Poland is an eastern European country on the Baltic Sea known for its medieval architecture and Jewish heritage. Warsaw, the capital, has shopping and nightlife, plus the Warsaw Uprising Museum, honoring the city’s WWII-era resistance to German occupation. In the city of Kraków, 14th-century Wawel Castle rises above the medieval old town, home to Cloth Hall, a Renaissance trading post in Rynek Glowny.
Warsaw is the sprawling capital of Poland. Its widely varied architecture reflects the city’s long, turbulent history, from Gothic churches and neoclassical palaces to Soviet-era blocks and modern skyscrapers. The city’s Old Town was restored after heavy damage during WWII. Its heart is Market Square, with pastel buildings and open-air cafes. The Monument of the Warsaw Mermaid at its center is the city’s symbol.
< Royal Castle
This massive brick edifice, a copy of the original blown up by the Germans in WWII, began life as a wooden stronghold of the dukes of Mazovia in the 14th century. Its heyday came in the mid-17th century, when it became one of Europe’s most splendid royal residences. It then served the Russian tsars and, in 1918, after Poland regained independence, became the residence of the president. Today it is filled with period furniture and works of art. Highlights of the castle tour include the Great Apartment and its magnificent Great Assembly Hall, which has been restored to its 18th-century decor of dazzling gilded stucco and golden columns. The enormous ceiling painting, The Disentanglement of Chaos, is a postwar re-creation of a work by Marcello Bacciarelli showing King Stanisław bringing order to the world. The king’s face also appears in a marble medallion above the main door, flanked by the allegorical figures of Peace and Justice.
< Wilanow Palace
Warsaw’s top palace is Wilanow, 6km south of Lazienki. It dates to 1677, when King Jan III Sobieski bought the land and turned an existing manor house into an Italian baroque villa fit for a royal summer residence (calling it in Italian ‘villa nuova’, from which the Polish name is derived). Wilanów changed hands several times over the centuries, and with every new owner it acquired a bit of baroque here and a touch of neoclassical there.
Miraculously, Wilanów survived WWII almost unscathed, and most of its furnishings and art were retrieved and reinstalled after the war.
The highlights of a visit include the two-storey Grand Entrance Hall, the Grand Dining Room, and the Gallery of Polish Portraits, featuring a collection of paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries. The exterior of the palace is adorned with impressive murals, including a 17th-century sundial with a bas-relief of Chronos, god of time
< Palace of Culture & Science
Love it or hate it, every visitor to Warsaw should visit the iconic, socialist realist PKiN (as its full Polish name is abbreviated). This ‘gift of friendship’ from the Soviet Union was built in the early 1950s, and at 231m high remains the tallest building in Poland. It’s home to a huge congress hall, theatres, a multiscreen cinema and museums. Take the high-speed lift to the 30th-floor (115m) observation terrace to take it all in.
The building has never sat well with the locals, who have branded it with one uncomplimentary moniker after another; the ‘Elephant in Lacy Underwear’, a reference both to the building’s size and the fussy sculptures that frill the parapets, is a particular favourite. However, though there are occasional calls for it to be demolished, the Palace is gradually becoming accepted (even embraced) as a city icon.
< Museum of the History of Polish Jews
POLIN Museum is the first public-private partnership in Poland, created jointly by the government, the local government, and a non-governmental organization.
It is a modern cultural institution – a narrative museum which presents a 1000-year history of Polish Jews. It is also a place for meetings and conversations for all of those eager to learn more about the past and present Jewish culture, to confront the stereotypes, and to face the perils of today’s world such as xenophobia and nationalistic prejudices. By promoting openness, tolerance, and truth, POLIN Museum contributes to the mutual understanding and respect amongst Poles and Jews.
Kraków, a southern Poland city near the border of the Czech Republic, is known for its well-preserved medieval core and Jewish quarter. Its old town – ringed by Planty Park and remnants of the city’s medieval walls – is centered on the stately, expansive Rynek Glówny (market square). This plaza is the site of the Cloth Hall, a Renaissance-era trading outpost, and St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church.
< St Mary’s Basilica
Overlooking Rynek Główny, this striking brick church, best known simply as St Mary’s, is dominated by two towers of different heights. The first church here was built in the 1220s and following its destruction during a Tatar raid, construction of the basilica began. Tour the exquisite interior, with its remarkable carved wooden altarpiece, and in summer climb the tower for excellent views. Don’t miss the hourly hejnał (bugle call) from the taller tower.
The main church entrance is used by worshippers; tourists must enter through the side door to the southeast.
