10 reasons to visit Poland
Click to check why you should visit Poland
1. Royal palaces and garden complexes
2. Colourful folk art and rich folklore
3. The tragic history: war & Holocaust museums
4. Medieval castles and historic towns & cities
5. Chopin's music, Copernicus' discoveries
6. Natural beauty: national parks, the Baltic Sea, lakes, and mountains
7. Many sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List
8. Places associated with the life of Pope John Paul II
9. Original cuisine and regional specialties
10. Extremely hospitable people and a cosmopolitan atmosphere
Geography of Poland
Poland is situated in Central Europe. It covers an area of 312,685 km² and is characterized by extremely diverse and picturesque landscapes. On the coast of the Baltic Sea, you can find wide, sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, and migrating dunes. In the north-eastern part of the country there is a land of a thousand lakes - Masuria, where yachting lovers, as well as kayak and fishing enthusiasts will find a place to spend their time. Near the eastern border lies the Bialowieza National Park, home of the wild bison. Plains and forests cover large areas of the central part of the country.
History lovers will be surprised at the large number of castles and palaces, built hundreds of years ago. In the vicinity of Cracow, one can find limestone formations of the strangest shapes, hidden caves, and underground rivers. Along the southern border of Poland there are high mountains that form part of the Carpathian range. The most scenic part of the granite mountain range are the Tatra Mountains - the tallest in Central Europe, reaching more than 2,000 metres above sea level. Every year in the winter, the snow-capped slopes are a magnet for skiers, while in the summer, hikers wander the mountain trails.
Poles are a nation proud of their cultural heritage, which is present in different areas. The world-famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus came from Torun, the winner of the Nobel Prize, chemist Marie Curie and composer Frederic Chopin were born in Warsaw. In the industrial city of Lodz, a film school was founded, from which graduated Poland's most famous directors: Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Andrzej Wajda. The largest port on the Baltic Sea - Gdansk - is associated with Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement, created in 1980, thanks to which nine years later, in 1989, Poland emerged from communism and became a democratic country.
Polish dishes may not be as well-known as Italian or Chinese cuisine, but they do boast their original and unique flavours. Most of them are characterized by the use of meat, local herbs and other ingredients. Thick soups and sauces, and the pierogis - stuffed with various ingredients - are the best examples of Polish cuisine. The quite fatty foods can be washed down with local beer, but the most famous Polish alcoholic drink is strong vodka, which comes in various types.
Bigos, a Polish national dish, remains unparalleled elsewhere in the world. It consists of boiled cabbage - sauerkraut in part, to which are added various pieces of meat, sometimes game, and many other ingredients, depending on region and family tradition. This dish has to be boiled every day - then it gets better and better in taste and can be eaten for up to a week.
Pierogis can be found in many Slavic countries, and even outside of Europe, in the form of various kinds of dumplings. In Poland, they can be stuffed with sauerkraut, meat, cottage cheese, mushrooms, grated potatoes, but also - fruit.
Christmas carp - a traditional dish appearing on Polish tables on Christmas Eve. When walking the streets of Polish cities at the end of December, one can see live fish put up for sale. Carp is served on Christmas Eve in the form of fish soup, but also as fried fillet.
Poland - one of the most interesting countries in Europe - offers visitors many exciting places to visit. The historic city complexes, often rebuilt following the devastation of the Second World War, include: Cracow, Gdansk, Wroclaw, and Poznan. These cities boast old churches, picturesque streets, and historic parks. The Polish capital - Warsaw - was founded 600 years ago, and has had a troubled history. After World War II, the city was in ruins. The oldest palaces, churches, and townhouses were reconstructed. Among and around them are modern skyscrapers and many new residential areas. There are dozens of restaurants, music clubs, and shopping centres. There is strong competition for the capital - Cracow, the Polish city most visited by tourists. Once a seat of the kings, it boasts dozens of well-preserved historic buildings, such as churches and monasteries, and the oldest university in Central Europe - the Jagiellonian University.
More than 80% of the Polish population declare themselves as Roman Catholics. The remaining portion are members of the Orthodox Church and Protestant denominations. Foreign tourists notice roadside shrines and crosses standing at crossroads. They were funded by affluent families from the neighbourhood. Also, residents of surrounding villages often built those modest places of prayer, trusting that God would thus be closer to them and protect them.
