If you arrive in Poland via a flight to the capital city of Warsaw, take note of the airport’s name: Frederic Chopin International. Although it is normal for a country’s major airport to be named after a national hero, they are usually politicians or other historical figures of state importance. There are a few examples of airports named after musicians ― like Louis Armstrong in New Orleans or John Lennon in Liverpool — and anyone can appreciate the significance of tributes to the men who called those cities home. But to commemorate a creative artist on a national, and indeed international scale considering the amount of passengers who pass through Warsaw, is something special. It’s a declaration of love and appreciation for the arts that, if you stay and spend some time in Poland, you will see reaffirmed at every turn.

WARSAW

From music to architecture, painting, and filmmaking, Poland has a vibrant creative scene that anyone with a penchant for the arts can plug into straight away, and the best place to start is the capital itself. Warsaw is a major European center of finance and technology, but these more analytical pursuits live in harmony alongside a thriving cultural environment to create one of the most multi-faceted cities on the continent.

MUSEUMS

There are vast expanses of green space within the city proper, several of which like the Royal Park & Gardens house museums or galleries. Between permanent fixtures and seasonal events, the park can indulge any kind of artistic taste.

The small palace on the island at the park’s center is home to the Royal Gallery of Paintings, where the last King of Poland had his private residence before the partitions. Stanislaw II Augustus was a great patron of the arts, wanting to portray the Polish monarchy as enlightened, with an aesthetic sensibility informed by stories from the Bible. While he remains a controversial figure in the country’s history due to his political lethargy that enabled Polish partition, his legacy of pursuing and protecting beauty lives on: the park’s Old Orangery contains two sculpture galleries, one for the most important ancient works and another for pieces by contemporary Polish artists.

a boat on the water at warsaw's royal park in poland

Poland is a country that looks to its past in order to understand and prepare for its future. It is the same with the arts, and the rest of Warsaw is dotted with installations and attractions that honor local creative tradition while also spearheading innovation in the community at large. The scene of much of this synthesis is the Praga district on the city’s right bank, where more folksy and offbeat museums share space with some of the trendiest developments in Warsaw today. The neighborhood’s eponymous museum honors and immortalizes the handicraft trades for which Praga was first known, including everything from papermaking to kayak production. On the other side of the train tracks is the Neon Museum, dedicated to preserving the namesake signs that sprung up across the Eastern Bloc following World War II.

MUSIC & PERFORMANCE ART

In addition to the dedication of the airport, modern Warsaw pays tribute to Frederic Chopin in the best way possible: bringing together people from all over the world to perform his music. From May to September, the large monument to the composer in the Royal Park hosts two performances of his works every Sunday at noon and 4pm, inviting both young and established pianists from far and wide to share their interpretations of the master’s work.

a man plays chopin at the royal park in warsaw poland

If music is the universal language, Jazz is the dialect we speak in the summer months, and that holds true in Warsaw. Warsaw Summer Jazz Days is a festival that has run since 1992 at Castle Square, usually in the last few days of June when the weather is at its best. It’s completely unticketed and open to the public honoring its original intention to make Jazz more accessible and take the genre in new directions. As with the Chopin concerts, WSJD has a long history of hosting globally renowned musicians like Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, and Branford Marsalis.

Also running from the end of June to early July is the Warsaw International Street Art Festival. Since 1989, sculptors, circus acts, bands, clowns, and dance groups have taken over as many as four separate locations across the city, from market squares to metro stations. This year, Polish artists and third-year students from the local Academy of Fine Arts will join together with Czech, German, and Russian performers to break new creative ground as puppeteers attempt to steal the moon and static visual works on the theme of societal “fall” adorn the streets.

