On first impression the country of Poland is clean and efficient. The traffic is manageable and its population is homogenous, with 97% being ethnic poles and 75% of the population practicing Catholicism. There are very few minority groups in the country. The city of Warsaw has a large percentage of its space dedicated to parks and green areas, about 30%. The number of trees is surprising. Although Warsaw was predominately rebuilt after WWII, it still has a charm to its Old City that’s attractive and inviting for tourists.
The Warsaw skyline is dominated by many tall, non-descriptive sky scrapers, some office buildings, others apartments and hotels. But the tallest building in town and one that sticks out both in its architectural style and its height is the Palace of Culture and Science built in the 1950s as a gift from Stalin to the people of Poland. Today it houses a few museums, conference rooms, and lots of offices. You can visit the observation deck or walk into its massive lobby.
One of Poland’s favorite sons is the musician Chopin, and the airport in Warsaw bears his name. You’ll be certain to hear Chopin’s music playing in the airport, in stores, and from several park benches situated throughout the city. Their other favorite son is Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, and the airport in Kraków is named after him.
The Hotel Bristol, built in the early 20th century, was one of the few buildings to survive WWII. It was used by the Nazis as a VIP hotel. The Hotel was owned by Jan Paderewski (an important post WWI statesman and a musician - his hotel suite still remains and is used by the hotel). Its charming Art Deco style is intriguing, it’s staff is helpful, and the rooms are spacious. Currently they are in the process of updating all the bathrooms to have walk-in showers, rather than tub/shower combos. The Hotel is an easy 10 minute walk to the old town area, and sits on a limited use street, so taxis and shuttle service will drop you off on the corner, where it’s short walk to the entrance. Next door to the hotel is the Radziwill Palace, which serves off and on as Poland’s “White House”.
South of the city center is Park Lazienkowski, on its outskirts sits the smaller “White House” and occasional residence of the country’s president. The park is huge and hosts Chopin concerts in the summer. Wander around and enjoy the buildings, buy a treat, feed the pet-like squirrels, take pictures of the proud peacocks, admire the architecture, and take note of the Palace on the Water.
A quick 10 minute walk from the Bristol Hotel is the center of Old Town Warsaw, which was painstakingly rebuilt after WWII, down to the art and color on each building. The artwork of Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto was instrumental in this task as photos were in black and while. Although a bit too clean and perfect to pass as a medieval town, it’s a nice representation and has been given the distinction of a world UNESCO site. The historical highlight of the Old Town is the Royal Palace. With the exception of one small wall, the palace was completely rebuilt after WWII. However, it houses many of the original furnishings and is the most opulent in all of Poland. Old town is small and lends itself to strolling and wandering, there are several shops and restaurants and it’s not overly crowded. Don’t miss the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the final battle ground of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, and the central Market Square with its Mermaid Statue, a symbol of the city. Try your hand a pumping the water at the far end, it’s harder than it appears.
The history of Jews in Poland began a millennium ago when Jewish merchants reached Poland in the 10th century. The POLIN museum (Museum of the History of Polish Jews) tells their story through pictures, art, writings, and a few artifacts. It’s well done and immense. A guide is suggested as you might get bogged down with all the reading. The Jewish history is long and rich in Poland. In the 1600’s 80% of all Jews in Europe were living in Poland. The Polish Jewish population culminated with 3 million Jews living in Poland at the beginning of WWII. The museum itself is built inside the Jewish Ghetto as a living memorial to the Jews who lost their lives in that area during WWII. Just outside the museum is Ghetto Hero’s Square “for the dignity and freedom of the Jewish Nation, for a free Poland, and for the liberation of humankind”.
It’s hard to imagine the decimation this area experienced during WWII when looking at it today. Nearly nothing of pre WWII remains. One exception is a small portion of the wall partitioning this area and the foundation and stairs leading up the home at Mila 18, an address memorialized by the author Leon Uris retelling the story of the Warsaw uprising.
For a different lunch experience visit Kamanda Lwowksa where you will learn to make Pierogis and then practice making them for your own lunch. Pierogis are a dumpling (generally boiled, but they can be fried), filled with meats, cabbage, potatoes, and sweats like cheeses and fruits. Polish food has a heavy Jewish influence and because of its northern climate lends itself to potatoes, beets, and soups. Some other local favorites are Kielbasa soup, fried potato cakes, and schmaltz; of course vodka is the national drink.
A 20 minute ride outside the city you’ll find the Wilanow Palace. It is sometimes referred to as the Little Versailles of Poland, although that comparison is a stretch. The Palace has been a museum since the early 1800s and houses a collection of arts and artifacts owned by the royal and noble families of Poland.
Krakow is a must for any Poland itinerary. It is a short 35 minute flight or 2 hour express train away, and as much as Warsaw has to offer, Kraków has more. As the political and cultural center of Poland for centuries and as a favorite city of the Germany Nazis it was not destroyed during WWII and its charm and history are enjoyed by visitors all over the world. The city is ringed by a grassy, tree lined park where the city walls once stood. It is filled with people enjoying themselves. The city is home to the two biggest universities in Poland. The oldest, Jagiellonian Universtiy, got its start in 1364 and boast 150,000 students today. Among its graduates are Nikolas Copernicus and St. John Paul II.
