The university city of Wrocław is the capital of Lower Silesia and often ranks among the most liveable places in Europe. Wrocław ‘s past is unbelievably complex, and over the last 1,000 years it has come under the control of eight different kingdoms and empires.
Under the Habsburg Monarchy in the Early Modern Age Wrocław gained much of its Baroque architecture and cultural institutions like a university that has produced nine Nobel prize winners. You might also hear Wrocław described as “Poland’s Venice”, as the Oder River breaks off into separate arms, crossed by more than 100 bridges. A lot of the city was wrecked in a three-month siege at the end of the Second World War, but you’d never know it to see Wrocław’s historical wonders today.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wrocław:
1. Old Town
During the Siege of Breslau Wrocław was almost flattened, which only makes the skyline of church spires and Baroque gabled townhouses all the more astonishing.
The Market Square and Cathedral Island have to be your priorities, but Wrocław will also reward people who just want to wander and see what they can find.
Plac Solny is a delight for its non-stop flower market and has St Elizabeth, the city’s tallest church, with a tower that you can climb if you’ve got the energy to burn.
A little way up from there is maybe the best preserved street in the city; Stare Jatki is in the old butchers’ quarter and has a continuous row of buildings from the 1600s and 1700s.
For a bit of fun, see how many of Wrocław’s 300 little bronze “dwarf” statues you can spot as you explore the Old Town.
2. Rynek (Market Square)
At 3.8 hectares, Wrocław’s Market Square is among the largest, not just in Poland but all of Europe.
Like the rest of the Old Town, the Market Square has almost the same layout as it did when it was planned in the middle of the 13th century.
A lot of the architecture, including the rows of colourful tenements that frame the square, needed heavy restoration after the Second World War.
The pillory just next to the Town Hall dates to 1492 and had to be pieced back together.
This, along with the Zdrój fountain from 2000 and the statue of writer Aleksander Fredro, is one of the three meet-up locations of choice for friends in Wrocław.
3. Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island)
The oldest part of Wrocław cropped up on what used to be an island in the Oder.
By the 19th century the arm of the river separating it from the bank was closed off to prevent flooding.
When Ostrów Tumski was first developed in the 10th century the river created a natural defence, and the first brick buildings arrived in the middle of the 12th century.
The quarter is one of the prettiest for walks, with a church at almost every turn and the way lit by genuine gas lamps at night.
If you come at dusk you can watch the old-time lamp lighter illuminating the streets.
Give yourself an hour to see the medieval riches in the Archdiocese Museum at the episcopal palace.
4. Old Town Hall
Standing at an angle on the Market Square, the Old Town Hall is a group of Gothic buildings bundled together in one complex.
As Wrocław developed from the end of the 13th century, new wings were fixed on to account for the political and economic changes taking place in the city over the next 250 years.
On the Late Gothic east facade, look for the astronomical clock dating to 1580. Inside is a free museum detailing the history of the building and with exhibitions on aspects of life in Wrocław, like the city’s tram network.
And you can also check out the plush council chamber upstairs and the merchants’ hall on the ground floor.
As with many town halls in former German territories, there’s a beer cellar in the basement, home to one of the oldest restaurants in Europe, Piwnica Świdnicka.
5. Racławice Panorama
The Battle of Racławice took place on 4 April 1794, resulting in a Polish victory in the ultimately doomed Kościuszko Uprising against Russia.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle the Lviv-based artist Jan Styka began a 15 x 114-metre cycloramic painting, and invited other famous artists of the day to help him complete it.
The panorama, riding a wave of Polish nationalism, was a raging success, and was on show in Lviv until after the Second World War when it was brought to Wroclaw.
Its patriotic subject matter in the days of the Soviet Union meant it didn’t see the light of day until 1985. Since then the Racławice Panorama has been presented at a rotunda in Wrocław, depicting a battle that is engrained in the Polish national memory.
6. Wrocław University
The main building of the city’s reputable university doubles as a museum.
This institution, taking over from a Jesuit college, was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold in 1702. One of the must-sees is the extravagantly decorated Baroque hall, Aula Leopoldina, with a ceiling fresco, gilded stucco, sculpted cherubs and portraits of the university’s founding fathers.
Also extremely rich is the Oratorium Marianum, now the university’s music hall, while the Mathematical Tower is the old Astronomic Observatory, with a 42-metre tower and a meridian line on its floor.
Elsewhere in the exhibition rooms you can dip into the story of the university where Alois Alzheimer taught, and which has produced nine noble prize winners.
7. Royal Palace
Frederick the Great chose this Baroque palace as his residence after Prussia took over Silesia in the 1740s.
Over the next century each Prussian king would make extensions and add his own touches, from Rococo to Neoclassical and Neo-Renaissance.
The building was badly damaged in the war, and after the most recent round of restorations became the venue for Wrocław’s City Museum.
You can get up to speed on the complicated 1,000-year history of the city, ponder a wealth of artefacts and view the palace’s sublime interiors.
