Poland. It’s one of the few countries in Central Europe that I had not visited. Gloomy images of tragedy, poverty, and food lines were all I knew. But I was wrong, so wrong.
What I found was a county that boasts the sixth largest economy in Europe and is one of the safest places to live in in the world, according to the 2014 Global Peace. Poland flaunts charming cobblestone Old Town squares, dynamic culture, pulsing urban centers, and even their own Riviera, all of which can be experienced at an affordable cost.
On my 10-day tour with JayWay Travel, I visited the top three cities in Poland: Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk.
- Central vs. Eastern Europe
- Brief History of Poland
- Top 10 Places to Visit in Krakow –Most Beautiful City in Poland
- Top 10 Places to Visit in Warsaw – Poland’s Most Resilient City
- Brief History of Warsaw
- 1. Communist Minibus Tour
- 2. Muzeum Polskiej Wódki
- 3. Old Town
- 4. Praga Neighborhood
- 5. University Library
- 6. Royal Łazienki Park
- 7. Museums
- 8. Farmers’ Market
- 9. Stalin’s (Penis) Palace of Science and Culture
- 10. Paczek
- Day Trips From Warsaw
- 10 Places to Visit in Gdansk –Most Underrated City in Poland
Central vs. Eastern Europe
I’ll be the first to admit that the line that delineates Eastern and Central Europe is somewhat blurry and subject to debate. Many people lump all the former communist-ruled countries as “eastern.” Poles reject that determination. Poland’s geographic location, religion, and mindset reflect Central Europe, and that’s how they want to be classified. Poland became a member of NATO in 1999, and other sources such as Wikipedia list it as Central Europe. The United Nations lists Poland as Eastern Europe, along with other countries like Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania, and Hungary which are normally considered Central Europe; however, it should be noted that the UN does not have a Central Europe designation, just Eastern and Western.
I would caution anyone visiting Poland not refer to Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Croatians, or Hungarians “Eastern Europeans” unless you want a stern reprimand.
Brief History of Poland
Poland has a long and tumultuous history, dating back to 966 with periods as both an independent and dominated country. Borderlines were drawn and redrawn, and even today, the portion of the country that became part of Ukraine is a sore topic.
From the 10th to 13th-century, castles were built, kings were crowned, and Poland flourished. In the 13th-century, the Mongols invaded but were defeated and repelled, as well as a threat from the Teutonic Knights (fighting monks).
In the 14th century, Poland became a strong and unified state under King Kazimierz the Great and expanded east into Russia.
From the 16th-century came the greatest Polish scholar, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and the 17-century produced the worldwide renowned composer and pianist, Frédéric François Chopin (1810 –1849).
The first shots of World War II were from Poland, and the country remained in the middle of that horrific conflict. There can be no denial that surviving the atrocities of the Holocaust are a testament to the tenacity of the Poles.
August 1944, the Poles staged an uprising to regain independence but lost and Warsaw was left in ruins. It is an injustice in that Poland, despite the horrors they endured during the Holocaust, was not liberated after WWII, but rather, Nazi oppression was replaced with Communist oppression.
In the 1980’s, Poland rebelled in a labor movement called Solidarity founded by Lech Walesa. The movement prevailed, in part because of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union. Poland became a democracy, and Walesa became President.
In 2004, Poland joined the European Union (EU), finally throwing off the last vestiges of communism.
Whether it’s the castles, cobblestone walkways, spiky towers, or friendly people….I guarantee this country will surprise you. If you have ten days to visit Poland, these are the top three places to visit.
Top 10 Places to Visit in Krakow –Most Beautiful City in Poland
In the south of Poland near the Czech border, UNESCO World Heritage city Krakow tops many lists as the oldest and most beautiful city in Poland. It’s a picturesque city with an Old Town brimming with historic architecture and Gothic spires, and a massive, eclectic castle, all centered around the Vistula River.
Brief History of Krakow
Krakow was rebuilt in the 13th century, after being ransacked by the Mongols. It reached its height of power in the 14th century under Casimir III the Great. Unlike much of Poland, which was destroyed during World War II, Krakow today looks much the same as it did back then.
1. Stare Misato (Old Town)
In 1257, subsequent to the Mongol invasion, Krakow’s old quarter was established within a protective walled border. The narrow cobblestone alleys are hugged by towering, brightly-painted kamienice (traditional Polish townhouses). Old Town is perfect for leisurely strolling, particularly frenetic Florianska Street and Kanonicza Street– the oldest street in Krakow.
One of the most fun pieces of public art is the cranium sculpture, which tourists can climb into for their “headshot.”
