The world has come a long way since the days of the Cold War, when the nations of Eastern Europe existed behind the Iron Curtain of Communism. It would’ve been unthinkable for all but the most daring travellers to visit countries like Poland, but a lot of things have changed in the 27 years since the end of the Cold War. Today, a Poland vacation is accessible and one of the highlights of a visit to Europe, east or west. If you’re planning a European vacation in the near future, be sure to fit a Poland vacation into your itinerary… perhaps on a trip to the Baltics?
Resilient and Surprising Warsaw
Few cities have literally risen from the ashes like Warsaw. All but destroyed during World War II, the Polish capital is a symbol of persistence and one of the most surprising destinations in Europe. The Communist apartment blocks straight out of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film are still present to keep alive the Brutalist past of the Cold War, but alongside them, you’ll find stunning skyscrapers and reconstructed medieval market squares. The reconstructed Old Town is the most popular area in the city as it captures what Warsaw was like prior to the wars during a time when Poland existed independent of the influence of its neighbouring superpowers. But it’s not the centre of the city, as there may be no true “centre” to this sprawling and modern capital.
No matter your base for exploration, you’ll find rewards throughout Warsaw on your Poland vacation. You can focus your time on the Old Town where you can see the Royal Castle and Castle Square, which sits at the Old Town’s entrance. The Old Town was reconstructed based on surviving photographs and documents of the city prior to the war, and took decades to complete. Outside of the Old Town you’ll find the Barbican, which is a reconstructed 16th-Century castle, and the Church of the Holy Cross, a Baroque church opposite the Warsaw University campus that contains the heart of the great Polish composer, Frederic Chopin.
Even if you’re skeptical about museums, it’s worth dedicating at least a day to exploring the museums of Warsaw. The Warsaw Rising Museum retells the story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against Nazi Germany through immersive exhibits and exhaustive collections of photographs, film reels, and sound recordings. The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is also worth visiting, although it too can make for a sombre afternoon.
Beyond the historical sites, Warsaw is also a great place to cut loose on your Poland vacation. It has the best bar and nightclub scene in the country, and perhaps all of Eastern Europe. In summer, head to Plac Zabaw, near Vistula River, to experience concerts and EDM shows in the open air. If you’re looking for cozy bars, head to Pawilony, a series of small bars located within an alleyway. For clubs, you’ll find plenty of places around the Opera and Plac Pilsudzkiego that’ll keep the vodka flowing well into the night.
Warsaw may be the most surprising city in Poland, but Krakow is properly advertised as one of the best cities in Eastern Europe to visit on a Poland vacation. As the nation’s most beautiful and popular city, Krakow attracts the largest numbers of travellers to the country. Much of this is helped by the city’s convenient location near the border with Czechia and Slovakia. The city makes an easy stopover when in Prague if you’re thinking about a short-term stay, but don’t short change the city. Krakow may be small but it’s the best base for exploring the southern region of Poland and has a lot of highlights in its own right.
Krakow is centred on the largest medieval town square in Europe. In the middle of the square lies the Cloth Hall, which used to attract merchants to sell their wares. Today, you’ll find a bewildering number of souvenir shops filling the various stalls of the Cloth Hall. The twin-towered St. Mary’s Basilica lies in one corner of the square and is worth a visit. The 14th-century Gothic church is open to the public and has an impressive wooden-carved altarpiece that is one of Poland’s most prized national treasures. In and around the square, you’ll find several restaurants and bars that are worth visiting, including Morskie Oko, an underground restaurant with wooden furniture and a highlands atmosphere that whips up excellent pierogi. Expect traditional music coming from the main hall when you visit.
The other centrepiece within the city is Wawel Castle, which overlooks the Vistula River from the heights of Wawel Hill. You’ll find a museum with a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit within the castle, but even if you have no interest in admission, the walk up to the castle makes for a nice and picturesque stroll. For the coolest sites in town, head to the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find remnants of the city’s formerly-numerous Jewish community as well as the hippest bars and restaurants.
Outside of Krakow, you’ll find two essential landmarks. To the west you’ll find Oswiecim, the lovely Polish town that was home to one of the worst places in all of human history, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where over a million Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust. Visiting the remains of the concentration camp is by no means an uplifting experience, but it does offer a chance to pay respects to the dead and fully comprehend how essential it is to never forget what happened here in order for it to never happen again.
The other nearby landmark is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which used to be one of the largest salt mines in Europe. First constructed in the 13th century, the salt mine operated until 2007. Today, it’s a popular tourist attraction as visitors on a Poland vacation can delve hundreds of metres below the surface to tour corridors and breathe the therapeutic air. Of all the impressive sites within the mine, none compare to St. Kinga’s Chapel, an entire church sanctuary carved out of the salt.
Gdansk and Other Attractions
Gdansk is the most popular city in Poland aside from Warsaw and Krakow, although if you’re going based purely off atmosphere, the city hardly seems Polish. It was a major seaport of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages and was passed back and forth between Poland and Prussia during various wars over the centuries (it’s also known as Danzig). Almost entirely destroyed in World War II, the city was rebuilt, and in the 1980s, it became the centre of the Polish anti-Communist movement. Today, the reconstructed Main Town, full of red-brick churches and the picturesque waterfront, attract people from all across Europe.
Outside of the cities, the Tatra Mountains prove to be appealing destinations all year round. During the winter, they make for excellent skiing attractions with a fraction of the number of visitors (and a fraction of the prices) of the Alps. In the summer, they’re home to great hiking trails. Along the coast you’ll find white-sand beaches that have popular resorts in the summer. As well, on the Hel Peninsula north of Gdansk, you’ll find clear waters that are great for all kinds of water sports.
The Best Reason to Visit
There is no better reason to head on a Poland vacation than to feast on the incredible food that you’ll find in its cities, towns, and countryside. The most famous Polish dish is pierogi, which are dough dumplings typically filled with savoury fillings like meat, cheese curds, and onions and then boiled. Pierogi are often served with sour cream or fried onions, and can even come in sweet varieties, with apple or cherry fillings. Pierogi are so delicious, you’ll want to eat them most every meal while in Poland. Just watch out if you’re counting calories; pierogi are hardly diet-friendly.
Just as pierogi are claimed by other nations (they’re known as varenyky in Ukraine), kielbasa and barzscz are also common in other Eastern European countries, but they remain staples of Polish cuisine. Kielbasa is a large, fatty sausage that is boiled or grilled and served with fried onions and dill. Barzscz is also known as borscht, and is a hearty beetroot soup that’s flavoured with vinegar and topped with sour cream and dill. Like pierogi, kielbasa and barzscz are not light dishes, but they’re delicious.
It’d be wrong to finish this article without mentioning vodka, which is as essential a component of Polish life as pierogi or the red and white of its flag. If you ever head to a bar or nightclub in Poland, you’ll find more vodka than you ever thought existed. Even if you don’t normally drink vodka, give it a try while in Poland, especially unique Polish varieties like Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, which has a unique, almost menthol taste due to its bison grass ingredients. Also, remember: no sipping. Vodka is poured into a shot glass and drunk in one gulp. Do as the Polish do and leave the sipping to teas and coffees.
There is so much to love about a Poland vacation. From the bustling nightlife and friendliness of Warsaw to the medieval beauty of Krakow to the comforting delights of pierogi, Poland is a land full of surprises. Its people are generous, its cities are gorgeous, and its food is incredibly satisfying. Don’t ignore the wonders of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. Add Poland to your bucket list and make sure you fit a trip to Poland into your near future.