Explore Poland

Poland Travel Guide

Travellers to Poland will be captivated and moved by its remarkable history of heroic resilience and tragedy, and delight in the charming character of its cities and in the natural beauty of the countryside. From romantic tales of medieval knights, battles, kings and splendid castles, to the horrors and destruction of World War II, from its determined stand against communism to today's modern outlook and booming economy, Poland abounds with evidence of both historical turbulence and a bright future to come.

Poland was the country most devastated by World War II in Eastern Europe, losing about a quarter of its population and almost its entire Jewish community. The aftermath of the war greatly influenced the character of the country. Former Jewish centres in the cities and the stark concentration camps where the Nazis carried out their extermination atrocities remain as the most stirring reminders of the nation's tragedies. Cities destroyed by the war had to be rebuilt from scratch and the many meticulously restored buildings and historic old towns are testimony to the pride and determination of a strong and durable nation.

Warsaw, the capital, was almost totally destroyed by the war and now presents an unusual mix of beautifully restored historic buildings, communist-era concrete structures, and modern fashion and consumerism. The maritime city of Gdañsk, home to the historic garrison at Westerplatte and the legendary Lenin shipyards, was the stage for both the beginning of the Second World War and the disintegration of Eastern European communism. But it is Krakow, the ancient royal capital, that draws the crowds, rivalling the elegance of cities like Prague and Vienna. Having largely escaped the destruction of the war it retains its charming medieval character: the Royal Castle, the grand Market Square, the old Jewish quarter and the nearby Nazi death camps of Auschwitz are all steeped in historical importance.

The unspoilt Baltic coastline and the splendour of the rugged mountain ranges of the Tatras will impress outdoor enthusiasts, with a variety of activities and scenery to provide a peaceful and relaxing break from the intensity of the country's history. Along with the legendary hospitality of Polish people, a sense of nationhood to which the Catholic Church is fundamental, and a strong musical and cultural sense of identity, its tourist infrastructure is flourishing and the country is experiencing a remarkable increase in the number of visitors to its shores.

A passport valid for at least three months after period of intended stay is needed for those who require a visa. Generally, visa exempt nationals must have a passport valid for period of intended stay (other than EEA nationals). The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all.

Old Town (Starego Miasta)

Address: Warsaw

The busy Old Town of Warsaw provides the historic focal point of the city, having been rebuilt in the original 17th and 18th-century style following the almost total destruction of the city during the war. The picturesque Old Market Square (Rynek) is at the centre, surrounded by restored buildings and colourful three-storey merchant houses with Baroque and Renaissance facades, lively open-air restaurants, art stalls and the Historical Museum of Warsaw.

Around the two old central water pumps the atmosphere is a constant buzz of activity with buskers, painters and musicians providing entertainment for the milling crowds, while around the fringes the clattering of hooves signals the arrival of another traditional horse-drawn carriage. Fanning out from the square is a network of cobbled streets and alleyways that contain beautiful Gothic churches and the former palaces of the aristocracy. The impressive Royal Castle was once the home of the Polish Kings and is now a museum displaying tapestries, period furniture, portraits and other decorative items.

The narrow streets also lead to the ramparts and watchtowers of the medieval walls surrounding the old city, providing unforgettable views of the heart of Warsaw. The Old Town is generally, and deservedly, the starting point for sightseeing in Warsaw.

Museum of Warsaw

Address: Rynek Starego Miasta 28-42, 00-272 Warszawa, Poland. Warsaw

Admission: 10am to 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

Telephone: +48 22 596 67 00

The History Museum is one of the best of Warsaw's impressive array of museums. Its three storeys are crammed with fascinating exhibitions, covering every aspect of Warsaw's history and life from the city's establishment to the present day. The museum was founded in 1936 and reopened in 1948 after closing during the war. It now occupies almost an entire side of a square in Old Town, housed in quaint historical buildings and boasting 52 rooms with permanent exhibitions, four with temporary exhibitions, a cinema, a library and a reading room.

One of the highlights is the collection of old photographs, clippings and articles on display from everyday pre-war city life. Another special feature is a documentary film showing the destruction and reconstruction of the city, with footage shot by the Nazis during their calculated and systematic annihilation of Warsaw, and footage of the careful rebuilding after the war. The film is shown in English at 10am and 12pm from Tuesday to Friday, and at 12pm and 2pm on Saturday and Sunday.

