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. The immense castle took shape in stages. First was the so-called High Castle, the formidable central bastion that was begun around 1276. When Malbork became the capital of the order in 1309, the fortress was expanded considerably. The Middle Castle was built to the side of the high one, followed by the Lower Castle still further along. The whole complex was encircled by three rings of defensive walls and strengthened with dungeons and towers. The castle eventually spread over 20 hectares, making it the largest fortress built anywhere in the Middle Ages. The castle was seized by the Polish army in 1457, during the Thirteen Years’ War, when the military power of the knights had started to erode. Malbork then became the residence of Polish kings visiting Pomerania, but from the Swedish invasions onwards it gradually went into decline. After the First Partition in 1772, the Prussians turned it into barracks, destroying much of the decoration and dismantling sections of no military use. In the 19th century the Marienburg was one of the first historic buildings taken under government protection, becoming a symbol of medieval German glory. Despite sustaining damage during WWII, almost the entire complex has been preserved, and the castle today looks much as it did six centuries ago, dominating the town and the surrounding countryside. The best view is from the opposite side of the river (you can get there via the footbridge), especially in the late afternoon when the brick turns an intense red-brown in the setting sun. The visitor experience has been much improved recently with a new, chattier style of audio guide that works using GPS, a set route (no more getting lost and seeing only half the rooms) and several new exhibitions. The ticket office has left-luggage lockers, toilets and refreshments. The entrance to the complex is from the northern side, through what used to be the only way in. From the main gate, you walk over the drawbridge, then go through five iron-barred doors to the vast courtyard of the Middle Castle. On the western side (to your right) is the Grand Masters’ Palace, which has some splendid interiors including the kitchen with its 6m-wide fireplace and the Great Refectory, the largest chamber in the castle at 450 sq metres. The remarkable ceiling has its original palm vaulting preserved. Peek into the Grand Master's private loo before heading to the other side of the courtyard where there's a collection of period weapons and armour on display and an excellent Amber Museum – the latter would be a major place of interest in its own right, were it anywhere else. Amber was an important source of revenue for the Teutonic Knights – they controlled the entire Baltic coast where it is found. The tour then continues to St Anne's Chapel where 12 Grand Masters were buried. The clever audio guide then leads you to the High Castle, over another drawbridge and through a gate to a spectacular arcaded courtyard that has a reconstructed well in the middle. This was the monastical part of the castle where monks would sit in session in the Chapter House before heading for their meat and mead in the striking refectory. The mock-up of the monks' kitchen is an aromatic affair with nary a potato or tomato in sight. Another memorable halt is the gdaniska, the knights’ loo perched high atop its own special tower and connected to the castle by a walkway. Perhaps it was one of the order who coined the phrase ‘long drop’ as he reached for the cabbage leaves they used for toilet paper. One of the most striking interiors here is St Mary’s Church, accessed through a beautiful Gothic doorway, known as the Golden Gate. This is where the brothers would have met to pray every three hours, 24/7, but it was the part most damaged during the bombardment of 1945. Renovation ended in 2016, the walls left as bare brick as a powerful reminder of the Red Army shells. Throughout the castle look out for the interesting underfloor heating system in many of the rooms and the little Gothic stucco figures pointing the way to the nearest WC. New exhibitions along the way examine conservation efforts over the last 200 years, oriental weaponry and Malbork under the Polish Crown.
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. The salt-hewn formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures, while others are adorned with statues and monuments – and there are even underground lakes. The climax of the tour is the vast chamber (54m by 18m, and 12m high) housing the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga (Kaplica Św Kingi). Every single element here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for three men to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed. Other highlights are the salt lake in the Erazm Barącz Chamber, whose water is denser than the Dead Sea, and the awe-inspiring 36m-high Stanisław Staszic Chamber. Included in the entry price is a further one-hour tour of the Kraków Saltworks Museum, accommodated in 14 chambers on the third level of the mine, where the main tour ends, but most visitors appear to be ‘salted out’ by then. Here you can visit the underground restaurant, after which it's another 15-minute walk to the lift that takes you back up to the real world. Visitors are guided in groups and the tour takes about two hours. You walk about 2km through the mine, so wear comfortable shoes. The temperature in the mine is 14°C. In July and August English-language tours depart every half-hour from 8.30am to 6pm. During the rest of the year there are between six and eight daily tours in English. A second touring option is aimed at repeat visitors who have already seen the main sights. The 'miners' route bypasses the mine's highlights in favour of a more immersive experience – visitors wear standard mining clothes and gear (including respirators) and set off in groups of 20 to live the life of a salt-miner for the three-hour tour. It's great for older kids and more adventurous adults. The tour departs from the Regis Shaft, near the centre of Wieliczka. To reach Wieliczka, both trains and buses depart regularly from the main train and bus stations. The trip costs around 4zł and takes around 30 minutes. Several tour operators, including Cracow City Tours, run bus tours to the mine, starting at around 150zł, including admission.