CINEMA

Poland has a long and illustrious history of filmmaking that stretches back to the very beginnings of the artform, and today’s cinemophiles want to leave no stone unturned, whether vintage or contemporary, mainstream or art house. In fact, there is a confederation of independent cinemas across the country dedicated to showing the best of films that fly under the radar, and the list of authentic theaters in the official Network of Studio & Local Cinemas is worth a look wherever you find yourself.

the creative neon museum in warsaw poland

Iluzjon and Kino Muranow in Warsaw are two of the country’s most reputable film institutions. The former is technically designated as a museum under its remit from the National Film Archive to protect, restore, and promote Polish film, though it shows pictures from around the world. It’s characteristic rotunda has stood since the 1950s, adorned with its original neon sign. Muranow also opened in 1951, in the former Jewish Quarter. Both cinemas have seen modern renovation, but gladly retained their retro feel.

COWORKING & CAFES

Between meandering through museums and catching some shows, you might need to set time aside for actually doing work! Luckily for you, Warsaw is one of the most professional-friendly cities in Europe, whether you’re an artist who needs space to draw or an entrepreneur working on your startup. Speaking of startups, Warsaw is home to a Google for Startups campus, one of six around the world. There are programs and workshops if you decide to take a working holiday with your team, or hot desks like you would find in any typical coworking space.

a coffee stall in warsaw

For a more casual, coffee-driven approach to coworking, visit Labour Cafe. They’re dedicated to giving you the fuel you need to stay focused, whether that’s their locally roasted coffee or the healthy food they serve up, including plenty of veggie and vegan options. Another great laptop-tapping, Seattle-style coffee house with good wifi and and laid-back atmosphere is Fat White, who can prepare anything from cold brew to espresso with tonic. Finally, a great option for people watching and notebook scribbling is Shabby Chic Coffee and Wine Bar in the city’s Old Town.

KRAKOW

The Kingdom of Poland’s medieval capital, Krakow, is resplendent with symbols of Polish statehood and has been the cradle of regional culture since the 14th-century founding of the University, which has long been one of Europe’s most reputable. It was named a European Capital of Culture in 2000 and a UNESCO City of Literature in 2013, one of 28 worldwide. It earned the distinction on account of its 75 bookshops, 100+ publishing companies, and connections with writers such as Joseph Conrad and nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska.

MUSEUMS

Krakow is home to 28 museums dedicated to everything imaginable, from local history to aviation, and Japanese art. The buildings that house these collections are generally just as eye-catching as any of the artwork inside: the National Museum has permanent and temporary exhibitions housed in several different spaces across the city, from the grand main building to a number of intimate house museums where famous Polish artists lived and worked, including the often-hailed “national painter” Jan Matejko. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine is the museum’s prized piece, passed through generations of Polish nobility since the 1700s.

da vinci's lady with an ermine in the national museum in krakow

The Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow is relatively new, but already making waves in the city’s cultural community. It opened in 2010 within an entirely new structure that was designed to blend in with the historical context of its site in the Zabłocie neighborhood, where Oskar Schindler protected Jews from Nazi persecution in the factory that still stands today. The museum’s understated, industrial look is meant as an homage Schindler’s factory and succeeds, contrasting the original building next door without overpowering it. Frequent exhibitions such as Violence and Memory explore the anthropological consequences of occupation, using the city’s history as a touchstone for the gallery’s content.

The city’s most expansive and ambitious collection is appropriately housed within the Royal complex at Wawel. The Castle museum’s main exhibitions include the state rooms, treasury, and armory. Amongst the more unique offerings, though, are the monumental Flemish tapestries and assortment of Oriental objects, including Turkish war tents and Persian rugs that passed into Polish lands through both conflict and trade over the centuries. The museum constantly acquires more Polish heirlooms scattered across Europe with time, recently regaining countless gold and silver objects and traditional silk sashes known as Kontusz.

a woman browses pieces of stained glass in a workshop
a stained glass artisan at work

As seen in the header photo for this article, the Krakow Stained Glass Workshop and Museum is a delightful hidden gem of the city’s creative scene, having continuously operated in the same purpose-built space since 1902. Essentially commissioned for all stained glass projects in Poland, the workshop has artists constantly at work to observe during your tour, allowing you to see the process unfolding before your eyes as you learn about this timeless and precious craft. You can even book an intensive two-day course on how to create stained glass yourself, a unique and unforgettable experience for those who have several days in Krakow.

