Historical delights across the Polish border
Wrocław's partly rebuilt old center is a match for anything in Europe
Posted: September 18, 2013
World War II devastated countless cities across Europe, often turning what were stunning historical centers into dusty piles of broken bricks and concrete.
Few cities were harder hit than Wrocław where, as the author Richard Hargreaves notes in his book Hitler's Final Fortress - Breslau 1945, a total of 600 million cubic feet of rubble was created when the Nazi stronghold was bombarded by the Russians.
While many badly damaged cities were redeveloped in a charmless modern style, Wrocław, thankfully, was rebuilt as it was before the war, to the extent that, to the untrained eye, it can almost seem as though the bombs never arrived.
Standing in the vast main square, said to be one of the largest in Europe, it is difficult to imagine that in the mid 20th century as much as 70 percent of Wrocław was destroyed, back when it was part of Germany and known as Breslau. Since 1945, it has been a Polish city and, being located in the southwest of the country in the Silesia region, it can easily be visited for a weekend from Prague.
The market square stands comparison with the centers of any of Europe's most celebrated cities and the cries of street performers - clowns and musicians among them - can often be heard above the tourist hubbub. Countless old merchants' houses with elaborate gables are found on the square. Some of these are charmingly slim, squeezed next to one another, while others are grand statement buildings with columns, curves or images of eagles or lions for decoration.
The Gothic Town Hall, constructed over nearly two centuries and completed in 1507, its growth a reflection of the increasing wealth of the city, has a quite stunning, and carefully refurbished, façade, while behind looms a large tower.
No visitor to Wrocław should miss the nearby St. Elizabeth's Church, which dates from the 1300s and lies just northwest of the main market square. It has a vast interior, painted in a sparse white but with many statues and decorative elements to the sides.
What really makes the building a must for tourists is the church tower, which reaches more than 80 meters and offers an unmatched aerial view of the city.
From here, the town square can be seen in its entirety, while to the north the languid waters of the River Odra wind through the center.
Further afield, Sky Tower, Wrocław's 51-story, 206-meter skyscraper completed last year, can be seen reaching above the city, offering a contrast to the old industrial smoke stacks that dot the landscape way off in the southeastern districts.
The entry fee to the St. Elizabeth's Church tower is a 5 zloty (30 Kč), typical of the cheap prices throughout the city. Indeed it is even possible to enjoy a cappuccino on the terrace outside the McDonald's in the old town square for just 3.5 zloty (21 Kč) - quite remarkable considering the location, with a view of the Town Hall - and to have a dormitory bed in one of the youth hostels for as little as 29 zl (175 Kč).
Almost as notable as the charm of Wrocław's Old Town is the awfulness of some of its communist-era architecture. Ugly concrete apartment blocks or squares can be found just a few meters from charming art nouveau buildings or medieval merchants' houses.
The old center has certainly not been spoilt by communist monstrosities, but the juxtaposition of old and new is more jarring than in many other cities in Central or Eastern Europe.
Just north of the River Odra, a short walk from the center, lies one of Wrocław's most pleasant districts: Ostrów Tumski, which translates to Cathedral Island.
Guidebooks note that the area has been inhabited for more 1,200 years and there is history aplenty. What adds to the charm of the myriad churches and other notable buildings, making this such a delightful area, is the peacefulness. There is little traffic and, once you leave the stark housing projects to the west behind, there are few modern constructions to break the spell of the old world charm. It is easy to be reminded of the castle district of Prague, except in Ostrów Tumski tourists only number in the handful.
One of the best places from which to enjoy the wealth of ecclesiastical architecture is the botanical garden. From here, the Church of the Holy Cross and St Bartholomew, completed in 1350, looms large. It is hard to imagine a more pleasing scene than that of the pond of the botanical gardens, surrounded by bright flowers, with this magnificent church in the background.
Perhaps the most dramatic building in the district, however, and indeed one of the city's real architectural highlights, is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, a Gothic masterpiece with twin towers that are visible across much of the city. One of the towers can be climbed for another panoramic view of this beautiful city.
Among the transport companies offering coach services between Prague and Wrocław is PolskiBus.com. The trip takes nearly five hours.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at