Surrounded by Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and a small detached slice of Russia, Poland definitely puts the “central” in Central Europe! To the north, it fronts the Baltic Sea. To the south, you’ll find the towering Tatra Mountains.
Within Poland’s borders, you can discover Europe’s last patch of primeval forest, lakes and streams that are a paradise for paddlers, looming castles, historic cities, and more than a dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Polish people’s fierce determination helped the country recover from the devastation of World War II and years of Soviet domination. You can learn the stories of these struggles at museums in Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk. Wander through Warsaw’s Old Town and consider that, despite its ancient appearance, it was completely rebuilt after being flattened by Hitler’s army.
In this slideshow, we’ll send you on unique experiences all around Poland — from culinary adventures to an underground wonderland made completely of salt. You’ll swig mead, raft a river and visit one of the world’s most unusual animal sanctuaries. And don’t miss our advice for where to stay and how to get around.
Raft a River — Polish Style
Take an 11-mile trip through the dramatic Dunajec River Gorge aboard wooden rafts poled by men in traditional clothing. Trips like this have been going on for more than 150 years. Of course, you can also opt to do a more modern version and paddle your own kayak.
Either way, the voyage from Sromowce Wyzne-Katy to Szczawnica is spectacular. You’ll drift by wooded mountains and limestone cliffs, and likely even spot Niedzica Castle, overlooking the river. The river doesn’t have wild rapids, so you can relax and enjoy watching the scenery (or the manly guys steering the raft).
Package trips are available from Krakow and other towns in the south, and can include stops at wooden churches or a visit to Niedzica Castle, as well as transportation and rafting. Check with the local tourism office or your hotel front desk for tour operators and options.
Discover an Italian Renaissance Town
Zamosc is a multi-colored confection of a town — the fantasy of 16th-century noble Jan Zamoyski, who imported an architect from Padua, Italy, to create his “ideal city.” Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Renaissance town retains its original layout and fortifications, with many buildings combining Italian and central European architectural traditions. Zamosc was located on the trade route linking this part of Europe with the Black Sea, so became an economic center with multi-national connections; it also was known for religious tolerance.
Stroll around the Old Town and its Market Square. Check out the elaborate Town Hall and burghers’ houses — some with rich decorations that belonged to Armenian merchants. You can also have a look at the basilica, the palace and the university founded by Zamoyski. Wander the arcades and inspect the fortifications that protected this city known as the “Pearl of the Renaissance.”
Most of all, just take in the rare harmonious blend of buildings that were all planned to complement each other 500 years ago. Today’s city planners could learn a thing or two.
Immerse Yourself in Chopin
Warsaw is fiercely proud of its connection to composer Frederic Chopin, who lived here for the first 21 years of his short life. But even though he departed for France, his heart stayed with Poland — seriously, it’s preserved in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church.
The best place to begin your musical adventure is the Chopin Museum for an interactive experience that includes listening booths, music written in the composer’s own hand, and info on his personal and professional life. You can also see a piano he played and catch a whiff of violets, his favorite flowers.
When you’re ready for some fresh air, take a self-guided walking tour of Warsaw’s 15 high-tech musical benches. Each one plays a burst of Chopin’s music when you press a button. There’s a route map on every black stone bench, along with a description in English of why that particular site was important in Chopin’s life. You can also snap a photo of a code on the benches to access a special Chopin app.
During the warmer months, head to Lazienki Park, where live performances of Chopin’s music take place every Sunday from May through September. You can even dine at the same restaurant Chopin frequented: Located just outside of Old Town, Honoratka still serves dishes made from 19th-century recipes.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
5 Days, 5 Nights: Warsaw, Torun, Bydgoszcz, POLAND by PenelopeCorelli
“Met our relatives/hosts and walked to Lazienki Royal Park, a beautiful area with a regal feel to it. Lots of trees & paths with spotless, manicured gardens, a lake, statues, peacocks and a palace — the summer palace of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, 18th century. The park suffered damage during the war & was rebuilt soon after.” Read more!
Visit an Underground Wonderland
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, began operation in the 13th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight here is the spectacular salt carvings made by miners over the mine’s 700-year history.
On the basic tour, you’ll pass through salt tunnels to visit 20 different chambers, including a vast underground lake, chapels, life-size scenes from history and legend — even a scene with the Seven Dwarfs. There are crystal chandeliers fashioned from salt and what appear to be polished marble floors (you guessed it: they’re salt too!). One of the most spectacular sights is the vast, vaulted Chapel of St. Klinga, with bas-relief biblical carvings on the walls and a proud statue of Pope John Paul II.
