Updated: Feb 27
Coming out of the Shadows
Long in the shadows of hipper, more well-known destinations in Poland such as Kraków, Wrocław and Warsaw, Lublin has traditionally languished, economically and politically, out of the limelight and happy to be a big fish in the small pond of eastern Poland. In recent years however, Lublin has seen an upturn in fortunes, as European Union money has flooded into its coffers, infrastructure has improved and architecture has been spruced up. The city today is a confident, young, vibrant and cultural place with plenty to offer those (still relatively few) visitors who have made the effort to travel here. The town’s Rynek is ripe with tourist potential, ringed as it is with an array of cool bars, imaginative restaurants and relaxing cafes, and there is enough here to keep you busy – especially if you are interested in Jewish history - of which there is a lot – for several days. Lublin is beginning to wake up to its potential as a premier destination in Poland at last, and put its painful history behind it.
Best of Lublin
You’ll no doubt head through one of Lublin’s main historical ‘gates’ – Krakowska or Grodzka – on arrival, and into the cobbled alleyways of its old town. These winding streets are full of life in summer, and you can soak up the history in and around the Rynek (market square). At the Rynek’s centre is the 1781 neo-classical Old Town Hall, beneath which can be found the fascinating Lublin Underground Trail, which tells the story of the city, with the aid of scale models and photos, including the story of the fire of Lublin in 1719. Visit the 16th-century cathedral nearby to see the ‘whispering room’; an acoustic vestry famous for its ability to project whispers.
The Castle (above) should be on anyone’s itinerary, not so much for its exterior beauty (it was rebuilt as a prison in the 1820’s as for its interior, especially the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, which contains a beautiful set of frescoes, covering the walls from floor to ceiling; a stunning sight and perhaps the finest examples of medieval wall paintings in Poland. Next on your itinerary should be a tour of Lublin’s Jewish sights, starting with the old Jewish district around ul. Lubartowska – here can be found the only synagogue in town (#10), and nearby the ‘Yeshiva’ – the school of sages of Lublin as it was once known, or rabbi school, where before the war rabbis were trained and dispatched all across Europe to teach.
Finally, Majdanek stands as a stark and austere monument to man’s inhumanity to man, to the south of the city centre. Unlike the other well-known concentration camps which were mostly hidden away from public view in remote locations, Majdanek was situated on the edge of a major city, where the local populace was (presumably) aware of what was going on. Over several acres, the concentration camp documents the horror without any attempt to sensationalize the facts, which are that over a two year period up to 100,000 people perished here. You will not find the crowds here that you do in, say Auschwitz (indeed you may walk around for half a day with only a few crows for company, particularly out of season), and as such, Majdanek is one of the best places in Poland to learn about the Holocaust.
Off the Beaten Track
Lublin is a great city for cycling in and around. Why not hire a bike (cheap at around 30zł/ €8 a day) and head off to explore the environs. First up, the skansen (open-air folk museum), 5km out in the west of the city. Over an undulating terrain of 25 hectares, this reconstruction of middle-ages rural Poland is a delight, and you can while away several hours here, exploring old wooden buildings, windmills, manor houses and even an orthodox church. Bring a picnic, have a campfire in the woods and watch locals sing folk songs on balmy summer evenings. Next door, the pretty botanical gardens are worth a look too. Next, head to the south of the city through the forest (Las Stary Gaj) to the lake (Zalew Zemborzycki). Popular with fishermen, sailors, swimmers, cyclists, walkers and anyone who fancies a break from the city, this is a great place to chill out in the summer and unwind. Bring a book.
Further afield, Kozłówka makes a pleasant day-trip; famous for its sumptuous late-Baroque palace, the main reason to come here is to see the Socialist-realist Art Gallery, a great place to see that most politicized and discredited (yet still oddly fascinating) of styles, depicting various ‘glorious’ scenes of delirious workers interspersed with portraits of their infallible leaders (mainly from years 1949-56). For a slice of picture-postcard village Poland, visit Kazimierz Dolny, 50km to the west. Probably the best-preserved medieval village in Poland, surrounded by picturesque hills and situated by the Vistula river, this has atmosphere in spades and is a wonderful place to come and relax.
Events and Experiences
Most of your time spent in Lublin will involve strolling around and enjoying the many cafes and bars around the old town, but for a town of its relative obscurity, Lublin has a lively cultural life – proven by its recently narrowly missing out on European city of culture to Wrocław. Famed throughout Poland for its theatre tradition, don’t leave the city without checking out a performance at one or other of its theatres – the main venue being Teatr im Osterwy. Filharmonia Lubelska stages classical and contemporary performances and the little Teatr im H Ch Andersena stages puppet shows (good if you don’t understand Polish!) Since 2014, The Different Sounds Art’n’Music Festival has seen a meeting of world-class artists that represent various nationalities, but particularly those of the post-Soviet space to the east of Poland, and also practise diverse music styles. The organisers scout rock, reggae, electro and classical musicians. So far the Festival’s line-up has included Einstürzende Neubauten, Goldfrapp, Tony Allen, Asian Dub Foundation, Yat-Kha, and The Tiger Lilies.
In 2019, the festival takes place between 27-30 June. For foodie music fans, the European Festival of Taste takes place between 2-8 September in 2019. The Festival focuses on multiculturalism and the culinary heritage of the Lublin region. It is also the biggest culinary festival of the region, attracting residents and tourists alike through its confluence of cultural events and the traditions of Lublin’s cuisine. The Festival’s signature features include a wide-ranging repertoire of cultural events, including among others concerts of Balkan and Ukrainian music, exhibitions, contests and culinary workshops.
