There are many reasons why you should visit Katowice on your next vacation to Poland. Underrated for decades, the city is not only becoming one of the coolest cities in Poland but also has a fascinating story to tell. With many interesting things to do and see, this city has much more to offer than meets the eye.
Katowice is said to be one of the most underrated cities in Poland. Most of those travelling to Poland plan on visiting Krakow, Zakopane or Warsaw. But Katowice? Many visitors would not consider putting it in their itinerary. But in recent years the city has transformed from a grey, post-industrial miners town to the vibrant metropolis boasting cultural events, quirky museums and fun nightlife. And I know it first-hand because this is the city I grew up in. In this post, I will tell you all about the best things to do and see in Katowice and hopefully, I will also encourage you to visit next time you are in Poland.
About Katowice / Poland
Katowice, a mining city located in the south of the country is the capital of Silesian voivodships. The region is known for the dense population and its industrial infrastructure. Yet not everyone is aware that the area offers beautiful countryside, close proximity to mountains and lakes as well as heaps of cultural events. The city has also developed greatly over the last couple of decades.
A combination of the complex history of the region, combined with a mixture of Communist-era and 19th-century architecture reveals a picture of Poland and its culture which is really worth digging into.
A brief history of Katowice
The political history of Katowice and the Upper Silesia region is especially complicated and involves uprisings, a plebiscite, an autonomous state within Poland and many historical events. In the past, these lands belonged to Poland, the Czech state, Austria, pre WWI – Prussia and finally during WWII’s occupation – Germany.
Although the region was under German authority during the majority of 16’s and 19’s century in Upper Silesia, Polish names predominated since half of the 14th century. Regardless of German efforts to integrate the region, Upper Silesia and Katowice always remained Polish at heart. Upper Silesia was always Polish and the main testament of region’s patriotism were 3 Silesian Uprisings, which were to force the return of Upper Silesia to Poland post-WWI.
During WWII’s German occupation, efforts were made to destroy all traces of Polishness in Katowice. Street names were changed, the modern building of the Silesian Museum was demolished, monuments and memorial plaques were removed.
The use of the Polish language (which was also considered the Silesian dialect) on the street was forbidden. Forbidden was also to celebrate mass in Polish or to teach in Polish in schools. Many Polish inhabitants of the city, despite their Polish origin, were forcibly recruited into the ranks of the German Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern Front. There are testimonies that the soldiers, before being loaded onto the train at the railway station, sang “Poland has not yet died ” (‘Jeszcze Polska nie zginela’).
Katowice was liberated from German occupation on January 27, 1945, when the city was liberated by the Russian Red Army. Yet, the word ‘liberation’ had a bittersweet meaning there.
For Katowice, it was the time of loot, rapes, the deportation of people to work in the USSR, and a robbery of machines and industrial installations. In the first days, complete railway workshops and hospital equipment were taken away. During those days a sense of freedom was often connected with a sense of despair.
The same boys who had been forcibly recruited into the German army were now thrown into prison and charged with treachery.
Poland and Silesia entered a long period of Soviet occupation. Katowice shared the fate of an intensely Sovietized post-war Poland.
The authorities even tried to force the name change of the city from Katowice to Stalinogrod ( Stalin’s City), but this change was met with so much opposition from the population that after 3 years it ended in a fiasco.
After December 13, 1981, after the imposition of martial law by the communist regime, in Katowice, a number of strikes took place including a strike in the “Wujek” mine. On December 16, 1981, as a result of the use of weapons in ‘Wujek’ mine by ZOMO (Motorized Reserves of the Citizens’ Militia), 7 miners died on the spot, and as a result of their wounds, 2 more died later in the hospital. Years later, the place of their deaths became one of the symbols of martyrdom acknowledged throughout Poland.
From the Soviet Era, this city inherited enormous pollution and reputation of a sad and dull area. And now? For the last several years Katowice has been one of the leading cities of the European integration.
