It’s easy to see why Kraków is an unmissable destination. The former royal capital beguiles with its heady blend of history and harmonious architecture. At its heart is the vast Main Market Square (Rynek Główny), Europe’s largest medieval marketplace. Equally magnificent is Wawel Royal Castle, on a hill above the Old Town. But that's just the start – every part of the city is fascinating, from the former Jewish district of Kazimierz and its scintillating nightlife to the communist-era concrete structures of Nowa Huta.
Warsaw’s Museums & Palaces
Warsaw has a dramatic history, and its best museums reflect that complex past. Start with the Museum of Warsaw, which maps out the city's development. Move on to powerful Warsaw Rising Museum, focusing on the darkest hours of WWII, followed by the award-winning POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Beautiful music can be heard at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum and communist-era eye candy shines bright at the Neon Museum. For stately charm, don't miss Wilanów Palace, or Łazienki Park’s lovely Palace on the Isle.
The colossal red-brick St Mary's Church peers down on slender merchants’ townhouses, wedged ornately between palaces that line wide, ancient thoroughfares and crooked medieval lanes. A cosmopolitan residue of art and artefacts left behind by a rich maritime and trading past packs whole museums, and tourists from around the world compete with amber stalls and street performers for cobblestone space. This is Gdańsk; once part of the Hanseatic League, it's now in a league of its own.
Throughout its turbulent history, Wrocław – the former German city of Breslau – has taken everything invaders could throw at it, and survived. Badly damaged in WWII, it was artfully rebuilt around its beautiful main market square, where you'll find the gothic Old Town Hall. Other highlights include the rococo buildings of the University of Wrocław and the Panorama of Racławice, a vast 19th-century painting exhibited in a purpose-built rotunda. The town also has a vibrant nightlife, with plenty of dining and drinking options in the narrow streets of its lively Old Town.
The Great Masurian Lakes
Sip a cocktail on the deck of a luxury yacht, take a dip, or don a lifejacket, grab your paddle and slide off into a watery adventure on one of the interconnected lakes that make up this mecca for Polish sailing and water-sports fans. Make your base one of the lakeside resorts, such as the picturesque Mikołajki where the slap and jangle of masts competes with the clinking of glasses and the murmur of boat talk. Return to the lakes in winter to go cross-country skiing over their frozen surfaces.
The season may be brief and the sea one of Europe’s nippiest, but if you’re looking for a dose of sand, there are few better destinations than the Baltic’s cream-white beaches. Many people come for the strands along one of the many coastal resorts, be it hedonistic Darłówko, genteel Świnoujście or the spa town of Kołobrzeg; others opt to flee the masses and head out instead for the shifting dunes of the Słowiński National Park, where the Baltic’s constant bluster sculpts mountains of sifted grains.
Medieval monster mother ship of the Teutonic order, Malbork Castle is a mountain of bricks held together by a lake of mortar. This Gothic blockbuster was home to the all-powerful order’s grand master and later to visiting Polish monarchs. They have all now left the stage of history, but not even the shells of WWII could dismantle this baby. If you travelled to Poland to see castles, this is what you came to see; catch it just before dusk when the slanting sunlight burns the bricks kiln-crimson.
Gdańsk’s Museum of WWII
Not many museums have visitors in a daze at the exit, but you may need a sit down and a hot drink after a few hours in Gdańsk’s Museum of WWII. Housed in a painfully angular piece of architecture at the northern end of the waterfront, this Gdańsk must-see marches choronologically through WWII, with exhibits mostly examining the human suffering the conflict caused. The vast concrete interior, painted almost exclusively in black and grey, creates an oppressive effect. The dark subject and the very fabric of the museum leave few untouched.
