Every once in a while you come across a country so ripe with contrast, so varied in potential experiences, that it can’t help but defy (or at least challenge) expectations. Enter Poland: the Central European Cinderella story. Not many nations can lay claim to the range of diverse historical circumstances that have befallen the Polish Republic, dating back to its Bronze Age settlements populated well over 4,000 years ago. Significant and often breathtaking sites like the prehistoric Biskupin (ok that one’s not particularly breathtaking), Malbork’s massive Teutonic Castle and the great Salt Mine of Wieliczka offer a glimpse into the country’s plentiful array of ancestral accomplishments – a selection almost impressive enough to keep you from recalling the much more tragic events of its recent history. But to understand just what makes modern-day Poland so inspiring, recall them you must.
To experience thriving urban centers like Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw today, one might never guess at the deep scars that exist beneath just a few decades of Polish grit and perseverance. After all, these years have been an undeniable boon to the nation, delivering a boost in the country’s economy, a slow but steady advancement of architecture and infrastructure, a resurgence of art and vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, even the birth of a nascent wine industry. But for all these celebrated contemporary features, this is still ground zero for some humanity’s darkest 20th century moments, ranging from the atrocities of Nazi occupation to the depravities of Soviet Communist rule. It’s no exaggeration to say you may never experience something more profoundly moving then the tremendous and heartbreaking memorials found at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and other sites, while Stalin-inspired structures like Warsaw’s Palace of Culture building provide visitors with a look at the communist shell from which modern day Poland has fought so hard to emerge. This is admittedly heavy stuff, but it helps to put your view of the country, as well as your lost train ticket, in the right perspective.
And in case you’re getting the impression that this country has nothing to offer but a series of testaments to its sometimes glorious, sometimes painful history, allow us to introduce you to the side of Poland that rarely makes it into most travelers’ vernacular: its potential for adventure. Poland’s geographic offerings run the gamut from Baltic coastlines (Slowinski) to 8,000+ ft mountains (Tatras). True these might not be the kinds of grandiose excursions you’d cross the globe to tackle, but they’re certainly worth more than just a simple gloss over. There are countless kilometers of navigable waterways to paddle, incredible caves to explore and no shortage of primeval European forest trails waiting to be hiked. Not exactly what you expected, right? Think of it this way; if the thought of hopping a wooden raft down the Dunajec Gorge or rock climbing the towering limestone pillars in Ojcow National Park doesn’t make your ears perk up, you may be planning your trip on the wrong website.
US citizens, as well as citizens from most major American, Asian, Oceanic and European nations and those holding a Schengen (or "C") Visa, can enter Poland with a valid passport for visits of up to 90 days. Check out the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for the official list of visa-free countries.
Though Poland is a member of the European Union, it has retained use of its traditional currency known as the zloty (PLN). Some common exchange rates are: .33 USD / .24 EUR / .20 GBP. For up to the minute exchange rates, click here.
The Polish government operates as a parliamentary representative democratic republic, under the executive leadership of an elected president and his/her appointed prime minister. The legislative National Assembly is made up of two houses, dubbed the Sejm and the Senate, and the two main bodies of the judiciary are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal. And don’t worry; though demonstrations might be a relatively common sight in Warsaw, rest assured that these are predominantly peaceful and orderly events. There’s little in the way of civil unrest here.
Welcome to Europe’s most linguistically homogeneous country, where upwards of 95% of the populace declare Polish their first language. Don’t fret, though, all you non-speakers; it’s generally assumed around these parts that if you’re not from Poland, you won’t be conversing with the locals in their mother tongue. Luckily for you roughly 34% of the population speaks English, so getting by in major cities like Krakow and Warsaw isn’t much of a challenge. Headed out into the countryside? Well, if you happen to know any Russian or German, you may be able to utilize those skills. Otherwise, try your hand at picking up a few helpful Polish phrases before you go.
Breathe easy, traveler. In general, Poland is a very safe country to visit and enjoys annual crime rates lower than the European average. After an organized crime surge in the 80’s and 90’s, things on the “Sopranos” end diminished dramatically, and thus far into the 21st century victimization rates have continued to fall. Which isn’t to say it’s all friendship and hand-holding in Chopin’s homeland. Petty theft (think pickpocketing) is a common complaint nationwide, especially in congested urban areas like mass transit stations and tourist attractions. There has also been an ongoing struggle to abate a rising tide of automobile thefts along the western border with Germany since Poland entered the Schengen Area in 2007. As usual, if you adhere to safe traveling practices like keeping money and valuables out of sight and secure to your person, avoiding provocation (think European football matches) and traveling in groups whenever you’re living it up late-night, your stay in Poland should remain crime free.