The Royal Way

Address: Warsaw

Known as the Royal Way, this two-and-a-half mile (4km) route stretches from the Royal Castle in the Old Town to the stately King's Palace at Wilanów on the outskirts of the city. It is the most important thoroughfare, bisecting the central city from north to south, and is lined with galleries, museums and historical buildings (including St Anne's Church, where the Polish princes used to swear homage to the King).

Along the way are the royal gardens of Park Lazienki, one of the city's most beautiful green spaces with its lakes, peacocks and charming 18th-century Palace Upon the Water, which was the royal summer residence. There is a monument in the garden to the famous Polish composer Frederic Chopin, and outdoor concerts of his classical music are held on the lawns in summer. The Royal Way ends at the splendid Wilanów Palace, the former residence of King Jan III Sobieski, that was modelled on Versailles. It is now a museum containing a marvellous collection of old paintings and furniture.

In the well-kept park behind the palace is the Orangery, housing an art gallery. Guided tours of the lovely gardens and palace museum are available, but it is also possible to explore independently.


Address: Gdansk

Westerplatte, situated at the entrance to the harbour and just a few kilometres from the city of Gdañsk, is where World War II broke out on 1 September 1939. The small Polish garrison heroically held out against the attack for seven days before surrendering to the German forces, and the site is now a memorial to the defenders.

The Germans suffered unexpectedly high losses, especially considering that there were only 180 Polish defenders, who fought knowing that they had no chance of reinforcement or resupply; after seven days they were forced to surrender due to lack of supplies, but the invading forces allowed the surrendering Major to keep his sword in recognition of his bravery. Sights at Westerplatte include a towering memorial, a small museum (often only open in summer), and the ruins of the barracks and guardhouses left from the shelling, which stand dilapidated and rather spooky.

There is a permanent outdoor exhibition detailing the history of the Westerplatte peninsula, which was a popular health resort before the outbreak of the First World War. The military remnants are situated in a picturesque area and the peninsula can be reached by bus, although the scenery is best appreciated on a boat trip or a bike tour.

Malbork Castle

Address: Starościńska 1, 82-200 Malbork, Poland. Gdansk

Admission: 9am to 7pm, Monday to Sunday.

Telephone: +48 55 647 08 00

Malbork Castle is a classic example of a medieval fortress: it is the world's largest brick castle and one of the most impressive in Europe. Invited by the Polish Royalty to help suppress the pagan tribes in the area, the Teutonic Knights built the castle in 1276 and slowly began to establish themselves as fearsome rulers, taking control of most of Poland until, after several attempts to rid the country of the Knights, they were defeated at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.

The medieval belief that the bigger the fortress, the more powerful those within is clearly illustrated by this immense brick stronghold, incorporating a system of multiple defence walls with gates and towers. The interior includes arcaded courtyards, chapels, a treasury, the Knights' Hall and an armoury. The castle houses several exhibitions, including displays on the stronghold's history, and collections of tapestries, coins and medals, medieval sculptures and weapons. During summer the courtyard is used as a venue for sound and light shows.

Guided tours are available and there are audio guides for those who prefer to explore independently, although the number of audio guides is limited.

Main Market Square (Rynek Glówny)

Address: Krakow

Dating from 1257, the Central Market Square was one of the largest squares in Medieval Europe, and remains the social heart of Krakow today. Surrounded by historic buildings, museums and magnificent churches, the impressive expanse of flagstones is a hub of commercial and social activity. Flower sellers, ice-cream vendors, musicians, pigeons, students and groups of tourists fill the square.

Occupying the centre of the square is the splendid medieval Cloth Hall, a covered arcade with a soaring, vaulted interior where merchants once sold their wares. Today, it is filled with lively market stalls. The upstairs art gallery houses a collection of 19th-century Polish paintings and sculptures. Along the outside walls of the building there are elegant terrace cafes. Most famous of these is Noworolski, which was the centre of Krakow social life before the war (Lenin was a notorious regular). The cafe has now regained its reputation as the prime cake and coffee venue in the city.

The most striking church on the square is St Mary's, an impressive twin-spire Gothic structure. Every hour a mournful bugle sounds from the tallest church spire in memory of the lone watchman whose trumpeted warning of an invasion was cut off mid-note by a Turkish arrow in the throat. Within is the famous carved wooden altar, a majestic piece of Gothic art.


