Don’t dismiss Poland from your list of European destinations to visit. The Central European nation between the Baltic Sea and the Tatra Mountains has much to offer curious and adventurous travelers. Warsaw has a fascinating combination of post-Communist and modern architecture. Museums, magnificent castles, and other points of interest abound. For unique cafes, packed pubs, and more museums, add Krakow to your itinerary. For outdoorsy types, the Biatowieza area has one of Europe’s last remaining ancient woodlands. Or hike through the Masuria Lake District with 2,000 lakes connected by small rivers and charming canals. And skiing in the Tatra Mountains is a great alternative to the Alps.
Poland’s beautiful places and fascinating history defines a culture that shines brightly in this list of 20 things Poland is famous for.
Despite widespread destruction during World War II, Poland has a number of beautiful cities laid out with charming squares. Some have old towns with cobbled streets, Gothic churches, and intriguing architecture alongside modern restaurants and buzzing nightlife spots. The capital city of Warsaw and the nation’s largest has grown into a huge metropolis with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Krakow, the second-largest, has an old town with cobbled streets and a grand castle. Wroclaw is a delightful Polish city on the Oder River with bridges and lush parks along the banks.
Poland has at least 500 castles around the countryside. Located near the city of Gdansk, the Malbork Castle has the largest surface area of any castle in the world. It’s also Europe’s largest brick building. Completed in 1406, the castle is recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Baranów Sandomierski Castle is an exquisite example of Mannerist architecture. Often called the “little Wawel”, the 16-century Renaissance castle took 15 years to build and has served as a residence for noble families.
Poland is much more than the frozen snowscape some people think it is. Poland has beaches, lakes, mountains, and even a little desert. Besides the aforementioned Masurian Lakeland with its 2,000 lakes, other picturesque terrain includes the scenic Tatra Mountains, the sandy, shifting dunes of the Pomerania region along the Baltic Sea, and the Pustynia Błędowska, Central Europe’s only desert.
The Wieliczka salt mine is one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions. Located just outside the city of Krakow, the mine has is a UNESCO World Heritage. It was an active mine from the Middle Ages all the way up until 2007. The mine has nine levels of galleries and is about 190 miles long. Around a million visitors each year explore the mine to admire the statues made of salt, briny lake, and rock salt chandeliers in the Chapel of Cunegond.
The man the world knows as Pope John Paul II is actually Karol Wojtyla, Poland’s most famous citizen. He was the first non-Italian pope to serve since 1523 after Pope Adrian VI. Pope John Paul worked diligently to end communism in Poland as well as all across Europe. He is history’s second longest-serving pope and was canonized as a saint in 2014. He served between 1978-2005.
The Auschwitz Birkenau Museum is a silent monument to remind the world that the Holocaust and World War ll was one of history’s darkest periods. It tells a sad story but is a well-respected and well-attended point of interest. Visitors say its an emotionally moving experience never to be forgotten. The site was turned into a prisoner-of-war camp for Polish political prisoners in 1939, quickly garnering a reputation for brutality and sadism. Millions of people, mostly Jews were brought here and imprisoned. The museum contains the original wooden barracks, gas chambers, and memorabilia.
The Oder River, a significant drainage basin of the Baltic Sea passes through the Czech Republic for the first 70 miles. A mid-stretch of 116 miles of the river forms a boundary between Poland and Germany. In 1992, the German-Polish Environmental Council created the Lower Oder Valley International Park, a nature reserve. The area is on the Oder’s western banks in the German state of Brandenburg and the eastern banks in the Police and Gryfino counties of Poland. It’s a great place to stroll and go birding.
The Baltic region is rich in amber, a honey-colored gemstone formed from fossilized tree resin. Craftsman in workshops in the Polish City of Gdansk buff and polish the stones to a unique finish and shine. The best way to find amber jewelry at enticing prices is to take a stroll down Mariacha Street, a busy strip in Gdansk. Be sure to check for an official KIGB certificate before bargaining with the seller.
Polish folk dolls have long been a tradition in Poland. Today they are popular collector’s items around the world. The dolls are made entirely by hand, mostly of paper mache and cloth. Old-time skills used for generations are still practiced in making the dolls. The Kaszubka doll is the Pomeranian version of the national doll. They come dressed in colorful folk dresses and are all handmade in the same centuries-old way. The dolls are now a national item as designated by the Polish Ministry of Culture.
Poland produces high-quality dishwasher-safe ceramics and tableware. The pieces are painted with intricate patterns and are almost like a piece of fine artwork. They’re available in large matching sets or individual pieces. The smaller pieces are perfect for taking home from your Poland excursion. The most popular brands are made in the Polish city of Boleslawiec. Find them in Warsaw folk stores.
