Category Archives: Poland

List of articles with tips on what to see in Poland and the best attractions in Poland.

25 Places to See in Poland

Poland is a relatively large country and you’ll need to take some time to explore it properly, or choose one region and focus on that (and you’ll soon be convinced that you should return!). I spent some time backpacking through Poland, meandering from north to south (and sideways), but feel I really need to return to experience more of what this country has to offer – history, culture, food, and friendly people. I’ve put together a list of 25 travel tips on what to do in Poland to help you when planning a Polish adventure.

Historical Museum of Warsaw

Warsaw is a fascinating city and the square in the Old Town, damaged badly in the war, is famous for having been very quickly rebuilt. Spread across several old houses in this square is the Historical Museum of Warsaw, which is well worth a look.

what to do PolandOld Town Market Square, Warsaw by Amanda Kendle

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Polish Gnome Hunting

I’ve mentioned that I actually quite like Ryanair, especially when it can fly me round-trip for 93 SEK to somewhere I’ve never been before, like the Old Town of Wroclaw, Poland.

But Wroclaw had something I wasn’t expecting.  Gnomes.  Lots and lots of gnomes.  I first stumbled upon a gnome and thought it was a tourist gimmick.  Just a small statue of a gnome peering out at me.  But as I wandered around, I realized gnomes were hiding everywhere.  Some up high staring down at me, some swinging from lamp posts, others hiding right in the open.  And still I thought it was some sort of tourist gimmick.

Turns out those gnomes have a pretty impressive history.  An anti-communist history.  In the ‘80s a group known as the Orange Alternative movement protested against the reigning communist regime.  Their focus was non-violent resistance.  And it seems if they could make people laugh or smile a bit, that was a plus.  So they used a variety of techniques.  One being dressing up as gnomes on International Children’s Day back in 1988.  My favorite story of protest was an account of the group gathering at the local zoo in front of the monkey cage and singing Stalinist anthems.  I appreciate the creativity.

The gnomes, though, became a symbol of the resistance and today dot Wroclaw’s cityscape.  I wandered around the Old Town of Wroclaw, happily surprised by every gnome I managed to find.  I was snapping pictures of every gnome I managed to find. But some eluded me. I just know it.  It became a sort of game that got me lost on several occasions, but lost in a city that suddenly seemed just a bit more whimsical.  Gnomes will do that to you.

I went to Wroclaw because I found a cheap ticket for flying Ryanair; I would gladly travel there again, when planning my next trip to a European city, for the sole purpose of gnome hunting.  There are a few I have yet to catalogue.

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Language (Mis)Adventures while Traveling

Before traveling to Wroclaw, Poland I was warned about the language barrier.  Younger people would be able to speak English along with their native Polish, but the older generation would speak Polish and Russian, although they would deny being able to speak Russian unless absolutely necessary.  I was told it was a cultural thing stretching back to Soviet rule.  Mostly though, I was told not to worry about it.  So I didn’t. When doing my travel planning, I didn’t think to bring a phrase book.

Wroclaw riverside

But then I suddenly found myself in a train station, late, without a ticket, and no idea where to go.  And I started to worry.  I do not speak Polish. And I do not speak Russian.  And this was causing a huge problem in my ability to communicate.  I had intended to head out to a town called Rogoźnica to visit an old concentration camp called Gross-Rosen (an amazingly somber and impressive experience by the way and one that I can not say enough about).

I had identified the time I needed to be at the train station and taken care to write everything down so I wouldn’t forget. And away I went to the train station.  What I had not taken care to do was figure out how long it would take me to walk to the train station. I made it though with a bit of time to spare and was pleased to see plenty of ticket windows open and available. I chose the window with the youngest looking employee in hopes of getting someone who spoke English. I did not.

Wroclaw railway station

I began pointing at my piece of paper, attempting to explain the time and place that I wanted to go.  To no avail.  Tens of minutes passed in hopes of finding a ticket to where I needed to be.  Finally, with the help of a second woman, I managed to purchase a ticket.  They had written down for me the platform I was to leave from and the time.  Away I went, harried, but relatively pleased to have a ticket in hand.

As I sprinted to the platform, I noticed something strange.  The time at the platform didn’t match the time on my ticket.  The time on the next platform over did.  I took my chances and went to my original platform.  I found a conductor.  He did not speak English.  I pointed to my ticket, to the train and did the classic shoulder shrug as if to say, is this right? His response? Nyet. I don’t speak Russian or Polish, but I knew what that meant.  So I turned and sprinted for the other train only to watch it pull away.

This time I managed to find a customer service desk.  And the employee there spoke flawless English.  As I kicked myself for not trying the customer service desk first, I was told that the next train didn’t leave for several hours.  My only option was a taxi.

