Places of Beauty, Places of Memory: Poland's UNESCO Heritage Sites
#travel in poland
default, Park Mużakowski, photo: Arno Burgi / PAP, center, park_muskau_muzakowski_pap-.jpg
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are recognised for their outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Poland now boasts 16 locations on the list – with the first two inscribed in 1978 and the latest in 2019. Discover Poland’s extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage Sites with a chronological guide from Culture.pl!
1. Historic Centre of Kraków
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View of the Rynek Główny, Kraków, photo: Jakub Ociepa / AG
Kraków’s Old Town really needs no introduction – inscribed in 1978, it was one of the very first sites chosen for UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Situated in the heart of the city, its old-world charm draws tourists from around the globe. The area revolves around the Rynek Główny, or Main Square, which is the largest Mediaeval town square in Europe.
The rynek is always teeming with life, its cafés and horse-drawn carriages a timeless draw for sightseers. Beautiful old tenement houses and a number historic landmarks flank the Old Town square – including St Mary’s Basilica, the Church of St Wojciech, the Sukiennice Renaissance cloth hall (which houses the National Gallery of Art upstairs) and the Town Hall Tower.
Kraków’s Droga Królewska, or Royal Road, runs straight through the Main Square – it begins at St Florian's Church, passes the Barbican of Kraków, and ends at the exquisite Wawel Castle, home to Poland’s resting kings and queens.
2. Wieliczka & Bochnia Royal Salt Mines
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Not far from Kraków lies the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a world-class monument that is 700 years old. These rock-salt deposits have been mined since the 13th century, making the Wieliczka mines the oldest of their type in Europe. The first tourists explored their depths in the 15th century.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine features an extraordinary underground city, with 300 kilometres of nooks and crannies, winding corridors, glistening sculptures, chandeliers, chapels and even a ballroom – all carved and sculpted in salt!
The site was inscribed on UNESCO’s initial World List of Natural and Cultural Heritage as one of the first 12 designated sites. In 2013, the Bochnia Royal Salt Mines, an extension of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
3. Auschwitz Birkenau, Nazi German Concentration & Extermination Camp
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Auschwitz Birkenau was the largest of the six concentration and extermination camps established by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. It was comprised of more than 40 separate camps, which were the site of the forced labour, torture and murder of more than 1.1 million people. Most of the victims of this genocide were Jews from Poland and across Europe.
As a testimony to this crime against humanity, the remains of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979. From UNESCO’s website:
The site is a key place of memory for the whole of humankind for the Holocaust, racist policies and barbarism; it is a place of our collective memory of this dark chapter in the history of humanity, of transmission to younger generations and a sign of warning of the many threats and tragic consequences of extreme ideologies and denial of human dignity.
4. Białowieża Forest
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A long, long time ago, Polish lands were covered by ancient forests... Today, the Białowieża Forest – one of Poland’s most precious natural wonders – is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primaeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain.
The Polish part of the Białowieża Forest, which extends deep into Belarus, is protected as the Białowieża National Park, with an area of about 105 square kilometres. The park’s biodiversity makes it truly unique. According to its website, it is home to:
...809 vascular plants species, over 3000 cryptogams and fungi species, almost 200 moss species and 283 lichen species. (...) more than 8000 invertebrates species, approximately 120 species of breeding birds and 52 mammal species.
This Polish UNESCO World Heritage site, inscribed in 1979, is also home to Europe's heaviest land animal – the żubr, a.k.a. the European bison.
5. Historic Centre of Warsaw
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Poland’s capital boasts its own beautiful Old Town, frequented by tourists from the world over. Unlike Kraków’s Main Square, however, Warsaw’s was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazi German forces during the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. How then is it still standing?
After the war, a reconstruction campaign organised by the citizens of Warsaw resulted in a meticulous restoration of the Old Town, with its tenement houses, churches and market square. It is an extraordinary example of an almost complete reconstruction of a span of architectural history from the 13th to the 20th centuries.
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The Historic Centre of Warsaw is an exceptional example of the comprehensive reconstruction of a city that had been deliberately and totally destroyed. The foundation of the material reconstruction was the inner strength and determination of the nation, which brought about the reconstruction of the heritage on a unique scale in the history of the world.
Warsaw’s Old Town was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980.
6. Old City of Zamość
The old town in Zamość is actually old! A Renaissance town in Central Europe, this southeastern Polish city of less than 100,000 inhabitants was founded in the 16th century on trade routes linking western and northern Europe with the Black Sea. Its stylistically homogeneous urban composition was planned by founder Jan Zamoyski and the Italian architect Bernando Morando in accordance with Italian theories of the ‘ideal city’.
