I spent a year living and traveling in Poland, and I absolutely loved it. From the food, to the beer, to the history and the stories – it’s just an amazing place. It’s also a place that not very many people think to visit.
In fact, most people don’t seem to know very much about Poland, despite how many Polish people there are running around the US! (Not judging here – until I ended up there, I didn’t know very much either!)
So, in the interest of sharing some of my favorite moments and places, here’s my top-ten, must-see list for Poland.
1. Jasna Góra
Jasna Góra (yahs-nah goo-rah) is the monastery in Częstochowa (chens-toh-hoh-vah) that houses the famous Black Madonna icon, to which John Paul II had a deep devotion. The name means ‘illuminated mountain,’ and you’ll see why if you’re on the grounds during the afternoon hours. It’s built of white stone, and it absolutely shines in the sunlight. Surrounding the main lawn are life-sized representations to the mysteries of the rosary, and if you walk along the top of the monastery walls you can follow the larger-than-life Stations of the Cross (the interactive prayer which meditates on Christ’s Passion).
This is the heart of Poland’s religious life. Poles have a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, especially in the form of the Black Madonna, who they believe has protected Poland and her people for centuries. Even if you’re not religious, visit. The entire place is a work of art that, in my opinion, rivals San Pietro in Rome.
2. Stare Miasto w Krakowie
Okay, so I’m getting away with something here – I’m putting a lot of things on the list and grouping them all into one entry. ‘Stare miasto w Krakowie’ (stah-rey mee-ah-sto v krah-koh-wee-eh) simply means ‘old town in Kraków.’ This is the oldest part of the city, and it still largely follows its medieval street plan. All of Old Town falls inside the Planty, or the park that runs the line of the old city walls. It’s a wonderfully walkable part of town – in fact, most of the streets have been pedestrianized, so at most you’ll have to worry about getting run down by a horse pulling a buggy or some guy on a bike.
Many of Kraków’s biggest attractions are in this part of town: the Sukiennice (soo-kee-en-eets-eh; cloth hall), the Bazylika Mariacka (bah-zil-eek-ah mahr-ee-ahs-kah; St. Mary’s Basilica), the Wieża Ratuszowa (vee-eh-zhah rah-too-shoh-vah; Town Hall Tower), and the one, the only, the famous Wawel Hill, completely with a castle. There are also plenty of shops, museums, and little restaurants in this part of the city, so it’s easy to spend an entire day (at least) wandering about this neighborhood.
Good to know: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site
3. Jewish Kraków
Kraków and the Jewish people have a long and complicated relationship. Originally invited to the area of Kraków by Kazimierz Wielki (kah-zhim-ee-ezh wee-el-kee; Casimir the Great), the Jewish people enjoyed many freedoms and much prosperity in Poland until the turmoil of the mid-20th century. Even though the old Jewish quarters are fairly well preserved, few Jewish people remain in Poland, either having converted to Christianity to save themselves, escaped to more tolerant lands, or perished under the Final Solution.
While you’re in Kraków, you should wander through the old Jewish quarter, the Kazimierz (kah-zhim-ee-ezh) and across the river into the old Jewish Ghetto. During the Nazi occupation in World War II, most of the Jews in Kraków lived in the Kazimierz, and were forcibly removed across the river (in those days, that would have been outside the city limits) into a much smaller neighborhood.
The main square of the former ghetto created by the Nazis, which used to be called Plac Zgody (plass z-goh-day), is now called Plac Bohaterów Getta (plass boh-hah-tehr-oov get-tah), or ‘Square of the Heroes of the Ghetto.’ The square is covered with large metal chairs, all facing the same way. These chairs are a monument to the Jews who were killed in that square, having taken all of their belongings, including furniture, out into the streets on Nazi orders for ‘relocation.’ The chairs face the building which houses Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s pharmacy, the Apteka Pod Orłem (ahp-tek-ah pohd or-wem), through which hundreds of Jewish children were smuggled out of the ghetto.
From there, it’s only a short walk over to the Fabryka Schindlera (fab-rih-kah shin-dlehr-ah), Oskar Schindler’s factory, which he famously used to save the lives of about 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. It’s now a museum dedicated to everyday life in Kraków during World War II. While it doesn’t focus much on Schindler or the Schindlerjuden, it is a good insight into what Kraków would have looked like in those days.
This isn’t really a fun thing to do, but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s one for a reason. All those stories you read about in memoirs or see in movies, all the outrage at the atrocities that you learn about in history books, comes into full effect when visiting this camp.
The only way to visit Auschwitz I (the oldest part of the camp) is with a tour, and a ticket can be purchased upon arrival on a first-come, first-serve basis. They strictly adhere to a certain size tour group, so if you get there at 10:30, you might have to wait until noon for another English-speaking tour. Auschwitz II – Birkenau can be entered without a tour, but I would recommend going the tour route (the tour goes to both parts of the camp). I would also recommend bringing something to help you decompress on the ride home; a journal, a book, an iPod equipped with a ‘happy music’ playlist, or the like.
