If you believe the legends, Kraków was founded on the defeat of a dragon, and it’s true a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares. Wawel Castle is a major drawcard, while the Old Town contains soaring churches, impressive museums and the vast Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest market square.
Gdańsk & Pomerania
Cream-hued beaches shelving smoothly into the nippy Baltic Sea, wind-crafted dunes vivid against leaden skies, stern red-brick churches and castles erected by a medieval order of pious knights, and silenced shipyards that once seethed with anti-communist tumult – this is Pomerania, Poland’s north, a land with many faces.
Occupying the whole of southwestern Poland, Silesia (Śląsk, pronounced 'shlonsk', in Polish), is a diverse collection of attractive cities, industrial centres and mountain scenery. Wrocław is a historical gem and well worth a visit, while inviting smaller centres such as Nysa and Jelenia Góra offer distinctive sights and activities.
Once you’ve travelled around Poland, you realise this: Warsaw is different. Rather than being centred on an old market square, the capital is spread across a broad area with diverse architecture: restored Gothic, communist concrete, modern glass and steel. This jumble is a sign of the city’s tumultuous past.
When thinking about Poland, mountains are not usually the first thing to spring to mind. In fact, the country’s southern border is defined by the beautiful and dramatic Carpathian (Karpaty) chain, the highest mountain range in Central Europe. The wooded hills and peaks here are a beacon for hikers, cyclists and skiers in season.
Małopolska, known in English as Lesser Poland, is the sprawling region surrounding Kraków, running from Częstochowa in the west to Lublin in the east. It’s played an outsized role in Polish history, forming the core of the ancient Polish kingdom. These days, though, it’s mostly passed over by travellers who make a beeline for Kraków and then move on. That’s a pity.
Mazovia & Podlasie
The rolling landscape of Mazovia (Mazowsze in Polish) may look blissful, but this central region has had an eventful history. Once a duchy, Mazovia is dotted with castles, cathedrals and palaces, the biggest of which reside in the riverside towns of Płock and Pułtusk. Łódź is the provincial capital, with more going for it than meets the eye.
If you want to distil the essence of Poland’s eventful history, head for Wielkopolska. The region’s name means Greater Poland, and this is where the Polish state was founded in the Middle Ages. Centuries later, the local population has an understandable pride in its long history.
Northern & Western Pomerania
Stretching northwest from Gdańsk, the Baltic coast is Poland’s key summer-holiday strip. It may not be as well known as Spain’s Costa del Sol, but it’s an attractive coastline of dunes, woods and coastal lakes, fronted by pristine white sandy beaches. The numerous resort towns stretching all the way from Hel to Świnoujście are engaging places to spend some time.
The fertile land within the valley of the Lower Vistula, bisected by the wide, slowly flowing river, was prized by invaders for centuries. Flat, open and dotted with green farms, this region developed during the 13th and 14th centuries into a thriving trade centre, via the many ports established along the Vistula’s banks from Toruń to Gdańsk.
The Lublin Upland
Stretching east of the Vistula and San Rivers up to the Ukrainian border is the Lublin Upland (Wyżyna Lubelska). Lublin, its biggest city, still bears the scars of WWII, but carries itself with dignity. The area also boasts Kazimierz Dolny, a quaint town on the banks of the Vistula that attracts weekenders looking to escape the city – and the 21st century.
The Sudetes Mountains run for more than 250km along the Czech–Polish border. The highest part of this old and eroded chain of mountains is the Karkonosze, reaching 1602m at Mt Śnieżka. Though the Sudetes don’t offer much alpine scenery, they’re amazingly varied and heavily covered in forest, with spectacular geological formations such as those at the Góry Stołowe.
This part of Silesia presents extreme contrasts. Heavily developed and industrialised, Upper Silesia (Górny Śląsk) occupies just 2% of Poland’s territory, yet it’s home to a full 9% of the population. Thanks to large deposits of coal, it’s traditionally been the nation’s centre of heavy industry and the most densely urbanised area in Central Europe.
The Carpathian Foothills (Przedgórze Karpackie) form a green and hilly belt sloping from the Vistula and San River valleys in the north to the true mountains in the south. Except for Wadowice and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, which are usually visited from Kraków, most sights in the region are located along the Kraków–Tarnów– Rzeszów–Przemyśl road.