Having visited Olsztyn in the gloriously sunny March of 2022 – it’s high time I revealed the best things to do in Olsztyn Old Town and the surrounding area.
Let’s start with three pedestrianised streets in the Old Town which lead up to the High Gate (Wysoka Brama):
Top things to do in Olsztyn
1. Stroll along Prosta, Stare Miasto and Staromiejska Streets
Admittedly, the pedestrianised streets of Prosta, Stare Miasto and Staromiejska don’t have the glitz and allure of, say, Gdansk’s Długa Street or Kraków’s Floriańska. However, these streets still have their own unique charm and history. For instance, Staromiejska, which stretches from the High Gate to the north-eastern part of the Old Town Square, contains numerous eye-catching tenement houses. Some of them have been reconstructed, and some partly renovated.
The famous German architect Erich Mendelsohn was born in the house at what is now 10 Staromiejska Street. Check out the plaque, which commemorates Mendelsohn’s place of birth, embedded on the wall on the side of the building just around the corner on Świętej Barbary Street. Early on in his career, Mendelsohn designed many buildings in Germany. Thereafter, he designed structures in England, Israel and America.
At the southern tip of the Old Town, Prosta Street takes you uphill to the south-eastern corner of the Old Town Square. Give or take a few metres, Prosta Street starts at the St. John of Nepomuk Bridge*. A monument dedicated to St. John, the patron saint of Bohemia, decorates the bridge.
* St. John of Nepomuk – One of the best known patron saints of the Czech lands. He was drowned in the Vltava river under the order of Wenceslaus IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that afflicted Bohemia at the end of the 14th century
2. Soak up the atmosphere on the Old Town Square
Sitting outside Si Si Coffee cafe on such a glorious March day, I commented to my wife just how quaint the Old Town Market Square was. Compact, architecturally diverse, well-kept. The Main Square in Olsztyn is not in the same league as Krakow’s main square. However, it still has its endearing charms.
“Burmistrzówka”, located at Stare Miasto 11, is the oldest tenement house on the marketplace. Indeed, it is the oldest residential brick building in Olsztyn. Johannes von Leysen (Jan z Łajs), the first mayor of Olsztyn, lived in the “The Mayor’s House”.
The Old Town Hall
The obvious eye-catcher in the Old Town Square is the Old Town Hall (Stary Ratusz). In its present form, the Old Town Hall is a three-winged building consisting of a yard closed by arcades and a glass, pitched roof.
Constructed after 1500, the gothic southern wing of the Old Town Hall is one of the oldest relics in Olsztyn. However, it was most likely built on the site of an earlier building that was used by councillors. In a 2004 paper, historian and author, Wiesława Chodkowska cites another historian, Jerzy Sikorski, whose study of archival documents dates the construction of a brick gothic town hall to around 1380 and connects it with the existing building.
Moving on in time, the new building burnt down during a huge fire in Olsztyn in 1620. The Town Hall was reconstructed in the years 1623-24, significantly changing its appearance. Most notably, a turret was added, and the size of the body was enlarged, lending it a more baroque appearance. The cellars and the ground floor were transformed into a market hall. Another major renovation of the building took place in the years 1767-1770.
In 1945, the Red Army captured Olsztyn and burnt down the Old Town Hall. The body was rebuilt in 1946-49, but without the turret and other characteristic architectural features. These elements were only restored during a general renovation in 1996-2003. It was during this phase of renovation that the façade of the southern wing acquired its stunning gothic appearance once again.
Nowadays, the entire building is occupied by the Provincial Public Library.
Before you continue reading, check out this video of Olsztyn from our partner Youtube channel:
3. Visit the Castle and Museum of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn
No stay in Olsztyn is complete without visiting the fourteenth century Castle of the Warmian Cathedral Chapter and the Museum of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship.
Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the Castle is Copernicus’ astronomical table. Copernicus drew the table on the wall of the castle cloister. He used it to observe the Sun and to establish the spring and autumn equinox:
I wrote extensively about the Castle and Museum in a previous post. Check it out here.
Do enjoy this video which highlights the best parts of the Castle’s courtyard and interior spaces which are open to the public:
4. Stroll around the Castle Park
It doesn’t happen often that a park takes my breath away. In recent years, Gdansk’s Oliwa and Oruński parks have only really managed such a feat. Olsztyn’s Castle Park (Park Podzamcze) is a true showstopper with a unique atmosphere. This atmosphere mainly stems from the fairytale-like view of the castle and the Łyna River merrily flowing nearby.
A comprehensive revitalisation of the park, ending in 2015, preserved its most vital elements. The fountains, including the famous “Fish with a child” fountain, and existing walking paths were renovated. There are also new cycle paths, a playground and footbridges across the river.
Overall, taking a leisurely stroll around Castle Park is arguably among the most amazing things to do in Olsztyn.
5. Admire the views of Olsztyn from the Astronomical Observatory viewing deck
Olsztyn’s Astronomical Observatory is located at Żołnierska 13, a short walk away from the Old Town.
The Astronomical Observatory is situated inside the walls of a former water tower. In 1899, modern city waterworks came to Olsztyn.
Beginning its operations in 1979, the Observatory’s aim was to serve educational functions and to popularise science. The tower has an elevator which leads visitors up to the viewing terrace in no time at all.
The observatory tower is not tremendously high (24 metres). However, as you can see from the pictures below, the views are spectacular enough.