The chancel is illuminated by magnificent stained-glass windows dating from the late 14th century; the blue star vaulting of the nave is breathtaking. On the opposite side of the church, above the organ loft, is a fine art nouveau stained-glass window by Stanisław Wyspiański and Józef Mehoffer. The colourful wall paintings, designed by Jan Matejko, harmonise beautifully with the medieval architecture and are an appropriate background for the high altar, which is acclaimed as the greatest masterpiece of Gothic art in Poland and allegedly designated the eighth wonder of the world by Pablo Picasso.
< Wieliczka Salt Mine
Some 14km southeast of Krakow, Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) is famous for its deep salt mine. It’s an eerie world of pits and chambers, and everything within its depths has been carved by hand from salt blocks. The mine has a labyrinth of tunnels, about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground. A section of the mine, some 22 chambers connected by galleries, from 64m to 135m below ground, The mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its microclimate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 135m, where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.The salt-hewn formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures, while others are adorned with statues and monuments – and there are even underground lakes. The showpiece is the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga ,which is actually a fair-sized church measuring 54m by 18m, and 12m high. Every single element here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for one man and then his brother to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed.
< Wawel Royal Castle
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Castle is a potent symbol of national identity. It’s now a museum containing five separate sections: Crown Treasury & Armoury; State Rooms; Royal Private Apartments; Lost Wawel; and the Exhibition of Oriental Art. Each requires a separate ticket. Of the five, the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments are most impressive.The Renaissance palace you see today dates from the 16th century. An original, smaller residence was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław I Chrobry. Kazimierz III Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, Zygmunt I Stary commissioned a new residence. Despite further extensions and alterations, the three-storey structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day.Repeatedly sacked and vandalised by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied in the 19th century by the Austrians, who intended to make Wawel a barracks, while moving the royal tombs elsewhere. They never got that far, but they did turn the royal kitchen and coach house into a military hospital and raze two churches. They also built a new ring of massive brick walls, largely ruining the original Gothic fortifications.After Kraków was incorporated into re-established Poland after WWI, restoration work began and continued until the outbreak of WWII. The work was resumed after the war and has been able to recover a good deal of the castle’s earlier external form and interior decoration.
Gdansk (Danzig in German) is a port city on the Baltic coast of Poland. At the center of its Main Town, reconstructed after WWII, are the colorful facades of Long Market, now home to shops and restaurants. Nearby is Neptune Fountain, a 17th-century symbol of the city topped by a bronze statue of the sea god. Gdansk is also a center for the world’s amber trade; boutiques throughout the city sell the ossified resin.
< Dlugi Targ
Długi Targ (Long Market) was once the main city market and is now the major focus for visitors. Things have got a bit touristy here over the last decade (dubious amber stalls, restaurant touts), but look up from the crowds to appreciate the period architecture, all of which is a very selective postwar rebuild, of course.According to local legend, the Neptune Fountain next to the Town Hall once gushed forth with the trademark Gdansk liqueur, Goldwasser. As the story goes, it spurted out of the trident one merry night and Neptune found himself endangered by crowds of drunken locals who couldn’t believe their luck. Perhaps that’s why, in 1634, the fountain was fenced off with a wrought-iron barrier. The bronze statue itself was the work of Flemish artist Peter Husen; made between 1606 and 1613, it is the oldest secular monument in Poland. A menagerie of stone sea creatures was added in the 1750s during the restoration of the fountain.The nearby 1618 Golden House, designed by Johan Voigt, has the richest facade in the city. In the friezes between storeys are 12 elaborately carved scenes interspersed with busts of famous historical figures, including two Polish kings.The Long Market is flanked from the east by the Green Gate, marking the river end of the Royal Way. It was built in the 1560s on the site of a medieval defensive gate and was supposed to be the residence of the kings. Today it houses an art gallery.
< St Bridget’s Church
Founded over 700 years ago, St Bridget’s was reduced to medieval brick dust in 1945, and until 1970 only the outer walls were left standing. Very little of the prewar furnishings survived, but if you’ve taken a fancy to amber you’re sure to appreciate the spectacular 174cm-high amber monstrance depicting the tree of life and the monumental high altar. This recent construction is the highlight of the interior and contains a record-breaking 6500kg of polished prehistoric tree resin.
Lech Wałęsa attended Mass here when he was an unknown electrician in the nearby shipyard. With the wave of strikes in 1980 the church became a strong supporter of the dockyard workers, and its priest, Henryk Jankowski, took every opportunity to express their views in his sermons. The church remains a record of the Solidarity period, with several contemporary works related to the trade union and to modern Polish history in general. You’ll find the tombstone of murdered priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, the Katyń epitaph, a collection of crosses from the 1980 and ‘88 strikes, and a door covered with bas-reliefs of scenes from Solidarity’s history – all in the right-hand (northern) aisle.