In 2015 Katowice has also joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network and was named a UNESCO City of Music. In 2020, the city was classified as a Gamma – global city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network and is now considered as an emerging metropolis.
The dialect of Silesia is inevitably doomed to borrow from German, that is mainly because Polish was replaced by German in schools in the 19th century in Upper Silesia. However, the dialect has been adapted to the Polish phonetics and morphology of the language in a way which testifies the Polishness of this region even more profoundly.
There are many disagreements as to whether Silesian is a dialect or actually a separate language. Regardless of the popular opinions, it is clear that Upper Silesia boasts a language different from the rest of the country. The phenomenon here is, in my opinion, the fact that the inhabitants of Silesia feel the attachment to Silesia and Poland at the same time. I would call it ‘dual patriotism’. And in my opinion, one does not exclude the other.
I remember my grandparents reading books in German and speaking German to each other in front of youth so we couldn’t know what secrets they are talking about. The dialect, now slowly fading away – was the only way the majority of my family would use. There was always a clear distinction between Polish and Silesian language. Yet even with all those differences, there was never a question nor a doubt that we were all Polish, as well as Silesian.
Come and visit my city and I will guide through the best things to see and do in Katowice 🙂
Things to do and see in Katowice
The Culture Zone
Katowice’s Culture Zone (Strefa Kultury) is located right in the city centre. It consists of the city’s iconic Spodek arena, the pristine NOSPR, home to the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of the best concert halls in Europe in terms of acoustic quality, the International Congress Centre, as well as the fantastic, newly built Silesian Museum
This space is a true manifestation of Katowice’s journey from being a symbol of heavy industry to becoming the country’s cultural hub. Even more symbolic as it is settled on the territory of the former Katowice Coal Mine and visiting the complex is probably one of the best things to do and see in Katowice.
Quite recently opened in June 2015, the Silesian Museum is a building complex seated on the former coal mine and represents a perfect blend of current and past culture and region’s mining history.
It is partially being made of glass cubes but also uses the 19th-century brick buildings of the former mine. The 40-meter tall tower is accessible by the elevator and offers great views of the city.
Majority of the exhibitions space was placed underground in order to preserve part of the old mine. The brick industrial structures on the surface, as well as the mineshaft tower, were preserved adding to the symbolism of the museum. This complex is a true representation of Silesian history and culture.
Whilst being one of the most modern museum constructions in Europe the exhibitions held here are extremely interesting and often cutting edge. In this modern space, you can discover the turbulent and multicultural history of Silesia, Poland and Europe. The permanent exhibitions include the Gallery of Polish Art (1800 – 1945), Non-professional art, otherwise known as “outsider art,” and my favourite – ‘Upper Silesia Over the Course of History’, presented in Polish, English and also German.
Take advantage of the free entrance if you are around on Saturday. Otherwise visit the Museum website for opening hours and ticket prices – https://muzeumslaskie.pl/en/
Katowice’s Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Katowice’s Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is a cultural ambassador of Poland on the international scene. It was founded in 1935 and since then has cooperated with the best composers and conductors of 20th century Poland including Krzysztof Penderecki. The Orchestra has also produced national recordings and hosted many great foreign soloists. A concert by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra just cannot be missed if you are a fan of classical music.
Spodek and neighbouring Silesian Insurgents’ Monument
Spodek (Flying Saucer) and neighbouring Silesian Insurgents’ Monument are cities true landmarks and symbols recognized across the country. Spodek has been the part of Katowice cityscape for over 45 years and is the symbol of the city and the region.
Shaped like a flying saucer, it has a capacity of 11,500 people and hosts everything from ice hockey fixtures to heavy metal gigs including artists like Metallica, who played a famous gig there in 1987. In fact, there’s a great possibility that something worth seeing will be on during your stay in Katowice.
Standing right opposite the Spodek Arena, Silesian Insurgents’ Monument is the largest monument in Poland, honouring three armed uprisings of Poles against the German authorities of Upper Silesia. This popular monument in the shape of 3 eagle’s wings, symbolizing the 3 Silesian Uprisings and is one of the main symbols of the city.
