A city with its own identity, dialect and customs, Poznań in the Greater Poland region is where Catholicism first gained a foothold on Polish soil. Poland’s first diocese was founded here on the Cathedral island in the 10th century by the nation’s first king.
This river island sits on the shoulder of the Renaissance Old Town, which is around an Old Market Square with one of the finest Town Halls you’ll ever lay your eyes on. To go with its rich helping of history, Poznań also has its fair share of attractions for families, with two zoos, a botanical palm house and a superb new interactive museum about the history of Cathedral Island.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Poznań:
1. Old Market Square
This central plaza was laid out in 1253, the very year that Poznań received its town rights under Holy Roman Magdeburg Law.
It is almost a perfect square, measuring 141 x 141 metres, and after losing 60% of its buildings in 1945 was quickly restored after the war.
Many of the pastel-painted tenement houses have restaurant and bar terraces on their ground floors, so you’ll find yourself coming back time and again.
In the centre, next to the majestic Town Hall is a row of 16th-century merchants’ houses over an arcade, and at no. 17 you can spot the coat of arms of the merchants’ guild.
As you go, keep your eyes peeled for the Medieval pillory, and the fountains depicting Porserpina, Apollo, Neptune and Mars.
If you’re around in June the Jarmark Świętojański (St John’s Fair) is a three-day street fair with an historical theme.
Recommended tour: Poznan City Walking Tour from Cathedral Island
2. Poznan Town Hall
The Old Market Square’s crowning glory is a late-Renaissance wonder from 1550 to 1560. On the eastern facade is a beautiful loggia with three tiers and paintings in the spandrels and friezes between and above its arches.
Further up you’ll see portraits of the Kings of the Jagiellonian Line, placed either side of a gilded cartouche with the initials “SAR”, for Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland.
At the stroke of the hour from 07:00 to 21:00 a carillon plays the traditional bugle call.
But at 12:00 this is done by a live trumpeter, and the fanfare is accompanied by two mechanical goats, symbols of Poznań, head-butting each other 12 times.
This pair of goats has been facing off since 1551.
3. Historical Museum of Poznań
The interior of the Town Hall has been a museum since 1956 and merits a separate entry.
The star of the show is the Grand Vestibule, which looks pretty much as it did in the middle of the 16th century.
In the coffered ceiling are rich stucco patterns around paintings of heraldic animals and coats of arms.
In the galleries, look for the mantel clock with the city’s coat of arms from 1575, and the drinking vessel representing the shoemakers’ guild from 1651. There’s also a marvellous crosier (bishop’s staff) made in Limoges in the 18th century, with enamel and gold-plating.
Finally, in the ceremonious Court Room on the first floor are two globes, one of the sky and the other of the Earth, from 1790 and 1792.
4. Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island)
It is no exaggeration to say that Poland was born on this island between the forks of the Warta River.
The island today is a sleepy settlement of cobblestone streets and squares fringed by trees and historic ecclesiastical buildings.
It’s a welcome respite from the tourist trail around the Market Square.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the profusion of greenery, from the high Medieval embankments of the riverside to the many fruit trees, which are delightful when they bloom in spring.
Not only did Catholicism take root at this very place in the 10th century, it was also the residence for Poland’s first king and founder of the cathedral, Mieszko I. This tale is told by the Brama Poznania ICHOT, a new high-tech interpretation centre.
5. Poznań Cathedral
After extensive damage in the Battle of Poznań, Poland’s oldest cathedral has a Late Gothic design based on Medieval plans.
This takes nothing away from the mastery of the star vaults in the nave and the groin vaults in the chancel.
There are also preserved treasures like Flemish tapestries from the 1600s, choir stalls from the 1500s and a Late Gothic altarpiece with sculpted panels of Mary and the Passion dating to 1512,. Also worthwhile are the many Gothic and Renaissance tomb monuments from the 14th and 15th centuries, some of which were looted by the German army but retrieved after the war.
6. Brama Poznania ICHOT
All about the history of Ostrów Tumski, this interpretation centre is by the Cybina River in the oldest part of the city.
Something unprecendented about Brama Poznania is that there isn’t a single artefact, as all the exhibits are multimedia.
The centre has an ultramodern building that opened in 2014 alongside and the preserved remnants of Prussian-era fortifications.
As you approach from the footbridge over the river, you’ll see that the building has been positioned to draw attention to the cathedral in the background to the left.
The centre’s interactive audiovisual displays go into depth about the origins of Poland’s first cathedral, everyday life and culture in Poznań in those early, as well as the castle for Mieszko I.
7. Church of St Stanislaus
Coming off the southeast corner of the Market Square on Świętosławska your attention will be grabbed by the glorious facade of this Baroque church.
The Church of St Stanislaus, a former Jesuit college, is held as one of Poland’s finest Baroque religious buildings.
The niches, scrolls and pilasters give a hint of what awaits through the portal: The triple nave, 55 metres long and 27 metres high is awe-inspiring and radiates power with its 16 marble effect Corinthian columns.
