Poland is, above all, a surprise. The 9th largest country in Europe with a population of 38.5 million seems to pop up out of nowhere and puts down its trump cards one by one: The world’s largest Gothic fortress, the largest sand dunes in Central Europe, the best kite surfing spots, Europe’s longest wooden pier, the oldest health resorts on the Old Continent and the world’s oldest oil well. 70 years after the end of WWII, which left Poland greatly devastated, the Polish nation is slowly becoming known as a proper travel destination that caters for adrenaline junkies, beach potatoes and history buffs alike.
Situated in central-eastern Europe with Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus in the east, giant Russia to the northeast, and Europe’s power engine Germany in the west, as well as Slovakia and Czech Republic in the south, Poland stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains, boasting a variety of geographical landscapes. Being cradled in between so many countries is an indication of its fate for many centuries: colonized, divided, unified, exploited and ruined by reckless occupying forces that all sought to gain the maximum of its strategic coastal cities and bountiful plains.
Poland boasts fantastic architecture above the ground, and mysterious salt and gold mines as well secret cities and tunnels under the ground. Take a journey through this Vodka belt country that is the mother of all Vodka tradition, and also serves no less than 100 million Paczkis (Polish doughnuts) alone on the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday in lieu of Carnival celebrations. It is a nature haven that serves as Europe’s most important bird breeding ground, while simultaneously producing the world’s largest amount of hard coal, estimated at 45.4 billions tons. With a good currency exchange rate for most Western travellers, Poland is a historically rich, beautiful and friendly country to travel in that is just waiting to be discovered by globe trekkers from around the world. It should be noted that English isn’t spoken everywhere, public transport remains mildly to severely challenging and smaller towns in the country side pride themselves with almost unpronounceable names and bizarre food dishes, making travelling ever the more fun.
Poland is crowded in the summer due the better weather; this is the best time for visitors to enjoy the coastal resorts and lakes because after the summer holiday season, many of the hotels, clubs and restaurants in those areas close. Early autumn or late spring also bring good weather and smaller crowds so these may be the best times for a visit. The winter is a bit dark and unless you are going skiing, probably not the best time to enjoy the rest of Poland’s outdoor attractions, although it is possible to see the city sights and cultural attractions in the cold
While travelling in Poland, trains are probably the best option. They are convenient, cheap, and fairly reliable. Fast trains are available but are 50% more expensive than regular passenger trains. Polrail passes provide unlimited travel on all domestic trains in the country which are available in durations of 8 days, 15 days, 21 days and one month. Flights are another option and although some may require connections that make it less convenient than the train, it is worth looking into special deals and promotions. There are bus routes throughout the country but trains are almost always more convenient and comfortable. Minibuses are a good option for short trips though. If you opt to cycle between villages, there are special luggage compartments on trains that you can store your bike in for longer distances. Taxis are also available but watch out for cab drivers waiting to take advantage of tourists and consider calling a reputable company in advance to avoid problems.
International flights via Warsaw. In Europe, flights to all major cities such as Krakow, Gdansk, Poznan, and Wroclaw are available.
Trains are the best bet when bridging long distances between cities. They are cheap, comfortable and relatively quick. Buses, city buses and overland buses, still seem to be the most popular form of transport in the more remote areas and you can occasionally hail one down from the side of the road. Incredibly cheap, but slow way to move around.
The currency in Poland is the zloty (zl). 1 zloty = 100 groszy.
US $1= 3 zloty
GBP £1= 5 zloty
EUR €1= 4 zloty
Polish cuisine is at once heavy and hearty. It incorporates many meat dishes, but also features a large variety of locally grown vegetables and homemade soups, the latter certainly inspired by the extremely cold and harsh winters the country endures. Its long meat menu is, however, beaten by the drinks menu – from Goldwasser liquor to Sobieski vodka, to Bison vodka… Poles seem to find an excuse to drink whenever and wherever they go and are not shy to share their bottles with friends and acquaintances.
Top 5 Sites
The absolute best way to explore the city of Wroclaw is searching for these little dwarfs around town, which have an amazing contemporary history and story of political activism behind them.
