Few countries in Europe have changed as much as Poland over the last twenty years. Most of its cities have undergone a process of reinvention, opening ambitious new museums, brushing up their heritage with frenzied renovation, and encouraging nightlife to spill out onto parks and riverbanks.
Outside the urban areas there's a renewed focus on wild nature, from the drifting dunes of the Baltic coast to the magnificent mountain chains that mark the country's southern borders. Jonathon Bousfield provides seven reasons why now is a great time to visit this flourishing eastern European nation.
Narrative history is the new rock and roll? Well it might be in Poland, where a rash of new museum projects has given culture-crawling a whole new meaning. Take for example the Museum of Silesia in Katowice, deliberately built underground in tribute to the city's coal-mining past; or the Museum of World War II in Gdańsk, a precipitously slanting structure that seems to be toppling into the nearby canal.
As you might expect from a country with such a dramatic history, Polish museums often pack a powerful message. Gdańsk's corten steel-clad European Solidarity Centre commemorates the Solidarity trade-union movement of the 1980s, and also functions as an inspiring tribute to non-violent revolutions everywhere. The stunning Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is particularly epic in scale, presenting an account of Poland's Jewish community that is nothing short of a history of Poland itself.
Museum of Silesia, Katowice, Poland © Velishchuk Yevhen / Shutterstock
The Bieszczady mountains
The brochure-hogging Tatra Mountains tend to get swamped with trippers in summer, and for a true taste of wilderness it's better to head for the Bieszczady in the far southeast, a haunting series of bare brooding hills that offer some exhilarating ridge-top walks with stunning views. It's a sparsely populated area but there's plenty of B&B accommodation in the trail-head villages, and there's usually a well-stocked pub waiting for you when you get back down the mountain.
Biesczady Mountains, Poland © Gospodarek Mikola / Shutterstock
The Warsaw Shore
You may not think of Polish capital Warsaw as one of Europe's great outdoor cities, but that is what it has become, thanks in large part to the transformation of the previously neglected Vistula riverbank. A foot- and cycle-path now runs along the western shore, passing a string of outdoor bars which have taken on the role of mini-cultural centres, offering al-fresco film shows, live music, street food fairs and after-dark DJ events throughout the summer. Legendary shoreline hangouts Plac Zabaw and Cud nad Wisłą are the places to aim for; riverside attractions such as the Copernicus Science Centre and the contemporary art showcase Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw mean there's plenty to do before you get thirsty.
Bird's-eye view of the Vistula river, Warsaw, Poland © itsmejust / Shutterstock
Fish and chips
If you think it's just a British thing, then think again. The Poles are also pretty handy when it comes to battering up a nice piece of Baltic halibut or freshwater zander, and the smażalnia ryb or 'fish-fry joint' is a common fixture in lake resorts and on seaside promenades. The best of these fry-ups enjoy a cult reputation among the locals. Places such as the legendary Bar Przystań in Sopot, or the establishments clustered around the ports of Międzyzdroje, Łeba or Hel, fully deserve a slot on any gourmet tour.
Witkacy, the cult artist
One of the pleasures of roaming Poland's new museums and galleries is in discovering all those avant-gardists, rebels and outsiders who together make the nation's culture so compelling. One painter who pops up almost everywhere is Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz or Witkacy (1885-1939), whose colour-charged, woozy portraits were usually painted while under the influence of alcohol and narcotics – a record of the artist's intake was dutifully scrawled onto a corner of each canvas.
Also an absurdist playwright, unorthodox novelist and social non-conformist, Witkacy is arguably the greatest cult artist Poland has ever produced. Two places in particular make worthy targets of a Witkacy pilgrimage; the Willa Oksza art gallery in Witkacy's home town of Zakopane; and the town museum in Słupsk, which boasts the biggest collection of Witkacy paintings in the country.
The resurrection of the red-brick city
While post-industrial regeneration in northern England or the German Ruhr has been something of a game changer for the tourist industry in Western Europe, similar developments in Poland have gone relatively unreported. The Polish mill town of Łódź possesses one of the finest ensembles of imperious factory architecture anywhere on the continent, much of it repurposed to serve as hotels, shopping districts or cultural quarters.
Over the past ten years the city has transformed itself from a don't visit to a must-visit, with hordes of Polish school kids visiting attractions like the EC1 Planetarium and Science Centre, housed in a former power station. The nation's hipsters meanwhile are making a bee-line for OFF Piotrkowska, a gritty former manufacturing complex now colonised by bars, clubs, design shops and beard-trimming barbers.
EC1 Planetarium and Science Centre, Lodz, Poland © Mariola Anna S / Shutterstock
In many ways the Holocaust is the enduring symbol of the European twentieth century, a period that saw mass killings of innocent civilians on an unprecedented scale. And Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most enduring symbol of the Holocaust – not only because it recorded a higher number of victims, from a wider range of European countries, than any other Nazi killing site; but also because it provides us with the evidence of how the machinery of terror, torture and murder actually worked. Unlike at Treblinka, for example, the Nazis didn't get round to totally destroying the camp before they left, and didn't succeed in murdering all the witnesses – the Auschwitz Museum was set up by camp survivors, and survivor testimony continues to inform its work today.
An estimated 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau: Poles, Roma, Soviet POWS, and above all Jews. Commemorating them all is not just a holiday day-trip option, but also a profound human need.
Auschwitz-Birkenau former concentration camp, Poland © Bussi Adriano / Shutterstock
Top image: Bieszczady mountains, Poland © David Varga / Shutterstock