When trying to figure out how to get between Lithuania and Poland, I came across the option to travel to the city of Białystok in far eastern Poland. Honestly, Białystok hadn’t been on my radar at all before that, but it seemed like a convenient stop to break up the long journey to Warsaw. What started as a transit stop, turned out to be an endearing, underrated destination.
Poland is still very much a country full of spots unseen and unheard of by the majority of international tourists and Białystok is one of them. While it may not be able to compete with the heavy-hitters like Krakow and Warsaw, I found Białystok to be a pleasant first step in exploring Poland and hope you’ll find something to your liking below.
Situated in the far eastern reaches of Poland, not far from the Belarussian border, Białystok is the largest city in the region despite its moderate size. The city and its surrounding metropolitan area has a population of 370,000 meaning it’s by no means a small spot.
This is interesting as the city had quite the late start as it were, with the region only notably settled in the 14th century. It even wasn’t until 1692 that Białystok received its official designation as a town. Throughout the centuries the city’s focus has been on academia and the arts, although light industry did bolster the city’s growth.
Sadly much of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed during the rampant destruction that devastated Poland during World War II. With aid from the EU, Białystok has spent considerable effort rebuilding the city’s bigger landmarks, for everyone’s benefit.
Another important note is that before World War II, Białystok had a considerable Jewish population, accounting for over 60% of the city’s population in 1897. Thus the city, and its Jewish population, suffered immensely when the Germans occupied the city in 1941. Today, you can learn more about the city’s Jewish past by following the markers along the Jewish Heritage Trail.
The most impressive landmark in the city of Białystok has to be Branicki Palace and its classic gardens. Built at the end of the 17th atop the foundations of an old castle, the palace was built by the highly influential Branicki family who came to own the area of Białystok in 1660. The palatial residence was redesigned multiple times over the centuries, before falling into disrepair under the Russian Tsars at the turn of the 20th century. The palace was destroyed in 1944, but has since been rebuilt and now houses part of the Medical University.
Branicki Palace actually reminded me of somewhat of the Habsburg palaces you find in Austria and its neighbouring countries. Honestly, just from looking you would never know that it had been rebuilt in the last 100 years. Aside from its looks, the palace does reflect the importance and impact of the Branicki family, who turned effectively a small village into a significant city. The family’s influence is felt in many parts of the city, including but not limited to the city hall, hospital and theatre.
Behind the main residence lies the Palace Gardens, with an unusual design of small hedges arranged a top a pebble courtyard. Positioned throughout are elegant stone statues and a regal little rotunda, again reminding me of some of the palaces I’ve seen in Vienna. On several sides of the gardens runs a moat and plenty of park benches, as the gardens and surrounding park are clearly a popular local spot to unwind.
Kościuszki Square Market
As good fortune would have it, I had arrived for the first Sunday of the month which meant that the city centre was transformed into a big, lively market. In front of the City Hall, a ring of market stalls selling food and handcrafts surrounded a small stage where a Polka band was performing. Talk about a lucky first experience. It was nice to see the city so lively and to witness the strong community spirit.
It is also around Kościuszki Square that you find many of the city’s more important buildings. Of course there’s the City Hall, built in 1761 and although destroyed during WWII, now functions as the Podlaise Regional Museum. Other notable buildings nearby include the St. Vincent de Paul Monastery and the city’s former inn.
Churches and Cathedrals
The city wasn’t always lively however. That morning when I made my way to the town square, it was actually exceptionally quiet. That was of course, until mass was finished, and droves of people emerged from the city’s churches and cathedral. Poland is a strongly religious country and Białystok is no exception.
This means that there are several churches to admire. In the centre of town is the Neo-Gothic Białystok Cathedral that makes for a central, imposing landmark. Just a little further up Lipowa Street, which passes through the city centre, is the Cathedral of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Archbishop of Myra. This cathedral is noteworthy for its Byzantine style, which is rather uncommon to find so far north.
Continuing along Lipowa Street you reach the Church of St Rocha in yet another different style, this time built with a modern design from the 20th century. Together the three buildings pose an interesting collection and reinforce the importance of religious faith in the city. Throughout the city you can also find Orthodox Churches, a Synagogue and Muslim Prayer House, reflecting the openness that Białystok has represented for centuries.
Home to Esperanto
Aside from religion, another common sight found in the city is references to the language of Esperanto. That is because the creator of the artificial language once crafted to provide a universal medium, L. L. Zamenhof, was born in Białystok in 1859. The city is quite proud of its renowned favourite son and you can find the odd reference to Zamenhof about. There is even a Ludwik Zamenhof Centre in the city, that runs as a cultural institution and museum. The obsession with language even extends to the facades of buildings as seen above.
Street Art and Installations
A nice surprise to find walking about the city was that it has its fair share of art installations scattered about the place. From the immense mural above of the girl holding a watering can over a tree, to the unconventional statue of what looks like puppets on top a wheel being pushed by a king, Białystok has some fascinating modern additions.
Old Bojary District
For those willing to venture away from the city centre, Białystok offers some historic wooden and brick houses in the Bojary district, one of the city’s oldest. Throughout the district you’ll find buildings dating from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, with some that genuinely look like they’ve been left untouched since then.
The main streets to explore are Wiktorii and Slonimska streets, with plenty of dated buildings and yet a cosy vibe. The best spots can be found in the “Wooden Architecture Trail” in the city’s Bialystok Trails guide, available at the Tourist Information Office.
- Pick up a Białystok Trails guide from one of the Tourist Information offices, which has different themed walking routes and information;
- I can recommend the Villa Tradycja – I found my stay there comfortable, with a large room and walking distance to the city centre;
- Białystok is serviced by both train and bus networks, the nearest major city being Warsaw;
Have you visited the city of Białystok before? If not, where would you head first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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