Updated: Feb 27, 2020
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.