Poland is not widely known as a haven for adrenalin junkies, but perhaps it should be. What better way could there be to slow down, meet some of the locals and leave the beaten track far behind? Why experience Poland through the window of a train, pickled in a museum or through the lens of a camera when you can hire a bike, grab a paddle or put on a pair of walking boots and get some fresh air.
Then & Now
Poles have a tradition of outdoor fun going back to the 19th century, when the first walking trails were marked out through the mountain ranges in the south. Polish hikers and climbers can always be found in the world’s mountaineering hotspots, and the country has financed many expeditions around the world, including to the Himalayas.
Foreign travellers started to get in on the action decades ago, but it’s only since the fall of communism that Poland has been discovered as an outdoor destination. Tour operators are increasingly catering to the demands of adventurers from around the world, offering improving facilities and serving up a wider range of adrenalin hits.
Almost every region of Poland now has well-signposted cycling routes, from short and easy circuits to epic international routes, and the situation is improving by the year. It’s possible to restrict yourself to the flatter regions of the country and travel the rest by train, but if you’re not deterred by gradients you can cycle some of the more riveting (and relatively unexplored) regions of the country. Maps showing cycling trails can be hard to source outside of Poland, but tourist offices can normally supply good cartography.
- Where possible stay on marked cycling trails; sharing national roads with Poland’s erratic drivers can be a hair-raising experience.
- Motorists in Polish cities are rarely cycle-conscious, so don’t expect too much consideration for your space and safety. Ride defensively.
- Among the big cities, Kraków appears to be making the best inroads for cyclists, and the cycling routes along the river are scenic and safe.
- Even small towns have at least one cycle shop selling spare parts and offering a cheap repair service.
- Poland’s roads, especially away from major routes, can be atrocious – watch out for wheel-swallowing potholes and uneven pavements along the road edges.
- Get the best lock you can and always use it, even when storing your bike in buildings and travelling on trains. Better to be safe than cycle-less.
- If in doubt, take your bike with you into your hotel room at night. Many hotels have specially locked storage rooms that can accommodate bikes, but some don’t.
- Check that your accommodation is accessible by bike; some places may not be, owing to street layout, traffic density and road conditions.
- Drinking and cycling don’t mix: you could end up in jail if you ride under the influence.
- Check out Cities For Bicycles (www.rowery.org.pl) to find out more about the rules of the road for bicycles.
Cities For Bicycles (www.rowery.org.pl) Grassroots cycling group promoting safe cycling in cities. Has a slightly dated but still useful list of practical information for bikers.
Cycling Holidays Poland A well-run cycling-tour operator that caters for international tourists.
EuroVelo (www.ecf.com) The European Cyclists’ Federation has a project to establish a 65,000km European Cycle Network throughout the continent. Five of the 12 proposed routes run through Poland. The website has some great maps of the international network as it stands now.
Central & Eastern European Greenways (www.greenways.by) List of trails and descriptions for the Greenways long-distance cycling and hiking routes that run through Central Europe.
Where to Cycle
Some epic bicycle adventures are waiting in the Bieszczady ranges. These tracks will roll you through a montage of deep forest green and rippling meadows, opening up intermittently to postcard-perfect natural and architectural panoramas. Part of the 70km Icon Trail near the town of Sanok is accessible to cyclists and rewards pedalling with views of old timber churches and castles. The town of Sanok lies astride a sprawling network of bike-friendly roads and pathways that cover hundreds of kilometres in Poland and extend to neighbouring Slovakia and Ukraine. The town's municipal website (www.gminasanok.com) maintains a good overview of the trails in English.
The region around the Dunajec River in the Pieniny isn’t just for rafting. Szczawnica, in particular, is a great cycling centre. It’s the starting point for several rewarding rides and is blessed with numerous bike-rental outfits. One of the region’s best rides follows the Dunajec River for around 15km all the way to the Slovak town of Červený Kláštor.
