10 Beautiful Old Towns in Poland You've Probably Never Heard Of
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You've Probably Never Heard Of, City hall in Chełmno, photo: Daniel Pach, City-hall in Chełmno, photo by Daniel Pach
Although their charm is undeniable, you probably won't find them in your guidebook. Their times of glory may have passed irrevocably, but their narrow streets and crumbled walls contain the magic of years gone by. Join us on a nostalgic trip to these 10 extraordinary Old Towns in Poland – in all their glory, past and present.
1. Złotoryja: Poland’s gold capital
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Old Town in Złotoryja, view from the Smith’s Tower, photo: Bartłomiej Kudowicz / Forum
Let's begin our trip with Złotoryja, which, according to law, is the oldest town along the Wisła River.
Located in the Kaczawa Foothills (the so-called 'Land of Dormant Volcanoes'), Złotoryja was granted privileges as a town by Duke Henryk Brodaty in 1211 – but the settlement had already been mentioned as early as the eighth century. It was famous for gold mining, which attracted German settlers (to this day, the Aurelia mine continues to remind visitors of those times).
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Złotoryja had its heyday in the 16th century. Its continuous development, however, was later halted by floods, fire and wars. Despite its turbulent past, many of the historic buildings that stood during the town’s golden age have survived.
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Old Town in Złotoryja, photo: Bartłomiej Kudowicz / Forum
The 13th-century Church of the Birth of Saint Virgin Mary offers a panoramic view of the mediaeval part of Złotoryja. The town, once encircled by a set of defensive walls, is now protected by the Smith’s Tower (Baszta Kowalska), one of several leaning towers to be found in Poland. Złotoryja’s market square is surrounded by decorative baroque and neoclassical houses.
In front of the town hall, which was built in the Renaissance revival style, you will see two historic fountains. One was erected in the 19th century to commemorate local miners who took part in the battle of Legnica. It is surrounded by seven lime trees, a number corresponding to seven men who, according to legend, managed to survive the plague that ravaged the town in 1556. The other, known as the Dolphin’s Fountain (even though the creatures depicted on it are more like dragons), is 400 years old. You can enjoy its refreshing coolness especially at the turn of May and June, when the town is seized by gold fever during the annual gold-rinsing competition.
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2. Nysa: Silesian Rome
Centuries ago, Nysa had very rich architecture. Located on the trade route connecting Silesia with Bohemia, the town was an important commercial centre. This is exemplified by its mention, together with a hundred of the most important European towns and cities, in the famous Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). Nysa’s emblem – six white fleurs-de-lis against a red shield – is depicted on the Charles Bridge in Prague, which also attests to Nysa's significance.
For nearly 500 years, the town was the capital of the ecclesiastical duchy of Nysa and considered the Silesian Rome, a ‘town of a hundred towers’. In the 18th century, Prussian governors transformed it into a fortress, and a century later, Nysa’s educational system experienced a thriving period. Nysa even had its own theatre. It was open until the outbreak of World War II, which reduced 70 per cent of the buildings to rubble.
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The destroyed town centre and the medieval town hall have been renovated. The St. Jacob and Agnes’s Church, a Gothic building modelled on the Gniezno Cathedral, testifies to the town’s past glory. The Municipal Weighing House from 1604 (now a library) and the baroque fountain, or the Beautiful Well – covered with an untarnished decorative iron grate – recall the bustle of the historic fairs organised to celebrate Jacob’s and Agnes’ name days. These attracted traders from the neighbouring countries.
Nysa even has a counterpart to Rome’s famous Triton Fountain by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. The Polish edifice was carved in 1701 out of marble from the Sławniowice quarry.
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3. Biecz: a Subcarpathian gem
Let us move from the lowlands to the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and visit Biecz, which Miron Białoszewski described in one of his poems as ‘a borough of goldsmiths, haberdashers and tanners’. Biecz, the nexus of several important trade routes, was also a place of Polish kings and dukes, with its three now-vanished castles.
It was here that Duke Konrad Mazowiecki signed the infamous treaty with the Teutonic Knights and that Wacław Potocki wrote his epic poem Wojna Chocimska (the Chocim War). Before its decline in the aftermath of the Swedish invasion, Biecz was an important judicial centre – and the official post of the legendary executioner Jurko, who allegedly recited Homer, Ovid, and Horace while applying torture.
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Biecz, Barian-Rokicki House from 1523, now the Museum of the Biecz Region, photo: Franciszek Mazu / AG
Biecz is sometimes called ‘little Kraków’. Time passes slowly here, measured by the 16th-century 24-hour clock on the town hall tower, a building with grafitto walls depicting geometrical motives. If you consider the relation between the size of the town and the size of its market square, then tiny Biecz is number one in Poland. Its most important historic attraction is the late-Gothic parish church, featuring an old sheet-music stand from 1633, an object unique in all of Europe.
