Things to Do in Poland
The Auschwitz concentration camp was established in April 1940 in the prewar Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oświęcim. Originally intended for Polish political prisoners, the camp was 'repurposed ' as a dedicated center for the genocide of the Jews of Europe. For this purpose, the much larger camp at Birkenau (Brzezinka), also referred to as Auschwitz II, was built 2km west of the original site in 1941 and 1942, and another in Monowitz, several kilometers to the west. It is now estimated that this death factory eliminated some 1.6 million people of 27 nationalities, including 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 Poles and 23,000 Roma.
Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, and many of the original brick buildings stand to this day as a bleak testament to the camp's history. Some 13 of the 30 surviving prison blocks now house museum exhibitions, either general or dedicated to victims from particular countries or races that lost citizens at Auschwitz.
Praga is Warsaw’s right-bank area that was once an independent town, from the time of its first mention in 1432. In the late 18th century, it became formally associated with Warsaw as a small settlement. In its early days as a suburb, many buildings were repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters and military battles; the only surviving historical monument from that time is the Church of Our Lady of Loreto.
Although it suffered repeated damage in its early days, Praga managed to resist WWII destruction, and today, it’s considered one of Warsaw’s trendiest neighborhoods, oozing a cool bohemian vibe. Post-industrial buildings have been converted into art galleries, cinemas, and pubs. Also look for pre-war elements like sidewalks, apartments and lampposts. Praga is quite a departure from the well-traveled tourist spots in Warsaw proper. Its popularity is on the rise, so now is the best time to visit.
The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, completed in 1955 as a gift to Poland from the Soviet people and Joseph Stalin himself. The building iscalled Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish, abbreviated PKiN, and has over 3,000 rooms on its 42 floors, which include offices, institution headquarters and the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is a post office, cinema and swimming pool, as well as museums, libraries and theaters.
The Congress Hall (Sala Kongresowa) and Concert Hall (Sala Koncertowa) are considered the most important of their kind in the country. The former can hold nearly 3,000 people and has been considered the home of Poland’s jazz music scene. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones have performed here. Not surprisingly, there have been some negative feelings around the building, as many Polish citizens believe it is a symbol of Soviet domination.
The Warsaw Jewish Ghetto - or Getto Zydowskie - is considered to be one of the most haunting and historically poignant places to visit in all of Poland, and for good reason. Before World War II, there were over 400,000 Jews living in Warsaw, and by 1942, all members of the Jewish community were forced into the German-constructed ghetto, demarcated by a 10-foot-high (3-meter high) wall circling around a specified sector of the Jewish district.
In addition to being the restrained living quarters of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Ghetto was also the place from which thousands of men, women, and children were dispatched to the Treblinka Concentration camp in the summer of 1942, which, in turn, led to the Ghetto Uprising. While the majority of the wall was destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, three sections still stand and are not to be missed.
Just outside Kraków, some 9 miles (14km) southeast of the city centre, Wieliczka is famous for its ultra-deep Salt Mine, which has been in continuous operation for 700 years. It's an eerie world of pits and chambers and everything has been carved by hand from salt blocks. The Wieliczka Salt Mine was included on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1978. The mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its micro climate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 440 feet (135m), where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.
This stunning Gothic cathedral in the heart of Warsaw's Old Town is one of the most interesting historical landmarks. Built in the 14th century, St John's Cathedral - or Katedra Sw Jana - is one of the oldest churches in all of Poland, but was completely destroyed during World War II during the Polish Uprising. However, like much of the Old Town, it was reconstructed after the war, true to its original architecture.
In addition to being the site of many historical events, such as the coronation of the last Polish king, the cathedral also houses the beautiful red marble tombs of many Mazowian dukes, and its crypt is the resting place of many celebrated Poles such as Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienklewicz. The Gothic architecture and artwork is some of the most impressive in Warsaw, and is not to be missed.
Zakopane is a small town located in southern Poland at the foot of the Tatras Mountains near the border with Slovakia. Known as the winter capital of Poland, it is a popular tourist destination for skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping. Nearby ski resorts include Mount Gubalowka, Kasprowy Wierch and Nosal, and cross country ski trails can be found in the forests surrounding Zakopane. Mount Gubalowka can be reached directly from the town center via funicular.
Zakopane is also a great summer destination, with opportunities for hiking, climbing and spelunking in the surrounding mountains, as well as longer excursions to the Dunajec River Gorge and Niedzica Castle, just 25 miles (40 km) away. It is also a great place to experience the traditional Goral culture—a group of indigenous people with their own unique language, food, music, architecture and dress.