Poland is known for some of the world’s finest linen products. Tablecloths, runners, placemats, napkins, and more are fashioned from strong, durable linen and come in beautiful patterns. Linens are easy to pack and bring home, so they make great souvenirs. You’ll find these pretty linens sold in shops along Warsaw’s main shopping streets such as Marszałkowska or Krakowskie Przedmieście. Galeria Artis sells traditional folk-patterned and embroidered kitchen linens. For linen clothing, bags, curtains, and rugs, visit Galeria Lnu.
The obwarzanek Krakowski is one of Poland’s most popular culinary specialties. The twirled ropes of pastry are the size of a large bread roll and chewy like Austria’s pretzels. They’re often topped with sesame seeds or cheese. Obwarzanek Krakowskis are sold on practically every street corner in Polish cities. They’re the perfect authentic Polish treat to try while on a walking tour.
Most every country has its own signature candy, and Poland is no exception. Krówki, or “little cows” are made from the country’s version of chocolate fudge with added milk, sugar, and butter. The candies are soft and chewy on the inside with a harder outside shell. Krówkis are made from fresh, wholesome ingredients with no added preservatives or artificial flavors. They’re available all over Poland and sold under several different labels. The one you are most likely to see is called L. Pomorski Syn and comes from Milanówek.
Don’t go to Poland without trying kielbasa, a traditional Polish sausage. It’s made from beef, pork, lamb, veal, horse meat, or venison. The most common type of kielbasa is made of ground pork with added spices and herbs. The sausages in Poland are smoked rather than dried. Some popular brands to look for include swojska, krakowska, myśliwska, toruńska, biała, and żywecka.
You’ll find them in all Polish grocery stores, but for the biggest variety, shop for kielbasa in larger supermarkets. If you wish to take some back home, purchase vacuum-sealed kielbasa.
Oscypek cheese is a delicious cheese made from salted sheep’s milk and produced in the Tatra Mountain region. It’s a holiday cheese for many Europeans and often eaten with a dollop of cranberry sauce. To get authentic oscypek cheese, look for it packaged in spindle shapes. However, this is no guarantee it will be authentic. Fortunately, several EU regulations are enforced to guarantee authenticity. It has to be made with a minimum of 60 percent sheep’s milk, sold between late April and early October, measure six to seven inches long, and weigh about a pound. Cheesemakers must also follow a specific process to ensure authenticity.
Pierogi or Polish dumplings are made of unleavened dough rolled extra thin and filled with a variety of fillings. The dumplings may be filled with meat, mushrooms and sauerkraut, sweetened cottage cheese, or seasonal fruit. If filled with boiled potatoes and fried onions, they’re known as Russian dumplings. Pierogi are often served at Polish Christmas events as an appetizer, main dish, or desert depending on the fillings. They’re either cooked in boiling water or pan-fried.
Gołąbki is boiled cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of any combination of minced beef or pork, chopped onions, rice, and barley. Some variations may also include mutton or poultry. The cabbage rolls are fried in fat and served hot. The word Gołąbki is derived from golab meaning “pigeon” and refers to the cabbage roll’s shape. Try the dish in restaurants in Poland that serve traditional national cuisine.
Poland’s love of beer has surpassed the nation’s love of vodka. Marketing researchers claim that the average Polish citizen consumes from 92 to 99 liters of beer each year. Smaller, regional breweries have popped up across the country in recent years and is a testament that the frothy brew will remain a favorite. In fact, Poland is now Europe’s third-largest producer of beer after Germany and the UK. The most common brands are Perla and Ciechan Miodowe. Perla is 6 percent alcohol and tastes sweet and hoppy. Ciechan Miodowe is 5.7 percent alcohol and is honey-flavored.
The Polish like to drink their beer from large tankards to keep it cool and fresh to the last drop. The tankards come in a variety of styles and often feature Poland’s national emblem, the white eagle. Some may have the Warsaw coat of arms emblazoned on them. The tankards may be made of thick glass or pewter with lids. Find them easily in shopping areas and old town districts in Polish cities.
The battle between Russia and Poland on having the best vodka is an age-old battle. Some say vodka was invented in Poland so they’ve had longer to perfect it. They base this summation on the fact that the word “vodka” appears in Polish Middle Age texts before the Cyrillic texts in Russia. Others claim it’s the kaleidoscope of flavors Polish vodka comes in. The iconic wisniowka has a sweet cherry taste and orzechowka has a hazelnut taste similar to Nutella. Bimber is a long-time favorite older brand of Polish vodka. Zubrowka vodka is flavored with bison grass, a distinct herb with vanilla and coconut undertones. Bison grass is native to the forests of Bialowieza.
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