An exclaimer to begin with: as far as large Polish cities go, I’ve only visited Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, and Poznan.
Wroclaw is the fourth largest Poland city, but in my eyes, it’s the sweetest of all. I believe there are two secret ingredients for this: balance and color (no, this is not another photography article!). This city manages to avoid the disadvantages of fellow Polish metropoles while being great in of itself.
Let me give you some examples.
1 – Main Square
Okay, let’s start with one of the biggest touristic clichés: the main square of the city. Regardless of Wroclaw, Polish cities, in general, have amazingly grand and lavish main squares sided with important landmarks. It’s a very similar concept to what you can find in Belgium, i.e. the “market square” (minus the Belgian’s belfries). Interestingly enough, the capital (Warsaw) doesn’t have such a huge and enticing market square (although compensating by having other attractions). In the other cities though, these squares are definitely their heart and soul.
The reasons why I say that Wroclaw’s main square is better than the others are rather simple. First, it’s the most colorful of all. Surely, Poznan’s iconic Merchant’s Houses are adorable, but they make only a small part of the square. In Wroclaw, the entire area is peppered with different pigments wherever you look. Second, it’s not overcrowded, while not being vacant. Let’s be fair for a moment: Krakow’s main square beats all of them in terms of size and grandeur. However, that comes at a price: for me, Krakow (in general, but particularly in the main square) is painfully overcrowded with tourism. On the other hand, Poznan is more conspicuous and with that also loses some of its hustle. And this is the kind of balance I meant earlier: Wroclaw sits perfectly between the two.
2 – Landmark Distribution
This one’s a bit debatable, but I found that Wroclaw has a better ratio of “the length you need to walk to see the most landmarks“. Like most cities, Wroclaw features both a clear old town “ring” as well as attraction clusters, i.e. touristic areas outside of that ring. You can walk the center easily in a single day, and I imagine you can go from one end to the other in 15 minutes. Because of that, you can even use a single day’s time to visit one of those clusters. Plus, I also found architectural gems and impressing buildings all around the city not even present on the official tourism map. Which by the way, is a pretty badass move from the tourism board!
3 – Young Population
Albeit per capita Wroclaw is not the city with most students, I couldn’t help but feel the city has a very young vibe. I was able to witness multiple outdoor classes being attended in public parks, the city boasts a popular cable car between campuses and, above all, you don’t feel that population has been somehow “engineered”. For example, Krakow has many young people too, but I’d say much of that was at the cost of your run-of-the-mill drinking tourism and Erasmus academia.
4 – Canals
Now, who doesn’t like canals!? A very long U-shaped canal with many bridges blesses the area south of the old town. Admittedly, these are not “Amsterdamish” canals, so don’t expect colorful and decorated margins or rails. The trees that side the canals most of its length, while greening the city, cover much of the views. Still, the existence of a natural layer in the center balances the logical urban vibe of it. Not only that, but even the actual Oder river that crosses the city is, in many areas, divided in two. And of course, who can forget the amazingly cute islands to the north of the city? Interconnected by bridges and featuring everything from churches to parks and restaurants, they seem like tiny towns!
5 – Vantage Points
This one’s more for the photographers, but no one can deny that panoramic views are one of the classics of tourism. And this city features many options to do that, most of them inserted into religious buildings. The other cities do not offer as many, or as well located, panoramic views as Wroclaw. I would like to highlight three of them.
The left tower of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, offering amazing views of the “Cathedral Island” and north area of the city.
The observation tower of St. Elizabeth’s Church, perfect for watching the sunset over the horizon. It’s right by the main square and offers great views in all directions.
Lastly, the bridge platform between the towers of St. Mary Magdalene Church. The height here is probably the lowest of the three, and you have only a 180º viewing angle (the towers themselves obstruct the remainder). However, you’re given a premium and central view of the old town AND, most importantly, one that can include the sun setting over the entire city.
6 – The f#$%&=? gnomes!
Coolness level: over 1000. Wroclaw features a network of iron gnomes attached to the ground in various location around the city. With more than 400 in existence and growing in numbers, they’re all different and portray professions and other facets. I found this to be an extremely clever way to make people roam the city, sort of a city-geocaching type of adventure. There are even maps with their locations, although it’s much more exciting to just stumble upon them!
Wroclaw has even more places worthy of your visitation, such as the UNESCO Centennial Hall or the Miniature Museum, but a proper travel article has to make you do some of the homework, am I right?