Both my grandmothers used to live in Bielsko-Biala, though only one side of the family (my mother's) actually hails from the region, and my aunt and two cousins still live there with their families (plus tens if not hundreds of third/fourth/fifth cousins trice or more removed, but I have completely no contact with them). I spent a part of pretty much every summer holiday in my childhood and teenage years in Bielsko-Biala and thus was spurred by our most recent visit to write something about the town.
To make things clear, I don't think Bielsko-Biala is a destination worth aiming for by itself unless you have specific interest in one of the city's peculiarities. However, if you are nearby anyway or if you are considering a base or stopover in the Podbeskidzie area, Bielsko-Biala might be worth considering.
Any prices below will be given in PLN (Polish Zlotys), at the time of writing the exchange rate was 5.5PLN = 1GBP, and it has been something between 5 and 6 PLN to a pound sterling for the last few years.
**Overview and a bit of history**
Bielsko-Biala is a city of 180 thousands inhabitants in the southern part of Poland in the Podbeskidzie region (foothills of Beskidy Mountains which form part of the greater Carpathian range).
It's located about 60 km directly south of Katowice (the capital of industrial region of Upper Silesia) and about 125 km south-west of the old Polish capital of Krakow, 40km east of the border crossing to Czech Republic in Cieszyn (Cesky Tesin).
Modern Bielsko-Biala comprises of two parts that have been administratively joined only in 1951: Bielsko (Bielitz) and Biala, separated by the river Biala (White) which, rather unimaginatively, has given its name to both halves of the city. The technical separation of the two settlements wouldn't matter much if it wasn't for the fact that Biala river had been a border between different states pretty much until the reappearance of independent Poland after the WW1 in 1918. Originally (from the middle ages), the older settlement of Bielsko was a part of a fiefdom of the Czech crown and through a period of semi-autonomous status under Austrian rule eventually became a part of Prussia. Biala has been within the realm of the Polish crown until the Polish state was dismantled by the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires in the end of 18th century, when Biala became incorporated into the Austrian partition.
Thus the river Biala was a Polish-Czech then a Polish-Austrian , then a Polish-Prussian and eventually Austrian-Prussian border.
Most of the above information has a status of historical curiosity nowadays, the city is completely integrated and the predominant architecture is pretty much the same on both sides of the river, although the Bielsko part does seem to contain more grand buildings. The old locals used to say the best times were had "At the time of the Grandma Austria".
The city lies on historical routes linking the north and east of Europe with the south. Trade has always been important (Bielsko-Biala used to supply the whole of Moravia with salt from mines near Krakow for example), and since medieval times the town was a textile production and trade centre, first making both woollen and linen fabrics and the concentrating on woollen ones. The textiles were still produced when I visited the town in the 70's and early 80's and the river Biala often was anything but white, frequently flowing rich and stinking mauve, dirty green or murky yellow. Nowadays most of the textile factories are gone, though some industry is still making do somehow and the city, albeit noticeably more dilapidated even in the centre than the more showy examples of Warsaw, Krakow or Poznan, shows some signs of slow development and improvement.
Not for nothing Bielsko-Biala has been known as 'Little Vienna': one of the most attractive features of the city is its turn-of-the 19th and early 20th century architecture, a heady mix of historicism in all its guises (neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, neo-Gothic) and Art Nouveaux (known as 'Secession' in the German language circle), moving into more functionalist buildings of the between-the-wars period.
A walk along any of the main thoroughfares will provide excellent opportunities to see ornate, decorative buildings that indeed could find their place in Vienna or Budapest (perhaps after a good sand and water blasting and painting; but more and more of them are getting renovated, at least on the outside).
3 Maja street, a very busy and unpleasant main road leading from the train station towards Zywiec nevertheless boasts many interesting if now rather grime-covered buildings as well the old Kaiserhof hotel (now called Prezydent), a corner building of the Patria restaurant and an attractive Post Office building.
The main pedestrianised shopping drag of 11 Listopada street, which starts at the stairs to the side of the above mentioned hotel Prezydent and takes you across river to Biala will lead to some exemplary buildings including a neo-Renaissance Town hall, Eagle hotel (Hotel Pod Orlem) and, on Wojska Polskiego Square (no 12), my favourite building in town, decorated with pseudo-tower, wall-climbing beetles, oriel windows, and two tipsy-looking frogs feasting over its side entrance (one of them smoking a long pipe and one playing what looks like a lute or a mandolin).