Hitting the Hay
Lublin is perhaps not blessed with a variety of accommodation and it certainly lacks on the budget front, but Lolek Hostel tries to make amends for this with cheap and clean dorms, a common room with internet, free breakfast and friendly English-speaking staff. A bargain at 45zl (€11) a night for a dorm or 90zl ( €22) for a double. Well-located, less than 1km from the centre of town too. (Moving up the scale, Hotel Waksman, just inside Grodzka Gate in the old town, is a retro hotel which offers comfort and style with faux antiques, historic portraits and some rooms with great views of the castle with rooms in the 200-250zl (€50-65) range. If you really feel like splashing out, check in at Grand Hotel Lublianka, a century-old pile which boasts a Turkish bath and sauna for all guests, one of the best restaurants in town and floor-to-ceiling charm from 300-500zl (€75-125) per night.
Eating Out The number of good bars and restaurants in Lublin has proliferated in the last few years, so much so that you’ll find it hard to make a choice where to go in and around the Rynek. 16 Stołow (16 Tables) does a fine job of pretending to be in a much bigger city, and its refined and elegant surrounds are matched by an eclectic European menu including everything from English style fish and chips with mushy peas to roasted fillet of duck with orange sauce. A great place to try Polish cuisine is Old Pub. Less of a pub than a regal dining experience, this place serves up ‘staropolska’ (old Polish) cuisine in sumptuous surrounds, and it won’t cost you a king’s ransom. Nearby, Magia sprawls over several rooms and out into a summer garden, each area beautifully decorated. Fresh and tasty ingredients are used to create an imaginative European-influenced menu. To complete the Jewish-tour experience, try Mandragora, one of the finest kosher restaurants in Poland, whose menu includes all manner of mouth-watering Jewish specialities. For cheap and tasty eats, Zadora serves up bumper-sized pancakes for less than €5 (15zl) and Pizzeria Acerna, operating from its tiny premises near Krakowska Gate, survives year on year because of great pizzas and tasty toppings at student prices. For something a bit more upmarket in Italian cuisine, try the newcomer The Sexy Duck. Excellent homemade pasta, thin crust pizza and generous anti-pasti in a welcoming and modern trattoria-style diner in the centre of town.
Watering Holes Lublin’s nightlife scene is no match for the Warsaws and Krakows, but in and around Krakowskie Przedmiescie in the new town, there are a cluster of bars where you can hang out and party till dawn if you so wish. Try Perłowa Pijalnia, just outside the centre, for a few local brews - the bar is attached to the Perła brewery. It’s a must-visit for any beer fan who visits Lublin. Try the special four-beer sample board, which includes a lager, a wheat beer, and ale or IPA and a stout. Blues Brothers has a relaxed studenty kind of vibe, with live music, board games and shots. Czarna Owca Gastro Bar, complete with an English red phone box, Murphys and Guinness on tap, is great for any Anglophiles or homesick Brits. Serves excellent burgers, barbecued ribs and chicken. Club Dziki Wschód Pub & Restauracja translates as the Wild East Pub and Restaurant. It’s a cool and cosy bar with free Wi-Fi, happy staff, cold beer and good pizza. These are things upon which Dziki Wschód has built its market and niche, and it works to perfection. Back in the Old Town, try yet another fine bar selling locally brewed beer. Browar Restauracja Grodzka serves its own truly excellent home-brewed beer. The beer menu normally includes a dunkel, a pilsner, at least one dark beer and a seasonal beer (which is always changing). The bar food is both Polish and continental with good żurek soup available, plus huge burgers.
Lublin has a shiny new airport, opened in time for the Euro 2012 football tournament, and although it doesn't have outstanding connections (ok, there are only eight in total - don't ask), there are two to London (Stansted and Luton), one to Dublin and one to Tel Aviv to cater to Holocaust tourists. Lublin is well connected to all the major cities in Poland by frequent trains and buses, and is a regional transport hub for Lubelskie. Krakow is five hours distant, and Lviv in Ukraine about the same. Warsaw is a bit closer - about three by road and four by train. Other eastern cities and towns like Białystok, Przemysl and Rzeszów are less well connected. In general, north/south connections by both road and rail are poor. Expect it to take longer than expected to travel due to slow roads.
Online information about Lublin is pretty scant, at least in English. https://lublin.eu/en/ is the best site for cultural happenings and tourist-related info. The excellent In Your Pocket series does not have a full guide to the city, but you can find a blog here: https://blog.inyourpocket.com/poland/tag/lublin/. Apart from that, Lonely Planet has a chapter on eastern Poland which is your best bet for reliable online info. Rough Guides also does a solid travel guide on Poland (for which yours truly contributed to in Lublin, Wrocław and Poznan in Poland), but if you are looking for some more poetic travel reading, then Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated gives a great insight into the fate of east European Jews, and most interestingly, the history of ‘shtetls’, Jewish communities that existed in the Polish/Ukranian borderlands for some four hundred years until WW2.
Bittersweet and very moving. Bernard Shultz, another Jewish writer, wrote beautiful dream-like novellas and short stories, and was born in Drohobycz, in present-day Ukraine but then Poland. His collection The Street of Crocodiles & Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass is the best choice. Finally, Joseph Konrad’s Under Western Eyes, though not set in this region, is the writer’s most eastern-European novel; although he is thought of as English, he was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski and born to Polish parents in Russian-dominated Ukraine, 100km from Lublin. Finally The Magician of Lublin is an immensely readable account of a talented performer corrupted by his dreams of the big time. Isaac Bashevis Singer wields the pen.
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