Krupówki Street passes through the heart of Zakopane and ranks among the most famous streets in all of Poland. Stretching for a little over half a mile (1 kilometer), the walking street is lined with restaurants, hotels, bars and boutique shops selling sportswear and luxury fashions. No matter the season, Krupówki Street always bustles with activity; street performers entertain passing tourists while portrait artists draw caricatures. Horse-drawn carriages ferry passengers up and down the promenade. Each summer, the street hosts the International Festival of Highland Folklore, one of Poland’s oldest and largest folk festivals.
More Things to Do in Poland
Built in the beginning of the 17th century, the Royal Castle of Warsaw - or Zamek Krolewski - marks the entrance to Old Town, and was the official seat of the Polish monarchy up until the beginning of the 19th century, and also housed the Polish Parliament throughout history. Although, like most of Old Town, the castle was destroyed during World War II, it underwent major reconstruction between 1971 and 1984, and is now fully open to the public.
The beautiful brick facade of the castle is bookended by the bulbous spires so common to Polish architecture, and the castle square alone is worth visiting. In addition to the classic Polish architecture, Italian influences are strong, as the palace was designed by an Italian architect. As such, the building is exquisite, and should be on every Warsaw visitor's agenda. Containing an incredible collection of artwork and art objects, the interior of the castle is a beautiful also houses part of the National Museum.
The Old Town Square Market - or Rynek Starego Miasta - is the oldest part of Warsaw, originally constructed in the late 13th century. After being destroyed by the German army, it was restored after World War II to its beautiful prewar charm, lined with 17th and 18th century houses, shops, and restaurants. The historic center of Warsaw, cafe life is at its height with street vendors and performers abound.
Stop to try a local beer or taste traditional Polish fare and admire the incredible architecture all around you. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this area is not to be missed.
Originally used as a communication route, Warsaw's famous Royal Way (or Royal Route) is a beautiful, 2.5 mile-(4 km) long road that goes from the The Royal Palace at Old Town to the Wilanow Palace. Walking this road assures you an incredible view of Polish historical landmarks, including St. Anne's Church, the Tyszkiewicz Palace, the Holy Cross Church, St. Alexander's Church, Lazienki Park, and so much more. An entire day can be spent exploring the monuments and side streets that are considered part of the "Road of Kings", and there are innumerable sights to be seen.
An impressive monument to the Polish composer Chopin sits in the Lazienki park, and during the summer, classical musical concerts are held on the lawn. In addition to being the living quarters of many Polish nobles, including the Polish president, museums, chic shopping, people-watching, and fine eateries are abound on this most beautiful and historic of streets.
Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war.
The lop-sided towers of the majestic St Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower.
The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians.
Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches.
A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country.
The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall has stood in the same spot in various forms for about 800 years but was originally built to house the local textile traders. From its humble beginnings as a small open-air market, the Renaissance-style hall is now 354 feet (108 meters) long and hosts Krakow’s biggest and best souvenir market, with stalls on the ground floor selling painted eggs, amber jewelry, wooden puppets and organic goods. The hall is gloriously floodlit by night.
On the first floor of the Cloth Hall is the charming, revamped Gallery of 19-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach). It reopened in 2010 after an extensive facelift, and its artwork hangs in elegant Renaissance salons. The highlights are the two massive satirical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko.
The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars.
From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The district contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall.
Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.
The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones.
In March 1941, thousands of Krakow’s Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto south of Kazimierz. Plac Zgody, a large square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point during World War II for Jews boarding trains to Paszów, Auschwitz and various other camps. It has since been renamed Ghetto Heroes Square in honor of the Jewish deportees.
Today the entire square serves as a memorial to the Krakow Jews. Designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial comprises 70 empty chairs placed at regular intervals throughout the open space — a chilling reminder of the furniture, luggage and other personal belongings that littered the square after the final deportations and razing of the ghetto in 1942 and 1943.
Mt Gubalowka is a mountain above the town of Zakopane in southern Poland. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region, offering amazing views of the Tatras Mountains and a variety of outdoor activities throughout the year. The best way to reach the top is by the funicular that will take you up from Zakopane in just three and a half minutes. First opened in 1938, it was rebuilt in 2001 and now carries up to 2,000 passengers per hour.
Mt Gubalowka has a popular ski resort with about three kilometers of ski runs open from early December to early April. In addition to the funicular, skiers can take a two-person chair lift, T-Bar or rope tow up the mountain. When the ski season ends, a summer toboggan run opens, as do biking and walking trails. There is also a restaurant serving traditional meals, cold beer and hot tea year-round on an outdoor terrace.
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