This is all heaven for art history fans, from the 18th-century frescoes in the panels on the ceiling to the 13 altars.
The high altar from 1756 is flanked by larger than life sculptures of the two patron saints, Stanislaus of Szczepanów and Stanislaus Kostka.
8. Imperial Castle
Kaiser Wilhelm II had a big hand in design of this Neo-Romanesque palace, built for him from 1904 to 1910. The Imperial Castle mimics the great residences of the Medieval Holy Roman Emperors at cities like Goslar in Germany.
At the patio gardens in the northern wing Wilhelm took inspiration from the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra in Granada.
In the Second World War the upper echelons of Nazi power were based in the palace, and because of those associations there were efforts to demolish the building after the war.
But in 1962 it became a cultural centre, and today hosts the 1956 Uprising Museum in the basement, has turned the old throne room into a cinema and houses an array of restaurants, bars and clubs.
9. Park Cytadela
North of the Old Town on a rise is Fort Winiary, one of a system of 18 defences protecting the city in the Prussian years.
Looking on a map, it’s easy to see the outline of the ravelins to the north of the park.
You can also find extensive earthworks, while chunks of ravelins and bastions are clues of what was here before.
Ravelin IV has a now disused amphitheatre, while in the southwest corner of the park there’s a string of military cemeteries with graves from both World Wars.
The surviving inner buildings contain the Poznań Army Museum and the Museum of Armaments, if you’re inspired by this part of the park’s heritage.
Otherwise you can stroll in the rosarium and grab a bite at one of three restaurants in the park.
10. National Museum in Poznań
This museum has a few branches in Poznań, for applied arts, musical instruments and ethnography.
But the headquarters is the Gallery of Painting and Sculpture on Aleje Marcinkowskiego.
This sandstone Historicist building dates to 1904 and has one of Poland’s largest collections of foreign art, as well as a who’s who of Polish painting from the 1500s to the 1900s.
Some of the masters featured in the gallery are Lucas Cranach the elder, Anthony van Dyck, Bellini, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Tintoretto and Monet.
And as a superb introduction to Polish art there are pieces by Stanisław Wyspiański, Olga Boznańska, Jacek Malczewski and Leon Wyczółkowski, running the gamut from Impressionism to Realism and the influential Young Poland movement.
11. Croissant Museum
One of Poznań’s signature delicacies is the St Martin’s Croissant, a tradition that goes back well into the 19th century.
It began with a baker donating three batches of croissants to the city’s poor on November 11, St Martin’s Day.
These pastries have a sweet filling made from white poppy seeds, and are often topped with icing.
In a Renaissance townhouse opposite the Town Hall there’s a museum arranging guided baking demonstrations at 11:00 12:30, 13:45 and 15:00, as well as tours of the building.
And of course you’ll get to see what all the fuss is about when you taste these sweet treats.
12. Lech Browary Wielkopolski
In the eastern outskirts of the city, not far south of Lake Malta is the brewery for Lech, one of Poland’s best-selling beers.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to be interested in how beer is brewed on an industrial scale, at 7.5 million hectolitres a year.
On a tour, what may catch you by surprise as you learn about mashing, boiling, fermentation, maturation and filtration, is just how much technology goes into the process.
The second half of the two-hour tour leads you through an exhibition hall about Lech, and it all ends with a stop at the bar for a well-earned glass of beer from a tap.
If you’re into beer you might also like the Poznan Pub Crawl Tour.
13. Palmiarnia Poznańska
The other side of the main train station from the Old Town, Poznań’s Palm House is a complex of 12 pavilions growing 1100 plant species in 4,600 square metres.
This is the largest attraction of its kind in Poland, and most of its pavilions are open to visitors.
One, the aquarium pavilion, has 170 fish species and 50 kinds of aquatic plants.
But most memorable of all are the high greenhouses, where paths beckon you through steamy tropical jungle in which snakes and iguanas are kept in terrariums.
There are also spaces for temperate vegetation, savannah species and cactuses from the American continent, as well as a cafe in the lush foliage of Pavilion no. 3.
14. Maltanka Miniature Railway
On the northern shore of the Lake Malta is a 600mm narrow gauge railway operating since 1956. The line has interesting origins as a “Children’s Railway”, run by youth associations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc to prepare young people for careers on the railway lines.
The train, pulled by a Borsig steam locomotive from 1925, departs the station near Rondo Śródka on the hour, seven days a week from April ’til September.
Little ones will be have a fun time, but you could even use the train as a practical way of visiting the Lake Malta or the New Zoo, which is at the eastern terminus.
15. Poznań New Zoo
That day of fun for youngsters can continue at the New Zoo, the second largest zoological garden in the country.
In 120 hectares, the attraction is maybe most famous or its aviaries inhabited by a rich array of owls and taking part in breeding programmes for golden eagles.
Some of the crowd-pleasers at the zoo are the African elephants, giraffes, zebras and Siberian tigers, while you can also find European bison, native to eastern Poland.
And given the considerable size of the New Zoo, it’s handy that there’s another miniature railway running around the perimeter so you can hop off at each exhibit.