Poland was never on my bucket list of places to see. Not that I didn’t like it-I just never really thought about it at all, even though my travels have frequently taken me near the Polish border. That’s why I wasn’t super excited when I was invited to a Polish wedding. But I am glad I went, because Poland and its people were a surprise and a delight!
I’ll not spend a lot of time on a travelogue here, as Rick Steves does a better job than anyone on the planet, but I will point out that I don’t think any Polish journey is complete without visiting these three cities: Krakow (pronounced crackoff), Wroclaw (roeslaw), and Warsaw (vorsaw). I’d take 4 days in Krakow, and 2 or 3 each in Wroclaw and Warsaw for a very relaxed itinerary that allows for some partying and exploring as well. And believe me, you will want to party a bit, especially in…
Home to 150,000 students, this university town has a well-deserved reputation as European party central, probably because it is extremely cheap to buy anything here, including booze. But it’s also the home town of Pope John Paul II, so many make a pilgrimage of sorts to the places he used to live and worship in. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s super photogenic and is surrounded by a beautiful and walkable park that encompasses all of the old town as well. In fact, I think this is one of Europe’s most walkable cities, and that is saying a lot!
- Main Market Square, especially at dusk, when the street performers are out and the people watching is at its finest. Make sure to listen for the town watchman in the St Mary’s Church tower recreating the moment when, almost 800 years ago, his forerunner’s warning was cut short by a Tatar arrow through his throat.
- The Planty-Take a few hours and circumnavigate the city in this tree-lined park.
- Wawel Castle-especially worthwhile if you’re an art lover, as there is a remarkable Da Vinci work on display there, but the panoramic views of the city and the Vistula River are worth the price of admission alone.
Not as well known as the other two and a bit off the beaten tourist track, Wroclaw was an absolute joy and, as I found out, an easy drive from Krakow. In fact, if I had to pare down my schedule and lose one of the other two cities, I’d skip Warsaw and hit Wroclaw instead. There’s a reason it was voted as Europe’s best destination for 2018: It’s a delightful blend of medieval architecture, gorgeous Gothic churches, one of the largest market squares in Europe, and…gnomes. Yes! Thar be gnomes here!
- Ostrow Tumski-This quasi-island in the Oder River makes for a great walk from downtown. Walk across the “bridge of locks” and marvel at the 10th-century spiritual center of Poland, with its magnificent Gothic Cathedral of St John the Baptist.
- Market Hall-Worth a look because it isn’t for tourists. This old train station now serves as a shopping mecca for locals looking for fresh produce and visitors like me just looking for good coffee.
- Gnomes-There are hundreds of small brass gnomes all over the city, some of them in the most hard to find spots, all of them whimsical and fun to look for. Best of all, they aren’t shy, so I was able to take some great pix of at least a few dozen of them!
The capital city is often derided because it was heavily damaged in the war and much of what was rebuilt was somewhat pedestrian in design, but I found a city with a recognizably historic downtown core, great restaurants, and some very nice parks. It has an urban buzz to it that is hard to find in lesser metropolises.
- The Royal Way-Just walk it. You’ll see nearly everything worth seeing except for the parks-the university, the churches, the Chopin-playing park benches, the monument to Copernicus, they’re all on the way, culminating at the…
- Royal Castle-Rebuilt after WWII but still impressive. From here it’s an easy walk to the…
- Castle Square-also rebuilt, and very crowded with locals and tourists alike looking for food and drink.
I was wrong about Poland. It’s not only worth seeing, I would go so far as to say that no one who truly loves Europe and all things European as I do should miss it. As an additional bonus, Poland is still Polish, for the most part. Walk down any street in Wroclaw, and you’ll see Poles, or at least people that look Polish. Order a drink in Krakow, and the barkeep who serves you was likely born in Poland. Grab a cab in Warsaw, and the driver is likely a native. Poland has resisted the urge to become multicultural, perhaps because they love their own culture so much that they can’t see the need to improve it, or perhaps they see what those sub cultures that have inundated the rest of Europe look like and want no part of it. Maybe it’s time for the Poles to reverse the old stereotypes and start cracking dumb German or Swedish jokes…after all, they’re not the ones who have the “Welcome” mat out for Islam and the Third World.