Ever heard of Lublin? Until recently, me neither, and it probably wouldn’t have come onto my radar had it not been for randomly winning a trip there!
While at the World Travel Market (WTM) conference last year Emma and I headed over to the Poland stand to say hi to a friend and threw our business card into the hat to win a weekend in Lublin and Zamość. While enjoying a chat over a Polish beer, our names were called out and suddenly we were dragged up for photos – we’d only gone and won the holiday!
Emma was kind enough to give up her spot on the trip to let me take my mum along for her birthday, and so one very, very early morning in July, we headed to Stansted Airport for our Lublin adventure to begin.
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Just two and a half hours away…
After a journey just shy of two and half hours, we landed in Lublin’s little two-gate airport, which opened in late 2012 to support regional travel around the south east of Poland.
Over the next two days we squeezed in a hell of a lot; from crashing a polish wedding and going to a 1920’s themed party in an outdoor park through to visiting a World War Two (WW2) concentration camp and exploring century old tunnels.
My conclusion? We’d uncovered a Polish hidden gem. How had we not heard of this beautiful city before? It might be compact, but Lublin is overflowing with culture, history, delicious food and cute cafes and has such a wonderfully relaxed and welcoming vibe.
So, I’m here to spread the word – more people need to discover this amazing little city and experience it for themselves. Here are some of my favourite Lublin highlights, so you can begin to see why it deserves a spot on your European travel list!
Lublin’s Old Town
Walk through one of the Old Town’s two city gates and you’ll discover the historical heart of Lublin.
With beautiful squares and gorgeous renaissance-era buildings, it’s a joy to wander the streets, and even the unrenovated buildings, with their flaking exteriors and lopsided fronts, have a beauty of their own.
Here – or nearby – you’ll find many of the city’s tourist attractions, as well as cute little shops and restaurants and cafés galore. It’s the best place in all of Lublin for people watching, that’s for sure!
Once known as the Jerusalem of the North, in 1939 43,000 of Lublin’s 120,000 residents were Jewish. Sadly, during WW2 the Nazis took or killed the majority of Lublin’s Jews, and demolished the city’s Jewish Quarter. Just outside of Grodzka Gate, where the district once stood, there now stands ‘The Eternal Lamp’. One of the last existing lamps from before the war, it now stays lit, day and night, in remembrance of this lost area.
All around the Old Town you’ll also see windows filled with old black and white images and there’s a beautiful, albeit sad story behind these pictures.
The originals were found in a box in an attic, and it is believed these were left behind by a Jewish family either fleeing or captured during the war – sadly they weren’t able to discover who they were. In their memory, and to celebrate Lublin’s Jewish heritage, several of the images were blown up into posters and displayed around the Old Town. What a lovely gesture, don’t you think?
Every year the city has a special ‘Night of Culture’ event, and during our stay some of the installations were still up around the Old Town to enjoy, including floating jellyfish and gorgeous little balloons that light up at dusk.
For any visit to the old town, make sure you have your camera at the ready!
Underneath the Old Town lies a series of tunnels called the Underground Route, which were used by the city’s nobles in centuries gone by. The pièce de résistance here is the Fortuna Cellar, where the city’s most important men would come to discuss trade, politics and even arrange marriages. This grotto is covered in 10 paintings, many of which still visible today, depicting images of philosophers, greed, and even the sex trade!
Now part of an underground museum, be sure to check it out before wandering through the museum’s other rooms which talk about the city’s rich history – from the creation of the city seal through the reality of life as an executioner. It seems the poor guy was kept busy; not only was he expected to chop heads, he’d also play bodyguard to the nobles, clean the city’s streets, and people would also visit him in the role of chiropractor!
Lublin Castle, Holy Trinity Chapel and the donjon
Walk the path up to the looming Keep, where ominous axes greet you at its entrance. The original castle is now gone and today’s building was last used as a prison by the Nazis.
There are lots to see and do in the buildings and grounds, but my highlights were the two original features that still stand today.
The Holy Trinity Chapel was probably my number one Lublin experience. Built on the behest of King Casimir III The Great, it is covered in Russian-Byzantine wall paintings. Almost every inch is painted, with curtains used to depict the veil between heaven and Earth, and you can spend ages examining all the paintings’ amazing details. Although originally painted in the 15th century, for hundreds of years this art was lost under layers of plain white paint, until unexpectedly rediscovering the medieval art in the 19th century!
