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Poland’s landscape is a tapestry of scenic splendor, a blend of beaches and lakes, dense forests, and majestic mountains. Its natural beauty is complemented by the man-made variety: More than 100 castles grace the land like a fairy tale come to life, such as the Royal Castle in Warsaw and Krakow’s Wawel Castle. The arts also add to Poland’s inner beauty—from Frédéric Chopin’s gorgeous nocturnes to lively polka music and dancing. A country of pastoral countrysides and vibrant cities—Poland was also the witness to some of mankind’s most horrific history. But it is this dichotomy that makes its people the kind, hearty, and humorous souls who welcome visitors to their land with pride.
The arrival of World War II thrust the people of Poland in the middle of epic battles and unspeakable horrors. The country had been home to a diverse group of people—Poles, Germans, and Russians lived side by side. But when Germany and the Soviet Union waged war across the land, Poland was overrun and invaded by both countries. The atrocities the Nazi Party afflicted upon the Jewish population culminated in the creation of the infamous concentration and death camp of Auschwitz in southern Poland. More than one million people lost their lives here before it was abandoned near the end of the war in January of 1945. During this dark time in history, many Polish people risked their lives to hide and protect their Jewish neighbors.
Emerging from Communist rule in 1989, the Poland of today has embraced an even greater appreciation for its country, culture, and heritage. Visitors will find themselves warmly welcomed and well-fed—Polish cuisine being renowned for its comforting qualities. For even a plate of pierogi dumplings with a side of cabbage kapusta can be a thing of beauty.
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Wieliczka Salt Mines
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Spread along the banks of the Vistula River in southern Poland, Krakow is the cultural and intellectual epicenter of the nation, a lively university town with a reputation for producing avant-garde art and groundbreaking scientific contributions—it was here, for example, that Copernicus first posited that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of the universe.
Legend has it that Krakow was founded more than a thousand years ago to honor Krak, a local man who vanquished a monstrous, maiden-eating dragon and became king. Today, Poland’s second city retains its mythical heritage: Wander the cobblestone lanes of the Old Town, visit the 16th-century Wawel Castle, or take a stroll around Rynek Główny, the largest medieval market square in Europe, to soak up the fairytale charm of this historic city.
Like most of Poland, Krakow was devastated by World War II. Many of Krakow’s Jewish residents were forced into the Podgórze Ghetto before being deported to Auschwitz; visit the city’s Jewish quarter to learn more about their tragic fates, and to witness the monuments standing in their honor. You can also visit Schindler’s Factory, made famous in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List.”
While the trauma of World War II has left its scars on the city’s psyche, Krakow’s stunning assemblage of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture managed to emerge from the war unscathed, and it is still considered one of the most beautiful cities in central Europe.
Deep in the Polish countryside, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum stands as a somber testament to one of the most horrific chapters in human history. Here, between 1940 and 1945, more than 1.1 million men, women, and children were murdered as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution.”
In their haste to flee, the Nazis were only partially able to destroy the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound, which has since been preserved by the State Museum and granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Visitors to the camp can trace the footsteps of Auschwitz’s prisoners: Follow the train tracks beneath the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will set you free”) gate and witness the sprawling collection of dilapidated bunks and red brick work houses. A visit to the museum’s permanent collection, with its overflowing display of shoes, eye glasses, and other personal effects confiscated from the prisoners, offers a sobering opportunity to comprehend the staggering scale of the tragedy that took place here.
Destroyed by the horrors of World War II, Poland’s capital city is a mishmash of architectural styles that reflect the city’s turbulent history: painstakingly restored Gothic marvels, concrete blocks hearkening back to the days of communism, and sleek modern constructions made of glass and steel. Warsaw is also home to some of the best museums in the country. Delight in the music of the city’s most famous resident, Chopin, or visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews for a solemn look into the history and destruction of Europe’s largest Jewish community.
Catholicism’s roots have a strong hold in Poland, and the religion continues to play an integral role in Polish life today. Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims make the 128-mile journey from Warsaw to Częstochowa in southern Poland on foot to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. Their pilgrimage ends at the legendary “Black Madonna,” housed in Częstochowa’s Jasna Góra monastery. This famous Byzantine painting has been a symbol of Polish nationalism since the 17th century, when a small band of monks and soldiers defended the monastery against an attack by the Swedes.
Journey 443 feet and nine levels underground to behold a wondrous masterpiece made from … salt.
The Wieliczka Salt Mines were first discovered in the 13th century. Since then, miners have carved a labyrinth of chapels and halls, intricate sculptures, and spectacular architectural designs into the salt, including the Chapel of St. Kinga, the mine’s largest—and most impressive—chapel. The sprawling 5000-square-foot room boasts salt relief sculptures that are illuminated by chandeliers hanging overhead. The chapel’s designs were so masterfully sculpted that you seem to be looking at marble instead of salt.
In addition to being aesthetically incredible, the salt mines are used to produce 700 tons of salt per day and are even believed to have healing properties that treat allergies. It’s no surprise that this Polish wonder was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Gdansk’s pastel-hued cookie-cutter buildings are more evocative of Baltic charm than a Polish city with a complicated history. It’s difficult to believe that the Stare Miasto (Old Town)—with its picturesque café-lined cobbled streets—was once reduced to rubble and building silhouettes.