Address: Krakow

Overlooking the city of Krakow is Wawel, a hill topped with the fascinating architectural complex that includes Wawel Castle and beside it, the gothic Wawel Cathedral. It was here that all the Polish kings ruling between the 14th and the 17th centuries were crowned and buried, and it lies at the heart of Poland's royal history.

The Renaissance-style Royal Castle is now a museum, and the historic interior houses an astonishing collection of treasures from the Polish monarchy, including tapestries, period furniture and paintings. Visitors can see the Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury, Armoury, and the State Rooms. The Royal Cathedral was the coronation and burial site of all of Poland's monarchs, many of whom are interred in the Royal Tombs. Of the many royal chapels, the golden-domed renaissance Chapel of King Sigismund is the finest. The bell tower can be climbed for views over the city and to see the enormous 11 tonne bell housed within.

There is no joint ticket allowing access to the whole complex on Wawel Hill and tickets must be bought for individual exhibitions and attractions. A number of different guided tours are available - check the official website listed below for details.

Kazimierz District and the Old Synagogue

Address: Szeroka 24, 31-053 Kraków, Poland Krakow

Telephone: +48 12 431 05 45

Once a separate town and now an inner suburb of Krakow, the Kazimierz quarter was the centre of Jewish religion, culture and learning, and the home of the city's large Jewish population before the war. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, with most of the residents either killed or deported to the nearby Holocaust death camps, today it has been rebuilt so visitors can admire the historical architecture and get an experience of what daily Jewish life was once like.

Renewed interest in the district was sparked by Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List which was set in Kazimierz, and the Jewish culture of the area is being enlivened by art galleries, kosher restaurants and numerous cultural events. The Oskar Schindler Factory Museum is itself a popular tourist attraction in Krakow, dedicated to the memory of Schindler and the Jewish workers he managed to save from the death camps; the museum is housed in the actual enamelware factory once owned by Schindler.

The Old Synagogue is part of the Historical Museum of Krakow, and houses a permanent exhibition titled 'Tradition and Culture of Polish Jews', where the collection of physical memories from the Kazimierz Jewish community is kept.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Address: Ul. Danilowicza 10, Wieliczka Krakow

The Salt Mine at Wieliczka is a unique underground complex that has been in continuous use since its construction in the Middle Ages, and is now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monument. The series of labyrinthine tunnels, chambers, galleries and underground lakes are spread over nine levels and reach a depth of more than 1,000ft (304m), but visitors are restricted to a tour of three levels.

Following winding passageways, hand-hewn between the 17th and 19th centuries, visitors are guided to magnificently carved chapels, past salt sculptures created by previous mine workers and through huge crystalline caverns. Among the chambers is the oldest creation in the mine, the 17th-century solid salt Chapel of St Anthony. The highlight of the tour is the Blessed Kinga Chapel, dedicated to the patron saint of Polish mine workers. Everything in this huge, ornate chapel is carved from salt, including the altar and chandeliers, and the walls are covered in beautiful sculptured pictures. A dark, clanking lift whisks visitors back to the surface at the end of the guided tour.

The world's first subterranean therapeutic sanatorium is situated 656ft (200m) below the surface, and makes use of the saline air for the treatment of asthma. There is also a Salt-Works Museum that documents the history of the mine and the local geological formation, with primitive mining tools and machines on display.

Auschwitz Memorial Museum

Address: Więźniów Oświęcimia 20, 32-603 Oświęcim, Poland. Krakow

Admission: 8am to 3pm, Monday to Sunday.

Telephone: +48 33 844 81 00

The Auschwitz concentration camp is actually made up of three camps - Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III. Together the complex forms the largest cemetery in the world, preserved as a sombre memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and commemorating the hundreds of thousands of people exterminated there by the Nazis during the Second World War. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum was established in 1947 and visitors have access to both camps and can wander freely around the structures, ruins and gas chambers, and visit the exhibits displayed in the surviving prison blocks at Auschwitz I.

