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Unsung places are often the most interesting. Enter Szczecin, the Polish port city on the Baltic which lies just a shade east of the German border. This is Poland with a twist, for the city has a complicated history. One-time capital of Pomerania, Swedish until 1720 and then German until 1945, the city now known as Szczecin became Polish in the great reorganization of central European borders that followed the Second World War.
Prussia meets Poland
If you are looking for another Kraków, think again. Szczecin offers something very different. No great Italianate piazzas. The Prussian imprint is evident in the Szczecin streetscape with some bold 19th-century buildings akin to those you might expect to find in Berlin. Throw in some superb examples of brick Gothic – of the kind you’ll run across throughout the Baltic region – and Szczecin makes for an appealing mix.
One of our favorite Szczecin corners is the museum on the history of the city housed in the old town hall. It traces the story of the city’s early development and recounts how German Stettin morphed into Polish Szczecin. You’ll find green parkland aplenty, especially north of the city center. For riverside strolls head for the esplanade above the River Odra, where you will find the impressive nautical academy and a clutch of decent cafés.
Top choice: the Hotel Focus
The top overnight spot is undoubtedly the Hotel Focus (just a stone’s throw from the nautical college) where contemporary chic comes at budget-friendly prices. Double or twin rooms from about 200 Polish zloty (€50 or US$68). The Focus offers modern rooms, free Wi-Fi, free sauna, and a superb breakfast spread. Watch your eggs cooked to order just the way you like them. The Focus also has a first-class restaurant, where tasty regional dishes are served with great panache. Starters for just 12 zloty (€3), while mains are typically 24 zloty (€6).
Hotel manager Dominika Dulat appreciates that many travelers work to tight budgets, so it’s a nice touch that a free pack lunch is there for the taking as guests leave the breakfast buffet. “Don’t forget to take your lunch,” reads the big sign. The Focus also offers an all-inclusive overnight rate where the cost of dinner is bundled in with the overall accommodation charge.
Cafés and bars
Szczecin is not just a place to see, but a place to be. Expect modest prices and a great range of city center bars and restaurants. There is a good quartet of cafés on Jan Pawel II Boulevard (recently renamed in honor of the late Polish Pope). Other restaurants we rate are the Bombay, which dishes up some of the tastiest Indian food in Poland, and the Chata, where you’ll find pierogi aplenty in a folksy vaulted cellar.
Szczecin’s quaysides no longer buzz with passenger ships the way they did of old. Direct ferries from Denmark and Sweden nowadays dock at Swinoujscie, from where there is a good rail link to Szczecin, complemented by a seasonal hydrofoil service called the Bosman Express.
There are excellent train connections with half a dozen direct trains each day to Lübeck, Warsaw and Kraków. Szczecin has a very comfortable once-daily direct Czech train to Prague, and great connections with Berlin, which is just two hours away. The one-way fare from Berlin to Szczecin is just €10 – one of those wonderful cross-border deals that you cannot buy online. Just buy the ticket from the machines on the platform in Berlinbefore hopping on the train. German regional rail tickets (so-called Länder Tickets) can be used across the border to Szczecin, so there are real opportunities for budget rail travel to this corner of Poland.