6. Admire the Warmian gothic architecture of St. Jacob’s Co-Cathedral
St. Jacob’s Co-Cathedral in Olsztyn (Bazylika konkatedralna św. Jakuba w Olsztynie) is worthy of every visitor’s admiration.
Rising gracefully in the heart of the Old Town, construction of the Cathedral ended at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is the oldest religious building in Olsztyn.
The Cathedral gained its present form, consisting of seven storeys, only at the end of the 16th century.
In my view, the most characteristic element of the Cathedral’s gothic architectural style are its tall stained glass windows.
Over the centuries, the Cathedral was destroyed, renovated and rebuilt many times. Certainly, the nineteenth century was the most difficult period for the temple as its equipment was almost completely destroyed during the winter of 1807. Napoleonic troops locked up around 1,500 Russian prisoners of war inside the church. Amidst icy conditions, the prisoners burned everything they could. The fire damaged the structure of the building, eventually causing its vault to collapse in 1819. Another fire damaged the main altar at the end of the nineteenth century.
Inside the church, one can see, among other wonders: a tabernacle from the Middle Ages with a Renaissance painting decoration and a gothic grating, a marble baptismal font from the 17th century, baroque figures depicting saints, the throne of Warmia archbishops, a pulpit from 1913 and impressively decorated late Gothic pews. The organ restored in 2006-08 is another standout feature.
In 1965, the temple became the tomb of Warmia bishops. Eight years later, In 1973, it was granted the rights of a co-cathedral. In 1992, it was called an archcathedral, and since 2004 it has been a minor basilica.
St Jacob’s Cathedral and Pope John Paul II
One of the most noteworthy events to occur at St Jacob’s in recent centuries was the visit of Pope John Paul II. The Pope celebrated a mass in the Church during his fourth Pilgrimage to Poland in 1991.
7. Feel a part of history at the High Gate
As you can see from the picture below, it doesn’t take much more than twenty seconds to gaze in wonder at the High Gate (Wysoka Brama).
However, this massive gothic structure is one of the most symbolic monuments of Olsztyn. Indeed, it’s the most impressive remnant of the mediaeval fortification of the city when its chief functions were defence and observation. Moreover, the High Gate is the only preserved gate of the three original gates (the others are: the Dolna and Młyńska gates).
Erected in the late 14th century, the High Gate’s rise to notoriety coincided with the enlargement of the city alongside the movement of parts of its walls, which commenced in 1378.
Previously, the High Gate was called the Upper Gate. Its present name came into use in the 19th century.
8. Catch the sunset over Lake Ukiel
Let’s move away from the Old Town to Lake Ukiel, in the northwest part of the city.
My wife and I stayed for two nights in the Przystań Hotel & SPA which is located right on the southeastern shore of the lake.
Sunsets over Lake Ukiel are a true sight to behold.
Check out the post in the link above and this short little video to get a feel for everything Ukiel has to offer:
9. Head to Jezioro Długie for a true urban oasis experience
As I wrote about in a recent post, spending an hour or two strolling or cycling around Jezioro Długie is undoubtedly one of the most underrated things to do in Olsztyn.
I’ll spare you the details here. Check out the link above and this short film:
First-rate things to see and do in Olsztyn | The best of the rest
So, above, I’ve described my personal top things to do in Olsztyn.
Let’s check out the best of the rest things to see and do in the city:
Admire the architecture of the New Town Hall
Located on Pope John II Square, just a short walk northeast of the High Gate, stands the New Town Hall.
Built in the early twentieth century, the Town Hall is a majestic masterpiece of Neo-Renaissance architecture, as you can see below:
Check out historical astronomical instruments and catch a night sky show at the Astronomical Observatory
Apart from heading up to the viewing tower, the Astronomical Observatory offers visitors the opportunity to learn about ancient astronomy and see replicas of three of the instruments used by Nicolaus Copernicus.
On the second floor, visitors may view a rich collection of meteorites.
Make sure you get a free welcome information guide which is in English. This explains everything you need to know about the instruments, meteorites and cosmic rays.
Finally, the Astronomical Observatory holds night sky shows which take place on the condition of clear weather.
Visit the Planetarium
A visit to the Astronomical Observatory should go hand in hand with a visit to the Planetarium.
The Planetarium possesses the DigitalSky 2 digital projection system that enables the display of astronomical shows via FullDome technology.
One of the most popular screenings conducted live by an astronomer is called the “Journey through the solar system”.
Amble around Central Park
Designed in the English style, Olsztyn’s Central Park boasts a well-thought-out infrastructure with countless natural landscape features and recreational values.
Central Park’s main draw is the elliptical fountain surrounded by huge hemisphere-shaped boulders that are partially submerged in water. These hemispheres symbolise the solar system, in honour of Copernicus’s astronomical pursuits and stay in Olsztyn.
Have a cold glass of Kormoran
At our hotel, I sampled a wonderful local classic pilsner beer – the Kormoran Jasny.
Containing five varieties of hops, it’s a bright (jasny) beer brewed according to traditional methods.
Check out the various kinds of beer brewed by Kormoran here.
A nice cold glass of Kormoran beer – a fine way to round off this post and your stay in Olsztyn.
Chodkowska, W., 2004. ‘Stary Ratusz w Olsztynie, czyli historia w dokumentach i budowli’, Wiadomości Konserwatorskie (Journal of Heritage Conservation), vol.15, 26-32