Nowhere is the transformation in beer and pub going more stark than in Poland. After dredging itself out from a planned economy, in a matter of a decade Poland had resurrected its brewing scene and as part of a new national fervour and optimism all forms of cultural expression, including pubs and bars have been subject to rapid change.
The major Euro lager brands such as Lech, Perla, Tyskie, Warka, Zubr and Zywiec could hardly have imagined in such a short space of time they would come under such intense pressure from confident, highly skilled and aggressively marketed microbrewing from across Poland.
It arguably started in the early nineties with the formation of Browar Amber, a Pomeranian brewery serving a series of authentic Germanic beers. Across the other side of the country in Krakow, a cellar pub/restaurant called CK Browar was formed with the relatively novel idea of brewing and serving on site in the style of a Brauhaus. Slowly the economics of brewing on a small scale became more affordable, and the demand from the market for a wider choice in reflection of the Western lifestyle Poland now wished to associate with. Opportunities starting presenting themselves all across Poland, with hotels forming with the notion of brewing their own beers, brew pubs doing likewise, and dedicated breweries proactively exploiting a huge gap in the market being complacently filled with bland gassy lager churned out by hulking great conglomerates like Kompania Piwowarska.
By the mid 00s things had started moving apace, Krakow, Wroclaw and Lublin all featuring new central breweries not only selling their beer on site but shipping them into new bars and taking on the generic lagers.
This occurred in tandem with a transformation in the Polish drinking scene, which had previously taken place in sports pubs, cellar bars and bland modern bars. Along with the appetite for new beers came the appetite for new alternative places to drink.
Krakow’s scene changed most prominently in Kazimierz, with crumbling and as yet unexplored buildings ripe for being taken over and changed into atmospheric, antiquey drinking dens, new and yet redolent of a previous era. Once this gained national and even international renown, other cities followed suit. I wrote about this as part of our Days Out feature, here.
At this point craft brewing was able to bypass the struggle to compete with major macrobreweries for tap space by becoming entirely separate entities, latching themselves onto brand new bars and making sure that when the next generation were starting out drinking it was their beers on tap – not the dull lagers listed above. You now have an entirely reversed situation, with the major players using their financial muscle in a desperate attempt to cleave some tap space in craft ale bars.
The polarised nature of beer in Poland at the moment has squeezed some of the medium sized breweries who somehow managed to survive 1980-2005, meaning they are forced to operate in the gaps between the sports bar lager drinking market and the too-cool-for-school craft scene. This is a less healthy situation than Czechia for example where medium sized brewing and a national obsession with bottom-fermented lager has managed to stay the advance of poor quality macro lager and kept craft brewing at the periphery.
Be prepared for some wild and wonderful nights exploring the huge diversity of lively, friendly bars across the country, each of which keeps gradually improving as the years go by. Poland seems to have taken the diversity of craft ale to its heart, and unless the economic weather changes there’s no reason to think that dynamic is going to change any time soon.
Ratings Key (0-10)
Two towns bolted together, you’ll encounter a sprawl with a nice array of turn of the 20th century architecture (some not very well maintained) and a backdrop of the mountains to the south. The nightlife is a little bit spread out, however you will find some interesting hangout spots here and there, and the central brewery is well worth a look, more intimate than most with a proper pub feel.
A sizeable place, so where are the good bars? Frustratingly few venues per capita, what’s more, none of them really stood out. Craft beer can be obtained fairly easily in the old town but not at venues that could be described as distinctive. There’s a low key one, a pizza + craft place and a self-service bar (that while mainstream perhaps is the best). There’s an rock/alternative place too, so there is a variety as such, it’s just that none of them peek their heads up as being beyond the norm. The city has its own charms with a system of waterways and bridges, beautiful painted interior in the Cathedral and an efficient tram system you can bomb around on – but to where?
An intriguing border town which is split between the Polish side and Cesky Tesin on the Czech side. A castle and nice central square, along with being able to merrily pop between Czechia and Poland creates enough interest to justify a night stopover. Bar situation on the Polish side is pretty dire, however and you would be best off popping over the border to one of the Czech pubs.