The hushed atmosphere is one of shock from the moment visitors enter the barbed-wire compound through the iron gate, ironically inscribed with the words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work Makes Free). The buildings contain displays of photographs and horrific piles of personal articles of the victims, including battered suitcases, and thousands of spectacles, hair and shoes collected from the bodies. The experience is vivid and disturbing, though also deeply humanising. There are general exhibitions dedicated to the Jews and their history, as well as an interesting documentary film screened in the museum's cinema.

Birkenau sees far fewer tourists as it has fewer visitor facilities and much of the camp was destroyed by the retreating Nazis, but it is here that the sheer scale of the tragedy can be experienced, with a viewing platform to give some perspective over the vast fenced-in area stretching as far as the eye can see. Birkenau was the principal camp where the extermination of millions took place, a chillingly efficient set-up with rows of barracks and four colossal gas chambers and ovens. Purpose-built railway tracks lead through the huge gateway, terminating in the camp, with which victims were transported from the ghettos to the camp in crowded box-like carts, often being led straight into the gas chambers upon arrival. A trip to the Auschwitz Memorial Museum is a must for any visitor to Poland who wishes to experience some kind of sobering communion with one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world.

Taking a guided tour of the camps is the best way to fully comprehend what you are seeing and a tour takes at least three and a half hours. Visitors should try and book a place on one of the various guided tours at least two weeks before visiting - see the official website below for details.

Galicia Jewish Museum

Address: Dajwór 18, 31-052 Kraków, Poland. Krakow

Admission: 10am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday.

Telephone: +48 12 421 68 42

Situated in the heart of Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, the Galicia Jewish Museum houses a permanent photographic exhibition called "Traces of Memory" which is extremely powerful and interesting. The exhibition documents the history of the Jewish people in the villages and towns of Poland, particularly documenting the Holocaust; Poland lost almost a quarter of its population in World War II, and the Jewish community was decimated.

This poignant museum also hosts plenty of temporary exhibitions, a range of special events, lectures and Jewish music concerts and has a well-stocked bookshop. The museum is a registered charity in Poland and the UK and aims to discourage negative stereotypes and misconceptions about the Jews in Poland and educate the public about Jewish history and heritage. The museum is housed in a wonderful building that is an attraction in itself and the exhibitions are very well organised and presented.

The Galicia Jewish Museum is often overlooked as a tourist attraction in Krakow, but is a worthwhile experience for people from all walks of life. Budget at least three hours to fully absorb the experience. Guided tours are available and there is a charming little cafe for refreshments.

Polish Poster Gallery

Address: Hoża 40, 00-001 Warszawa, Poland Warsaw

Admission: 11am to 6pm (Monday to Friday); 10am to 3pm on Saturdays.

The Galeria Grafiki i Plakatu (Polish Poster Gallery), located in the splendid Old Town area of Warsaw, houses what is undoubtedly the finest collection of graphic art and posters in the country - and perhaps even in Eastern Europe. The Polish Poster Gallery was established in 1975, and now proudly exhibits over 5,000 posters and pieces of graphic art, many of which display some facet of Polish culture.

Visitors will see theatre, music and cinema posters as well as the pick of the lot, fantastic Polish Solidarity political posters, designed by greats such as Cieslewicz, Stasys, Gorowski and Sadowski. Although most of the art is Polish, the gallery also displays some iconic American, British, French, and German posters, among other nationalities, and tourists may be excited to see classics like West Side Story, Moby Dick or the original Polish poster for Dirty Dancing among the collection.

The posters have an iconic style and will delight graphic art fiends; the collection is also an interesting way to get to grips with Polish culture. Thankfully, as visitors tend to fall in love with some of the art, the museum has a great selection of prints for sale (about 2,000 different designs), and these make for fantastic souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home.

Piwnica pod Baranami

Address: Main Market Square, Krakow. Krakow

A visit to the Piwnica pod Baranami ('Cellar Under the Rams') - a Parisian-style cabaret house located in Krakow's Old Town district - is probably the shortest route tourists can take to experiencing the culture of the city, and to gaining an appreciation for its most strongly-held values and ideals.

The Piwnica pod Baranami was created by Piotr Skrzynecki in 1956, in a suitably bohemian underground cellar, and soon became a haven for local artists and intellectuals; a place for them to meet, exchange ideas, and indulge in one of Poland's favourite cultural pastimes, the political cabaret. The cabaret's reputation grew throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, and soon became a symbol for the eccentricity (and indeed, the stifled talent) of the local artists of the area. The Piwnica pod Baranami still functions as a cabaret house to this day: performances are on Saturdays at 9pm and remain extremely popular, so book your ticket early.

