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Olsztyn

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Stunningly situated among lakes, rivers and forests, the capital of Warmia-Masuria province offers a great many historical sites to discover as well as a natural environment that will leave you lost for words… 

A Natural Paradise 

Enveloped in a sea of greenery, surrounded by deep blue waters of 11 lakes and sprinkled with a touch of lunar dust, Olsztyn offers visitors many treasures worth exploring; from a mysterious statue of a Prussian woman to the only astronomical table in the entire world made by Copernicus himself! Be prepared to move around when you embark on sightseeing here though: the distances to some of the more remote tourist attractions are a little too ambitious to undertake on foot but can easily be shortened thanks to bicycle routes. If a bike seems too energetic, you can also take a short ride on the electric eco-bus connecting the Old Town with Lake Ukiel or one of the impressive and very shiny new trams. Whichever way you choose to get around, these are the places that should definitely be on your list: 

The Old Town: A Definite Must 

Any tour of Olsztyn usually starts from the Gothic High Gate – the only surviving entrance of three that once led to the oldest part of the town. Also called the Upper Gate, this beautiful red brick entrance is the most important remaining fragment of the medieval fortifications. From the Old Town side of the gate, a niche just above the centre of the entrance is decorated with a picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, funded by Pope John Paul II. The magnificent mosaic is made from hundreds of coloured glass tiles, made in the workshops of the Vatican Mosaic Studio under the watchful eye of the director, Dario Narduzzi. The same kind of mosaic is also found at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

Although it has retained its medieval grid street plan, the Old Town was actually largely rebuilt after the war. The colourful tenement buildings found around the market square, with the Gothic, orange-roofed Town Hall at the centre, have Baroque features but completely contemporary decorations. The bright, stylish houses located by the Fish Market were built in the early 21st century. Nearby, the two-storey reconstructed brick building, with a plaque commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Polish national anthem, used to house the editorial office and pre-war printing house of Gazeta Olsztyńska, a newspaper that promoted Polish national culture; today it forms part of the Museum of Warmia and Mazuria. 

As you pass by the houses, prepare to be tempted by all manner of mouth-watering smells emanating from the many restaurants located there. The exceptionally attractive prices are almost as good as the aromas, and make eating here almost irresistible. A short five-minute walk from the gate will take you to Olsztyn’s oldest religious building: the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. James the Apostle. It houses relics of St. Adalbert, the throne of the bishops of Warmia and a 19th-century organ once played by the great Polish composer who wrote the music to the patriotic song Rota [The Oath], Feliks Nowowiejski. To appreciate the instrument in all its splendour, time your visit to coincide with the annual Olsztyn Organ Concerts, which usually take place during summer. Next to the cathedral, the Warmia Archdiocese Museum offers you the chance to check out exhibits that form the heritage of this diocese: church and religious art dating all the way back to the 14th Century. Among the many fascinating items, the most valuable are a gold reliquary of St. Andrew and the manuscript of Ignacy Krasicki’s mock-heroic poem Monachomachia [War of the Monks]. 

Copernicus in the Castle 

Without doubt, the most distinguished resident of the Warmia Chapter Castle was Nicolaus Copernicus. Besides performing his duties as administrator of the Warmia Chapter estates, it was here that the great scholar wrote the first version of his monetary treatise, a work famous for outlining the “Copernicus law” stating that “bad money drives out good”. Most importantly, however, it was here that he produced the first volume of his revolutionary work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. His observations were based on a special astronomical table, which is partially preserved in the castle gallery to this day. Learning about Copernicus isn’t the only thing that will leave you open-mouthed on your visit: the panoramic views over the city can be admired from the castle tower are also a sight to behold! Don’t miss another of Olsztyn’s most famous sights while you’re here – stood on the soft green grass of the courtyard you’ll find the statue of the Prussian Woman, one of only a handful of such surviving mementos of the tribes that lived here many centuries ago. Don’t go there looking for a statue of a woman with long hair and flowing skirt though, no. Despite the name, it actually portrays a man holding a horn in his right hand and a short weapon in his left. The symbolism of this curious figure continues to divide historians, who speculate whether it represents an Old Prussian chieftain or in fact a god.  

Ah! And before you leave the castle, make sure you touch Copernicus’ nose! At the entrance to the castle, you’ll come upon a bronze figure of Copernicus himself, sitting on a bench gazing up towards the sky. Apparently, touching his nose brings good luck. Wouldn’t want to miss out on some good fortune, would you? From the River Łyna side, the castle is surrounded by the charming and serene Podzamcze Park (or Castle Park). Whatever the season, it’s the ideal place to take a gentle stroll 

Don’t Forget These Either…  

Olsztyn’s other main tourist attractions are scattered across the city, which gives you time to take in the glorious surroundings as you move around. The Astronomical Observatory is the only place in Poland that has some of the actual lunar dust gathered by the crew of the first manned mission to land on the moon, Apollo 11. Pretty cool, right? 

The Museum of Modernity - Centre for Technology and Regional Development, set up in the striking red-brick former Raphaelson Sawmill, is a fabulous reminder of the important industrial district that existed here at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. 

The only trace of Olsztyn’s Jewish community left today is the Bet Tahara, the Pre-Burial House. Don’t be fooled by its sombre, modest exterior; inside, the single-storey building designed by world-famous architect Erich Mendelsohn boasts breath-taking, meticulously reconstructed interiors, showing the human journey after death. 

The stately, white, early 20th Century Art Nouveau palace that houses the Nature Museum is another must for your list. The rooms are packed with over 19,000 exhibits, all related to zoology, botany and geology. Don’t leave without checking out the impressive herbarium of German traveller and naturalist Hans Steffen! 

For a feel of what the city looked like before the 19th Century, a wooden wattle-and-daub granary at the edge of the Old Town is now the sole surviving example of the architecture that dominated in Olsztyn.  

Activities for Everyone 

Whether you’re more into sports, leisure activities or just having some good old fun, you’ll find that Olsztyn offers something for all tastes. Nature lovers are spoilt for choice, with hectare upon hectare to relax in at the Centralny and Jakubowo parks as well as the fabulous Ukiel Recreation and Sports Centre, a modern tourist/sports complex on Olsztyn’s largest and arguably most spectacular body of water. Events held here include the Ukiel Olsztyn Half Marathon, the Elemental Tri Series Triathlon and Triathlon European Cup, Mazovia MTB, the Ukiel Beach Rugby Cup as well as the Olsztyn Green Festival. 

Like poetry? Love cheese? Enjoy a bit of street theatre? Olsztyn has it all. The most interesting cultural and entertainment events include the Olsztyn Artist Summer, the Let’s Sing Poetry National Castle Meetings, the Demoludy International Theatre Festival, the Olsztyn Festival of Street Theatres, the Warmia-Mazury and Powiśle Culinary Heritage Festival, Olsztyn Days, the Cheese and Cottage Cheese Festival of Polish Dairy, and Kortowiada – Poland’s biggest student rag event. Even the hardest to please will find something to enjoy in this vibrant, beautiful city! 

For more information please visit the official Olsztyn travel portal.

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