Poznań vs Toruń: Which Polish city should you visit?

At a glance

Poznań

Population: 529,410
Average max July temperature: 25.2°C
Famous for: Founding of the Polish state; colourful main market square; active, student-fuelled club scene

Toruń

Population: 198,613
Average max July temperature: 25.1°C
Famous for: Birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus; gingerbread pastries; well-preserved, red-brick Gothic architecture

History

The old town of Torun sits along Vistula River (Shutterstock)

Poznań

Poznań traces its roots to the 8th century, before the founding of the Polish state. The country’s first ruler, Mieszko I, was reputedly baptised here and remains buried, alongside several other former Polish leaders, at Poznań Cathedral. Over the centuries, the city prospered from its location along key trade routes. During the Second World War, much of Poznań, including its stately main market square, was destroyed; the square was painstakingly rebuilt in the decades afterwards.

Toruń

Toruń began life in 1231 as a military outpost of the Catholic crusading order known as the Teutonic Knights. The rocky remains of their former castle are still standing. Famed Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was born here in 1473. The city grew wealthy as a member of the Hanseatic League, and it was later spared damage during the Second World War, so its UNESCO-listed centre retains the look and feel of a well-to-do medieval town.

Things to do around town

Saint Stanislaus Church in Posnan (Shutterstock)

Poznań

Any exploration of Poznań starts at the 13th-century main square (Stary Rynek); this is dominated by the Renaissance Old Town Hall. Note the colourful row of merchants’ houses (‘Budnicy’ Houses) on the square’s eastern side. North-east of the centre, Cathedral Island (Ostrów Tumski) is home to several religious sights as well as the city’s impressive 10th-century cathedral. Don’t miss a visit to the ancient crypts where Mieszko I and his son, Bolesław the Brave, are buried.

Toruń

Start at the ruins of the Teutonic Castle and take in the Gothic splendour of the surviving medieval town gates. Stroll the high street, Szeroka, and admire the exteriors of the houses – a harmonious blend of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau. The magnificent 14th-century Old Town Hall is one of Poland’s largest Gothic red-brick structures. Copernicus’s purported birthplace and house, nearby, is home to a museum devoted to the man’s life and times.

Surrounding nature

Wielkopolski National Park has three lakes and hiking trails (Shutterstock)

Poznań

Poznań is a sprawling metropolis, and you don’t need to leave the city limits to enjoy a day in nature. Lake Malta, about 20 minutes’ walk east of the main market square, is a giant man-made lake with abundant hiking and cycling trails, a water park and a narrow-gauge railway. Further afield, the unspoilt Wielkopolski National Park, about 15km south of Poznań, encompasses three tranquil lakes and offers 85km of marked, colour-coded hiking trails.

Toruń

Cross the Vistula River on a bridge leading south of the centre for dramatic views of the castle ruins and Old Town Hall from the opposite bank. For something more strenuous, cycling trails fan out in all directions. The tourist information office hands out maps of popular routes, including a blue-marked trail that runs north to the Barbarka forest. Torvelo is a handy and reasonably priced bike-share option, with bike-hire stands all around town.

Food and drink

Gingerbread’s on display in Muzeum Piernika, Toruń (Alamy Stock Photo)

Poznań

Poznań is famous for its sweet pastries stuffed with poppyseeds and vanilla cream, known as ‘St Martin’s croissants’. These are traditionally eaten on St Martin’s Day (11 Nov) but are enjoyed across the year. The Poznań Croissant Museum holds live cooking shows where visitors make their own versions. Enjoy classic Polish dining at Ratuszova Restaurant on the main square, where you can taste such specialties as cabbage rolls stuffed with buckwheat.

Toruń

Gingerbread (piernik) biscuits, often cut up into fanciful hearts and stars, have been baked here since at least the 14th century. Toruń even has two museums dedicated to the craft. The Live Gingerbread Museum (Żywe Muzeum Piernika) invites visitors to prepare their own dough and even ice the final concoctions. The 4 Pory Roku restaurant located near the former castle, features seasonal dishes with ingredients supplied by local farmers.