A sizeable city, and parent of the ‘Tricity’ area on the Pomeranian coast, Gdansk should be and is, a decent city for nightlife. The central streets and quayside area offer enjoyable night-time wanderings, and you’re never far away from a decent pub. Beer and vodka are the currency around here, indeed Gdansk has its own Piwna, Beer Street. You’ll find some passable brew pubs, but aside of that look around for the many theme pubs which are carefully decorated and drum up a cosy, intimate atmosphere. Outside of the old town, Gdansk has a series of working class districts which we are yet to explore, but may unearth a gem or two when we do.
pop. 84, 306
This well-hidden away beauty spot has avoided some of the worst ravages of the 21st century, partly through its now obscure location, north east of the Karkonosz mountains and south west of Wroclaw, another city people (hideously unfairly I may add) aren’t exactly banging down the gates to enter.
Jelenia Gora’s masterpiece is its Rynek, a beautiful sandbox type square which when you’re standing in the middle seems to block out all other sights. It is, without hyperbole, almost dreamlike in effect.
The bar scene is predictably limited, however what there is becomes lively on a Friday night and weekends. Outside of down-to-earth bars like Alibi there is a slightly classier touch with Metafora, a central pub that qualifies as a good all-rounder, with a fabulous view over the arches and curves of the marketplace.
The centre of a huge conurbation of cities, Katowice itself is a reasonable sized ex-industrial city with a grand heritage from the late 19th century which can be seen very quickly after leaving the central station. Its bar scene is reasonably up-to-date with cool café, arty efforts and cutting edge craft beer destinations, albeit on a slightly more provincial level. With some of these only a short walk from the station, this makes exploring very practical. Less than an hour by train from Kraków with regular services running all day, it should not be overlooked.
The “thing to do” on a day trip from Warsaw or Lublin, this historic small town is charming and beautiful, though so fragile it’s alarming to think of the hordes of tourists it must absorb during spring and summer. As you may imagine, nightlife is thin on the ground, given the economic realities of a town where half the customers leave town after 6 in the evening, and where the local houses are becoming second homes for wealthy city dwellers, creating in effect, a near ghost town.
One of the highlights of pub going in Europe, Kraków delivers over and over again. This is thanks to the bar scene that has developed in Kazimierz, only recently ‘discovered’ (in that most millennial way) since the second World War gutted it of its Jewish community. You will find beautiful, ramshackle antiquey venues, old-world décor that create a special intimate atmosphere. Conversely you will find good quality craft beer pubs which still maintain a local character, with Poles mixing in with adventurous tourists. Kraków is enjoying a boom time and as it still has some catching up to do with Budapest and Prague in terms of “Eastern European recognition” in the West, its moment is now, whereas arguably Budapest and Prague have had their first wave moments.
Unusually for a Polish city, activity does not revolve around a central market square but a long thoroughfaire, Piotrkowska, running 2 miles north to south, studded with bars and restaurants with some activity snaking off it. The offerings are reasonable, but not dramatic. Beer lovers will be reasonably pleased with the handful of craft beer bars and there is the typical nostalgia bar and basement pub as you come to expect. It does seem to be lacking the one obvious standout, and that makes it a challenge we’ll need to return to.
When you are walking around Lublin’s small enclosed hilltop old town, you have to constantly remind yourself that you are surrounded by a sizeable, expansive city. The old town plays host to a couple of good bars and a brewery, which are still frequented by locals – Lublin does not receive enough tourist business to scare off/price out Lubliners. Lublin’s shoddy lager is Perla, which has a brewery tap but doesn’t make much effort to pretend it is anything other than a macro sized quantity-over-quality operation. There are clearly some interesting bars to visit in the suburbs too, and that spurs us on to return and discover them.
Poznan and Wroclaw vie with each other for the title of “most undeservedly under-visited Polish city”. For my money, Wroclaw wins hands down. Wroclaw is grander and has far more to do as a visitor. However, Poznan, as many provincial cities, packs a punch when it comes to the nightlife. This was something made apparent immediately on our arrival on a busy Friday night, where the scene was similar to something you’d expect in Newcastle or Hull in the UK, large groups of revellers making a racket, and most bars full-to-bursting. Poznan also offers good variety, meaning there are bars of different themes and priorities to enjoy, making it a colourful city for a night out. Nearly all those you meet are locals, which for such a large city, underlines how few tourists consider travelling beyond Warsaw and Krakow.
