There are few countries in Europe that bear a history as rich as Poland’s. Stroll into its heart and you will find enchanting medieval cities, fairytale castles and untouched wilderness…
Curiosity Middle East discovers its intriguing appeal
By Aleksander Ros
Poland is surprisingly big with plenty to explore. Lying at the crossroads between East and West, it is a modern, rapidly developing European nation that has been successful in retaining the magic of a bygone era. Rich history and culture, rolling plains, pristine beaches, emerald lakes, wild mountains, endless forests with rich flora and fauna, cascading waterfalls, beautiful national parks that are home to lynx, wolves and golden eagles, medieval towns, baroque castles, vibrant cities, delicious local cuisine and friendly people make it an ideal holiday destination.
So where does one start? Warsaw and Krakow are two of its biggest cities and a must see. While Krakow has the looks, the brains and the vanity that comes with it, Warsaw has the dynamism, the commitment and the scars to prove it. Wroclaw, Poznan and Lodz are happening cities and each has its own devotees. Here’s an overview of the best places to visit in Poland.
Warsaw is a big world with an east European flavour. There’s something to satisfy every desire in the capital of Poland. Krakow may have the beauty and Gdansk the seashore, but Warsaw has the culture, energy and the action. And that is visible everywhere, from history in the Old Town and post-war architectural gems of Mokotow and Zoliborz to the flourishing arts scene of Praga and 82 city parks. There are a total of 18 districts in Warsaw.
It was once known as the ‘Paris of the North’ because of its fine architecture and culture. The ‘Phoenix City’ was another name given to it because of the manner in which its citizens have constantly rebuilt this city from the rubble and ashes of numerous wars and occupations. The Palace of Science and Culture, presented to the city by Stalin is one of its most distinctive buildings. Warsaw has many other lovely churches and monasteries and interesting monuments and museums, and it bustles with activity during summer—with theatre, book, Jazz, and classical music festivals.
The former capital is an undisputed architectural gem of central Europe. This city of magic and legends is home to many beautiful monuments including Renaissance citadel, Baroque churches and Art Nouveau theatre. Its cobbled streets are lined with pavement cafes, candlelit bars, clopping horses and accordionists.
Part of the Carpathian Mountain Range, the Bieszczady Mountains is a paradise for romantics and is steeped in history and natural splendor. Situated near the borders of Slovakia and Ukraine, it is a haven for both peace and adventure lovers and is most beautiful during summer and autumn. Its soft green mountains are peppered with traditional wooden churches and offer numerous biking and hiking trails. Bieszczady National Park has been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve and his home to extraordinary wildlife.
The city of Czestochowa lies in the heart of Krakowsko-Czestochowska Upland, the region characterised by picturesque Jurassic rocks. Czestochowa is usually associated with Jasna Gora Monastery which is the biggest Marian sanctuary in the country. For the majority of Poles it is an important pilgrimage destination. The icon known as Black Madonna of Czestochowa crowned in 1656 as the Queen and Protector of Poland is credited with many miracles.
Gdańsk is a thousand-year old port city with a dramatic history of war and insurrection, and contrasting periods of trade and prosperity. Situated by the sea on the Baltic coast, it has a gentle climate and beautiful beaches. The exclusive architecture of the Old Town, including the largest brick Gothic church in the world is undoubtedly worth exploring.
The small town of Malbork some 60km south of Gdańsk on the main railway line between Warsaw and the coast offers visitors not only the world’s biggest brick castle, but a number of other sights and sensations. A delightful mix of medieval architecture and fascinating churches and monuments, Malbork is more than the sum of its UNESCO-listed fort. A trace of their presence in the town is the imposing red brick castle from 1274 on the river bank, which is the largest Gothic fortress in Europe.
Lublin, located east of the Vistula, is an ancient city with a market place that may have dated back to the sixth century. Because it is located on Poland’s eastern border, it became, early on, a line of defense against various invaders that destroyed the city over the centuries. It also was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Poland. Evidence of Lublin connecting Western and Eastern cultures can be found at the Holy Trinity Chapel that blends Catholic and Russian-Byzantine styles. Alongside cobblestone streets and medieval architecture of the Old Town, it boasts a lively arts and nightclub scene.
