The Polish city of Wroclaw rests at the intersection of Central and Eastern European history. A collection of cultures, the city was nearly demolished by three months of havoc during World War II, and yet again by flooding in 1997. Wroclaw remains a confluence of colorful façades, delightful dwarf statuettes and a strong faith that permeates the 21st century.
While Krakow, neighbor to the east, and Warsaw, neighbor to the north, pack more power in terms of commercial appeal, Wroclaw feels more like a visit to a quaint Polish neighborhood than an actual city. Sitting at the crossroads of Polish, German and Austrian influence, Wroclaw has somehow found its own identity amid centuries of uncertainty.
Market Square is a common starting point for a day in Wroclaw: the almost fantastical architecture claws at the imagination of passersby and loiterers who stop at one of the brick square’s cafes for a bit of people-watching and Polish beer-sipping. A rainbow of row houses closes in each of the four sides, completing a candy-coated collection of borders, with entry and exit points at each corner. Similar to most other European cities, musicians dot the square, hoping to inspire those passing through to toss a few złoty their way.
Central to the square is Old Town Hall, a structure that more so resembles a gingerbread house or a cuckoo clock than an administrative building. Dating to the 13th century, the Gothic-style edifice has housed a restaurant, a beer cellar, courtrooms and other official meeting spaces during the years, but now welcomes visitors to the Museum of Bourgeois Art.
A pedestrian journey through Wroclaw’s Old Town evolves into a scavenger hunt for the city’s elusive dwarf statuettes. The more-than 350 (and counting) miniature bronze figurines pop up in unexpected places around the city and often represent the history or story of the building they accompany (e.g., a dwarf shackled to a ball and chain rests outside a former Wroclaw jailhouse).
The idea for the foot-tall figurines came about in 2001. During Poland’s 1980s anti-communist uprising, known as the Orange Alternative, the dwarf was deemed the official symbol of the movement. Decades later, Wroclaw’s mayor chose to commemorate the movement. Since then, dwarf statues have been commissioned for other industries and causes, each with a unique occupation and background. Local businesses can pay to commission their own dwarfs but face a fairly long waiting list and a hefty commission fee. The figurines are revered each September at Wroclaw’s Dwarfs Festival.
Just south of the center and six miles from the airport is Scandic Wroclaw (49/57 Pilsudskiego). Only 10 minutes to the Market Square on foot, the hotel serves as a comfortable base for exploring the city, while remaining out of the fray of the tourist-heavy Old Town. Other perks include a gym, for-rent bikes and an onsite bar.
Hostel Wratislava’s (ul. Komuny Paryskiej, 19) location near Wroclaw’s central train station makes it a popular spot for backpackers or city hoppers. Dorm rooms sleep four people, and each room features its own private bathroom. With a quiet environment rather than a raucous hostel scene, this affordable option is a wise choice for families or groups on a budget.
Wander even further out of the city to Akira Bed & Breakfast (pl. Strzelecki 28), where a pocket-friendly stay includes a comfortable private room, hot buffet breakfast and free onsite parking. Although the rooms are on the smaller side, they serve as the perfect excuse to spend more time out in Wroclaw.
Dining and Drinking
Sample a bevy of Polish brews at Spiz (Rynek Ratusz 2) a beerhall-type establishment that serves local cuisine in its spacious interior. The white tablecloths lend themselves a fancier aura, but the friendly staff and pub-like atmosphere make Spiz an ideal spot for a special event.
Slightly finer dining can be found at Bernard Pub (Rynek 35), situated within central square. Unique takes on classic Polish dishes make-up the menu, including beer-and-mushroom soup, beetroot soup and wild boar served with potatoes.
Despite its central location on Market Square, Vega (Rynek 27a) is a reasonably priced option for vegans and vegetarians who want a chance to taste Poland’s meat-free sausage and other typically meaty dishes.
For the bare bones of Polish cuisine, duck into Przedwojenna (Święgtego Mikołaja 81), an eatery right off Market Square that locals flock to for vodka that flows for only a few zl. Tickle your taste buds with Poland’s characteristic sausage and plentiful conversation with tablemates.
Escape the buzz prevalent in the center of Wroclaw and opt for traditional cuisine at Chinkalnia (plac Wolności 9). Dumplings, fish, soups and stews grace the menu, with a smattering of vegetarian and vegan options.
Music, wine, books and copious cups of coffee can be found at Cocofli (Pawla Włodkowica 9), a tranquil haven in Wroclaw’s Jewish Quarter. Free yourself from the day-tripper crowds and find solace within the walls of this cozy corner of town.
Art and Architecture
With such eye-catching color and memorable architecture, it’s evident that Wroclaw possesses an artistic draw. The albeit quirky design of some of its buildings may lead visitors to wonder what else is hiding behind the doorways and alleys that extend from Market Square. Venture into one of Wroclaw’s offbeat museums or art galleries for a close-up of Poland’s talent.
Situated in the center of Market Square is Wroclaw’s City Museum (Sukiennice 14/15), an unsuspecting gallery that is part of Old Town Hall. The Museum of Bourgeois Art shares this space and features myriad artifacts from Poland during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Step back in time at Wroclaw’s National Museum (plac Pokstańców Warszawy 5), an ivy-clad brick building that sits on the banks of the Oder River. Home to one of Poland’s largest collections of national art, from medieval paintings to modern photography, the interior décor is its own work of art.
The BWA Galleries of Contemporary Art are a conglomerate of a few spaces, such as the free-entry Gallery of Design (Świdnicka 2-4) and the more provocative Galeria Awangarda (ul. Wita Stwosza 32). The latter didn’t survive World War II, but it was refurbished to house modern art that evokes controversial conversations. Dive into Poland’s ceramics obsession at BWA’s Glass and Ceramics Gallery, where the art also serves architectural functions.
Wroclaw’s edgy contemporary art museum (a.k.a., MWW, plac Strzegomski 2a) is 10 minutes away by train, but packs in enough for a complete day trip outside the city. Climb to the sixth-floor café in the former air-raid shelter for views of Wroclaw’s Old Town from above.
Although slightly less impressive than its catty-corner neighbor, Market Square, the adjacent Solny Square enchants in its own way, keeping to Wroclaw’s theme of multicolor façades. A central flower market encircles a trickling water fountain, and a few of Wroclaw’s elusive dwarfs can be found on some of the light poles.