Of all Europe’s countries, Poland is the one that has changed the most in recent decades. All of its major cities have been through a process of major reinvention, opening flashy new museums, laying out new parks and brushing up their heritage with a spate of renovation. There’s an awful lot of wild nature, too. Discover Polish mountain ranges and what cities to see with our pick of the best things to do in Poland.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Poland, your essential guide for visiting Poland.
One of the best things to do in Poland is to discover this elegant gem of a city, with gorgeous architecture unspoilt by tourist hordes. Poland has changed more than almost any other European country in the last ten years. The Lower Silesian capital Wrocław (pronounced “Vrots-waff”) is one of its most transformed cities, a go-ahead place with a huge student population and a burgeoning arts scene.
Wrocław brings together pretty much everything that’s good about contemporary Poland: a thoroughly modernized cross-section of attractions, a sack full of historical influences and an increasingly varied dining and nightlife scene.
For more ideas for your visit to Wrocław, read our guide to 6 reasons why Wrocław is Poland’s best weekend break.
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South of Wawel Hill in Cracow lies the suburb of Kazimierz, originally a distinct town named in honour of King Kazimierz, who founded the settlement in 1335. In tandem with Warsaw, where a ghetto was created around the same time, Kazimierz grew to become one of the main cultural centres of Polish Jewry.
The prewar soul of the area was to perish in the gas chambers of Bełżec, but many of the buildings, synagogues included, have survived. The past two decades have seen a revival of activity in Kazimierz. Long-neglected buildings have been renovated, and the area has seen a marked increase in visitors – in part due to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List, much of which was filmed in and around Kazimierz.
The compact grid of medieval streets that makes up Cracow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) is centred on the set-piece square of Rynek Główny, ringed by magnificent houses and towering spires. Long the social hub of the city, it’s an immediate introduction to Cracow’s grandeur, and the stately network of passageways and Italianate courtyards leading off the square is riddled with shops, cafés and bars.
Dominating Rynek Główny from its central position, the medieval Sukiennice is one of the most distinctive sights in the country – a vast cloth hall built in the fourteenth century and remodelled in the 1550s. Then a roof-level parade of gargoyles was added by Florentine stonemason Santi Gucci.
Poland was the first country that Hitler invaded and with it starting World War II. Connect to history by visiting the Polish sites of World War II. This tailor-made tour to the Liberation Route in Poland, from the Northern city of Gdansk where the first battle took place to the concentration camps of Auschwitz close to Cracow.
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Even by Polish standards, the northern Tri-City (Trójmiasto) – visitning Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia – is one of the best things to do in Poland. Rather than lingering on the past, the region is thundering forward. Two decades of economic boom have ensured rising living standards, improved transport links and a rocketing tourist industry.
Historical heritage remains well to the fore. Gdańsk, carefully reconstructed after World War II devastation, is filled with red-brick monuments to its medieval mercantile heyday. Nearby Sopot, with its golden beach, has been a tourist magnet for generations. The industrial port city of Gdynia only appeared on the map in the 1920s, and remains something of an architectural monument to the robustly modernist interwar years.
Discover some off the radar beach destinations with our guide to the 10 best Baltic beach resorts.
If you are a party lover, enjoying the nightlife in Warsaw should be on your list of things to do in Poland. Live it up among the glass skyscrapers and abandoned factories of the country’s dynamic capital. With a history writ large with destruction and regeneration, Poland’s two million-strong capital Warsaw (Warszawa) is one of the great shape-shifters of the European continent.
Razed by the Germans in 1944 and given a Stalinist architectural makeover in the 1950s, it became a byword for concrete brutalism in the decades that followed. Currently reaffirming itself as a muscular regional centre of business and finance, Warsaw is going through a metamorphosis as far-reaching as those of the past.
Bold contemporary buildings, state-of-the-art museums, destination restaurants and bar-filled bohemian quarters are the new landmarks of a restless metropolis. The idea of Warsaw as a grim East European city is nowadays the most dated travel cliché of them all.
