Poland’s fourth-biggest city packs a double cultural punch this year, being both a European Capital of Culture and the Unesco World Book Capital. Even without the full programme of cultural events, festivals and concerts happening all year, Wroclaw has a winning combination of handsome Baroque architecture, chilled-out riverside parks and lively nightlife thanks to its huge student population.
Market Square – known as Rynek – is a thing of beauty, a mishmash of architectural styles ranging from Gothic to art nouveau. Like much of the city, it had to be substantially rebuilt after the Second World War. It was then the German city of Breslau, part of the historical jigsaw that is Wroclaw (pronounced “Vrots-waf”). It has been through Prussian, Austrian and Bohemian hands, each culture leaving its mark. But it’s wholeheartedly and engagingly Polish, with a warm, appealing atmosphere that rivals better-known Krakow to the east.
A comfortable bed
The five-star Hotel Monopol exudes old-world elegance, with its late 19th-century neo-Baroque exterior. Inside, it's sleek and modern, with dark contemporary furnishings and marble bathrooms. The spa is a bonus, with an indoor pool and hot tub, and the roof terrace is a stylish spot with city views. Double rooms cost from 499 Polish zloty (Dh461).
The ultra-modern Puro Hotel makes a colourful splash among the historic town houses of the old Jewish quarter. Light fills the smartly furnished rooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows and breezy decor. The industrial-chic lounge is a relaxing meeting space, as is the large garden terrace that leads to the riverside promenade. Doubles cost from 300 zloty (Dh277), room only.
In the heart of the old town is the four-star Art Hotel, with cosy rooms in an attractive traditional style. Some have exposed vaulted ceiling beams; others are in a section that dates from the 14th century. Doubles cost from 350 zloty (Dh323).
Find your feet
Most of Wroclaw's sights are within the attractive old town, including the university quarter near the Oder River. Pedestrianised streets fan out from the Market Square, which is dominated by the Gothic-Renaissance City Hall. Here, you can find the main tourist office (www.poland.travel). Cross the river to the serene Baroque streets around the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The 56-metre belfry has a convenient lift.
Everything is easily walkable, but there’s another collection of sights along Wroblewskiego street, about three kilometres east of the centre. Hop on a tram or hire a city bike to visit Poland’s oldest zoo and its adjacent aquarium. Across the street, surrounded by lush gardens, is the huge dome of the Unesco-listed Centennial Hall, the city’s main cultural and exhibition venue. Next door is the Four Domes Pavilion, home to a new contemporary art gallery.
Meet the locals
Market Square’s restaurants and bars are used by locals as much as tourists, piling into Literatka and Spiz. For a change of atmosphere, check out Siwy Dym and its neighbours among the bars under the arches on Woichiecha Boguslawskiego, near the train station. Szajba and Mleczarnia in the old Jewish quarter have attractive terraces that get pleasantly busy on warm evenings.
Book a table
Acquario, the classy rooftop restaurant at Hotel Monopol, offers an exquisite fine-dining alternative to Eastern European cuisine. The tasting menu changes, but can include a mini foie gras burger or scallops and coconut. Tasting menus run from three to nine courses, and cost from 120 zloty (Dh111).
The glassed terrace in front of Pod Gryfami on the Market Square gives little clue to its sumptuous interiors, with numerous cosy rooms. Classic Polish fare is done well – vegetarians can go for courgette fritters (18 zloty [Dh17]) or Russian-style pierogi (dumplings with cream cheese and potato; 19 zloty [Dh18]).
Also on the market square is Pod Fredra, with its own smokehouse. It serves traditional dishes such as roast duck (45 zloty [Dh42]).
About a 10-minute walk south of the Market Square is the Renoma mall, a colossal art deco structure built in 1927 as a department store. Now, it’s home to about 120 shops, including local and international chains.
For something authentically western Polish, pick up some pretty hand-painted Boleslawiec pottery at Galeria Vena in the Market Square.
What to avoid
Unless you really want to be surrounded by stag parties – admittedly, far fewer in number than in Krakow – avoid spending too much time in the bars in Passage Niepolda.
One of Wroclaw’s charms is its dwarf statues. These enchanting gnomes aren’t just whimsical gimmicks: they’re a tribute to the Orange Alternative movement, which used gnomes to poke fun at the ruling party during the communist years. Wherever you walk, you can spot some of the 163 dwarfs dotted about. There’s a whole mini-orchestra of them by the National Forum of Music.
Return flights with Emirates from Dubai to Warsaw cost from Dh3,415, including taxes, and take about six hours. Trains from Warsaw to Wroclaw cost about Dh58 each way and take about four hours.