< European Solidarity Centre
Housed in a mind-bogglingly ugly, oh-so 21st-century hulk of architecture, the exhibition in this unmarked centre (finding the entrance will be your first task) has quickly become one of Gdansk’s unmissables since it opened in 2014. Audioguide clamped to ears, the seven halls examine Poland’s postwar fight for freedom, from the strikes of the 1970s to the round-table negotiations of the late 1980s and beyond. The displays are a blend of state-of-the-art multimedia experiences and real artefacts.
Each hall is lettered and the exhibition runs chronologically from A to G. Hall A takes you to the 1970s shipyard, with yellow docker helmets lining the ceiling and a battered electric truck, the type Lech Walesa once worked on as an electrician, almost blocking your way. Footage includes the negotiations between dockers and the communist regime and the signing of the 1980 agreements.
Hall B is all communist-era interiors, a fascinating retro experience that takes you to a prison cell, interrogation room and typical family living room. Solidarity and martial law are the themes of halls C and D, while hall E is a large mock-up of the famous round table complete with TV cameras and name badges. An interesting section on the various revolutions across Eastern Europe follows in hall F, while hall G is a spartan affair dedicated to Pope John Paul II.
Gdynia is a port city on the Baltic coast of Poland. It’s known for its modernist buildings, including the Museum of the City of Gdynia, which has exhibits about local history. Kościuszki Square, with a distinctive fountain as its center, leads to the waterfront. The WWII destroyer ORP Błyskawica and 1909 tall ship Dar Pomorza, now museums, are moored on the Southern Pier. Sharks and piranhas inhabit Gdynia Aquarium.
< Emigration Museum Gdynia
Gdynia, “a window to the world” and the pride of the Second Republic of Poland, was a key element of the government’s emigration policy. In the 1930s a complex system of emigration services was created here, centred around the then representative edifice of the Marine Station – today the premises of the Emigration Museum. It took just a single year to construct this building after its commission in 1933. The station was to serve all of the passenger movement in the sea port, including shipping thousands of people by sea. Hence, this facility is strongly embedded in the history of emigration; it is a place where Polish emigration routes converged.
Revolution, to the dramatic fate of the Poles during WWII and the contemporary wave of emigration. One will also get to meet the Polish diaspora of the USA and Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century. The gigantic model of the famous ocean liner Batory will allow visitors to experience what it was like to travel on “Europe’s most fashionable salon”. The 1:10 scale model of Batory, which weighs 2 tons, will be the main attraction of the museum.
< Forest Opera
The Forest Opera is a wonderful open air arena set in a hollow in the forests surrounding the city in a western district of Sopot. With a history going back to 1909, the theatre has seen everything from German opera to Whitney Houston performances and has hosted the Sopot Song Festival in various guises since 1964. A rebuilding programme in the years 2009-2012 now sees it marry its unique location with 21st century facilities and one of the best sound and vision systems in Europe. The Forest Opera is also a good starting point for a number of forest walks, one of which leads into Sopot, another to a splendid viewing point overlooking the bay. You’ll find it a 10-15 minute walk from the main street Bohaterow Monte Cassino although it is a steady climb uphill all the way there. Walk up Monte Cassino passing under the railway line and the main road before carrying on along ul. 1-go Maja to the end. At the end there is a pathway going up with Hotel Opera on your left which will bring you to the main gate. Allow yourself at least 30 minutes to get to your seat from Bohaterow Monte
< Gdynia Aquarium
The Institute of Sea Fisheries has carried out research in probably every sea around the globe. From these expeditions it has brought samples of exotic animals and plants which became the inspiration to create an aquarium museum. The first visitors were welcomed at the Gdynia Aquarium in 1971. It is an institution with the status of a zoological garden which aims to promote marine biology through exhibition and teaching.
This is Poland’s largest collection of aquatic animals (over 1500 animals representing close to 200 different species). There are dangerous predators like blacktip reef sharks, aggressive arowanas from North America and red piranhas. There are also examples of semi-aquatic animals such as the various species of turtles, frogs, lizards, green anacondas, agama lizards and giant red king crabs. The biggest interest is the living coral reef – several dozen specimens have been collected here. Among the coral reef swim the various shaped and coloured species of fish which include clownfish, lionfish, sea horses and countless others. There is also a special exhibit devoted to the Baltic Sea. The building is accessible for disabled people.
