“Why Poznan?” asked a friendly expat in a riverside bar.
“Honestly?” I admitted, slightly ashamed, “it was the best deal I could find.” But this enchanting city, Poland’s fifth largest, was turning out to be far more than just a random bargain.
Like most things in 2023, holidays are more expensive than ever before. Recent research by TravelSupermarket for the BBC showed that the average price of a week’s all-inclusive package in Mallorca has jumped by 21 per cent this year, and by 25 per cent in Crete. Holiday mainstays Spain, Turkey, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus are almost 12 per cent more expensive than last summer. However, I was determined to find an affordable summer break for me and my 17-year-old son.
I considered the UK, but costly rail fares and accommodation pushed options above budget. Instead, I turned to Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” feature, which searches for the lowest air fares from a given airport to absolutely anywhere. That, in combination with an amazingly cheap (and beautifully converted) apartment and consumer prices that around a third cheaper than in Manchester, was how we landed in Poznan.
Located along the Warta river in west-central Poland, Poznan is one of four medieval capitals, making it a regular stop for those touring Poland. But apart from during Christmas market season, Poznan is virtually unknown to overseas tourists as a destination in its own right.
Yet the city cultivates a thriving arts scene, alongside a large student community. It’s also compact and easy to get around. And in summer, all that comes with the bonus of an outdoors lifestyle.
In Stary Rynek, the medieval market square, colourful houses huddle around the town hall, the stage for Poznan’s main event. Every day at noon, two mechanical goats emerge from the building’s clock and butt heads, to fanfare and applause. Construction is happening in this old part of town; the ground is uneven in places and things are cluttered and busy. But it’s still very pretty, and there’s so much more to explore that we weren’t going to let a few JCBs ruin our trip.
You don’t have to be in Poznan long to spot the Watcher, a dinky street art character with a periscope eye by local artist Noriaki. When you’ve seen the figure once, you start seeing him everywhere: peering around doors, relaxing with a drink – even as graffiti, indicative of the city’s impressive street art scene.
Poznan might be around 250 miles inland from the coast, but in summer there is no shortage of sunshine and sand. We visited water park Termy Maltanskie, at Lake Malta, 2.5 miles out of town. It has 15 pools and 11 slides; included in the reasonable entry fee – around £13 for half a day – is a white sandy beach, with sun loungers and parasols. We could have been in the Mediterranean, were it not for the views across the lake, towards a dry ski slope and toboggan run.
Lakes are hubs of leisure in Poland, with life often revolving around them in summer. Deep in a green forest, a £4 taxi ride from town, we discovered Lake Rusałka and its golden sandy shore. With a modern restaurant in the old boathouse, numerous bars, pedalo hire and a children’s play area, it’s made for sunny days. Sadly, the water was out of bounds because of micro-plankton, but the helpful lifeguards told us about safe swimming spots within a mile or so.
If they’re not heading out to the lakes, Poznan’s residents are relaxing on the banks of the Warta. In the evenings, there’s a lively but laid-back atmosphere along the river. We loved Kontenerart, a pop-up with yet another sandy “beach”, deckchairs, live music and containers housing a gallery space and street food stalls. Overlooking the river island that’s home to Poznan’s cathedral, it’s the perfect place for dusk drinks.
Another favourite was the magical Ogród Szelag; a bar with hammocks and comfy chairs huddled in a lush garden, teeming with butterflies and bees. There, immersed in nature, I almost forgot we were on a city break.
But there are plenty of urban attractions. We visited the brilliant Barbie exhibition in the Museum of Applied Arts, housed in the former royal castle, and the luxuriant Palm House, with its 10 plant-packed pavilions.
We dipped into Stary Browar, the enormous former brewery building that’s been converted into a shopping centre. Expecting it to be like any other mall, we found a great art gallery, plentiful places to eat and an unexpected park beyond its red brick façade.
I’m used to scrimping on holiday, heading to the supermarket on the first night to stock up on pasta. But Poznan’s thriving food and drink scene is so cheap that I was able to treat us to unforgettable meals out. An average three-course meal for two costs around £30. We enjoyed delicious pierogi, filling brunches and exquisite pastries (try a St Martin’s croissant, filled with white poppy seeds and almonds).
A highlight was cauliflower steak and patatas arrugadas at Patio Provence, atop the Kolegiacki Hotel, with its very own Watcher. The flowery terrace has spectacular rooftop views.
As my son has got older, it has been hard to find holidays to suit us both. I love nothing more than a book and a beach; he prefers the excitement of a city. In Poznan, very happily, we found both.
Poznan is served by Ryanair and Wizz Air.
Train travel is by Eurostar to Brussels or Amsterdam, then onwards to Berlin and Poznan, raileurope.com
Opera Hostel has apartments sleeping four from £59 per night, opera-hostel.pl
Blooms Boutique Hotels has double rooms from £31, blooms.com.pl