Where to stay

Hotel 1231 can be found among the remains of Torun’s 14th century castle (Alamy Stock Photo)

Poznań

The City Solei boutique hotel offers a large dose of quirky, eye-popping modern design, bright rooms and a particularly handy central location, located just a few minutes’ walk from the main market square. The décor in each of its 22 rooms is inspired by a different city from around the world.

Toruń

The four-star boutique Hotel 1231 occupies two tastefully renovated buildings, an infirmary and an old mill that all stand resiliently amid the ruins of the Teutonic Knights’ former castle, within what was once the outer bailey. The location is deceptively close to the Old Town, just a ten-minute walk away.

Need to know

The drive between the two cities takes roughly two hours, depending on traffic, but several daily trains also connect them. Second-class seats tickets can be bought in advance from the Pol Railwebsite. Faster Inter-City (IC) trains, marked in red on timetables, make the journey in under two hours. Toruń has two rail stations, but Toruń Miasto is closer to the Old Town.

How to get there

Airlines Wizzair and Ryanairfly direct to Poznań-Ławica Airport from London Luton and Liverpool respectively. Both flights take from around two hours. Toruń’s nearest airport is 50km away in Bydgoszcz. Ryanair flies direct to Toruń from London Stansted and Birmingham.

More double bills:

11 things you must do in Kraków

1. Explore the magical Main Market Square

Bride and groom dancing in the Main Market Square (Peter Moore)

Kraków’s enchanting Main Market Square sits in the centre of the old town and is the beating heart of the city. It is surrounded by some of Kraków’s most iconic sights and offers a glorious vista at every turn.

The Renaissance-era Cloth Hall dominates the centre of the square. Traders have been selling their wares here for over 700 years, including salt from the famous Wieliczka salt mine. Often referred to as ‘Europe’s oldest shopping centre’, today it is the place to go for colourful Cracovian crafts.

The towering St Mary’s Basilica dominates the western edge of the square. Tiny Aldabert’s Church, near Grodzka street, dates from the 11th century. And lining the square on all sides are handsome buildings built from the wealth of city’s various epochs. The restaurants here offer outside tables looking across the square and buzz until late into night.

The square is built on a layer cake of history. Most of the restaurants here have intriguing underground grottos – Piano Rouge, for example, boasts a jazz bar decked out in decadent red velvet and a niche where sultry singers belt out jazz standards.

Underneath the Market Halls you’ll find Rynek Underground. Part archaeological dig, part high-tech museum, this must-visit attraction will take you on a fascinating journey through the city’s history, from the very first settlers to the present day. You’ll even find the remains of an 11th Century cemetery. See if you can spot the graves belonging to suspected vampires.

2. Start your day with a delicious obwarzanek

An obwarzanek held proudly aloft in the Old Town (Polish Tourist Board)

When in Kraków, do as the Cracovians do and start your day with a delicious obwarzanek. This scrumptious ring-shaped bread snack is cheap and filling and has been a local staple since the 14th century.

The little old ladies selling obwarzanek from street carts are as ubiquitous in Krakow as hot dog sellers in New York. Obwarzanek are baked twice a day and then delivered to sellers across the city. At a paltry 2 zloty each – about 40p ­– they make a deliciously affordable snack.

Whatever you do, don’t call them bagels! Obwarzanek have outlived kings, republics and various military occupiers for hundreds of years and have their very own protected geographical indication, recognising them as a protected regional food.

3. Go BoHo in Kazimierz, Kraków’s buzzing Jewish district

A girl cycling through Kazimierz (Poland Tourist Board)

Founded as a royal town by Kazimierz The Great in 1335 this area just south of Wawel Hill developed into a thriving centre of Jewish life and culture in Kraków. It was all but destroyed during World War Two, but in recent years it has undergone a revival to become one of the city’s hippest and most vibrant areas.

Start your visit with a tour of the area’s most significant sights. Remuh Synagogue is one of two in Kraków still in use and the cemetery at the back has gravestones dating back to the 16th century. The squat Old Synagogue, also known as the ‘Fortress Synagogue’, is the oldest in Poland and now serves as a fascinating museum dedicated to the history and culture of Kraków’s Jews.

When evening falls, the fun begins. While diners in the restaurants along Plac Bawol are serenaded by bands playing traditional Jewish music, those venturing deeper into Kazimierz are treated to a cacophonous array of cafés, bars and restaurants to suit every taste. On a Friday night it seems like everyone in Kraków is there.

