Occupying the whole of southwestern Poland, Silesia, or Śląsk (pronounced shlonsk) in Polish, can claim both the most tumultuous history and the most distinct identity of all the country’s regions. The area was defined long before the modern-day Polish state, and parts now fall within the borders of Germany and the Czech Republic.
Effectively the eastern extension of the Alps, the Carpathians (Karpaty) stretch from the southern border with Slovakia into the Ukraine. They make up the highest and largest mountain range in Central Europe and form Poland’s most scenic and rugged region. Indeed, their wooded hills and snowy mountains are a beacon for hikers, skiers and cyclists.
If you want to distil the essence of Poland’s eventful history, head for Wielkopolska. The region’s name means Greater Poland, and with good reason – this is where the Polish state was founded in the Middle Ages, when warring Slavic tribes united to become the original Poles. Centuries later, the local population has an understandable pride in its history.
It’s a mystery why Małopolska remains relatively unexplored by international travellers. Pilgrims walk for more than two weeks to pray before the sacred Black Madonna painting of Częstochowa, but if they just kept walking they would find a range of surprising attractions, from the quaint to the downright quirky.
If you arrive in Poznań any evening and stroll into its central market square, you’ll receive an instant introduction to the characteristic energy of Wielkopolska’s capital. The city’s Old Town district is buzzing at any time of the day, and positively jumping by night, full of people heading to its many restaurants, pubs and clubs.
The fertile land within the valley of the Lower Vistula, bisected by the wide, slowly flowing river, was prized by invaders for centuries. Flat, open and dotted with green farms, this region developed during the 13th and 14th centuries into a thriving trade centre, via the many ports established along the Vistula’s banks from Toruń to Gdańsk.
Northern & Western Pomerania
Stretching northwest from Gdańsk, the Baltic coast is Poland’s key summer-holiday strip. It may not be as well known as Spain’s Costa del Sol, but it’s an attractive coastline of dunes, woods and coastal lakes, fronted by pristine white sandy beaches. The numerous resort towns stretching all the way from Hel to Świnoujście are engaging places to spend some time.
This part of Silesia presents extreme contrasts. Heavily developed and industrialised, Upper Silesia (Górny Śląsk) occupies just 2% of Poland’s territory, yet it’s home to a full 9% of the population. Thanks to large deposits of coal, it’s traditionally been the nation’s centre of heavy industry and the most densely urbanised area in Central Europe.