2. Rynek Glowny (Market Square)
Krakow’s historic central market is one of the largest medieval squares (almost five acres) in Europe and the cultural heartbeat of the city. Festive and lively, it’s a favorite hangout for locals as well as tourists. Join a walking tour, take a carriage ride, or just sit at one of the sidewalk cafes to sip coffee and people watch.
3. Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
In the middle of the Old Town Market Square, the former Renaissance-styled cloth hall is one of Europe’s oldest shopping and trade centers and the place to find souvenirs and other treasures.
4. St. Mary’s Basilica
This lofty 14th-century Gothic church is the pinnacle of Old Town and center of Market Square. Two attributes attract visitors to the asymmetric basilica. One is a trumpeting cry called hejinal played every hour in the tower. The song cuts off in the middle in honor of the musician who was killed by an arrow to his throat when he tried to warn of the imminent invading Tatars. The other is a 15th-century wooden altar, carved by a Polish artist Wita Stworz – one of the most beautiful pieces of sacred art in all of Poland.
5. Wawel Castle
From its lofty perch above Old Town, the Wawel Hill area is one of Poland’s most important sites. Wawal Castle was built in the 14th century under the command of King Casimir III the Great and remains one of the largest castles in Poland. The castle is unique and striking in that it encompasses an eclectic array of historical architectural periods, e.g. Medieval, Renaissance, Romanesque, and Baroque. The Castle was established as a national museum in the 1940’s. Inside are exhibits of suits of armor, rich tapestries, medieval weapons, and Renaissance paintings. A highlight is climbing to the belfry for a birds-eye-view beneath the basilica.
6. Dragon’s Den
At the base of the castle, close to the Vistula River, is the Wawel Dragon Den, the legendary lair of the fierce Smok Wawelski dragon. Marking the spot is a large statue of the dragon, standing on a cluster of boulders, which breathes fire on a set schedule.
The red brick Barbican is the only remaining gatehouse of what was once a walled fortress surrounding the city to protect against the invading Mongol hordes.
South of Old Town, the Kazimierz neighborhood, founded by and named for Casimir III, was a separate city for 500 years until the 19th– century. In the 15th century, after a fire in Krakow, the entire Jewish population was moved to Kazimierz, separated by a wall which was removed 200 years ago.
Much of the movie Schindler’s List was filmed here, including the now-famous passage on Jozefa Street. There’s nothing much to mark the arch, so unless you know where to find it, you’ll likely miss it.
The neighborhood contains the 15th-century Old Synagogue, the oldest synagogue still standing in Poland, and is a prized example of Jewish architecture in Europe.
Today, the historic Jewish Kazimierz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Krakow’s most hip and exciting neighborhood, bursting with vibrant bohemian culture, street art, cafés, and trendy bars and nightlife.
Snaking around Krakow, the Vistula River provides the inspiration for green spaces and water activities. Paths line its banks, offering opportunities for biking and walking.
10. Milk Bars
For traditional, unpretentious Polish cuisine, a visit to a mleczny (milk bar) is an experience you won’t want to miss. The rudimentary eateries were essentially government subsidized cafeteria-style canteens originally established for Polish laborers during Communist rule. The milk bars’ menus include authentic Polish fare such as pierogi (dumplings) and zapiekanki (half a toasted baguette topped with mushrooms, melted cheese, and ketchup), but seldom serve alcohol.
Day Trips from Krakow
Wieliczka Salt Mine
On the outskirts of Krakow and deep below the ground, the UNESCO World Heritage Site hosts nine levels of subterranean passages and tunnels, an underground lake, and a cathedral made entirely of salt.
It doesn’t get much more emotional and moving than a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious Nazi concentration camp. Visitors get a peek into the horrific horrors of the Holocaust and unimaginable atrocities brought upon millions of Jews when the Nazis invaded Poland during World War II.
It is easy to get to Auschwitz, but not so easy to tour it.
Top 10 Places to Visit in Warsaw – Poland’s Most Resilient City
Warsaw is Poland’s vibrant capital and largest city, hosting two million residents with many more commuting daily from the surrounding areas. It was so much more than I’d anticipated.
The location in the center of Poland makes it convenient to visit from Poland’s other major tourist cities, e.g. Gdansk, Krakow, and Poznan, particularly by train. It’s also inexpensive, which makes it a popular destination.
Brief History of Warsaw
Warsaw is the pulsating heart of the country. It was the last residence of the Polish royalty and the location of the 1944 uprising. There are several outstanding museums dedicated to the city’s horrific history, and dedications to its favorite homegrown composer, Frédéric Chopin.