And so, a very long taxi-drive later, and I finally arrived at my destination.  An unused train ticket in hand, and a newfound respect for the language barrier.

When thinking of European destinations, do you consider the language barrier? And have you had any horror stories with your lack of language skills?

Night of the Museums Warsaw 15 May 2010 at Warsaw Historical Museum

Speaking to someone this week who was born in Warsaw, I was reminded of one of my favourite museums – the Museum of Warsaw. I love how it’s built into several great historical buildings on Warsaw’s main square, as well as how well-prepared the exhibits are. They cover pretty much the whole history of Warsaw and do it in a really interesting way.

When I went to check its website I learnt something extra – it’s about to have one of those special night-time openings. This Saturday, May 15, is the Night of the Museums in Warsaw and the Historical Museum will be open from 7pm until 1am with the theme of Chopin’s Warsaw with films exhibitions and kids activities. These late night museum deals are my Europe travel tip of the week – somehow the atmosphere at a museum in the middle of the night is quite different, and quite special.

However, this museum is, for me, a must visit Warsaw attraction, whether you can go at night or not. Regular opening hours are daily except Mondays and it costs 8 zloty to get in – less than 2 pounds.  You might also like to visit the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery and do some Chopin chasing around the city.

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More Tips for Things to Do in Warsaw

Odd Urban Things’s guide to things to do in Warsaw.

More on European Museums

Find out about more museums in Europe on Europe a la Carte.

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Dreaming of romantic days in Krakow

As winter and snow is about to loosen its grip on Trondheim, the Norwegian city where I live, I am dreaming of spring and warmer temperatures further south in Europe. Italy or Spain would be great, but I don’t have many days at hand, there must be some place closer? Then I know:  What about spending a few days in Krakow in Poland on a city break.

On arrival in Krakow I would drop of my luggage at the hotel, then find the quickest way to the Main Market Square, Rynek Glowny. There I would sit down at a cafe, rest my eyes on the twin towers of St.Mary’s Church, and then on the hour, every hour, day and night, the Trumpeter will open the tower window and play the hejnal, a tradition from the time the Tartars came trying to invade the city. If you are interested you can read more about this in the book The Trumpeter of Krakow.

Krakow, a center of both European Catholicism and Jewry, has the only surviving Polish medieval  town center. Pope John Paul II was born right outside the city, Auschwitz is only a short drive away, in winter you can watch ski jumping in Zakopane, or you can visit the amazing Wieliczka Salt Mines with its huge subterranean cathedral craved out of salt rock. Krakow has been named European Capital of Culture twice, so during a few days here you will be filled up with impressions, never a boring minute.

During this visit though, I will mainly be seated in coffee and teahouses. Krakow has a coffee house around every corner, all filled with their special charm. I’d bring my camera and my notebook and would visit one after another, drinking coffee,  sipping the atmosphere, taking notes, dreaming of writing a coffee house book from the city.

Are you searching for a romantic Europe destination? Why not join me at Cafe Camelot in Krakow, and we can search through travel books together? I’m sure we will come up with ideas enough to fill a notebook.

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Chasing Chopin in Warsaw

Until I arrived in Warsaw, I must admit I had no idea that the famous classical composer Frederick Chopin had grown up in the Polish capital, but once there he seemed to pop up everywhere! Whether you’re a classical music lover or not, there are quite a bit of  Chopin-related Warsaw sightseeing to be had across the city.

I have to admit to a love of quirky tourist attractions and this is how I got interested in Chopin in the first place – I had heard that at the Church of the Holy Cross (in Krakowskie Przedmiescie street), Chopin’s heart is actually stored in one of the pillars. I had to go there! Of course you can’t actually see the heart so I just had to take their word for it that it was really there.

Chopin's Heart

If that’s a bit too gory then there are other Warsaw attractions where you can admire Chopin: the Frederick Chopin Monument, for example, which has had an unhappy past after being dynamited by the Nazis in 1940 and not restored until 1958. There is also a Chopin Museum at Ostrogski Castle, and you can visit Chopin’s Parlour, part of an apartment where Chopin lived before he finally left Poland – it includes a piano which used to belong to Chopin, as well as to Liszt, while we’re talking composers.

I’d also recommend a visit to Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery as an addition to your Warsaw sightseeing itinerary.

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Exploring Wolf’s Lair in northern Poland

A real surprise when I visited Poland was discovering how fascinating it was to visit Wolf’s Lair or Wolfschanze, the camp in northern Poland near Ketrzyn which was one of Hitler’s main bases during the latter half of World War Two. I was expecting a bland historical site, but it’s something much more.