Good to know:
- It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Almost the entire tour is outdoors – dress accordingly
5. Stare Miasto w Warszawie
Look, you can already recognize a phrase in Polish! (‘stare miasto w’ = ‘old town in’) The things you learn from me. The Stare Miasto w Warszawie (stah-rey mee-ah-sto v vahr-shah-vee-eh), or the Old Town in Warsaw, is definitely worth a visit. It’s a beautiful place, and if you didn’t know the history, you’d have a hard time noticing that it’s a reconstruction.
During World War II, the people of Warsaw staged a rebellion, known as the Warsaw Rising, against Nazi control and attempted to retake their capital city. The fight waged for six weeks, but ultimately failed; the Polish soldiers were ill-equipped and underfed, and the Nazis, say what you will about them, had an impressive war machine of an army. Upon the surrender of the Polish fighters, the Nazis rounded up almost everyone left in the city, sent them off to concentration camps (many of them ended up at Auschwitz), and bulldozed the city.
When Varsovians returned home after the war, they rebuilt their city, starting with the old town. Using old maps and photographs, they recreated their city as best they could, and this is the city that stands today.
Good to know: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site
6. Ratusz w Poznaniu
The Ratusz w Poznaniu (rah-toosh v pohz-nah-nyu), or the Town Hall Tower, is the pride and joy of Poznań. Built in the 16th century, it features one of the coolest things Renaissance clock towers can feature: animated statues! Every day at noon, two doors at the top of the tower open up, out come two goats, and they meet in the middle, just above the clock, and butt heads twelve times, with each toll of the bell. That’s right, Poznań boasts Renaissance-era, mechanized fighting goats. Because they think their clock is so cool, you’ll see goats all over the city, as statues or on the coat of arms of some business. I recommend you find yourself a rogal świętomarcinski (roh-gahl sh-vee-en-to mahr-cheen-skee), the local delicacy, before strolling into the rynek for the show. Better yet: Visit the Rogalowe Muzeum Poznania and enjoy your rogal and the show at goat-level.
After World War II, a communist regime was established in Poland, and after a while, the people decided they didn’t really like it. Facing poor working conditions and no legal right to negotiate for better, the workers at Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, since renamed Stocznia Gdańska (stohch-nee-ah g-dayn-skah), under the leadership of the famous Lech Wałęsa, locked themselves into the shipyards, refused to work, and posted their demands on the walls of the shipyards for all to see. This strike was the first chink in the armor of the Soviet Bloc, and ultimately brought about the downfall of the communist party in Poland.
Now, the shipyard is home to a massive museum dedicated to the strikes and their aftermath. The exhibit moves chronologically, starting with the immediate cause of the strike, the firing of one of the workers, and going all the way through the 1989 elections, in which Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarność party won a majority over the communist party.
8. Ostrów Tumski
Wrocław, the Venice of Poland, offers some fantastic attractions, but one of my favorites was Ostrów Tumski (ohs-troov toom-skee), or Cathedral Island. Literally, it is an island with the cathedral on it. There are actually several churches, as well as the diocesan buildings (headquarters for the Catholic Church in Wrocław).
The cathedral, Katedra św. Jana Chrzciciela (kat-eh-dra sh-vee-en-tey-go ya-na h-zh-chee-chee-eh-la; Cathedral of St. John the Baptist), has a fascinating history. Like the Stare Miasto w Warszawie, it’s a reconstruction. Walking into the church, I didn’t even recognize it as a reconstruction. It was when I left the church and saw a picture of the bombed-out church stapled to the bulletin board outside that I realized it was a ‘new’ church. The German name for Wrocław is Breslau; at the end of World War II, Allies bombed Breslau within an inch of its life, destroying a huge portion of the city, including about 70% of the cathedral.
They’ve done a fantastic job of rebuilding the church, and it’s beautiful inside. For a small fee of 5 złoty, you can climb one of the towers and take in the view of Wrocław from above.
In a suburb of Kraków lies one of the Poles’ favorite things in their country: theKolpania Soli Wieliczka (kohl-pahn-ya sol-ee wee-el-eech-ka), or the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This place is a feat of imagination and beyond description. (Doesn’t stop me from trying, though.)
Back in the day, this was a functioning salt mine, one of the biggest and most economically relevant in Poland. Somewhere along the line, the miners started carving statues from the salt as they worked. Then they got a bit carried away and carved an entire church out of the salt. The mines no longer produce salt commercially, but tourists are welcome (and they come in droves), and licking the walls is encouraged.
Good to know: It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
10. Tatrzański Park Narodowy
Everyone needs to get out of the city every now and again, and there’s no better place to do that than the Tatras. The Tatrzański Park Narodowy (taht-zhayn-skee park nahr-oh-doh-vay), or Tatras Natioanl Park, is spectacular. Everyone likes to talk about the wildlife reserve up around Warsaw, but I loved the Tatra Mountains.
These mountains are tall, and they’re cold (even in summer – it snowed when I went), and they’re gorgeous. Even if you’re not particularly outdoorsy (like me), take the bus to Zakopane, take the cable car to the top of the mountain, and walk around for a bit. You’ll be glad you did. Then you can go back down to the town and reward yourself with a bite of oscypek (oh-sih-pek; goat cheese).
This is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s just some of my favorite things from my stay in Poland. I could go on for days (and, in fact, I have) about Kraków alone. Even so, I think this would be a good place to start.