There are some enchanting routes (starting near the village of Białowieża) through the northern part of the Białowieża Forest and the large stretches of undisturbed woods that lie to the north and west of Białowieża National Park, including detours into parts of the park itself. Pick up a map from the park’s information centre and head off. If you need wheels, try Rent a Bike.
Cycling in the Masuria region is rewarding, and also pretty easy as the terrain is as flat as a board. The town of Węgorzewo on Lake Mamry is a convenient base from which to access 18 marked routes ranging from 25km to 109km circuits. The Augustów Forest and the areas around Suwałki are also great biking territories. You’ll find a few bike rental outfits in Augustów, including locally run rental Jan Wojtuszko.
The Sudetes, especially the area around the town of Szklarska Poręba, are a jackpot for mountain bikers. Stretching to the Czech border, Karkonosze National Park offers myriad marked mountain-biking trails and is popular with Polish extreme-sports enthusiasts. Some of the trails now cross over into the Czech Republic. The Szklarska Poręba tourist office can help with maps and advise on rentals.
Walking & Hiking
Poland’s mountainous areas are a joy to explore on foot and attract thousands of hikers every year and in every season. There are around 2000km of walking trails sliced through the country’s national parks, and many are well marked and well equipped with shelters. Nature’s repertoire of heights, gradients, climates and terrains is showcased in Poland: hiking options range from week-long treks for the hardcore hiker to hour-long rambles for the ascent-averse. The PTTK has a notoriously wonky website, but it's still an excellent resource for hiking and walking in all parts of the country. The website has a list of PTTK-run mountain huts and info centres, and lots of other useful info for planning a trek.
Poland’s National Parks
Poland has 23 national parks featuring a wide variety of landscapes. Check national park websites for more information on hiking and cycling routes. Things change, so ask in person before you assume any route is open.
primeval forest; bison, elk, lynx, wolf
wildlife watching, hiking
Best Time to Visit
river, wetland, forest; elk, great snipe, aquatic warbler
Best Time to Visit
forest, sand dunes
hiking, mountain biking
Best Time to Visit
mountains; dwarf pine, alpine flora
hiking, mountain biking
Best Time to Visit
river, reed beds; beaver, waterfowl
Best Time to Visit
forest, rock formations, caves; eagle, bat
Best Time to Visit
forest; elk, wolf, beaver, tarpan
Best Time to Visit
forest, bog, sand dunes; white-tailed eagle, waterfowl
Best Time to Visit
alpine mountains; chamois, eagle
hiking, climbing, skiing
Best Time to Visit
forest, lake, coast; white-tailed eagle, bison
Best Time to Visit
To ensure you enjoy your walk or hike in comfort and safety, put some thought into your preparations before hitting the trail.
- Obtain reliable information about the conditions and characteristics of your intended route from local national park authorities.
- Buy a suitable map from the local bookshop or tourist office.
- If possible, always inform someone of your route and when you expect to be back.
- Always check the weather forecast with the local tourist office or national park authority.
- Weather conditions can be unpredictable in mountainous areas, so pack appropriate clothing and equipment.
- Be sure you are fit enough for and feel comfortable with the walk you choose.
- Be aware of the local laws, regulations and etiquette about flora and fauna.
- Always be ready to turn back if things start to go wrong.
- If planning to overnight in a mountain hut, try to reserve in advance or at least let someone know you're coming. Otherwise you risk not having a place to sleep.
Two commendably practical walking guides for the Tatras are High Tatras: Slovakia and Poland, by Colin Saunders and Renáta Nározná, published in 2012, and the harder-to-find but still excellent Tatra Mountains of Poland and Slovakia, by Sandra Bardwell and published in 2006.
General emergency 112
Mountain rescue 601 100 300
Water rescue 601 100 100
Where to Walk & Hike
The southern mountain ranges are best for exhilarating high-altitude hikes, but low-level walks can be found across the country.