< Aquapark Sopot
One of the best water parks in Poland and made all the better by a 2015 refit. Found just off the main Gdansk-Sopot-Gdynia road (nearest train station Sopot Kamienny Potok) the complex consists of a three-lane, 25m long pool set aside for those wishing to swim lengths in peace, a recreational swimming pool featuring cascades and a water grotto and a pool specially designed for children featuring slides, geysers and water cannons. A seasonal outdoor pool with slides and climbing frames is also open during the summer. And that’s not all. Also find saunas and steam rooms, a six-lane bowling alley and a ‘wet bar’ in the swimming area. The biggest pull for the kids are the two slides and the ‘Wild River’. And finally there is the Aqua Spa Sopot which features a range of treatments.
Poznan is a city on the Warta River in western Poland. It’s known for universities as well as its old town, with Renaissance-style buildings in Old Market Square. Poznań Town Hall houses the Historical Museum of Poznań, with exhibits on the city. The town hall’s clock features mechanical goats that butt heads at noon. The Gothic and baroque Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is built on an island called Ostrow Tumski.
< The Cathedral Island
Back in the 10th century, the fortified settlement between the branches of the River Warta became the first capital of Poland. Therefore, Poznan is often regarded as the Kilometre Zero of the Polish nation.
The day we visited, the Cathedral Island was shrouded in peace. The Cathedral itself is the oldest in Poland, and over the centuries, it repeatedly changed architectural styles as it was razed, rebuilt and remodelled.
However, the part that impressed us most was the Golden Chapel, a mausoleum designed for the first Polish monarchs. And trust me, it’s a must see!
For those with an interest in a more detailed history of the place, the nearby multimedia centre of Porta Posnania tells the story of the island in an interactive manner, and they also rent audio guides that can be taken around the island.
< The Old Market Square
Poznan is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Poland for good reason. And this is due in part to the amazing Old Market Square and its incredibly colourful rows of houses.
The Old Square Market dates back to the 13th century when most buildings were made out of wood. But soon enough, brick constructions started to appear, and though the square suffered various transformations, after the WWII it was restored to its former glory.
Nowadays, the Old Market Square is the most lively part of the city and a meeting point for the large student population. There are cute terraces all around it, with the old Town Hall majestically rising above the square. While not an administrative building anymore, it houses a museum and a beautiful collection of paintings.
But no visit to Poznan is complete without taking part in the cute and quirky billy goat butting show. It takes place daily at 12 o’clock up in the Town Hall tower, and both kids and adults alike gather here to see it. The billy goats are the symbol of Poznan and the original mechanical goats are to be found inside the above mentioned museum.
< Stary Browar Shopping and Art Centre
Stary Browar Shopping and Art Centre is an imaginative complex set in a converted 19th-century brewery. Attracting more than 40,000 visitors each day, the center features more than 200 shops, almost 30 restaurants and cafés, a theater, a concert hall, exhibition rooms, a cinema, a hotel and a park. Even if you’re not interested in shopping, this unusual complex is worth investigating.Constructed in 1844, the building was originally home to the Huggerów Brewery, which continued to produce beer on the site until 1980. Note how the building’s current form incorporates aspects of the old brewery. This award-winning design uses brick, glass, industrial steel and other materials to create a unique blend of historic and modern architecture.
The center covers an area of 25 acres (100,000 square meters), which is divided roughly equally between retail and art space. As you explore this massive center, look for hidden mementos referencing the building’s former life as a brewery. Try to spot ceramic seals, old plaques and other interesting interior design features.
The commercial section of the center, called Stary Browar Sklepy (Old Brewery Shopping Precinct), extends across two buildings. Browse the shops, which include the VAN GRAAF designer store, Alma gourmet delicatessen, other high-end brands and several bookshops.
< Malta Lake
Of Poznań’s many lakes it’s Malta – to the east – that is the best known, and its surroundings are well worth further investigation. Formed in 1952 as a result of damming the Cybina, this 2.2km long lake is the largest man-made lake in the city, with an average depth of 3.1 metres. Surrounded by parks and woodland, it is today one of the principal recreation areas in the region – in both summer and winter – with an ice-rink, ski slope (the first in former communist Europe), a world-class regatta course, zoo, water park, and dozens of other attractions, Just east of the centre, Surrounded by parks and woodland, Malta Lake is mostly known for major kayak and rowing events. It also features an ice rink, dry ski slope, zoological garden, water park, narrow-gauge railway, and several historical sites, including the mound of freedom. This artificial lake was formed in 1952 and covers an area of 64 hectares (158 acres). It was named after a crusading order, Knights of Malta, on whose land it was built. Walk around the lake and watch ducks and swans splashing, or take the mini-train to the zoo. Try your hand at mini golf, or stop for a bite to eat in one of the many cafes and restaurants.