It may not be the first to spring to mind when contemplating the most aesthetically enchanting European country, but dwelling at the centre of the continent, Poland is laden with infinite attractions equipped to spark the minds and stir the hearts of all who travel there. From awe-inspiring architecture, historical treasure troves, crystalline breaths of the Baltic Sea, and a plethora of diverse flora and fauna, there are a billion reasons to explore this magnificently multifaceted region. I personally loved this proud and unique country when I visited, but I will try to keep it to a minimum here and present just fifteen of the best and most beautiful places to visit in Poland…
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Poznan – one of the most stunning cities to explore in Poland
Settled at the mid-point between Warsaw and Berlin is the vibrant and dainty Poznan: dwelling-place of Europe’s youngest castle. Poznan exudes abstract, ever-present warmth (despite the characteristically chilly winters.) Steeped in culture, there is an atmosphere here that transcends its physical attributes, but is certainly amplified by them.
There is a creative undercurrent that seems to animate everything it touches, manifesting as inspired street art (Poznan is the home of graffiti-artist Noriak, whose ‘Watcher’ observes from every corner of the city) as much as the vivid palette of Stary Rynek, which is home to the city’s dominant attraction since the thirteenth century: the insanely beautiful Renaissance town hall. Its dynamism is intensified by the delectable edibles on offer from hundreds of drool-worthy, independent eateries. Poznan also hosts an eclectic medley of globally recognised festivals, from the oldest violin competition in the world, to an international ice sculpture celebration to pluck but a couple from the bottomless hat.
There is a sense of familiarity to the place, perhaps due to its size – if Poznan were a person, they would stand close and whisper their secrets softly – which makes it perfect for discovering by bicycle or on foot, and the abundance of greenery to be found lends itself marvellously to such an adventure.
Krakow – one of the famously best places to visit in Poland
Poland’s former royal capital, Krakow, is a captivating chimera of medieval splendour and youthful vitality and is definitely one of the must-see places to visit in Poland. Its rich history is peppered with grand metamorphoses, and relics from every significant architectural era remain as testament to the many lives the city has lived. It is a decadent patchwork of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau – each of which has left traces of their reign, adding to the blissfully diverse facade of the city. While it has handed its title of political capital to Warsaw, many hold Krakow in esteem as Poland’s cultural capital. There is an electric hum of visionary energy huddled in every corner and sprawling through its streets.
There is Life here, in abundance, and always a reason to celebrate something, from highbrow to humble. Whether you’re looking to explore Wawel Castle – a stunning emblem of Polish independence as well as being aesthetically remarkable (within its depths, a dragon dwells!) immerse yourself in the kaleidoscopic warmth of Kazimierz (Krakow’s former Jewish quarter,) or enjoy a tasty lody in the largest medieval square in Europe, there is an abundance of incentives to lure you into the city’s potent charms. One of the most intriguing curios is a trumpet signal.
From atop the taller of St. Mary’s Basilica’s two towers, marking the turn of every hour, a simple, five-note melody floats: the Hejnal Mariaki. The provocative signal has been played daily since the fourteenth century and nobody is quite certain who, or when it sprung from. It has, however, become symbolic of Poland as a whole, and the trumpeters must undergo years of highly specific training in order to take their place at the top of the tower.
Tatras Mountains – a stunning destination to explore in Poland
Forming a natural wall between Poland and Slovakia, the Tatras Mountains dominate a landscape that could have fallen from the pages of a fairy-tale. Exploration is restricted to designated paths due to the perils of the terrain, and the ridge can be crossed only by foot (or skis during the winter) as the land is rigorously protected.
Its coverage is not especially vast, but the peaks are monumental, with astonishing biodiversity; the Polish domain alone sustains over 10,000 botanical and animal species, including the brown bear, lynx, and golden eagle as well as dwarf mountain pine, sprawling spruce forests, fir, edelweiss, and crocus. The highest peak of the Polish fragment (constituting just 1/5 of the range) is the Rysy apex, ascending 8200ft above sea level – a point of elevation sure to leave an imprint that will linger long after the descent.
Gdansk – one of the prettiest cities in Poland
Nesting at the Vistula River’s mouth, which melts seamlessly into the Baltic Sea is Gdansk – a land carved from centuries’ worth of maritime hustle and bustle with a discordant history. The fight for control of Gdansk lit the fuse of the Second World War, by the end of which the city was almost totally obliterated. Under Polish rule, many of the ruins were diligently resurrected and Gdansk was formed from Danzig’s ashes.