In the 16th century, Gdansk experienced a moment of prosperity when it served as an important trade port for Poland due to its proximity to the Baltic Sea. With this success came a wave of German immigrants who later altered the Polish city’s history in the 20th century. By the mid-19th century, the city hosted a large German population, which made it easier for the Nazi’s to gain political power. World War II first broke out in Gdansk, which destroyed the city’s infrastructure and spirit, but only temporarily.
Gdansk took nearly 20 years to rebuild, but treasures from the past withheld the destruction of the war, including the city's three historic gates—the Green Gate, Golden Gate, and Upland Gate—and the 17th-century Neptune Fountain, which was believed to have spouted Goldwasser, Gdansk’s iconic liquor.
Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable
Join the Grannies on Safari as they explore Poland's rich history, cultural traditions, and beautiful craftsmanship.
Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos
5 Minutes in… Gdansk
Traverse the medieval streets of Gdansk like a local, and witness the rebirth of this Polish locale.
Produced by Ian Sciacaluga
Poland – Warsaw and Krakow: Sophisticated Sister Cities
Join the Grannies on Safari as they explore Poland's rich history, cultural traditions, and beautiful craftsmanship.
Produced by Regina Fraser, Pat Johnson and Kathy Monk
Intersection: The Warsaw Way
Explore the modern fashions of Warsaw, a city you can visit on our pre-trip extension.
Produced by Jonah M. Kessel
©2013 The New York Times
Immerse yourself in Poland with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Polish Torun is baked in the shape of hearts, then covered in chocolate. Try making them for yourself.
from Harriet’s Corner
Baked using a mold or formed into the shape of hearts, then covered in chocolate, Torun are made year-round—not just during the holidays. Much like Vienna honors the legendary composer with Mozartkugel truffles, Poland’s largest Torun producer has a special heart-shaped version featuring native son Frederic Chopin on the wrapper. But even without the fancy wrapper these cookies are quite tasty when made at home.
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cloves, powdered (you may grind using a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 3 Tbsp. water
1 cup honey
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped semisweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter
1 Tbsp. water
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Winter in Poland is very cold, especially in January, when the average temperature is 27 degrees Fahrenheit—with nights dipping into the low negatives. Though it's not typically targeted as the most desirable time of year to visit, if you pack right and prepare for the snow, wind, and rain, you'll be here to appreciate the beauty of Poland's snow-covered cities and holiday spirit without the crowds that warmer weather brings.
Typically beginning in the last week of November, the Christmas market in Krakow is not to be missed. Dozens of wooden stalls fill Rynek Glowny, the city's main square, and vendors sell anything from Christmas decorations, jewelry, and other crafts, to savory meals, desserts, and alcoholic beverages.
Watch this film to discover more about Poland
March ushers in more sun, though temperatures remain relatively cool with the average around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. By May, the average temperature has typically worked its way up to just below 60. Frequent rains nourish the land, and like the delicate crescendo of a Chopin piano trill, vegetation rises gently from the earth, gradually transforming the surrounding landscapes into a vibrant sea of green. As the forests throughout Poland grow more dense, the idyllic, castle-laden countryside emits an undeniable European charm.
Easter is a very important holiday in Poland with traditions typically beginning a week before, on Palm Sunday, when many people bring dried pussy willow branches (actual palms don't grow here) to church to be blessed. You're likely to see people filling the streets, proudly displaying their beautiful handcrafted "palms." The ritual symbolizes Jesus' return to Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Some towns even hold contests to see who made the tallest, most intricate, or impressive makeshift palm.
The following week leading up to Easter is a very popular time for people to take care of their spring cleaning and housework. For some, this week is observed as a period of fasting, and many take time to visit ornately decorated representations of Jesus' tomb to pray. The famous egg-painting tradition usually occurs the Saturday night before Easter. Known in Poland as pisanki— which stems from a root word meaning "to write"—the tradition is meant to ensure a productive harvest, and actually dates back 5,000 years to a time when eggs were thought to have magical properties. Depending on how the eggs are painted, some results turn out incredibly detailed, with beautiful, festive patterns on them.
On Easter Day, aside from traditional religious ceremonies, many Poles dedicate their time to elaborate feasts, usually with an extensive array of Easter cakes. After the actual holiday comes to a close, the final tradition is known as Wet Monday—a quirky, yet captivating day when boys are known to run through the streets, throwing water at girls in their neighborhoods. As a spectator, you may want to bring a poncho.
Explore Poland during June, July, and August, and expect an average temperature of about 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Tourists flock to Poland around this time, as festivals and concerts are in full swing, and there's plenty of lody (Polish ice cream) to go around. If you're having trouble choosing which summer month is right for you, it may help to note that July tends to be the rainiest.
The vibrant greens of summer give way to yellows and oranges as September stains the thickly forested mountains a tapestry of autumnal shades. Fall in Poland welcomes temperatures ranging from the high 30s to the high 50s (Fahrenheit). As peak tourism season begins to die down, and rains pick up, it's a nice quiet time to visit, but layering your clothing is key.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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