Photo by Pawel Pacholec
Polish people have never lost hold of their national identity, not even when their country officially ceased to exist for the 123 years leading up to World War I (it was partitioned by Austria, Russia, and the Kingdom of Prussia). Though Poland suffered greatly during the world wars, and through the… privations of a half century of real socialism that followed, the country has spent the last three decades rebuilding itself as a modern democracy. In 2004, it joined the European Union and started focusing even more intensely on the future. Poland is arranged in latitudinal strips, with the Vistula River running the length of the country all the way to the Baltic Sea, passing by the rugged peaks of the Tatras, as well as rolling plains, vast forests, and thousands of lakes. In addition to this natural beauty, the country boasts a great wealth of historic monuments and cultural traditions, both in its big cities and smaller villages. Places like the ancient city of Kraków, vibrant metropolitan Warsaw, and Gdańsk, the cradle of the Solidarity movement, are not to be missed. With more time on your hands, however, Poland invites venturing off the beaten path.
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In Poland, you can experience the pleasures of four distinct seasons, all in a mostly temperate climate. Spring brings ancient folk celebrations and classic music festivals, while summer is the time to relax on a café terrace or take to the beach. In the fall, the mountains beckon with their changing colors, and in winter, locals busy themselves with skiing, Christmas markets, and mulled wine. While May and September are considered the most desirable months weather-wise, Poland has something to offer year-round.
Poland has two major international airports, in Kraków and Warsaw, but European budget airlines also fly to Gdańsk, Katowice, and other smaller ports. For traveling domestically, the country has a well-developed train network, especially between the major towns—recently, the Pendolino high-speed train has made travel between Kraków and Gdańsk even easier. Roads have improved drastically over the last few decades, with thousands of new miles of highways and expressways as well as many smaller, picturesque country roads for slow, scenic drives. Additionally, Poland has a well-functioning public transportation system, particularly in the big cities, and fairly well-developed intercity bus connections.
In the melting pot of Central and Eastern Europe, various cultures and traditions have left their mark on what is considered “typically Polish” cuisine. For a true taste, try one of the country’s many signature soups, from rosół (beef or chicken broth), krupnik (barley), kapuśniak (sour cabbage), and grzybowa (mushroom) to barszcz (beetroot) and żurek (a sour soup of fermented rye). Pierogi (dumplings), which come with a variety of fillings both savory and sweet, are another simple yet indisputable pleasure of Polish food.
Cured meats and sausages are popular, but vegetarian cuisine is also on the rise. Over the last few decades, several young, talented local chefs have worked to give traditionally heavy Polish cuisine a lighter, more modern makeover, creating a sort of “cuisine d’auteur.”
With its more than 1,000 years of history, Poland has no shortage of cultural offerings, from excellent museums (including the Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and the European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk) and fascinating attractions (encompassing 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites) to world-class festivals, theater, film, and, especially, music. Some of the country’s more famous musical events include the International Chopin Piano Competition (held every five years in Warsaw), the Actus Humanus classical music celebration in Gdańsk, and the ultramodern Unsound and Sacrum Profanum festivals in Kraków.
The essential Poland itinerary should include Kraków, the country’s ancient capital, with side trips to the medieval salt mines of Wieliczka and the memorial and museum at Auschwitz. Also not to be missed are Warsaw, where you can learn about Polish history and sample some big-city pleasures, as well as Gdańsk, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. If you have more time, consider adding destinations like the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, the historic cities of Toruń and Kazimierz Dolny, the Tatra Mountains in the south, the wilderness of Podlasie near Poland’s eastern border, and historically industrial towns like Łódź and Nikiszowiec.
Citizens of the U.S., E.U., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (among many other countries) do not need a visa to visit Poland, but will require a valid passport or, in the case of E.U. citizens, either a passport or national ID. The local language is Polish, but English is widely spoken, especially within the hospitality industry. The local currency is the Polish zloty (PLN) and the voltage is 230 V; an adapter is needed for American and British plugs.
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Dorota Wąsik is a writer, journalist, and translator, keen to travel the world but always return to her home in Kraków. She loves exploring her native Poland, discovering less-famous-but-no-less-fascinating destinations, browsing flea markets, and searching for forgotten mid-century ceramic decorations. She likes to time her trips to include maximum exposure to art and (preferably early classical) music.