Poland's third-largest city boasts Europe's largest city forest and longest pedestrian street. It's also starting to appear on the radar as a tourist destination that escapes the crowds of Krakow and Warsaw.
It’s fair to say Poland has its fair share of popular cities such as Krakow and Poznan with their pretty Ryneks (main squares) and colourful buildings drawing in tourists from all over the world. Warsaw is where many go to experience Poland’s most lively, modern and wild side, its expensive shopping malls, dramatic skyscrapers and pumping nightlife show how much the capital has progressed in a relatively short period of time. Yet there’s a city in central Poland, in between the pastel-coloured Poznan and the capital, Warsaw, that’s largely been overlooked by most visitors to Poland and, as such, offers an experience that’s a little different to your usual fare of stag groups and tourist crowds.
This city is Łódź, (pronounced woodge), Poland’s third largest city, and one that’s slowly undergoing a transformation. It’s been slow to catch up with its neighbours, but things are starting to change. Like many manufacturing and industrial cities Łódź’s tale is one of rise and fall. In the early 19th century, Łódź became one of the most important and prominent producers of textiles, attracting workers from all over Europe who came to toil in huge industrial factories. Some of the industrialists were of Polish, German and Russian origins but the majority were Jewish, the most notable and flamboyant being Izrael Poznanski, whose mausoleum is said to be the largest Jewish grave monument in the world, and whose huge palace still dominates an entire block of the city. It was these industrialists that gave Łódź its wealth and enabled the city to continually build and expand in a period that saw grand palaces, hospitals and transport links constructed. As with all heavily industrialised cities, it also turned Łódź into one of the most polluted cities in the world. Łódź translates literally into boat, but there aren’t any flowing rivers here any more as the waters that were once ideal for textile production have long since been drained and filled because of heavy pollution.
It was after the First World War that Łódź began to struggle to get itself back on its feet and by the end of WWII, it was pretty much done. Only Warsaw saw more Jews taken away to the death camps and in the end, nearly all of Łódź’s 233,000 Jewish residents were murdered by the Nazis, after first having to endure squalid and dire conditions in one of the largest Jewish ghettos in Europe. After the Soviet Red Army moved in in 1945, there were fewer than 300,000 inhabitants left, and nearly all of the once wealthy were now equally as poor as the next person, as the Polish Communist regime took control of all private enterprises. Despite being a centre of textile production again, none of the inhabitants saw any of the profits and the once grand palaces and buildings began to crumble. The future was bleak and people were going hungry. In 1981, 50,000 people, mainly women and children, took to the streets in peaceful protest about the lack of almost everything; meats, soap, sugar, hay – the whole country was affected but it was the people of Łódź who were suffering the most. However, by 1990, many of the companies had once again been privatised and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the people of Poland were able to dust themselves down and start again. It would be a slow process for the people of Łódź, as Warsaw and Krakow were given priority and, as this once great industrial city was no longer producing any textiles, there were limited funds for redevelopment. Throughout the last couple of decades though, Łódź has been building itself up. Unnoticed by most Europeans, the people of Łódź have been able to find their own way, slowly shaping their now post-industrial city the way they want it to be. Łódź has been nicknamed Poland’s Manchester mainly because of their similar industrial histories, but it is following in the same direction as its English counterpart through rebuilding and development into a city of art and culture.
Visit the city today and it’s hard not to notice its past. The grand palaces are still there, as are the fine buildings lining Piotrkowska Street, and the ongoing restoration work is a testament to the city’s commitment to developing the city. Piotrkowska Street is a tourist attraction in its own right and no trip to Łódź would be complete without a stroll along the longest pedestrianised street in Europe.
Unlike a lot of Polish cities, Łódź doesn’t have a central Rynek, but, as soon as the weather is warm enough, chairs and tables line the length and breadth of this well renovated street and revellers can take advantage of the fact that, although it’s a big city, Łódź is still extremely cheap – beer still averages £1 a pint and a main meal can be bought for about £4. There’s a huge variety of places to eat and drink too, from humble kebab shops to more refined dining, and OFF Piotrkowska is a popular square with students and local hipsters where art and music are frequently put on show among the young, trendy university crowds.
Music, art and street food festivals are all common and it’s easy to meander down an unassuming side street and stumble upon an event that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Exit Piotrkowska and it’s not too difficult to see the disrepair the city had fallen into as the stone buildings start to crumble and fade the further you walk from the main street. While progress is slow, it is progress and the work is slowly moving outwards from Piotrkowska to less frequented streets. Walk around Łódź and you’re bound to see examples of the art and culture the city is pushing. Huge murals splash colour on what would be bland, grey concrete walls and building sides, some reflecting the city’s history and heritage, others more outlandish modern creations. As well as locals, artists from all over the world have been commissioned for these giant pieces to raise the city’s profile, and it can be a fun exercise walking around spotting their handiwork.
Piotrkowska Street, while great for eating and drinking, doesn’t have many shops to keep the casual visitor occupied. It’s mainly businesses and banks along the city’s main street. For shopping, residents of Łódź hit one of the many, many malls that are dotted all over the city. In fact, there are so many malls here, as well as new ones being constructed, it’s hard to see how they make any money, even more so when you wander through the deserted walkways. This does make for a pleasant shopping experience though, especially when compared to the madness of pushing and shoving your way through the hordes of people in a shopping centre back home.
