Musement takes a look at 15 must-visit places Poland, from to Krakow to the Tatra Mountains, and everywhere in between.
Hoping to visit a Central European destination? Some countries in this region are relatively unsung compared to the rest of Europe…which doesn’t mean there are no fantastic places to explore! On the contrary! This is the case of Poland, with its rich history and dreamlike natural landscapes waiting to be explored.
1. Warsaw’s Old Town
As the capital of Poland, Warsaw is a vibrant European city full of culture. Unfortunately, 90% of it was destroyed during World War II, but thanks to excellent restoration work, the city was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With a long history, Warsaw is home to everything from Gothic churches to royal residences and modern skyscrapers, combined with an interesting culinary scene and dynamic nightlife. We recommend you to visit during the warmest months to take advantage of the city’s open-air cultural events.
A terrifying chapter of history took place in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, where it is estimated that more than 1.5 million people perished during World War II. After being designated a World Heritage Site in 1979, Auschwitz was converted into a museum, with streets, fences, and watchtowers preserved in their original state. The buildings contain a collection of original documents and exhibitions about Nazi barbarism. A touching experience you shouldn’t miss.
3. Wieliczka Salt Mine
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is an original enclave that has acquired the status of a monument due to its cultural importance in Poland. Built during the 13th century, table salt was produced here until 2007, although what stands out most about the place are the fantastic statues carved on the rocks by miners, visited by more than 1.2 million people every year. Did you know that the mine also hides a chapel where weddings are celebrated? You can also find a replica of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” etched into a wall
Gdansk embodies Central European charm at its finest. On the shores of the Baltic, the historic center of the city known as the amber capital is a gem, so we recommend strolling the streets aimlessly while admiring the magnificent architecture, such as the Arsenal and the Old Crane. Don’t miss either the High Gate and the Golden Gate, two emblems of the city.
5. Milk Bars
While they are not exactly monuments, visiting a Polish milk bar is an absolute must. These establishments were government subsidized cafeterias during the Soviet era where workers could enjoy authentic Polish cuisine at affordable prices. Nowadays, they’re the backdrop for tasting “grandmother’s food” in an atmospheric locale. In Warsaw, we recommend Bar Pod Barbakanem and Zlota Kurka, although there are many others. Here are some suggestions for Krakow.
6. Wawel Castle, Krakow
The heart of old Poland can be found inside Wawel Castle, converted into a museum of multidimensional art in whose building features a mixture of European architectural styles. For several centuries, the castle served as the residence of the Polish royal family as well as one of the country’s most historically and culturally relevant landmarks. Visit and pass through the royal apartments, gardens, the Gothic cathedral… and delight yourself with a lot of works of art along the way.
7. Tatra Mountains
In addition to Poland’s wide cultural panorama, plenty of natural wonders stand out for their natural beauty such as the Tatra Mountains. This mountain range, in the highest sector of the Carpathians, borders Slovakia, although most of the lakes are on the Polish side. Apart from the serene landscapes, with green prints that will enchant you, the flora and fauna of this area are spectacular – they are also a refuge for brown bears.
8. Slowinski National Park
Approximately 60 miles from Gdansk lay Slowinski Park, a National Park with mobile dunes, the highest of which reaches nearly 10 feet. With incredible lakes, pine forests and swampy vegetation, the park is home to a wide variety of waterfowl, including black storks and eagle owls.
9. Chapel of the Skulls
The voivodeship of Lower Silesia is home to a rather unusual place that could fall under the “dark tourism” umbrella: the Chapel of the Skulls, a spooky baroque church filled with bones of the 21,000 people buried in the subterranean common grave during the 17th and 18th centuries. Morbid traveler or not, this site will undoubtedly fascinate you.
10. “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci, National Museum of Krakow
When in Krakow, head to the National Museum to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with the Ermine”, one of the most iconic paintings by the ingenious Italian Renaissance man. The work portrays Cecilia Gallerani holding an ermine in her arms, an animal associated with royalty. In this female portrait, we can see one of the defining features of Da Vinci’s painting: her imperceptible smile.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more charming place than Zalipie. This small town 40 miles from Krakow is decorated with colorful flowers, a tradition that began anecdotally and that today its inhabitants take very seriously. And this isn’t in vain as it is often referred to as the most beautiful village in Poland. If you want to transport yourself to scenery worthy of Hänsel and Gretel, visit Zalipie.
12. Krakow Old Town
Krakow is a perfect example of “old Europe”. As a cultural and political center of Poland that remained untouched by the ravages of the Second World War, the city today offers a fabulous walk through history through a multitude of museums and monuments. Add to this the warm atmosphere in which Krakow welcomes its visitors and the experience is highly rewarding.
Located in the voivodeship of Kuyavian and Pomerania, Biskupin is the archaeological site of an iron age settlement. Today part of the National Archaeological Museum in Warsaw, the settlement was excavated in the 1930s and has played an important role in the national consciousness, as it shows that even in prehistoric times, the Poles defended their borders from German invaders.
14. Oskar Schindler Museum Factory
The Oskar Schindler Museum Factory has an extraordinary history and serves as the backdrop for one of the most famous films of all time, “Schindler’s List”. During the Nazi occupation, the owner tried to save as many of his Jewish employees as possible, which makes it an important part of Poland’s history. The factory is now a museum with permanent exhibitions.
15. Bialowieza National Park
We end with a natural wonder: the Bialowieza National Park, a reserve located between Poland and Belarus. One of the last European virgin forests, the park is home to a wide variety of fauna, among which the European bison stands out. If you want to meet one, the best time to visit the park is between late autumn and winter.