Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Polish Top 30 - The Best Places to Visit in Poland

Poland is a country with an amazing variety of sights to see and experience, from mountain heights to seafront views, big city culture to village folk festivals, the ancient to the ultra-modern. Here are 30 destinations in Poland that I would strongly recommend to any traveller.

1. Krakow - Without question the finest historical city in the country, and the only large urban centre to escape significant damage in WW2. The old town, central square, Wawel castle and Jewish quarter of Kazimierz rank as some of the nation's greatest sights.

2. The High Tatra Mountains - An alpine range with peaks up to 2500 metres (Mt. Rysy), the Polish piece of the Tatras has an extensive network of trails and overnight huts suitable for hikers and climbers of all experience levels. Zakopane is the service hub for most visitors, while the trail to Morskie Oko is probably the most popular route to take. There are also many wonderful routes further afield to escape from the crowds.

3. Gdansk and the Tri-City Area - The historical importance of Gdansk can't be overestimated - this is where the Second World War began (Westerplatte), and the home of the Gdansk shipyards and Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement. But the city also happens to have one of the nation's most beautiful old town quarters, carefully restored following its destruction in the war.

4. Wroclaw - A wonderful old town square with a cluster of massive brick churches set on islands in the river Oder, this is a city with a special character. It actually contains the soul of two cities - at the end of World War Two, the city was resettled mainly by Poles from the city of Lviv, which had been granted to the Soviet Union.

5. Wieliczka Salt Mine - A trip down into the depths of the mine is like walking into a fairytale, with the highlight being St. Kinga's chapel, an entire church carved out of salt by the miners.

6. Torun - A beautiful old town of towers and church spires, with the added attraction of being the birthplace of the astronomer Copernicus.

7. Oswiecim (Auschwitz) - A place of deep emotions which leaves an impression on all who come to pay their respects. The hall full of thousands of suitcases, eyeglasses and other belongings confiscated from prisoners is shocking in the extreme.

8. Warsaw - The capital of the modern Poland, yet simultaneously a city with a complex historical past. The reconstructed old town and castle are must-sees, but the modern city dazzles with its galleries, shopping and buzzing nightlife.

9. Malbork Castle - A massive brick castle built by the Teutonic Knights. It is considered to be the largest Gothic castle in Europe.

10. Bialowieza National Park - A forest park along the eastern border with Belarus. The highlight for most visitors is the chance to see the European bison in the wild.

11. Poznan - One of the economic centres of the new Poland, Poznan also has a gorgeous old quarter with a main square that just begs to be photographed.

12. Bieszczady National Park - A range of mountains in the far south-east of the country, this is a great place to experience the relaxed pace of village life. Scenic hiking trails lead right up to the borders with Slovakia and Ukraine.

13. Czestochowa - Home of the Jasna Gora monastery, an important place of Pilgrimage for all Polish Catholics. They come to see the Black Madonna icon, credited with protecting the Polish nation through centuries of conflict. The painting was crowned queen of Poland in 1717.

14. Zamosc - A UNESCO-listed small town in the east of the country with renaissance-style architecture.

15. The Wooden Churches of Malopolska - Dozens of impressive wooden temples dot the countryside villages in the south-eastern region of the country. A few still hold Orthodox services, while most have been converted for Catholic use.

16. Dunajec Gorge - Jump on a wooden raft and hang on as oarsmen in traditional costume steer you down the river.

17. Lublin - A historic city of Gothic and Renaissance buildings with an old town that rewards strolling along every cobbled laneway.

18. The Masurian Lakes District - A region of outdoor pursuits such as hiking and cycling with a number of key historic sights. The city of Olsztyn is the base for most visitors, while the Wolf's Lair (Hitler's Bunker) is the main historical attraction.

19. Kazimierz Dolny - One of the most beautiful small towns in the country, drawing weekend crowds from the capital to its galleries and restaurants.

20. The Skansen in Sanok - The country's finest collection of traditional wooden folk architecture, featuring four wooden churches and dozens of folk cottages.

21. Lodz - A large city in the very centre of the country, Lodz has a modern sense of style based along Piotrkowska street, its main artery. Modern galleries and museums feature alongside some of the best pubs and nightlife in Poland.

