The best things to do in Bialystok Poland
This post is about the best things to do in Bialystok Poland. Bialystok is the largest city in the north eastern part of Poland close to the border with Lithuania and Belarus. The name Bialystok translates as white slope and also refers to the river Biala reka.
Legend tells that Duke Gediminas from Lithuania was on a hunting trip and spent the night in a beautiful place next to a clear stream. Gediminas called it Bialystok, although evidence shows that people already settled next to the river long before Duke Gediminas was even alive.
I had never heard of the city before, but it was a convenient place to stop in between Kaunas and Warsaw. Furthermore, it is not far from the Bialowieza forest and other sights in the Podlasie province. Even though there are not a lot of things to do in Bialystok, it was a nice place to visit.
Why visit Bialystok Poland
Bialystok is the capital of the Podlasie region. A remote area that is well worth exploring for its natural beauty. The city makes a great base to see this vast region with its primeval forests, wetlands and marshes.
For me too, Bialystok was a necessary stop on my way elsewhere. Yet I found it a destination in its own right and I really enjoyed my time in the city. There are just enough things to do in Bialystok for a full day of sightseeing.
Like Lublin, Bialystok was a town at the crossroads between east and west. At times it belonged to either Lithuania, Poland or Russia. Bialystok was a city that thrived. Early on, rich families like the Branicki built lavish homes and estates. In the 19th century the city grew with the development of its active textile industry.
Things looked good for Bialystok until the first and second world wars. Both the Germans and Soviets occupied the city. While the Germans killed most of its Jewish people, the Soviets deported thousands of Poles to Siberia.
After WW2 the city was in ruins, but rebuilt to its former glory soon after that. Nowadays, Bialystok is a charming city with a pleasant atmosphere. Few tourists make it this far east and the lack of tourist crowds gave it a more authentic feel than other cities in Poland.
Things to do in Bialystok Poland
Memorial Museum Siberia
The Memorial Museum Sibir just opened its doors in 2021. Personally I think it is among the best things to do in Bialystok.
It’s about the dark days under Soviet occupation in 1941 when more than 300,000 Poles were arrested and deported to Siberia. Bialystok was a very multicultural city by then and among the deportees were Poles from different nationalities.
I found this to be one of the best museums about the deportations in the Soviet Union. Besides Poles, other ethnic minorities like the Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Chechens and others suffered the same fate of mass deportation to Siberia and the steppes of Kazakhstan.
While this museum focuses on the Polish perspective, it gives a strong message about the suffering behind forced migration that so many people had to endure under Stalin’s regime.
The Branicki palace somewhat reminded me of the Tsar’s palaces around St. Petersburg, but then smaller and less opulent. Jan Klemens Branicki built the palace for himself in the 18th century and the actual inspiration came from Versailles in France. The large buildings and gardens reflect his wish to become king of Poland.
Branicki never became king and the palace was left in ruins after WW2. Later it was renovated into the Medical University of Bialystok. The gardens are free to walk around in. You can also visit the palace museum. A mix of exhibitions about polish medicine and the palace itself.
Bialystok Cathedral Basilica
The cathedral basilica is the oldest catholic church in Bialystok. The red brick structure is very similar to other churches in the area. If you visit the Old Market Square you can’t miss it.
Old Market square
The Old Market square is among the most picturesque areas of Bialystok. The most important building here is the town hall that is now home to a museum. Around the market you will find the city’s best restaurants and cafes.
Lipowa street starts at the Old Market square and is the main shopping street of Bialystok. If you follow Lipowa street you will walk past the city’s most attractive sights.
Church of Saint Nicholas
Midway on Lipowa street is the orthodox church of Saint Nicholas. This was the first orthodox church in Bialystok and right now the only eastern orthodox church that survived once Bialystok became part of an independent Poland.
Church of Saint Rocha
At the end of Lipowa street is another church. The modernist Saint Rocha church is a giant white structure that immediately attracts your attention. Personally, I thought it didn’t really match well with the rest of the city. The architecture is quite different from other churches in Poland.