You’ll also pass evidence of the work that went on in the mine: ladders crusted with salt crystals, machinery and a display of how the mine operated in times past. Not convinced this wonderland is really all made of salt? Go ahead and lick the wall — your guide will invite you to do it. Makes for a great photo op!
For the more adventurous (or devout), there are also tours that let you be a miner, follow a pilgrimage route or explore areas of the mine that are off the regular tourist trail. And for something really different, there’s even a health resort located in the mine’s depths.
Explore Europe’s Last Primeval Forest
The Bialowieza Forest, which spans Poland’s eastern border with Belarus, is one of the last vestiges of a massive primeval forest that once covered a large swath of Europe. What saved this section? Through the centuries it was a royal hunting ground, first for Polish kings and later for Russian Czars. These days, Bialowieza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so its future seems assured.
One of the prime attractions in the forest is a herd of European bison, the continent’s largest animals. They were also protected as royal property — until they were wiped out during German occupation in World War I. But afterward the herd was reconstituted using animals from zoos and now is about 1,000 strong. There are 58 other mammal species here, including beavers; more than 250 species of birds; and numerous huge, ancient oak trees, many more than 400 years old.
You can explore the forest with guides, who can take you on trails or in carriages to see the sights, which include the bison reserve, the Trail of the Royal Oaks and a sector of the forest that is strictly protected. There’s a Natural History Museum in the small nearby village, also called Bialowieza, where you’ll find lodging as well.
Go Behind the Scenes in Warsaw
Your first impulse upon arriving in Poland’s largest city will be to head to Old Town, and there’s nothing wrong with that. (You can even take the excellent — and free — Orange Umbrella walking tour.)
But if you really want to understand the Polish people and get away from the more touristy parts of the city, we highly recommend the Warsaw Behind the Scenes tour. You’ll board a Soviet-era van, fire engine or car to visit places that let you experience what the city was like before Soviet rule.
Guides paint a picture of what life was like from the pre-World War II era to the present, using music, photos, food and architecture to tell their story. Along the way, there are stops at one of the last remaining “milk bars,” a neighborhood bakery, and even a vodka tasting. After this four-hour tour, we guarantee you’ll have a deeper understanding of Warsaw, its many neighborhoods, its history and its people.
Escape to the Mountains
Near Poland’s border with Slovakia you’ll find the gorgeous Tatra Mountains and the little town of Zakopane. In winter the scenic mountain town is a skiing center; in summer it’s a great base for hikes and sightseeing. In either season, you can take the two-stage Kasprowy Wierch cable car (go early to avoid lines) up to an elevation of 6,519 feet for a view that makes it seem like you’re on top of the world. Be sure to anticipate cooler weather at the top. You can ride down or, in the summer, choose to hike (it takes about 2.5 hours to reach the bottom). In winter, chair lifts continue outward from the cable car terminus.
The region is known for its wooden churches, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. You can visit several of them around Zakopane. They’re like giant pieces of folk art, lovingly crafted by locals.
Zakopane also has an excellent handicrafts market, where you’ll find hand-knitted, natural wool sweaters, all sorts of wood crafts and the famous smoked Polish cheese that’s shaped by decorative molds (try it grilled from one of the vendors). This is a great spot for quality souvenirs and gifts.
Experience Old Krakow’s Hidden Gems
Nearly every visitor to Krakow will wander through its famous Old Town, but there are a few must-dos that many tourists miss.
You want to sit outside in one of the cafes on the grand Market Square — but where? Most of them are pricey and don’t necessarily have the best food in town. Head to E. Wedel, where you can indulge in a wickedly good chocolate creation. The shop inside the cafe has plenty of goodies to take home as gifts, including a signature oversized chocolate wafer cookie.
Krakow’s Jagiellonian University has been educating students for 650 years, and you can take a tour of its oldest building, the Collegium Maius. Its lavish library, lecture halls and refectory don’t seem to have changed much since Copernicus was a student here in the 1490s. You’ll also get to see ancient scientific equipment and the oldest surviving globe that depicts the New World.
While you’re gazing at the lovely 14th-century Cloth Hall and checking out all the activity around Market Square, there’s a whole surprising world beneath your feet. Rynek Underground opened in 2010 to showcase layers of Krakow’s past, making use of high-tech displays with touch-screens and holograms.