This is a highly recommended tourist activity in Poland, and a great place to begin an unforgettable Saturday night out on the town in Krakow. The cellar sometimes closes for a summer break in July - check the official website listed below for more details.

Bieszczady Mountains

Address: Krakow

While most tourists to Poland stick to the cities and content themselves with the wonderful cultural experiences in the old towns of Warsaw and Krakow, a trip into the Polish countryside - and particularly, the southern Bieszczady Mountains - is a very rewarding enterprise. Bieszczady is a mountain range that runs through the extreme southeast of Poland, near the borders with Ukraine and Slovakia.

A land of snow-capped peaks, tall pine trees, vast green meadows and a rich array of native flora and fauna, the Bieszczady area is not only gorgeous, but offers plenty of well-maintained hiking and mountain biking trails, many of them wending their way through the UNESCO East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve. Animal lovers should look out for the lynxes, bears and wolves that can be found in the mountains.

Apart from all this natural bounty, the Polish countryside is known for its human inhabitants: the internet is awash with tourist tales of being invited to share trout barbecues with friendly local families, of stumbling across eccentric villages and towns, and of snapping photograph after photograph of rural houses that look like they have been lifted straight out of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Bialowieza National Park

Address: Warsaw

Bialowieza National Park, located on the border between Poland and Belarus, is a heavily protected area that guards the last remnants of the primaeval forest that used to cover most of Europe at the time of the last ice age. This ancient woodland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an absolutely enthralling place to visit. Visitors can take a guided tour of the forest, and experience the ancient mysticism of this part of the world.

An additional bonus is that the Bialowieza National Park is also the last place on earth that tourists can see European bison, huge beasts that once roamed across the continent, living undisturbed in their natural habitats. An ecotourism destination of international repute, the nearby town of Bialowieza has begun to cash in on the popularity of the National Park, with numerous luxury spa resorts offering high-class treatments and supremely comfortable lodgings. Bialowieza National Park is a short train ride from Warsaw (two and a half hours) making it possible to visit the park on a daytrip, but it is best to spend at least one night in the area if possible.


Address: Gdansk

Although the idea of a beach holiday in Poland might seem about as plausible as a ski trip in the Netherlands, the wonderful town of Sopot is sure to confound these preconceptions. Although still very much a well-kept secret on the mainstream tourist scene, northern European travellers have been flocking to Sopot for many years to experience its gorgeous sandy beaches on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

Primarily a beach resort and health spa town, Sopot buzzes every summer with the throng of relaxed, happy visitors on its famous wooden pier (the longest in Europe), enjoying the long sunny days and the numerous restaurants, bars and shops on offer. There are a few other tourist attractions in the town, like a museum and a water park, but the beachfront is the unchallenged highlight. Sopot's relative obscurity means that it is a far cheaper option than other more established European beach holiday destinations, making it the perfect place for budget travellers and backpackers.

Sopot boasts a vibrant nightlife, and even hosts the annual Sopot International Song Contest, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe.

There are few health risks associated with travel to Poland. Those visiting forested areas are advised to seek medical advice about inoculations for tick borne encephalitis, and take tick bite prevention measures due to the presence of Lyme disease. Vaccinations may be recommended for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid, although those eating only in restaurants and hotels can safely disregard the typhoid vaccination.

Poland has a reciprocal health agreement with the UK and most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to low-cost emergency medical treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), but full health insurance cover is still advised. Medical facilities and standards of health care are good, but not many nurses or doctors speak English. If you take prescription medication along, be sure to bring a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what it is and why it is needed.

Family is incredibly important and Polish people may often rely very heavily on their close-knit inner circles - as a result, outsiders may often be treated at first with caution. Jay-walking is an offence in Poland, and is punishable with a fine. Public drunkenness is frowned upon: police will take drunk people to drying out clinics until sober and the person will be charged for the stay.

Tipping is expected in restaurants in Poland and 15 percent is the standard for good service. In restaurants, when your bill is collected, saying 'thank you' signals to the waiter/waitress that they can keep the change. Tipping is not the norm in hotels across Poland, but taxis, tours and spas generally expect no less than 10 percent tip for good service.

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