Przemysl, pop. 66,756
A border town with a rich history (largely involving the town being destroyed over and over again in territorial wars), Przemysl has a few monuments and a pleasant centre that justify a brief visit. It didn’t seem to us the town was about to fizz into life in the evenings, and after thoroughly exploring we noted only a couple of decent looking venues. Still, it could be worse.
Historic UNESCO-inscripted Toruń is a beautiful city with a gorgeous compact Medieval old town studded with brick gothic religious and secular buildings, and acts as a magnet for nightlife. While there are plenty of decent bars there to explore, the standout in the city – and arguably one for the entire country is Czarny Tulipan, a superbly atmospheric antiques bar in a historic building, which is a half hour walk West from the centre and rates as highly as some of the best Kazimierz bars – quite a feat. You’ll find plenty to love about the city which easily merits a full day and night stop.
Another Polish city where a wander through the centre would misguide you towards it being far smaller than it actually is. That said, Rzeszow is quite low-rise by Polish standards, with less ‘concrete jungle’ than other cities. The nightlife centres on the Rynek, main square. With a truly peculiar venue in Graciarnia, Rzeszow can claim a curio and outstanding bar than many cities can’t. Outside of that you will find a few friendly corner bars that are pleasant to visit, and would surely be regular haunts if you lived there.
Vast, distinctive and eclectic, Warsaw is a patchwork quilt of restored old towns and gardens, hi-rise socialist apartment buildings, inter-war remnants and urban sprawl. This isn’t a city you can easily hop from one bar to another, so find a few bars in each district and plan ahead. Praga is the alternative district with the best choice of nightlife overall, next being Downtown Warsaw with its glitzier but nonetheless pleasant efforts, then the old town with a slightly more touristic offering. There are frozen in time cafés and shacks to be found in among the mainstream modern efforts, up to date cocktail and wine bars, but no particular area that stands up to the crucibles of nightlife in other Polish cities. Eventful, striking, and memorable city to visit, but overall it can’t quite compete with the best, Kraków.
An arguable contender for most overlooked city in Europe, the charms of Wrocław are still virtually unknown. Whether this is contributed to by the pronunciation of the place (“Vrots-waff”) or merely obscurity, I can only hope the trend for cheap flights to provincial Polish cities is giving the incentive to tourists to suck-it-and-see. Wroclaw is a major city. With an enormous grand Rynek, rivalling that of Krakow’s, central Ratskeller brewery Spiz that is a cult venue, ensemble of religious architecture, and sprawling river system, Japanese garden, centennial hall, zoo and one of the largest panorama paintings in existence, there is an absurd heap of overlooked attractions in Wrocław , and we’ll never cease to bang on about it. Added to the above excellent nightlife – whether you base this around the central square, which is a mixture of decent venues and downright tourist traps, or down the side streets, where you will find pubs focusing on craft beer, or antiquey venues focusing on atmosphere, you are unlikely to have a bad time (especially if you stick closely to our guide!). There are also downright peculiarities like Neon Side or Art Café Kalambur, worth poking your head in even if you somehow aren’t interested in drinking there. Prices are cheap, the bars are filled with locals, and the length and breadth of venues worth visiting means you are well-equipped to spend a few days here at least.
This ski resort on the Southern border of Poland is for many the gateway to the High Tatras region. The style of the town runs in accordance with everything you’d expect. Giant wooden lodges, each individually designed, most beautiful, but all striking, there is a distinct absence of high-rise and any sort of dense accommodation, probably deliberately. Well heeled, the nightlife somewhat reflects that, with only a sleepy few venues on the main street, with the exception of Café Piano, a genuine local’s bar with some character, that will be an essential visit if you are into going to bed later than 11pm.
Yet To Visit: Bialystok, Katowice, Olsztyn, Szczecin