Poland

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.

Torun, Poland - February 19, 2019: Townhouses around main square of historic part of Torun city

Photo by Fotokon/Shutterstock

Overview

When’s the best time to go to Poland?

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.

How to get around Poland

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.

Food and drink to try in Poland

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.”

Culture in Poland

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.

Can’t miss things to do in Poland

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.

Practical Information

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.

Local Resources

Guide Editor

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.

Read Before You Go
Resources to help plan your trip
Warsaw’s distinct character, a blend of the East and the West, fascinates visitors. The city is poised and cultured. Adventurous cuisine, vibrant nightlife, and a rich cultural history provide multiple points of departure for exploration.
First off, you should know how to say ‘cheers’ in Polish: Twoje zdrowie! You’ll hear the toast often as you wander the medieval streets of this welcoming city. Student spots, elegant rooftop lounges, old taverns, vodka bars—drink the vodka, the local beer, or a flute of sparkling wine and practice this important Polish phrase.
A visit to Kraków inevitably brings highs and lows: few other destinations have must-see attractions that include a charming medieval old town, architecturally stunning castles and churches, a lively bar and café scene, as well as the solemnly preserved sites of World War II concentration camps. From Kraków’s start as a Stone Age settlement up through its golden age during the 15th and 16th centuries, and honored place in the Hanseatic League; through the dark days of the 20th century when it was the site of a ghetto and the nearby Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Płaszów extermination camps, and its emergence as a rising star of European culture, this small city has seen its share of human history.
While Warsaw has many wonders of its own, the city is close to a number of fascinating attractions. A day trip to Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Frédéric Chopin, is a must for classical music fans, and can be combined with a visit to Kampinoski National Park. Art lovers shouldn’t miss Kazmimierz Dolny and its open-air gallery, while those interested in Poland’s industrial heritage should head to the city-within-a-city of Księży Młyn in Łódź. Also worth seeing is Janów Podlaski, a historic stud farm with Arabian horses and beautiful scenery.
Of all the sites surrounding Kraków, the two most significant are the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and the enchanting Wieliczka Salt Mine. It’s even possible to see both in one day, though they offer very different experiences. Also close by are attractions like Ojców National Park, the historic town of Lanckorona, the former miners’ colony of Nikiszowiec, several painted-timber churches, and the Kasprowy Wierch ski area.
Poland’s Baltic coastline spans nearly 480 miles, with Gdańsk at its center. The area, along with the adjacent Pomerania region, holds many treasures, including the imposing Malbork Castle, the lovely town of Toruń (famous for its gingerbread and Gothic architecture), and, on the far western edge, the new, beautifully sculpted Philharmonic Hall Szczecin. If you only have time to visit Gdańsk, be sure to see Długi Targ (the Long Market), the European Solidarity Center, and Oliwa Cathedral with its famous pipe organ.
If the only Polish foods that come to mind are kielbasa and pierogi, you probably already have a pretty positive attitude for exploring the cuisine of Kraków. From the simple pretzel bought on the street, to the exquisite dessert at one of the medieval city’s fine-dining restaurants, to a robust lunch eaten in a communist-era milkbar, you will find much to love in the food here.
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