Towering mountain ranges, buzzing party precincts, heart-stirring memorials and vodka … sounds like your type of holiday? Then head to Poland. From its turmoil-speckled history, to its present-day urban surprises, this country offers a rich tapestry of visual and experiential delights.
If you’re the outdoors type
If you’re partial to a spot of sailing (ahoy there), the Masurian Lake District, in the northeast of the country, is a vast expanse of over 1000 interlaced watery spots perfect for angling and boating (outside of winter of course – hello, minus degree temperatures!). Popular walking trails traverse the edge of several of these and local towns like Giżycko and Mikołajki will expose the sailor in the most eloquent of travellers, with their annual sea-shanty festivals.
Far south, adventurers should make a beeline for the Carpathians, a narrow range of 2,500-odd metre high mountains that run the length of the Polish border from Germany to the Ukraine and mad hikers should head south-west to Bieszczady National Park, which contains Europe’s largest patch of old growth forest (some trees are up to 500 years old). Nature fiends will also love this area, with wildcat, lynx and wolf to be seen and over 100 brown bears hopefully not to be seen. You might also catch a glimpse of the European bison, one of the country’s national animals that has been re-introduced to the wild here.
Mountain biking abounds in the south-west’s Karkonosze range, while Zakopane, south of Kraków is considered best for skiing. It’s ‘gingerbread houses’, highlander-dressed locals and horse-drawn sleighs are a delight too.
The Tatra mountain range on the border between Slovakia and Poland is also spectacular with its myriad of craggy peaks, lush forests and emerald-green lakes – Morskie Oko is particularly beautiful.
If you’re a history buff
Holocaust victims are hauntingly remembered at the remnants of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, now a memorial in the town of Oświęcim.
Graphically illustrating one of the history’s darkest periods (over a million people perished here over a four-year period), much of the camp has been preserved. The shoe display is also particularly moving.
An unusual but no less intriguing touristy spot is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a 300 kilometre expanse of snaking shafts and tunnels littered with statues literally hewn out of the salt by the miners-of-the-past. These UNESCO-listed digs, built in the 13th century, were in continuous operation until the mine’s closure in 2007. Visitors can catch a teensy elevator down into the depths to explore the underground ‘buildings’, which include a whole cathedral carved out of solid rock.
If you’re a city person
One of the happy exceptions to the country’s wartime construction, Kraków emerged relatively unscathed from the devastation during the Second World War. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, be sure to visit the glorious town square, stroll through Cloth Hall for a few souvenirs and then head to St Mary’s Church to admire the Gothic altarpiece (the largest in the world) and hear the lone bugler share his haunting tune at the top of the hour.
Slightly less lucky in the war-torn department, Warsaw is still worth a look, particularly the Old Town, which has been masterfully reconstructed from the original plans and the unforgettable city views from the observation deck at the top of the Palace of Culture and Science.
North of the capital, you’ll find the medieval walled town of Toruń, a well-preserved Gothic treasure that’s the birthplace of the astronomer, Copernicus, and more importantly, the iconic gingerbread that’s adored throughout Poland. Gdansk is also worth a look for its seaport vistas and Wroclaw to the west for its myriad of canals and ancient bridges.
If you’re a museum lover
Museums (particularly the high-tech variety) are all the rage in Poland, but quite possibly the best you’ll come across are in the country’s capital. Featuring testimonials, artefacts and whizz-bang audio, video and lighting displays, the Warsaw Rising Museum offers an engrossing account of Poland’s active participation in the resistance against the occupying Germans in World War II.
And for a more in depth (and moving) look at the 1000-year history of the Jews in Poland, head for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is located on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto.
If you’re descended from royalty
First off the selfie-taking list is Wawel Castle in Krakow. This baby is one of the most culturally and historically important sites in the country. The former residence of a number of former Polish kings, it is now also one of the country’s premier art museums, featuring Italian Renaissance paintings, sculptures, porcelain, tapestries and the odd bit of period furniture.
Malbork Castle (located waaaay up North) comes a close second, primarily because of its resume listing as the largest brick castle in the world (by surface area). It’s a classic example of a medieval fortress (cue faux sword fight with your travelling buddy) and has been a World Heritage site since 1997.
If you’re a foodie
Ask a Pole for their dietary staples and they’ll probably say, “bread and sausages”. Yep, forget counting kilojoules here. Typical meals are hearty and meat-laden and include pierogi (a savoury-filled dumpling) and bigos (a ‘hunter stew’ made from sauerkraut and chunks of various animals). And dessert-wise, gear up the digestive tract with a serve of Sernik (a deliciously fatty cheesecake) or a stack of Pączki’s (doughnuts!).
The beverage of choice? Vodka, of course. The Poles love it and drink the top-shelf stuff like Wyborowa icy and neat. They also love mixing it up with flavoured concoctions like Wiśniówka (cherry flavoured), Żołądkowa Gorzka (spiced with nutmeg) and the trippy Białowieża, which is flavoured with bison grass.
If you’re a partyer
Suffice to say (and judging by the vodka-o-metre) Poles love to party. Warsaw and Poznań are worth stalking, however hands down Kraków’s Kazimierz district is the buzziest, with some of the highest numbers of bars here per capita of any city in the world.
From flash clubs and edgy jazz spots to tiny hole-in-the-wall watering holes, this area swarms with a massive student population, thus ensuring an ‘authentic’ bar experience, or as the locals would refer to it, ‘one long pub crawl’.
Bawić się! (that’s Polish for ”party on”, people).