Located in northeastern part of Poland, the Masurian Lake District is also often called ‘A land of a thousand lakes’. In fact, 10,000 years ago, the glacier shaped more than three thousand of them, making this region a unique place. It offers a broad variety of touristic activities. Stretching from the town of Węgorzewo in the north of the region, through Giżycko and Mikołajki, to Ruciane Nida in the south, it is an excellent base for canoeing, windsurfing and sailing. Large primeval forests – Puszcza Piska and Puszcza Borecka – surrounding the district, add to the attractions of the region. Biking and horse riding are just some of the ways to explore it.
Oswiecim is a quiet city in Southern Poland, roughly 60 km from Krakow. The town is best known as being home to Auschwitz I, a World War II concentration camp, and its close proximity to Auschwitz-Birkenau, an extermination and forced labor camp. The first record of the town dates to the 10th century. Originally, Germans and Poles inhabited the town. Though visiting the State Museum Auschwitz – Birkenau is a grim experience, it’s an essential element in understanding the full evil of the Holocaust.
The Bialowieza Forest is a large remnant of the primeval forests that once covered much of Europe. The forest straddles the border between Poland and the Republic of Belarus, and there are border crossings for tourists on foot or on bicycles. The Bialowieza Forest is the only place where European Bison still remain free and living in the forest as they once did throughout Europe. Wolves, Lynx, Red Deer, Wild Boar, Elk and Roe Deer are among its other inhabitants. While the bison are kept within fenced areas, guided tours are available either on foot or in horse-drawn carriages.
Torun, located on the Vistula River, is best known, perhaps, as the birthplace of Copernicus, but it’s just as well known for its old market place and Gothic town hall that the National Geographic Polska put on its list of the 30 most beautiful places in the world. As Torun escaped bombing during World War II, the city still boasts numerous buildings that date back to the Middle Ages. Construction on the town hall started in the 13th century, with many churches, including the Cathedral of SS. John the Evangelist and John the Baptist, dating back to the 14th century. This church is a must-see for travelers interested in Gothic paintings and sculptures, and Baroque altars.
Lodz, the former textile industry empire, today is a city of modern technologies, creative enterprises and grand events. It is a metropolis where a landscape of industrial architecture mixes with silhouettes of office buildings, production halls, culture and sports buildings. Lodz also offers a number of entertainment and recreation venues including plenty of pubs and clubs at famous Piotrkowska street.
Tatra Mountains boast the highest mountain range between the Alps and the Caucasus. Rocky peaks covered with snow all-year-round, sharp ridges, picturesque ponds, waterfalls and valleys make this place the most spectacular in Poland. About 250 km of trails and a wide range of slopes satisfy the most demanding hikers and skiers. Tatra Mountains seen from Podhale and lighted up by the morning sun actually constitutes the most beloved sight for Polish landscape photographers.
Poznan has long been known as an academic center and home to Poland’s third largest university. The city hosts many international events, including the Malta International Theatre Festival that takes place every summer. Major sites are easily accessible by strolling the Royal-Imperial Route, a walk set up especially for tourists. Athletes may enjoy a visit to the artificial lake of Malta, home to a ski slope, ice rink, and swimming pools.
Situated sublimely on the Odra River, Wrocław easily holds its own with the likes of not-distant neighbours Vienna Krakow and Prague in terms of postcard panoramas and cultural offerings. Here you’ll find more bridges than anywhere in Central Europe, a market square second only to Krakow & rsquo’s in size, an entire Cathedral Island of awe-inspiring architecture, and a one-of-a-kind UNESCO-recognised engineering marvel, not to mention a full calendar of festivals and events and 135,000 university students pushing the local nightlife to unhinged heights. Having successfully stewarded the Euro 2012 football championships and with an upcoming coronation as 2016’s ‘European Capital of Culture,’ more and more people are discovering that Wrocław is the most exciting destination in Poland.
Border Countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia
Population: 38 million
Area: 322,575 sq km (124,547 sq miles, about size of New Mexico)
Time Zone: CET (UTC+1)
Summer (DST) CEST (UTC+2)
Climate: Temperate with mild summers and moderately severe winters
Currency: Zloty (PLN, zł), 1 zloty = 100 groszy
Government type: Republic, parliamentary democracy
Members of: EU, UN, NATO, OECD, WTO and many other
Holidays: 11 days a year
Country Code: PL