If you visit Biecz, you should go for a walk through its narrow streets and drop by Chodor House to have a look at its historic hall. It was once owned by Becz, a legendary brigand and the founder of the settlement. It's also worth visiting Kromerówka, a historic Renaissance-style building, which now houses a museum. Some of the Old Town buildings have spacious cellars, which were used in the past to store imported Hungarian wine.
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4. Jarosław: the marketplace of Europe
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jarosław hosted the second-largest trade fair in Europe (the largest were held in Frankfurt). It was a place where wine, honey, silk, corn, salt, fish, and animal skins were traded – and where different languages, cultures and religions from all corners of Europe met. The town’s storerooms were located in a never-ending network of cellars and underground corridors, which is now a great tourist attraction.
For many years, this prosperous commercial centre was governed by famous noble families, such as the Tarnowski, Zamoyski, Lubomirski, and Czartoryski clans. Perhaps the most prominent of its owners was King Jan III Sobieski himself.
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The impressive town houses in Jarosław’s market square are the only reminders of its former owners. The Orsetti House, a late Renaissance style arcade building, is now a museum devoted to the history of Jarosław and the surrounding areas. Right beside it, you'll find the Attavanti House, which now belongs to the Culture and Promotion Centre and whose architectural attractions include a historic mirror room. In the middle of the square, the 15th-century town hall is located. The edifice has been rebuilt several times, its present Renaissance revival look the result of work carried out at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Jarosław’s urban layout has changed only slightly since 1375, when the town was founded.
5. Piotrków Trybunalski: the capital of justice
Piotrków Trybunalski then
Piotrków’s Old Town layout goes back to the 13th century, but its buildings were erected in later periods. Piotrków was once considered the capital of justice. It is the cradle of Polish parliamentarianism and democracy. The word ‘Trybunalski’ is a reference to the Crown Tribunal, which sat in the local town hall. This 15th-century red brick building was demolished in the 19th century. A century later, its historic cellars were revealed during archaeological excavations, and parts of the walls were subsequently reconstructed.
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Piotrków Trybunalski now
Piotrków’s main square is surrounded by 140 buildings which bear historic names referring to their former owners or functions. Hidden inside them are neoclassical interiors featuring barrel vaults, the traces of arcades and wood-beamed ceilings.
The Old Town has attracted filmmakers from all over the world. Its renovated façades and cobbled streets have featured in various Polish productions, including Królowa Bona (Queen Bona Sforza), Jan Serce, Przedwiośnie (The Spring to Come), Vabank and Pigs – as well as in some foreign films, such as Your Name is Justine or Hidden. The film director of the famous Jacob the Liar was also charmed by the town, while Robin Williams said that better scenery couldn't be found, even in Los Angeles.
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6. Rydzyna: Polish baroque pearl
Rydzyna, a small and picturesque town in Wielkopolska, was founded by Jan from Czernina, whose powerful family would later call themselves Rydzyński, an allusion to the town’s name. At the end of the 17th century, it was taken over by the Leszczyński family, who commissioned the transformation of the 15th-century castle into a baroque palace surrounded by a park. It was under their rule that the prominent architects Pompeo Ferrari and Jan Stier, famous for designing numerous buildings in Wielkopolska, came to Rydzyna to live and work. The town owes its present-day look to the prominent Sułkowski family.
Rydzyna’s baroque buildings perfectly match the natural landscape of the area. Its urban layout was designed by Karol Marcin Frantz, who also designed the late-baroque St. Stanisław’s Church – inside of which you can find the tombstone of Rydzyna’s founder. The town centre features a small square surrounded by historic houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. The town hall, built in 1752, is crowned with a small wooden turret.
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When in Rydzyna, you should also have a look at the Holy Trinity Figure which commemorates the plague that broke out in the town. It was made in the rococo style by Andrzej Schmidt, a sculptor from Reszel, which is another architectural gem on our list.
7. Reszel: a town with a hidden history
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Reszel, view at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, photo: Przemysław Skrzydło / AG
Reszel was once a fortified and moated borough inhabited by the Bartians, an ancient Prussian tribe. Starting from 1241, the area was governed by the Teutonic Knights. They built a wooden watchtower there, around which a settlement was later established. Reszel was granted town privileges in 1337. A half-century later, it had its own town hall, hospital, Gothic churches, storerooms, an aqueduct and the castle of the Warmian bishops.