Constructed between the years of 1582 and 1591, Zamość was mainly built during the Baroque period. To populate it, Zamoyski brought in merchants of various nationalities and religions: Ruthenes (the Slavs of the Orthodox Church), Turks, Armenians and Jews, among others. He also endowed the town with its own academy.
Zamość was lucky to escape the destruction of World War II. It retains its original layout and fortifications and a large number of buildings that combine Italian and central European architectural traditions. The site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.
7. Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork
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A Mediaeval brick castle and headquarters of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Malbork Castle was the economic, military and administrative centre of the Teutonic Order. It is the largest castle in the world (when measuring by surface area) and the largest brick building in Europe!
Founded around 1270 by the Teutonic Knights, the castle is located in northern Poland on the Nogat River. UNESCO, which inscribed the castle on its World Heritage List in 1997, states that it ‘represents the drama of Christianity in the late Middle Ages, stretched between extremes of sanctity and violence’. It personifies the forced baptism of the Baltic people and the colonisation of their tribal territories, which played a vital role in the history of Europe.
Severely damaged in the final stages of World War II, its exemplary reconstruction also makes it a monument to the work of conservation, both in its social aspect and as a scientific and artistic discipline.
8. Medieval Town of Toruń
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Panorama over Toruń showing the old town hall, photo: Tytus Żmijewski /PAP
Most well-known as the home of Mikołaj Kopernik and its delicious pierniki, or gingerbread cookies, Toruń is not often on tourists’ radars. But it should be.
Toruń is one of the oldest cities in Poland – its first settlements date back to the 8th century. It was later expanded in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights. By the 17th century, the town became an elite trading post, which made it a meeting point for people of different backgrounds, from near and far. Thanks to this diversity, the city's architecture ranges from brick gothic to mannerist and baroque. In the early-modern era, it was one of Poland’s four largest cities and situated on royal lands.
Toruń was one of the few Polish cities not to have sustained any damage during World War II. Therefore, its Old Town was fully preserved – this is quite unique for Poland. In 1997, the Mediaeval part of the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
9. Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: the Mannerist Architectural & Park Landscape Complex & Pilgrimage Park
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A calvary is a complex of churches or chapels, usually built on a hill, which symbolise the stations of the Passion of Christ. Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is the oldest, and most frequently visited, Polish calvary. Stretching for six square kilometres, its route is five kilometres long.
This calvary was built following the initiative of the Kraków Voivode Mikołaj Zebrzydowski, who wanted the Polish calvary to resemble the Jerusalem original as closely as possible. Each Holy Week, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska houses a Passion Play – a staging of the events connected to the Passion of Christ. The play in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is known all over the world, and as many as 100,000 pilgrims attend it every year.
In 1999, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, due to its landscape, cultural, artistic and religious significance.
10. Churches of Peace in Jawor & Świdnica
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The Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świdnica in Silesia were named after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. They served to symbolise religious tolerance and crown the ending of the The Thirty Years’ War. Stipulations proclaimed by Ferdinand III Habsburg, however, stated that they could not resemble traditional churches.
Designed by the Wrocław-based architect Albrecht von Säbisch, they look very modest from the outside, while their baroque interiors resemble theatres, with multi-storied matroneums. The interiors of the Jawor shrine are decorated with 180 paintings, depicting scenes from the Old and the New Testament – while those in Świdnica represent apocalyptic visions, as well as a panorama of the surrounding towns.
More than 350 years later, two of the these beautiful wooden structures still stand. (Unfortunately, the third Peace church, erected in Głogów, burned down in 1758.) In 2001, they were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
11. Wooden Churches of Southern Lesser Poland
‘They disappear from our landscapes so quickly, because they burn down year after year.’ The playwright and painter Stanisław Wyspiański wrote this about Poland’s wooden churches in a letter to a friend. Unfortunately, due to their delicate nature, Poland has lost many of its wooden prayer houses – churches, synagogues, tserkvas and mosques alike.
The Wooden Churches of Southern Lesser Poland are located in the towns of Binarowa, Blizne, Dębno, Haczów, Lipnica Murowana and Sękowa. The wooden church style of the region originated in the late 16th century, beginning with Gothic ornamentation and polychrome detail. Later construction shows rococo and baroque influences.
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The wooden churches of southern Little Poland represent outstanding examples of the different aspects of medieval church-building traditions in Roman Catholic culture. Built using the horizontal log technique, common in eastern and northern Europe since the Middle Ages.
