When we were planning our 5-month trip through Europe in 2016, the one question all of our friends asked was “Why are you going to spend 2+ weeks in Poland?”. Our response was that we weren’t sure that was enough time. There is so much to see in Poland, that it should be on everyone’s travel wish list. So here they are – the 5 reasons you should visit Poland!
1. World War II History
We’ll start with the easy one. When many people think of Poland, they think of the country’s (mostly sad) history in WWII. For anyone interested in this tragic part of human history, Poland is a must-visit country.
The most obvious is the haunting and upsetting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, located about an hour outside of Krakow. It is necessary to pre-book a tour around the camp. The guide provides great perspective on what would otherwise be a completely surreal experience. No matter how much you’ve read about what happened at Aushwitz during the atrocities of the war, being there is a sobering and emotional experience.
Walking around Krakow, you can explore 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 movie Schindler’s List. The relatively new museum in Schindler’s former factory is one of the best WWII museum’s we’ve ever visited (and we’ve been to a lot), and should be a must-see for anyone visiting Krakow.
A bit 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.
2. Many Beautiful Old Towns
“Beauty” and “Poland” aren’t two words most people put in the same sentence, but that’s a mistake. Despite considerable destruction during WWII, some old towns survived, and others have been rebuilt in much the same way as they existed before the war.
Most travelers think of only Krakow. Granted, the old town of Krakow is as beautiful as it is overrun with tourists. The old town of Warsaw is very underrated. While most (or all) of it had to be rebuilt after the war, it is still a beautiful and interesting place to explore, filled with restaurants, pubs, churches, and monuments.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the northern port city of Gdansk, which was probably our favourite city to explore in the entire country.
To get off the beaten path a bit, try Wroclaw. This city is know as the “Venice of Poland” due to the many canals through the city centre. Spend your time searching for the 300 gnomes scattered throughout the city.
Or get out of the centre of Krakow to check out the neighbourhood of Nowa Huta, a planned community given as a “gift” from the USSR to Poland and intended to be a communist utopia.
3. Hiking in the Tatra Mountains
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 stunning if you can deal with the crowds coming up the cable car on busy summer weekends. Try going in the shoulder season for a quieter experience.
4. Oh yeah, and the Food
Pierogies. What more do you need? You like savory? Done! You want something sweet? No problem. How can such a simple dish be so delicious? For the real connoisseur, get to Krakow for the annual Pierogi Festival every August.
If you ever get tired of meat/potato/cheese/fruit filled 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 bit of searching on our part.
Make sure you wash all that great food down with some local vodka!
5. And lastly, the Beaches!
Yes, you read that right. Beaches. In Poland. Granted, the Baltic Sea can be a bit nippy, but those Poles are hardy people. The beach at Sopot, near Gdansk, was beautiful and busy.