Finally, in the wee small hours, head to New Square for a tasty zapiekanki. Also known as ‘Polish pizza’, these toasted open-face baguettes are topped with sautéed white mushrooms, cheese and ham as well as a myriad of other choices. Starting at only 7 zloty (£1.40), they’re the perfect way to finish a big night out.

4. Discover Communist chic in Nowa Huta

A Trabant outside the steel mill in Nowa Huta (Peter Moore)

Stark, brutal but still strangely beautiful, Nowa Huta is one of only two entirely planned Social realist cities built by the Soviet Union. With its towering apartment blocks, wide boulevards and vast parks it is the complete opposite of the medieval Old Town, but no less interesting.

One of the best ways to explore Nowa Huta is in an old Trabant with one of the knowledgeable guys from Crazy Guides. The cars are a fun way to travel between the city’s far-flung sights. And your guide will share their own first-hand experiences of life during Soviet times as they drive you around.

My guide, Maciek, skilfully coaxed his beautifully restored Trabant from the Boulevard of Roses and the Centralny Milk Bar to the Steel Mills on the edge of town. We finished in a ‘model’ apartment that the Crazy Guides have crammed with Soviet-era furniture and memorabilia to give visitors a Technicolor taste of life behind the Iron Curtain.

All while Maciek told me how his mother rested a wet cotton sheet over his cot to protect him from the tear gas that wafted into his family’s apartment during the times of martial law.

5. Conquer Mound Kościuszko

Approaching Mound Kościuszko (Peter Moore)

Looking to stretch your legs and get a bit of fresh air? Then head to Kopiec Kościuszki (Kościuszko Mound), a hand-made hill that sits 326 metres above sea level, surrounded by parkland, just to the west of the Kraków.

The mound was built by Cracovians of all ages and classes to commemorate the Polish national leader Tadeusz Kościuszko. The summit is reach along a path that spirals around the mound and offers incredible views of the city and the Vistula River.

Don’t forget to explore the red brick fort at the base of the mound, built by the Austrians in 1850s. Originally designed to be part of the city walls, it now houses a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the life and exploits of Tadeusz Kościuszko.

A bus runs directly from the Old Town to Kopiec Kościuszki. But if you’re feeling energetic, the 2.5 kilometre trail starting at the from the Convent of the Norbetine Sisters is a more spectacular and satisfying route. It winds its way up from the Vistula River through extensive parkland and is particularly beautiful in autumn when the leaves on the trees turn every imaginable shade of red, orange and yellow.

6. Uncover history at every turn on Wawel Hill

A view across the Vistula River towards Wawel Castle (E. Marchewka/Polish Tourist Board)

For a concise introduction to Polish history and culture, you can’t beat Wawel Hill. This heavily fortified 228-metre-high limestone outcrop sits overlooking the Vistula River and is home to some of the most important buildings in Polish history.

In many ways, a visit to Wawel Hill is like walking through time. The impressive fortifications and towers have been extended and added to by everyone from the Jagiellonians to the Austrians. The cathedral is a mish-mash of architectural styles, each the whim of the various Polish kings and queens who are all buried there. And the Royal Castle is regarded as one of the most magnificent Renaissance residences in Central Europe.

Add to that an on-going archaeological dig uncovering the areas medieval past, a renaissance-style garden and orchard and rock cave that was said to be the home of a ferocious, cow-munching dragon and you’ve got pretty much every period of Polish history covered.

7. Meet the Brotherhood of the Fowl at Celestat

Those who like their attractions quirky should head to Celestat, a quaint museum dedicated to an ancient fraternity of sharpshooters known as the Shooting Society Fowler Brotherhood.

The Cracovian Brotherhood was formed when Kraków was granted city rights in the 1257. Their task was to prepare city residents to defend themselves in the event of an attack, but these days they are rolled out in their kontusz – a traditional outfit of Polish noblemen – to accompany dignitaries during important municipal and state ceremonies.

The museum is set in a Neo-Gothic palace on Lubicz Street, not far from the Central Railway Station. It houses weapons used to defend the city through the ages, painted portraits of each of the fraternity’s leaders – Chicken Kings, if you will – and gifts presented by similar societies around the world.

