Arrive via overnight train from Warsaw or Krakow. Immediately stop worrying about what in the world you were going to do in Wroclaw at 6am, because it’s already closer to 8:30. Nobody in your cramped, 6-seater compartment seems to notice the delay.
Contrast the glossy, floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the station with your Soviet-era train that just clanked to a stop at the platform. Heave your bag off the luggage rack that’s just slightly taller than you, being extra careful not to drop it on the heads of your compartment-mates in the process. Wave do widzenia to them as you leave.
Catch any street tram heading in the direction of the Rynek — the central town square with the cathedrals on either end. Spend a few minutes wandering around; the cafes will just be opening up and, if it’s warm enough, the staff setting out their tables and parasols. This is the best time — more morning delivery trucks than tourists.
There will probably be an outdoor photo exhibit somewhere around the Ratusz, the massive and intricately carved town hall in the middle of the square. It might be a profile series of new foreign companies who’ve recently set up shop in Wroclaw, or a historical display showing what the square looked like after WWII — black and white and reduced to rubble.
Choose an outdoor table at one of the cafes. Maybe Literatka, the one with the dusty library ambiance, or the Chilli Café, with its strawberry-cream pie. Order breakfast and at least two cups of coffee.
Start walking north. As you pass the university, duck into the English garden-esque grotto behind the library, off Grodzka Street. The public space often gets crowded in the afternoon with outdoor picnickers and study-break smokers, but now it’s nearly empty. Write a few thoughts in your journal.
Head toward the Odra River. In this part of Wroclaw, just north of the square, the river braids, branching out in different directions and creating small islands. Connected by a series of bridges, Wroclaw is known — locally — as the “Venice of the East” (and sometimes, “Venice of the North”).
Cross the red metal bridge at the end of Grodzka Street to Sand Island, and then hang a right over the Tumski Bridge to get to Ostrow Tumski, or Cathedral Island. The Cathedral part of the name is accurate, although in modern times the district is bounded by boulevards instead of water. This area was the first to be settled back in the 800s AD, and it has functioned as a center of religious life ever since.
Get there by noon to hear the medieval gothic bells go off. Note the resonance in your chest. Spend an hour walking through the Wroclaw Botanical Gardens behind the cathedrals for views of the spires.
Retrace your path to Sand Island. Step over beer cans — evidence of last night’s party — and note the juxtaposition of contemporary university nightlife with the contemplative atmosphere of Cathedral Island just a few minutes away, where nuns and priests walk outside in dark robes and sandals.
Back south of the river, have lunch at one of the more pricey restaurants overlooking the water, most of which are located between University Bridge and Pomorski Bridge. Or, try Bazylia, the university cafe on Kuznicza Street, for a cheap tray of kotlet schabowy (pork cutlet) and pierogi (dumplings). Or grab a few snacks from a corner store and eat while walking along the river.
Go on a scavenger hunt for dwarfs. The dozens of small statues scattered around the Old Town commemorate the Orange Alternative, Wroclaw’s nonviolent resistance to communism in the late 1980s. Led by a man who wore an orange dunce cap and painted dwarfs in public spaces where authorities had erased earlier anti-communist graffiti, the movement was incredibly popular.
Here’s a cheat sheet if you don’t want to spend time hunting them down.
Walk along the side streets spanning outwards from John-Paul II Square, just west of the central town square. Continue along Tadek Jasinski Boulevard, the shaded path running along the river. Notice occasional writing and plaques on the buildings in German. Remember reading that Wroclaw used to be called Breslau, and that the city’s 20th-century Polish identity was preceded by 600 years of German identity.
From the Rynek, head south on Swidnica Street until you get to the overpass with the railroad tracks running on top of it. There are narrow, dimly lit alleys running along both sides of the bridge and flashy red sex shop signs, along with a dozen or so restaurants and cafes.
Step into Kuznia, the bar closest to the main street. Settle into one of the 8 wooden tables and order a Czech beer on tap for 5 zloty (about $1.30US). Don’t spill when a train thunders across the roof and shakes the restaurant like an earthquake.
Make your way down the alleys to as many bars and restaurants as you can, each one a similarly cozy hangout.
Catch the last tram at 11pm back to the train station. Pick another Polish city and hop on the overnight train.
Or, if you’re hanging around, staying close to the Rynek will place you in the center of the city’s nightlife. With the exception of the Swidnica overpass, most bars / restaurants are located either on or around the square.
Speakeasy has Prohibition-era decor and is located directly behind the town hall. Pracoffnia is the one with a candlelit outdoor seating area and an interior conducive to late-night board gaming, situated on the site of Wroclaw’s medieval jail.
Hotels, B&Bs, and hostels are available around the square, ranging anywhere from $50 – $200/night.