Polish music festivals are increasingly held up as some of the best Europe has to offer. From Kraków’s experimental Unsound to Płock’s electronica-focused Audioriver and Festiwal Tauron Nowa Muzyka in an abandoned coal mine in Katowice, there’s something for everybody. But with international headliners resulting in expensive ticket prices, the events can be prohibitive to locals, and a costly attraction for tourists visiting from abroad.
More affordable, and just as enticing when it comes to programming, are the country’s many nightclubs. While some of the spaces pay homage to Poland’s 1980s-seeded electronic music scene, others attract club culture’s most coveted acts. And, with several of the major cities connected by high-speed rail networks, it’s possible to visit a few different clubs in the space of one trip. During the sunny summer months, outside bars play host to DJs and live music too, bringing some of that festival atmosphere to the country’s permanent venues.
During the summer months, the riverbank deserves a place on your itinerary too
As far as the country’s much-loved techno is concerned, perhaps Warsaw’s most Berghain-like club is the centrally located Smolna, which hosts the genre’s leading Polish names (Truant, Deas) as well as international stars (Seth Troxler, Amelie Lens). Housed in a historic building still bearing the marks of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the 900-capacity underground space is a sprawling labyrinth of concrete softened by stylish soft furnishings. Its no presale policy means that, despite its big name lineups, Smolna remains an apt spot for a spontaneous night out, and you can arrive late — most headliners don’t come on until two or three in the morning.
While committing a whole night to Smolna is no bad move, its eclectic mix of regulars often move onto Luzztro. Another centrally-located techno mecca that also runs a record label, Luzztro is a 15-year-old Warsaw afterparty institution. Hosting events across two atmospheric dance floors, it’s a venue with a loyal following and a varied midweek programme, with minimal techno on Mondays, live streams Tuesdays, and resident nights on Wednesdays. Staying open until midday during weekends, its reputation rightly heralds it as Smolna’s more hedonistic cousin.
If you’re more of a DIY-leaning music fan, 2016 saw the opening of Pogłos on Burakowska 12. The 300-capacity, cooperatively-run space plays host to a variety of music styles, from reggae to punk and experimental electronic music, puts on LGBTQ+ events such as Whatever Queer Festival, and has a cute beer garden too. Meanwhile, Jasna 1 — which also leans towards more experimental sounds, with anything from grime to gqom likely to be found here — is a venue which also pays homage to Poland’s electronic music history, hosting nights commemorating Warsaw clubs like Piekarnia or the now-defunct 1500m2.
For a more upmarket experience, head to the fashionable Niebo on historic thoroughfare Nowy Świat. Housed in an 800-square-metre space with high ceilings and oversized windows, it delivers aesthetically, but has a good sound system too. Offering a mixed programme of live music gigs as well as club nights, the opulent space is a popular daytime spot as well, with a Hawaiian restaurant, cultural happenings, markets, and food pop-ups.
No trip to Warsaw should conclude without a jaunt to Praga. Situated east of the Vistula river, it’s a hipster’s paradise, with trendy galleries, bars, and cafes housed in crumbling pre-war factories. Go to 11 Listopada for the area’s three best clubs, Skład Butelek, Chmury, and Hydrozagadka. If you’re visiting Warsaw during the summer months, then the riverbank deserves a place on your itinerary too. A prime location for open-air drinking amongst locals, it always offers a lively atmosphere, but the floating café-cum-clubs BarKa and Pomost 511 are definitely worth a visit thanks to their mixture of local and international artists performing throughout the season.
Arguably Poland’s best-known city, Kraków doesn’t disappoint when it comes to nightlife. From the old Jewish quarter Kazimierz to the Tytano complex, which once housed a tobacco factory but now attracts a hipster crowd, there’s a seemingly endless amount of craft ale bars and bohemian secret venues. But come nightfall, the city’s clubs add an additional layer to Kraków’s impressive amount of drinking establishments, and while the alcohol is just as carefully curated, it’s the music that’s most important in the best of these spaces.