Wolf's Lair garages

I stayed in the hotel on site at Wolf’s Lair – it freaked me out a little to imagine that it used to be Hitler’s personal security quarters, but these days it’s a modern enough hotel, and not too expensive. The big advantage is it means you are right there at the Wolf’s Lair site before the tourists arrive. Most of the site these days consists of destroyed concrete buildings and bunkers, half overgrown by forest, and it’s very interesting to walk all the way around the site both admiring the green and being shocked by what your guide (paper or person) tells you used to take place in each building or bunker. Most memorably, there is a plaque identifying the spot where von Stauffenberg placed the bomb that was intended to kill Hitler in July 1944, and you can’t help but wonder how different history may have been if it had been successful.

Wolf's Lair von Stauffenberg site

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Video interview with Krzysztof Paterka, Polish swimmer in Reykjavik, Iceland

As I was wandering around Reykjavik, Iceland enjoying the sunshine and the views over CIty Hall Pond, I started chatting with Krzysztof Paterka. Krzysztof was in Reykjavik to take part in the 2009 IPC Swimming European Championships. He told me about the Championships and what he’d enjoyed about his visit to Iceland.

It’s fascinating to discover the reason why visitors are in a destination. I was in Iceland from the UK to report on the Canary Island “Say no to Winter Blues” campaign phase Mission Iceland, where 100 Canarian ambassadors were in Iceland to select 100 Icelanders to enjoy a free Winter Sun trip in the Canaries. That morning I’d met and interviewed Hogni, a musician from the Faroe Islands, who was in Reykjavik to attend Soundwaves 2009 and was about to shoot a music video outside the Icelandic Parliament about the Icelandic bank crash. Then later that morning I’d interviewed Krzysztof who was there to participate in a sporting contest.

Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery for a fascinating afternoon

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery Gravestones

As Andy quite rightly recently mentioned, there’s a lot that’s worth seeing in Warsaw, and one place I found particularly moving and interesting is the Jewish Cemetery (it’s on Okopowa Street). It’s a huge place covering some 83 acres, and much of it is in disrepair, but that’s partly what makes it interesting.

Being one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and dating back to 1806, there is a lot of history to be found within its walls. It was part of the Jewish Ghetto during World War II, and although the Nazis didn’t exactly destroy it, you can find monuments made from broken tombstones. There are also sad memorials to the children of the ghetto and some newer tombstones which relatives have installed to commemorate those who died in concentration camps.

Warsaw Jewish Cemetery Memorial

Checking out cemeteries may not be everybody’s cup of tea while on holiday, but they are great places to learn about history and be reminded of past mistakes – and Warsaw’s Jewish Cemetery is a place where it is easy to spend a few hours wandering about.

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Horror and History at Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp

Concentration camps, as a general rule, are not always at the top of the list when people are sight-seeing.  People do not like being reminded of certain historical events.  Especially events that, in the grand scheme of things, did not happen all that long ago.

From an historical perspective though, concentration camps, offer a glimpse at the horror that was the Holocaust.  While most people know the history behind Auschwitz, few know about the Gross-Rosen camp.  A Nazi concentration camp about 65 miles southwest of Wroclaw in what is now Poland.

gross-rosen-memorial

Gross-Rosen is very much out of the way, lying just outside of Rogoźnica.  It is not easy to get there.  The train station, is a small building which seems to watch more freight trains go by than passenger trains.  Which is why I found myself taking a very long, but reasonably priced, taxi ride out to Rogoźnica.

I arrived to vast emptiness.  Not a single person was around.  I wandered around thinking I would eventually run into someone.  Somewhere.  Finally, I walked into a building, which doubled as the reception and the museum.  Expecting to have to pay something, I asked how much.  Nothing.  It was free.  I was prepared to pay; I wanted to support the preservation of this history, but nope, completely free. 

Instead, I wandered around the museum with a notebook that translated everything into English for me.  The displays were incredible.  Graphic.  Depressing.  The actual concentration camp was much of the same.

Having started as a work-camp, eventually becoming a concentration camp, Gross-Rosen put over 100,000 people to work in the rock quarry.  Over 40,000 of them died. 

gross-rosen-entrance-memorial

The entrance made this abundantly clear, in a most macabre way because posted just above the entrance were the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.”  In my very loose and literal English translation, “work makes free.”

gross-rosen-entrance

I wandered through the camp, looking at the various buildings, the personal memorials, the large memorial to all victims of the Holocaust.  They stood in stark contrast to the beautiful Polish countryside surrounding the camp. 

After nearly three hours of throwing myself into one of the most sobering travel experiences, I was still alone.  Not a single person had stopped by.  Finally, I began making my way back into Rogoźnica and my trip back to Wroclaw. 

My time at Gross-Rosen was quiet, humbling, depressing, but most important, it was historical.  Given the chance, I would visit a concentration camp again.  Because some things are better not forgotten.

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