If you’re location independent, a digital nomad, or have a lifestyle business (buzzword buzzword buzzword) then Wrocław, Poland is for you. I know the sexy lifestyle business destinations are mostly in SE Asia, and I had a great time in Thailand a few years ago as well. But consider Wrocław, particularly during the Summer months, for the following reasons.
Before we begin you should know that a) I’m biased and b) As much as I love it, I’m leaving Wrocław this year. I’ll have been here over 2 years by the time I leave.
Wait, it’s not all positive. We’re gonna get heavy before we get light.
It’s best to get this out of the way now so we can move on to happy things.
a) Poland is extremely religious. One of the most religious countries in the world. The predominant religion is Roman Catholic and it shows. It’s slowly becoming more progressive, but religion is taught in schools from grade 0 and religion runs this country. Abortion is illegal, gay marriage is not accepted, and blasphemy is a punishable offense.
On the plus side: religious freedom is in the constitution. Want to practice a non-Catholic established religion or maybe set up your own? Go ahead! Church of the Wanderer, Digital Nomad™, coming soon.
b) This isn’t necessarily a negative, but I wanted to mention it and it didn’t fit elsewhere. Like most of the old Eastern Bloc countries Poland is homogenous, although you will find a mix of cultures in cities like Wrocław. This city is fast becoming internationalized and its nickname is “WrocLove,” so it is actively working on acceptance.
c) It’s cold in the Winter although this Winter has been mild and has often felt like Spring. Anyway, I recommend you visit between May and September and avoid Winter altogether if you’re planning on a typical digital nomad 90 day stay.
If you can deal with all of that, let’s move on.
1. The cost of living is low (by Western standards) and the quality of living is high.
I’m getting this out of the way now because it’s the first thing many people want to know.
This is not the Third World (what they call a “developing country” nowadays). Poland is a fast growing economy that has invested strongly in infrastructure since the fall of communism 25 years ago. It’s not quite on par with Western nations yet, but it’s getting there. Happily, the cost of living doesn’t show it right now.
If you’re just getting started and bootstrapping your business then cost of living is obviously important and you can live a better or similar lifestyle to what you’re used to for far less than in North America, Australia, or Western Europe. This is known as geo arbitrage.
I spend about $1,500USD per month on everything here in Wrocław, but I’m on the higher end of costs because I have a nice apartment and eat out 10+ times per week. My place is in the city centre, 50m2, living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen. Fully furnished.
I walk out of my building and see fun stuff like this (more on art later):
It’s easy to find a room for under 1,000PLN if you don’t mind sharing. When I lived here for 5 months in 2010 I lived in a room that included everything for 450PLN.
You can find a studio apartment (kawalerka in Polish) that’s not in the immediate city centre for 1,500-2,000PLN, but I don’t recommend that. The convenience of walking outside your building and being surrounded by everything you might need is worth the extra bit it costs to live in the centre. Everybody comes to the centre on weekends or weeknights to hang out. It’s worth being in the middle of the social scene. (Even if you’re like me and mostly anti-social.)
I don’t budget at all, but in anticipation of writing this article I began keeping track of my spending (glad that’s over!).
Last month (Feb 3 – 28, since I was out of the country for 2 days):
That’s about $1,350USD at current exchange rates.
January 1 – 23 (was out of country afterwards) and February 3 – 28:
January expenses (total ~$1,600USD) include 1,426.31PLN for a 14 day Japan Rail Pass since I’m heading there soon.
If you look closely at February you’ll see nearly 1,200PLN spent on groceries. I’m told that is an extraordinary amount here, but I don’t eat too much low-quality cheap pre-packaged stuff.
And the pre-packaged stuff I buy most is hummus, peanut/almond butter, bagged salads, and plant “milks” like soy and rice. These items are all more expensive than in the US and I consume a significant amount of each. (I make smoothies 3-4 times per week that include 1 bag of salad, 1/3 container of nut butter, and 400-500ml plant milk. This adds up quickly!)
You might notice that my leisure expenses are extremely low. It’s not because I don’t do anything. It’s because my girlfriend and I mostly do free things like read books and play board games. That said, whatever you’re into (gyms, dance classes, art classes, whatever it is) you can find here and it’s reasonably priced.
A note if you drink alcohol: a 1/2 litre beer (good beer, no less!) is 6-8PLN ($2-$3USD) at most pubs and restaurants. And there are about a dozen 24 hour pubs that sell drinks (beer/wine/coffee/tea/vodka shots) for 4PLN each and small dishes of traditional Polish food for 8PLN. My favorite is Przedwojenna (Prewar), which is an absolute madhouse on Friday and Saturday nights.
As an aside: I’ve pitched a travel article about these trendy 24 hour pubs to a few travel magazines / websites. If you know someone (at CNN Travel, Budget Traveler magazine, or other relevant places) who’d be interested in a ~750 word article (with photos) about these pubs please get in touch.
