Poland was the perfect place to start the European leg of our around the world journey. The late September weather was ideal with temperature in the mid-seventies and clear blue skies, perfect for long walks around the city and great photos.
In the week we were there, we split our time between the two largest cities, Warsaw and Krakow. Warsaw was full of history and great food and we wish we had stayed longer. However, as soon as I walked through the city gates of Krakow I fell in love.
Krakow is now my favorite city in Europe.
Standing in the main squares of Krakow and Warsaw made me really happy to be back in Europe. The cities are picturesque, charming and welcoming. In both Krakow and Warsaw, we stayed outside of the tourist areas and were still able to walk to the main attractions. Best of all, the crowds were sparse compared to what we encountered in other Central European capitals.
As Europe goes, Poland is still relatively off the radar but I’d highly recommend a visit. Prices are cheap, food is delicious and there are plenty of things to see and do. Below are ten recommendations we have for a trip to Poland.
1. Watch a Dragon Breathe Fire in Krakow
If you are a Dragonista than Wawel Castle in Krakow is the place for you. Here you can see dragon bones hanging from a chain at the entrance to the cathedral. They have been hanging since medieval time and it is believed the world will come to an end if they fall to the ground. No pressure!
The Wawal Dragon is well known in Polish folklore and visitors can pay to step inside the slain dragon’s den located on the grounds of the castle.
Just outside the walls of the castle stands this dragon sculpture that lights up the sky every three minutes with a short fiery breath.
2. See the Mermaid That Protects Warsaw
The Warsaw coat of arms has featured a mermaid in one form or another since the 15th century. There are a few different versions of the legendary tale, but the moral of each is that the mermaid is sworn to defend the city and this is why she is seen armed with a sword and a shield.
3. Learn About the Warsaw Uprising
Approximately 80-90 percent of the city of Warsaw was decimated by Nazi forces in World War II. This was a brutal Nazi punishment that came as a result of the Warsaw Uprising that took place over two months in 1944.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum gave us a detailed account of the parties involved including the Home Army and little insurgents like ‘Banana’ who bravely acted as child mail carriers to keep the lines of communication open. The museum opened in 2004 and the audio guide and exhibits are very well crafted and emotionally touching.
4. Eat a Plethora of Pierogies
My favorite food in the world is pierogies. Sadly, they are one of the foods that I can’t get away from home…until now! I fell short of my goal of eating pierogies every day we were in Poland but I did have a good variety. I tried strawberry and chocolate, smoked cheese, cheese and potato, spinach, meat, and mushroom and sauerkraut. No visit to Poland would be complete without sampling the best-known dish. Try these and more to find your personal favorite.
If you go: Chata restaurant in Krakow has great food served in what looks to be a rustic mountain cottage. Walls are lined with timber logs and bench seats are covered with animal furs. We enjoyed it so much we ate there twice in four days.
5. Be Transported Back in Time Underneath the Krakow Cloth Hall
The Cloth Hall is the centerpiece of the Krakow Old Square and dates back to the 13th century. Visitors can step back in time at the Rynek Museum located underneath the Cloth Hall. Much was discovered about Krakow’s history after extensive archeological excavation of the Old Square, which started in 2005.
The Rynek Museum, which opened in 2010, showcases artifacts that consist of centuries-old tools, jewelry, shoes, pottery, and coins. We took a guided tour and learned about the ancient medieval trading routes and the value of salt which was the best currency. We saw the burned foundations of 12th and 13th-century cottages destroyed during a Tartar raid, saw the stone separation of market stalls and reconstruction of 11th-century burials. Visual displays helped to envision a busy market setting and villagers.
If you go: A guided tour is highly recommended to explain the exhibits which could look underwhelming without the detailed historical significance and explanations. Krakow Free Walking Tour offers a tour a few times a week for 30 PLN + entrance ticket.
6. Get Acquainted With Four Famous Poles
Chances are you won’t leave Poland without hearing about its four most famous residents:
- Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
Mathematician and Astronomer who theorized that the Earth revolves around the sun. Visit the Copernicus Monument in Warsaw or see his likeness carved in salt at the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
- Fredric Chopin (1810-1849)
One of the greatest composers and pianists to have ever lived. In Warsaw, the airport is named after him and fifteen benches around the city play 30 seconds of Chopin melodies. Though he is buried in Paris, his heart remains in his birthplace of Poland, at Holy Cross Church to be exact.
- Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Physicist and Chemist whose pioneering work on radioactivity lead to the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the first person and only woman to win two. She named the first chemical element that she discovered polonium after her native country, Poland. Visit the Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum in Warsaw housed in the apartment building where she was born to learn more about her life and works.
- Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)
The first non-Italian pope elected since 1522 and is recognized as helping to end Communism in Poland and the rest of Europe. The Bishops Palace in Krakow was residence to the pope when he served as Cardinal for 20 years. See his picture in the window from where he would stand and address his devout followers who welcomed him home during his visits as pope.
7. Visit Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
The story of the factory was made famous by Schindler’s List which won seven Academy Awards. A visit to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory showed us what it was like to live in Krakow during World War II. The films showed past employees, both Jews and Poles, giving testimony of working at the factory during Nazi occupation. There were many exhibits showing slices of daily life like credential cards and propaganda posters.
If you go: Mondays are free! Prepare to wait in line at the entrance where you will enter in small groups. Don’t miss the film located just off the first room which is a first-hand testimonial from workers.
8. See a Chapel Carved Entirely From Salt
If visiting a 12th-century salt mine with two subterranean lakes, chapels, chandeliers and statues carved in rock salt sounds interesting, then pencil in half a day to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Over the centuries 300km of tunnels have been carved over nine stories underground. A guided tour will take you through chamber after chamber of impressive carvings and towering cathedral ceilings which drip with spaghetti thin stalactites and cauliflower lumps. The brave and daring can even lick the walls! We were very impressed with the size and sights of this unique site.
If you go: The guided tours start about every half hour and last about 2 hours. Getting there from the city is easily done by public transport. Buy a ticket at the tram station and ask a fellow passenger for help if you can’t make sense of the Polish ticket machine. You can buy a return ticket on the bus but will need coins. Take the 304 bus located on Kurniki, near the main train station. Get off at Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli, when returning the bus stop will be across the street to the left.
9. Learn From the Past at Auschwitz/Birkenau
As much as you may have seen, read or learned about the holocaust you will not believe the scale of terror, torture, and cruelty until you visit Auschwitz/Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp in person.
I am of the belief that everyone of mature age who can visit should visit to learn from the past and grasp the scale of horror born of hate. The visit is solemn and a three hour guided tour spitfires mind-numbing facts. These facts could be quickly forgotten had they not been paired with the indelible images and displays that will leave you shaking your head long after you are gone.
If you go: Visitors should register well in advance for a tour in their language. A three hour guided tour visits both Auschwitz and Birkenau camps and costs 45PLN ($12 USD). If you wish you may visit for free in the early and late hours of the museum opening. The site can be easily reached by bus from the main station in Krakow. Look for the bus to Oświęcim which will take about an hour and a half a drop and depart from the main entrance of the museum.
10. Try the Vodka
Poles love their wodka, or vodka as we say in the US. Belvedere and Chopin are considered top shelf, while Żubrówka, bison vodka, has a long blade of grass in the bottle.
Find a bottle that suits your budget and raise your glass and say, “Na zdrowie!” (nah zdroh-vee-eh), which means, for health.
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