Gniezno: the First Capital of Poland!

20 Aug 2020
While the people of Poznań are eager to claim their city as Poland’s first capital, anyone with a passing knowledge of Polish history will recognise this as a fib. That title belongs to Gniezno, a picturesque town lying just 50km east of Poz. In all of Poland nowhere is more synonymous with the foundation of the Polish state than Gniezno. Although the capital was eventually shifted to Kraków and later to Warsaw, Gniezno remained an important centre of worship and is still regarded today as Poland’s ecclesiastical capital. For the visitor, it is an intriguing town full of spires and cobbles, a superb medicine to the frantic flap of urban Poland.
Gniezno - Poland's first capital is now a picturesque town lying just 50km east of Poznań

The Nest of Poland!

               Lech encountering the white eagle's nest.
                   Etching by Walery Eljasz-Radzikowski.
The name 'Gniezno' directly relates back to the founding myth of three Slavic peoples, and specifically the journey of Lech.  Whilst Lech's brothers, Czech and Rus, travelled west and east to settle the future lands of Czech and Russia, Lech travelled north where he was confronted by a large white eagle defending it's nest. Taking this as an omen, he chose to stop and settle in the area, which he named 'Gniezno', meaning 'nest' (Gniazdo in Modern Polish) and the image of white eagle became his coat-of-arms!

Whether there is any element of truth to the legend or not, the area around Poznań and Wielkopolska (ENG: Greater Poland) is certainly the cradle of the Polish nation, with some of the oldest sites in the country being located here. When Duke Mieszko I was christened, thus founding Poland as a state in 966CE, the base of the Catholic church in the town effectively made Gniezno the country's first capital! 

Instability in the new country culminated in the Pagan Reaction in the 1030s, where the still-pagan peasant class rebelled against the nobility, who were more-associated with the new institution of Catholicism. The destruction in Wielkopolska at this time was so severe that the capital was moved to Kraków in 1038. For this reason, Gniezno has remained a relatively-small town, just the way we like it!

How to get to Gniezno?

From Poznań, a car trip is about 50 minutes, however regional and intercity trains are comparable in travel time and leave regularly from the main station. The IC and TLK are direct with prices starting at 17zł for the 26-30 minute journey, while the REGIO and Koleje Wielkopolskie (KW) cost 13.50zł and lurch to a stop at every hamlet along the way, extending the travel time to about 45 minutes. Travellers using the TLK train should note that Gniezno is the first stop on the route; don’t expect any announcements alerting you to your arrival. The train station is a simple affair featuring an ATM, newsagent, and cafe, and it's a 10min walk to the Rynek, with the Cathedral lying just beyond - simply follow ul. Dworcowa until you reach ul. Mieszka I, and then follow the latter to its conclusion. Alternatively, 10zł should be enough to get you dropped off in the market square (Rynek) by a cab. Hardcore cyclists can expect an approximately 3 hour trip from Poznań, but the steady ascent to the 'eagle's nest' will really test your calves!

What to See in Gniezno?

Gniezno Cathedral. Photo by Diego Delso.
Poland's foundation as a nation was based on the introduction of Catholicism and what defined Gniezno as an early capital was the stronghold of the church. For this reason, Gniezno Cathedral is the town's main attraction, built shortly after Poland's first leader, Duke Mieszko I, was baptised in 966CE. This makes it one of the oldest standing churches in the country! Before you even enter the building, you will be blown away by the entrance, known in Poland as the Gniezno Doors. They contain 18 bronze panels, each masterfully engraved with scenes from the life of St. Adalbert of Prague, a 10th-century Czech missionary and eventual martyred after attempting to convert the Old Prussians up north (you can see this in one panel, which depicts a Prussian pagan moments before decapitating him).

The most recent, Gothic iteration of the churche's interior was built between 1342 and 1390 and embellished over the course of time, and nowadays it is the Baroque flourishes that steal the show. At one end, the elaborate gold confessio of St. Adalbert is situated, a stunning piece modelled on the tomb of St. Peter in Rome. St. Adalbert remains are the most important Catholic relic in the country. The cathedral also contains a crypt, accessible near the entrance, which holds Poland’s oldest gravestone, the coffins of the country’s past primates (the bishop variety, not mere placental mammals), and the pattern of the tiled floor (which also appears on the 10zł note). The bell tower is open in summer, offering a nice panorama of the town and is only 231 steps to negotiate.
NOTE: Sightseeing is not possible on Sundays.
Guided tours of the Cathedral are available, read our listing for more details!
The ceiling of the Cathedral, defined by gothic arches and supporting brick columns. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo.
If your eyes are still hankering for the sight of more treasure after a trip to the Cathedral, head to the Gniezno Archdiocese Museum to view a lavish collection of ecclesiastical riches: golden goblets, embroidered vestments, state gifts received by cardinals, oil paintings, coffin portraits and even a chalice purporting to have once belonged to St. Adalbert are all presented here. A feast for the eyes that is sure to present moral dilemmas for kleptomaniacs.

Holy Trinity Church
While you might be feeling a bit 'churched out' after visiting the first two venues, the Holy Trinity Church with a Gothic tower, features a ‘millennium clock’ complete with a moving figure of our mate, St. Adalbert! Outside are the only skeletal remains of the ancient city walls which once ringed Gniezno.

The Museum of the Origins of the Polish State, housed in a not-so attractive communist-era building, offers more archaeological displays that are less ecclesiastical, however, through the other media available, the museum's interpretation over all is still angled on a pro-church bias. Of particular note, on of the inhouse films presented speaks of the might of the Polish empire and Christian religion with the "brave and just soldiers of the great King Boleslaus" pitted against "hordes of savage Pagans". The institution is set up more for school children, but it will keep you stimulated nevertheless.


Where to Eat & Drink in Gniezno?

Gniezno received its city charter in 1285, as a bustling area of commerce developed around its market square (Rynek). As would be expected, the historic centre is where you will find the right balance of food and atmosphere. Around here, we really like Misz Masz Café for their coffee, bistro food and youthful atmosphere. Out a little further, vegans should take note of Taka Karma for their superb range of sandwiches, veggie bowls and smoothies. For beer and heavy-duty cuisine, Dobry Browar, a few streets away from the Rynek, should be your port of call. For the obligatory Italian and Polish fixture in town, La Dolce Vita is located just down the road in a repurposed military warehouse, beautiful and rustic.
The Market Square in Gniezno. Photo by Tomasz Sienicki.

The Best Places to Visit in Gniezno


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