Along the Vistula

  • 4 Weeks

The Vistula is Poland’s greatest river, winding its way from the foothills of Poland’s southern mountain range to the Baltic Sea. It’s played a key role in the country’s very identity, as it passes through – or close to – many of its oldest and most important settlements.

Ideally suited to roaming, this tour is for visitors who are not on a strict timetable and are looking for an unusual approach to Poland’s core. The four-week schedule assumes that you rely on buses (train services to many of these towns have been cut back in recent years). Naturally, if you have your own wheels, you could cover the terrain in three weeks or even less.

Begin upstream with two or three days at the former royal capital of Kraków and take a day tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum in Oświęcim. From Kraków, make your way by bus to beautiful Sandomierz, one of Poland’s undiscovered delights, with its impressive architectural variety and position on a bluff overlooking the river. From here, it’s worth taking a detour, again by bus, to the Renaissance masterpiece of Zamość, a nearly perfectly preserved 16th-century town.

Back on the path along the Vistula, stop in at the former artists colony – now a popular weekend retreat – of Kazimierz Dolny, before hitting Warsaw and indulging in its attractions for a few days. Next, call in at Płock, Poland’s art nouveau capital, then follow the river into Pomerania and through the heart of medieval Toruń, another nicely preserved Gothic town that also boasts being the birthplace of stargazer Nicolaus Copernicus.

Soon after Toruń, the river heads directly for the sea. In former times, the Vistula’s path was guarded by one Teutonic Knight stronghold after another. Today, these Gothic gems silently watch the river pass by. You can see the knights’ handiwork at Chełmno, Kwidzyn and Gniew, but the mightiest example resides at Malbork, on the banks of one of the river’s side arms. End your journey in the port city of Gdańsk, where the river meets the sea.

Cities of the West

  • 1 Week

Western Poland is borderland territory, straddling a region hotly contested between Poland and Germany over the centuries. Wrocław, with its good transport connections, makes a logical start and merits at least two days. This was the former German city of Breslau, and the architecture retains a Germanic flavour with a Polish pulse. After WWII, Wrocław was repopulated by refugees from Poland’s eastern lands lost to the Soviet Union, giving the city an added ethnic dimension.

From here make your way to Poznań, a thriving commercial hub with an intoxicating mix of business and pleasure, the latter fortified by a large student population. It was in Poznań that the Polish kingdom got its start a millennium ago.

After Poznań, the beautifully preserved Gothic town of Toruń is a short bus or train ride away. It boasts enchanting red-brick architecture and gingerbread cookies.

Finish the tour in either Gdańsk or Szczecin, the latter adding a gritty contrast to the architectural beauty of the other cities.

Eastern Borderlands

  • 3 Weeks

Poland’s eastern border region feels especially remote. Indeed, this swath of natural splendour is largely cut off from the day-to-day goings on in the rest of Poland. This itinerary will appeal to wanderers who prefer the solitude of nature to the hustle-bustle of the big city.

Start in Kraków for convenience's sake, but head quickly to Sanok, with its skansen and icon museum, and then head deeper into the Bieszczady National Park. Turn north and take the back roads to the Renaissance town of Zamość, via Przemyśl. Continue on to Chełm to see the underground chalk tunnels and then to the big-city comforts of Lublin.

Strike out north through the rural backwaters to the Białowieża National Park, and its primeval forest and bison herd. Head north again to the provincial city of Białystok and to the tiny hamlet of Tykocin, with its unforgettable synagogue.

From here is a wealth of parklands: the Biebrza and Wigry national parks, and beyond, the Great Masurian Lakes, all with excellent hiking and boating possibilities.

Essential Poland

  • 1 Week

Poland’s a big country with lots to see, so travellers with limited time will have to choose their destinations carefully. For first-time visitors, especially, the places to start are the capital, Warsaw, and the country’s most popular city, Kraków. For a week-long tour, budget roughly three days in each, and a day for travel.

Warsaw is an eye-opener, a scintillating mix of postwar Soviet-style reconstruction and a lovingly restored Old Town, with baroque and Renaissance architecture.