wawel castle in krakow poland

MUSIC & PERFORMANCE

In the realm of performing arts, Krakow displays perhaps its most versatile and far-reaching cultural achievements. While it might have surrendered the title of capital city to Warsaw, Krakow does not play second fiddle in any regard. Music, opera, and theatre thrive in beautiful venues across the city that were all constructed at times when Krakow wanted to reassert its position on the world stage. If you’re seeking immersion in Poland’s literary canon, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre is the place to go. They often adapt the poetic tragedies of Poland’s “Three Bards,” one of whom offers his name to the establishment. This year they will also host the Polish debut of God of Carnage, a landmark comedy adapted for the stage in London and New York to huge success, culminating in the 2011 film starring Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet.

Of course, Krakow would not have developed its reputation as a theatrical mecca without its prominent avant-garde scene, which grew from the counterculture of the 1960s that flourished in Poland just as in other countries. Today, Theater STU remains at the forefront of the alternative movement that it spearheaded in the mid-twentieth century, still directed by its founder Krzysztof Jasiński. It was founded as an amateur collection of student thespians who desired to escape the mainstream, and they did so with enormous success, going on tour in twenty countries with their productions in just the first nine years of existence. In 1975, they turned professional and consolidated their place as a cultural institution of Krakow and Poland at large.

horses in krakow's old town square

Krakow also has a legacy of virtuosity in music performance, particularly chamber, orchestral, and classical. It is the only city in Poland to claim two champions in the International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw. Likewise, the Krakow Opera is both prolific and innovative, constantly engaging audiences in the city in new ways; without a permanent residence until 2008, they performed in bold natural settings, including the UNESCO heritage site Wieliczka Salt Mines in 2003 with a production of Madame Butterfly. Capella Cracoviensis also perform Mozart’s operatic works in a professional capacity at the Krakow Philharmonic. And as with the theatre, Krakow promotes the avant-garde just as much as the mainstream, and what better way to do so than with a Jazz festival?

CINEMA

Krakow’s relationship with the film industry is as long and fruitful as that with performance art, though it is rather more specialized by comparison. In particular, the annual Krakow Film Festival has been dedicated to documentaries, animations, and short films since its first iteration in 1961. That tenure makes it one of Europe’s longest-running competitions in these media, and it has attracted international pioneers of film such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Warner Herzog. It also might boast the coolest name of an award ever, the “Dragon of Dragons,” which is equivalent in importance to a lifetime achievement award.

Keeping with the theme of cool names, Kino Pod Baranami (The Cinema Under the Rams) is a local purveyor of the best independent films from around Poland and the world, making it Krakow’s chief entry on the arthouse network mentioned above. The cinema takes its name from the historic palace that houses it, although it’s easily missed amongst the touristy hustle and bustle of the main market square (hint: it’s next to the Starbucks). Their three cozy auditoriums with wide, plush armchairs look like something straight from Mad Men, but these vintage digs screen the latest blockbusters, too.

krakow's old town square

In a good, quiet location not far from the market square is another cinema with a history stretching back to the time of Don Draper. Kino Agrafka (which means “safety pin”), although only opened in its current form in 2009, uses the same facilities where films were screened as early as 1959. The humble movie house quickly won plaudits from enthusiasts around the country, and was even named the best cinema in Poland in 2011 by the national film institute. Much like Iluzjon in Warsaw, Agrafka prides itself on protecting and promoting Polish cinema above all. If you don’t mind reading English subtitles, it’s a great place to escape for a few hours.

COWORKING & CAFES

When the time comes to finally channel all the inspiration you’ve been collecting throughout your time in Krakow so far, you should have no problem finding the space for creativity to flow, in any area of the city. Bióro Coworking is just a stone’s throw from Wawel and makes the most of its central location. Even in the heart of the city, the elegant offices have soundproof windows and lots of natural light to keep you focused and motivated to get back out there and explore after your work. The facilities are also open 24/7, for when the jetlag strikes or you spent a day in joyous procrastination.

