Białystok may have been founded in the 16th century but it didn't begin to develop until the mid-18th century, when Jan Klemens Branicki, the commander of the Polish armed forces and owner of vast estates – including the town – expanded his father's holdings here and built a palace.

In the 19th century, Białystok received a new impetus from the textile industry, and eventually became Poland's largest textile centre after Łódź. The textile boom attracted an ethnic mix of entrepreneurs, including Poles, Jews, Russians, Roma, Belarusians and Germans, and by the outbreak of WWI, Białystok had some 97,000 inhabitants and more than 250 textile factories. Growing up in this multilingual mix inspired Ludwik Zamenhof to create his attempt at universal language, Esperanto, and you'll see his name and that of the language dotted around town.