Sharing its borders with seven countries, Poland is a large country situated in Central Europe with a population of approximately 38.5 million, making it the sixth most populous country within the European Union. Due to its size, it has varied geographical features as well as a mixture of large and small cities and towns, all of which receive plenty of tourists throughout the year.
Geography of Poland
The most northern part of the country shares a coastline with the Baltic sea, stretching for over 500 kilometers from the Bay of Pomerania to the Gulf of Gdansk. Sand dunes can be found in Słowiński National Park, situated between Łeba and Rowy.
Poland has four lake districts. The largest of these is the Masurian lake district in the north-east, which covers an area of around 52,000 square kilometers, consisting of more than 2,000 lakes. The other lake districts are the Kashubian lake district, the Greater Poland lake district, and the Pomeranian lake district.
A mountainous region covers part of the south of the country, consisting of various ranges, such as the Carpathian mountains – including the Beskides and the Tatra – the Sudetes, and the Kraków-Częstochowa uplands.
Poland is the fourth most forested country in Europe and also has one of the continent’s last remaining primeval forests; these forested areas cover around 30% of the country’s land. They are home to wildlife not commonly found in other parts of Europe, such as the brown bear in Białowieża, and the grey wolf and Eurasian lynx, both found in various forests across the country.
Major Cities in Poland
Warsaw is Poland’s capital and largest city, the only one in the country to be populated by over one million. Once known as the Paris of the East, up to 90% of the city was destroyed during World War II and it has since gained the title of Phoenix City due to its reconstruction and long history.
The original Old Town was established in the 13th century and it remains the oldest part of the city, despite having been mostly destroyed by 1944. After the war, it was meticulously rebuilt using a lot of the original bricks in order to make it as authentic as possible, although some license was taken to improve upon some buildings. The Old Town comprises three squares – the Old Town market square, the Castle Square, and Canon Square. The Old Town market square is the original center of the city. The Castle square is situated between the Old Town market square and the Royal Castle and is dominated by the impressive Zygmunt’s Column; this square is also home to the Museum of Warsaw. Canon square – named after the canons of the Warsaw chapter who resided in the 17th-century tenement houses there – is a small square located behind St John’s Cathedral and contains the thinnest house in Warsaw.
Other sights in Warsaw include: the New Town, built in the 15th century and, like the Old Town, needing to be reconstructed after the Second World War; the Royal Castle; the palaces of Wilanów and Łazienki; and the Soviet Union-gifted Palace of Culture and Science.
Warsaw may not be as attractive as some of Poland’s other cities but it is well-renowned for its cultural and dining scenes, with a wide array of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and museums.
Kraków is the country’s second city and the most popular in terms of tourism. Its biggest draw is its magnificent main square, one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. Dating back to the 13th century, the center of the square is dominated by the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall, once an important trading center. Other landmarks include the town hall tower (the town hall itself has not survived), St Mary’s Basilica, the church of St Adalbert, and the monument of esteemed Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Surrounding the square are traditional kamienice – townhouses – and basements, the most famous of these being Piwnica pod Baranami.
Kraków has a multitude of attractions to enjoy. A short walk from the main square is Wawel Castle, home of Poland’s monarchic dynasties over the centuries and now a premier art museum. A further short distance away is the district of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter which now acts as an important cultural center for the city. Located in Podgórze is Schindler’s Factor, made famous by the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Home to Poland’s film industry, Łódź is the country’s third largest city and a former industrial center, which is evident in the architecture around the town. The city’s focal point is Piotrkowska Street, running for nearly five kilometers between Independence Square and Liberty Square. The street was the initial beginning of Łódź, with the rest of the city springing up around it and moving outwards. Historically, Piotrkowska functioned the same as the main square would in other cities, and still pretty much functions, in the same way, today, being the home of a number of bars, restaurants, retail buildings, and administrative offices, as well as being the location of many of the city’s festivals, events, and marches. An alternative dining and shopping experience can be found at OFF Piotrkowska in the former Ramisch factory. Along the street, you will also find the Łódź Walk of Fame, featuring the greats of Polish cinema.