These unique constructions were inscribed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage List in 2003.
12. Park Mużakowski / Muskauer Park
The Muskauer Park, known as the Park Mużakowski in Poland and the Muskauer Park in Germany, is the largest and one of the most famous English gardens of Germany and Poland. It is a shared UNESCO site, as it lies on the Polish-German border – covering 3.5 square kilometres of land in Poland and 2.1 square kilometres in Germany.
The park was laid out from 1815 onwards at the behest of Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, who studied in England. Later, the prince established an international school of landscape management in Bad Muskau and outlined the construction of an extensive landscape park which would envelop the town ‘in a way not done before on such a grand scale’.
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[Muskauer Park / Park Mużakowski] is an exemplary example of cross-border cultural collaboration between Poland and Germany. [...] an exceptional example of a European landscape park that broke new ground in terms of development towards an ideal human-made landscape.
In July 2004, Muskauer Park was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
13. Centennial Hall
Designed by the innovative architect Max Berg, Centennial Hall was constructed on a Wrocław island between 1911 and 1913. At the time, the city was part of the German Empire and was named Breslau. The unusual, multi-purpose recreational building bears testimony to the importance of the city as the capital of an important province in a strategic location for Germany.
When Berg revealed his plans, nobody believed that such a structure was at all possible. Moreover, when the dome was completed and the scaffolding and boarding were being removed, a lot of people were certain that the building would eventually collapse. It seemed that the reinforced concrete structure would not be able to support so massive a form – the dome is 67 metres in diameter and 42 metres high.
The city incurred major devastation during the three-month Siege of Breslau in 1945 by Soviet forces, but Centennial Hall was largely spared. Extensively renovated in 1997 and 2010, the building is now a venue for conferences, exhibitions, concerts, theatre performances and more. The site was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006.
14. Wooden Tserkvas of Carpathian Region in Poland & Ukraine
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In 2013, wooden tserkvas – ancient Greek Catholic churches – in the Carpathian Region of Poland and Ukraine were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In south-eastern Poland, where the Carpathian Mountains rise at the border with Ukraine, 16 wooden tserkvas embody the legacy of Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities, representing the cultural expression of four ethnographic groups.
Built in the typical horizontal-log construction technique, mostly from coniferous wood, they have stone foundations with wooden-shingle roofs and three-section interiors covered with domes. The buildings selected for the UNESCO World Heritage List have been performing their religious functions for centuries.
The oldest of these tserkvas were built in the 16th century – and structures like them don’t exist in any other region in the world.
15. Tarnowskie Góry Lead-Silver-Zinc Mine & its Underground Water Management System
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In 2017, the underground labyrinth of historic mining excavations, chambers, walkways and tunnels at Tarnowskie Góry in Upper Silesia was officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
Legend has it that the first lump of ore in Tarnowskie Góry was ploughed up in 1490, giving rise to regional ‘silver fever’. For centuries, there was active mining in the area – with more than 20,000 shafts and over 150 kilometres of walkways at heights ranging from 0.6 to 4.0 metres. The whole labyrinth, including waterways and drainage tunnels, stretches about 35 kilometres long.
In addition to the underground complex of the former lead, silver and zinc mine, the UNESCO list also includes 28 other objects related to the mine. Among these are mine shafts, tunnels (including the famous Black Trout Adit), the Staszic water supply station, 19th-century post-mining landscapes and Park Miejski.
New Polish UNESCO Heritage Site
16. Krzemionki Prehistoric Striped Flint Mining Region
On 6th July 2019, the latest Polish addition was added to the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Krzemionki (or Krzemionki Opatowskie) flint mines.
Krzemionki is a Neolithic and early Bronze Age complex of flint mines in south-eastern Poland. It is one of the largest known complexes of prehistoric flint mines in Europe, alongside the Grimes Graves in England and Spiennes in Belgium. The mining area covers a total of 78.5 ha. There are more than 4000 shafts in the mines and many of them are connected by small horizontal passages, called adits. Some of them have rare Neolithic pictures engraved in their walls!
The flint mines were mainly exploited between 3900-1600 BCE, and the banded flints were used mainly for manufacturing axes and chisels. Flint mining at Krzemionki began to decline by 1800-1600 BCE. In the centuries to come, the Krzemionki mining district was all but forgotten. The mines were only rediscovered in 1913.
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Travel in Poland
Compiled by NR, edited by LD, Apr 2019
Source: culture.pl, UNESCO, own materials