In pride of place is the fraternity’s most precious relic – Srebrny Kur, the Silver Fowl of Celestat. It is crafted from silver, stands 41.5 cm tall and weighs 3.6 kilograms and is given by one Chicken King to the next to signify the transference of power.

Judging by the portraits, they all seem extremely proud to have a mystical silver chicken sitting on their laps.

One of the Shooting Society Fowler Brotherhood brothers (Peter Moore)

8. Feast on pierogis for a song in a traditional Polish milk bar

Dining at the Centralny Milk Bar in Nowa Huta (Peter Moore)

If you’re keen to taste simple, hearty Polish food like grandma used to make, you can’t beat a Bar Mlecezny, or Milk Bar. Created during Soviet times to provide nourishing, affordable food for workers, Bar Mlecezny remain some of the cheapest places to sit down and eat. And the meals are served almost immediately.

You’ll find Bar Mleceznys dotted across Kraków. Milkbar Tomasza is just a block or so from St Mary’s Basiica and offers paninis as well as Polish classics like steamed pierogi dumplings, beetroot soup, potato pancakes, and huge, chunky pork knuckles. Bar Mleczny Targowy is a little further out of town and is popular with students. Both feel more like cafeterias than restaurants, but then that’s part of their charm.

My favourite Bar Mlecezny, however, was the Centralny Milk Bar in Nowa Hut. It overlooks the Boulevard of Roses and has kept much of its austere Soviet ‘charm’. Even the staff are charmingly old school. I was told off by the ill-tempered server/cashier as I waited for my bowl of cut-price pierogis. Apparently, I was taking too many photos!

9. Go deep underground at the Wieliczka Salt Mines

The Chapel of St Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mines (Peter Moore)

The Wieliczka Salt Mines are a sparkling subterranean wonderland on the edge of Kraków. They have been operating since the Middle Ages and remain one of the Poland’s most popular tourist attractions. With its vast open caverns and 287 kilometres of tunnels, the mines have awed all who have gazed upon them, including Copernicus, Goethe and Chopin.

The salt mined here provided Kraków with much of its power and wealth. Known as white gold, it was Poland’s most precious national asset and paid for most of the city’s most impressive buildings. Today visitors can choose between the ‘tourist’ route and the more immersive ‘miner’s route,’ descending between 65-135 metres along a sprawling network of underground galleries tunnels, pits and chambers.

The most impressive is sight is the Chapel of St Kinga, a massive hall carved into the salt and decorated with chandeliers, altars and statues, all carved from salt too. Concerts are often held here – a truly magical experience in these most atmospheric UNESCO World Heritage Site.

10. Discover magic of Christmas every day of the year

Christmas decorations in the Main Market Square (Polish Tourist Board)

With its fairy-tale spires and magical medieval squares, Kraków really comes alive at Christmas. The Main Market Square – and a few of the other smaller squares – are taken over by quaint Christmas stalls and the air is filled with the delicious aromas of gingerbread, bratwurst and mulled wine called grzaniec. If you’re lucky, a blanket of snow will cover the ground but increasingly that is more likely late in the season.

It’s also the chance to witness Kraków’s other famous Christmas tradition – its cribs. Brightly coloured, intricate and displaying the highest levels of craftsmanship, the cribs feature traditional nativity scenes housed in models that reflect the city’s most beautiful and interesting monuments. The steeples of St Mary’s Basicilica is a popular feature of course, as are those of Wawel Cathedral and the Town Hall Tower. But there are often references to other buildings like the Cloth Hall, theatres and city gates as well.

On the first Thursday in December, the cribs are carried in a spectacular procession through the Main Market Square and placed at the foot of Adam Mickiewicz monument. They stay here until the New Year, when the most impressive ones are bought by the Historical Museum of Kraków to be displayed year-round at the Celestat Museum.

11. Pay your respects at the Schindler Factory Museum

Schindler’s Desk at the Schindler’s Factory Museum (Peter Moore)

Many visitors to Kraków take the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps, about an hour and a half away. It is a harrowing and moving experience and, understandably, not something everyone is comfortable in doing.

