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Poland is the jewel in the crown of central-eastern Europe. A land steeped in myth and history, it’s packed with enchanting cities and modernist flair. It’s also got wondrous backcountry, with the Tatras rolling down to the salt-washed bays of the Baltic Sea. Here are just a few things every traveller should know before they set foot on Polish soil…
Okay, so it’s hardly news that eastern Europe gets covered in snow each year and that temperatures in this corner of the globe plummet, but many a traveller to Poland in the winter fails to prep for just how cold things can get. If you’re heading out to tour the tenements of Warsaw or the historic streets of Krakow between December and March, you might just be in line for minus temperatures – that means long johns, thermals; the whole shebang.
Just as the winters in Poland see snow dusting the streets and temperatures well below freezing, the summers play the flip side perfectly. From May to September, the prevailing continental climate in the south brings warm air over cities like Wroclaw and Krakow. This not only cranks up the mercury, it can also make things stiflingly humid and hot. Oh, and then there’s the daily thunderstorm, which occurs like clockwork – set the alarms for around half one.
Riding trams in Polish cities is one of the best ways to get around, whether that means flitting between the museums of Warsaw or hopping bars in hedonistic Krakow. Don’t get stuck at the ticket machine in the station with the other out-of-the-loop visitors though. Jump aboard and use the dispenser that’s waiting there. Be sure to keep a couple of coins handy though – these contraptions only take change and contactless.
One Polish law that always seems to catch out foreign visitors is the one that governs drinking alcohol in public. Perhaps it’s the no-holes-barred hedonism of Krakow nightlife that makes people think they can do what they like on the streets. Or maybe it’s the relaxed lackadaisical vibes of Gdansk that get folk glugging the grog on the go. In short: just don’t crack any beers when in public spaces (of course, beer gardens are fine!).
Don’t leave the camera behind for your first trip to Poland. It’s a common mistake to think that this corner of the continent is all post-industrial depots and factories left over from the war. It couldn’t be more wrong. Historic cities spanning more than 1,200 years give loft to great Gothic masterpieces. Warsaw’s modernism gleams and glistens. Gdansk has medieval relics to wonder at. And then there’s the breathtaking backcountry, ranging from the soaring Tatra Mountains to the shifting dunes of Slowinski.
While most visitors will opt for a trip to either the cultural capital of Krakow (with its castles and UNESCO Old Town) or the buzzing modern metropolis of Warsaw (the actual capital), it’s a shame that so few choose to break the mould and discover Poland’s other urban gems. Just take Gdansk: a cool, boho city of beatnik bars and historic ports. Or look to Lodz, where Jewish heritage is alive and kicking. Or, Wroclaw, with its awesome cathedral and pretty rivers.
Polish cuisine is famed for its hearty, homey portions, carb-heavy ingredients and meat content. Yep, whether it’s blood-red sausages or bigos hunter’s stew, pork knuckles or lamb shanks, there’s little here to really entice the vegetarian foodie. There are some choices, of course, like pierogi dumplings (just make sure they come with onions, not pork scratchings) and the meat-free version of zurek soup (ask for it without the sausage).
Too often are images of the chiselled Tatras or the rolling peaks of the Beskidy shared to allure people to Poland. The reality is that Poland is largely flat, formed by one continuous plain that runs from the Slovak border to the Baltic Sea. Only in the extreme south of the country do the mountains pop up. Mind you, when they do pop up, they really pop up. Head for destinations like Zakopane (two hours outside of Krakow) to see the snow-topped summits soaring overhead.
One thing that’s clear from glancing at Poland on the map is that this country is big. A giant cut-out of central-eastern Europe, it covers a whopping 312,000 square kilometers, making it the ninth largest country on the continent. That means, for travellers looking to check off the top sights, from the Baltic beaches of the north to the wild forests of the east to the culture-rich cities of the south, it might just be worth renting a car.
Don’t expect to head out in any Polish city to meet the locals without being invited to try a little of the local stuff at least once. Vodka is not just ubiquitous in Poland, it’s a national obsession, and any night owls are bound to find themselves tasting their way through the whole repertoire: cherry flavoured; nut flavoured; quince infused – you name it, it’s here.