A story goes that when Fidel Castro visited Kraków, he refused to see the famous royal castle and the largest medieval square in Europe: "Take me to the steelworks," he commanded instead. Although we don't propose to follow the Comandante's example to the letter, a visit to Nowa Huta is definitely worth your while.
Even for Kraków natives, a trip to Nowa Huta is something of an adventure. Though officially part of Kraków—and only a 20- to 30-minute tram ride
from the city center—it is quite a different world. You'll feel the change not just in the sweeping scale of urban planning but also in the spirit of the place. Always the workers town—and designed as such by rulers of the obsolete Communist Bloc—it remains mostly proletarian, although the area is also increasingly popular with students and bohemians. Although you could look at the neighborhood as a living museum of the former era, this is not to suggest that Nowa Huta doesn't have an interesting present and (hopefully) brighter future.
Regrettably, its past is bleak indeed. In the 1950s, several villages outside Kraków were razed to build a huge steelworks and a steelworkers' town on the fertile farmland. The location of this "experiment" wasn't random: the "model socialist town," with its healthy social structure, was meant to counterbalance traditionally aristocratic and intellectual Kraków.
In June 1949, the foundations were laid for the first residential block of Nowa Huta. Nearly a year later, construction of the steelworks began. The steel factory reached its apogee in 1970s, when it employed 38,000 and produced 6.7 million tons of steel annually, not to mention fantastic volumes of pollution, which nobody seemed to control. (Now it has been privatized—and modernized—with production down to 1 million tons per annum and the environmental impact greatly reduced.) Next to the factory, the workers' town grew where authorities hoped to build "a modern socialist society."
Its ideological heritage notwithstanding, Nowa Huta is an interesting example of urban planning and architecture—so interesting that it was proclaimed a historical monument by the Polish government. The Central Square was modeled on that of Versailles, and the buildings that surround it are replete with echoes of the Renaissance and classicism. The street plan of the original residential areas of Nowa Huta is based on an American concept of "neighborhood units" first developed for New York City in the 1920s. Each block of Nowa Huta was equipped with all the necessary facilities to help the neighborhood function—shops, a school, a kindergarten, and so forth.
One thing was missing, however: as a model socialist town, Nowa Huta was not supposed to have churches, so none were built. Yet faith and tradition were stronger than the enforced model, and people of Nowa Huta erected an "illegal" crucifix around which they gathered to pray. When authorities ordered its removal in 1960, the citizens came to defend their cross, and hundreds were injured in a battle with the government militia. The struggle continued off and on until the first church in Nowa Huta was consecrated in 1977. Shaped like Noah's Ark, it was a powerful symbol in the political context at the time.
Paradoxically, the "model workers' town" played a key role in the downfall of communism, and became a stronghold of the Solidarity movement. Wide alleys of Nowa Huta were perfect for more than just May Day parades: in the 1980s, local residents people marched through them in antigovernment demonstrations.
It is not easy to cover Nowa Huta sights by walking—it is better to use a bike, tram, or car.
The Plac Centralny (Central Square) is a good place to start. Take a walk around the square, and check out the showcase Cepelia shop along the way. Then take a stroll through the residential neighborhoods on either side of the wide alleys leading from the square.
Although you won't find the famous statue of Lenin that used to stand on Aleja Róż (Boulevard of Roses), some original establishments remain, including Stylowa restaurant and the most authentic milk bar in town.
From plac Centralny, any tram going up aleja Solidarności will take you to Centrum Administracyjne (Central Administration Building), the impressive castlelike entrance and offices of the former Lenin Steelworks. Unfortunately, these days it is next to impossible to enter the steelworks as a visitor, but even a peek from outside can you some idea of the scale of this operation.
A 10-minute drive or ride west of the steelworks is the Arka Pana (The Lord's Ark), an amazing modern church with facade made of round river stones. These were brought by the people of Nowa Huta to the building site when authorities cut the supplies in yet another effort to stop the church's construction. Needless to say, the government's efforts failed, and the Ark sailed above the sea of communism.
To get to Nowa Huta, take tram numbers 4 or 15 from Kraków Główny, the city's main railway station. You need two to four hours to get a flavor of Nowa Huta, but bear in mind that there are considerable distances to cover if you really want to see the town. The company Crazy Guides offers tours to Nowa Huta in grand style—in an authentic Trabant car, a true wonder of the communist automotive industry.