The largest city in northwestern Poland, with 400,000 inhabitants, Szczecin (pronounced "Shchechin") sprawls around the banks of the Odra in a tangle of bridges, cranes and dockside machinery, a city with a long maritime and shipbuilding heritage. It's a gruff, workaday place that bares few of its charms to the passing visitor. However, it's also a fast-paced, fast-changing city with a clutch of cultural diversions, not to mention an impressive collection of bars.
The Slav stronghold established here in the eighth century was taken by the first Piast monarch, Mieszko I, in 967 and Szczecin became the residence of a local branch of Piast princes. German colonists were present from the earliest times, and came to dominate local life once the city joined the Hanseatic League in the mid-thirteenth century. The Swedes captured Szczecin in 1630 but sold it to the Prussians ninety years later. The city remained under Prussian rule until 1945, when it became an outpost on Poland's newly established western frontier. With the border just west of the city limits and Berlin only a couple of hours away by car or train, the German presence is palpable.
Wartime pummelling destroyed most of the old centre, which never received quite the same restorative attention as some less controversially "Polish" cities. Despite Szczecin's size and importance, there isn't that much to take in – a full day is enough to cover all the main sights.
As well as being the main transport hub for western Pomerania, Szczecin is a good base-camp for side trips to Berlin (170km distant), which is reached by two direct daily trains.