World War II memorial events in Europe this year have brought increased attention to Krakow and Warsaw, but one Polish city that has yet to gain traction among American travelers is Poznan, one of Poland's oldest cities and the former capital of Wielkopolska, or Greater Poland.
This is likely to change.
Poznan has all the requisite charm Americans typically look for when traveling in Europe. Its vibrant Old Town bustles with outdoor bars, restaurants and shops, and the Royal Imperial Route walking trail wends past historical and cultural attractions.
In addition, Poznan, located about halfway between Warsaw and Berlin, is accessible from either city in about three hours by train, and flights from Berlin to Warsaw via Airberlin and Lufthansa offer additional flexibility for travelers who want to start in one city and depart from another.
Finally, like many parts of Poland, Poznan is a bargain. The country has not yet adopted the euro, and while some aspects of the tourism infrastructure are more advanced than others, it is not hard to find hotels and restaurants that are up to, but priced below, Western European standards.
Among the most important sites in Poznan are the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and Paul, built — and repeatedly rebuilt, in styles that ranged from pre-Romanesque to Gothic — on 10th century foundations, and the Church of St. John Jerusalem, which dates from the 11th century.
In warm weather, the Old Market Square comes alive with shops and outdoor entertainment, and during the winter holidays, it becomes the site of a picturesque Christmas market, with everything from local crafts to regional food and drink.
There is a modern side to Poznan, too, evidenced by the dramatic, multicolored Freedom Fountain sculpture in Plac Wolnosci that turns colors at night, and the Stary Browar (or Old Brewery) shopping center, a combination art and retail space. Familiar franchises like Starbucks and Zara may not appeal to visitors, but the center's artful renovation bespeaks the attitude of a city eager to preserve its heritage while moving aggressively into the next century.
One of the Poznan's most notable geographical features is Malta Lake, host to international rowing regattas as well as a place to rent boats or visit a water park. For families, there is an outdoor amusement park, minigolf and even an artificial ski slope, for visitors who can't wait for winter.
Poznan is an easy jumping-off point for those who want to venture farther into the Polish countryside. My favorite excursion was a 25-minute scenic ride aboard a vintage steam train to Szreniawa, where we stepped back in time at the National Museum of Agriculture.
Far more interesting than its name implies, the living museum dates from the Soviet era and retains much of its ambience. Visitors learn to bake hearty bread using old-fashioned techniques, watch artisans conduct weaving and blacksmith demonstrations, stroll the picturesque grounds or watch folkloric dancing on special occasions.
An hour from Szreniawa is Nowy Tomysl, a town known for having a sculpture garden created entirely of wicker (and boasts the biggest wicker basket in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). While kitschy, the concept is visually charming, and some of the life-size sculptures were eye-poppingly ornate, including a wicker car that seemed real enough to drive away in.
Our final stop was in Olandia, about 40 miles from Poznan, originally settled by immigrants from the Netherlands looking for religious freedom in the 18th century. The Olandia Palace Hotel, where we dined at the manor house and spent the night, pays homage to that history with a number of restored attractions on the grounds, including a working windmill and a restored granary housing some of the accommodations. Overlooking Lake Kuchenne, the property features boating, tennis, biking and a full-service spa with several contraptions for guests to close themselves in for a steam treatment.