Poland – a land of hidden treasures
With a population of 38 million, Poland is the ninth-largest country in Europe – yet much of it remains undiscovered by foreign tourists. From beaches and water sports on the Baltic coast, to hiking and skiing in the Tatra Mountains, and with impressivecities in between, Poland is a country offering a surprising diversity of sights and activities – and a tremendously rich history.
A delicious welcome
The Polish people are friendly, welcoming – and if there’s one thing they love (and love to share with others), it’s their food. Meals often begin with a traditional soup made from ingredients such as sorrel, pickled gherkin or cauliflower. In summer, Poles even enjoy soups made of fruit!
Popular main courses include pierogi ruskie (potato and cheese dumplings), bigos – a Traditional “hunter’s stew” – and meats such as goose, carp and herring. Luscious desserts such as poppyseed cake, countless varieties of cheesecake and plum stew (powidla) bring Polish meals to a tasty and filling close.
Thinkers and creators
Polish culture is exceptionally rich; the country is particularly renowned for its literature, cinema and music. Science fiction authors such as Jerzy Żuławski created pioneering works of science fiction that brought them worldwide recognition.
Later in the 20th century, film directors like Andrzej Wajda defied the censorship of the time to create some of the most audacious and political films to emerge from Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Wajda is best known for his trilogy of war films and for the landmark anti-Communist films Man Of Marble and Man Of Iron, the latter of which won the Palme d’Or at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.
Polish composers like Henryk Górecki have also seen international acclaim. Premiered in 1977, Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs topped classical charts worldwide.
Probably Poland’s best-known tourist destination, Kraków is a true jewel of a city. Walking around the compact centre, you can really feel its history. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, Kraków was the country’s capital for over 500 years – as evidenced by its grand architecture. With an area of 40,000 m2, the vast Main Square is the largest medieval town square in Europe, and is lined with restaurants and cafes. At its heart: the grand Cloth Hall, rebuilt in 1555 in a Renaissance style. Step inside and you’ll find rows of traders selling amber jewellery, intricately woven lace, wooden chess sets, and other unique local products and souvenirs.
The city’s main attraction and most famous landmark is the complex of buildings on Wawel Hill. First stop is Wawel Castle, the opulent former royal residence, where Poland’s rulers governed until 1596. Across the courtyard is the 14th century Wawel Cathedral, coronation site of the Polish monarchs. You can also enter the den of the fire breathing Wawel Dragon!
If you’d rather explore the countryside, the nearby Polish Jura Chain is a beautiful rural landscape characterised by stunning rock formations. The region includes the Eagles’ Nests Landscape Park, a protected area home to no less than 25 medieval castles. There’s also Ojców National Park, where you’ll find beavers, badgers, ermine, and many different species of bats and birds.
Majestic mountains in the south
About two hours south of Kraków by car or bus is Podhale – arguably Poland’s most breathtaking region in terms of natural beauty, and home to its highest mountains, the Tatras. Despite its small area, it remains culturally distinct from the rest of Poland – geographic isolation has allowed the local Góral (highlander) people to preserve their unique traditions, dialect, folk costumes, music and cuisine.
The region’s capital, Zakopane, is a major tourist destination: popular with skiers in winter and a great base for exploring the mighty peaks of the Tatra National Park in summer.
Warsaw – a phoenix risen from the ashes
Further north, in the centre of the country, lies the Polish capital: Warsaw. It has one of the most tumultuous histories of any city in Europe. The beautifully reconstructed medieval Old Town and the incredibly tranquil New Town contrast with modern skyscrapers and shopping centres, historic palaces and university buildings, grand boulevards and imposing architecture like the Palace of Culture and Science.
A casual visitor would probably never suspect that the city was almost completely destroyed at the end of World War II then painstakingly rebuilt afterwards according to the original plans. Not for nothing is Warsaw known as the Phoenix City. Countless museums await the visitor, such as the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum (in the building where Marie Curie was born), the Museum of Caricature, the Fryderyk Chopin Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Sand and sea, lakes and forests
Northern Poland also has a lot to offer. Beaches along the coast are comparatively unspoilt and very popular with tourists in summer. They’re also a hit among kitesurfers and windsurfers. And the cities of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot – collectively known as Tricity – harbor a wealth of attractions, such as Gdansk Shipyard, the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. Sopot is also home to the annual Sopot International Song Festival. Further east, the unspoilt and sparsely populated Masurian Lake District is perfect for leisurely boating. Covering a vast area of over 50,000 km2, the region comprises over 2000 lakes interconnected by canals and rivers. To the southeast, on the Belarussian border, Bialowieza Forest – another UNESCO World Heritage Site – is home to bison, wolves and all kinds of bird species. It’s one of the largest and last remaining parts of the primeval forest that originally stretched across the whole of northeast Europe before the arrival of man.