Located near a cluster of hotels and hostels in the trendy Kazimierz district, Kalifiornia and iTech Cloud represent two other great options for freelancing foreigners. The former has everything you might need throughout the course of a working day, from any kind of coffee you like to gaming systems when break time arrives. Both have multilingual staff, private offices, and printers, but iTech’s daily tariffs are hard to compete with: 30 PLN for the day translates to just under $8 USD, perfect if you need a space for less than a week.

blossom coffee and food in krakow poland
Photo by Blossom Coffee & Food.

But if you’re like me and still want to try blending in with the student crowd, head to Blossom Coffee and Food in the university district. They serve food, coffee, and cocktails from 8 until 8, so you can always choose your refreshment based on your current progress (or lack thereof). A large, airy garden adds to the considerable indoor space to create a productivity paradise for any mood and project.

POZNAN

This medium-sized, student-friendly, eclectic city in the west of Poland is full of surprises and innovations that could inspire anyone. Although best known internationally as a major center of industry and commerce, the city is rich with history and culture that some believe solidify it as the birthplace of the Polish state, as was famously said by Pope John Paul II on a visit to the city’s Cathedral Island. Those with a passion for architecture and bright, colorful visuals that border on the surreal will take endless pleasure in Poznan.

MUSEUMS & GALLERIES

As with any major city in constantly-modernizing Poland, Poznan has created bold new spaces and undertaken countless restoration projects to honor its past while pioneering its future. Perhaps my favorite thing about creatives is the way they retain child-like curiosity ― and while it might contribute to their perception as eccentric, it certainly makes them great travelers. Creatives’ contributions are also critical in the development of the third place in a community, a concept of space that guided the minds behind the museum at Poznan Gate.

the bridge at poznan gate in poland

Situated directly across the river from the birthplace of Poznan (and perhaps Poland) at the site of Poznan Cathedral, the museum is an interactive experience with exhibits that teach about life in the early settlement here, but is also an architectural call to action that encourages connection with the environment around you. A glass footbridge reaches across from the spaceship-like structure into the original Prussian fortifications of the adjacent island, and standing in the middle affords a great view of the photogenic surroundings. It is an intentional space for reflection and the building of bonds, key aspects of the creative process.

Another city space revitalized through creative means is Stary Browar (old brewery), a shopping and entertainment complex designed with art as its cornerstone ― the idea being that constant interaction with art is the first step in the process of creating more. There are more than fifty permanent installations and seasonal additions, which included dozens of purple Easter bunnies when I visited in April — even one that stood in the restaurant courtyard was over fifty feet tall. The same avant-garde concept of living in a state of constant genesis with art inspired Blow Up Hall 5050, a luxury boutique hotel in the same structure. The hotel’s foyer is like walking around inside David Lynch’s mind, where the main installation is made of screens that project and distort your image in real time, but only if you move. Stand still for too long, and you disappear.

the creative stary browar in poznan poland

For a more conventional museum experience, be sure to visit the Poznan branch of the National Museum, one of the largest galleries in the country containing paintings, coins, applied arts, modern art, and an exhibit on posters and graphic design. It maintains a vast collection of artwork from Poland’s most renowned painters and a respectable number of significant pieces from artists around Europe, including Claude Monet, Diego Velazquez, and Anthony van Dyck.

FILM & PERFORMANCE

While Poznan is a center of industry and young commerce in modern Poland, the city remembers the old saying about all work and no play. The ancient city still knows how to have a good time ― it is home to one of the biggest universities in the country, after all. A lot of local revelry takes place along the shores of the Warta River and Lake Malta, the latter lending its name to an annual theater festival that takes place every June. The festival also includes music and visual arts, which combine together with performance this year in an artistic protest against fascism, empowered by groups from around the world and led by Poznan’s youth.

