Between Katowice and Gliwice, Zabrze is a working city in the Silesian Metropolis. If you love industrial technology you should look no further than the three show mines from when coalmining was peaking in the early 20th century. The pick of these, the Guido Mine, kits you out with mining gear to descend 355 metres beneath the surface to tell you what the life of a miner was all about.
And if that’s not enough there are two more preserved mines here on the Route of Silesian Industrial Monuments. Back at ground level Zabrze has a botanical garden and a museum of coalmining that both deserve a look, while Katowice and Gliwice have their own sights and are only a few minutes on the train.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zabrze:
1. Zabytkowa Kopalnia Węgla Kamiennego Guido (Guido Mine and Coalmining Museum)
A mining museum like no other, the Guido Mine beckons you deep underground to tunnels as far as 355 metres beneath the surface.
Down here you’ll be in no doubt what it was like to toil in Zabrze’s mines, wearing a hardhat and lamp, feeling the drafts along the tunnels and seeing signs of tectonic movement in the tunnel walls.
Further up, the tour also takes you to the tunnels at 320 and 170 metres where there’s a timeline of Upper Silesia’s mining activity and you can even get a drink at a subterranean cafe.
Above ground, the gigantic blue headframe is still standing tall at this facility that first started hauling coal to the surface in 1871.
2. Skansen Górniczy Królowa Luiza (Queen Louise Mining Museum)
Named for the Queen of Prussia this mine was in business from 1791 to 1998. Since 1993, even before it shut down, the underground chambers and infrastructure have been opened up to the public.
The tour takes you to a depth of 36 metres and includes a ride on a subterranean train.
At the Carnall Shaft the engine room, switchgear, shower hall and union hall are still intact.
The engine room has a steam-powered winding engine from 1915 with an available 2,000 horsepower, while you can also go to the top of the headframe where there’s an observation platform for a panorama of Zabrze and the Silesian Metropolis.
3. Municipal Botanical Garden
Created in 1928, the Municipal Botanical Garden wouldn’t be opened to the public until 1938 because of the Great Depression.
After the war the garden was restored and repeatedly enlarged and is now more than six hectares in size, and has around thousands of specimens of plants, trees and shrubs.
A superb recent addition is the rose garden that has 2,500 individual plants from 65 varieties, bursting into colour in spring and summer.
In the greenhouses are 5,000 plants from climate zones across the planet, including a wealth of palms, ferns and succulents.
And out on the paths are species as diverse as Chinese Amur cork trees, tulip trees and Canadian hemlock.
4. Coalmining Museum
If you’re still curious about the culture and technology of coalmining in Zabrze you could make for the museum that operates the Louisa Mine.
The exhibitions are in a Historicist government building from the 1870s extended in 1906. You can get in touch with coal and mining from a few different angles, studying its geology and palaeobotany, the development of mining technology and the ins and outs of coal processing.
On a more personal level you can hear testimonies from miners, get to know their routines and find out more about mining culture.
5. Dom Muzyki i Tańca (House of Music and Dance)
Zabrze’s most recognisable monument is this cavernous performing arts venue that opened in 1959. The House of Music and Dance has the Socialist Realist architecture of the time, with a hexagonal plan and a capacity of more than 2,000. The hall has made a name for its high-quality acoustics, and the likes of José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Krystian Zimmerman have performed here.
And as you enter, you’ll be treading a path taken by famous dignitaries like Charles de Gaulle and Finnish Prime Minister Urho Kekkonen.
There’s a cafe open seven days a week with outdoor seating, and you can check the venue’s website to see if there’s a live band or classical concert that suits your taste.
6. Muzeum Miejskie (City Museum)
To get a sense of place in Zabrze, the City Museum has masses of artefacts mapping the city’s folk culture, art and history.
Some of the most engaging are the many everyday pieces from industrial times like identity cards, diplomas, chequebooks, factory catalogues and photographs.
Also waiting for you are pieces of traditional farming equipment, costumes worn at the turn of the 20th century and the various tools needed for trades like saddling, cobbling, tailoring, weaving and much more.
Look out for the hundreds of sculptures that have been hewn from big hunks of coal, which are peculiar to this part of Poland.
7. Muzeum Techniki Wojskowej (Museum of Military Technology)
If you’re into military hardware you have to check out this museum where a large cache of weapons and vehicles sit in an open yard.
The amount and variety of exhibits is staggering, and mostly dates from the Second World War and the days of the Polish People’s Army.
There are tanks, armoured cars, armoured personnel carriers, transport trucks, fire trucks, motorcycles, aircraft and anti-aircraft guns.
Almost everything looks like new, and 90% of the vehicles are in working order.
