Poland is one of the geographically largest countries in Europe. That being said, there’s not a lot that your average Joe knows about Poland. Aside from the typical ‘jak sie masz’ Borat accent, and something to do with WW2, Poland hasn’t really left a lasting impression on the world.
And then you scratch the surface.
Like nearly all countries in Europe, Poland is steeped in history with a culture that goes back thousands of years. The difference is that, being right in between Russia and Germany, Poland has always been picked on by it’s bigger neighbours. And there’s not a Pole alive that won’t hesitate to tell you about that.
As a foreigner (Australian) that’s lived in Poland for the better part of the last 5 years, I’ve fallen in love with my adopted homeland. In my time here, I’ve travelled to most (but not all) corners of this almost perfectly circular country, and started a blog about Polish culture and life.
In this article I’m going to show you where (and why) you should check these places out. Bonus points: As a ‘local’ that’s gone off the beaten path a few times I’ll include some of the best hidden gems as well as how to pronounce some of those weird Polish names!
The typical Polish hotspots for tourists
Every country has them – the absolute ‘must see’ cities of those countries. And sure, they’re important, those cities are arguably the most important places in that country, but there’s more to the country than just them. That being said, here’s my take on the most popular travel destinations in Poland:
Warsaw is the capital of Poland and the city I call home. It was absolutely oblitterated by the Nazis after it was home to one of the only uprisings against Nazi occupation throughout the whole war. Today, there are small remnants of pre-war Warsaw around, such as Zigismund’s column, Wilanow Palace and parts of Zoliborz. Other attractions include the Palace of Science & Culture, Lazienki Gardens, Warsaw Old Town and my personal favourite, the top-notch bars and cafes that are popping up!
Krakow is Poland’s cultural capital. One look at the old town and Wawel Castle and you’ll easily see why. Wawel Castle is the resting place of Old Poland’s royalty, as well as heroes of modern times such as Adam Mieskiewicz, the poet that kept Poland alive when Poland ceased to be a country. Krakow came out of the war relatively unscathed, and it’s World Heritage Listed Market Square is truly a sight to behold. The Jewish Quarter is another must-see part of the city.
(Troy meow-stow) This one is a hard one to name – sometimes translated to the ‘three cities’ or individually known as Gdynia, Gdansk and Sopot, these three cities on the northern coast of Poland are a beautiful place to be all time of year. A true tourist hotspot because of the beach, the three cities offer history, fun and fantastic nightlife for travellers.
(Vrots-wav). Wrocław is a very old and very up-and-coming Polish city, popular for travellers of all ages. A city that’s well known for it’s old town, but also having one of the largest market squares in all of Europe, the Oder river which runs through the heart of Wroclaw creates a stunning ‘cathedral island’ in the heart of the city with churches and cathedrals that date back to the 1500s. Keep an eye out for the hundreds of bronze gnomes hidden all over the city – a proverbial middle finger to the former communist authorities.
The ‘lesser know’ Polish destinations
So now that you’ve seen all the Polish hot-spots, it’s time to take a look at some of the lesser known places to check out. It’s worth noting that these places are truly off the beaten track, but that doesn’t mean you’ll struggle to get by. Poles on average speak exceptionally good English, thanks to the fact that almost 90% of high school students go on to graduate university.
(Kazi-merz Doll-knee). Imagine the beauty of an old, historical European city that’s nestled in the middle of a forest with all the stunning beauty of greenery. That’s Kazimerz Dolny. Situated 2 hours south of Warsaw at the crossroads of the visual river and a larger mountain range, Kazimerz Dolny was a former trade hub hundreds of years ago. Today, the city is completely untouched by age, and a fantastic place to waste a weekend. This is one of those places where the ‘traditional art’ is truly made locally by locals, rather than a factory far off in China. Be sure to check out the stain glass of Kazimierz Dolny, as well as the slavic art galleries!
(Tor-un) Located almost in the exact centre of Poland, Torun is a really mixed bag of attractions. Firstly, Torun is the birthplace of Nicholaus Copernicus, the astronomer who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. Monuments are on every street corner just about, but none are more famous than his actual residence that’s been restored and turned into a museum in his honour. Torun is also home to the ruins of an ancient castle, once belonging to the Teutonic Knights – a fantastic place to check out for history nerds like me. Torun is home to a much loved gingerbread museum, where visitors can make gingerbread the traditional polish way!
(Rzeh-shoov). This place is in the deep south of Poland, where not a lot of tourists get to. Capital of the ‘Sub Carpathian’ voivodeship, Rzeszow is the gateway to the absolutely stunning Bieszczady (Bess-char-dee) Mountain Range. This part of Poland is one of the most untouched and unspoilt parts of the country, if not Europe. If you time it right, you can see a super-rare Eurasian Lynx, but you’ll always see the absolutely best that the Polish Wilderness has to offer.
Yes, you read that right. Hel, pronounced just like Hell. This quaint little down it at the end of the Hel peninsula, a narrow piece of land that juts out into the Baltic. The town is a small seaside getaway, with a seal sanctuary, great fishing and generally a really nice place to relax. The vibe of a laid back, slow, easy going seaside town is not one you’d expect to find in Poland, but you can find it in Hel. Bonus points, as you can get the ferry from Gdansk to Hel.
Łódź (pronounced Would-dz) is bang in the geographic centre of Poland. During communist times, the city was the textile capital of the country producing garments for all parts of the country. The city has one of the highest rates of feminisation in the EU, thanks to the textile industry attracting female workers. Łódź is getting known throughout Europe as having some of the best street art in the country. Giant murals adorn the side of buildings and add a massive splash of colour. Home to both the Book Art Museum and the National Film School, Łódź has loads of little hidden gems waiting to be uncovered.
A little on Polish people
Poland has a high level of education. Something like 96% of high school students go on to graduate university. As a result, Poles are generally very good with their English skills. Of course, some gas stations and smaller cities have a harder time, but Poles will always do their best to help, language barriers or not. Having been beaten up by the superpowers to the east and west for so long, Poles are proud of the country they’ve built – and one visit here and you’ll see why.
Poland offers a lot for all types of tourists. Those that want a relaxing vacation, those that want adventure in places that travellers never venture, as well as those that are looking to step back in time and learn the rich history of a country that many have forgotten existed!
Let us know in the comments below. When will you be visiting Poland? Where will you go?
This guest post was written by Phil Forbes. A blogger at Expatspoland.com. Head over to Phil’s website to learn everything you need to know about expat life in Poland and Poland culture.