Two’s company: the lure of Toruń and Bydgoszcz

City of water: rivers and canals run through Bydgoszcz. Kalbar/TFN

A tale of two cities: Bydgoszcz and Toruń are medieval trading centres and also modern and bustling hubs of culture, tourism, and art. Although often considered at odds with each other, the two neighbouring cities have both a rich history and a more modern face to offer to visitors, each with their own twist.

For years, Bydgoszcz was seen as the ugly duckling of the two cities, which are located only 40 kilometres from each other. Both are well connected and easy to reach  - just a couple of hours by train from either Warsaw or Gdańsk.

Old granaries in Bydgoszcz.Kalbar/TFN

Owing to its own little Venice (an eclectic complex of tenement houses and buildings along the River Młynówka ), the River Brda, which passes through the middle of the city, and the Bydgoszcz Canal many of Bydgoszcz’s most interesting spots are connected to water and life around it.

The origins of Bydgoszcz date back to the 10th century and the early days of the Polish state. A settlement on the junction of the Brda and Vistula rivers, it was used to guard the crucial trading routes, and quickly developed into a strategic stronghold.

Water runs through Mill Island.Kalbar/TFN

A source of contention between the Teutonic Order and Poland in the 14th century, it finally came into Polish hands from 1343. From then on the settlement received city rights and a number of royal privileges, and became an important trading centre and competitor to nearby Toruń. Granary houses on Grodzka Street, although built several centuries later, represent the trade-orientated side of the city.

Although the Old Town Square and its restaurants are worth dropping into, it is a great idea to venture slightly further and discover the varied architecture of Bydgoszcz. From neo-gothic and neo-baroque, to beautiful modernist and Art Nouveau houses along Cieszkowskiego and Gdańska streets, the city has something for everyone.

It is also a city of music and theatre, with several music and art schools such as the Feliks Nowowiejski Academy of Music. The Opera Nova and the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz are the places to go for quality performances by graduates of the esteemed schools.

The Opera Nowa overlooks the Bydgoszcz Canal.Kalbar/TFN

While in Bydgoszcz, it is impossible to miss the Mill Island. Renovated from 2004 to 2012, it is the best spot for a bit of culture and recreation. A green enclave in the heart of the city, the island is the location of four museums, including the Modern Art Gallery, the European Money Centre, Archaeological Collections and the Leon Wyczółkowski House.  The nearby marina offers kayaking, pedalos, and even enormous swans in which people can use to see Bydgoszcz from a different perspective.

For those more into sport and nature, Bydgoszcz has Myślęcinek. The largest city park in Poland, it’s located five kilometres from the city centre. Covering 830 hectares, it has a large forest area, a zoo, a botanical garden, different recreational areas for a variety of sports, as well as an amusement park in the style of Jurassic Park, complete with real-life seized model dinosaurs.

Gothic star: Toruń is called the “Pearl of the North”.Kalbar/TFN

The charming city of Toruń, with its cobbled streets and medieval old own, which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1997, is called the Pearl of the North for a reason. The hometown of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, poet Zbigniew Herbert, and outstanding gingerbread, it’s a perfect spot for a city break or a longer relaxing stay.

The origins of the town date back to the 13th century. Established by the Teutonic Order, it still has the red brick fortifications as testament to their rule. These include the castle ruins and the walls surrounding the Old and New town, Toruń’s two historic districts.

The town was mostly left untouched during World War II, which led to the preservation of the medieval urban plan – narrow streets, central squares that were once markets, and the aforementioned fortifications, gates, and defensive towers.

Toruń viewed from the other side of the Vistula.Kalbar/TFN

As such, today it provides a perfect representation of how life in the Middle Ages once looked, when the city was dependent on its proximity to the River Vistula, and the trade that took goods north and south. Toruń, back then known as Thorn, joined the trading Hanseatic League in 1280 – a move which contributed to its wealth and development. 

An example of Gothic architecture, Toruń’s Old Town Hall, is a 14th-century building towering over the Old Town Square, and houses the regional museum. Reconstructed and enlarged several times, it is living proof of the prosperity that came Toruń’s way owing to flourishing river trade, the storing of salt and salted goods, and renowned annual international fairs.

Famous son: Nicolaus Copernicus.Kalbar/TFN

It is impossible to visit Toruń without coming across the numerous statues of Nicolaus Copernicus that dot the city. The astronomer who formulated the Sun-centric model of the planetary system lived on what is now Mikołaja Kopernika Street. The gothic house which belonged to his family is still there and is open to visitors.

Toruń, which transforms into a student town from October to June, also has its main university named after its most famous son.

Gingerbread has been made in the city for centuries.Kalbar/TFN

Another ubiquitous aspect of the town is gingerbread. A source of wealth for many merchant families, gingerbread dough was treated as more precious than gold, and was even passed from family to family as dowries.

The Gingerbread Museum on Rabiańska Street is the place to discover the long history of the spicy-smelling biscuits, and how they are made. The museum also gives visitors the chance to make their own out of a dough made from the same recipe that has been used for centuries.

Toruń’s Old Town has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1997.Kalbar/TFN

For those looking for a break from the medieval atmosphere of the Old Town, Toruń offers a respite on the banks of the Vistula – a perfect place for a meal on a floating restaurant, a bike ride, or some bustling nightlife.

With even 1.5 million visitors per year, Toruń, just like Bydgoszcz, is a must-see for any visitor wanting to delve deeper into Polish history and culture.