The Tatra Mountains in the south are the most notable region for hiking Polish-style. The West and the High Tatras offer different scenery; the latter is more challenging and as a result more spectacular. One of the most popular climbs in the Tatras is Mt Giewont (1894m). The cross at the peak attracts many visitors, though the steep slopes deter some.
The valleys around Zakopane offer walks of varying lengths for walkers of varying fitness levels (some take less than an hour). Similarly, trails around the nearby Pieniny and the Bieszczady in the east offer exciting hiking experiences – even for those who prefer to stroll. Another great option is Beskid Sądecki, which has convenient paths dotted with mountain hostels. Muszyna and Krynica are popular bases from which to access this region.
The lower Beskid Niski mountain range offers less arduous walks and less spectacular views.
Your first port of call in each of these areas should be the local tourist information office.
The Karkonosze National Park offers a sterling sample of the Sudetes. The ancient and peculiar ‘table top’ rock formations of the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) are among the highlights of the Sudetes. The area is easily accessed from the town of Szklarska Poręba at the base of Mt Szrenica (1362m), and there is a choice of walking trails from Karpacz to Mt Śnieżka (1602m). Further south, the village of Międzygórze is another well-kitted base for Sudetes sojourns. Tourist offices in Karpacz and Szklarska Poręba stand ready to point you to suitable trails and mountain hostels.
- The Augustów Forest in the Augustów-Suwałki Region has 55 lakes and many well-paved roads and dirt tracks. Diverse wildlife can be found in various stretches of the forest. There are numerous bays and peninsulas to explore around nearby Lake Wigry in the Wigry National Park, and the 63-sq-km Suwałki Landscape Park offers drop-dead gorgeous views from its picturesque terrain.
- The lowest mountain range in the country is in the Świętokrzyski National Park in Małopolska, near Kielce. There’s a 17km walk here that takes you past an ancient hilltop holy site that’s now a picturesque monastery.
- Roztocze National Park offers a range of light walks through gentle terrain, and the landscape park surrounding Kazimierz Dolny offers some easy but worthwhile rambles.
- There is also Kampinos National Park just outside of Warsaw, with its famed sand dunes, Wielkopolska National Park in Wielkopolska, and the compact Wolin National Park in northwest Poland.
Many local companies and individual guides operate along the tracks and trails of Poland’s wild side. If you are looking to organise a guided trek from home, UK-based Venture Poland specialises in organised walking tours of the Carpathian Mountains, while Walks Worldwide covers all the southern mountain ranges.
Canoeing, Kayaking & Rafting
Choices of where to kayak in Poland flow freely: the lowlands of Masuria, Warmia and Kashubia in Poland’s north offer literally thousands of lakes and rivers to choose from. Further to the east is the Augustów Canal, and the lakes and rivers connected to it. Just south of Augustów there’s a series of seldom-visited national parks that offer more kayaking opportunities in a protected and isolated environment of river tributaries and bogs.
There’s no need to haul your kayak through airports either as there are plenty of hire centres, where boats, paddles and life jackets can be rented for very reasonable rates, as well as numerous tour companies and guides. Local tourist offices can usually point you in the right direction.
Where to Get Paddling
Great Masurian Lakes
The town of Olsztyn is a handy base for organising adventures on water, particularly kayaking. PTTK Mazury here organises trips, equipment and guides. From Olsztyn it’s possible to canoe the Łyna River to the border of Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, or spend a couple of laid-back hours floating closer to the city.