Before WWII Bialystok had a large Jewish community. Like other Polish cities the Germans established a ghetto where thousands of Jews came to live. Most perished in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek.
In 1943 there was a large uprising in the ghetto. A few Jews managed to escape into the forests around Bialystok where they joined guerilla groups. Of those that survived WW2 very few returned to live in Bialystok and there is not much left of its Jewish Heritage.
To learn more about the Jewish history of Bialystok you can follow the Jewish Heritage trail. You will visit all three buildings that were once active synagogues. Without knowing its history they look like ordinary buildings and you would simply walk by. However, if you know where to look you still find remnants of Jewish life in Bialystok
Bialystok is a great city for street art. Sometimes you only need to take one of the little side streets from Lipowa street to find murals on the soviet style flat apartments. The most famous mural in Bialystok is of a girl watering a plant, but my personal favorite was the mural of a Polish grandmother called grandma Eugenia.
The freedom monument in the Central Park is a memorial to those from Bialystok that died during WW2.
The Bojary district is one of the few suburbs that still has some of the pre war wooden buildings that were once so common in Eastern Poland. There is a Bojary route set out by the Bialystok tourist office, but I simply walked through Bojary on my way from the Old town to the Sibir Memorial Museum.
I have to say that really only a few wooden homes remain, but it is still a nice quiet neighborhood to walk around.
Things to do near Bialystok
My main reason to visit Bialystok was to see the Bialowieza forest. This forest is one of the only old growth primeval forests left in Europe. Furthermore, it is home to the European bison.
Bialowieza forest is a unique place to visit in Poland. The forest is on the border with Belarus and stretches out over both countries.
Unfortunately, large parts of the forests were closed due to the migrant crisis. We could only visit the outskirts of the forest, but we did see bison in the wild.
Podlasie is one of the least populated provinces of poland. Other incredible nature reserves include Biebrza, Narew and Suwalkin national park.
Not far from Bialystok is the small town of Tykocin. Tykocin is most famous for its Jewish heritage and large 16th century synagogue that survived WW2.
It’s a nice day trip from Bialystok. It’s a charming place. Besides the jewish heritage there is also a medieval old castle.
The Podlasie province is also home to a small Tatar community. The Tatars are descendants from muslims speaking Turkic languages that roamed the Eurasian steppes.
Tatars settled in Lithuania and Poland in the 14th century and still practice the Muslim faith. In Kruszyniany there is a beautiful wooden Tatar mosque.
It’s a bit further away than Tykocin and it is best to have your own transport. If you do it is a great way to see more of the beautiful countryside of Podlasie.
Bialystok Poland travel tips
Where to eat in Bialystok
Babka: Bialystok is close to the borders of both Lithuania and Belarus. Its cuisine is therefore heavily influenced by its neighbours. Babka restaurant is a great place with the best specialities from Bialystok and across the border. I loved the food here and came back twice.
Where to sleep
Budget dormitory: the youth hostel podlasie is the best budget option in the old town. It has cheap dormitories and most sights are within walking distance.
Budget hotel: The Branicki boutique rooms is a good hotel with very reasonably priced rooms. Very clean and friendly staff.
Budget apartment: In Bialystok your best option if you are a couple is to book an appartment. There is plenty of choice and they are sometimes cheaper than a hotel. Nowy Swiat Leza has clean and modern appartments in the center.
How to get to Bialystok
Bialystok is in the northeastern part of Poland close to the border with Lithuania and Belarus. The most sustainable way to travel is by train and there are frequent trains to and from Warsaw
How to get around
The main sights of Bialystok are all within walking distance of the old market square. The Sibir memorial museum is a bit far from the center, but I liked the 30 minute walk through the Bojary district with its wooden homes.
When to visit
Bialystok is an all year round destination, although most people prefer the warm summer days. The downside of visiting in summer is that it will be busy and prices for accommodation are slightly high. I visited in winter and although it was cold it had its charms as well.
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