- World War II History
We’ll begin with the easy one. When many people think of Poland, they think of the nation’s (mostly sad) history in WWII.
The most obvious is the haunting and upsetting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, located about an hour outside of Krakow. It is necessary to pre-book a tour around the camp. The guide offers great perspective on what could otherwise be a completely surreal experience. No matter how much you have read about what happened at Aushwitz throughout the atrocities of this war, being there’s a sobering and emotional experience.
Walking around Krakow, you can explore the former Jewish ghetto and Plaszow concentration camp. These are well known as the true location of lots of the events depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. The relatively new museum in Schindler’s former factory is one of the best WWII museum’s we have ever visited (and we’ve been to a lot), and must be a must-see for anyone visiting Krakow.
A bit more off the beaten path is Westerplatte, just outside the northern city of Gdansk. This is where the first official shots were fired of WWII, between the Germans and the Poles on September 1, 1939.
- Many Beautiful Old Towns
“Beauty” and”Poland” are not two words most men and women put in the same sentence, but that’s a mistake. Despite considerable destruction during WWII, some old towns survived, and many others have been rebuilt in much the same way as they existed prior to the war.
Most travelers think of only Krakow. Granted, the old town of Krakow is as amazing as it is overrun with tourists. The old town of Warsaw is very underrated. While most (or all) of it had to be rebuilt after the war, it’s still a beautiful and interesting place to explore, full of restaurants, pubs, churches, and monuments.
We were pleasantly surprised by the northern port city of Gdansk, which was probably our favorite city to explore in the whole country.
To get off the beaten path a little, try Wroclaw. This town is know as the”Venice of Poland” because of the many canals through the city centre. Spend your time searching for the 300 gnomes scattered throughout town.
Or Escape the centre of Krakow to check out the neighborhood of Nowa Huta, a planned community given as a”gift” in the USSR to Poland and intended to be a communist utopia.
Who knew? An (optimistic) two hour bus ride south of Krakow brings you to Zakopane, and alpine town that would not be out of place in Austria or Switzerland, but happens to be in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The views from popular Mt Giewont are stunning if you can take care of the crowds coming up the cable car on busy evenings.
- Oh yeah, and the Food
Pierogies. What more do you require? You like savory? Done! You need something sweet? No problem. How can such a simple dish be so yummy? For the real connoisseur, get to Krakow for the annual Pierogi Festival each August.
Should you ever get tired of meat/potato/cheese/fruit filled dumplings, we also found great pizza (CZIKAGO in Zakopane), amazing kebabs (Sapko Kebab in Warsaw), and even decent sushi (Sushi Corner in Wroclaw), although the latter took a little searching on our part.
Ensure you wash all that great food down with a few local vodka!
- And Finally, the Beaches!
Yes, you read that right. Beaches. In Poland. Granted, the Baltic Sea can be a bit nippy, but those Poles are hardy people. The beach at Sopot, near Gdansk, was beautiful and occupied.