Introduction

Białystok (byah-wi-stok) is Podlasie's metropolis and a large, busy city for these parts. Attractions are limited, but its proximity to the region's national parks makes it a good base, and the historic mix of Polish and Belarusian cultures gives it a special atmosphere found in no other Polish city.

The city 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 – established his residence here and built a palace. A century later the town 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, Belarusians and Germans, and by the outbreak of WWI, Białystok had some 80,000 inhabitants and more than 250 textile factories. It was growing up in this multilingual mix which later inspired Ludwik Zamenhof to create his artificial language Esperanto, and you'll see his name and that of the language dotted around town.

During WWII the Nazis practically destroyed the city, murdering half its population, including almost all of the Jews, and razing most of the industrial base and central district. Post-war reconstruction concentrated on tangible issues such as the recovery of industry, infrastructure and state administration. As you can still see today, historic and aesthetic values somewhat receded into the background. Still, it's a friendly city, surprisingly laid-back for its size and a good place to relax.