Picturesque cities such as Kraków and Gdańsk vie with energetic Warsaw for your urban attention. Elsewhere, woods, rivers, lakes and hills beckon for some fresh-air fun.
A Thousand Years
Poland’s roots go back to the 10th century, leaving more than a thousand years of twists and turns and kings and castles to explore. WWII history buffs are well served. Tragically, Poland found itself in the middle of that epic fight, and monuments and museums dedicated to these battles – and to Poland’s remarkable survival – can be seen everywhere. There’s a growing appreciation, too, of the country's rich Jewish heritage. Beyond the deeply affecting Holocaust memorials, synagogues are being sensitively restored, and former Jewish centres such as Łódź and Lublin have heritage trails where you can trace this history at your own pace.
Castles to Log Cabins
The former royal capital of Kraków is a living museum of architecture through the ages. Its nearly perfectly preserved Gothic core proudly wears overlays of Renaissance, baroque and art nouveau, a record of tastes that evolved over centuries. Fabulous medieval castles and evocative ruins dot hilltops around the country, and the fantastic red-brick fortresses of the Teutonic Knights stand proudly in the north along the Vistula. Simple but finely crafted wooden churches hide amid the Carpathian hills, and the ample skills of the highlanders are on display at the country's many skansens (open-air ethnographic museums).
If you’re partial to good home cooking, the way your grandmother used to make it, you’ve come to the right place. Polish food is based largely on local ingredients such as pork, duck, cabbage, mushrooms, beetroot and onion, combined simply and honed to perfection. Regional specialities and accomplished chefs keep things from getting dull. As for sweets, it’s hard to imagine a more accommodating destination. Cream cakes, apple strudel, pancakes, fruit-filled dumplings and a special mania for lody (ice cream) may have you skipping the main course and jumping straight to the main event.
Away from the big cities, much of Poland feels remote and unspoiled. While large swathes of the country are flat, the southern border is lined with a chain of low-lying but lovely mountains that invite days, if not weeks, of splendid solitude. Well-marked hiking paths criss-cross the country, taking you through dense forest, along broad rivers and through mountain passes. Much of the northeast is covered by interlinked lakes and waterways ideal for kayaking and canoeing – no experience necessary. Local outfitters are happy to set you up for a couple of hours or weeks.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Poland.
Malbork’s blockbuster attraction is its show-stoppingly massive castle sitting on the banks of the sluggish Nogat River, an eastern arm of the Vistula. The construction of Marienburg (Fortress of Mary) was begun by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and was the headquarters of the order for almost 150 years; its vast bulk is an apt embodiment of its weighty history. Visits are by self-guided tour with audio guide. Allow at least three hours to do the place justice.
Some 14km southeast of Kraków, the Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) salt mine has been welcoming tourists since 1722 and today is one of Poland's most popular attractions. It's a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels and chambers – about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground – of which a small part is open to the public via two-hour guided tours. First-time visitors take a standard 'tourist' route of the main sights, while return visitors can opt for a more-immersive 'miners' route.
Opened in 2016, this striking piece of modern architecture is a bold addition to the northern end of Gdańsk's waterfront. It has rapidly become one of Gdańsk's must-visit attractions, tracing the fate of Poland during the world's greatest conflict and focusing on the human suffering it caused. Few leave unmoved. Covering 5000 sq metres, an absolute minimum of three hours is needed to do the main exhibition justice. Note that the museum is not suitable for children of any age.
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle is a potent symbol of national identity. It's now a museum containing five separate sections: Crown Treasury and Armoury, State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and the Exhibition of Oriental Art. Each requires a separate ticket. Of the five, the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments are the most impressive, but to be honest, the best part is just wandering around the castle grounds – open 6am to dusk.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the Holocaust. More than a million Jews, and many Poles and Roma, were murdered here by German Nazis during WWII. Both sections of the camp – Auschwitz I and the much larger outlying Birkenau (Auschwitz II) – have been preserved and are open to visitors. It's essential to visit both to appreciate the extent and horror of the place. From April to October it’s compulsory to join a tour if you arrive between 10am and 3pm.
Warsaw’s top palace, 10km south of the city centre, was commissioned by King Jan III Sobieski in 1677. It has changed hands several times over the centuries, with each new owner adding a bit of baroque here and a touch of neoclassical there. Restoration of the palace's 2nd floor is underway until 2020, but in the meantime you can tour the magnificent ground-floor rooms packed with artistic baubles and treasures. Last entry to the palace is an hour before closing.
For over 60 years this socialist realist palace has dominated central Warsaw. A ‘gift of friendship’ from the Soviet Union, it was completed in 1955 and is, at 237m high, the tallest building in Poland – a title it will keep until the nearby 53-storey, 320m Varso Tower tops out in 2020. Among the many attractions at PKiN (as its full Polish name is abbreviated), the one not to be missed is the 30th-floor (115m) observation terrace.
This remarkable copy of the original castle blown up by the Germans in WWII is filled with authentic period furniture and original works of art. Highlights are the Great Apartments (rooms 1 to 9) including the magnificent Great Assembly Hall and the lavishly decorated Throne Room; King’s Apartments (rooms 11 to 20) including the Canaletto Room, hung with 22 paintings by Bernardo Bellotto (1721–80), known in Poland as Canaletto; and the Lanckoroński Collection with two portraits by Rembrandt.
This exceptional museum, housed in a former tram power station and its surrounding grounds, traces the history of the city's heroic but doomed uprising against the German occupation in 1944 via five levels of interactive displays, photographs, film archives and personal accounts. It's an immersive, overwhelming experience that takes the better part of a day to see, if you're to do everything here justice.