To protect the chapel, visitors must book into a half hour time slot, and the room is left to ‘breathe’ between visits, so as to preserve the art.
For great views over the entire city you may want to also visit the donjon, the castle’s original tower, which was built back in the 13th century. If you need a break on the 30-metre climb up though, you’ll find different small exhibitions on each floor. During my visit these were dedicated to the castle’s history during the war. Dark times.
Also worth a visit is Po Farze Square, which overlooks the castle and is a great spot for photos. Here once stood St Michael’s Church, which was demolished to make way for the square. The foundations were unearthed back in the 80’s and excavated to be displayed as they are today. There was once talk of rebuilding the church, but the decision was made to leave the foundations as they currently stand. If you’d like to see how the church did look though, a small model stands to the side of the remains.
St John the Baptist Cathedral
On the outskirts of the Old Town you’ll find Lublin Cathedral. Resplendent renaissance design greets you when you pass through the cathedral’s grand entrance. Be sure to look up to see the building’s full glory, as each alcove is decorated with detailed frescos, some of them famous barque trompe l’oeils. Although worthy of a visit for this beauty alone, the cathedral’s biggest draw is the acoustic chamber hidden down the back of the chapel, which is said to project whispers.
Local culinary specialities
Again in a nod to its Jewish heritage, you’ll find one of Poland’s most renowned Jewish restaurants in Lublin, Mandragora. This is the place to come to for Russian Dumplings (there’s a story behind the name, but that’s for another day…).
Also look out for stalls selling the local delicacy of Cebularz, a jewish bread similar in texture to a bagel, topped with diced onion and poppy seeds. They’re really delicious, and can be found in most hotel restaurants at breakfast time.
The multimedia fountain
Opened just a few weeks before my visit, during the evenings locals and visitors alike flock to Litewski Square to watch the fountains beautiful light displays. This landscaped park has green spaces, seats and play areas and is a great place to sit and unwind, while you watch children run through the interactive fountains. Well, those that work at least! In the first few weeks two of the many fountains were broken – one by a police car and one by a council van, who, forgetting where the fountains were, drove over and broke them! Hilarious I thought, but I’m sure they’ll be fixed in no time, if not already!
The Lublin Village Open Air Museum
A little out of the city centre you’ll find the vast Lublin Village Open Air Museum. Within its 27 hectares you can explore Polish buildings from different eras as well as the beautiful gardens surrounded them.
My favourite part of the museum was a complete 1920’s street, with shops that you can go and look around, and even and old fire engine.
Throughout the year the museum holds special events and I got the chance to go along to a 1920’s themed evening dance. Pathways were lit with little candles in glass jars eventually leading you to a live band and bustling dance floor.
Those that dress correct for the era get free entry to the dance and the vibe there was amazing. It was so wonderful watching people of all ages and abilities dancing away to traditional 20’s Polish songs and having a great laugh.
The State Museum at Majdanek
Not for everyone, and a tough visit for anyone, this museum lies in the grounds of a WW2 labour and concentration camp.
At its entrance stands an overbearing, powerful memorial to the thousands of lives lost here and you can’t help but be affected by the stories you hear of the prisoners and the experience of visiting the blocks where they lives, and the gas chambers where they died.
Fittingly we had grey skies and rainstorms during our visit, and although it was tough to hear and see, I learnt so much about what happened at this camp and others, but also about the people themselves and their amazing strength and resilience.
I think it’s important to acknowledge a place’s history both good and bad, and wanted to visit as a sign of respect and remembrance. I hope through sharing such sad stories we may one day learn from the terrible mistakes of our past.
For those interested in learning more, I wrote an article dedicated to my visit to Majdanek, which you can read here.
Have I inspired you to visit Lublin?
This is but a taste of what Lublin has to offer visitors and it’s also a great base for visiting the wider region. As well as trips to towns like Zamość, which is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site, there’s also wonderful countryside to explore, with the opportunity to get back to nature by cycling through the countryside, perhaps a little canoeing, visiting waterfalls or heading to a farm homestay.
Lublin could well be one of the next big Euro travel destination, so get there before the crowds and enjoy one of Poland’s best-kept secrets!