From open deck sessions for aspiring DJs to synthesizer-building workshops, Szpitalna 1’s always got something community-building going on
Case in point: the medieval basement that houses Prozak 2.0. It might be an underground cave, but it never feels claustrophobic thanks to its size, 600 square metres split over three dance floors and four bars. Within the exposed brick interior, which boasts a Funktion One sound system, expect to find a mixed crowd of locals and tourists enjoying house and techno courtesy of internationally-renowned DJs like Damian Lazarus and Marcel Dettmann.
Szpitalna 1 enjoys a similarly historic location. Located in the Lamelli tenement, which takes its name from the wealthy Italian who renovated the building in the 17th century, it’s an underground labyrinth reached by descending the club’s poster-lined stairs. The venue prides itself on an eclectic music policy, from New York’s Discwoman collective to Brighton grime experimentalist Mumdance, but it supports local talent too. From open deck sessions for aspiring DJs to synthesizer-building workshops, Szpitalna 1’s always got something community-building going on. In midweek you’re also likely to happen upon jazz, open mic nights, and comedy.
While you’ll find plenty of communist-era nostalgia at the nightclub Społem Deluxe, perhaps Kraków’s most retro-minded club is the Unsound-associated 89, whose name references the year its predecessor Hotel Forum was opened. Built during Communist rule, the Brutalist building was once an opulent complex featuring a casino, swimming pool, and miniature golf course. Thankfully, most features remain, from the carpeted floor and ceiling to the black leather seating; meanwhile, the club’s red glow reminds patrons of its second incarnation as a strip club. Now the space opens according to the Unsound schedule, so expect to find it hosting experimental music in line with the festival’s programme.
If you’re after a more intimate venue, then try Floriańska’s hidden spot Święta Krowa. Dim lighting and an Eastern-inspired interior creates a cosy bar atmosphere, but the venue also hosts club nights playing house, techno, and drum’n’bass.
Łódź is perhaps best known for its association with cinema, home as it is to the National Film School, whose notable alumni include Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, and Krzysztof Zanussi, plus David Lynch’s passion for the city. With its many beautiful, dilapidated Art Nouveau buildings and street art galore, Łódź is cinematic in aesthetic too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive city centre than the pedestrianised Piotrkowska, one of the longest streets in Europe and the heart of Łódź nightlife thanks to its many bars and restaurants.
The industrial-looking basement spot is where you’ll find Polish techno stalwarts such as Siasia, Marcin Czubala, Deas, and AGIM
But Łódź also boasts connections with Poland’s electronic music history, having hosted the country’s first ever techno festival in 1996, New Alcatraz Welcome Back Party (later known as Parada Wolności, or Freedom Parade), and having a reputation as Poland’s capital of drum’n’bass. Now, Soda Underground Stage continues these legacies. Taking its name from a former techno club housed in the historic Łódź YMCA building, this industrial-looking basement spot is where you’ll find Polish techno stalwarts such as Siasia, Marcin Czubala, Deas, and AGIM, and weekly nights of drum’n’bass featuring stacked lineups of DJs from Poland and abroad.
More counterculture can be found at OFF, which takes its name from its location just off the main thoroughfare of Piotrkowska, on the site of a former cotton mill. In the more recent past this was Łódź’s answer to Chinatown, and echoes remain — it’s still the spot for cheap but delicious Vietnamese fast food and ramen that warrants the weekly queues. But amongst the food trucks and quirky shops and bars, there’s also the nightclub DOM. An intimately-sized space, the venue, which opened in 2011, was the brainchild of a cooperative of likeminded underground artists — hence its stylish design, incorporating a dramatic light wall. At any given time, you’ll find live and club music listed, featuring the leading faces of Polish dance culture, such as Otake Records founder and eccentric experimentalist Piotr Bejnar.
Piotrkowska’s Kij Multitap is technically a bar specialising in craft beers, but it’s also a local-approved spot for club nights too. Expect a wide range of genres, from disco to UK Garage, courtesy of Łódź DJs such as Mixair and Matyz. Meanwhile, Żarty Żartami is a dive bar where you’ll find everything from jungle to Polish hip-hop and even jazz events. Patrons are usually a young crowd taking advantage of the offers on drinks. And if you’re after something truly under the radar, then check out Eudetek, a sound system and internet radio station which organises secret raves catering to lovers of genres such as hardcore, jungle, drum’n’bass, and techno.