Some of the picks are a Soviet PTS amphibious transport vehicle, a Sukhoi Su-20 fighter jet and Soviet T-34-85 and T-72 tanks.
8. Szyb Maciej (Maciej Shaft)
On the Silesian Route of Industrial Monuments, Szyb Maciej is an industrial site at a shaft of the early 20th-century Concordia mine.
After a period of neglect, new owners have totally revitalised the complex, cleaning up its headframe, engine room, switchgear, steam engine and a host of other mechanisms and buildings.
You can see all these on an hour-long walking tour, and from the headframe you’ll be able to look deep into the mine shaft itself.
There’s an events hall under a metal and glass canopy, a restaurant, bistro, outdoor cafe in summer and a playground for little ones.
9. Jewish Cemetery
Established in 1874, Zabrze’s Jewish Cemetery has been closed for more than 60 years.
But even after all the events of the 20th century the cemetery has 500 gravestones and monuments, maintained by volunteers.
If you find the brightly-painted gates locked you can get into this two-hectare site around the back.
The cemetery has been reclaimed by nature, with ivy taking over the tombs and wild unkempt trees.
Culturally-speaking it’s an enthralling place: The inclusion of German and Yiddish inscriptions on the headstones speaks to the high degree of integration in Zabrze 100 years ago.
10. Kino Roma
The slightly dishevelled temple-like building at Ulica Padlewskiego 4 is the oldest cinema in Upper Silesia.
Kino Roma opened as the Kino Lichtspielhaus (Cinematograph) in 1912 and back in the silent movie era even had an orchestra pit.
More than a century later remains a gathering place for movie lovers.
The auditorium can seat 275 and is used for concerts and seminars, while the cinema screens a line-up of international independent movies and recent Hollywood releases.
11. Filharmonia Zabrzańska
The philharmonic orchestra was founded in 1950 by the miners’ trade union to spread the popularity of classical music among workers.
Over nearly 70 years some highly regarded conductors and soloists like Krystian Zimerman have performed with them.
In 2010 the philharmonic moved into a new permanent venue at Zabrze’s Neoclassical former library building.
The schedule is busy, with a performance every few days, while the repertoire caters to all tastes, with operas, operettas and symphonies, movie scores and the music of bands like the Beatles.
12. Zamek w Chudowie
Not far south in Chudów is a 16th-century castle that has risen from the dead.
From 1874 to the 1990s the monument had been a sad ruin the whole structure save for a wall and a section of the tower burnt down.
The reconstruction project lasted until 2004, completely rebuilding the square tower and its hipped roof, and conducting an archaeological dig at the site.
The artefacts dug up during the excavations are now kept in the tower as a museum, and there’s a cycle of events all year at the castle like a medieval fair in August.
13. Kopiec Wyzwolenia (Mound of Liberation)
Driving through the Silesian Metropolis you may catch sight of this man-made hill a few kilometres northeast of Zabrze.
The Mound of Liberation was raised over five years from 1932-1937 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the march of King Jan III Sobieski to the Battle of Vienna in 1683. There, a Christian coalition defeated the armies of the Ottoman Empire with the help of the largest cavalry charge ever seen on a battlefield.
The mound is also a memorial for the Silesian Uprisings, during which Upper Silesia gained independence from Germany after the Second World War.
Modelled on a Bronze Age tumulus, the mound is 20 metres high and as the highest point in Piekary Śląskie gives you long-range vistas from its apex.
The upside to being in a conurbation like the Silesian Metropolis is that other cities are practically on your doorstep.
Katowice at the centre of the metropolis is hardly ten minutes from Zabrze and has the kind of high-profile attractions you’d want from a regional capital.
One is the new campus of the Silesian Museum, which opened in 2015 and has galleries for art, archaeology, photography and ethnography planted in former mine tunnels.
Also a must is Nikiszowiec, a revitalised miners’ settlement from the start of the 20th century, conserved as a Polish Historic Monument.
The whole neighbourhood was planned in advance, including a school, hospital, churches, shops and a police station.
And those brick apartment buildings have a real artistry to them, featuring arcades, bay windows and grand portals.
Even closer, Gliwice borders Zabrze to the west and is just one stop on the train.
Unlike a lot of the Silesian Metropolis, Gliwice has a Medieval past, having been granted town rights in 1250. The compact old centre of the city is still in place, and the Rynek (Market Square) in the middle is somewhere to hang out with a cold drink in summer.
Gliwice was also the scene of the famous Gleiwitz Incident on the eve of the Second World War.
The Gliwice Radio Tower, still intact today, was attacked by SS operatives pretending to be Polish Army personnel, to justify the Invasion of Poland that would take place on the following day.
And between Gliwice and Azbrze is Kolejkowo, a detailed model railway and miniature world to capture kids’ imaginations.