Other highlights in Łódź include: the Jewish cemetery, home to the largest Jewish grave monument in the world, that of Izrael Poznański, an important textile magnate in the 19th century; Manufaktura, a unique shopping center located in some of the city’s old factory buildings; and Poznański Palace.
Other Major Polish Cities
Other major tourist centers in Poland include: the Tri-City of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot; Poznań; Wrocław; Katowice; and Lublin.
The Tri-City of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot lies in the north-west of the country. Gdańsk is the most famous of the three and attracts many visitors due to its well-preserved Old Town. Its main attractions can be found in the city’s central district, such as Long Lane, Long Market, the Neptune Fountain, and the Żuraw crane, one of the best intact in Europe. Gdynia is a more modern city so you will not find as many historic buildings. However, there are quite a few interesting museums related to the city’s life as a port town. It also hosts an extremely popular music festival every year, the Heineken Open’er Festival. Sopot is a very popular seaside resort, with the longest wooden pier in Europe. Aside from relaxing on the beach, the Crooked House on Bohaterów Monte Cassino Street is a must-see.
Situated in western Poland, Poznań is a vibrant university town and one of the most beautiful. Like most Polish cities, its focal point is the Old Town square which, like Warsaw’s, was lovingly restored after the Second World War. At the center of the square is the Town Hall, where at midday every day, two mechanical goats appear out of the roof of the building to rut heads with each other. Also worth visiting is Cathedral Island, the point where it is said that the city was founded and which is now home to a permanent population of clergymen. As well as St Peter’s and Paul’s Cathedral, here you can find the Archbishop’s palace and other religious buildings.
Coming to the rest of Europe’s attention during the UEFA Euro 2012, Wrocław is the largest city in Silesia. One activity which draws tourists to Wrocław is ‘dwarf hunting’: dotted around the city are small bronze dwarves; it is said that there are around 350 of them. There are a map and a mobile app for those who wish to try and find them all. Other highlights include the Town Hall with its astronomical clock, Centennial Hall, and Wrocław Fountain.
Often overshadowed by its near neighbor Kraków, Katowice is worth visiting in its own right, especially if you are looking for somewhere to party the night away. Mariacka Street has the highest concentration of drinking establishments in the city and it is a great place to while away a summer evening.
Located in eastern Poland, the city of Lublin is somewhat architecturally different from the rest of the country. While parts of the old town, such as Kraków Gate, resemble the architecture of other Polish cities, other sights, like Lublin Castle have more of a Russian Orthodox feel about them. The Old Town is more winding than others of its kind, with its Town Hall surrounded by burgher houses and hidden alleyways. Another top attraction in Lublin is Majdanek concentration camp. Just as interesting and solemn as Auschwitz, it gets less than half of the visitors.
Popular Attractions in Poland
Auschwitz is quite possibly Poland’s most famous reason for visiting the country. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Auschwitz was a network of concentration camps operated by the Nazi Party during the Second World War. During this time it consisted of three major camps – Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz – plus 45 satellite camps. In total, more than an estimated one million people died; approximately 90% of these people were Jewish, and the remaining numbers included Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romani, and Soviet prisoners of war. In 1947, Auschwitz I and II were turned into the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum as a way of memorializing the victims and it has now been visited by more than 44 million people from around the globe.
At Auschwitz I, the exhibitions contain numerous artifacts and objects related to the killings. These include canisters of Zyklon B pellets (the gas which was used to exterminate the majority of the prisoners), the gas chambers themselves, mug shots of the prisoners, bunks, and personal effects, such as shoes, hair, and suitcases seized from the inmates. At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, you can see the old rail tracks on which trains would bring prisoners to the camp.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Often combined with Auschwitz as a day trip from Kraków, the Wieliczka salt mine is a highly-frequented tourist attraction with over one million visitors per year. Starting life as mine in the 13th century – although brine from the location had been collected and used as table salt since the middle Neolithic period – it continued excavating until 2007, making it one of the oldest operating salt mines in the world.
