Looking back, I’m shocked how little I knew about Poland. As one of the largest European countries, it’s hardly hidden away or anything. And yet somehow, time and time again it escaped my notice. I mean I knew it was there, but I always failed to look a little closer. So I’m glad that when I decided to travel to that part of Europe, I opted to spend some time there.
Over the span of a few weeks, I quickly became enamoured with the country. It really hit all the right notes for me, be it history, architecture, food or eccentricity. Each destination I visited had such a distinct hook to it that travelling there never felt repetitive. My time there left me wanting more and I know that someday I’ll be heading back to experience even more of what Poland has to offer. In that sentiment, here are some things I think you should know before visiting Poland and also why you should.
1. It’s not just Krakow and Warsaw
I say this in pretty much every one of these articles, but a country is so much more than its 1 or 2 more popular cities. Don’t get me wrong, Warsaw and Krakow are incredible cities and deserve their spot. But Poland is a big country and has plenty of other endearing cities let alone towns and other places.
Personal favourites of mine would have to be Gdansk and Wroclaw. Gdansk’s long, grand streets and scenic waterfront are hard to be beat. Same goes for the medieval charms on display in the heart of Wroclaw with its main square and also its landmark buildings from other eras. That both have such fascinating history and stories relating to resistance and hardship make it just as fascinating to me as the big two.
2. The Weird and Wonderful
To say that Poland has character is an understatement. I can’t think of the last country I went to with so many bizarre and unusual attractions to its name. It was of these oddities that in part drew me to visit. I’d read of the Crooked Forest in an in-flight magazine and it became one of my must see spots. It turned out to be about as weird as I expected despite its challenges.
The Crooked Forest is just the start though. I never thought I’d spend an afternoon seeking out bronze gnomes scattered throughout a city like I did learning about the dwarfs of Wroclaw. Equally, I didn’t expect to wander the streets of Krakow at night while learning about local serial killers and ghosts. These are just a few of the wonderfully quirky things on offer when visiting Poland.
3. Getting Around
Finding your way around Poland was far easier than I had anticipated. The country, while large, is thoroughly connected by a quality train network and useful bus network. Thankfully, it’s not set up in some kind of centralised way, so you don’t always have to transfer through one or two main cities to get about. This cuts travel time down considerably. Intercity buses may be more affordable but it comes down to individual routes and how you prefer to travel.
4. Inescapable History
Poland is one of those countries that for better or worse, is defined to some extent by its past. If people know one thing about Polish history, it’s the terrible, tragic events that occurred there during World War II. An important distinction to be made at the outset is that these acts were committed in Poland but weren’t Polish acts. Still, you can’t escape the spectre of these events when visiting Poland. In both Warsaw and Krakow you have the opportunity to visit the former ghettos and museums that record the evil deeds that transpired there.
One of the most common ways to try to understand this period of history is by visiting the concentration camps at Auschwitz, west of Krakow. I found it extremely informative and you can read more about my thoughts on visiting in this interview I did.
However Poland’s history is not simply limited to the acts of the Holocaust. The wider impacts and destruction of World War II can be seen in cities like Gdansk, Wroclaw and Poznan. Go beyond the last century, and you start to go into some history of which I was totally unaware. Who knew for example that for a time the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was the largest European nation of its time. Poland was also the setting of things like the Thirty Years War and home on occasion to the Teutonic Knights, like in Torun. Basically, there’s plenty to uncover if you’re at all curious about the country’s history.
5. Central European
Before visiting Poland, I wrongly assumed the country was going to have a strong Eastern European influence to it. I couldn’t be more wrong. Poland is textbook Central Europe, more like neighbours Germany and Czechia than say, Russia. If you actually look at where it sits on the map, it’s like most Central European countries and provides a buffer between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. You just need to look at places like Branicki Palace in Bialystok and the central square of Poznan to be reminded of where in Europe you are.
The modern idea of Poland is probably more Central European than it used to be. This is in part because the borders of Poland were shifted west after World War II. In fact, cities like Wroclaw and Szczecin were Prussian (German) for many centuries prior. Krakow belonged to the Austrian Empire for quite some time itself. This isn’t to say those cities aren’t Polish, just that they bear Western or other Central European influences. Poland is not completely without Eastern influence either, like say its love of vodka, but it’s a small part.
6. Hearty Food
I probably wouldn’t advise someone on a diet to head to Poland. You’ll find it difficult and frankly tempting. Polish cuisine, for lack of a better word, is comfort food. You’ve got soups, sausages and of course, the scrumptious pierogi dumplings. Pierogi are filled, dough dumplings with all sorts of stuffings and various accompanying sauces, but most frequently, sour cream. Had my body been able to cope, I could have eaten them at every meal. The other key ingredients in most dishes is potato and cabbage, firmly securing Polish cuisine in the Central European camp.
I was also surprised a little by the many sweet foods I came across as well. The St Martins Croissant that is Poznan’s favourite desert was delicious. The doughnut I tried in Wroclaw was famed to be the best in Poland and I could see why. It certainly presents an extra challenge after gorging on dumplings.
I’m going to be honest, from the outside Polish is a tricky language. You can’t help but feel intimidated by it, especially when written out. Polish is a slavic language, whose closest cousins are Czech and Slovak. That knowledge is unlikely to be of much use to many people, but thankfully English and German are also fairly widespread and funnily enough, Spanish. As a fellow devout Catholic country, you find quite a lot of Spanish tourists, which leads people in the tourism industry to learn it.
What I think is particularly worth knowing is that Polish has a bunch of letters all its own. The one that really stuck out to me is ‘ł’, like in Białystok and Wrocław. This letter has a ‘w’ sound, whereas the ‘w’ has the sound of a ‘v’, like in German. The perfect chance to remember this is in the pronunciation of Wrocław, which phonetically actually sounds like ‘Vrotswav”!
A few basic phrases to help you get by include Cześć which means ‘Hello’; Dziękuję for ‘Thank you’; Proszę for ‘Please’; and Tak and Nie for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
Relative to Western Europe, Poland is an affordable country to visit. It may not be Europe’s cheapest destination but it’s between there and the general European average. If I were to compare it, the country is probably on par with somewhere like Czechia in terms of cost. This is in part because the country continues to use their own currency, the Zloty. As of writing, the exchange was roughly 4 zloty to 1 euro.
Transport for instance is fairly reasonable with a couple-hour train trip costing around 10€. Another good indicator is that I was able to get dinner for under 10€ in quite a few places. That’s kind of my gold standard when it comes to affordability in Europe. Accommodation on the other hand is probably closer to what you’d expect in parts of Western Europe like Spain or Italy. It does seem to vary city to city though, as for example, I found quite an affordable studio apartment in Krakow, probably Poland’s biggest tourist destination.
9. Walking Tours
I already mentioned some of the quirky walking tours I did before, but I feel they deserve a greater mention. Across 5 of the cities I travelled to in Poland, I took various tours with the FREE Walking TOURs organisation and I couldn’t recommend them higher. They were often some of the favourite things I did in those cities, like in Krakow. These tours often last are 90 minutes and work on non-obligatory tips. You may have done similar tours in various other cities in Europe. They are a great way to learn about a city, its history and hear some local stories.
Each place often has a variety of tours, from old town tours to Jewish history in places like Warsaw and Krakow. They operate most days on a morning/afternoon basis so you fit in a different tour either side of lunch. Oh and they usually have them in various languages, the most common being English, Spanish and German. In the end, it’s a network of free tours that I got a lot out of and one that I’m happy to keep recommending.
Do you have any things you would add about visiting Poland? Which of these points do you find most useful for travel to Poland? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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