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It was in Reszel that Władysław Jagiełło’s army relaxed after the famous victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald. Reszel experienced its best times under Polish rule: it was famous in the Renaissance and Baroque periods for its woodcarvers, sculptors, smiths, and goldsmiths. It became part of Prussia after the first partition of Poland. Later on, the already declining town was ravaged by fires.
Time seems to have stopped in Reszel. The Old Town, which can be explored in an hour, still has a medieval atmosphere. Reszel’s landmarks include an imposing Gothic castle and the St. Peter and Paul’s Parish Church. You can also see the remnants of defensive walls, as well as two aqueduct-formed bridges.
8. Tykocin: a little fairy-tale town
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Tykocin, Holy Trinity Church, photo: Piotr Kamionka / Reporter
Tykocin in Podlasie was once a harbour town by the River Narew. It was one of the favourite places of the Lithuanian princes and Polish kings, most prominently Zygmunt August. Under his rule, the town boasted 10 mead inns, 36 beer inns and 15 vodka inns.
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The local castle, now reconstructed, was the most significant fortress in the Commonwealth at that time. It was in this castle that August II Mocny introduced Poland’s highest decoration: the Order of the White Eagle. Tykocin was a Jewish town for several centuries. An old synagogue which now houses a museum is a reminder of those times.
While in Tykocin, visit the baroque Holy Trinity Church, situated on the east side of the Old Town and visible from the river. When you get to the main square (which, in fact, is a trapezoid), you will find the monument of the hetman Stefan Czarniecki, who once owned the town. He is wearing the traditional attire of the Polish gentry and holding a gilded baton, called buława, made by the French sculptor Pierre de Coudray.
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The Old Town streets are paved with stones, and there are wooden houses along them. Some proponents of this intimate atmosphere compare Tykocin to the more famous Kazimierz Dolny – or, quoting Agnieszka Osiecka they call it ‘a little fairy-tale town’.
9. Chojnice: gateway to Kaszuby
Let us now travel to Chojnice, a town by the green Tucholskie Forest on the border of the Kaszuby region. In the early 14th century, Chojnice was conquered by the Teutonic Knights, who later encircled it with mighty defensce walls – featuring 22 towers and four gates, complemented by a system of moats and dams – thus transforming Chojnice into one of the best-fortified settlements of the region. The walls were later destroyed by wars and fires and the rubble used for new buildings, which started to appear in the 17th century.
The only gate which survives today is the Człuchowska Gate. Formerly, this Pomeranian Gothic-style building was closed each night with an iron grid. It fulfilled various functions over the many years of its history as an arsenal, a prison and a church bell tower. Nowadays, it houses an ethnographic and historical museum.
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If you walk through the Chłuchowska Gate towards the old market, you will see rows of colourful town houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. The town hall, built in the Gothic revival style, forms the heart of the town... its outline is even featured on the Polish version of the popular boarding game ‘Monopoly’! The red-brick façade is decorated with numerous craft and trade motives, carved in the wall, as well as the town’s emblem, which has remained unchanged since the foundation of the town (an auroch’s head with a golden ring in its nostrils and a flower between its horns). In the Town Council’s meeting room, stained-glass windows depict three virtues: justice, education and mercy.
10. Chełmno: town of love
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Chełmno, photo: Arkadiusz Wojtasiewicz / AG
Erected on nine hills in the Chełmno Upland area, this settlement was granted town privileges in 1233. The act of its foundation became a model over two hundred other towns in Poland. Chełmno was the first capital of the State of the Teutonic Order, and as such, it experienced rapid growth. As early as the end of the 13th century, the town had a grid of streets around the market square, six Gothic churches and defence walls, which were over two kilometres long and which have survived up till today.
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Chełmno’s past glory may have faded, but we recommend touching its walls because they have stood witness to several centuries of history. One of Chełmno’s attractions is its town hall, an interesting example of Mannerist art, built in the second half of the 16th century. On its west-side wall, you'll find a long baton, which was used as a standardised measuring stick in the medieval Teutonic State.
The town’s biggest church is in the possession of St. Valentine’s relics, which explains why Chełmno is sometimes referred to as ‘a town of love’. If you are tired after exploring the Old Town, you can relax on one of the ‘lovers' benches’, which are supposed to guarantee a happy love life.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Warnke; translated by EP, Aug 2016
Sources: 'Arcydzieła Architektury i Urbanistyki: Polskie Starówki' by Michał Wiśniewski and Franciszek Ziejka (Olszanica 2013); 'Polska: 60 Wycieczek: Najpiękniejsze Miejsca' by Tadeusz Glinka and Marek Piasecki (Poznań 2007); staypoland.com, polskieszlaki.pl, polskaniezwykla.pl; own materials