Kraków welcomed more than 13 million visitors last year, but Katowice, just an hour’s drive away, has been languishing off the tourist radar for decades. Until now, the only outsiders who had even heard of Katowice were those who used its airport as a cheap alternative to visiting the picture-perfect old town of Poland’s second city.
Fast-forward to 2018 and change is sweeping over Katowice. The city may have lost out to San Sebastián and Wroclaw for the European Capital of Culture title in 2016, but investment in the arts and its “City of Gardens” campaign slogan have stuck. Katowice is now a member of the Creative Cities network and an official UNESCO City of Music. Industrial spaces have been repurposed for exciting arts and music projects, and urban planners are catching onto the fact that 20th-century modernist architecture is cool.
Exploring a post-industrial landscape
Katowice has always been synonymous with coal and steel, but mines here and in the surrounding Upper Silesia region have been operating at a loss since even before the fall of communism in 1989, and many have been forced to close. In a story recognizable to anyone familiar with the devastation caused by pit closures in the north of England, Katowice went on to suffer serious economic decline.
There’s no pretty medieval old town here–Katowice only gained city status in 1865–and until recently, locals put up with a rynek (marketplace) that was essentially a traffic roundabout overlooked by mismatched buildings. A huge urban revamp created a central square to be proud of, a pedestrianized spot where tables are neatly assembled outside bars and cafés and people sip piwo (beer, pronounced pee-vo) and watch the trams rumble by.
The older generation lives in homes in leafy suburbs and they don’t see the attraction of Soviet era–style apartment blocks or city center living. Perhaps some question why the tourist office would provide information about a self-guided walking tour that takes in modernist architectural highlights or why the state supports graffiti at the annual Katowice Street Art AiR. But millennials are moving to the center in droves and culturally savvy visitors will find plenty to discover.
The Culture Zone and Nikiszowiec Part of the city center attraction is the Culture Zone, a government-led initiative to heal the scarred landscape of a coal mining pit that closed in 1999. The zone incorporates Spodek, a stark brutalist building known as the “spaceship” that’s been a landmark building in Katowice since 1971.
Spodek has had new life breathed into it (asbestos tiles are a thing of the past) and hosts major arena tours and events like MAYDAY, an iconic electronic music festival, and Rawa, a one-day international blues festival. You can also get tickets for sports events–ice hockey and volleyball are especially popular.
A walkway leads to the rest of the “zone” and the Silesian Museum where underground exhibition rooms have glass structures above ground for light. Exhibits include Polish art from 1800 to the present day and an outstanding gallery of non-professional art (including work by miners), as well as a history of Upper Silesia and its Prussian, Russian, and German heritage. The original mineshaft dominates the site and you can take the elevator for a bird’s-eye view across the joinery, workshop, forge, and bathhouse.
Just next door, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR) has a new concert hall that’s a major feat of 21st-century engineering. A performance here is mind-blowing, but the building is outstanding, too. Notice the red painted window frames, which are are a nod to Nikiszowiec, a self-contained district about five miles east of the city. Redbrick Nikiszowiec was built to attract coal workers between 1911 and 1924, and it’s a socialist fantasy turned reality. The Nikiszowiec estate was conceived with all mod cons; although it suffered in the 1980s and ’90s, today young people are snapping up flats.
Neo-baroque St Anne’s Church is startling on the inside and there’s an arcade of 1920s-era shops that includes cute-as-a-button Café Byfyi (which serves the best espresso in Katowice) as well as couple of pop-up art galleries. A 10-minute walk away, the Wilson Shaft Gallery is well worth a detour. Modern art is displayed in a vast industrial space, and in summer the gallery hosts the renowned Art Naif Festiwal.
The changing face of Poland
Ask Poles about Katowice and they might say “industrial” or “smoggy.” Locals will point to Park Śląski and tell you it’s twice the size of New York’s Central Park (it very nearly is). They might also mention music.
Like other mining centers, Katowice has a tradition of amateur choirs and orchestras. But with major music festivals and events taking place like big rock and alternative gathering OFF and the more electronic Tauron (as well as Spodek’s MAYDAY and Rawa), Katowice is positioning itself at the center of Poland’s modern music culture.
Katowice isn’t a chocolate-box European city break. Street art is sprayed on the side of modernist high-rises, and weekend nights on pedestrianized Mariacka Street would be best described as edgy. But if you want to see a place where real people live and work, then Katowice is the changing face of Poland, and it’s something special.
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