The most popular kayaking route in the Great Masurian Lakes area runs along the Krutynia River, originating at Sorkwity, 50km east of Olsztyn, and follows the Krutynia River and Lake Bełdany to Ruciane-Nida. Some consider Krutynia the most scenic river in the north and the clearest in Poland. It winds through 100km of forests, bird reserves, meadows and marshes. To get a taste of the river (hopefully not literally), PTTK Mazury in Olsztyn runs popular 10-day kayaking tours along the Krutynia, starting at the Stanica Wodna PTTK (www.sorkwity.pttk.pl) in Sorkwity. Tours depart at regular intervals from June through August, and the price (1190zł) includes a kayak, food, insurance, lodging in cabins and a Polish-, English- or German-speaking guide. You can also do the trip on your own, hiring a kayak (30zł to 40zł per day) from the Stanica Wodna PTTK in Sorkwity, but check availability in advance.
Koch is a tour company based at Kętrzyn’s Hotel Koch that can arrange all kinds of adventures in the Great Masurian Lakes.
Less-visited than the renowned Great Masurian Lakes (and arguably cooler than them, too), the lakes of the Augustów-Suwałki region are not connected, but their waters are crystal clear. The river to paddle in these parts is the Czarna Hańcza, generally from Augustów along the Augustów Canal, all the way to the northern end of Lake Serwy. This route takes in the 150-year-old Augustów Canal, the Suwałki Lake District and the Augustów Forest. Numerous tour operators cover this loop, but it is also possible to do this and other routes independently.
Close to the city of Suwałki, Lake Wigry in the Wigry National Park offers surprisingly pristine paddling. In the Augustów-Suwałki region, check in with Szot in Augustów, which offers an excellent selection of short and long trips and English-friendly guides.
South of the Masurian Lakes, the Biebrza River runs through the scenic splendour of the Podlasie region and through Biebrza National Park, with its varied landscape of river sprawls, peat bogs, marshes and damp forests. The principal kayaking route here flows from the town of Lipsk downstream along the Biebrza to the village of Wizna, for a distance of about 140km (seven to nine days). While this is longer than most people will have time for, shorter stretches are also possible and camping sites dot the river along the way to allow for overnight stops.
The Narew National Park, further south, is just as interesting as the Biebrza National Park, but not as geared toward visitors. This park protects an unusual stretch of the Narew River that’s nicknamed the ‘Polish Amazon’, where the river splits into dozens of channels. For adventures in this part of Podlasie, check in with Kaylon for canoeing and kayaking adventures.
The most renowned kayaking river in Pomerania is the Brda, which leads through forested areas of the Bory Tucholskie National Park (www.pnbt.com.pl) and past some 19 lakes.
The Drawa Route, which runs through Drawa National Park (www.dpn.pl), is an interesting trip for experienced kayakers. The Drawa Route is believed to have been a favourite kayaking jaunt of Pope John Paul II when he was a young man.
The organised rafting trip to do in Poland is the placid glide through the Dunajec Gorge in the Pieniny. The river snakes from Czorsztyn Lake (Jezioro Czorsztyńskie) west between several steep cliffs, some of which are over 300m high. The river is narrow, in one instance funnelling through a 12m-wide bottleneck, and changes incessantly from majestically quiet, deep stretches to shallow mountain rapids. Be advised, however, that this is not a white-water experience but a leisurely pleasure trip. The outing begins in the small village of Sromowce Wyżne-Kąty, at the Raft Landing Place. You’ll take an 18km-long float and disembark in Szczawnica. The journey takes about 2¼ hours, depending on the level of the river. Some rafts go further downstream to Krościenko (23km, 2¾ hours), but there’s not very much to see on that stretch of the river.
Skiing & Snowboarding
If you haven’t skied before, perhaps Poland is the place to start, if only because you’ll pay less for the privilege here than elsewhere in Europe. Accommodation in ski-resort areas can range from 50zł for rooms in private homes up to the more luxurious 300zł hotel options. Ski-lift passes cost around 100zł per day.
Southern Poland is well equipped for cross-country and downhill skiers of all abilities and incomes, though there’s nothing budget about the scenery.
Where to Ski
Obviously, the mountain ranges of southern Poland are the places to snap on skis, though there’s plenty of cross-country skiing in other flatter locations, especially around (and on) the lakes of Masuria.