Most of the major attractions can be found in the Main City: a colourful, cultural nucleus dripping with historical relevance beneath an alluring, pastel facade. Within this area, you can find a brilliant, bronze ode to the city’s mythic guardian, Neptune, perched atop a fountain crafted in the seventeenth century. This precious artefact was concealed for the duration of World War Two, and replaced only when peace was attained. A place of profound beauty, Gdansk is a bright fusion of modernity and archaism, merging a contemporary waterfront, ancient stone gates, untainted wilderness and an industrial edge all gathered beneath a cool swell of Baltic breeze.
Follow coiled, cobbled lanes to Gothic churches, a Romanesque and Rococo cathedral, hidden squares, and the bold may even dabble in a spot of chilly sea-swimming. Beyond the energy of the centre dwells the raw tranquillity of the Sobieszewo Island, from which springs a magnificent array of protected flora and fauna, from sea holly to racoon dogs and a vast opulence of assorted birds. Easily one of the most beautiful places to explore in Poland.
Sopot Beach – one of the best beaches in Poland
A stone’s throw from Gdansk is the opportunity to sink your toes into the several miles of fine, silver sand that comprises the glitteringly pretty Sopot Beach. Its wooden pier (the longest in Europe) provides a simple artery directly into the vast, yawning sea. A few lungfuls of Sopot’s bright, clean air will leave you revitalised – a throwback to its roots as a spa town, now transformed into an elegant, coastal community.
Flocks of trees: sycamore, oak, willow and chestnut spill out from the streets and speckle the beach, which is spooned from behind by a guardian dune, blazingly blushing with reams of wild roses peppered amid tall grasses. If you find yourself full from the natural beauty, follow the coastal path beyond the sandy mount to discover an array of inviting, wooden bars ready to sweep the weary off their feet and fuel the next endeavour.
Pieniny National Park – a scenic beauty spot in Poland
The seemingly vertical walls of the Peniny Mountains plunge down to the Dunajec River, within whose basin Pieniny National Park resides. Small but potent, the park supports masses of life, including 640 varieties of mushroom; its human-carved meadows are some of the most fruitful in all of Poland, hatching 30-40 species of flower for each square meter. About 6500 animal species are known to roam the land, with the strong possibility of more still unseen.
The range’s apex predator is the lynx, and along the banks of the river, otters frolic. Aside from our mammalian kin, there are a great diversity of birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians – a concoction certain to swipe the breath from many chests. For an alternative to walking trails, you may wish to seize the opportunity to ebb down the Dunajec by raft: an exciting, yet soothing means of transport.
Wroclaw – one of the oldest and the most beautiful cities in Poland
Surrounded by the Oder River is the elegant and ethereally beautiful Wroclaw; adorned in architecture that could easily inhabit folklore, it is brimming with art, history and a diverse medley of cafes, restaurants, and bars to fuel your exploration of the largest city in Western Poland.
Wroclaw’s origins are in Ostrow Tumski (Cathedral Island.) Originally a garden, it has been transfigured into a place of profound beauty and architectural significance, full of powerfully symbolic monuments, sculptures, gardens, and bridges. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was Poland’s first brick building, erected in the thirteenth century upon the echoes of an earlier church, and its twin spires offer a panoramic view of the city. One of Wroclaw’s curios is the dwarves that speckle the streets – a wonderfully whimsical emblem of the anti-communist collective, Orange Alternative.
These impish, metal men – known locally as Krasnale – can be discovered in many a nook across the city. A somewhat larger and arguably more astonishing work of art comes in the form of the breath-taking Panorama Raclawicka, a cycloramic portrayal of the battle of Raclawice standing at a massive 374ft across and 49ft tall, it certainly dwarfs the dwarves in stature. Its habitat has been adapted to offer the viewer a truly immersive experience.
Slowinski National Park – known for its huge, shifting sand dunes
Transfigured by the bold zephyr of the Baltic Sea, in the Pomeranian region of Northern Poland, is the remarkable Slowinski National Park. Perhaps the most notable features of this exceptional destination are the shifting dunes; moving at an average pace of 32ft per year, they keep the landscape in a state of constant animation. Their journey conceals and unearths: fossilised trees reach up through the sand, long-lacking the green that once clung to their boughs.
