300km (180 miles) E of Kraków
Wroclaw, the capital of Lower Silesia, known as Dolny Slask in Polish, is a surprisingly likable big city. Although it was extensively damaged during World War II and stagnated under Communism, it's bounced back in a big way. Part of the reason has been its western location, near the German border. This has made it easily accessible to prosperous German day-trippers, who pour over the border for a coffee and a strudel. It's also drawn outside investment, particularly from the Japanese, who are eager to reach the rich markets of western Europe while producing in low-wage Poland.
The heart of the city is a beautifully restored central square, the Rynek, and the playfully colorful baroque and Renaissance houses that line the square on all sides. On a warm summer's evening, the square comes to life, as it seems like the entire city descends for a glass of beer or a cup of coffee. Most of this area lay in ruins in 1945, when the Germans held out for months against an intense Russian barrage. But all that seems forgotten now. Only the presence of the battle-scarred redbrick Gothic churches evokes a sense of the scale of the destruction.
Wroclaw was founded some 1,000 years ago by Slavs, but its population had become increasingly Germanized throughout the centuries. Until the end of World War II Wroclaw was known as the German city of Breslau. The city came under Polish control with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the shifting of Poland's borders hundreds of kilometers to the west. The surviving Germans were driven out of the city, and Wroclaw was repopulated by Poles -- many coming from the east of the country, particularly the city of Lwów, which came under Soviet domination. Although the city was overwhelmingly German just a generation ago, about the only German you're likely to hear now are from the day-trippers ordering their coffee.
In spite of the border change and population shift, the city retains the unmistakable feel of a German provincial town, especially in the Rynek and the wonderfully atmospheric streets of the Old Town. Be sure to spend time as well along the Odra River, which passes just to the north of the Rynek, and the peaceful Ostrów Tumski, the "Cathedral Island" and home to the city's leading religious sites.