Ok, I have to admit that before the City of Poznan e-mailed me and asked if Vera and I were interested in coming to visit, I’d never heard of Poznan.
I’d also never visited Poland, but after doing a minimal amount of research, it seemed like the sort of place that we were likely to enjoy. The slight downer was that we were only able to squeeze a visit in in November, and I’m not a massive fan of cold, but we thought we’d cross our fingers and hope for the best.
We’d tried that in Scandinavia in March and it hadn’t worked, but what the hell, worth giving the finger crossing another go we, thought! Let’s see how we did with a tour of some of our highlights of Poznan.
Highlights of Poznan
The Old Town Square and old Town
My absolute favourite part of Poznan was the town square which is home to the pretty Town Hall. This is famous for the two goats (Poznan’s motif) that come out of it at midday, the watching of which seems to be “the” must-do thing when visiting Poznan.
Our guide looked a bit sheepish when said wooden goats dutifully emerged out of the clock tower at midday (it’s a once a day thing), bashed heads with each other, and retreated. And to be honest, it’s not that exciting.
But the town square, town hall and medieval style town centre are very exciting, and you will be able to happily wander around these streets for some time, discovering charming restaurants, bars and “olde-worlde” buildings at your leisure.
It’s hard to believe that most of this area was levelled during the second world war, with nearly everything rebuilt afterwards in the original style.
For my money, this part of Poznan is worth the visit to the city alone. So it’s kind of a bonus that there are all these extra things to do as well. Starting with:
The Imperial Castle
I know I said that the town square was my favourite part, but this castle has to also be my favourite part. Ok, I have a lot of favourites in Poznan.
The reason, really, for this being up there on my list, was the passion with which we were shown it by one of our hosts in the city.
From the outside, it looks like just another castle, plopped down in the middle of the city. And, well, it is that, certainly.
The castle was built for the German Emperor Wilhelm the second in 1905, making it one of the youngest castles of its kind in Europe. The German empire didn’t do so well shortly after that, what with the first world war, and Poland gained independence just eight years after the castle was built.
Now, the Polish people are a practical sort. Many other countries would look upon an enormous relic of the previous regime in the middle of their city with some disdain, and would no doubt make short work of it.
Not so the Poles. Here’s a large handy building, conveniently left for us by the German Emperor, they thought. Let’s do something useful with it. So it was turned into the official seat of Polish power.
The story of the castle doesn’t end there. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Germans popped along again in 1939, and the castle was converted to be used by Hitler as an official residence. His rooms (and fireplace) are still there, even though the man himself never actually visited.
After the war, Polish (and, likely, communist) pragmatism struck again. It was deemed too expensive to knock down, so was turned into a cultural centre. There are still some fascinating motifs dating from the communist era, including this enormous mural on the wall, giving a communist-era perspective into the history of Poznan.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this mighty bit of building was converted into a multiple use space. There are offices, exhibitions, a cinema and you can even take coffee in the former throne room.
For a building that could have so much negativity associated with it, it’s refreshing to see what positive uses have come out of it. And a huge thanks to our guide, Wojciech, who opened our eyes to these facts.
The War Cemetery and Citadel Park
There has been a fair amount of turmoil in Poland. Which is a bit of an understatement. For a while, Poland wasn’t even on the map as a country, having been subsumed into either the Russian or Prussian empires.
All these wars led to a lot of deaths, and one of the many places the fallen are remembered in Poland is at the War Cemetery in Citadel Park. This is a large park just north of the city centre, which is also home to a large performance space as well as an interesting military museum. If you’re into tanks and so on.
The War Cemetery though, is not a light hearted place. Major battles took place in Poznan, with the dates of the deaths on the graves reflecting the most costly. There are dead buried here from all over the world, soldiers who died thousands of miles from home, fighting bloody battles in horrific conditions.
From the Great War, to the Second World War, to the Polish uprising of 1956 – this cemetery holds them all, Russians, English, Canadian, Polish... and many more. Not a fun place to visit, but a worthy one.
Oh, the Nazis. Naturally, they did their thing in Poznan as well, setting up one of their first concentration camps on occupied Polish soil here in 1939, not too long after they assumed control.
