Lodz used to be a derelict industrial town, but became one of the rising stars of Polish tourism in just two decades. Twenty years ago, it was a city of forgotten factories and crumbling buildings; today it completely reinvented itself. Hip shops and bars, tons of exciting street art, interesting museums and lots of repurposed industrial architecture. Trot Op! booked a city trip and came back with seven things to see and do in Lodz.
In long-gone, mythical times when building a house was not laughably unaffordable yet, people sometimes said Belgians were born with a brick in their stomach. It’s a fairy-tale now, but if there’s still an element of truth in it, my countrymen should feel right at home in Lodz (pronounced woodge). Rarely have I seen more red bricks piled on top of each other than in this somewhat unbeknown Polish destination. This is because until the early 19th century, Lodz was a peasant hovel home to a few hundred souls. Because of the many rivers and forests in the immediate area, it was chosen by the textile industry kingpins to build a ton of factories on. This made the village grow exponentially – it quickly became Poland’s third city – and generated a lot of money (which mostly disappeared straight into the factory owners pockets of course). Many beautiful mansions and even palaces were built in the centre of town, to allow these fine men to look down on their laborers from an appropriate height.
“Powered by the textile industry, Lodz grew from a peasant hovel into Poland’s third largest city in just a couple of decades. Sadly this growth was short-lived. Just a century later every factory stood empty.”
Barely a century later though, Russia turned to communism. This caused the largest export market for textiles to crash. Factory after factory had to close down until eventually none were left. After WWII, Lodz and the rest of Poland disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, which hastened the decline even more. For years it was a city of ruins, full of faded glory and crumbling industrial skeletons. Fortunately they decided to do something about this a couple of years ago.
Loving Lodz: 7 exciting things to see and do in Lodz
Since Poland’s accession to the EU (in 2004 for you quizmasters) people in charge of Lodz seem to have gotten a serious wake up call. Little by little, the city got a make-over: streets were cleaned, facades were restored, and the empty factory halls were transformed into impressive cultural, gastronomic and leisure centres. Of course this is a long-term process that will take many years to fully complete, but the current Lodz is a incredibly different city compared to what it looked like in the 90s. Just like Genk in Belgium, it became a textbook example of what you can do with your industrial heritage before having to tear it down irrevocably. Interesting museums, trendy neighbourhoods and a miles-long boulevard to stroll on: Lodz has it all. It’s just a two hour drive from Warsaw by the way, which makes it perfect for visiting multiple destinations into one trip. Time to go and take a look for myself I thought, and I threw both my clothes and my beautiful bestie Floor into my trunk to set course for Brussels Airport. You snooze, you lose. Et voila: here are the results of our wondrous trip: seven things you should definitely see and do while visiting Lodz. Enjoy!
1. Manufaktura: a new purpose for Lodz’ industrial heritage
As said before, new life has been given to several of the former factory sites in Lodz in the last couple of years. Księży Młyn (pronounce this without spitting all over your shirt and I’ll buy you a beer) is the largest of them and covers dozens of hectares. The cute little workers’ homes were refurbished and reoccupied, and new apartments and offices were installed in the factory halls. Great place for a stroll. The most impressive and fully finished industrial site is Manufaktura in the city centre. This used to be Jewish industrialist Israel Poznanski’s factory, but now it serves as a massive shopping and entertainment complex. Two stages, 250 shops, many a restaurant, a bowling alley, two museums, a climbing hall, a club and the Cinema City Lodz movie theatre: all housed in beautifully restored brick architecture. Quick and somewhat tragicomic fact: because fewer employees needed to operate more weaving machines, laborers used to race through the corridors on roller skates. You might have to work long minimum wage hours turning deaf as a post in the process, but at least you did it in style. www.manufaktura.com
2. Piotrkowska Street: have a stroll on Europe’s longest promenade
The main artery of Lodz – around which the whole city seems to be built – is Ulica Piotrkowska. This is a four kilometer long boulevard littered with shops, restaurants and beautifully decorated facades. It has its own walk of fame in front of the Grand Hotel, and multiple statues are on display to commemorate the city’s biggest names. You can hang out for a whole day here and do some serious people watching. Also lots of fun is that many of the gates giving out on the street offer access to little courtyards and alleyways that in turn are full of restaurants or street art. There are many to discover, but if you want to visit the most instagram-worthy one, you should visit Pasaż Róży near the northern end of the street. This is an alley covered in mirror shards by an artist, making for a very impressive view when the sun is out. Near the opposite end of Piotrkowska you’ll find one of the largest murals in the world, and the colorful Piotrkowska Central Tram Station worth a visit by itself.
