Don’t Underestimate Poland!

Many North Americans underestimate Poland as a travel destination. Before we left Canada, when we were telling family and friends about our European travel plans, Poland was the destination where we received the most pushback. “Why Poland?” or “2 weeks in Poland, seriously?” We ultimately spent 16 days in Poland to ensure we got a good taste for this large, diverse country – we wanted to see more than just Krakow and Auschwitz, the main tourist destinations.

Beautiful Old Towns

Every Polish city we visited had a beautiful Old Town that was great for exploring. Most are big enough that, while busy, you’re not as shoulder-to-shoulder as we were in Zakopane (see our link here). We were particularly impressed with Gdansk, which was much more beautiful than we had expected, and Wroclaw, which has been called (by someone) the “Venice of Poland” because of its numerous canals and bridges.

gdansk
Old Town, Gdansk

 

Old Town Hall, Market Square, Wroclaw
Old Town Hall, Market Square, Wroclaw

 

gnomes wroclaw
There are 300 of these gnomes around Wroclaw – makes for a fun scavenger hunt!

Krakow is beautiful as well, but that’s pretty well known. We thought Warsaw was vastly underrated (see our post here), and really enjoyed our time there.

St Mary's Basilica, Rynek Square, Krakow
St Mary’s Basilica, Rynek Square, Krakow

 

Warsaw
Streetscape in Old Town, Warsaw

The interesting thing to remember is that, in many of these cities, while the “Old Town” may look old, most were completely destroyed during WWII and had to be rebuilt in years since. Sure that takes away from some of the authenticity, but who cares?

For contrast, we also visited the Nowa Huta neighbourhood of Krakow. Nowa Huta was a town built around the Lenin Steelworks, a “gift” from the USSR to Poland, which was meant to be a communist utopia! The “Socialist Realism” architecture definitely provided a sharp contrast to the old town of Krakow.

nowa huta
A communist utopia! Nowa Huta, a part of Krakow built to be a perfect communist community in the 1950’s

 

nowa huta
Ronald Reagan Central Square in Nowa Huta, Krakow – so renamed after the fall of communism. There used to be a huge statue of Lenin here, but it is now at an amusement park in Sweden (wtf?)

World War II History

From Westerplatte, near Gdansk, where the first battle of WWII occurred between the Germans and the Poles, to the Auschwitz concentration/extermination camp near Krakow, it will be no surprise to anyone that Poland is filled with WWII history.

westerplatte WWII gdansk
Westerplatte, the location of the first battle of WWII. Near Gdansk

Even if someone isn’t particularly interested in WWII history, seeing sights such as these should be mandatory. As Italian philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In addition to these sights, we also visited the POLIN museum in Warsaw, as well as the new museum at Oskar Schindler’s former factory (new to us – the museum didn’t exist when Trevor was in Krakow 9 years ago), which we can’t recommend highly enough. It was honestly one of the best museums either of us has been to, on any subject. We also wandered around the site of the actual Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow that was depicted in the movie Schindler’s List, as well as the quarry where much of the filming of the movie took place.

oskar schindler museum
Oskar Schindler’s office and desk

 

plaszow krakow
Site of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, with the memorial in the background

 

wall jewish ghetto krakow
One of two remaining sections of the wall of the Jewish Ghetto in Krakow

Visiting Auschwitz is a surreal experience. You hear about it all your life, but to actually be there – to walk through both camps – it is difficult to comprehend the horror, the evil, and the suffering that occurred there. The main part of the tour is through Auschwitz I, which is better preserved but was primarily a work camp. Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the much, much larger concentration camp 3km down the road and the primary extermination camp where over 1 million innocent people perished. When you visit Birkenau, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer scale of the camp, even though most of it was demolished as the Nazis retreated.

auschwitz
Auschwitz, 60 km outside of Krakow

 

Auschwitz birkenau
Auschwitz II – Birkenau

 

auschwitz birkenau
View of Auschwitz II – Birkenau including the selection area. The sheer size of the camp renders you speechless.

Tatra Mountains

It doesn’t seem like its well-known (at least to North Americans) that southern Poland is a beautiful mountain destination with great hiking trails that rival those in Switzerland and Austria (without the steep prices!). While the high-season crowds were a bit too much for us, we’re really glad we went. The scenery in Zakopane was beautiful and our visit was, in some ways, a great respite from exploring cities. If we went again, we’d go during the shoulder season to beat the crowds and rent a car so we have more flexibility and can venture into nearby Slovakia some more. You can see our full post on Zakopane and the Tatra mountains here.

giewont zakopane poland
Looking back down the path we’d just hiked up, on Mt Giewont in Zakopane

Good food

Do you like carbs? Great, Poland is for you! If your idea of a great meal is some sort of cheese and meat wrapped in dough then boiled or fried, you’ll be in heaven. And to our friends that told us there’s no reason to travel because Toronto has better regional food from any nationality, bullsh’t! 😉

peirogies krakow
Mmm…pierogies. We lucked out and were in Krakow for the annual Pierogi Festival!

But on top of pierogies, we managed to find amazing Turkish kebabs in Warsaw (Sapko Kebab), good pizza in Zakopane (CZIKAGO), and finally some good sushi (Sushi Corner) in Wroclaw. Apparently sushi is an up and coming thing in Poland – while they still have a way to go to match Tojo’s in Vancouver or Sushi Kaji in Toronto (let alone a top sushi restaurant in Japan – we’ll report on that when we go there next year!), we were excited to finally satisfy our sushi cravings.

And we must admit, while neither of us is into drinking hard liquor, we did have some fun here trying out different kinds of vodka. It pretty much comes in every colour and flavour you can imagine. Some of our favourites to try were Zubrowka bison grass vodka (tastes mildly of vanilla and almond, and came with a blade of grass in the bottle), and Crakoviak quince berry flavoured vodka, which was sweet and fruity.

bison grass vodka
Hmmm…bison grass vodka. With an actual blade of grass for authenticity!

 

vodka pierogi poland
Vodka and pierogies. A proper Polish meal!

The only thing we couldn’t find in Poland is good wine. Apparently Poles are still getting into the wine “thing”, so what’s on offer tends to be cheap semi-sweet white wines. Note to ourselves – if this traveling thing doesn’t work out, we could always start a wine shop in Krakow!

Beaches

Who would have thought that Poland could be a popular beach destination? Sure, the season may be short and the water may be cold, but the beach at Sopot, near Gdansk, was beautiful and busy. While we were too wimpy to put more than one foot in the nippy Baltic Sea (brrr!), we did spend some quality time on the beach with our kobos.

sopot poland
Beach day in Poland, at Sopot just outside of Gdansk

Our Final Word

Poland should not be underestimated. While it is definitely touristy, it doesn’t seem to be heavily visited by North Americans, based on how little English we heard spoken here as we traveled around. Prices are still significantly below those in Western Europe, crowds are smaller, food is wonderful, and there is a ton to do and see!

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