As with almost everything else in Poznan, a remarkable aspect of the cinema scene is the architecture that houses the screens. The oldest setting of movie screenings in the city is still in operation today at Kino Apollo, a building that dates back to 1846 and retains the interwar art-deco renovations its interior received in the early 20th century. Romanesque columns and grand staircases on the exterior of this former brewery give the impression of walking into a real spectacle. Kino Muza has also been operating since 1908, showing mainly European and local cinema with English subtitles whenever possible. Right now, they are preparing for the release of Quentin Tarantino’s next film by screening his repertoire over the summer.

COWORKING & CAFES

Of course, being a student-populated and entrepreneurial city doesn’t mean fun all the time, but it does mean that the workspaces available are comfortable and conducive to your productivity. Just outside of the picturesque Old Town, Bardzo Cafe has artisanal coffee, delicious food all day long, and a spacious back garden and large tables perfect for making yourself comfortable while you work. Or you can join the students at Stragan in the university district, where you can snack on homemade rolls amidst art deco interiors and let yourself relax a bit so the inspiration can flow.

people work in a cafe in poznan

As a major center of Polish startup culture, Poznan has a host of coworking spaces to suit the needs of individual creatives or teams. Clockwork’s comprehensive list of packages includes short-term access services called “company START” and “copywriter,” joined by longer-term deals appropriately called “freelance” and “cowork.” Depending on which you choose, you can have a desk or office, and if some networking during your time in Poland presented some collaborative opportunities, you can even set up a virtual office here for just 55 PLN ($15 USD) per month to make it even easier to stay in touch with new contacts.

WROCLAW

The capital of Lower Silesia is Poland’s fourth-largest and another incredibly youthful city with a student population of 130,000. It was a European Capital of Culture and World Book Capital in 2016, honors that speak to its ever-growing reputation as an important center of creativity and ideas. An ancient and colorful city, the harmony of old and new urban elements mirrors the local culture’s simultaneous appreciation for high-brow tradition and daring new artistic endeavors: the 13th century gothic cathedral and gargantuan postmodern concert hall both manage to look right at home in Wroclaw, within walking distance of one another but separated by more than 700 years. Get the camera ready, because you’re in for a treat.

MUSEUMS & GALLERIES

Wroclaw’s artistic offerings are amongst some of the more unique in the country, housed in impressive buildings that in the special case of the Racławice Panorama had to be built especially for the piece of art it exhibits. In the late 19th century, there was a movement in Polish painting based on producing artworks of immense size, particularly those which depicted scenes from Christian theology or decisive moments in Polish military history. The painter Jan Styka devoted much of his career to such works, the most monumental of which is now housed in a special circular building in Wroclaw nearby the National Museum. The 49 foot-tall, 374 foot-long painting immerses the spectator in a battle of the Kościuszko Uprising against Russian imperial rule.

the wroclaw riverside in poland

Just across the street in decidedly more conventional, but nonetheless charming surroundings, is the National Museum of Wroclaw itself. The outside walls of 19th-century building that houses the collection are coated in sprawling ivy that gives the impression that it rose from the river alongside it some time ago, and the exhibitions within certainly boast the history to match the aesthetic. Much of the collection also speaks to Wroclaw’s religious history: permanently on display are a large number of wooden church figures, intricately designed to a human scale to adorn churches since the 14th century. The museum also recently debuted the original altarpiece of Wroclaw Cathedral for the first time in hundreds of years, originally created in 1571. As an added bonus, the permanent exhibitions are free of charge on Saturdays.

Wroclaw’s designation as World Book Capital was undoubtedly a nod towards the Ossolineum, one of the largest libraries in the country devoted to protecting rare manuscripts of national and historical importance. The institute is home to the Pan Tadeusz Museum, named after the relic of the Polish literary nation that it houses, Adam Mickiewicz’s eponymous epic poem. Two complementary exhibits explore the concept of nationhood as brought to life in social activism and writing, using the epic of Pan Tadeusz as a centerpiece before modern geopolitics, and then characterizing the lives of two Polish patriots post-WWII, the writers Jan Nowak-Jeziorański and Władysław Bartoszewski.