A standout is the Beyersdorf Room, which is clad with Dutch 17th-century tiles, while outside in the Baroque formal gardens there’s intricately patterned broderie.
8. Wrocław Cathedral
Constructed in the Brick Gothic style in the 13th century after the Mongol invasion had destroyed its predecessor, the cathedral is recognised by its sky-scraping towers soaring to almost 100 metres.
The Siege of Breslau took its toll on the building, leaving about three quarters in ruins, and the restoration continued through to 1991. There are 21 chapels inside, the loveliest of which is the Italian Baroque Chapel of St Elizabeth, with a dome fresco portraying the saint’s death, burial and heavenly glory.
Some other highlights are the Dormition of Mary triptych from 1552, the oak carved choir stalls from the 1660s and the numerous ledger stones in styles ranging from Gothic to Baroque.
There’s also a lift to carry you to the top of one of the towers for the best vistas of Wrocław.
9. Wrocław Fountain
This monument by the UNESCO-listed Centennial Hall is Poland’s largest fountain, covering one full hectare.
It was completed in 2009 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in post-war Poland, and has a long, ivy-clad pergola around its perimeter.
The fountain is equipped with 800 programmable lights that can change colour, 300 adjustable water jets and three nozzles that shoot flames into the air.
Be here in the evening from May to September on the stroke of the hour for a dazzling show that mixes light, dancing jets of water and music.
There are also special shows on weekends at 22:00.
10. Centennial Hall
Raised in 1913 for the 100th anniversary of the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig, the Centennial Hall is a technical marvel from the end of Wrocław’s German era.
Built at enormous expense and designed by the city architect Max Berg, this exhibition hall showed just what could be achieved with reinforced concrete.
The Centennial Hall has a maximum capacity of 11,000, under a dome 69 metres high and 42 metres in diameter.
Recognising its revolutionary design, if not its beauty, the hall was given UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2006. After a refurbishment in 2009 a discovery centre opened in the hall, laying out the facts and figures via interactive displays, and projecting a light show onto the massive dome.
11. Szczytnicki Park
East of the “Old Oder”, the Szczytnicki Park is a 100-hectare expanse of woodland that has attracted ramblers in Wrocław since the 18th century.
One of the first English landscape parks on the European continent was laid out here in 1783 by the German commander of the Wrocław garrison.
In the same celebrations that produced the Centennial Hall in 1913, a Japanese garden was planted in the park.
This was restored in 1994 and is a genuine piece of Japanese culture in Europe.
Also brought to the park for the centenary is the stave Church of St John of Nepomuk, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and transferred here from the Opole region.
12. University Botanical Garden
On the north side of Ostrów Tumski is the second oldest botanical garden in Poland.
The garden also tells you something about the story of this former island as it was planted on what used to be the riverbed in 1811. Maintained by the Faculty of Biological Sciences, the garden has 11,500 plants in 7.5 hectares, from a diversity of climate zones and environments such as tropical, subtropical, underwater, alpine, wetland and rocky.
This haven is all the more beautiful for the Ostrów Tumski churches standing on its southern border, and has a long crescent-shaped pond, an aquarium, shop and cafe.
The garden is open from May to August and puts on evening concerts and events for children all summer.
In the Świebodzki Station, an easy walk from the market square, is Poland’s largest model railway.
Kids will get the most out of Kolejkowo, but parents and enthusiasts will also be amazed by the level of detail and extent of this miniature world.
There are 2,850 hand-painted figures of people and animals, 224 landmarks from around Wrocław and Lower Silesia and 188 cars on the roads beside the tracks.
And as for the railway, this 430 metres of tracks and 60 carriages pulled by 15 trains.
Kolejkowo has loads of clever touches too, like day and night effects, and an army of miniature characters, from construction workers to nuns, skiers, farmers and circus performers.
Wrocław’s municipal water and sewerage board has found a novel use for an underground water reservoir built in 1893. In 2015 it was opened to the public as a high-tech museum where interactive and multisensory installations explore the topic of water from various angles.
You can find out about the history of water engineering, travel to the depths of the Mariana Trench, discover the physics behind water’s various states and learn about historic seafarers.
A 500-metre stream twists through the museum beneath a glass panel on the floor, and there’s a Children’s Zone with educational games.
15. Wrocław Zoo
Poland’s most-visited zoo is also the largest and oldest in the country.
What’s more, Wrocław Zoo has the third most species of any attraction in the world, with 1,382 at the last count.
New exhibits arrive by the year, and one of the most recent is the Afrikarium aquarium complex, which opened in 2014. In four different environments – Red Sea Beach and reed, East Africa, Mozambique Canal and Congo Jungle – the Afikarium has freshwater and saltwater aquariums and pools for crocodiles, rays, brown sharks and hippos.
The Madagascar Pavilion is also special, planted with the island’s native flora and with several species of lemurs constantly in the branches overhead.