After being decimated during World War II, the city refused to let its spirit be crushed. Rising from the ruins, Warsaw rebuilt the Old Town and continued to expand and modernize and become the eclectic and intellectual center of Poland, adding glitzy skyscrapers, museums, and a burgeoning gastronomy.
1. Communist Minibus Tour
Not the typical tourist track of Warsaw, we piled into an old Communist style minibus and bumped along the streets of the former communist neighborhoods, belle époque streets, and pre-war courtyards.
We listened to the heart-breaking history as we viewed partially destroyed and bullet-ridden brick structures in the former Jewish ghetto, oddly juxtaposed next to utilitarian Cold War high rises.
2. Muzeum Polskiej Wódki
Did you know that vodka was invented in Poland, not Russia? A tour at the unique Polish Vodka Museum is both educational and entertaining. A thorough walk through the history of the beverage is combined with interactive, hands experiences. One of the favorite exhibits of our group was trying on a series of specialty goggles that simulated various degrees of drunkenness.
To me, the most fascinating aspect of the tour was the information about Wanda Mosicka, one of the three and the only woman pioneers of early vodka marketing in Poland. Aside from the documentary film in the museum, her work remains obscured in history. Such a shame!
At the end of the tour, we were invited to taste some of their best-selling vodkas. I mean, I couldn’t be rude, right?
3. Old Town
The old world charm and postcard-perfect panorama are equal to that of any other city in Europe, and an understandable tourist attraction, especially given the tumultuous past. 85% of Warsaw’s 12th century Old Town was decimated by Nazi bombings during the Second World War. After the war, the Capital Reconstruction Bureau painstakingly rebuilt the historic center with many of its original bricks and decorative elements, using existing pre-war sketches, detailed paintings by Italian artist Canaletto, and photographs of the Old Town. It claims to be an exact replica of how it originally looked.
I loved Old Town and went back often during my stay. The area stands testament to the Polish pride, tenacity, and sheer will to survive, and well worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Old Town Market Square
Typical of old European cities, Warsaw’s heartbeat is the market square. Tall, pastel-colored buildings surround the large square, many hosting sidewalk cafés, restaurants, and shops.
Castle Square (plac Zamkowy w Warszawie), named for its location in front of the Royal Castle is beautiful, bustling, and not to be missed. The castle was once the residence of Polish monarchs, but was razed during the Warsaw Uprising and subsequently rebuilt.
Highly recommended is the stunning panoramic view from Taras Widokowy. There is a small price to pay and 150 stone steps to get to the viewing terrace, but it’s well worth it.
Originally built in the 16th century by architect Giovanni Battista, the medieval fortification was only used once to protect the city, in 1656. Today the ruins serve as a transition walkway between Old Town and New Town.
4. Praga Neighborhood
Directly across from Old Town, on the east bank of the Vistula River, is arguably Warsaw’s most fascinating neighborhood, Praga. Still a bit edgy, it’s a community definitely on the rise, and easy to perceive that it is being positioned to become the next hipster locale.
In Pragna, we were able to picture what Warsaw looked like before the war, where the ghetto once existed, with factories, and communist utilitarian block apartments next to crumbling walls. Artists have moved into the neighborhood and have begun to transform the crumbling architecture into a bohemian center with chic cafés and shops via murals and street art.
5. University Library
Who would think that a university campus could hold such tourist allure? Yet, the Warsaw University Library was one of my favorite places and one of the most Instagrammable spots in Warsaw. Anyone can visit. Find the series of steps to the left of the main entrance and climb up to the rooftop.
Breezy, 360° views abound! Exquisite gardens, far-off landscapes, bridges, sculptures, and striking architecture all contribute to magnificent photo ops. If I’d had more time, I would have returned for round two.
6. Royal Łazienki Park
Known as the most beautiful park in a city full of green spaces, Lazienki is sprawled over 76 acres. The grounds include a lake, monuments and a 17th-century Baroque palace which was the summer home of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland. There’s a monument to Chopin where free concerts are often held on Sundays in the summer.
Museum of the Uprising
Modeled after the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the 1944 uprising and the events that lead to the end of World War II are the subjects of the museum. Warsaw has many museums, but if you only have time for one, it should be the one about this dark period. The museum documents the brutal and horrendous tragedies that befell many innocent Warsaw residents who were murdered by the Nazis.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Standing on the site of the former Jewish ghetto of World War II, the museum is a moving documentary of the thousand-year history of the Jews in Poland, from medieval times through the Holocaust and post-war era.
8. Farmers’ Market
There are plenty of markets in Warsaw to sample authentic Polish food such as sausages, pickles, coarse dill bread, and local beer made from bread which has a distinct taste of yeast.
