Capital of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship in South Central Poland, Kielce is a city that first grew rich from its plentiful metal and stone deposits. For more than 600 years the city was in the hands of the Kraków Bishops, who built themselves a castle on a hill just next to the market square.
In the 17th century this became a Mannerist palace that has survived to this day in its original state. Kielce is couched in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, one of the oldest ranges in Europe, leaving the city a mineral wealth that has been mined for centuries. To the south of the city are natural reserves in former quarries, as well as a show cave that was only properly charted for the first time a decade ago.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kielce:
1. Palace of the Kraków Bishops
Kielce’s outstanding monument is the summer residence built for the Bishop of Kraków Jakub Zadzik between 1637 and 1644. The architect of this Mannerist palace was Tommaso Poncino of Lugano, who gave the building a loggia with marble columns and four hexagonal domed towers on its corners.
Above the loggia’s arches are cartouches with the coats of arms of Bishop Zadzik, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Kraków chapter.
To the rear is a geometric Italian garden surrounded by quince, cherry and apple trees.
The garden’s layout had been changed at the end of the 18th century but was restored to its mid-17th-century Mannerist design in 2003. The palace and grounds were also surrounded by ramparts, powder tower and bastions, which continue to protect the top of Castle Hill.
2. National Museum
Since 1975 the palace has been a branch of the National Museum, so you can immerse yourself in Polish and Western European art from the 1600s to the 1900s, decorative arts, numismatic collections and antique weapons.
The art collection runs the gamut from Baroque and Rococo portrait painting to Realism and Impressionism.
Some of the highly-regarded artists represented here are Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder, Olga Boznańska, Leopold Gottlieb, Aleksander Gierymski and Józef Chełmoński.
These are all set off by the interior decor, which is mostly original and has marble busts, grand fireplaces and painted ceiling beams.
At the time of writing at the end of 2017 parts of the exhibition were closed for renovation until early 2019.
3. Ulica Henryka Sienkiewicza
Delineated in the 1820s, Ulica Henryka Sienkiewicza is Kielce’s main artery, combining shops and restaurants with historic architecture of its turn-of-the-century tenement houses.
The street was pedestrianised and renovated in the 00s, and extends diagonally for almost 1.3 kilometres from the train station at Plac Niepodległości to Plac Moniuszki.
Many of the stuccoed houses and municipal buildings on the way are protected on the Polish register of monuments.
On a typical summer’s day there will be market stalls, street performers and outdoor tables for bars, ice cream parlours, restaurants and cafes.
The street is named in honour of Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz, and in 2010 a monument to him by the eminent sculptor Kazimierz Gustaw Zemła was unveiled on the street.
4. Kielce Cathedral
At the centre of the Wzgórzu Zamkowym (Castle Hill) in Kielce, this church and its belfry rises above the low-rise buildings of the city.
The current building is from the mid-1200 after the previous church was destroyed by Tatars.
There are still some remnants of that building in amongst the dominant 18th-century Baroque architecture.
The vibrant painted patterns adorning the walls of the three naves are from 1892, while your eye will also be drawn to the Rococo high altar.
This was crafted by sculptors from Kraków in the mid-18th century, and at its heart is an image of Our Lady of the Assumption that was painted in 1730.
5. Museum of Toys and Play
Located in the 19th-century market hall at Plac Wolności, the Museum of Toys and Play is the largest museum on this topic in Poland.
Allow plenty of time, as the there are several thousand exhibits over more than 630 square metres of exhibition space.
With two play areas, one indoors and the other in the courtyard during the summer, the museum avoids being a static exhibition.
Smaller children will be amazed by the quantity of model cars, train sets, model aircraft, dolls and puppets, many of which are interactive.
Grown-ups can find out what kids played with during the 1700s, 1800s and during the Polish People’s Republic.
The mineral-rich Świętokrzyskie Mountains pass through Kielce, and one of the peaks is on the city’s southern boundary.
You can reach it via the chain of parks and promenades beginning at the city centre.
As the terrain becomes rockier you’ll get to the Podziemna Trasa Turystyczna (Underground Tourist Route). This has three interconnected limestone caves first discovered centuries ago when the limestone was quarried for building material.
The system wasn’t properly explored until a decade ago, and when they were found to be safe a 160-metre walking route was laid out in 2012. On a guided tour you’ll be shown concretions like stalagmites and stalactites, but also Devonian fossils (up to 420 million years old) of sea plants, brachiopods, corals and cephalopods.
7. Rynek (Market Square)
Fronted on its west side by the Neoclassical city hall, Kielce’s historic market square has been the administrative heart of the city since the middle of the 14th century.
The historic building facades around the square are later, from the 1700s and 1800s.
Maybe the prettiest of these is just to the left of the city hall on the corner of Ulica Mała.
Painted blue and with a little arcade containing a cafe, this house dates to 1767 and belonged to the cook for the Bishop of Kraków Kajetan Sołtyk.