It’s not very often that a shopping centre is worth mentioning as a tourist attraction, but Łódź is different. Converted from one of the largest textile factories in Łódź, Manufaktura is the main development that helped move Łódź forward. Now a mix of shops, restaurants, Imax cinema, and entertainment, this area of development allows visitors to get a glimpse into the sheer scale of the factory that used to operate here. It’s been tastefully and expertly designed to mix the old buildings in with new architecture and it also houses an excellent museum and modern art gallery, the former providing rich detail into the history of the factory, Poznanski and Łódź itself. There’s even a beach here over summer, (complete with cocktail bar, of course), and an ice rink in the winter.
It’s housed next to the huge palace of Poznanski, the eccentric factory owner who had his palace quite deliberately built next to his factory so he could gaze out of the window every morning and watch his army of employees trudging to work to make him rich.
Indoors, a relatively small section of the palace is a mildly impressive museum while the rest is taken up by administrative offices. It’s worth a look inside just to see the stage and ballroom Poznanski had built for entertaining as well as the extravagantly adorned stonework. It shows the ‘character’, shall we say, of the owner when stone ‘P’s are carved into every corner of the high ceilings for all to see. There are sometimes exhibitions and shows held at the palace and they can be worth looking out for even if it's just to access parts of the palace that aren't usually open to the public.
Łódź is famous for its film school and takes great pride in the fact that many great directors have chosen to film, study and work here, most notably David Lynch, Andrzej Wajda and (the now quite dubiously), Roman Polanski, the latter two both former students of Łódź’s highly respected film school, one of many universities in Łódź. Walk along Piotrkowska Street and you’ll come across Łódź’s own Hollywood Walk of Fame, the names of famous stage and screen artists emblazoned on gold stars across the pavement.
Łódź’s Museum of Cinematography is housed in a magnificent 19th century palace and is home to numerous exhibits and tributes to the people, places and technology that makes Łódź so popular in the world of film. If you’re a film buff then this is heaven but, even if you’re not, a stroll through a lush green park to get to it followed by an insight into what it’s like inside one of the more grand of palaces isn’t half bad either.
The Jewish Ghetto and Radegast Station
It is possible to do a walking tour of the former Jewish ghetto and there’s an excellent guide to it here. It’s in one of the less affluent areas of the city, to say the least, and although most of Lodz is pretty safe and friendly, it might be an idea to take a local with you if you want to follow the entire route. The Jewish Cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and its size has to be seen to be believed. Surrounded by eight foot high, grey concrete walls, it covers some 40 hectares and is where more than 230,000 Jewish souls are laid to rest. A walk around this vast and bleak place leads to another somber reminder of its history - Radegast Station. This is the train platform where the Nazis herded Łódź’s Jews on board and sent them to their deaths at Chelmno-nad-Nered in 1942-44 and then to Auschwitz in August 1944.
The station serves as both a museum and monument, the carriages that were used still sit there at the platform and books upon books of Nazi registers show the names and details of the Jews who were taken away to their deaths. It’s frightening to see the sheer scale of the operation, executed with brutal efficiency, and the museum’s setting is eerily quiet, its sparsity and simplicity paying a moving tribute to those who suffered and then subsequently lost their lives.
Parks and gardens
Polish people love parks and Łódź is no exception. Apart from numerous city parks, what makes Łódź special is that a short tram ride to the north of the city centre lies Łagiewniki forest, the largest urban forest in Europe. The forest of oaks, spruce and birches covers an area of some 1,250 hectares and contains walking and cycling trails, a boating lake and even a man-made beach. It can be a busy place but there’s plenty of space to go around and it’s easy to find a secluded spot by wandering off in any direction. An 18th century Franciscan monastery is tucked away in the north west of the forest, while the painting of St Anthony it houses is said to have healing properties for those who gaze at it.
Another park, in the other direction of the city is Park Rozrywki, home to a few small, attractive lakes as well as Łódź’s only theme park, Luna Park. Luna Park only opens during the summer months and is only really worth checking out for the atmosphere, not for the quality of the rides. In the same vicinity of Park Rozrywki is Aquapark Fala, which has a few fun indoor chutes and a large, almost vertical open slide outside. With sun loungers and umbrellas next to the pools and an outdoor bar pumping out music, it’s the closest you can get to a tropical beach party in central Poland.
For a welcome break from the English stag groups and tourists who dominate Poland’s more popular cities, Łódź makes a welcome change. Prices are cheap, and while it doesn’t offer picture-perfect scenery or colourful architecture like Krakow or Poznan, it’s a city that’s unique in its own way, a city where you can see giant murals, go hiking through a forest, sip cocktails by the pool and, if you really want to, wander around an underground sewer (I’ll leave that one for you to figure out for yourself). You can people watch on Piotrkowska with a cool pivo in hand, check out the HollyŁódź walk of fame, or shop till you drop in more malls than you could ever need and then eat at a fancy restaurant for the same price as a UK pub lunch. Throw in countless museums and galleries and Łódź makes the perfect getaway for those who think they’ve seen it all when it comes to Polish cities.
There, away and places to stay
Łódź has a nice, quiet airport with flights direct from East Midlands or Stansted. Alternatively, there are many flights to and from Warsaw and then it’s about a two hour train or bus ride from there. Łódź’s tram network is extensive, cheap and easy to use. Nearly all trams pass through its colourful new main station in the city centre and ticket machines are in several languages. Taxis are reasonable, just make sure they’re on the meter and the drivers fully understand where you want to go. A shiny new central train station has been built in the city centre too making transport to and from the city easier than ever. Hotels vary from boutique to luxury but prices are low compared to other major Polish cities. There are plenty of places on AirBnB and there are a handful of hostels scattered off Piotrkowska Street.