MUSIC & FILM

While Wroclaw may not be able to boast the same illustrious history in music and film as other Polish cities, it is making tremendous strides in these arenas and has really announced its place on stage and screen in the past decade. After visiting the city, by complete chance I watched the Van Gogh biopic Loving Vincent and discovered that it was created in Wroclaw. If you haven’t seen the movie, this is significant because it is the first ever animated film created using paint; over 100 artists used Van Gogh’s trademark style to create the films 65,000 frames. When you visit Wroclaw, you will understand how only a city so colorful and playful as this could do justice to the Dutch master’s story in such a way.

wroclaw poland cathedral at dawn

It is also fitting that these artists should assemble to push the boundaries of film in a city that hosts the New Horizons Film Festival. Since 2001, filmmakers and critics have gathered at the namesake cinema in Wroclaw (the largest arthouse theater in Europe with 9 auditoriums and 2,500 seats) to screen works that proudly go against trends, marching to the beat of their own drum as they compete in the main competition. The festival has already hosted legendary directors such as Agnes Varda and Alexander Sokurov, and every year focuses a series of screenings from countries arriving on the cinema scene, from Sweden and New Zealand to Iran in 2018.

The world is also beginning to converge on Wroclaw’s music scene, which today revolves around the newly-opened and impressive National Forum of Music. The concert hall and its surrounding public square make up a massive area along the city’s canals that evokes an awesome sense of freedom, which is in turn reflected in the program. The forum hosts all kinds of classic and contemporary concerts and festivals like this summer’s jazztopad, which will include performances by the likes of living legend Wadada Leo Smith, the jazz trumpeter whose song cycle Ten Freedom Summers won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.

COWORKING & CAFES

Whether it’s the summer jazz, epic manuscript, or avant-garde cinema that inspires you, Wroclaw’s sights and sounds will leave you needing a space to pause and reflect. The cafe scene here is just as creative as you are, so choose your own adventure here: for coffee or a cocktail amongst books and artwork, go to Cocofli in the same neighborhood as the music forum. The artistic cafe and wine bar is open until midnight, and is as suitable for a cozy night out as it is for an afternoon pick-me-up. And if you prefer your music spun on vinyl all day long, be sure to check out the popular Vinyl Cafe. Between the records and constant crowd, it will be noisy, so only go if you like a bit of a buzz when you’re hitting the books (they have beer for that, too!).

cocofli creative cafe in wroclaw poland
Photo by Cocofli.

But when you really must get down to brass tacks and batten down those hatches, Wroclaw’s coworking spaces are as convenient as can be. Very close to the old town market square, IdeaPlace caters especially to freelancers and puts the idea of customer service first, even without the obligations that coworking contracts entail. The daily cost of a hot desk in the working space is 50 PLN ($13 USD) and grants access to all manner of office equipment, lockable cabinets, and even a secretary who can arrange airport transfer for you or help you find accommodation in the city. The countrywide network BusinessLink also has a location in Wroclaw, a massive and newly renovated space with probably the most desks on offer in the city (you can take a 3D tour of the offices here).

Like any good creative project, we believe that travel is best done as a marathon, not a sprint, especially in a country with as much to offer as Poland. But however long you spend in the land of the fields, and wherever you spend it, there is always a time and place to get your creative fix. If we missed your favorite spot, let us know in the comments!

Header and other photos by Lily Allen and Kyle Peters.

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Joseph Ozment
Originally from Tennessee, Joseph Ozment is a writer and musician whose relationship with travel was shaped by growing up between the Southern U.S., Wales, and Hong Kong. So far, he's written for a newspaper in Russia, released a handful of home recordings, and started a novel (with plans for more, someday). When he's not busy running country roads or cheering on Liverpool FC, he's most likely making the next cup of coffee, or plans for the next trip.