Pope John Paul II was born as Karol Wojtyła in Poland in 1920, in the town of Wadowice, located in the southern part of the country. He studied at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. For 27 years he was the head of the Catholic Church. The memory of the Pope is very much alive in Poland, his monuments and images can be found in almost every town and village. John Paul II was an authority for millions of people in the world, not just Catholics.
Customs and Traditions
On Christmas Eve, every Polish family gathers in the evening for a traditional dinner. Traditionally, there are 12 dishes, none of which should contain meat. There should be one empty chair at the table, in case a hungry traveller knocks on the door and straw should be put under the white tablecloth to commemorate the birth of Christ. While the main dish is fried carp, dinner begins with red beet borscht followed by a serving of pierogis stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms, along with several types of pastry and pies, including one with poppy seed filling. Prune compote is served as a beverage.
The customs observed during Easter have a very long tradition, and are closely tied with religious observances. The faithful attend a number of services during the days leading up to Easter; crowds participate in Saturday's Mass that begins at midnight. The ingredients for breakfast that is eaten on Easter Sunday should be taken to a church the day before in order to be blessed by a priest. The Monday after Easter is a public holiday in Poland, and one can be doused with water in the street by young people - it's an old tradition that is still practised.
The celebrations of Corpus Christi are held 60 days after Easter (moveable feast, in May or June). At that time, Catholics in every village and town hold colourful processions through the streets. Traffic stops along procession routes, and streets are decorated with pictures of the saints. Processions stop at temporary altars to pray, while little girls dressed in white spread flower petals on the street before the priest carrying the monstrance.
Kupala Night (Feast of St. John the Baptist) is celebrated throughout the country on June 23. People gather on riverbanks, around lakes or the seashore and throw wreaths of flowers into the water. Festivities last until the morning, and include dancing, picnics, and fireworks shows.
The All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1, not only by Polish Catholics, but also by believers in other countries around the world. In Poland, people visit the graves of their loved ones, which involves millions of Poles travelling across the country. Both real and artificial flowers are used to decorate graves and candles are lit in honour of their deceased relatives. On that night, all the cemeteries in Poland are aglow with thousands of lights.
There are shops, shopping centres, and souvenir stalls in every city visited by tourists, or in the vicinity of tourist attractions. The most popular purchases are silver jewellery, amber ornaments, dolls in folk costumes, porcelain and ceramics, figurines made of wood and brass, hand-woven or embroidered napkins, tablecloths, and lace. Art galleries offer valuable paintings and sculptures, and posters designed by famous artists. In every major city, such as Cracow and Warsaw, there are a number of large shopping centres with hundreds of international chain stores. It's a good idea to shop around for fashionable clothing by local designers. Nearly every village has outdoor bazaars that sell practically everything.
Poles are friendly and approachable, and have a positive attitude towards foreigners. They are distinguished by their hospitality, spontaneity, and sense of humour. There are differences in the behaviour of the inhabitants of cities/towns and villages. In the countryside, people are very religious and rather conservative in dealing with strangers; they lead traditional lifestyles. The Catholic religion plays an important role - criticising it or making jokes of religion or priests are frowned upon. Men shake hands in greeting, and when greeting a woman - they kiss her on the hand (though the custom is rare nowadays). Visitors from other countries are often surprised at how men treat even women they do not know with great courtesy - opening the door in front of them, or assisting in other ways. When visiting a Polish family, it is customary to bring a gift (e.g. a bouquet of fresh flowers for the lady of the house or a bottle of wine, etc.). Smoking in public places such as railway stations, restaurants, cafes, bars, and bus/tram stops is prohibited.
Weather and Climate
When is the best time to come? The climate of Poland is characterized by very hot summers (July-August), quite warm and sunny autumn (September-October), and cold winters (December-February), when snow covers almost the entire country. Rain falls throughout the year. The most enjoyable periods, conducive to exploring the country, are late spring (May-June), summer, and early autumn.
What to wear? Tourists travelling to Poland in spring and autumn should bring a sweater, a jacket, and an umbrella. Summer can get very hot (25-30ºC; 77-86ºF), so it would be advisable to pack some lighter clothing and comfortable shoes. During the winter months, Polish people dress in warmer clothing as temperatures can drop to -20 º C (-7ºF).