3. Party time in Lodz: enjoy the local nightlife in dark corridors
Even after nightfall, the alleys leading from Piotrkowska Street offer quite some entertainment. This is because semi-clandestine looking bars were set up in a number of courtyards. Behind the gate at number 17 for example, lies one made up of several floors that seems to have been randomly put together. It’s full of beach chairs and party lights and you can even enjoy your drink in a multi-person swing. The best known and most obvious spot is Off Piotrkowska. This is a network of alleyways at number 138, that used to be part of a cotton factory. Today it’s a very cosy and popular hipster neighborhood full of trendy restaurants, bars and small boutiques often run by local designers. Fun place to end the day in. www.piotrkowskacenter.pl
4. Lodz Film School: visit one of the world’s oldest film schools
One of the most unexpectedly fantastic visits on the program in Lodz was the one to Lodz Film School (or the L. Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre) where we were shown around by teacher Marcin Malatyński. This somewhat chaotic campus opposite the Zlodriska park houses one of the world’s first film schools. It all started in an old mansion where famous students exchanged ideas and projects on the stairs leading to a small movie theatre (their names are still on the steps). The only one ringing a bell for most of you, would be the infamous but genius Roman Polanski, but many other ex-students enjoyed a great career both at home and abroad. Getting a tour here is a true gift for movie buffs. The nostalgic and movable decors surrounded by a network of old lamps and cameras especially, bring the classic Hollywood magic to life without any effort. In a protected room in the basement, all original film reels by all ex-students are kept and categorised. This includes Polanski’s first attempts at cinema – quite the treasure trove. Individual visits aren’t usually granted, but guided group tours can be booked. www.filmschool.lodz.pl
5. EC1: play a scientist in an old power plant
EC1 (also called the Center of Science and Technology) is in my opinion the best museum in Lodz. It’s located in an old electrical power plant, which makes for another former industrial site repurposed. This museum is so huge and extensive you can easily spend half a day in it. It comes in three different sections. First you walk through the power plant itself, playing all kinds of interactive games to operate the buttons and levers, learning how stuff went down here when it was actually running. Another building is home to a planetarium (which we didn’t visit out of time constraints), and on the upper floors of the plant you can subject yourself to a whole bunch physics tests, which can become both hilarious and quite frustrating. Don’t forget to visit the rooftop. From there you have a view over the entire city, which reveals how green Lodz actually is. It’s surrounded on all sides by forests, and between the buildings lots of small and larger parks can be seen. www.ec1lodz.pl
6. Lodz Orientarium: visit Poland’s most modern zoo
Speaking of parks: Lodz has a huge zoo that got a major makeover this year. With the Lodz Orientarium, a hypermodern building complex was added to the entrance in which a bunch of different animals live together. The main attraction is the gigantic arena serving as an indoor enclosure for two elephants (don’t worry, they’ve got a large outdoor area as well). They got a sweet swimming pool with a glass wall out of the deal, so now you can see them enjoying a bath sometimes (don’t come in the weekend, about five thousand people will block your view). Further inside the building is a brand new aquarium with a large shark tank – the fish were just moved in and still need to grow. Crocodiles, a bunch of different monkeys and a family of orangutans also live in the new building. The rest of the zoo is more traditional, but almost all animals are kept in large and natural enclosures. Somewhere there is also an old and rather arrogant tomcat strutting about, acting like he owns the place. What an asshole. www.orientarium.lodz.pl
7. The Jewish Cemetery of Lodz: reflect on the country’s darkest days
Lodz was once home to one of the largest and most dynamic Jewish communities in Europe – Poland was surprisingly tolerant at the time. At the beginning of the 20th century, some 160,000 lived in the city. Barely 800 of them were still there after WWII ended – shocking numbers. Because there were hardly any family members left to maintain the graves, the large Jewish cemetery of Lodz – more than 200,000 graves – also fell into ruin. The result after more than 70 years of neglect is an otherworldly place where whole forests grow in between and even through the grave stones – as if nature embraced the run-down graves again. The only place where no trees grow is the plain where the 45,000 people who died in the ghetto were buried (most likely because quicklime was thrown over the bodies). Equally shocking are the still-open pits the last remaining Jews were forced to dig for themselves right before they got liberated, and also but in a completely different way, the massive mausoleum of Israel Poznanski. If you want to know more about Lodz during the war, visit the nearby Radegast Station. Here, people were deported to the concentration camps. The train cars are still here, and the list of names kept by the Nazis is on a table inside. Don’t be shocked when a train suddenly thunders through the station. The route is still in use for regular transport, which doesn’t make it any less unnerving.
Interesting hotels and restaurants in Lodz
During our stay in Lodz, we slept in Hotel Stare Kino. This is a cute cinema-themed hotel (each room is decorated based on a different movie) behind one of the gates leading to Piotrkowska Street. Outside, a cover of colorful umbrellas was hung up and a nostalgic little movie theatre was set up in the basement. Great place to stay – despite the bronchitis I brought from Belgium, and the neighbors who seemed to like each other ever so much at 2am. Very centrally located too. www.cinemahotel.pl
The most unique place where we dined (and where we also got our first ski lesson ) was the Ski Resort Lodz. This is a ski school where you can have some Swiss raclette afterwards. Nicely decorated, huge portions and friendly people. www.skiresort.com.pl
Also nice is Piwoteka Narodowa. This is a bar/restaurant near the Grand Hotel. Here you can order a bunch of local microbeers with your food. www.piwoteka-narodowa.ontap.pl
Fatamorgana is an Italian restaurant with a Polish twist on the site of Księży Młyn. Here you can choose from plenty of healthy and vegetarian options.
Those who want to decide on their own will find plenty of options at Ulica Piotrkowska, in Off Piotrkowska or in Manufaktura.
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