From the needle-like spires of St Mary’s Basilica, to the winding and weaving cobblestone alleyways, to the great Market Square and the half-remaining medieval Town Hall, there are plenty of reasons why this handsome and historic area was one of the first urban UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Although the Warsaw Old Town might not look like it, it was completely rebuilt in the post-war period. In fact, the arduous efforts of the locals in recreating their historic centre just as it was in the Middle Ages, has been called the most ambitious reconstruction project in history. It’s easy to see why as you wander between the redbrick churches and Masovian tenements.
To delve into the Gdansk Old Town is to taste the fusion of Germanic, Baltic, Scandinavian and Slavic influences at play in Polish culture and architecture. You’ll see gorgeous merchant guilds from the Hanseatic period, Franciscan churches, and oodles of remnants of the city’s onetime booming maritime industry.
Sprawled over the border with Belarus in the extreme east of the country, the Bialowieza Forest is considered one of the last remaining swathes of primeval wood in Europe. It’s also home to the only remaining European bison in Poland, which have been brought back into existence from a few captive pairs. Wander the misty woods and try to spot the hulking creatures between the moss-caked trunks.
Auschwitz is perhaps the single most emotional and sobering reminder of the horrors of the Nazi regime in Europe. With exhibits that chronicle its rise to a death camp and the atrocities visited upon the minorities within, it’s become not only a museum but a memorial to the Holocaust and the destruction of the European Jews. It’s something that you should not miss experiencing.
In a frenzy of high walls and spiky turrets, great bulwarks and formidable gatehouses, the mighty Malbork Castle is among the most enthralling medieval relics in the country. It was completed in 1406, when it was the largest brick fort in the world, and has been used by both the Teutonic Knights and the rulers of Prussia over the centuries.
The shimmering mountain lakes and the beautiful staw (valleys) of the Tatra Mountains rarely fail to draw a gasp. Covered in fir trees and rock-ribbed hills, they rise to a mighty 2,655 meters above sea level. Hiking is number one in the summer, with countless trails weaving towards the Slovak border from the town of Zakopane.
Talking of Zakopane, this hearty town of timber-clad cottages and highland taverns, in the deepest southern reaches of the country, is also home to the top places to ski in Poland. The best spots are in nearby Bialka and on the soaring tops of Kasprowy Wierch.
Unlike its other historic compadres – Krakow, Gdansk – Wroclaw‘s Old Town is spread over a series of islets on the Oder River. That means a number of arched bridges connect the cobbles of the Salt Market Square with the Gothic tops of the Town Hall There’s never been a more handsome setting for a medieval cathedral!
Bubbling up from the Baltic shores of northern Poland, the protected reserves of Slowinski National Park are famed for their shifting nature; they move this way and that over time, swaying like the frothy swells of the sea close by. Heading in by bike form nearby Leba is usually the best option.
If you can ignore the name, then the Hel Peninsula actually promises to be one of the most beautiful places in all of Poland (especially for beach lovers). Long stretches of golden sand are backed by grass-topped dunes. The Baltic Sea laps the sunbathing spots, and the occasional little fishing town pops up from the shore, all as the headland juts out into the sea on its own.
Hit the long roads out from Warsaw or Gdansk and delve deep into Poland’s forgotten east. Here, the Masurian Lake District unfolds in all its glory. Undulating hills of green grass and blooming flowers roll to the horizon, and countless waters sit, reflective-like under the sun. Don’t forget your camera!
The Beskids Mountains dominate the south-eastern corner of Poland. They rise and fall in soft, sculpted ridges along the Slovak and Ukraine borders, enfolding deep valleys of babbling rivers and dense forests. The western Bieszczady are prime walking territory, with the beer town of Żywiec and Bielsko-Biała both accessible from the trail.
Flowers spread over age-stained timber walls. Blooming baskets of rhododendron sway overhead. Verandas creek and chickens strut between the quaint little shacks. Welcome to Zalipie: a town where time has stood still. This pretty picture of rural Poland might be something of a museum piece these days, but boy is it charming!
With their piles of steamed cabbage and pickled cucumbers, hearty pierogi dumpling platters and a range of homemade soups, there’s really nowhere that does traditional Polish cuisine quite like a milk bar. Oh, and these spots are super-cheap!