With its picturesque old towns and medieval architecture, wild forests and powdery-sand beaches, humming city life and imaginative culinary scene, Poland is a country that's as captivating as it is surprising. Here are our top five reasons to visit.

Urban antics aplenty

Poland’s two biggest cities, Kraków and Warsaw, may be vastly different from each other, but both make fantastic city break destinations. The sprawling capital, Warsaw, is a modern and vibrant hub, with a slew of world-class attractions such as the Warsaw Rising Museum, as well as excellent shopping and a blossoming culinary scene: smart modern-Polish restaurant Warszawa Wschodnia takes top billing.  Almost completely destroyed during WWII, some parts of the city have been restored using original pictures and paintings as a reference, so visitors can get a sense of what it looked like in its former glory.

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By contrast, Kraków's charming Old Town has been left largely intact since the 13th century. It's one of the most impressive in Europe, crammed with stunning historical edifices, winding cobbled streets, and majestic monuments around every corner. Rynek Główny is the heart of the Old Town, a huge and impressive square that was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978. Cloth Hall, a beautiful Renaissance-era building, is located in the middle of the square. Once the epicentre of the textile trade in medieval Poland, it's now home to shops and art exhibitions. Also in the square is St Mary’s Basilica, one of Poland’s most important religious buildings.

Reflect on history

Poland has had a turbulent history and, although at times harrowing, it’s worth taking the time to learn about the country's past. One of Poland’s most-visited sites is the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum, the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration and extermination camps. Located in Oświęcim, around 75km from Kraków, a visit here is by no means pleasant, but presents a window into the unimaginable horror that took place during the Holocaust. Today the grounds, museum and memorial are a sombre reminder of the 1.1 million people who lost their lives here.

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There are many other sites dedicated to Jewish heritage across Poland. In Warsaw, the displays at the Jewish Historical Institute and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews present in detail what life was like for the Jewish community in Poland throughout the ages. In Kraków, the Jewish district of Kazimierz – although now a quirky-cool area filled with galleries, shops and cafes – gives visitors an insight into Jewish life with its memorials, synagogues and cemeteries. The city of Łódź, which was once the home of many working-class Jews, offers a similar experience but on a larger scale.

Explore the great outdoors

Mountains clad in lush vegetation in summer and swathed in snow in the winter, tumbling rivers that carve their way through thick forests, and the dreamy Baltic Sea…Poland has all bases covered when it comes to the great outdoors.

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For hiking, the Tatras can’t be missed. Often nicknamed the Polish Alps, locals arrive in droves in the winter to ski and snowboard. Bieszczady, near the Ukrainian border, is another haven of (smaller) mountains, thick forests and meadows that seem to stretch on forever. Not many visitors make it out here, so it’s the perfect place to recharge in peace and quiet. Meanwhile, for adventures on the water, the Great Masurian Lake district, a labyrinth of rivers and lakes in Poland's northeast, is a favourite amongst boat lovers.

Experience the life of nobility

Ancient castles, majestic palaces and extravagant mansions are scattered all over Poland. These residences are not only enticing places to explore, they also offer a glimpse of what life was like for Polish aristocrats.

Medieval Malbork Castle, a gargantuan brick fortification, is one of the biggest castles in the world and is not to be missed if you're in Gdańsk: it's an easy day trip just 30km from the city. The Royal Castle of Warsaw is worth a visit for the fact that it's entirely a 20th-century reconstruction alone, while Kraków’s Wawel Royal Castle is the heartbeat of Polish cultural identity.

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Further afield, a two hour drive from Kraków gets you to the picturesque Pieniny mountains, where Niedzica Castle stands atop its rocky perch and Czorsztyn Castle's romantic ruins await exploration.

Enjoy top table tastes

Obviously, the best food to eat in Poland is Polish food and there’s nothing quite like the country's traditional hearty fare. If you like duck, pork, sauerkraut and dumplings, then you may have found your paradise – just pack stretchy trousers.

But beyond the Polish favourites, the culinary scene is flourishing, with plenty of young chefs experimenting with interesting flavours and novel ingredients to offer diners something different from the norm.

Whatever you’re eating, it will generally be well-priced. You can eat at fine-dining restaurants for a quarter of the price compared to similar establishments elsewhere in Europe, and cafe fare is diverse and usually inexpensive.

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In major cities you’ll find everything from modern Polish cuisine and amazing vegan fare to freshly brewed chai and a wide assortment of international food favourites. In the countryside…well, there will always be dumplings.

Getting there and around

Airports in the major Polish cities are well serviced, with budget airlines such as RyanaireasyJet and Wizz Air covering routes across Europe. Poland is part of the Eurail network and can be included on a European rail pass. The bus network is extensive, and highways are top notch for those on self-driving adventures. In cities, public transport is generally frequent and cheap.

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