2. The internet is fast and the startup/tech industry is growing.
The internet here is faster than most internet in the USA or SE Asia:
I pay ~$40USD per month for that.
As for tech: Google, IBM, HP, Nokia, Microsoft, Amazon, and others have offices here. Amazon is building their largest European warehouse in Wrocław.
The local startup/tech community meets the first Saturday of every month at an English-language event called Tech Saturdays.
This scene is growing mostly due to relatively low-cost and highly-skilled workers.
There are lots of other tech meetups as well, although they’re mostly in Polish.
Bonus: if you have a Regus Gold membership there is a nice new Regus office in Wrocław. I’ve used Regus offices all around the world and I highly recommend them. Fast internet, free coffee/tea, and a quiet place to work.
— Karol Gajda (@KarolGajda) August 29, 2013
3. It’s a small-big city and people speak English well.
For a lot of people this is one of the bigger complaints I’ve heard with SE Asia. It’s difficult to feel part of a culture if you need to speak the language to connect with natives. Hanging out with English-speaking expats is all good, but it feels a little too much like home.
Most of the younger generation in Poland speaks English well enough and it will be easy for you to get around in English.
And you’ll meet a lot of people if you want to. Wrocław has in the vicinity of 700,000 residents, with over 100,000 University students. It’s not a small city by any means, but it’s also not a metropolis. It’s what I call small-big.
4. Prepaid 3G mobile voice/SMS/data plans are easy to set up, fast, and cheap.
A starter pack with SIM costs 5PLN and includes 5PLN of calling/SMS and 250MB data (which expires in 10 days before you need to recharge at least 5PLN). I use Play and recharge 50PLN (~$16.50USD) about every 3 months. Every 50PLN recharge includes 50PLN of calling/SMS and 1.5GB of data, which expires in 100 days. If you recharge before the 100 days are up all of your credit rolls over.
LTE is also available, though 3G is more common.
5. It’s artsy.
Wrocław was chosen as one of the upcoming 2016 European Capitals of Culture and they’re doing a fantastic job living up to it.
You won’t find too many popular musical acts touring here (I saw Steve Vai, Everlast, Glen Hansard, and Kurt Elling live last year), but lots of clubs have live music with rock, metal, blues or jazz bands.
Beyond music, art is everywhere. Many city buildings are covered in beautiful and/or interesting murals.
There are lots of museums, with historical as well as contemporary art. Actually, the Contemporary Art Museum (free entrance on Thursdays, 10PLN otherwise) is my favorite as it always has wacky/interesting stuff, it’s located inside a WWII bunker, and the open rooftop 360 degree view of the city is sensational.
There is also a burgeoning cafe culture with places like Vinyl Cafe (nearly impossible to get a table in the evening nowadays) leading the way.
As for film: Poles love their indie films and you will regularly find international film festivals at Kino Nowe Horyzonty. This theatre also has a wonderful cafe with good food and fast WiFi. (Nope, no popcorn and you can’t eat during films.)
There is also a lot of live theatre, but since it’s nearly always in Polish it’s not worth mentioning. (Why’d I just mention it?)
6. Great food.
There are myriad good restaurants and Polish cuisine is tasty. Ruskie pierogi (potato dumplings), naleśniki z pieczarkami (crepes with mushrooms), and soups like ogórkowa (pickle and potato) & żurek (sour rye) are my favorites. (At this place.)
Foreign cuisines are gaining popularity. There are quite a few Indian, Italian, and Chinese restaurants and sushi joints are everywhere. If you like falafel and gyros, those are quite popular here as well.
You’ll be hard-pressed to spend more than $20 on a meal and I usually eat for $5-$10. My girlfriend and I can go out for a night of dinner and drinks (spanning multiple establishments) and the total bill will rarely run more than $30. As an example, we went to dinner a few days ago. Two meals and two freshly squeezed juices were 43.30PLN (~$14).
A note on tipping: it’s generally not necessary at restaurants, but I usually tip ~10% when taking taxis.
Unfortunately, what you make up for in tasty and low-cost food you lose in service. It is improving, but customer service is still seriously lacking at many restaurants (and elsewhere) here. Particularly at the non-touristy restaurants.
Waiters/waitresses are not at your beck and call and usually won’t check up on you. This is a small annoyance that you’re going to have to get used to more than anything. And hey, you won’t be tipping them so that’s your trade-off.
Many popular restaurants are also semi-self service, which I personally prefer. You order and pay for your food at a counter and take it away to your table yourself. You also take your dirty dishes back yourself.
If you’re veg*n you have a decent amount of options. Vegetarian is pretty easy at every restaurant in Poland, though vegan is more difficult unless at specific restaurants. I read a study last year that there are over 1 million veg*ns in Poland, so the community is large.
7. For men: lots of pleasant, well-educated, pretty women.
If you’ve been frustrated with connecting with women in Asia you won’t run into those same problems here.
