Thanks to the energy and resiliency of its people, Poland has emerged as one of Europe’s greatest post-communist success stories. Known mostly for the medieval architecture, hearty cuisine, and Jewish heritage, this small country on the Baltic Sea has risen above a bleak history to become a growing tourist destination. In addition to medieval Mecca’s like Gdansk and Kraków, or urban hotspots like Warsaw, you can also travel outside the cities to a Poland that feels unspoiled by time. Enjoy the mountains or the sea and every outdoor sport you can imagine.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Poland:
Pronounced VRAHTS-wahv, Wroclaw is the fourth-largest city in Poland. Built in the medieval period, the city covers several islands and maintains several beautiful bridges and stunning architecture. Wroclaw has been busy racking up recognition lately. In 2015 it was named one of the “Best Cities To Live” by Mercer consulting company; and due to their high living standard it’s classified as a global city by GaWC. In 2016 the city will become the European Capital of Culture as well as the World Book Capital. Those who know Wroclaw best will tell you not to miss Salt Market Square, Centennial Hall (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), or St Mary Magdalene Church (13th century).
This sprawling city is Poland’s capital. It’s long and turbulent history can be seen in the distinct forms of architecture. You’ll find Gothic churches, Soviet-era blocks, modern skyscrapers, and neoclassical palaces. Warsaw has a thriving music scene and a vibrant nightlife. Though the city was largely destroyed during WWII, Old Town has been restored to mirror its pre-war glory, complete with cobbled alleys, charming cafes, and a unique sense of the past. Also not to be missed are the old royal residences which have long been associated with the ruling class and important events in history. Round out your visit by stopping at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews to see exhibits on their 1000 year history.
Gdansk is one of the three cities in the Pomerania area that are popularly known as Tri-City (Polish: Trójmiasto). This city on the Baltic coast has a unique vibe that separates it from the rest of the country. It’s a place that’s been shaped by the wide variety of wealthy merchants attracted by its port. In the heart of Gdansk lies the reconstructed Main Town with colourful facades, shops, and restaurants. The crowning glory is the Neptune Fountain, built in the 17th century; it serves as a symbol of the city. When you’re done with St. Mary’s Church or Oliwa Archcathedral, enjoy a pleasure boat cruise upriver and a brew at a beer garden along the dock.
Polish people have voted Gdynia to be a “freedom city.” Since the first free elections, held in 1989, the city has transformed itself by building up living standards and concentrating on growth and progress. One of the three Tri-Cities, Gdynia is another great port town perfect for water lovers and maritime enthusiasts. Visit the Dar Pomorza, a full rig sailing ship built in 1909. There’s also the National Marine Fisheries Research Institute and the Gdynia Aquarium. Each summer, the city hosts the Open’er Music Festival which attracts amazing headlining artists from across the globe.
The final Tri-City destination, Sopot is a small seaside resort town. Directly between Gdansk and Gdynia, it’s been a get-away for the royals and elite for centuries – even through the Communist era. Sopot has sparkling beaches and glitzy resorts all along the coast, giving it an exclusive air. You’ll often find the beach packed with sunbathers and volleyball lovers. Locals will tell you about the Wooden Pier (the longest in Europe), exciting Monte Casino Street, and Forest Opera set in a beautiful wooded area. Tourists will tell you not to miss Krzywy Domek, also known as the Crooked House because of its unusual Gaudi-like shape.
Once the capital of Poland, Cracow is now considered the cultural capital of the country. Best known for its medieval core and Jewish quarter, the city is centred on Rynek Glówny (market square), built in 1257 and now one of the largest markets in Europe. The well-planned streets and tree-line pedestrian avenues make it enjoyable to stroll through the city. Stop and visit Jagellonian University or Wawel Castle – home of the Polish kings for almost 600 years. Don’t forget Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), 14th century St. Mary’s Basilica, and Cloth Hall, a wonderful Renaissance-era outpost.
This small coastal town is definitely off the beaten track (at least for non-Germans). Szczecin is a mix of several cultural and architectural influences from several different ages. Reconstruction has been long and difficult here which means that you’ll find German-era Art Nouveau buildings alongside modern steel and class buildings – both of which are alongside crumbled and overlooked ruins from the war. You’ll want to stop at Bismarck Tower and the National Museum located primarily in the Landed Gentry House. And finally there’s the Ducal Castle, home of the dukes of Pomerania-Stettin for roughly 500 years.
This town, located in west-central Poland, is best known for its renaissance old town, which, like most of Poland, was complete destroyed during WWII, has been beautifully rebuilt, and now thrives. A ramble through Poznan’s market square will fill you with the energy and bustle of the town. Morning or night, this place is always buzzing thanks to the pubs, clubs, and restaurants that can be found here. You must visit Ostrów Tumski cathedral, The New Zoo, and enjoy water sports at Lake Malta. Porta Posnania Interactive Heritage Centre shares the birth of Poland through technological and interactive displays, and the Monument to the Victims of June 1956 can be found on Plac Mickiewicza.
