Poland is a land of rich history and considerable natural beauties, including idyllic lakes, beaches and mountains, which provide a nice contrast to the cultural sights of the country. While large areas of the country are flat, the southern border is lined with a chain of low-lying but lovely mountains that invite days if not weeks of splendid solitude. The numerous twists and turns that Poland encountered in the past can be seen almost everywhere. There are medieval towns like Kraków and Gdansk or the energetic town of Warsaw and other spots, where history buffs are well served. There is also a growing appreciation of the country’s rich Jewish heritage. Beyond the deeply affecting Holocaust memorials, synagogues are being sensitively restored, and former Jewish centers such as Łódź and Lublin have set up heritage trails so you can trace this history at your own pace.
The list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites includes a great number of Poland’s towns and other places. Visit Krakow’s and Warsaw’s Old Town, discover Wieliczka Salt Mine or explore the monastery and churches of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Also, a trip to Torun, the birthplace of Nicolas Copernicus, can be an interesting experience. The list also includes the town of Zamosc, known as the Jewel of the Renaissance, Malbork Castle, one of the biggest Gothic castles in Europe, Białowieża Forest and Mużakowski Park, the extermination camp museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Świdnica and Jawor, which are the biggest wood-constructed places of worship in Europe, the wooden churches of southern Małopolska, and the Centennial Hall in Wrocław.
Poland is the place to be for all music lovers. Poland’s most famous composer is Chopin, whose statue presides over Lazienki Park. The rich musical tradition has continued ever since. Today, Poland’s music scene ranges from jazz to medieval to opera music, which can be enjoyed in a variety of historic and modern venues in major cities. Outdoor concerts take place in parks and squares during the warmer months, while the church concerts and operas highlight the winter season. One of the best-known festivals is Festiwal Tauron Nowa Muzyka, an avant-garde music festival in the heart of Katowice.
Polish pride, spirituality and reverence ran high on April 27th, 2014, when the country’s beloved Pope John Paul II was canonized by Pope Francis I. Aside from the Vatican, no city is more associated with the late pope than Kraków, which remained his spiritual home throughout his life. Before he was elected to the papacy, Karol Wojtyła spent 58 years living in and around Krakow. The region is literally riddled with tourist trails tracing his footsteps, and numerous places all around the area claim a connection with the former pope with plaques and monuments.
The northern part of Warsaw is dotted with stunning Baroque palaces and the meticulously reconstructed Old Town (Stare Miasto), while the southern area boasts two of Central Europe’s finest urban parks. The main sights are on the western bank of the Wisła (Vistula) River, where you will find the central business and shopping district, Śródmieście, grouped around Centralna station and the nearby Palace of Culture. Warsaw is also a town of numerous museums, including the Warsaw Rising Museum, Chopin Museum and the Museum of Jewish History. Also worth mentioning is the city’s club and music scene. The annual calendar is filled with funky street festivals, edgy art openings, and lots of high-brow, Chopin-inspired music festivals.
The legend goes that Kraków was founded upon the defeat of a dragon, and this mythical atmosphere permeates its streets and squares also today. The town, which is famous for its UNESCO protected Old Town, includes the Main Square and Wawel Hill. It is also the only major city in Poland that survived World War II essentially undamaged. Bisected by the Wisła River, the majority of sites can be found on the north bank. But there’s more to the former royal capital than history. As a university centre, Kraków has a tangible buzz of arty youthfulness and enjoys a dynamic nightlife.
Thanks to numerous waterways and romantic architecture, Wrocław is known as the ‘Venice of Poland’ or ‘City of the hundred bridges’. The famed bridges, before WWII there were over 300, are built across 12 islands. The many rivers are best explored either by kayak rental or river cruise. The main waterway is the Odra, with additional canals running across the city’s island network. Drift past sights such as the thousand-year old Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island), Wroclaw Zoo and the most famous of the city’s bridges, the Grunwaldski, a suspension bridge that is brilliantly illuminated at night. Apart from this, Wroclaw has the second-largest market square in Europe, the Rynek. Known as ‘the Meeting Place’, it’s the epicenter of Wroclaw life.
Auschwitz (Oświęcim in Polish) was Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp and extermination camp. Located near the industrial town of Oświęcim in southern Poland, Auschwitz was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, extermination camp and slave-labor camp. As the most lethal of the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz has become the emblematic site of the “final solution”, a virtual synonym for the Holocaust.
The Tatras are Poland’s only alpine-type mountains. Although just one-fifth (175 km2) of this mountain range is on the Polish side, its unimaginably beautiful landscape and the highest summit, Rysy, at an impressive 2499 m, make it worth visiting. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Tatra landscape is the vertical zonation of vegetation types. This promotes biological diversity: the Polish part alone supports over 10,000 plant and animal species. The best-known animals are brown bear, chamois, alpine marmot, lynx and golden eagle. While spruce is the dominant tree, there are also beeches, firs and arolla pines. In 1954, the Tatrzański Tatra National Park was established in order to protect and preserve the nature. Today, there are around 250-km of marked trails and 8 huts where you can relax.
Germany is the country that everyone knows, or better still think it knows. As there are surely hundreds of places worth seeing, beautifuly preserved and intact, full of tradition and culture yet modern in its interpretation.
The land of Švejk is not solely about Prague, though Prague is one of the most beautiful european cities, there are also an abundance of world-class castles, medieval towns and healing spas. And don't forget the breweries neither.