The biggest recent change to the square came in 2011 when it was re-paved and cleared of traffic.
In the middle you can see the outline of the former town hall, built in the 16th century but burnt down in 1800.
8. Dworek Laszczyków
To tap into the folk culture of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship come to this traditional wooden manor house on Ulica Jana Pawła II on the southern slope of Castle Hill.
With a high hipped roof, the house was made from larch wood on a stone and brick foundation.
It dates to 1788 and today is the headquarters for the Muzeum Wsi Kieleckiej (Kielce Rural Museum), which has a few sites at farms and windmills outside the city.
In the house’s four rooms are ethnographic displays about all aspects of life in the region in days gone by, as well as interiors with the furniture and fittings of a typical farmhouse in the 19th century.
9. Kościół św. Wojciecha
Wreathed with century-old trees and close to the centre of Kielce, this Baroque church is known for its three paintings by the eminent 19th-century historical and religious artist Jan Styka.
Painted in 1889, these depict the Multiplication of Bread, St Rosalia and St Francis and are on the altars in the chancel.
The building itself is from the second half of the 18th century but sits exactly where a wooden church used to be in the 12th century.
The square in front, Plac Świętego Wojciecha witnessed a grim moment during in 1943 when a group of Home Army (Resistance) fighters was executed by firing squad.
A fragment of the wall from the execution has been preserved.
Ever-present on Kielce’s southwest horizon is a 340-metre hill composed of Devonian limestone.
The hill is coated with pine trees, many as old as 150 years and on its southern and western slopes are traces of old mine shafts and ditches.
There’s a Bernardine monastery near the summit, which we’ll cover next, as well as a monument to the January Uprising of 1863-64 against the Russian Empire.
But aside from that you could make the stiff but short walk to the crest of the hill to survey Kielce’s skyline and the Świętokrzyskie Mountains.
11. Karczówka Monastery
After Kielce was spared from a plague epidemic in 1622, the Bishop of Kraków, Marcin Szyszkowski built this monastery as a votive offering.
The monastery was sacked by the Swedes not long after in 1655 and got its current design in the early 18th century when it was rebuilt.
Crowned by two copper-covered cupolas, the single nave church has bold Rococo decoration.
But most compelling of all is the chapel for St Barbara under the main tower.
At the chapel’s altar there’s a statue for the saint made from three large lumps of lead discovered in Karczówka’s mines by a farmer in 1646.
12. Stanisława Staszica Park
On the southern foot of Castle Hill is the serene municipal park, sweeping out over eight hectares.
Coming down the slope from the Palace of the Kraków Bishops, one of the first things you’ll see is the large pond on the west side.
Trimmed by lush tall willow trees and with a fountain in the middle, this pond is more than one hectare in size and somewhere to bring children to feed the ducks.
Close to the Zieliński Palace a stone’s throw away is an aviary containing a variety of rare birds, while you can explore one of the paths that disappear into the park’s mature forest of more than 1,300 chestnut, ash, lime, maple, elm and acacia trees.
13. Pałac Tomasza Zielińskiego
In the 1850s the wealthy art patron Tomasz Zieliński moved into the buildings on the episcopal palace grounds.
He redesigned the complex, commissioning a fairytale Gothic Revival palace with an orangery and gardens.
This was all intended as a museum for his enormous painting collection and a centre of excellence for the arts.
Some of the most distinguished painters of the period like Józef Szermentowski, January Suchodolski , Wojciech Gerson and Franciszek Kostrzewski frequented the palace at that time.
After he passed away in 1858, Zieliński’s collection was sold off.
But since 1985 the palace has become a centre for the arts once more, holding exhibitions, concerts, fairs and seminars.
14. Rezerwat Przyrody Wietrznia (Wietrznia Nature Reserve)
To the southeast of the city centre is yet another mineralogically rich nature reserve.
Almost all of this 18-hectare park is a canyon-like landscape caused by limestone and dolomite quarries that were exploited from 1893 to 1974. There are three interlinked quarries, and what makes them so interesting is their abundance of fossils of prehistoric fish, sponges and other fauna, as well as karst formations.
To get a detailed overview of the reserve you can pop into the “Geoeducation Centre” that opened in a swish-looking building in 2011. Boards and models show what Kielce’s fossilised Devonian plants and animals would have looked like, and there’s a “5D” movie screened in a special capsule.
15. Huta Józef
There’s a slice of 19th-century Polish history a short drive north at this ruined factory in Samsonów.
Huta Józef was a charcoal-fired steel mill, operating from 1817 to 1866. It was all burnt down by the Russians following the January Uprising of 1863-64 as the mill had produced weapons for the insurgents.
Huta Józef was never rebuilt after the fire, and since then the shell of the furnace, modelling plant, foundry and drying room have been left as a memorial in peaceful greenery on the edge of the village.