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. The museum is divided into 18 sections, each one looking at an aspect of WWII and arranged (mercifully) in chronological order. Free maps are handed out with your ticket. Things kick off with the causes of the war – Nazi propaganda posters – and end with the Cold War – Communist propaganda posters. In between particularly striking exhibits include a huge mock-up of an interwar Warsaw street, the Holocaust section with its hundreds of Jewish faces rising 7m to the ceiling, a Sherman tank, an interesting section on meetings between the allies in Tehran, Casablanca, Moscow and Yalta and a massive, film-set-like bombed Warsaw courtyard complete with Russian tank. Room after room of uniforms, weapons, maps, documents and harrowing footage, all with brief explanations in English, will take up most of your time – you could literally spend an entire day here. Little things to look out for along the way are the Nazi Christmas decorations bearing little swastikas, an Oscar-nominated film called Siege, shot by a US journalist in the first days of the Nazi invasion of Poland, personal objects belonging to both sides in the siege of Leningrad, artefacts from the Katyń massacre site and the radios sold in Czechoslovakia bearing little stickers promising the death penalty for listening to the BBC. There's also a section dedicated to Polish resistance, but surprisingly little about Gdańsk itself. The building itself – all bare concrete painted black and grey – creates a heavy, sombre atmosphere. Many visitors leave visibly dazed, so powerful is the story this superb museum tells. Only 200 visitors an hours are permitted to enter the Museum of WWII so to avoid the queues, make sure you buy your ticket in advance online. The museum is free on Tuesdays but the 200-visitor limit still applies and tickets are sold on a first-come-first-served basis. Get there early.
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. The Renaissance palace you see today dates from the 16th century. An original, smaller residence was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław I Chrobry. Kazimierz III Wielki (Casimir III the Great) turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, Zygmunt I Stary (Sigismund I the Old; 1506–48) commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years, the current Italian-inspired palace was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the three-storey structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalised by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied in the 19th century by the Austrians, who intended to make Wawel a barracks, while moving the royal tombs elsewhere. They never got that far, but they did turn the royal kitchen and coach house into a military hospital and raze two churches. They also built a new ring of massive brick walls, largely ruining the original Gothic fortifications. After Kraków was incorporated into re-established Poland after WWI, restoration work began and continued until the outbreak of WWII. The work was resumed after the war and has been able to recover a good deal of the castle’s earlier external form and interior decoration.
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. Book well ahead either online or by phone, or turn up early (before 9.30am). English-language tours leave at numerous times throughout the day, generally most frequently between 10am and 1.30pm, when they operate half-hourly. Most tours include a short documentary film about the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops in January 1945 (not recommended for children under 14). The museum’s visitor centre is at the entrance to the Auschwitz I site. Photography and filming are permitted throughout the camp without the use of a flash or tripod. There’s a self-service snack bar by the entrance as well as a kantor (private currency-exchange office), free left-luggage room and bookshops with publications about the site. If not on a tour, get a copy of the museum-produced Auschwitz Birkenau Guidebook (5zł). It includes plans of both camps. The Auschwitz extermination camp was established in prewar Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oświęcim by the German occupiers in April 1940. Auschwitz was originally intended for Polish political prisoners, but the camp was then adapted for the wholesale extermination of the Jews of Europe in fulfilment of German Nazi ideology. For this purpose, the much larger camp at Birkenau (Brzezinka) was built 2km west of the original site in 1941 and 1942, followed by another one in Monowitz (Monowice), several kilometres to the west.
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. When King Jan III Sobieski decided this was the perfect spot for his country estate, there was already a village here called Milanów that had existed since the middle ages. The king renamed the village in Latin as 'Villa Nova', later Polonised into Wilanów (vee- lah -noof). Miraculously, Wilanów survived WWII almost unscathed, and most of its furnishings and art were retrieved and reinstalled after the war. While restorations of the 2nd floor are underway you can follow two routes through the palace. Route 1 includes the White Hall, the palace's largest room, hung with portraits of successive owners of Wilanów; the Garden Galleries decorated with beautiful 17th-century frescoes; the Royal Apartments of King Jan III; the neoclassical-style Grand Vestibule; and the Potocki Museum, named after Stanisław Kostka Potocki, owner of Wilanów from 1799 to 1821, who in 1805 opened his art collection to the general public. Route 2 covers Princess Marshall Lubomirska’s Apartments, an immaculately restored salon dating from the late 18th century and including the magnificent Chinese and Hunting Rooms. Also here is the Storage Accessible for Visitors, which allows a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the restoration and care of the palace's collection of object d'art and antiques.
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. To see some of PKiN's grand interior architecture, join the guided tour run by Creatours, whose booth is next to the ticket office for the observation terrace. As its name indicates, PKiN is a vast recreation and educational facility. In different parts of the complex you'll find a huge congress hall (closed for renovation), three theatres, a multiscreen cinema, a handful of museums and other tourist attractions. You'll find Warsaw's main tourist office here, too In the past locals branded PKiN with one uncomplimentary moniker after another – the 'Elephant in Lacy Underwear', a reference both to the building's size and the fussy sculptures that frill the parapets and terraces, was one favourite put down. More recently, though, PKiN has become accepted and even embraced as a city icon.
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. The mammoth red-brick castle began life as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century. Its heyday came in the mid-17th century, when it became one of Europe’s most splendid royal palaces. In 1918, after Poland regained independence, it became the residence of the president. Its reconstruction didn't get going until 1971 and took 13 years to complete.
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. There's more to see in the surrounding Freedom Park, which includes a Wall of Remembrance, the Colour of Freedom exhibit of colourised photos of insurgents, a Rose Garden, and the Art Wall gallery of contemporary artworks created by top Polish artists and inspired by the 1944 Rising and Warsaw. The park hosts concerts and other events during summer.