“Poland looks nicer than I thought. I never planned to visit Poland – until I saw your photos." These were the comments that greeted me on Facebook after I recently travelled across Poland to visit a handful of small towns and cities. My friends were surprised to see how beautiful the old towns and mountains were in Poland – and I’m sure you will be too.
Poland is one of those hidden gems of a country – left off many traveler’s itineraries in favour of nearby Germany or Austria.
But if you take the time to visit, you’ll find friendly people, beautiful old towns and a lot of history. It’s also very cheap too! (If you love the outdoors, this is the place to pick up cheap hiking shoes and camping gear!)
I reached Poland by bus from Germany, reaching the small town of Poznan in just two hours from Berlin.
You can see the best of Poznan in a day or even an afternoon, but it’s worth a look. The drawcard is its Old Town. The Old Town is filled with colour – and there’s lots of restaurants and food trucks to abate your hunger.
During my visit to Poznan, I stayed in the lovely Poco Loco Hostel, located only a 10 minute walk to the Old Town.
Another two hours south of Poznan is Wroclaw (confusingly pronounced vrahts-wahf). Wroclaw is a little bigger than Poznan and again features a lovely Old Town quarter.
A great way to see the Old Town is from the viewing platform in St Elisabeth’s Church. It’s less than $1.50 (5 Polish Zloty) to enter the tower, but you’ve been warned, you have to climb up 400 stairs to the top up a narrow spiral staircase.
The Old Town is filled with colourful buildings much like Poznan and open squares featuring fountains, statues, churches and restaurants.
Three hours by bus from Wroclaw is Krakow. Krakow is a small but beautiful city and is my favourite place in Poland (I’ve visited three times in the past four years).
Krakow has a buzzing Old Town, but it also has a dark side owing to World War II. Any visit to Krakow should include a trip to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp site and the museum on the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory – known from the movie Schindler’s List – to learn more about the city’s history and World War II. Oskar Schindler was a German entrepreneur praised for saving the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews employed in his factory.
I’d been to Auschwitz on a previous visit to Krakow, but this year I went along to the Museum in the administration building of Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory. The museum features an interesting exhibition titled Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945. It tells the story of Krakow’s Polish and Jewish residents during this time, Oskar Schindler and the prisoners of Plaszow Concentration Camp.
The museum takes you through Krakow’s history during the World War II years with photographs, film, documents, exhibits, first hand accounts and sound and light effects. You hear people walking down Krakow’s cobblestoned streets, sounds of the trams, and can watch videos of Krakow’s residents recount their stories.
You read about what life was like in the Ghetto, a three block district built to house Poland’s Jewish population that could work. The district should have held only about 3000 people, but instead more than 15,000 Jews were crammed into the Ghetto.
The section about the Plaszow Concentration Camp is lined with gravel and a fence, while the section about the Ghetto has a replica fence shaped like gravestones to give you a sense of what it was like there. You can see a small remaining section of the Ghetto Wall not far from the Museum on Lwowska Street off Bolesława Limanowskiego.
I’m not normally one for museums after seeing too many to count on previous trips to Europe – but I spent nearly two hours reading historical information in the Enamel Factory building.
During your visit to Krakow, you can also wander the Jewish District known as Kazimerz. Kazimerz is located just past the Wawel Castle and before World War II, it was the centre of Jewish life in Krakow. It was once a pretty dodgy area in Krakow, before being revived and turned into a bohemian neighbourhood containing plenty of cafes, restaurants and historical sites.
The best way to see Kazimerz is by joining a free walking tour which takes you through the district, the ghetto and ends at Oskar Schindler’s factory. English tours are held at 11am, 1.30pm and 4pm.
Free walking tours are also held in Krakow Old Town. You can also visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine from Krakow, as well as the Wawel Castle, located in between the Old Town and Kazimerz.
For budget accommodation, you can’t go past the Greg and Tom Hostels in Krakow. There’s three to choose from but I love the Home Hostel opposite the main train station. They give you free buffet breakfast and dinner during your stay – and free vodka shots after dinner. Need I say more?
From Krakow, it’s only a two and a half hour bus ride to Zakopane – Poland’s outdoor playground.
Zakopane is the Polish gateway town to the Tatra Mountains, which extend over into Slovakia. Zakopane is busy at any time of year. In the warmer months, it’s all about the hiking. In the wintertime, this is where the Polish come to hit the skifields.
There’s dozens of trails in the Tatra Mountains that can be reached easily from Zakopane. Some trailheads can be reached on foot from Zakopane, or by minibus from the bus station. If you can afford it, a car could come in handy if you plan to do lots of hikes.
Most tourists will visit Lake Morskie (Morskie Oko) during their visit to Zakopane. Frequent shuttle bus services are offered to the Lake’s trailhead, and depart from near the bus station as soon as the bus is full.
The bus journey takes about half an hour and costs $2.55 (10 Polish Zloty) each way. You then have a hike ahead of you or can take the option of riding up by horse drawn carriage.
I chose to hike up and it took about 90 minutes (I hike a lot!). Recommended time is two and a half hours each way. It’s a steady climb up mostly on a paved road before you come to a viewpoint or you can go right to the lake’s edge and walk around it. Try and get there early. The lake is very popular with the Polish and neighbouring countries and it gets crowded – even outside of the peak summer months.
Things You Should Know:
- Poland has a great public transport network and it’s very easy and cheap to get around. Polski Bus is the main bus company and buses offer toilets and wi-fi. You can also catch the train but it is slightly more expensive than the bus but can be an hour or two quicker. You can reach Zakopane by Polski Bus or Szwargopol. Both companies offer regular daily services to Zakopane. The journey time is up to three hours depending on traffic.
- Zakopane has lots of accommodation options from hostels, to hotels or many locals have rooms to rent (look for the word Pokoje meaning rooms).
- Hostels are generally of a high standard in Poland and usually offer a free breakfast. At Greg and Tom Home Hostel they also offer a free buffet dinner and free vodka shots to warm you up for the nightly pub crawl with guests at its sister hostels. Expect to pay around $10 to $15 a night for a dorm bed.
- You can easily cross into neighbouring Slovakia from Zakopane. Buses run every couple of hours to Poprad (one of Slovakia’s gateway towns to the Tatra Mountains), and then you can catch a train to Bratislava. You can buy tickets on the bus. Prague is also easy to reach with a bus to Ostrava then change to a train. You can get to Berlin from Poznan by bus or train in about two hours.
- The Polish Zloty is the currency in Poland. There’s a number of money exchange counters in Krakow. In the smaller towns, there’s lots of banks to get money out.
- Polish food is hearty and filling. Must trys are Polish dumplings and zapiekanki – you can take your pick of zapiekanki places at the Plac Nowy roundhouse in the Jewish district.
- Poland has a great public wifi network. You can usally get wifi in buses, shopping centres and even the post office (it comes in handy when you need to translate English to Polish to post something!)
Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 40 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors. Instagram: @_thelittleadventurer Facebook: The Little Adventurer Australia
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