The Tatras are the best-equipped skiing area and the country’s winter-sports capital of Zakopane is the most popular place to slither. The slopes of this region, which peak at Kasprowy Wierch (1987m), are suitable for all skill levels, and Zakopane has good equipment and facilities. As well as challenging mountains (such as Kasprowy Wierch and Gubałówka, with runs of 4300m and 1500m respectively), the varied terrain around Zakopane offers flat land for beginners and plenty of time to learn, with a generous ski season lasting into April some years.
Another centre of outdoor action is Szklarska Poręba in Silesia, at the foot of Mt Szrenica (1362m). The city offers almost 15km of skiing and walking routes, and great cross-country skiing. The nearby town of Karpacz on the slopes of Mt Śnieżka (1602km) enjoys around 100 days of snow per year. The Karpacz Tourist Office website has an excellent round-up of downhill and cross-country skiing options, as well as options for snowboarding and snow tubing. The town of Międzygórze also hosts ski enthusiasts who venture out to the ski centre at the ‘Black Mountain’ of Czarna Góra.
The village of Szczyrk, at the base of the Silesian Beskids, has less severe slopes and far shorter queues than elsewhere in the country. Szczyrk is home to the Polish Winter Olympics training centre and has mild enough mountains for novice skiers and snowboarders. See Szczyrk’s official website (www.szczyrk.pl) for information on ski routes, ski schools, equipment hire and tourist services.
Other Outdoor Activities
It’s worth spending some time in the saddle in Poland – a country that has enjoyed a long and loyal relationship with the horse. National parks, tourist offices and private equestrian centres have become quite proficient in marking routes and organising horseback holidays along them.
The PTTK can assist with organising independent horse riding through its Mountaineering and Horse Riding division. There are many state-owned and private stables and riding centres throughout the country, from rustic agrotourism establishments to luxurious stables fit for a Bond film. It’s also possible to organise riding tours of a few hours, or a few days, through numerous private operators. The cost of undertaking these experiences varies depending on duration and level of luxury. A down-to-earth horseback ride on a pony for a week can cost around €800, while a weekend at a fine estate with access to steed-studded stables can cost upwards of €500. Shop around until you find something that suits your taste, ability and budget.
For more on horse-riding holidays, take a look at the Polish Equestrian Association. There's lots of information here but unfortunately it's all in Polish.
Where to Ride
Białowieża National Park Offers the chance to ride (or use horse-drawn carriages and sleighs in winter) on nondesignated routes through forests. Contact the National Park Information Centre for details.
The Bieszczady Several bridle paths cross the Bieszczady range, including within the Bieszczady National Park. The best place to organise a trip is in the town of Ustrzyki Dolne. The town's helpful tourist office is a good place to get started.
Lower Silesia Offers the 360km Sudety Horse-Riding Route. The privately operated Horse Ranch Sudety-Trail (www.sudety-trail.eu) runs all kinds of equestrian packages, suited to both novices and experienced riders, for two to six people from May to November.
Masurian Lake District Ride horses around the lakes. For some inspiration, check out the Masurian Lake District tourist website (www.masurianlakedistrict.com. The Old Smithy Inn (Karczma Stara Kuźnia; www.starakuznia.com.pl), near Giżycko, is housed in a 19th-century Prussian manor house, and offers guided rides, as well meal and overnight stays.
Information about environmentally friendly walking, cycling and horse-riding trails is available through the Polish Environmental Partnership Foundation (www.environmentalpartnership.org), the Polish branch of a regional foundation that promotes responsible tourism.
There’s an underexplored seafaring culture in Poland. It’s possible to hire yachts or sailing ships complete with their own shanty-singing skipper. The Baltic coast attracts some craft, but the summer crowds testify to the sailing-suitability of the Great Masurian Lakes, which truly live up to their name. This sprawling network of interconnected lakes allows sailors to enjoy a couple of weeks on the water without visiting the same lake twice.