22. Hel - An old fishing port at the tip of a long peninsula, Hel draws crowds in the summer who come to enjoy the Baltic beaches.

23. Frombork - A quiet town of rustic charms in the north of the country. It features a museum dedicated to Copernicus, who completed some of his most important theories here.

24. The Karkonosze Mountains - A low range of mountains in the south-west along the Czech border. Hiking and cycling opportunities abound in this region of forests and bizarre rock formations.

25. Lancut Castle - A large 17th-century palace in the south-east of the country.

26. The Churches of Peace in Swidnica and Jawor - Evangelical Churches constructed of wood in the 17th century. The one in Swidnica is the most impressive, with capacity for over 5000 people.

27. The Socialist-Realist Art Gallery in Kozlowka - A small but impressive collection of communist art housed in the former stables of a baroque palace.

28. Przemysl - A town of historical significance near the Ukrainian border. It also makes a good base to explore many of the wooden churches in the villages of the surrounding region.

29. Kalwaria Zebrzydowska - A mannerist architectural and landscape park with a pilgrimage Kalvaria.

30. Ksiaz Castle - A large castle south of Wroclaw which was intended to be one of Hitler's bases of operations in WW2.

5 comments:

  1. I like your comprehensive information on Eastern Europe! Given the brief daylight in winter, where in Poland would you recommend for a trip in mid-January? Thanks in advance.

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  2. Hi Patrick, thanks for the kind words! It's very cold in Poland in January, and many museums, castles and attractions in the countryside will be closed to visitors until spring. Therefore, at that time of the year I think it's best to stick to the cities, particularly Krakow, which is lovely with snow-covered rooftops. Wroclaw, Gdansk, Warsaw and perhaps Torun are the other places I'd focus on, since the museums and galleries will all be open when you need to go indoors to get out of the cold. That said, if you're into skiing the Tatra Mountains have lots to offer and January is the peak season.

    Have a great trip,
    Wildroo

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  3. I'm considering going to Poland for 4-5 weeks, traveling by bus and train.. You mention Przemysl as a base to explore wooden churches. I assume I would have to rent a car. Do you know if they are available in Przemysl. I'm putting together a possible itinerary.

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  4. Hi John, there are several excellent wooden churches of the Boyk style in the villages north of Przemysl (such as the one in Chotyniec), but if your time is limited and you want to focus on the best churches the region has to offer I would use Sanok as a base. The best outdoor wooden architecture museum in the country is there (with four superb churches in different styles) and the religious icon museum in the castle complex is also a highlight. Most importantly though, there are many more churches to see in Sanok region than in Przemysl region. One of the finest in the country can be seen in Ulucz (see photos on this site), a short drive north of Sanok. I can't offer advice about car rental in Sanok since I toured the region by bicycle and bus, but there were a few churches in remote villages such as Piątkowa that I would have been able to see if I'd had a car. Keep in mind that there are also some spectacular churches just across the border in Slovakia as well, it would be an easy drive from Sanok to go down to see some of them for a day or two. If you'd like a list of the best churches in each of these regions I can put one together for you.

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  5. I did online research resulting in creating this map which includes links to photos:
    https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=215173560761302512862.0004d7898e70737e33e44&msa=0&ll=49.968889,21.110229&spn=2.153512,3.435974&iwloc=0004d7941087e86395aa6

    I had almost finished when I saw your note. I went ahead and finished.
    Since then I have changed my mind after my research thinking practically.
    Rzeszow seems to be the closest city where cars can be rented. I will be traveling alone and the thought of my rental car going out on me in an area where it would be difficult to find someone who spoke English, does not sound appealing.

    I did the interactive online panorama tour of the Muzeum Budownictwa Ludowego. As you mentioned, there are four churches (plus all the other examples of folk architecture beautifully set). The Lviv Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life has 6 wooden churches one of which is the outstanding Wow! church you have at #2. I accidentally found a picture which lead to a Google street view exploration which found that there is a skansen in Lublin which includes a fine wooden church.

    I would have liked to see the actual rural areas. Perhaps in Sanok I can make a deal with a taxi driver to go out to Ulucz or the villages southeast of Sanok.

    I am finishing my potential itinerary which I will run it past you.

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