Poland is a diverse country filled with incredible architecture and lengthy history. The grand architecture left behind from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — the most populous and largest country throughout the 1500s and 1600s — is contrasted by the sobering remains of World War II. The old towns in Poland are some of the most impressive in Europe, and the geography leaves plenty of room for adventure. This insider guide to Poland should help convince you to make this country the next stop on your travels.
Located in Central Europe, Poland encompasses a total land area of 120,726 square miles. Geographically, the country is largely made up of a plain that extends from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Carpathian Mountains in the south. The Baltic coastline is dotted with natural bays, lakes, spits and sand dunes. Poland shares land borders with Germany to the west, the Czech Republic to the southwest, Slovakia to the south, Belarus and Ukraine to the east, and Lithuania and Russia’s Kaliningrad to the northeast.
The climate is mostly temperate, but parts of the country are influenced by the Baltic Sea and cold fronts from Scandinavia. In general, the southeast is the warmest part of Poland. Summer temperatures throughout the country average 64 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temperatures average 21 degrees Fahrenheit to 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
Packing for a trip to Poland largely depends on your itinerary, time of year visiting and the activities you have planned. Bring comfortable walking shoes for exploring the quaint cobblestone streets of old towns and lightweight layers for crisp tempartures.
The official language in Poland is Polish and it is spoken by most of the country. English is the second-most common foreign language learned, but only around 20 to 30 percent of the population can speak English well enough to hold a conversation. Those working in the tourism industry generally know some English, as do younger people in larger cities. In rural areas, it can be difficult to find English speakers. Before you visit be sure to learn some common Polish phrases.
The official currency in Poland is the Polish zloty. It is represented by either zl or PLN. Some places around the larger borders will accept Euros as payment, but it’s generally wise to have zloty on hand. Luckily, exchanging currency in Poland is easy. It can be done at banks, ATMs, or Kantors (exchange booths). Shop around for the best rates, as fees at Kantors in larger cities are generally lower than those in smaller cities. Avoid exchanging currency at hotels or airports, and make sure your bills are undamaged. Always be sure to have cash on handy, no everywhere will accept credit cards.
In restaurants, tips are expected for good service. Tips usually average around 10 percent of the final bill. Tipping in hotels isn’t required. Bellmen aren’t common in Poland, and housekeepers don’t expect a tip. However, you can leave 10 zloty or so, if you so desire. If a taxi is on time and takes a direct route, tip 10 percent of the fare.
Polish cuisine has evolved over centuries and is fairly diverse. It shares similarities with the Slavic cuisines of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but it has also been influenced by German cuisine. In general, Polish cuisine features a lot of meat — namely, pork and chicken. Some recognizable national dishes include pierogi, kielbasa, roasts, borscht and mushroom soup. Potatoes and cabbage are also used extensively.
In Poland, the main meal is eaten some time after mid-afternoon. Traditionally, it consists of three courses and often starts with soup. This is followed by an appetizer, such as herring or cured meats. The main course is usually meat and boiled potatoes. Breakfast is generally a lighter meal, accompanied by coffee or tea. Dinner is comparable to the aforementioned appetizer course.
The culture of Poland is diverse and stems from its complicated and extensive history. The family is at the heart of the social structure, and family engagements will always come first. Interactions with close family members and friends are completely different than interactions with others, and it can be difficult to breach that inner circle.
When meeting in Poland, use eye contact and a firm handshake. Always use titles when addressing acquaintances. Punctuality is also important. At dinner parties, food is usually served family style and toasts are made throughout — usually accompanied by vodka. Polish people generally dress conservatively, so it’s polite to follow suit.
Poland is extremely safe, with a low overall crime rate. Still, keep your belongings close in crowded areas and only use licensed taxis. Always avoid public demonstrations.
Poland’s capital, Warsaw, is also the largest city. It acts as the gateway to the country for international visitors arriving at the Warsaw Chopin Airport. The city of Warsaw is characterized by an eclectic mix of architecture. The remaining gray, Soviet-era blocks are contrasted with modern skyscrapers, while the Old Town of Warsaw features architecture in just about every European style from every era. Not surprisingly, the old town is one of the city’s top attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other attractions in Warsaw include the Royal Castle in Castle Square, Royal Baths Park and King Sigismund’s Column. The capital city is also known for its museums, parks and nightlife.
Northern Poland is bordered by the scenic Baltic coastline. Gdansk is Poland’s largest port and an increasingly popular destination in this region. It even features some architecture left over from the Hanseatic League. However, most attractions are located along pedestrian-only Long Street and Long Market. Also known as “Royal Way”, this impressive thoroughfare is flanked by beautiful city gates. Outside of Gdansk, the nearby town of Sopot is a popular resort city. It boasts the longest wooden pier on the continent and hosts a multitude of health spas.
In the Northeastern Poland, the area of Mazury is a must-visit for adventure tourists. The extensive network of lakes and rivers is perfect for kayaking. The area is also teeming with wooden churches and rich folklore.
Southern Poland is the most visited region in the country, and the former royal capital city of Krakow plays a large role in this. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland and features absolutely breathtaking architectural sites. The Old Town is arguably one of the best in Europe. While there, visit the Kazimierz central market, Wawel Castle, Wawel Hill and the Krakow Cloth Hall.
Outside of Krakow, Southern Poland hosts the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This interesting attraction was a working mine until 2007, and it now offers carvings, statues and four chapels carved out of salt by the actual miners. More solemnly, the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz is also located in this region.
The cities of Poznan and Wroclaw are located in Western Poland. Poznan is well regarded for its old town and the Poznan Cathedral. It is an important university city and cultural center. Wroclaw is Western Poland’s largest city. The 1,000-year-old city was influenced by nearly every European culture and religion at some point in time, creating fascinating history and architecture. Visit Old Town Hall, Salt Market Square and Centennial Hall. The Wroclaw Zoo is also one of the largest and most diverse in the world.
From idyllic lakes in the north to grand mountain peaks in the south, Poland is a unique destination that is too-often overlooked. The historic center of Krakow is unimaginably beautiful, and the spa towns along the Baltic Sea provide pampering and relaxation. This Central European destination is sure to impress even the most seasoned traveler. This insider guide to the Poland serves as a great starting point, when planning your upcoming European getaway.