As already mentioned most of them speak English at a solid conversational level. If you’re familiar with the CEFR language level specification, most of the younger generation speaks B1 or better. My girlfriend is C1, and that upper intermediate/advanced level is also fairly common.
If you’re a female digital nomad I’m the wrong person to ask if the men here are as good looking and pleasant as the women. [Edit: My girlfriend says they are!]
LGBT: As far as I know there are two gay clubs in the city so it’s not quite on par with the more cosmopolitan (read: touristy) Polish cities of Kraków and Warsaw, but it’s changing.
8. Everything is within walking distance.
I rarely need to venture beyond the city centre for anything. Restaurants, clubs, grocery stores, shopping malls, parks, gyms, swimming pools, libraries, book stores. All within walking distance of the city centre. But in case you need to venture farther out …
9. The public transportation is fast and efficient.
As in many European cities, Wrocław has an extensive tram network. Wherever trams don’t go, busses do.
If you’re living in the city centre you won’t often be using this, but when you do tickets cost 3PLN for a single ride. If your credit card has an RFID chip you can pay on the tram or bus. If not, there are kiosks at a lot of bus/tram stops where you can purchase the tickets with change or bills.
Taxis cost ~6PLN for the first kilometer and ~4PLN per kilometer afterwards.
A taxi from the airport (I took one Feb 3) to my apartment was 50PLN ($16.50), including tip. I didn’t want to wait for the bus (again, 3PLN), but if you’re on a tighter budget you could do that. The bus runs every 30 minutes from the airport to just outside the city centre (ending at the main bus/train station if you need to go there).
http://wroclaw.jakdojade.pl/ – If you know where you need to go (address or landmark) this website / app will tell you which bus/tram to take.
10. The 90 day Schengen Visa gives you lots of access.
You can visit any of the 26 Schengen countries just as easily as if visiting another city in your home country. No overland border security or customs. Just smooth travel.
Want to take the bus to Prague for the weekend? It’s less than $50USD roundtrip and takes 5 hours each way. Maybe you’d rather visit Berlin for a quick jaunt? Again, it’s about $50USD roundtrip and 5-6 hours by train or car-share.
Bonus: as far as I know the 90 day tourist visa is usually free, but check for your nationality.
11. The WRO airport has lots of flights, many cheap.
There are fairly easy connections to major cities in the rest of the world. (I’m flying WRO – CPH – NRT to get to Tokyo.)
Flying around Europe is easy, and fairly cheap.
I’ve yet to use RyanAir, but WizzAir is a great budget airline.
12. It’s becoming increasingly more bike-friendly.
There are lots of bike lanes and there is even a city bike rental system through NextBike (website’s in Polish, but the rental stands are Polish/German/English). It’s free for the first 20 minutes and then 4-6PLN per hour.
I usually get to where I need to go in under 20 minutes so it’s rare that I need to pay.
When I go for long bike rides I have my own bike, which I bought used for 375PLN. Used bikes are plentiful at the Sunday flea market in the north of the city. (Map here.)
13. Healthcare is reasonable and good.
The cost to visit a doctor is 100PLN (~$35USD), when you arrive for your appointment you won’t be made to wait like you’re used to if coming from the US, and they don’t rush you out in 2 minutes. They’re happy to answer questions and spend some time with you. Prescriptions, if you need any, are also much cheaper than in the US.
I regularly go in for blood tests and the total cost is about $40 for the doctor’s visit and the blood test. Results in 24 hours. I make my appointments same day. When you’re paying out of pocket there is no wait time. I mostly use LuxMed, which has English-speaking staff, including when you call to book an appointment.
The only issues I’ve had is with the dentist. Getting a cleaning appointment is often a long wait (book months in advance) at LuxMed. Other dentists seem to charge Western or near-Western prices. This is an odd development that doesn’t make any sense to me.
14. There is a lot of park space & greenery and the air is generally clean.
You’ll find green space all around the city, with large parks to the east, west, and south of the city centre.
There is even a whole island called Wyspa Słodowa (Malt Island) just a 5-10 minute walk north of the city centre where people go to relax, drink, and generally hang out. A few times per year there are also concerts / festivals held here.
15. It’s a beautiful old (but rebuilt) city with lots of history.
Wrocław has roots all the way back to the 10th century. If you’re used to modern architecture you’ll find a little bit of that mixed with a lot of old buildings.
The city was nearly laid to waste because of World War II, but has been rebuilt beautifully. The Rynek (market square) is particularly nicely restored.
Well, after nearly 3,000 words I think I’ve made my case. I’ve found most digital nomads avoid Eastern Europe and it’s about time they gave it a look. You’ll be pleasantly enchanted with how much you enjoy it here.
If you have questions ask in the comments. And if you’ve decided to visit Wrocław get in touch and let’s meet up.