The complex is made up of a host of labyrinthine passages and shafts which take you through various exhibitions on life in the mine and displays of historic salt-mining technology. There is also an underground lake and four chapels, including the world-famous St Kinga’s chapel.
St Kinga was a princess born in the Kingdom of Hungary during the 13th century and was married to Bolesław V of Poland. Legend has it that she threw her engagement ring into the salt mine in Maramures. The ring then made its way to the salt mine in Wieliczka. To mark the spot where the ring was found, the miners erected a statue of St Kinga – who became the patron saint of salt mine workers – over 100 meters below ground level in what is now considered to be the world’s biggest underground church, completely composed of rock salt.
Activities in Poland
Aside from its cities, Poland offers a wide range of holiday activities for tourists to enjoy.
Poland has a whole host of water bodies, including rivers, lakes, and sea, making it an ideal place to take part in water sports. The Masurian lake district is a popular hotspot for sailing and fishing in the summer, as well as ice sailing in the winter. Wakeboarding, kitesurfing, kayaking, and parasailing are popular throughout the country, and you can even go rafting on the Dunajec river in the Pieniny National Park.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Poland has well over 200 ski resorts. Zakopane, located in the Tatra mountains to the south of Kraków, is a very popular resort, although other ski favorites include Karpacz (in the Karkonosze mountains), Białka Tatrzańska (the Tatra mountains), and Szklarska Poręba (the Sudetes mountains).
As well as skiing and snowboarding, the Tatra mountains offer excellent opportunities for hiking when the weather is fine. Other popular locations for hiking include the Beskids, the Bieszczady mountains and Ojców National Park. The highest mountain in Poland is Mount Rysy in the High Tatras at approximately 2,500 meters, but do not let that put you off; despite its height, it is a relatively easy climb to the top.
Poland is known for being a religious country, with the Catholic church still playing a significant role in the fabric of the culture. Its most important place of pilgrimage is Częstochowa. The painting The Black Madonna, allegedly painted by St Luke the Evangelist, is housed in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin at the Jasna Góra monastery and is considered to be a revered icon. Other special pilgrimage places include Wadowice – the birthplace of Pope John Paul II – and Kraków.
If you want something a little bit more off the beaten track, though, there are some smaller gems which you should know about.
Zamość lies approximately 90 kilometers from Lublin and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. The city was designed by Italian architect Bernardo Morando. Its main icon is the impressive 16th-century town hall, taking center stage in the middle of the main square, with its sweeping staircases added in the 18th century. Other sights to see include the cathedral, synagogue, and the Armenian houses next to the town hall.
Straddling the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, Cieszyn really is a city of two halves. The Polish side is the more affluent and aesthetically pleasing, with monuments such as the Three Brothers’ Well (said to be the founding spot of the city), and pleasant streets to stroll down, like Głeboka Street and Przykopa Street, known locally as Cieszyn Venice. It also has an attractive market square and castle. The Czech side has more of a working-class feel to it and is the place where you would go to eat and drink rather than sightsee.
The birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus, Toruń is an architectural gem without the hordes of foreign tourists, possibly due to the fact that the city has no airport (the closest one is in Bydgoszcz, 50 kilometers away). The city is renowned for its splendid Old Town – one of the Seven Wonders of Poland – and its gingerbread-making tradition, which dates back over 1000 years.
Malbork is a small town in the north-east of the country and is the location of the largest castle by land area in the world. Built by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, it has served many functions over the years but is now a fascinating museum.
Poland has so much to see that you could be there a whole year and not see everything. But it is definitely worth checking out some of what this great country has to offer.