All in all, look up and on most streets in the centre of town you are likely to see a startling decoration, intriguing sculpture or a weird detail of architecture.
The hilltop site of the original medieval castle in Bielsko still dominates the central part of the city, even though the building known as castle now is a 19th century creation and not a very successful one (the castle is visible as the product picture here on dooyoo). It houses the main part of the city museum (7 PLN)and if you have nothing to do it might be worth spending couple of hours looking at ornate interiors and - mostly mediocre but often interesting for their content - paintings upstairs, as well as catching one of the temporary exhibitions organised frequently on the ground floor.
Behind the castle stretches Bielsko old town which every time I visit seems to have more standard European old-townish facilities like pubs, cafes and restaurants. Many of its narrow medieval streets and cramped 19th century small, primitive tenements are still inhabited by the underclass housed in what was designated as social accommodation of the Communist era (good workers lived in new estates of the concrete blocks, the petit bourgeois in the detached houses in surrounding villages and the intelligentsia in the more modern and spacious flats of the 30's tenements or grander buildings from the 19th century). The old town market square was totally dug up when we visited in March 2006, but it's promised to be open and lovely for the summer, if it does then it will indeed be a good place to sit down and have a coffee and cake (Vienna is not so far!) or a cold Zywiec beer (made one few kilometres away).
A 15 minutes walk from the Old Town Market Square along the dilapidated Sobieskiego street will take you to a reconstructed Weaver's Cottage (5 PLN) which in its three rooms houses original objects showing what a house of a master of the Weaver's Guild just before the Industrial Revolution might have looked like. Again, I wouldn't make particular efforts to see this little museum, but if you are walking about Old Town, the detour might be interesting for those with some interest in the history of material culture (and they have a information sheet in English that is possible to understand). The 18th century loom is particularly impressive.
Other notable museums include one devoted to the history of textile industries (at Zwirki i Wigury square) which I have not visited but am mentioning for those interested in the industrial history, as well as a villa of a significant Polish watercolour painter Julian Falat, located out of town in Bystra (reasonably frequent bus no 57 goes there).
Bielsko-Biala is also a major regional cultural centre and the art gallery located at 3 Maja can house surprisingly good exhibitions of modern art, while the puppet theatre Banialuka is well know for it excellent shows for children and adults, featuring both puppets and live actors - we have seen Puss in Boots (and no, it had noting to do with a typical British panto) and were both (me and Katie, aged 5) enchanted and impressed by the quality of the set, the costumes, the acting and the excellent value for money (16 PLN adult's, 12 PLN child's tickets); though I have to say that at least one person with functional Polish would be necessary for others to enjoy that show.
**Out of Town**
The main attraction of Bielsko-Biala is, for most visitors, not what's in the town but what surrounds it. The city is located just at the feet of Beskidy and is a very good base for lightweight exploration of the area as it has transport connections to many resort towns and villages, while many a mountain walking trial actually starts in Bielsko-Biala (or its suburbs).
Even those of you who have no inclination for hill walking at all get a chance to enjoy a picnic at a mountain top (1028m or over 3300 feet above sea level) thanks to the convenient cable car that takes those of us who are less than fit, pregnant or plain lazy all the way up: take a town bus no 8 from the main road (3 Maja/Partyzantow) to the end marked Szyndzielnia and you will be less than five minutes walk away from the bottom station of the cable car. The journey in little "gondolas" that take maximum of 6 people as well as skis (of course), bikes, wheelchairs and pushchairs takes about 6 minutes and is over 1800 meters long, taking the passengers 450 meters up from the bottom level. It's not exactly a breathtaking ride, but a fun thing to do and provides a lovely view of the city and surrounding areas. At the top you can just walk in the wood and laze about on the tufty, springy mountain grass, walk 5 minutes to the mountain hostel to get a drink or something to eat or another 5 minutes to get to the actual summit of Szyndzielnia (nothing impressive but you can get a photo of yourself by the sign).
Those more athletically inclined can walk further half an hour (and another 100 meters up) to the neighbouring top of Klimczok (1117m above sea level) or alternatively take a gentle descent down back to town by any of at least three different routes whose length vary from about two hours (back to the bottom station) to about3.5 if you choose one of the longer routes as the one to Blonia/Bystra or to Wapienica. Tickets for the cable car cost 13 PLN adult return, 10 PLN one way, children and pensioners are 25% cheaper and large items of luggage about half of the normal price.
