Poland is the perfect tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts, architecture lovers, and history buffs alike. Hike the mountains, visit protected nature areas, or go sailing on picturesque lakes to get your fill of fresh air. Explore town centers to get a look at medieval architecture or visit a small village where bright, hand-painted flowers bring the buildings to life. Or, visit what has become a sobering memorial to one of the darkest times in human history. Poland has all this and much more.
The Tatra Mountains form the natural border between Poland and Slovakia to the south. Often called the miniature Alps, the landscapes are similar, though a trip to the Tatra Mountains is infinitely more affordable. This area was designated a National Park in 1955 and is home to stunning mountain lakes and a variety of flora and fauna. Hiking trails provide plenty of opportunities for spotting bears, wolves, and marmots.
Rynek Główny is the 40,000 square foot town square in the center of old town Krakow. In the midst of magnificent architecture dating back to the middle ages are modern pubs, bars, museums, and cafes. Tower Town Hall, the only surviving part of a 13th-century town hall, sits on the eastern side of the square and has amazing panoramic views of the square. Other places of interest include street performers, a bronze statue of Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and the Church of St. Adalbert, one of the oldest stone structures in the county.
Lazing on the beach may not be the first thing you think about when visiting Poland, but maybe it should be! The Hel Peninsula is a narrow, 21-mile long sandbar jutting out into the Baltic Sea. Enjoy the stunning stretches of golden sandy beaches and amazing sunsets but take some time to explore the rest of the area, too. Visit the seal sanctuary, fishing museum, and learn about Hel's role in World War II at the Museum of Coastal Defense.
Malbork Castle is a large complex surrounded by thick brick walls that includes a monastery, three separate castles, homes, and a large palace. It was built in the 13th century by Teutonic Knights and remained their headquarters until the early 15th century. Today, Malbork Castle is considered a World Heritage Site. A museum displays weaponry and artifacts of the Teutonic Knights and the castle grounds are definitely worth exploring, so be sure to bring your camera.
The Białowieża Forest is a one-of-a-kind place for outdoor lovers to explore. This is the last primeval forest in Europe and home to centuries-old elm and oak trees, as well as thousands of mushrooms and rare birds. It's also a refuge for the largest land mammal on the continent, the European bison. The best time to visit if you want to see the bison is in January or February, but there are tours and festivals to experience throughout the year.
While you're in Krakow, make sure to stop by Wawel Catherdral. It sits in the center of the castle complex on the southern side of the old town. This is a must-see for architecture and art lovers alike as the medieval building features gorgeous details from Renaissance Europe. This structure is integral to Krakow's history and has become an icon for the identity and survival of Poland.
Located in northern Poland on the shore of the Baltic Sea is Gdańsk, a city steeped in art, culture, and history. Take a walk around town and photograph some of the city's 50 wall murals or enjoy a beer in one of 30 pubs down in the main square. If you're there in the summer, check out St. Dominik’s Fair, a tradition dating all the way back to the year 1260. Visit the harbourfront, beaches, and sand dunes, and be sure to stop by St. Mary’s Basilica, one of the three largest churches in the world.
Another must-see spot in northern Poland is Słowiński National Park. One of the hallmarks of the park is the moving sand dunes, which have a peak about 130 feet high and shift about 33 feet every year. An observation tower sits at the top of the nature preserve and offers a picturesque view of the Baltic Sea and surrounding landscape. The park is also home to more than 260 bird species and considered a protected wetland.
Modern Warsaw is worth a visit, of course, but while you're there, make a point to visit Old Town. Buildings here date back to the 13th century and, though many buildings were reconstructed after World War II, the repairs are so good that it's nearly impossible to tell them apart from the originals. There's a lot to see in Old Town, including barrel organ players, portrait painters, the Warsaw Mermaid statue, and the Barbican, an access gate to the city built in 1548 that took nearly 200 years to complete. Old Town Warsaw is considered a World Heritage Site and it's not very hard to see why.
Zalipie is often called a place where time stands still and has a certain fairy tale charm that you won't find anywhere else. Every house, barn, and church in this small village is covered in brightly hand painted flowers. Every spring since 1948, the village holds a competition to encourage people to add color to the neighborhood. The competition, called Malowana Chata, started just after the end of World War II as an effort to cover up some of the damage and help bring the town back to life.
If you have the chance to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, it's something you should not miss. The concentration camp has become a symbol of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II and is a sobering reminder of humanity's history. There are exhibits that chronicle the history of the camp, as well as a 15-minute film that shows the camp moments after liberation. Auschwitz-Birkenau may not be what you had in mind when planning a Polish vacation, but it is an important once-in-a-lifetime experience you will never forget.
Another perfect place for nature lovers is the Great Masurian Lakes region in northeast Poland, right on the border of Lithuania and Russia. There are more than 2,000 lakes here with some sources claiming as many as 4,000. All are connected with rivers and canals making this an ideal destination for canoeing, yachting, sailing, and fishing. The surrounding hills, trails, and small towns are popular for nature-lovers, bikers, and hikers as well.