We’ll begin with the easy one. When many people think of Poland, they think of the nation’s (mostly sad) history in WWII.
The most obvious is the haunting and upsetting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, situated about an hour outside of Krakow. It is necessary to pre-book a tour round the camp. The guide offers great perspective on what would otherwise be an entirely surreal experience. No matter how much you’ve read about what happened at Aushwitz during the atrocities of the war, being there’s a sobering and emotional experience.
Walking around Krakow, you can research the former Jewish ghetto and Plaszow concentration camp. These are well known as the actual location of many of the events depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. The relatively new museum in Schindler’s former factory is one of the finest WWII museum’s we have ever visited (and we’ve been to a lot), and should be a must-see for anyone visiting Krakow.
A little more off the beaten path is Westerplatte, just outside the northern city of Gdansk. This is where the first official shots were fired of WWII, between the Germans and the Poles on September 1, 1939.
“Beauty” and”Poland” are not two words most men and women put in exactly the same sentence, but that’s a mistake. Despite considerable destruction during WWII, some old cities survived, and many others have been rebuilt in much the same manner as they existed prior to the war.
Most travelers think of only Krakow. Granted, the old city of Krakow is as amazing as it’s overrun with tourists. The old city of Warsaw is quite underrated. While most (or all) of it had to be rebuilt after the war, it’s still a beautiful and interesting place to explore, filled with restaurants, pubs, churches, and monuments.
We were pleasantly surprised by the northern port city of Gdansk, which was probably our favorite city to explore in the whole country.
To get off the beaten path a little, try Wroclaw. This city is know as the”Venice of Poland” because of the many canals through the city centre. Spend your time searching for the 300 gnomes scattered through the city.
Or get out of the center of Krakow to check out the neighbourhood of Nowa Huta, a planned community given as a”gift” in the USSR to Poland and intended to be a communist utopia.
Poland has amazing hiking. Who knew? An (optimistic) two hour bus ride south of Krakow brings you to Zakopane, and alpine town that wouldn’t be out of place in Austria or Switzerland, but happens to be in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The views from popular Mt Giewont are magnificent if you can deal with the crowds coming up the cable car on busy summer weekends.
- Oh yeah, and the Food
Pierogies. What more do you need? You like savory? Done! You want something sweet? No problem. For the true connoisseur, get to Krakow for the annual Pierogi Festival each August.
Should you ever get tired of meat/potato/cheese/fruit stuffed dumplings, we also found great pizza (CZIKAGO in Zakopane), amazing kebabs (Sapko Kebab in Warsaw), and even decent sushi (Sushi Corner in Wroclaw), although the latter took a little searching on our part.
Ensure you wash all that terrific food down with some local vodka!
- And Finally, the Beaches!
Yes, you read that right. Beaches. In Poland. Granted, the Baltic Sea can be a bit nippy, but these Poles are hardy men and women. The shore at Sopot, near Gdansk, was beautiful and occupied.