but most impressive is its in-house boutique brewery, whose operations you can view within the building. The elegant rooms have tasteful dark timber tones, and some have views onto the Rynek (www.brovaria.pl).