9. Stalin’s (Penis) Palace of Science and Culture
Stalin’s Palace, aka Stalin’s Penis, was an unwanted “gift” from Stalin during the period of Communist rule for the purpose of marking his territory. At 778 feet high, the monolith is the tallest building in all of Poland. It was built in 1955, in the art deco style typical of U.S. architecture of that time. Visible from much of the city, the propaganda piece was once slated for demolition, but the demo was retracted since it’s a valuable piece of heritage, however unpleasant and controversial. There are some people who do like the building, and for those, it retains the moniker “the birthday cake.” Even if you hate the building or what it stood for, you will love the view of the city from the 30th floor.
Pączki (plural) are the Polish version of the donut, dating back to the Middle Ages. Pieces of dough containing eggs, lard, sugar, yeast and milk are deep-fried, and then filled with jam or other sweet fillings, and glazed with sweet icing. Alcohol is sometimes added to the dough before cooking, which may give it a more fluffy and creamy texture. In Poland, pączki are traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday before the beginning of Lent. They are sinfully delicious.
Day Trips From Warsaw
About a 1.5-hour drive from Warsaw, Zelazowa Wola’s claim to fame is the birthplace of Polish composer Frederic Chopin. At the Chopin family-home-turned-museum, visitors can see some of his original compositions. There are also other sites worth visiting in the town, such as the botanical gardens and a 16th-century Gothic-Renaissance fortified church.
Note: I stayed at the Mamaison Hotel Le Regina, a beautifully appointed and centrally located hotel, brimming with boutique character.
10 Places to Visit in Gdansk –Most Underrated City in Poland
Unexpectedly, I fell in love with Gdansk. It’s one of the most captivating cities in all of Central Europe.
Just its location on the Baltic Sea made it appealing…you see, I’m a total beach-lover, most European cities, while fun, do not provide me with an opportunity to indulge in my happy place.
Here’s what I love best about Gdansk: their post-war passive-aggressive defiance. After the massive and devastating bombings of World War II, Gdansk began the process of rebuilding. But they did not rebuild the city as had looked. No, they stuck their thumb in the eye of their former German oppressors and rebuilt it in one of the former styles – Mannerist – which makes it look different than the Austro-Hungarian architecture prevalent in Germany and other European cities. The cobblestone pedestrian streets, surrounded by pastel gabled-facades of patrician tenement houses, and churches with spiky towers are absolutely gorgeous!
This fairytale town is one that I’d go back to – which is saying a lot because I seldom return back to the same place twice.
Brief History of Gdansk
In Medieval times, Gdansk was a merchant city trading Baltic amber and is still known as one of the premier places to buy high-quality amber jewelry.
Over the centuries, Gdansk has changed hands and borders often. Along with being part of Poland, it’s also been under the control of Germany, Prussia, and Russia.
In the 16th and 17th-centuries, Gdansk enjoyed a golden era as a rich seaport and a playground for Tsar Peter the Great.
Gdansk has the unfortunate distinction of being the place where World War II began. On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s army launched their invasion of Poland on the military bases on the Westerplatte peninsula in an effort to reincorporate Gdansk into the German Reich.
The 20th-century brought about a series of events in Gdansk that would impact the course of world history. The birthplace of Solidarity – the first Soviet Bloc independent trade union – in 1980 led by shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, eventually brought down the communist government of Poland. In 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Gdansk has been recommended by guidebook Eyewitness Travel as one of the top ten must-see tourist spots in the world. Here’s why.
1. The Royal Way/Long Street/Dlugi Targ
The Royal Way is the historic pedestrian promenade, made famous because of the Polish kings who used to parade through when visiting the city. Dlugi Targ (Long Market) is the heartbeat of the Royal Way. The Royal Way passes by the Prison Tower and the Golden Gate and flanked by the Green Gate at one end the Town Hall tower at the other. Ornate, pastel tenement houses line each side of the street, which is nearly always crowded with tourist and especially beautiful at sunset.
In the center of Long Street is the 17th-century Neptune Fountain, one of the oldest secular monuments in the country. The fountain is a symbol of the city, topped by the towering bronze statue of the sea god made by Flemish artist, Peter Husen.
2. St. Mary’s church
The massive 14th-century Gothic church is the largest brick church in the world. Inside is a huge wooden 15th-century astrological clock. But the highlight is the 360° degree view that can only be reached by climbing more than 400 steps to the top of the church’s tower.
Now, let me say that one of the first things I do in every European Old Town is head straight to the highest point to get the best panoramic selfie. Of course, they all require ascending, but none of the others even came close to this climbing effort. It was an extreme, thigh-burning, lung-challenging, physical event – in the extreme July heat. So you might have to take your time and even some breaks, but do give it a try – the outlook is impressive.