It was located in Fort VII, one of a series of eighteen defensive forts built around Poznan in the 19th century, most of which have now fallen into disrepair. Given the horrific acts that took place at Fort VII, disrepair would have been a kinder fate.
This fort was where the Nazi’s experimented with the use of gas, and you can stand in the gas chamber where 400 mental patients were “experimented on”.
This was a very difficult room to be in. An oppressively small tunnel shape with low ceilings and brick walls – far smaller than I would have imagined it to be.
I stood at the back with the metal door half shut, and was, quite frankly, terrified. I cannot even begin to imagine what the prisoners felt like. I just know how depressing it felt to know how truly awful humans can be to each other if they choose that path, and how incredibly lucky I was to be able to just walk back out of the door into the light.
Between 4,500 and 20,000 people died here, less than a century ago. Oh mankind. When are you going to grow up?
If you visit Fort VII, be aware that there is very little information in English, so either try and arrange a guide, or read up on it as much as possible before you visit.
Cathedral Island is home to – you guessed it – Poznan’s mighty cathedral. It’s also notable for being the historic starting point of the city, in the year 1000, making this just about the oldest city in Poland.
The cathedral itself is an imposing red brick structure and from our point of view, had two particularly interesting features. Both of which involve dead people.
First, the original Kings of Poland are interred here, in the golden chapel at the back. Those are some pretty ancient bones.
Second, down in the crypt below the main cathedral, are the coffins of the archbishops who have presided over the cathedral through the years. These are held in a small, dark room, which feels entirely claustrophobic and incredibly spooky, what with all the massive coffins. Archbishops not being the type to be given just any old coffin.
If all the history and seriousness is too much for you, then a visit to Lake Malta is probably in order. A short distance from the old town, this is a park which is also home to a 2km long lake, most commonly used for rowing competitions.
There’s also a dry ski slope, for year round piste action, an enormous aqua-park, which also has a whole range of spa treatments (although we spent our time going down slides), and countless opportunities to just get away from it all. Which is always nice, in a city.
These were but some of the highlights of Poznan – there are many many more to choose from, including the freshly constructed city centre castle (opening 2014) to the incredibly hip area on the other side of the Vine Bridge. But some things have to be left as surprises! Now… on to:
Getting herePoznan is remarkably easy to get to, with budget airlines such as Ryanair and Wizzair flying from places like Paris and London to the conveniently located airport. It’s also a three hour direct train ride from Berlin.
Accommodation– well, take your pick. There were no end of hostels on hand, and they looked very funky when we wandered past them. We were put up in the slightly more upmarket NH Hotel, which was a decent city centre hotel with a good breakfast and free (if slow) Wi-fi, essentially meeting all my needs.
There is certainly no shortage of choice when it comes to sleeping in Poznan – just be aware that the city does play host to large trade shows from time to time, so booking in advance might sometimes be necessary if you’re planning on staying somewhere that might also appeal to a business traveller.
Eating and Drinking– you know, we had so much fun eating and drinking in Poznan that we’re going to write whole posts about it. But suffice to say, you will neither go hungry or thirsty. There’s an explosion of micro breweries, which means the beer drinkers amongst you will be happy, and of course there’s no shortage of vodka.
Food wise, well, from the classics like Pierogi and beetroot soup, to seriously cutting edge cuisine, Poznan really knocked my socks off when it came to food choice and availability.
Shopping –Yeah, I know, shopping isn’t really my forte. But given that one of the main shopping centres in Poznan was nominated by National Geographic Traveller as one of the new Polish wonders of the world, I thought it deserved a mention.
Stary Browar is set in a converted brewery, and the forward thinking owner decreed that at least half the space be given over to art and cultural installations. So even if you’re not into shopping (that’s me!), there is plenty to entertain you within, from a thoroughly modern art gallery, through to art installations around nearly every corner. Worth the time to visit, even if you’re not a shopper!
Conclusion? Poznan is awesome. It felt for me like a cross between the classic charm of old city centres like Prague, mixed with the downright cool, hipster vibe that is Berlin. All in a package that is easily walkable (unlike Berlin) and not overcrowded (unlike Prague).
Go now, before the rest of the world figures it out.
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Our stay in Poznan was provided thanks to the City of Poznan, who invited us over to experience their delights. Our choice of what and how to write about those experiences remain our own.