While many of northern Poland’s towns went up in a puff of red-brick dust in WWII’s endgame, Toruń miraculously escaped intact, leaving today’s visitors a magnificently preserved, walled Gothic city by the swirling Vistula. Wander through the Unesco-listed Old Town crammed with museums, churches, grand mansions and squares, and when you’re flagging, perk up with a peppery gingerbread cookie, Toruń’s signature snack. Another treat is the city’s Copernicus connections – Poland’s most illustrious astronomer allegedly first saw the light of day in one of Toruń’s Gothic townhouses.
'Skansen' in Polish refers to an open-air museum of folk architecture, and Poland offers plenty of them. These great gardens of log cabins and timbered chalets make for a wonderful ramble and are testament to centuries of peasant life across the country. Sanok's Museum of Folk Architecture in the Carpathians is the country's biggest skansen, and includes timber churches, an early-18th-century synagogue and even a fire station. As well as these museums, you’ll find remnants of old wooden churches and other buildings sprinkled throughout the mountains.
Black Madonna Pilgrimage
In many parts of Europe, religious buildings are often little more than historical sights or curiosities. In Poland, however, many churches and monasteries remain an integral part of everyday life. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa. Every year millions of pilgrims come to pray in Poland's spiritual capital. For the most impressive display of devotion, pay a visit on 15 August, when the Feast of the Assumption sees this relatively small town swamped by hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
Białowieża National Park
That bison on the label of a bottle of Żubr beer or Żubrówka vodka starts to make a lot more sense once you’ve visited this little piece of pristine wood on the Belarus border. The Unesco-listed Białowieża National Park holds one of Europe’s last vestiges of primeval forest, which you can visit in the company of a guide. The bison, which was once extinct outside zoos, has been successfully reintroduced here, although your best bet for seeing these magnificent animals is the nearby European Bison Show Reserve.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum
These Nazi German extermination camps were the scene of history’s greatest genocide, the killing of more than a million people. Now they form a museum and memorial to the victims. Beyond the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the entrance to Auschwitz are surviving prison blocks that house exhibitions as shocking as they are informative. Not far away, the former Birkenau camp holds the remnants of the gas chambers used for mass murder. Visiting the complex is an unsettling but deeply moving experience.
Cycling in the Karkonosze
Slung between Mt Wielki Szyszak (1509m) to the west, and Mt Śnieżka (1602m) to the east, the Karkonosze National Park is not only a treat for hikers. Through its leafy expanse are threaded several mountain-biking trails, covering some 450km, that are easily accessed from the mountain towns of Szklarska Poręba or Karpacz. Pick up a free bike-trail map from the tourist office, hire a bike and head on out through the trees, passing impressively lofty cliffs carved by ice-age glaciers.
Nightlife in Kazimierz
Once a lively blend of both Jewish and Christian cultures, the western half of Kazimierz is one of Kraków’s nightlife hubs. Hidden among its narrow streets and distressed facades are numerous small bars, ranging from grungy to glamorous. The centre of all this activity is Plac Nowy, a small, atmospheric square dominated by a circular central building that was once the quarter’s meat market. If Kraków’s Old Town is becoming a bit staid for your taste, a night in Kazimierz will revive your spirits.
Hiking in the Tatras
In many ways, the Tatras are the perfect mountain range: awe-inspiring yet approachable, with peaks that even ordinary folks – with a little bit of extra effort – can conquer. That doesn’t diminish their impact, especially on a summer day when the clouds part to reveal the mountains’ stern rocky visage climbing up over the dwarf pines below. The best approach to the peaks is from the mountain resort of Zakopane, where the Tatra Park Nature Education Centre provides a good grounding in the natural history of the mountains.
Poland third-largest city has mastered the knack of transforming former industrial spaces into bold architectural projects housing cultural, shopping and entertainment areas. For example, EC1, Łódź' first heating and power plant has been refashioned into a complex with a planetarium, a huge science and technology centre and a range of exhibition spaces. The marvellous Manufaktura mall includes the MS2 Museum of Art, a zip line and an artificial beach. And don’t miss the remarkable Fabryczna railway station, an architecturally stunning work of art.