Leave at least a day for museum-hopping, particularly to the breathtaking Warsaw Rising Museum or newer attractions like the Chopin Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

From Warsaw, the former royal capital of Kraków is a 180-degree turn. If Warsaw is ‘old overlaid on new’, Kraków is new on top of ancient. Spend a day in the Old Town and the Wawel Royal Castle, a second day around the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and the third day with a side trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine (if you have kids in tow) or the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum.

Southeastern Poland

  • 1 Week

The southeastern corner of the country is seldom explored and a good place to see the country off the beaten path. Begin in Lublin, whose Old Town has been much spruced up in recent years, with some great places to see and eat. Don’t miss Lublin Castle or the chance to clamber up the Trinitarian Tower for a commanding view of the countryside. Spend a half-day at the enormous Majdanek concentration camp on the outskirts of the city.

Use Lublin as a base to explore nearby Chełm, which is best known for its kid-friendly underground Chalk Tunnels. It also has some very worthwhile Jewish heritage sights and restaurants.

Lublin also makes a nice base for visiting the popular riverside artists’ retreat at Kazimierz Dolny. The town is filled with museums and charming galleries, and the surrounding fields and forests make for a perfect day out on a bike or on foot.

From Lublin, head south to the self-proclaimed (with justification) ‘Pearl of the Renaissance’: Zamość. This perfectly preserved 16th-century Renaissance town has a lively central square, which hosts summertime concerts and music fests.

Southern Poland

  • 1 Week

Poland’s southern border is lined with mountains end to end. This itinerary is ideal for walkers who want to escape the city. Though this trip can be done in a week, bus transport can be spotty in parts.

Start in the mountain resort of Zakopane, which is easily reached by bus from Kraków. Allow at least a day to see the town’s historic wooden architecture and the Museum of Zakopane Style, and another for a walk into the Tatras (or more for a longer trek).

From here you’ll have to make some tough choices. We like the Pieniny range, east of the Tatras. The spa town of Szczawnica makes a good base for hikes, as well as biking and the ever-popular rafting ride down the Dunajec River.

From Szczawnica, the medium-sized city of Nowy Sącz offers urban comforts, or opt for Krynica or Muszyna, two popular spa resorts and good jumping-off points for more hikes.

A long bus ride from Nowy Sącz brings you to Sanok, with its amazing skansen (open-air ethnographic museum) and access to the 70km Icon Trail and its wooden churches.

The Big Three: Kraków, Warsaw & Gdańsk

  • 2 Weeks

This tour is similar to the ‘Essential Poland’ tour, but adds the ravishing Baltic port city of Gdańsk. Though the tour can be done in 10 days, adding extra days allows for more travel time (needed to bridge the long distances) and a chance to tack on some more day trips.

Allow at least four days for Kraków, one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in Europe. As with the ‘Essential Poland’ tour, spend the first day meandering around Kraków’s delightful Old Town. Don’t miss the Rynek Underground museum and, naturally, St Mary's Basilica. The second day will be taken up with the sights of the Royal Wawel Castle. Spend the third day exploring the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. For the last day, plan a side trip to either the Wieliczka Salt Mine or Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you have an extra day, consider the mountain resort of Zakopane, two hours away by bus.

Take the train to Warsaw and plan to stay put another three to four days. The extra day leaves more time to see the city’s amazing museums, as well as to enjoy the sites of the Old Town and stroll down the elegant ul Nowy Świat. If you’re up for a night of drinking, the gritty dive-bar hood of Praga beckons from across the Vistula. A more sedate pleasure involves a walk through lovely Łazienki Park. For day trips, consider Wilanów Palace, 6km south of the centre, or a full-day journey to the former Nazi-German extermination camp at Treblinka.

From Warsaw, take the train to Gdańsk and prepare to be dazzled by the stunningly restored Main Town, which, like Warsaw, was reduced to ruins in WWII. Proceed down the Royal Way and don’t miss the Amber Museum. Then there’s the waterfront district and pretty ul Mariacka.

If it’s summer and you’re lucky enough to get a warm day, spend your last full day on the water, either at the brash but popular beach resort of Sopot, or the quieter, more refined strand on the Hel Peninsula.