A place stuck in time - Cracow's Nowa Huta

Anna Kowalska | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Only a 20-minute tram ride from the center of Cracow, there is a very special district that was built from scratch a little bit more than 50 years ago. Nowa Huta was created as a settlement for the workers of steelworks just after the Second World War. It was a substantial socialist project and a grand urban planning scheme that we can still admire today. If you feel like seeing something different while visiting Cracow, take a ride to a place stuck in time – Nowa Huta.

Socialist project

© Anna Kowalska

Nowa Huta (literally 'New Steel Mill') was planned as a part of the state development project of heavy industry in communist Poland. It emerged after a decision of opening the metalworks company on the suburbs of Cracow. Even today, Nowa Huta is a textbook example of excellent central planning and a big concentration of Polish modernist architecture in its best form. The other comparable example of this style of social realism can be found in Warsaw's MDM neighbourhood (Marszałkowska Living District).

Plan of the ideal city

© Anna Kowalska

The centre of the new city was settled around Central Square, which joined five large radiant arteries. First tenants were able to move in the new houses in 1949, which, for the time being, were built up by very modern standards. Nowa Huta was one of the first urban projects and a place to experiment with engineering solutions. Each part of the city has been divided into blocks that have their unique styles. Massive modernist buildings are separated by broad streets built to serve political manifestations, relevant in the communist times. One of the streets that you will surely see from Central Square is the 50-metres wide Rose Alley that used to be colourful because of the numerous flowers blooming on its sides. As a central axis, it will also lead you further into the city. The designers aimed to create an ideal, symmetrical city but also referred to the popular garden-city movement. While wandering through the streets of Nowa Huta, you will definitely see how green it is!

© Anna Kowalska

The new urbanistic settlement also needed functional buildings for the new inhabitants. While in this neighbourhood, the best idea is to follow some sightseeing paths that can be easily found on the Internet. Around Central Square, you will also find some maps that might be helpful. Your must-see points should definitely be the Peoples Theater, a modern cinema, cantine for workers (that was, unfortunately, turned into a shop) and the primary school number 87. One of the most interesting places to see is also the steelworks' administrative building that is available for a visit with an appointment. While wandering through the city, I advise to slow down a bit and try to look for details of the past; in there, you can still find a lot of traditional craftsmen workshops, a milkbar, or an old-style restaurant.

A stunning church

© Wikimedia Commons/Zygmunt Put

My biggest surprise and discovery during the last trip to Nowa Huta was the Church of Our Lady the Queen of Poland (Ark of Our Lord). Its enormous, austere outside structure doesn't presume the amount of colour one can find inside! Built between 1967 and 1977, it is an excellent example of late modernist sacral architecture, where every single detail is thoroughly designed. I was so stunned by the precision of execution, attention to detail and combination of materials, I couldn't leave the building. When you enter inside, you can see a vast, half-circular hall, decorated with colourful stained glass windows and an enormous, expressive sculpture of Jesus Christ. Its monumental scale leaves you feeling out of place.

Visiting Nowa Huta was a truly unique experience for me. While in Cracow, it is a good idea to spend one afternoon in this district, as it looks completely different than the old town. This fully-planned, fairly new part of the city is probably the only example of socialist realism in Poland, achieved on such a big scale. If you want to experience something new and feel the magic of a place stuck in time - take a tram ride to Cracow's Nowa Huta and wander through its streets.

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