Poland's second-largest city has traditionally been called the "Manchester of Poland," a reference to its rise in the 19th century as an industrial powerhouse, and to the vast textile mills that employed tens of thousands of workers at the turn of the 20th century. For Americans, the hulking relics and depressed building stock of a bygone era may bring to mind parts of Detroit or Cleveland. Still, there's an energy and vitality here that many Polish cities lack, and if you're passing by, Lódz merits at least a day of exploration. The city can be visited as a long daytrip from Warsaw, but it's better approached as a destination in its own right. The prospect of some excellent restaurants and a couple of nice hotels sweetens the deal.
Lódz is relatively young as Polish cities go. It came into its own only in the mid-19th century, when German and later Jewish industrialists built large textile mills to exploit access to the vast Russian and Chinese markets to the east. Unlike Kraków or Wrocaw, you'll search in vain here for a large market square, a rynek, surrounded by gabled baroque and Renaissance houses. Instead, you'll find -- amid the tenements and badly neglected housing stock -- fine examples of the sumptuous neo-baroque and neoclassical mansions and town palaces favored by the wealthy 19th-century bourgeoisie.
By the start of the 20th century, Lódz had grown from a village just a few decades earlier to a city of more than 300,000 people, and its factories, mansions, and civic institutions were among the finest in the country. It was a magnet for poor Poles from around the country, but above all, it attracted Jews, drawn here by the relatively tolerant social climate and economic opportunity. At its height, the Jewish community numbered some 230,000 people, around a third of the city's pre-World War II population of around 700,000 people.
But if the city's economic rise was rapid, its decline was precipitous, as well. At the end of World War I, with the establishment of independent Poland, the city lost its privileged access to the Russian and Far Eastern markets. World War II, and the Nazi occupation, was an unmitigated disaster. While many of the buildings survived the war intact, nearly the entire Jewish population was wiped out -- first herded into a massive ghetto north of the city center, and then shipped off, train by train, to the death camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau. For decades after the war, the story of the "Litzmannstadt" ghetto, as the Nazis called it, was little known outside of Poland. Now, Jewish groups from around the world are getting the word out. You can tour much of the former ghetto, as well as visit the Jewish cemetery, the largest of its kind in Europe.
The Communist period brought more ruin to the city. The once-profitable mills were run into the ground by inept state ownership. The city was blighted by some of the most insensitive Communist-era planning to ever come off the drawing board. The period since 1989 has seen a massive effort to transform the bleak postindustrial cityscape into a lively cultural center. And that effort is partially succeeding. The heart of the transformation is the city's main drag, Piotrkowska, a nearly 4km-long (2 1/2-mile) pedestrian strip lined with restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs, and shops. By day, it's a place to stroll, window-shop, and have an open-air coffee. By night, it's arguably Poland's most intense street party, filled with raucous revelers swilling beer as club music blares from behind nearly every door. Just to the north of the city center, the huge complex of former textile mills has now been transformed into Europe's biggest shopping and entertainment complex, Manufaktura.
Lódz also boasts one of Poland's best museums of modern art and a clutch of other interesting museums, many housed in the mansions of the old industrial elite. For fans of international film, Lódz is home to the Poland's most highly regarded film school and the country's only Museum of Cinematography. Legendary Polish film directors Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Roman Polanski, among others, all learned their craft here.