Thankfully, the newly opened Schindler Factory Museum in Podgórze offers a deep and respectful overview of this terrible time, but with the upbeat twist. The factory was owned by Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved over a thousand Jewish lives by employing them to work in his factory and keeping them out of the Nazi death camps. You’ve probably seen ‘Schindler’s List’, the Steven Spielberg movie his story inspired.

There’s only one room dedicated to Schindler in the museum – his office on the second floor. There’s a desk and a plaster map of Europe. And a giant a commemorative cube, featuring a wall of the enamel pots and the names of all those Schindler saved.

The rest of the exhibition is excellent too. It tells the story of life in Kraków during Nazi occupation in powerful and innovative ways.

Make sure you have a wander around the rest of Podgórze while you’re there. It’s one of Kraków’s up-and-coming areas, with lots of new cafes and bars and restaurants as well as poignant reminders of its heart-breaking past. Like the last stretch of ghetto wall on ul Lwowska and Plac Bohaterów Getta, where sculptures of chairs, laid out in a grid, memorialise the furniture that was left abandoned here when the ghetto was liquidated in 1942.

For more information about things to see and do in Kraków visit the official Polish Tourism Organisation website:Poland.travel

7 reasons to visit Katowice in Poland

1. The incredible architecture

Katowice’s Spodek stadium (Peter Moore)

Brutally Soviet, elegantly Prussian and with an idiosyncratic dash of Art Deco and industrial chic – Katowice is quite unlike any other city in Poland. Wander south of the railway station and you’ll soon find yourself walking down leafy streets, lined with Prussian-era mansions, built on the profits of the city’s mines. There are a few Art Deco charmers too, including Christ the King Cathedral and the Polskie Radio building.

Head the other way, and you’ll be greeted by the brutish charm of Hotel Katowice and the Agato apartment block. The huge bronze Silesian Insurgents’ Monument is right out of the Soviet playbook, brutal and imposing and a popular meeting spot for Katowice teens. That weird building that looks like a flying saucer, hovering at the end of Avenue Korfantego? That’s Spodek, a stadium known locally as ‘The Spaceship’. Everyone from Deep Purple to Metallica have played there. Just to the left you’ll find the International Conference Centre and the NOSPR Concert Hall, iconic new chapters in the city’s adventurous architectural history.

2. The frankly superb Silesian Museum

An art installation in the Silesian Museum (Peter Moore)

The mines that once brought the city wealth and work have now been transformed into the Silesian Museum, one of Poland’s most innovative and important museums and cultural centres. Set in the old coal mines on the edge of town, the museum incorporates many of the old buildings and towers. The 19th century workhouses have been sympathetically restored and their vaulted industrial spaces turned into restaurants and bistros, as well as halls for conferences and lectures.

The mine itself, meanwhile, has been transformed into a vast underground gallery, topped by box-shaped structures of frosted glass to allow in natural light. Each floor is dedicated to a period in Polish art, from ecclesiastical and classical right through to modern. There’s even a display of naive art, painted by the miners in their spare time. Social history is represented too, with a recreation of the old mine and displays showing life in Katowice in Prussian times right through to the privations of communism and the rise of the Solidarity movement.

3. The buzz of Mariacka Street

Looking towards St Mary’s Church on Mariacka Street (Peter Moore)

Katowice is not a big city, so most of the city’s night life is centred around one area – Mariacka Street, just east of the railway station. Stretching towards St Mary’s church, one of the oldest in Katowice, Mariacka Street is pedestrianised and only a few blocks long. But it is here you’ll find Katowice’s most popular restaurants and bars. Whether you fancy Thai or Italian or old school Silesian beef roulade, you’ll find it here.

There are bars for every mood too – from raucous pubs where bands play on tiny, crammed stages to more relaxed hipster joints that wouldn’t look out of place in East London. Katowice is a student town, so the bars and restaurants of Mariacka Street are buzzing every night of the week. The good news is that it’s still mainly locals, not visitors.

4. The cutting-edge music scene

Blues night at Katofonia (Peter Moore)

Katowice was declared a UNESCO City of Music in 2016 and it’s easy to understand why. The city buzzes with music, from classical concerts at the NOSPR concert hall to all night techno raves at P23, a club in the old Drzwi porcelain factory on the edge of town. Many of the musicians you hear are students or graduates from the local Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, one of the most highly regarded in the country. The venues dotted across the city are world class too, with the NOSPR concert hall boasting one of the most acoustically pristine halls in Europe. Events are often sold out months in advance.

