Over the past few years I have been at least 10 times in Poland. Poland has a lot to offer, I consider it as a hidden gem in Eastern Europe that is still not discovered by many tourists. I guess that is also part of the fun! In this article I will share with the must-see cities in Poland, my personal favorites: Krakow, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Warsaw and Zakopane.
Poland is much more than cleaners and construction workers alone!Tom Waes, Belgian television presenter
In this article
Why visit Poland
Witamy w Polsce (Welcome to Poland) says the billboard at the airport. It feels great to be back to this wonderful country, which starts to feel like a second home since I visited it so many times in a few years’ time. Always a pleasure!
Five reasons to visit Poland:
- Super cheap
- Friendly people
- Delicious food
- Great outdoors
- Beautiful cities
During all of my trips to Poland, how many delicious pierogi (dumplings) I ate? How many friendly, hardworking Polish people I met? (and some crazy grumpy ones) I seriously lost counting. In this article I will go into the last but not least reason to visit: the five must-see cities in Poland.
Krakow’s Old Town is so pretty, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like a fun open air museum! Every time I enter Rynek Główny, Krakow’s central market square, I get this urge to make pictures of the historical houses, the twin-towered basilica, statues, Cloth Hall, horses and carriages…
In summer, the terraces are full of people enjoying the weather and refreshments. In winter, the cozy Christmas market stalls bring the square to life while the snowflakes are falling down. The beautiful Wawel Castle looks at its best in spring, surrounded by flowers, a clear blue sky and the fire-breathing dragon.
As peaceful as the city may look today, as much as Krakow suffered in the past. During World War II, Krakow was occupied by the German Nazi regime. In March 1940, the Podgórze district was transformed into a walled zone, known as the Krakow Ghetto. This was where the Jewish population were forced to live and work, until they were deported to surrounding concentration camps such as Auschwitz. Visit Jewish quarter Kazimierz, Schindler’s Factory museum and the shocking Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum to learn more about the atrocities and suffering.
There is a lot to see and do in/around Krakow. Read the following articles for more details, including accommodation and practical tips of this must-see city in Poland.
- Charming Krakow: perfect cheap city trip with culture, history and pierogi!
- Visit Auschwitz – Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and value your freedom more than ever
Krakow and Wroclaw are both located in the south of Poland; Wroclaw in the southwest, Krakow in the southeast. The cities have a number of similarities, but also unique characteristics and sights. Colorful old houses with gorgeous details (some of which are old slaughterhouses) around the main market square Rynek, including a remarkable red brick Town Hall. Like Krakow, Wroclaw’s old town is very picturesque.
Check out Wroclaw’s Hansel and Gretel Houses, visit the museums, admire the Hochberg Chapel of the Saint Vincent Church, climb the Elizabeth Church. Walk around Centennial Hall and Cathedral Island – where a man dresses in cape lights the street lanterns after sunset.
Wroclaw is pronounced as “Vrohts-wahf”
With more than 300 bronze gnomes scattered around the city (mainly old town), you can have a real treasure hunt. Check out the pink heart icons in below map for locations to catch them all! Krasnal means dwarf in Polish. Find the farm animals and ballerina with globe skirt too! This makes Wroclaw a great city trip destination for both adults and with kids. Plus a great zoo and a fantastic aqua-park.
For families with children of 8 years and older and adult groups, these three-wheeler e-scooter tour and Segway tour are fun too! Plus, there is quite some street art in Wroclaw. Enough to keep you entertained for serveral days.
Accommodation tip: PURO Wroclaw Stare Miasto
Gdansk is a beautiful mid-size city in the north of Poland that I have visited multiple times. In the past, Gdansk has built up prosperity as a trading city by the sea, with strong connections to the famous fleet of the Dutch traders. Those familiar with Amsterdam and Bruges, may recognize in Gdansk architectural similarities with those cities. Not strange, knowing the fact that several Dutch and (now) Belgian architects designed numerous buildings in Gdansk, including The Great Armory. Even engineers from my hometown Alkmaar have contributed to some designs in Gdansk.
Stroll along the Motlawa River Embankment that is home to the Black Pearl ship, pass the gorgeous Green Gate. Walk along the colorful painted houses along Dluga Street and the pretty Mariacka Street with boutique amber shops. Dlugi Targ (Long Market) with Neptune’s Fountain and Town Hall are a pleasure to the eye, especially on a sunny day and around Christmas.
Take your time to visit the impressive World War II Museum of Gdansk. Hop on a traditional boat or kayak to see the shipyard at sunset. For an impression of the best things to see in Gdansk see below map. A day trip is too short!
Accommodation tip: PURO Gdansk Stare Miasto
You can imagine that being the capital and business heart of Poland, Warsaw has a lot to offer. With the largest employment of the country, Warsaw is home to more than 1.7 million people. The 17th and 18th Century merchants’ houses at the Rynek old town square (of course Warsaw has one too) were severely damaged during World War II, but were meticulously restored to their former glory.
Some Polish comment that the old town nowadays rather feels like a museum than a residential area. Nevertheless it is a very lively area, filled with cute shops, galleries, cafes and some of Warsaw’s finest restaurants. In winter, Rynek is turned into an ice skating rink.
87% of the Polish population is Roman-Catholic. Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) was born in Poland.
You may know that famous composer and pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was born close to Warsaw. The airport is named after him and his heart is buried in a pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross. The daily live piano concert at Time for Chopin near Plac Zamkowy (Castle Sq) is worth checking out. In summer, there are Sunday afternoon concerts in Lazienki Park, where is also a Chopin Monument. Plus there is a Chopin Museum in Warsaw.