Wolf’s Lair is certainly not an easy location to visit, given that it is one of Hitler’s headquarters during WWII. But since it is also the memorial place for the famously failed assassination attempt by Duke Schenk von Stauffenberg, it is a not to be missed historical location that gives insight into WWII history in an unprecedented way.
Kayaking at Augustow Canals
Who would have thought that Poland is famous for amazing kayaking trips? Traveling along the Augustow Canals and passing the 19th century locks is exhilarating and a great work out at the same time. Kayaking trips can be booked for 1, 3 or 6 days with SZOT, who know the area intimately and go out of their way to create personally tailored itineraries. You can even do 3 countries in 3 days – Poland, Belarus and Lithuania in the midst of beautiful primeval forests.
Malbork Castle Museum
The small and quiet town of Malbork would have probably never made it on a traveller’s must see map if it wasn’t for the gigantic brick Gothic fortress in its midst (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Built in 1272 on an area of 21 hectares, 250 meters wide and almost 700 meters long with a volume of 250,000m3, it is the largest Gothic fortress in Europe and simply awe-inspiring. It became the seat of the Grand Master in 1309 when they moved here from Venice, and from 1324 onwards it was the Capital of the State of the Teutonic Knights. Separated by moats, guarded by towers and drawbridges, it is highly symbolic for the many battles, conquests and power struggles in the region. An absolute must-see for architecture lovers and history buffs.
Living History Lessons with the Polish Husaria at Gniew Castle
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch the famous Polish Husaria come to life in the small town of Gniew. Their hand crafted battle armour for men and horses is as impressive as are the battle songs and charges on open fields, catapulting one back in time to the 16th century before one has even blinked with their eyes twice. Their living history lessons are attended by thousands every year and are a formidable way to learn about Poland’s struggle for independence from its neighbours for centuries.
Festivals and Events
Battle of Grunwald
Every year in mid July, the Battle of the Nations takes place at Grunwald, Poland. It is the largest re-enactment of a 15th century battle in which Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the German Teutonic Order. It was fought on 14 July 1410 and was one of the most important medieval battles in history. Today, it has become a spectacle for more than 80,000 people every year with re-enactment groups from all over the world.
Pierogi Festival Krakow
Pierogi are a Polish national dish and are in essence just dumplings with hearty fillings – sauerkraut and mushrooms, cheese and potato, or meat. Or all of the above. Pierogi can be found in every city and the smallest village in the country, and are super affordable and extremely satisfying.
Lower Silesia Soup Festival
Polish kitchen tends to be heavy on the meaty side of things, including beef tongue and pig knuckle as popular main dishes. The one who beats it all, including pierogi, is a good, hearty Polish soup. Frequently served in hollow bread loafs, Polish soups are vegetarian or meaty and hearty, but always warm and comforting, making you feel just like home. If you are ever in Wroclaw, try ZUPA near the university – the best soups in town and in the country, super cheap, super big and super tasty.
International Street Art Festival
Held every year in the summer, this international street art festival engages the audience, the street and everything in between. Poland has, to many people’s surprise, a vibrant and dynamic art scene, and political street art is ever so popular in a country that was the birthplace for the famous solidarity movement in the beginning of the 80s. A not to be missed opportunity to engage with contemporary Poland at its finest.
Kashubian Unity Day
Celebrated every year on 19 March, this day commemorates the first historical mentioning of the Kashubians by Pope Gregory IX. Held in a different Kashubian city each year, it celebrates local art, folk music, tournaments as well as local cuisine and dance. A great way to explore and learn about this culture within a culture in Poland.
Polish is spoken almost exclusively in Poland, although some older Poles speak German and many young people speak English. Learning a few key words is definitely advisable although most tourist offices and upscale hotels will have at least one English speaker.
Poland has over 39 million people with about 97% of the population being Polish. Before WWII, the country was not as homogenous, with a Jewish population of over three million, but currently there are only 5,000 to 10,000 Jewish people left in the country. The majority of Polish people are Catholic, although there is a sizeable Protestant population and other minorities dispersed throughout the country.
Casual dress; good shoes for the more rural areas is a must – high heels and Polish fields don’t go well together.
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