Given all the massive devastation Poland saw during World War II, many of the country’s old towns are now merely modern reconstructions. That’s not a criticism, simply the unfortunate truth. But I did say many and not all, which means there are several places in Poland where you get the chance to explore a beautifully preserved, still standing old town. Krakow may be the country’s best known historical city, but it finds a worthy challenger in smaller Torun.
Recommended to me through a travel forum, I hadn’t heard of the small city in northern Poland before then. It didn’t take longer after googling it to decide I wanted to visit. Torun just oozes medieval charm and its hard not to feel like you’re visiting a different century. Enjoy the following guide through the delightful sights of Torun.
A visit to Torun is very likely to centre on the city’s old town and with nearly all the sights, plus bars and restaurants, you may not even leave the historic centre your entire stay. This is with good reason, as Torun old town is immensely pretty and pleasantly walkable. Everywhere you look there are remarkable buildings flaunting intricate Gothic architecture.
At its busiest around the central square and main pedestrian street, deviate away from there and you find Torun’s streets to be mostly quiet, with the occasional walking tour passing by. I should mention here that Torun is far more popular as a day trip it seems, with coaches full of people arriving each day and vacating the city before dark. It’s a noticeable increase but I never felt Torun to be overly busy or chaotic like Krakow or Gdansk.
Old Town Square
A perfect place to start a visit is with the large Old Town Market Square in the centre of Old Town. Very much the beating heart of Torun’s old town, the square is where you will find some of the most beautiful buildings in the city, such as the Postal Building and the Arthus House. The square is a great opener and should get you in the mood to explore and enjoy Torun’s charms.
Of particular interest is the bronze Donkey statue on the edge of the square. While it may look quite cute and is frequently mounted by tourists for a photo-op (which is allowed), its presence reflects something far darker. In the past, criminals of Torun were for their crimes strapped to a wooden donkey in this very spot and forced down onto a sharp metal plate on its back. Not so cute now, right?
Perhaps a small spot, but still a cute little spot in the Old Town Market Square, is the cute Frog Fountain. The fountain tells the story of Torun’s own version of the Pied Piper. The statue at the centre is of Janko Muzykant, who saved the town from a plague of frogs, caused by a witch of course, by playing his fiddle and luring them to the forest.
As is the way in Europe, the Town Hall in the centre of the Old Town Market Square is the focal point for Torun, and a gorgeous one at that. The most important building in Torun, it dates back to the late 14th century. Sadly, the roof and upper floors were severely damaged during the war with the Swedish in 1703 and had to be reconstructed. Some bricks still wear the char marks of that fire.
There is a legend, that the Town Hall is in its own way a calendar, where the main tower symbolises a year, the turrets the four seasons, and the grand halls, minor rooms and windows reflecting the months, weeks and days in a year. If that’s the case, that’s some next level planning and detail!
Town Hall Museum
Inside the Town Hall, you’ll find the District Museum, said to be the best in the city of Torun. The museum does a great job of taking you through the city’s history, but also its culture and trade. A visit includes seeing the wonderful Grand Hall, admiring some incredible parquetry that Torun clearly excelled at, plus displays of local modern art work that really caught my eye. The museum ticket, including the tower, costs 17zl (4€).
Town Hall Views
And speaking of the Town Hall Tower, you’ll want to pay the entry fee for the views from the top alone. While it may be accessible by a narrow, winding staircase (aren’t they all?), once you’re at the top you’re treated to some stellar views out over the city of Torun. Nothing quite like seeing a place from above to give you a newfound perspective and appreciation.
While visiting Torun it won’t take long to learn who the city’s favourite son is. Right on the busiest corner in the old town is a large statue to famed astronomer and Torun native, Nicolaus Copernicus. Born there in February 19 1473, there are multiple mentions of him around town, including the beautiful house in which he was born. The house hosts a small museum to Copernicus, but I decided against it visiting in favour of the above District Museum.
Like many medieval towns, Torun was once protected by a double ring of city walls to protect against invading forces. Today, only the side along the Vistula River remains, but that does include several gates and Torun’s very own “leaning tower”. They may not be too noticeable unless you choose to either walk along them or head out to the riverfront, but they’re there and give you a sense of what they must have been like.
In most places, having the remains of a castle would be considered a major attraction, but in Torun the remains of the Teutonic Castle have been relegated to the sidelines. This is almost poetic, since the castle was destroyed by the people of Torun in the 15th century to end the city’s subservience to the foreign Order of the Teutonic Knights. Still, most of the fortifications of the city are due to their presence, so they can’t have been all bad right?
The remains were left untouched for centuries, before excavations began to honour the 500th anniversary of the Thirteen Years’ War in which the castle was destroyed. Entrance into the ruins has a fee, but you are able to walk about most of the outer remains for free. It definitely gives you an idea of how big a castle once stood there.
Torun wouldn’t be a Polish city if it didn’t have plenty of churches, and the old town alone has 2 churches and a cathedral. Torun Cathedral is an immense sight and does a great job of dominating the city’s skyline but aside from its size is not overly interesting. I found the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary just off the Old Town Square to be more ornate and have a bit more presence.
Beyond Old Town
If you have time and have explored Old Town to great length, then it’s worth checking out New Town to the old town’s east. Here the building’s reflect a different era entirely, with a far more modern European feel. Still, there are some things worth seeing in New Town, including the Church of St Jacob, with its “M” shaped tower. Leaving the Old Town also helps establish Torun as a real city and not just some hamlet trapped in time.
When it comes to souvenirs and what Torun is known for, top of both lists is gingerbread. The baking of gingerbread has been part of the city’s culture since as far back as the 14th century and the baking tins and moulds themselves were works of art. You can find plenty of places to get yourself some gingerbread to take home.
Torun is perhaps even more captivating at night than it is during the day. With the street lights, the brick buildings take on a different mood and you notice different subtleties all over the place. They really do a good job of illuminating the old town and I think it takes on a really romantic feel thanks to it. The following are photos of similar spots to those I’ve shown above.
- Torun is quite well positioned, lying conveniently about halfway on the train journey between Warsaw and Gdansk;
- Note, the train station is on the far side of the river to the old town, but you can take a local bus to the Old Town for next to nothing (2.8zl / 0.66€);
- Torun has a fair variety of choices for accommodation, all at very reasonable prices. My stay at the Hotel Gromada Torun, was fine and affordable, nothing special;
- The old town is about half-pedestrianised, so enquire about parking if you plan to drive and prepare for a lot of one-way streets;
- There are ample options for dining, make sure to try some pierogi, my favourite Polish dish.
Have you had the chance to visit Torun before? If not, what about the medieval city has you most intrigued? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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