Warning: this is not for you if you have either acrophobia (fear of heights) or agoraphobia (fear of crowds). The viewing terrace is tiny, with wall-to-wall people all pressed up against each other. When you finally squeeze your way over to the railing at the edge, there’s a dizzying, nearly vertical view down to the street.
3. St. Dominic’s Fair
I visited Gdansk during St. Dominic’s Fair, one of the biggest open-air cultural and trade events in Europe. If you can swing it, I’d definitely recommend visiting Gdansk when the event is held in July. The fair, which has been held since 1260, does make the Old Town more crowded but adds a festive vibe that makes the hordes easy to deal with. Merchant stalls line the narrow streets along the river and Old Town, selling antiques, jewelry, and handicrafts. Musicians, performers, and parades are sprinkled through the Dlugi Targ during the day.
4. Mariacka Street
Mariacka Street is one of the best streets in Gdansk for strolling and people-watching and often used as a shooting location for historical movies. One either side of the street you’ll find historical architecture, lots of sidewalk cafés, and shops selling amber jewelry.
5. Motlawa River
If you’re looking for an Instagrammable spot, this is it. Historical architecture and gabled structures with flowers spilling over iron balconies line the sides of the waterway. If you’ve been to Copenhagen’s Nyhavn, it will remind you of that area.
The Green Bridge, directly across from the Green Gate in Old Town, crosses the river. From morning until early evening, food stalls line the bridge and it’s packed with tourists. It’s here that you can get the iconic photo of Gdansk that you’ve seen in glossy travel magazines.
On one side of the bridge is Dlugie Obrzeze (Long Embankment), a popular footpath hugged by magical gabled houses now hosting restaurants and cafés. On the other side of the bridge, you’ll find the Amber Sky Ferris Wheel where riders can get another great view of Gdansk.
6. Pirate Galleon
Simulated pirate ships, the Black Pearl (Czarna Perla) and the Lion (Galeon Lew) ferry people to and from the Gdansk waterfront and Westerplatte peninsula. The trip takes about 30 minutes, during which time you can listen to commentary about WWII and live music.
The peninsula of Westerplatte is ground zero for the Second World War. The Battle of Westerplatte was the first battle in Germany’s invasion of Poland, marking the start of World War II in Europe, on September 1, 1939. The battle lasted seven days and included multiple dive-bomber attacks.
Tours to Westerplatte run several times a day, taking in the shelled-out ruins of the defenders’ barracks and bunkers. At the highest point of Westerplatte, there’s an 82-foot high granite memorial to honor the “Coast Defenders,” erected in 1966.
8. Brzezno Beach
You may be surprised, but Gdansk has beautiful, clean beaches, thanks to the ecological efforts of recent years. The beach town dates back to 1323 when it was under the control of the Cistercian Monks, and remained for over 600 years. While new cycle paths and two new hotels have been built, the area is primarily a seaside escape for the residents of Gdansk.
The morning I visited, the weather changed quite suddenly, catching us by surprise. But even a blustery day at the beach is better than just about anywhere else!
9. Nowy Port Lighthouse
The only privately-held lighthouse in Poland, Nowy Port Lighthouse was built in 1893 and is said to look like the lighthouse in Cleveland, Ohio. The lighthouse holds an important place in history, as it was from here that the shots by German armed forces on Westerplatte began the Second World War.
We climbed the spiral staircase for the panoramic view of the port of Gdańsk, Westerplatte and the entire Bay of Gdansk as far as Gdynia and Hel.
10. Museum of the Second World War
With so much of WWII history in Gdansk, it stands to reason that there’d be a museum dedicated to that dark period. The sleek, modernistic building was newly opened in 2017. Exhibits depict the political scheming that led to the outbreak of WWII, the atrocities visited upon the Polish Jews during the Holocaust and the subsequent Soviet occupation of the country.
Day Trips from Gdansk
15 minutes from Gdansk, Poland has its own Riviera on the Baltic Sea. Sopot, the swanky beach and spa resort is Poland’s popular summer capital. It was fun walking all the way out on the longest wooden pier in Europe (1678 feet) and looking back to shore.
In the small downtown area, we found the Crooked House, another Instagrammable spot.
The sprawling 13th-century Malbork Castle is the world’s largest brick castle. Originally built as a fortress by Teutonic Knights, the castle is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Note: I stayed in the Hotel Hanza, one of my favorite hotels in Europe. Here’s why.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of JayWay Travel during her stay in Poland, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.