If you’ve had your fill of Krakow’s Gothic and medieval scenes, stop by the lesser-known Bazylika Franciszkanow (St. Francis Basilica) to see its amazing Art Nouveau interior and stained glass windows. Its most impressive — and controversial — window is of God, whose face the artist supposedly modeled after a homeless man.
Cook Your Way Across the Country
Polish cooking is a lot more than the country’s famed pierogi. There are many regional specialties, as well as influences from surrounding cultures. Poland’s rich farmlands produce cheeses, sausages and a bounty of fresh, often organic ingredients. A culinary tour is a great way to both see Poland and learn about its foods.
Poland Culinary Vacations offers multi-day tours throughout the country, which take you into villages for cooking demonstrations and into castles for feasts. Group size is a maximum of 12 people, so the experience stays intimate. These trips are particularly popular with travelers of Polish heritage who want to learn more about their regional ancestral foods.
The “Pomerania” tour takes you to Poland’s Baltic coast and introduces you to the distinct cultural group of the Kashubians. You’ll cook with Kashubian women in their villages and learn about their rich folklore and cultural traditions. Another interesting option is the “Flavors of Lower Silesia and Wroclaw” tour, during which you’ll cook with chefs in the major city of Wroclaw and with farmers on agrotourism farms. The “Culinary & Cultural Adventure in Greater Poland & Poznan” covers Poland’s western region; highlights include learning about artisanal products and visits to the Poznan Croissant Museum and the Pleszew Bakery Museum.
No time (or stomach space) for a multi-day tour? Poland Culinary Vacations also offers a half-day, hands-on cooking class in Krakow.
As part of the run-up to World War II, the Nazis built a massive defense system in western Poland (which was held by Germany at the time), near the town of Miedzyrzecz. The Ostwall Fortifications stretched 40 miles and included a triple line of defenses with multi-story concrete bunkers connected by underground tunnels large enough to accommodate a double-track railroad. The entire complex could house 24,000 troops.
While the Nazis spent a fortune on the fortifications, Russia’s Red Army overran them before they could be fully manned. Even after the Russians blew up some of the complex, much still remains, and the fortifications have since been discovered by a surprising type of tourist: bats.
There are now an estimated 35,000 bats of 12 different species hanging out in the tunnels, which have the creatures’ ideal temperature and humidity. Part of the tunnel system has been designated as the Nietoperek Wildlife Sanctuary.
You can take a guided tour of the fortifications from the visitor center in Kalawa, just south of Miedzyrzecz. There’s also a museum with tanks, guns, missiles and other WWII weapons, as well as an exhibition about the bats.
Swig Some Mead
Poland is famous for its vodka, but if you’re up for something a bit more unusual, try a drink that might seem straight out of “Game of Thrones”: mead.
Made from fermented honey, mead is said to be the world’s oldest alcoholic drink. The Polish term for it is miod pitny, or “drinkable honey,” and Polish fondness for the brew dates back at least as far as the Crusades, when a Polish prince explained to the Pope that his knights couldn’t participate due to the lack of mead in the Holy Land.
There are many types of mead to be found in Poland, with the biggest difference being the proportion of honey to water in the recipe. With a proportion of one part honey to one-half part water, poltorak meads are typically the sweetest, the most evocative of honey and the highest in alcohol content. On the other end of the spectrum, czworniak meads have one part honey to three parts water. Some meads are flavored with fruit (miody owocowe) such as raspberries, currants or blackberries, and others with herbs and spices (miody korzenno-ziolowe), which might include cinnamon, ginger, rose petals, mint, orange peel and juniper.
You’ll find mead in many liquor shops, often in Old World crockery or bottles wrapped with straw. It’s also available at restaurants. One of the larger producers is Apis, a cooperative located in Lublin, which produces 10 different varieties. Apis Poltorak Jadwiga, flavored with rose and raspberry, then aged in wooden casks, is considered to be one of the best.
Best Time to Go to Poland
Poland’s peak season for tourism is the summer months (June through August); to avoid crowds and get lower prices for airfare and hotels, consider traveling during the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Rates are cheapest during the winter months, but some attractions may be closed, and you could see crowds in the country’s mountainous ski areas.
Poland on a Budget
Poland is quite affordable when compared to most countries in Western Europe; the cost of living is generally low, and the currency is the zloty instead of the euro. To lower the cost of your trip, consider alternative lodging such as guesthouses, rental cottages or homestays instead of hotels. At a rental apartment or hostel you can cook for yourself with ingredients from the local grocery store instead of eating in restaurants.
–written by Gayle Keck