For something altogether more casual, check out the bars around Mariacka Street. Most have bands playing, including Katofonia on Mielęckiego. This blues and jazz club hosts an informal jam session every Wednesday night. Head to the first floor and join a mixture of old hands and students from the academy as they wait with their instruments for the chance to show off their chops.

5. The hearty local cuisine

A hearty Silesian meal (Peter Moore)

As the city itself is being transformed, so too is the local dining scene. While you can still dine cheaply on pierogi in one of the city’s old school bar mleczny (milk bars, or budget Polish cafes), new innovative restaurants such as Moodro, set in the atmospheric old machine room at the Silesian Museum, offer innovative twists on local dishes. Call it modern Silesian fusion, if you will.

Silesian cuisine is unsurprisingly heavy on meat and vegetables for a blue-collar region of miners and factory workers. Traditional peasant fare of potatoes, cutlets and cabbage rule here, but there are some particularly Silesian dishes you should try. Silesian noodles, known locally as kluski śląskie, are pillowy potato flour doughballs that are served as a side dish almost everywhere. Rolada śląska, a kind of beef roulade, is a staple. It is basically a rolled beef patty, filled with onions, bacon and pickles. When served with red cabbage or fried sauerkraut, it’s as Silesian as it gets.

For a real treat try karminadle, a Silesian variation of the popular national dish, kotlety mielone. In Katowice, the flat fried meat balls are made from minced rabbit instead of the more traditional pork.

6. The stunning Silesian countryside that surrounds it

Valley of Three Ponds (Shutterstock)

Looking out from the viewing platform of the iconic Warszawa II mine shaft at Silesian Museum, it’s clear to see that countryside is not so far away. Katowice is ringed by greenery, with the Katowice Forest Park and Silesia Park offering a pleasant respite from everyday urban life.

Katowice Forest Park is the easiest to reach. The 420-hectare wooded wilderness sits on the edge of town, opposite the Osiedle Paderewskiego Trzy Stawy shopping mall. Expect miles of hiking trails as well as plenty of wild deer and boars. On the edge you’ll find the Valley of Three Ponds. In summer, sand is shipped in to create Katowice Beach, the centrepiece of an annual music festival. Look out for the intriguing Communist-era skate park, right next door.

Silesia Park, between Katowice and Chorzów, is even bigger. Clocking in at a massive 620 hectares, it was developed during communist times with the intention of creating Europe’s largest urban park. It is more developed than Katowice Forest Park. It was made from reclaimed industrial land and boasts ‘unnatural’ delights such as a zoo and amusement park. But it is big enough to find a pleasant green corner to soak up the sun. In autumn, the leaves of the trees present a riot of fall colours.

For something more manageable, head to Tadeusz Kościuszko Park. Created during Prussian times, it is a classic city park of those times, with 90 species of trees and shrubs including rhododendrons and azaleas. You’ll find sculptures by local artists dotted among the shrubs.

7. It’s a great base for unmissable day trips

Pszczyna Castle (Shutterstock)

Katowice is a great base to explore this part of Poland. Did you know, for example, that the city is closer to Auschwitz than Krakow? Nearby Pszczyna is worth a visit too. The 13th century castle here was rebuilt in a Renaissance style in the 17th century, and became a popular hangout for European aristocracy. They came to hunt in the castle’s extensive grounds, which are now a public park and well worth exploring. Make sure you continue on to Zagroda Zubrow, a small bison reserve and part of an important breeding programme for the increasingly rare European bison.

To the west of Katowice you’ll find Opole, a pretty little city that sits on the banks of the Oder River. It was once the capital of Upper Silesia and has a long history that dates back to the 8th century. Start at the Prussian-era town square, drop in on the fascinating Tenement House Museum and then make your way across the old iron bridge to Piast Tower. The tower was part of a 13th century castle that was pulled down in the 1920s to make way for municipal offices. It sits next to a modern amphitheatre where the Polish Song Contest is held every year – a real treat if you happen to be in town when it’s on!

For more information about Katowice and the Silesian countryside that surrounds it, visit the official Polish Tourism Organisation website.