And for the serious walkers or skiers there are of course many other options, the region's trials and routes are well marked and excellent maps are available as well as Mountain Rescue and weather updates. The popular mountain resorts nearby include Szczyrk, Wisla, Ustron, while a day trip (away from the mountains) could easily take you to Czestochowa, Oswiecim (Auschwitz) or even Krakow (though of course Krakow needs much more than a day trip).
A very nearby attraction worth visiting is the town of Pszczyna, 30 minutes north of Bielsko-Biala by train on the Katowice route which has a lovely market square and an impressive palace housing a museum of interiors (something for fans of stately homes and the like) located in a beautiful landscaped park.
**Food, Drink and the like**
I have to say that I have very limited experience of eating out in Bielsko-Biala as I have been usually a burden on my local family.
The place is generally cheap, cheaper than most if not all normal 'touristy' locations or major Polish cities.
We have only eaten out twice during our current stay, once it was a set lunch in the improbable dining room of the Prezydent hotel at 3 Maja street: improbable as it is one of these places you get in Post-Austro-Hungarian Pos-Communist countries where a splendour of a Viennese style dining room and folded starched snow-white linen napkins is combined with plastic plants and food of very variable standard (from excellent sophistication to lower depths of worker's canteen). All in all, we had a set 2 course lunch for all of 12 PLN each (and they take cards) so if you are nearby and in need between 12 and 16 hours you can give it ago.
The other place was one of the growing array of log-cabin-folksy-inn type of places which have been springing up all over Poland in last 10 years like mushrooms after rain. It's called "Karczma Pod Lotniskiem" (An Inn by the Airfield) and located in the back of Osiedle Beskidzkie, at Zwardonska street, with a good view of the airfield (sports planes and gliders) and the mountains. The best way to go there is probably by taxi (nowhere is far or expensive by taxi in Bielsko-Biala in comparison to places like Warsaw or Tri-City). The place is massive, bigger than any similar other I have visited, built of massive logs and apparently without a single nail. The menu is also unusual, as in addition to traditional Polish and regional folksy cooking they also have more European and exotic dishes, including salmon pasta, beef in oyster sauce and almond trout and carpaccio. We shunned these and had the traditional stuff though, with Zurek (sour rye soup with sausage and boiled egg, much better than it sounds) served in hollowed-out bread and roladki slaskie (beef rolls stuffed with bacon and gherkins) wit dumplings; of which both were very good though perhaps not totally mind-blowing. The Karczma has outside seating as well as a little cave (cabin?) for children (fits about four), sheepskin-lined and provided with crayons and some toys, which is an excellent idea as it means you can drink your beer and talk while the little 'uns run around back and forth between the table and the kid's cabin without getting unduly bored.
Bielsko-Biala was in the Austrian orbit for a long time, which should grant a great cake tradition, but for some reason, although most of what's available in the town's cafes is nice enough, nothing seems that fantastic either. Coffee in Bielsko-Biala is cheaper that I have seen in other places in Poland, we even had a perfectly decent cups of Lavazza at 3 PLN (while I would consider 5-6 PLN to be a normal price).
We have had, however, two great ice-creams, one in the Delicje café located in Chrobrego square (at the bottom of the castle and by the subway under 3 Maja street) dating to communist times (I remember its opening!), now somewhat smaller but still serving pretty much the same selection of desserts (creams, mousses and jellies) and excellent ice cream made on the premises. My favourite combination is the walnut mousse (Krem Orzechowy) with vanilla and fruit and nut ice-cream scoops.
The other excellent ice-cream was in the new shopping centre called Sfera (few hundred meters towards the station behind the old Klimczok department store) in which an Italian café located just to the right of the main entrance serves a good selection of lovely ice-cream by the scoop (and an incredible choice of lavish and artsy looking ice cream combinations from the menu).
I will leave you and Bielsko-Biala on this sweet note.
Below some photo links:
Bielsko-Biala architecture and couple of town views, including my favourite Frog House (the first and last photo are of that building):
Text all in Polish, but some reasonable pictures on this page including mountain views, the cable car carriage, the hostels on Szyndzielnia Mountain and Debowiec hill:
Virtual tour of Pszczyna palace: