Ostrów Tumski: What to See on Wrocław's Cathedral Island
Ostrów Tumski is the oldest part of Wrocław; it has seen so much history – from its beginnings as a Bohemian settlement named after Duke Vratislaus I, to the earliest years of the Polish kingdom, through its time as a German city, and back into Polish hands where it has blossomed over the last 20 years.
Undoubtedly, one of the most famous – and stunning – sights of Wrocław is the view of Cathedral Island from the Xawery Dunikowski Boulevard, across the Oder River. From that point, you can see the length of Cathedral Road, marked from left to right by the Tumski Bridge, the Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and Saint Bartholomew, and the two towers of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.
It won’t take you long to realize that Cathedral Island is exactly as its name suggests, full of church buildings. Although there’s no nightlife and shopping here, it’s far from being a monastic and boring place.
Don’t be tempted to skip this stop in Wroclaw – Ostrów Tumski also has some hidden gems. Below, I show you 5 spots that you shouldn’t miss.
The Lamplighter of Ostrów Tumski
Ok, so this one may not be the most important of the five, but it is my personal favorite!
Walking down the quiet cobblestone streets of the Ostrów, you feel as though you are secluded from the rest of busy Wrocław. If you happen to be in the area on any day around sundown, you will likely catch a black-cloaked figure in a top hat, making his rounds to light the gas street lamps of Cathedral Island. Wrocław’s lamplighter is used to pictures and videos, so don’t worry about stalking him for a few minutes to get some good shots.
Gas street lamps were once common during the 19th century. All major cities had them and the lamplighter was a respectable profession. In the evenings, he would go around lighting each lamp before it got dark and later wake up at sunrise to extinguish them all. Wrocław is one of the two remaining European Union cities where there are gas street lamps (the other being Zagreb in Croatia).
The Aboveground Remains of the Piast Castle
Did you know there once was a castle right in the heart of Wrocław?
One of the two oldest buildings on the island is Saint Martin’s Church, which now appears to be a modest standalone church. However, when it was first built in the 10th century (first as a wooden structure, then in brick in the 13th century), it was part of the Piast dynasty castle wall. The Piast Dynasty, headed by Mieszko I, was the first dynasty to rule the Kingdom of Poland in the 10th century.
As a natural island, Ostrów Tumski was the perfect spot for this castle, since it was surrounded by the Oder River and posed a challenge to cross. Unfortunately, the castle no longer stands during the present day and its only remaining trace above the ground is the church. During the years that Wrocław was a German city, Saint Martin’s Church served as a Polish cultural center, allowing the smaller Polish population in the city to congregate and attended masses in their own language.
The Silesian Piasts: The Black Sheep of the (Piast) Family
Directly across from the Church of St. Martin is the Notre Dame House. This unassuming bed and breakfast contains a small cafe that is open to the public. I recommend stopping in to Saint Hedwig’s Cafe (Kawiarenka św. Jadwigi) not necessarily for its coffee and cake, but because you can access the underground remains of the Piast Castle, later the castle of the Silesian Piasts, from this cafe. This is definitely a quieter-kept secret of the Ostrów.
Who were the Silesian Piasts? The Silesian Piasts were an offshoot of the Piast dynasty I noted above. The head of the this dynasty was Władysław II the Exiled who, as his name suggests, was exiled after he tried to take control of all of Poland in the 12th century. He inherited one part of the Kingdom of Poland (the part encompassing Wrocław and Ostrów Tumski), which his father, Bolesław III the Wrymouth, divided up and left to his four surviving sons after his death. King Bolesław III’s intention was to keep the peace between his sons by giving them equal shares of the kingdom; instead, war broke out between them when Władysław II the Exiled attacked his brothers.
The Book of Henryków at the Archdiocese Museum
The Archdiocese Museum, built in 1898, contains many artifacts from the Piast dynasty and the earliest history of the Kingdom of Poland. However, the one thing you should make time for here is the Book of Henryków. The Book of Henryków is a latin text that features the first sentence ever recorded in (Old) Polish, from 1270. The chronicler overhears a husband say to his wife “Let me grind and you rest.” He leaves no doubt to the language spoken, as he introduces the text in latin, saying, “this is in Polish.” The Book of Henryków is an amazing piece of Polish history and in 2015 was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World register, which seeks to preserve documentary heritage.
Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist
Measuring 98 meters tall, the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist is a stunning piece of architecture. Its current form is a gothic brick cathedral dating back to the 13th century. The original church structure on its site was wooden and dated back to the 1oth century. It’s beautiful year-round but particularly charming in the winter when Cathedral Road leading up to it is decorated in white holiday lights. The two towers are iconic and the view from the top is worth the trip up. From there, you can see all of the Ostrów and the Oder River. As one of the most iconic symbols of Wrocław, the cathedral should be worth your stop and a few pictures.
So that’s the list – the 5 things I think you should absolutely make time for when visiting Ostrów Tumski. If you’ve been, let me know of any I have missed. Or, if you use this as a guide for an upcoming trip, please report back and tell me how you liked it! I’m curious to know your impressions of this beautiful and unique place in Wrocław.