Admire modern Art Naif in Galeria Szyb Wilson
This museum was a true surprise to me as it is right in my neighbourhood and I have only visited recently. Great yet not so well known and slightly off the beaten path museum is definitely worth visiting.
It is a modern art gallery and one of the primary highlights of a trip to Nikiszowiec (see below) and probably one of the best art spaces a city has on offer.
Placed in the building of former bathhouse of the old Wilson shaft of the Wieczorek mine dating back to 1826, the gallery comprises 2,500 square metres divided into three halls. The space is very impressive and the museum mainly holds an exhibition of Naif Art and contemporary art by both local and international artists. Sculptures, graphics, paintings and art installation are spread across this great gallery’s space, some hidden throughout many of small niches and rooms as well as staircases. The art is fascinating, sometimes playful or provocative – really worth a visit!
The entrance is free so there is literally no excuses! http://www.szybwilson.org/
Visit the district of Nikiszowiec
This is probably one of the biggest post-industrial Attractions and an absolute must-see in Katowice. Located in the Janów-Nikiszowiec district and dating back to the beginning of 20th century, Nikiszowiec was a purpose-built settlement designed to house the workers of local ‘Giesche’ mine at the time. The mine has changed its name to ‘Wieczorek’ after the region was joined back to Poland.
The estate forms a very coherent complex and has interconnected blocks, each containing 12 apartments and often linked by arcades on the ground floor. Unique bare brick walls and red window borders often decorated with flowers are the characteristics of this settlement. Very unique, and one of very few like this in a whole of Europe.
At the time it was designed as a self-sufficient housing estate offering workers all necessary facilities such as shops, schools, church, laundries or bakeries. Neglected for many years in the past as a symbol of poor workers estates, Nikiszowiec is now not only brought back to its glory but is also a very popular tourist destination.
These days you will also find here some great and quirky bars and restaurants, Christmas market in the winter, fairs and very often a wedding photoshoot. Oh and just a side note – this is where I am from exactly 🙂
Take part in Music festival in Katowice
Katowice is officially recognized as the UNESCO city of music. The city contributes 45 million euros each year in the form of grants to support the creative economy, predominately focusing on the restoration of cultural spaces largely dedicated to the music sector. Katowice, however, was home to great music event and festivals for years.
Did you know that Katowice is hosting over 30 different music festivals? The most famous ones include Rawa Blues Festival, Mayday Poland, OFF and Tauron. Katowice is also recognized across the country as a centre of comprehensive music education. It seats the Karol Szymanowski Music Academy, which founded the first Department of Jazz music in Poland. So if you are in the town – make sure you take a part in a music festival.
Taking part in a music event or festival in a great thing to do in Katowice, especially if you are visiting in the summer.
Another interesting festival to take part in – Industraida
Industriada is the only event of this kind in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a festival promoting technical and industrial landmarks in Upper Silesia and it features over 40 unique facilities located in almost 30 towns across the Silesian region.
It allows visitors an unprecedented glimpse into the industrial history of the region. Sites normally not available – are open to the public. In short, is it a rout spreading across the region with marked sites available for a visit. You can choose whichever ticks your fancy like old coal min, art gallery, traditional factory and mills or you can take a ride on traditional train historical train.
It is held in summer months and definitely one of its kind event.
Spend a day in one of Katowice’s’ green spaces
You’d be surprised to learn that this post-industrial city actually possesses an extraordinary number of parks and recreational areas. Silesia has some of the largest urban parks not only in Poland but also in Europe. Two of my favourite include Silesian Park and Valley of Three Ponds.