You can hire sailboats in Giżycko, Mikołajki and several smaller villages. In Giżycko, the tourist office maintains a list of boats and yachts for hire on its web page, and also offers good first-hand advice in person. In Mikołajki the Wioska Żeglarska, on the waterfront, has sailing boats for hire, and staff may be able to advise you on other companies if their own are booked out.
Boat enthusiasts will get a particular thrill from excursions on the Elbląg-Ostróda Canal in the Olsztyn region. The 82km canal is the longest navigable canal still in use in Poland. It’s also the most unusual. The canal deals with the 99.5m difference in water levels by means of a unique system of slipways, where boats are physically dragged across dry land on rail-mounted trolleys. The canal follows the course of a chain of six lakes, most of which are now protected conservation areas. From May to September, pleasure boats operated by Żegluga Ostródzko-Elbląska sail the main part of the canal between Ostróda and Elbląg. Trips of various durations are offered. For a nice taste of canal life, try the run from Elbląg as far as Buczyniec (129/99zł, 4½ hours), which covers the most interesting part of the canal, including all five slipways.
Baltic Sea sailing takes place on the bay at Szczecin, shared by Germany and Poland. Sailors can visit Wolin Island and National Park when sailing this 870-sq-km bay. The bay in Gdańsk also offers access to sea harbours and quaint fishing towns.
In the Carpathian Mountains, Solina Lake is the Bieszczady region’s most important centre for water sports, including boating and recreation. It's about 30km southwest of Ustrzyki Dolne and accessible by bus. The Solina Lake tourist office, just off Hwy 894 on the way to Lesko, can supply you with all the details.
Windsurfing & Kitesurfing
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are mostly done in the same areas that attract sailors, but the true heartland is Hel – the Gulf of Gdańsk between Władysławowo and Chałupy along the Baltic coast. The arbitrary dance of wind and currents constantly changes the shape of the enticingly named Hel Peninsula. The Great Masurian Lakes may be popular, but there’s no place like Hel. Gdańsk-based JoyTrip is a good tour company to contact for equipment hire etc.
Hang-Gliding & Paragliding
Hang-gliding and paragliding are taking off in Poland, particularly in the southern mountains, starting around Zakopane and moving eastward. The website paraglidingmap.com (www.paraglidingmap.com/sites/Poland) maintains a good list of launch sites, complete with pictures and weather forecasts. A popular place from which to start is the top of Kasprowy Wierch, south of Zakopane, though bear in mind that at 1967m, the elevation is high and winds can be strong. For more information, enquire at tourist offices and tour operators in Zakopane.
Climbing & Caving
The Tatras offer opportunities for beginner and advanced climbers. Contact the Polish Mountain Guides Society (www.pspw.pl; in Polish only, though you can send an email in English) for further information and a list of qualified guides.
There are more than 1000 caves in the country, but few are ready for serious spelunking. A good one is Bear’s Cave (www.jaskinia.pl) near the village of Kletno, in Silesia, southeast of the city of Kłodzko. It's reachable by car and is situated on the elevation of Śnieżnik Kłodzki, on the right slope of the Kleśnica valley. Check the website for details, and note that you must reserve a tour in advance.
There are two caves in the Kraków-Częstochowa Upland. King Łokietek Cave stretches over 270m through several passages and can be visited on a 30-minute tour. Nearby Wierzchowska Górna Cave is the longest in the region and goes on for nearly 1km.
This newish sport/activity, a GPS-based treasure-hunting game, may not be as popular in Poland as it is in other countries such as the UK, but an ever-increasing number of Poles are now finding their way to it. The websites www.opencaching.pl and www.geocaching.pl are good places to start. Fans may also want to check out the Twitter feed of geocachingpl (www.twitter.com/geocachingpl) for a great source on current trends and trails. Tweets are normally in Polish, but can be deciphered fairly easily with an online translator.