The term Old Town (Stare Miasto) is in some respects a misnomer for the historic nucleus of Warsaw. Sixty years ago, this compact network of streets and alleyways lay in rubble – even the cobblestones are replacements. Yet surveying the tiered houses of the main square, for example, it’s hard to believe they’ve been here only decades.
Castle Square (Plac Zamkowy), on the south side of the Old Town, is the obvious place to start a tour. Here the first thing to catch your eye is the bronze statue of Sigismund III, the king who made Warsaw his capital. Installed on his column in 1640, Sigismund suffered a direct hit from a tank in September 1944, but has now been replaced on his lookout; the base is a popular and convenient rendezvous point.
The compact Old Town Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) is one of the most remarkable examples of postwar reconstruction in Europe. Flattened during the Warsaw Uprising, the three-storey merchants’ houses surrounding the square have been scrupulously rebuilt to their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century designs.
Strolling through the former royal parks south of the centre ia one of Warsaw’s is one of the best things to do in Poland. Half a kilometre south of the National Museum, the park surrounding Ujazdowski Castle adjoins the luxuriant public gardens that makeup Łazienki Park.
Arguably Warsaw’s most luxuriant public space, Łazienki Park (Park Łazienkowski) stretches for 2km alongside the southbound aleja Ujazdowskie. Designed for the king by the Italian architect Domenico Merlini, it’s a fitting memorial to the country’s last and most cultured monarch.
The oak-lined promenades and pathways leading from the park entrance to the palace are a favourite with tourists and Varsovians. Many of the latter come prepared to feed the park’s resident fauna, which includes peacocks, squirrels and mandarin ducks. On summer Sundays, concerts take place under the watchful eye of the ponderous Chopin Monument, as well as in the Cadet School by the Island Palace.
Opened on April 20, 2013, the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews is the kind of museum that gets you excited as soon as you see it looming up in front of you. Designed by Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, the building takes the fittingly dramatic form of a four-storey cube rent down the middle by a huge, cave-like fissure.
Inside, slogan-like captions fill entire walls, models and reproductions bring past epochs to life. Full use is made of reproduction posters, photographs and newsreel clips as the story of Poland’s Jews enters the twentieth century. By focusing on the Jewish presence in Poland the museum functions as an all-embracing panorama of Polish history.
For more accommodation options, explore our guide to the best places to stay in Warsaw.
Hike among jagged alpine peaks, swim in crystal-clear lakes and enjoy the unique mountain culture. The Tatra National Park (Tatrzański park narodowy) begins right outside Zakopane’s southern outskirts, where the wooded flanks of the Tatra Mountains rise dramatically above rustic suburban houses.
They are as beautiful as any mountain landscape in northern Europe, the ascents taking you on boulder-strewn paths alongside woods and streams up to the ridges where grand, windswept peaks rise in the brilliant alpine sunshine.
Though many of the peak and ridge climbs are for experienced climbers only, much is accessible to regular walkers and all paths are well-marked. It is as well to remember that the Tatras are an alpine range and as such demand some respect and preparation.
The most notorious extermination camp of them all – few leave unchanged by the experience. Seventy kilometres west of Craców, Oświęcim is notorious throughout the world for being the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi prison, labour camp and extermination site.
As many as 200,000 people passed through some part of the Auschwitz camp system and survived, however, providing a hugely important body of testimony on how the Nazi incarceration and extermination systems actually worked. Indeed the museum at the site was largely founded by former inmates – which helps to explain why Auschwitz is such a symbolic witness to history today.
Of all the museums you are ever likely to visit in your life, this is arguably the most profound.
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This is one of the hugely popular things to do in Poland in summer, head to the east of the region for true beauty and solitude. East of Olsztyn, the central Mazurian Lakeland opens out amid thickening forests.
