Poland is full of surprises. Cities like Warsaw, Kraków and Gdańsk teem with treasures, while outside the urban centres there are craggy mountains, wooded forests, and wondrous waterways to be explored. Whether your idea of a wild time is trying a tipple (or two) of the national drink, getting lost in the annals of history, or discovering wildlife in the little-trodden countryside, we’ve rounded up the top ten things to do on a trip to Poland.
Be captivated by Kraków
A city of stunning architecture, fabulous cuisine, and an arresting history, Kraków offers an evocative atmosphere beyond compare. Get acquainted with a tour of the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and the Kraków Ghetto, and dive into the secrets of this fascinating one-time capital. A standout exception to the physical wartime destruction of the rest of the country, the glorious main square, the Rynek Główny – Europe's largest medieval town square – survived intact to the modern day. Kraków’s wounds remain, however, its scars reflected in the dedicated monuments and memorials throughout. Particularly haunting are the large metal chairs dotting the Ghetto Heroes Square, each representing the lost souls of one thousand Kraków Jews.
Bear witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The occupying German army in WWII tragically turned Poland into a killing field in the heinous genocide committed against Jews and other groups, including Polish resisters and Roma people. The most infamous of the extermination camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial and museum, in the town of Oświęcim. More than a million people were imprisoned, enslaved, and murdered over a four-year period. Much of the camp has been preserved as it was during the war, allowing visitors to learn, reflect and resolve that this can never happen again. The matter-of-fact tour is as heavy as it is important and will leave your head spinning and heart aching.
Experience the wisdom of Warsaw
Warsaw’s world-class museums offer an accessible and engaging education on a history that affects us all. The Warsaw Rising Museum delivers an immersive portrayal of the events surrounding the city’s tragic uprising against the occupying Germans in 1944, while the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews traces the 1000-year history of the Jewish people in Poland. These high-tech venues ask that you take your time absorbing the events of a profoundly harrowing past as you make your way through an engrossing array of sound, light and video. The experience yields a uniquely contextual grasp of these circumstances, as well as a meaningful connection to the former and present occupants of this resilient city.
Do as the locals do in Poland’s largest cities
Take a closer look at the culture of Poland’s urban centres and the day-to-day life of its residents. The amount of green space, variety of restaurants and ridesharing options will surprise you. Unwind and have fun in the same ways the locals do. In Warsaw, attend a free Chopin Concert at Royal Łazienki Park on summer Sundays, or stroll down to the Vistula riverside for post-work beverages during the week. Go clubbing in Poznań, Wrocław or Kraków's Kazimierz district. Poles love to party.
Get lost in Gdańsk
It’s hard to imagine a more handsome seaport than the Hanseatic city of Gdańsk on the Baltic. The mesmerising streets of Old Town and the enchanting grounds of Malbork Castle are enough to call you north for a visit, but the aesthetics are just the beginning. Gdańsk prospered in the Middle Ages as a trade link between the interior and the rest of the world and has played an outsized role in recent history as well, serving as an important symbol of resistance both to the Germans in 1939 and to the Soviets in 1980. A visit to the boldly designed Museum of WWII and the interactive European Solidarity Centre will provide brilliant depictions of these consequential events from the local perspective.
Knock back a vodka shot
Poles love vodka and one of the joys of venturing abroad is to join in with the locals. Clear vodkas, like top-shelf Wyborowa and Belvedere, are drunk icy and neat, but Poles like to experiment as well. Wiśniówka is cherry-flavoured, sweet and painfully easy to over-indulge in. More palatable, particularly mixed with apple juice, is Żubrówka, a rye-based vodka flavoured with bison grass from Białowieża. Another favourite is Żołądkowa Gorzka, a sweetish, amber-coloured concoction spiced with nutmeg that is allegedly good for the stomach. Not sure where to begin? Lean on the experts and order a tasting tray. And yes, all the go-tos and trendy favourites are available too – from craft beer to Prosecco and fancy cocktails.
Be wowed by Polish food
Beetroot and buckwheat, apples, onions and mushrooms picked fresh from the forest – the beauty of Polish cooking often lies in the novel pairings, side dishes and seasonings alongside a meaty hero. Filling soups like zurec (rye sour soup) and barszcz (borscht) appear regularly on the menu, as do dumplings (pierogi), served boiled or fried with fillings ranging from plain cheese to duck meat. If hearty beef and goose dishes featuring sauerkraut and gherkins don’t please your palate, there are a surprising number of international options, as well as special dietary cafes in the urban centres. The variety of fresh and delicious salads is perhaps most impressive, but don’t leave this land without trying zapiekanki – an open-faced sandwich and famous street food.
Reconnect with nature in the national parks
Poland is home to several national parks, with many classified as a Biosphere Reserve or a World Heritage Site. These preserved and protected swaths of land dot across the country and boast distinctive wonders at which to marvel. Białowieża National Park features both Europe’s largest, original, old-growth forest, and several reserves of one of Poland’s national animals: the European bison. Słowiński National Park on the Pomeranian coast is famous for its shifting dunes and comprises mostly shallow lakes cut off from the sea, an ideal habitat to support roughly 250 bird species. Others offer mysterious rock formations, extensive meadows, and medieval castles.
Take to the Carpathian mountains for active adventure
Poland is famously flat. That is, until you get to the far south of the country. There the Carpathians, a narrow range of mid-sized mountains runs the length of the Polish border from Germany to Ukraine. The Karkonosze range in the southwest is ideal for mountain biking, while Zakopane, south of Kraków and at the foot of the Tatras, is considered best for skiing. Our favourite, though, is the isolated Bieszczady range in the extreme southeast. Off the beaten track, it's a hiker's dream, and the native lynx might well outnumber the people who venture there.
Sail the Great Masurian Lakes
The northeast of Poland is a vast expanse of little-known, interlinked lakes and rivers. From the first budding of the trees in May through to the changing of the leaves in autumn, boaters from all around try their hand on Lake Śniardwy or Lake Niegocin, or paddle the scenic Krutynia River. The towns of Giżycko and Mikołajki make the best bases for sailing, cycling and paddling trips.
This article by Mark Baker was first published in May 2015, and was updated by Meghan Advent in November 2019