The old town is dominated by its massive Market Square; it is a gathering spot for the city and filled with outdoor cafes, shopping, street entertainers, artists, musicians, flower sellers, and much more. In the center sits the very Italian Renaissance looking clothe hall, built in the 16th century. Its name tells all as this is where the merchants gathered to sell their wares. Today it’s a nice shopping area for tourists. Diagonally placed on the corner of the Market Square is St. Mary’s Cathedral. A church has sat on this site since the 13th century. You’ll want to pay the admission and go inside to see the Gothic alter piece completed in 1489. Outside the tourists enjoy the bugler who, every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, opens the window in the tower, extends his bugle and plays a melody that stops abruptly symbolizing the time, centuries earlier, when a similar bugler was shot while warning the people during the first tarter invasion.
Other prominent points of interest on the square are the tower (the only remnant of the town hall from the 14th century), the contemporary sculpture of a head on its side, and a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, a popular Polish poet. This statue is a favorite meeting point for locals.
One could easily spend several days in Kraków and its surrounding areas. There are obvious sites to see and then the not so obvious. Pick and choose what interests you. A couple of sites that honor Poles who risked their lives and livelihood to help Jews during WWII are worth a stop, Pharmacy under the Eagle and Schindler’s Factory Museum. Although Schindler’s Factory Museum is more a tribute and museum to Krakovians during WWII than to Schindler himself it is worth a visit as it tells the story of Kraków during WWII. The story of Oskar Schindler was made popular by the movie Schindler’s list. There are so many stories of everyday heroes during this horrific moment of Polish history. Their stories are inspiring. Another such story is told in the Pharmacy under the Eagle museum. This Pharmacy was owned by a Catholic Pole who chose to stay there after the area was turned into the Jewish Ghetto. Both the owner of the pharmacy and Oskar Schindler were recipients of the “Righteous Among Nations” award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to help the Nazi victims during WWII. (It’s a good idea to get tickets in advance to Schindler’s museum as there is a timed entrance and the line can get very long. They can be purchased in advance on-line or in the Market Square in Kraków.
The dominating feature of Kraków is the Palace and Cathedral atop Wawel Hill. A castle has stood on this hill since the beginning of recorded Polish history. It’s a short, but steep 5 minute walk up to the complex. The first structure you’ll encounter is the Cathedral. On the outside it looks like a conglomeration of several different church styles throughout the ages, but amazingly enough it all comes together in a beautiful cohesiveness that works. Inside you’ll find the tombs of nearly all of Poland’s most important rulers and historical figures, the notable exception being Pope John Paul II who is buried in the Vatican City.
There are several smallish museums on Wawel Hill; a visit to the Royal Palace is worth your time. You can choose to visit the Palace rooms on your own or with a guide. Although small when compared to other European Castles, it is beautiful and well preserved. To help raise funds for its renovation after WWII, a presidential suite was built so that the visiting Polish President would have a place to stay while in Kraków.
A somber, but necessary stop while in Kraków is Auschwitz concentration camp. George Santayana said “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Immediately after WWII ended, survivors of Auschwitz were asked to help turn this place of death into a place of remembrance for those who suffered and died. It’s a reverent place and when visiting deserves such respect. It’s an historic recount of the atrocities that happened and can be difficult to process. You should plan to spend 3 hours here, always under the direction of a guide. There are 2 places to visit, the smaller Auschwitz and the larger, more recognizable Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is a lot of walking and buildings are not equipped with elevators and ramps so as to keep with historical accuracy. Tickets and tours must be arranged several weeks, if not months, ahead during busy season.
The outskirts of Kraków also offer sites to the Catholic pilgrim. Two of the more popular are Wadowice, the boyhood town of Pope John Paul II and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska Santuario a world UNESCO site. It is here, at the Sanctuary, that thousands of pilgrims travel each Easter time to walk their own via dolorosa imitating the Via Dolorosa that Jesus Christ traveled in Jerusalem two millennial ago. Wadowice is a charming, small Polish town with a central church where the young Pope attended church as a child. Across the street is his boyhood home that has a tasteful museum. A guide is required inside the museum; check the schedule for English times.
A short 20 minute car ride outside of Krakow, you’ll find yourself at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a very unique destination. The mine has been in existence for hundreds of years and has been actively producing salt until just a few years ago. There was a time when salt mining produced one third of Poland’s national income. A visit to the mine can take several hours. First you’ll descend 380 steps down to a cavernous mine filled with over 2,000 chambers. Your 1.5 mile walking tour will last a couple of hours. Luckily there is an elevator to the top at the end. In the 19th century miners began to carve figures, chapels, and chandeliers out of the salt. Near the end of the tour you’ll visit the enormous Chapel of St. Kings which took over three decades to build and carve. The mine hosts mass every Sunday in this chapel (free to the first 300 guests) as well as weddings and large events in other areas of the mine.
Poland is often overlooked as a European destination because of its flashy neighbors. The Poles are working hard to change this image and show off their country. It was impressive to see how many young Poles spoke English and communicating was not a problem. Another thing to consider is that the Polish currency, the Zloty, is not as strong as the Euro, thus prices for food, tours, and accommodations are very reasonable. A 30 minute Uber ride from the Warsaw airport into town cost the equivalent of $12. Don’t wait too long to make your visit. Poland is being discovered, especially Krakow which was over flowing with tourist even in early spring.
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Morris Murdock Travel Specialist