The biggest lakes – Mamry and Śniardwy – are real crowd-pullers, which brings advantages and disadvantages. Tourist facilities are fairly well developed, but accommodation can be hard to find on summer weekends.
Mikołajki is the most pleasant and most attractively located of the major-league lakeside resorts. Giżycko, perched on the rim of Lake Mamry to the north, is the best base for public transport and lake cruises. However, it is outdone by neighbouring Wilkasy when it comes to sheer lakeside charm. Ruciane-Nida provides access to the lakes and waterways of southern Mazuria, and has a pleasantly laid-back feel.
Thanks to its position on the Berlin–Warsaw rail line, Poznań is many visitors’ first taste of Poland. In many ways, it’s the ideal introduction, as no other city is more closely identified with Polish nationhood. Posnania elegans Poloniae civitas (“Poznań, a beautiful city in Poland”), has been adopted as a local catchphrase to highlight the city’s unswerving loyalty to the national cause over the centuries.
Nowadays, it’s a place of great diversity, encompassing an animated centre focused on one of Europe’s finest squares; a tranquil cathedral quarter; and a dynamic business district whose trade fairs are the most important in the country. Poznań may be a big city, but most of its primary attractions are grouped in a central core.
A number of fine museums and a wealth of nightlife opportunities ensure that a few days are well spent here.
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Birthplace of Copernicus and famous for gingerbread, Toruń is a medieval university town with easy-going charm. Poles are apt to wax lyrical on the glories of their historical cities, and with Toruń the praise is more than justified.
This lively, prosperous university city was the birthplace of the Renaissance man Nicolaus Copernicus. His house still stands today, and its historic centre remains one of the country’s most evocative, bringing together a rich assembly of architectural styles.
Halfway down ulica Kopernika you’ll find the Copernicus House (Dom Kopernika), the high brick house where the great man was most probably born. Restored to something resembling its original layout, this Gothic mansion contains a studiously assembled collection of Copernicus artefacts.
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Fifteen kilometres southeast of Cracow is the UNESCO-listed salt mine at Wieliczka, a unique phenomenon described by one eighteenth-century visitor as being “as remarkable as the Pyramids and more useful”. Salt deposits were discovered here as far back as the eleventh century. During World War II, the Germans manufactured aircraft parts in Wieliczka’s subterranean chambers, using Poles and Jews as slave labour.
Active mining ceased in 1997, although salt is still extracted from water seepages and much of the salt sold in Poland still comes from here. Profitability as a tourist attraction ensures that the mine remains a major employer: indeed, its popularity is such that you should be prepared for big crowds in summer.
West of Łeba stretches Lake Łebsko, the largest of several lagoons that form the centre of Słowiński National Park – one of the country’s most memorable natural attractions, included in UNESCO’s list of world Biosphere Reserves. The park gets its name from the Slovincians, a small ethnic group of Slav origin who, like the Kashubians, retained a distinctive identity despite centuries of German influence.
The eastern entrance to the park is at Rąbka, a small cluster of houses and snack bars on the shores of Lake Łebsko, 1.5km west of Łeba. To get there on foot from Łeba, head down ulica Turystyczna and take the signed left turn about 400m beyond the canal. From here, it’s a 1.5km walk through the birch trees. The pathway to the dunes begins on Rąbka’s western edge.
Few towns make as dramatic an immediate impression as Malbork, with the luminous redbrick turrets of its massive castle reflected in the River Nogat as you arrive from the north. It long served as the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, who established themselves here in the late thirteenth century, and proceeded to turn a modest fortress into the labyrinthine monster you see today.
The approach to the main body of Malbork Castle (Zamek w Malborku) is through the old outer castle, which wasn’t rebuilt after World War II. When you’ve finished looking around inside, head over the footbridge to the other side of the River Nogat. Here the view allows you to appreciate what a Babylonian project the fortress must have seemed to medieval visitors.
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Top image: Wroclaw, Poland © Velishchuk Yevhen/Shutterstock