Silesian Park – Created in the 1950s, the Park spread over an area of 620 hectares is twice as large as the Central Park in New York and four times larger than London Hyde Park. During summer months Park offers various attractions. It is home to Planetarium, amusement park, rope park, Silesian Ethnographic Park, Rosarium as well as famous cable railway – Elka. This attraction has been there for decades however being recently reconstructed – you can now choose between roofed car or a 6-person sofa and enjoy the beautiful scenery on a ride 15 meters above the ground. Something for everyone in this great city park.
Valley of Three Ponds – In the south of Katowice, you will find a wooded park area spreading over 86 hectares, nine of which are taken up by water. It’s a perfect place for walks, renting a city bike or reading a book while relaxing on a blanket.
There is actually 11 bodies of water but the largest ponds are set aside for recreation, mostly for fishing, but there’s also a pond with a marina for watersports and another with a little beach that is very popular in the summer.
There are many paths, a skatepark, several restaurants and bars where you can chill out whilst enjoying the peace and quiet. In the summer, it is the venue of the most recognizable Katowice music event – OFF Festival.
Head to Mariacka street for beer and a herring (but not only)
Growing up and in my early 20’s I remember this street being shabby and actually not a destination I would head to late in the evening. This has dramatically changed since. In 2008 Mariacka was completely transformed from a seedy side-street into the pedestrianised high street it is today, with many cool bars and restaurants spread on both sides. It is now a student (and not only) hub offering some quirky and fun places to eat and drink. Funky bars offering a twist on traditional beer and ‘zakaska’ (traditional small bite accompanying vodka shot in old days) like herring, pickled cucumber or beef tartar. Lively music bars with great wine on offer as well as a variety of restaurants. This is definitely a place to end up in after a long day of sightseeing.
Enjoy local (and not so much) cuisine
And whilst we are on a topic of food – trying traditional Polish and Silesian cuisine is one of the main things to do in Katowice. There is a number of dishes and places which I would like to recommend.
- Fancy a good breakfast the day after visiting Mariacka street for drinks? Visit 3 Siostry Bajgiel i Kawa for bagels and great coffee.
- If you’d like to sample some traditional dishes but served with the modern and sophisticated twist I recommend Tatjana restaurant in the city centre as well as Slaska Prohibicja in Nikiszowiec. Two completely different restaurants but both present their own twist on traditional Polish cuisine and offer exceptional quality.
- For more down to earth Silesian food, without the twist but equally delicious I recommend Cafe Byfyj in Nikiszowiec. Also Restauracja Slaska in the city centre.
- Fancy a quick bite? Polish Zapiekanka is a piece of baguette topped with mushrooms and cheese and baked in the oven. It is very traditional and every person going to Poland just have to try one of those. There are two great Zapiekanka stores located on Mariacka street but really, you will be able to find them at every corner.
- You have to try the Polish doughnuts. There are seriously no doughnuts like this anywhere in the world. The best place to try those is Paczkarnia Slowik (recommended by my sister!)
- My favourite spot for great vegan and vegetarian food is Zloty Osiol and I go there regularly every time I visit. The vibe is great and relaxed, food always fresh and service very friendly. You need to go to the counter to order but its a must really, as all the dishes are displayed for you to choose. With the chosen main dish you will also get a free salad. Fantastic variety of dishes every time I’m there.
- Pierogi? Those traditional polish dumplings are famous around the world. You can have them stuffed with anything you want these days and the best place to sample those is Pierogi Swiata.
- One of my favourite places to hang out both for an afternoon drink/lunch as well as evening chill is Aioli bar and restaurant and bar located at the main square. I love their menu (great vegetarian Haloumi Ceasar Salad) , selection of drinks and wine and always, with no exceptions, fantastic service.
I could not be more proud of how my city has changed over the last 2 decades. I am also looking forward to seeing it becoming a true Polish metropolis. Yes, Katowice is still one of the most underrated cities in Poland but with its interesting history and culture and everything that it has on offer these days, I hope I encouraged you to visit. Please let me know if you do end up visiting and what did you enjoy the most. Happy visiting 🙂
Want to hear how leaving my country changed my life? Read the story here!