Though Poland’s infrastructure still lags in some areas (thanks in large part to its 20th century bout with communism), you’ll be happy to know that great strides have been, and are continuing to be, made across the country’s transportation spectrum. That said, even with improving roadways, prolific traffic fatalities continue to plague a highway system that ranks as one of the deadliest in Europe. We’re not saying that busing it or renting a car means certain doom, mind you, just that you’ll want to take precautions and avoid night driving whenever possible. And while traffic in and out of the nations airports is bountiful, safe and reliable, your best/cheapest option for intercity traveling will likely be via Poland’s extensive rail network.
As for getting around within major cities, taxis, buses and light rail lines will be your most plentiful options. Warsaw currently houses Poland's only operable subway system, though there are no shortage of trams in Krakow to get you to and fro with ease. During warmer months, you’ll also have access to 4,000 km of navigable waterways nationwide, for those who prefer the more scenic route.
Polish weather is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some general trends you can reliably count on. Primarily, winters here (December - March) are dominated by frigid, polar air masses from the north, especially in the mountainous regions where high elevations sometimes see snow throughout the year. Much of continental Poland experiences all four seasons, with the warmest sub-tropical temperatures experienced during late July and August. Rain is an unpredictable but common occurrence throughout the country, so sun-seekers should head north towards the Baltic Coast for your best bet at getting that summertime tan that drives all the Polish girls wild.
If you’re dining out in Poland, there are a few helpful things to know when it comes to tipping. First of all, to avoid any awkward moments when paying the check, save your “thank you” until after the server has returned with your change; otherwise it will often be taken as an indication that you want him/her to keep it. As for customary amounts, 10% is the norm, but if the service is good it certainly wouldn’t hurt (or break the bank) to tack on a little more.
Mealtimes can take a little getting used to as well, as the traditional Polish meal schedule looks something like this: breakfast in the early morning, second breakfast in the late morning, dinner anytime between 1 and 5 pm and a light supper between 7 and 9 pm. Restaurants, of course, won’t chastise you should you decide to stick to your native dietary routine, but why not try something a little outside your cultural comfort zone, hm?
You have to be at least 18 to legally purchase alcohol in Poland, though amusingly there is no official minimum age for consuming it. And while vodka (wodka), the country’s potato- and grain-based specialty, may be the most well known libation to foreign visitors, there’s a healthy selection of alcoholic beverages produced here - and no shortage of locals to enjoy them with.
You may, for example, want to put down the Bison Grass and opt for a locally brewed beer (piwo). Believe it or not, there are quite a few quality breweries countrywide (around 70 in all), with a preponderance of pale lagers and pilsners taking center stage. There’s also a developing wine industry that’s been gaining traction in recent years, with varietals like syrah and pinot noir allowing Poland to make its small but proud mark on the intimidating canon of European vino.
What do nocturnes, modern astronomy, and Apocalypse Now have in common? Why, revolutionary Polish influence of course! Though their origins might not be well known to some, composer and virtuoso Frederic Chopin, mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (heliocentrism) and author Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) are all internationally celebrated Poles who have changed our understanding of both the arts and sciences forever. Well done, Poland. Well done.
Peak season:June through August
Currency:Polish zloty (PLN)
Religion:Predominantly Roman Catholic
Celbrated during the first 3 days of May, Majówka commemorates the holidays of Labour Day (May 1st) and Constitution Day (May 3rd). It is typically observed by an extended 4 day weekend closest to those dates and a celebration of Polish nationalism.
Duszniki Zdroj Chopin Festival
Typically held in early August, the Duszniki Zdroj Chopin Festival is the oldest music festival in Poland, celebrating the life and music of the country's most renown artistc son. Visitors who descend on this southwest town near the border of the Czech Republic during the 9-day festival are treated to performances by some of the most talented classical musicians in the world.
Heineken Open'er Festival
Hailed as the country's, and perhaps the continent's, best music festival, the Heineken Open'er Festival brings tens of thousands of live music lovers to Gdansk on Poland's northern coast every summer. With fashion and music stages graced by some of the biggest and best names in the industry, it's definitely a party you'll want to check out.
If you happen to be in Warsaw during the month of October, treat yourself to an incredible atmosphere of cinema and film history at the city's annual international film festival. Started in 1985, this 10 day celebration of movies includes entries from over 40 countries and hosts the IFFC's awards for best filmmaking in Eastern and Central Europe.