In addition, Warsaw has tons of other interesting museums, palaces, churches, etc. At the square between the royal palace and Rynek old town square you will find the so-called Zygmunt column. Get up at the Observation Tower next to St. Anne’s Church for the best view. I also like the Congress Hall and surroundings.
Accommodation tip: InterContinental Warszawa for an amazing city view from the pool
Besides the above mentioned, Poland has several other cities, such as Poznan and Lodz. I have been too short in Lodz to say enough about it. So far I have not been to Poznan yet, although based on stories and photos I can imagine it would become my actual 5th favorite city in Poland. And then there are Szczecin, Lublin, etc. But I did not want to talk extensively about a city here that I haven’t visited yet. Also, besides the cities there are many other beautiful things to see in Poland, but that would make this article even more extensive than it already is…
Budget tip: look for places called bar mleczny, bary mleczne or obiady domowe. These cafeterias serve cheap, authentic and home-made Polish food, mainly to locals.
Several times I have been in Katowice, Poland’s #10 by population size. Katowice is located in the Silesia region of southern Poland, between Krakow and Wroclaw. A friend of mine lives there and Katowice has its own airport. However, I consider Katowice more of a commuter city, which is nice for shopping and has some good restaurants, but is rather a residential city than a city with lots of eye-catching landmarks and cultural highlights. Not one of the must-see cities in Poland in my humble opinion. Therefore my current 5th favorite place in Poland is a lovely town called Zakopane, a popular holiday destination for many Polish people.
Zakopane is a cute town and ski resort at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, two hours south of Krakow, near the border with Slovakia. It is also known as ‘the winter capital of Poland’ since it is a popular destination for skiing and other winter sports, especially around the mountain Kasprowy Wierch.
There are traditionally decorated horse-pulled sleighs called kuligs. In summer, the area is popular for hiking, mountain climbing, cycling and horse riding. This quad ride is also pretty cool. Zakopane is located at about 800-1.000 meters above sea level.
Poland often makes me feel like stepping back in time, like entering your granny’s cozy warm kitchen. I love it!
The town itself is characterized by wooden houses with pointy tower shaped roofs along the main street with shops and restaurants: Krupowki. In summer there is a market. Zakopane offers a good nightlife and gets visited by more than 2.5 million tourists per year.
So far, the town made several unsuccessful bids to host the Winter Olympics, but will make another attempt for 2022. When in Zakopane, try the local grilled sheep cheese called oscypek with cranberries. Roasted lamb is also popular here, in particular around Christmas. You could also visit Zakopane as a day trip from Krakow.
Accommodation tip: Aries Hotel & Spa Zakopane
When to visit Poland
I find this question a bit hard to answer because Poland has it’s charm every season. If I had to choose, my personal favorites are late spring and summer. Simply because it is sunny, nice temperature, you can walk outside in a dress, the flowers, etc.
However, Poland in winter is also a great idea because the country has a lot to offer in that season. There will be lots of snow, so you can go skiing in the mountains for instance. Besides, it is less crowded and much cheaper to visit places like Krakow and Auschwitz in winter. Especially after the holidays.
Speak some Polish
Although many people speak English, it is always good to learn a few basic words of the local language. Here are some of the useful Polish words that I learned during my trips. Use Google Translate if you want to hear how to pronounce these words.
- dobry dzień = good day
- dzień dobry = good morning
- dobrze = good (ok)
- tak = yes
- nie = no
- dziekuje = thanks
- do widzenia = bye
This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.
How to get to Poland & around
You will probably arrive in Poland by airplane, bus, train or (rental) car. Krakow, Wroclaw, Gdansk and Warsaw have their own international airports. The national Polish airline is called LOT. Wizz Air for example flies about three times a week between Eindhoven in The Netherlands and Wroclaw. Within the country I have also taken several flights, usually Warsaw is the hub. I love hearing piano play at the gate. But domestic flights are not necessarily faster than by train or bus, and not the climate friendliest way to travel either.
The Polish railway system is a pretty good way to get around the country, from city to city. There is a weekend pass for trains and train tickets are quite cheap. Journeys can be a bit slow, so it can be worth paying the small amount extra for first class. Tickets can be bought at the station and for part of the rides also online.
Busses are a great way to travel in, around and out of Poland. FLIXBUS and Polskibus are partners, offering many different rides for affordable fares. Often the travel times by bus are shorter than by train, unless you end up in a traffic jam. Compare and see which transportation method is best in your case. Jakdojade is an app for public transport in Poland, or simply use Google Maps.
Traveling by bus is definitely a lot cheaper than taking a taxi, especially on longer distances. Like from Katowice to Krakow, the bus ticket costs a fraction of what a taxi ride would cost between those two places. In Warsaw there are trams and metro lines, Uber is also available. Krakow has a tram line too. Car share BlaBlaCar works in Poland and usually parking is for free.
By rental car
A rental car and being able to drive around yourself gives a lot of freedom and flexibility. You will be able to see more in a shorter period of time compared to public transport, and the airconditioning is a bit plus too! Just make sure it is insured all-risk and that you bring your EU or international driver’s license.
Personally, when it concerns renting a car, I would recommend Sunny Cars, an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. I am a big fan and use them all the time! In most countries the 2nd driver, free cancellation up to 4 hours in advance and all-risk insurance are standard included. Ideal, I use them all the time!
Explore Central & Eastern Europe
Check out my other articles of Central & Eastern European cities:
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Have you ever been to Poland? Or plans to go there? Any suggestion on other must-see cities in Poland? Please feel free to share your additional tips or question via a comment below.
Last Updated on 11/18/2021 by Elisa Flitter Fever