Torun is well known as the birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). It’s also well-known for its fantastic gingerbread. The city has combined these two well-known’s into one: you can buy gingerbread made in Copernicus’s image. Located in Northern Poland on the Vistual River, Torun is one of the oldest cities in the country. This is the place to come to take a break from the main tourist circuit. Largely untouched by WWII, there is quite a bit to see here. Visit the Bronze Donkey statue to learn its sinister history, the House of Copernicus, Pied Piper Fountain, and several UNESCO World Heritage sites amidst the city’s medieval defences.
Malbork has one thing that attracts most of its visitors, but that one thing is pretty incredible. Malbork Castle stands at the top of the list for all people travelling to Poland. Stunning both inside and out, this UNESCO World Heritage Site completed in 1409 is Europe’s largest Gothic castle. Also not to be missed is Skwer Esperanto, located just past the ruins of the old city walls. Within this park are commemorative stones placed by well-known international speakers, all of them honouring Ludwig Zamenhof and the world language he created.
Located on both sides of the Wislok River, in the heart of the Sandomierska Valley, lies Rzeszów; one of Poland’s most important cities. Rzeszów appears to be a quiet small town by the river, but it’s actually a progressive centre of economics and culture. There quite a few things you don’t want to miss here, including Market Square, Town Hall, the 1890 public library, the “small” and “big” synagogues, the Old Cemetery and Jewish Cemetery, the Wanda Siemaszkowa Theatre, and the “Revolution Acts” Monument. Perhaps the towns crowning jewel is the Lubomirski Palace, which dates back to the 18th century.
Lódz (pronounced Woodge) is located in the centre of the country and has a challenging history. Known for its high-quality textiles, the city fell to ruins during the 20th century and has struggled to regain its sense of self. Recently, a major re-building was begun; considered by many to be one of Europe’s biggest renovation efforts. Newly re-finished is the main pedestrian walkway, ul Piotrkowska. Still in the middle of their rebirth, Lódz is a fascinating city to visit for just this reason. In addition to textile, Lódz is the home of the Polish film industry and is nicknamed “Holly-woodge.” Enjoy Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (1884), the Cinematography Museum, Museum of Ethnography and Archaeology, the Jewish Cemetery, and the Annihilation Monument of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto – a chilling reminder of the effects of the Holocaust on the cities Jewish population.
Zakopane is a resort town popular with domestic and international tourists – perhaps the best known in Poland. Situated at the base of the Tatras mountain range, you’ll find hiking and mountain climbing in the summer and skiing, snowboarding, and more during the winter. Centrally located, it serves as a good home base for nearby Gubalówka and Kasprowy Wierch – two ski destinations accessible by funicular. Everywhere you look you’ll find breathtaking mountain views. Travel to Morskie Oko, an emerald-green mountain lake just outside of town. If you need a break from the outdoors, Zakapone is also known for its wooden villas that date from the late 1th century. Many have been converted into museum or hotels and guesthouses. And don’t forget the Old Church and Cemetery, with fantastically ornate wooden headstones that resemble giant chess pieces.
Mikolajki is small but mighty. Also known as the “Pearl of the Masuria,” it is located on the shores of Sniardwy, the largest of the Great Masurian Lakes and is a popular holiday destination for domestic tourists. Some phenomenal regatta’s are held there each summer; thousand of sailing enthusiasts and fun-loving adventurers are attracted to its shores. The Festival of Sailors Songs showcases the best sea shanties you’re likely to come across. Mikolajki boasts a busy marina full of yachts and other pleasure boats. Stop by the local tavern Lady Mary for a cold beer or dinner at the end of the day. And if you can’t make it in the summer time, join the winter crowd from some much loved ice sailing.
Swinoujscie is known as the land of 44 Islands and can be found in Northern Poland, on the Baltic Sea and Szczecin Lagoon. Unique from other towns in Poland, Swinoujscie is made up of several dozen islands, only three of which are inhabited (Uznam, Wolin, and Karsibór). There are a few lovely lighthouses to visit here, the most popular being the Swinemünde Lighthouse. The island of Uznam is actually largely controlled by Germany, with less than 20% actually falling in Polish territory. There’s a wide variety of landscapes to enjoy among the different islands and the natural scenery there is quite remarkable. Learn to kite surf or trek, fish, cycle, or sail. Swinoujscie is the perfect little getaway and a great place to relax at the end of your travels through Poland.
Tip: Check out xperiencepoland.com if you’re looking for some great tours or local guides!