These colossal, sandy mountains can be viewed from many vantage points within the Park, but one of the most stunning is Lake Lebsko, upon whose shores is an observation point from which the dunes can be seen. Slowinski National Park is a World Biosphere Reserve, meaning that its wonderfully diverse flora and fauna are under protection – so much so that much of its terrain is inaccessible to humans. Consisting largely of marshes, meadows, and woodland, the biosphere is home to many unique plants and rare bird species such as the black stork, white-tailed eagle, and eagle owl.
Warsaw – the capital and largest city of Poland
At the heart of Europe is Poland’s extraordinary capital city, Warsaw, whose Old Town exudes an aura of archaism; its buildings, however, are not as old as they seem. Following obliteration during WWII, the city was rebuilt from the ashes using the accomplished (and awesomely accurate) paintings of Italian artist Canaletto for reference. Since this decisive reclamation of identity, Warsaw has blossomed into a major cultural, economic and academic hub. It is also perhaps the only place in the world where you’ll witness a mermaid wielding a sword and shield.
These symbols are dotted around the city, but the ‘official’ syrenka dwells at the centre of the Old Town square. Aside from its innumerable architectural and cultural delights, Warsaw is the uncontested culinary capital, offering everything from Milk Bars (extending back to communist rule, the name refers to cheese cutlets that were often used when meat was scarce) to Michelin-starred restaurants, and traditional, independent bakeries.
Zamek Ksiaz – the largest and most attractive castle in the Silesia region
Obscured by the thick, lush woodland of the Owl Mountains is a castle seemingly spun from the threads of legend. Perched upon the highest rock around, the blushing, dusk-drenched facade of Zamek Ksiaz belies the sinister plots once hatched within. Destined to function as Hitler’s Headquarters, the fortress was usurped by Nazis during WWII, who forced their prisoners to build an extensive, subterranean network beneath the castle-grounds, extending throughout the Owl Mountains. This underground labyrinth was part of an enigmatic construction project known as Project Reise (Giant) – the details of which continue to elude scholars to this day, but many conspiracies orbit the facts.
Though the tunnels and chambers are magnetic in their appeal, what dwells above the ground is worth exploring too; combining Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical elements, the exterior and interior are equally awe-inspiring , and the Palm House contained within the castle’s complex is home to over 250 species of plant! The surrounding forests are not only beacons of natural beauty, but also draw in treasure hunters near and far to try their hand at unearthing the hidden Nazi gold.
Swinoujscie Beach – a great spot for all the family
On the Island of Uznam, Poland’s most scopic seaside destination is Swinoujscie Beach, whose fine, golden sands stretch for miles, bordering the blue blaze of Baltic Sea. Protective dunes obscure all visions of the town giving the space an aura of intimate wilderness.
The size of the beach ensures a relaxed atmosphere, even on busier days, and an array of water sports are on offer for those seeking a taste of adventure. One of the most alluring sights is that of Swinoujscie’s official emblem, the Beacon of Stawa Mlyny; the 33ft high windmill-shaped column acts as a guide for ships departing the Baltic to drop anchor in Swinoujscie. Towering above Wolin Island at a remarkable 213ft is Poland’s largest lighthouse (and the tallest brick lighthouse globally).
The structure suffered damage during WWII, triggering a demand for its destruction, but the German Keeper at the time refused the order, and the yellow-brick beacon remained active, standing tall as ever following reconstruction. The adjacent keeper’s quarters are now home to a lighthouse museum.
Karkonosze National Park – a haven for outdoor lovers
Rubbing shoulders with the Czech Republic and inhabited by mountains tenderly titled the “Miniature Alps”, Karkonosze National Park is 22 square miles of stunning, natural beauty. Recognised as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, it supports an ever-evolving level of biodiversity.
Distinguished by glacial, mountainous cavities, sprawling spruce forests, roaming mouflons and glittering waterfalls, the charms of the park are countless. At Sniezka’s (the tallest mountain of the range) zenith you’ll find the Polish Meteor Observatory, which promises an engaging escape from the chill as well as spectacular, panoramic views. The park encapsulates at least 33 hiking trails covering 100km of varying difficulty and elevation levels, making it one of the most popular walkabout destinations in Poland.
Lublin Old Town – a gorgeous historic town
Perched amid four hills, Lublin Old Town’s narrow, cobbled streets offer up the sensation of stepping into a time-warp; rich in both vitality and heritage it’s home to bundles of enticing attractions – one of which stands as the mouth to the city – the iconic Krakow Gate. Built as part of a fortification system in the fourteenth century, the Gothic edifice has undergone many phases of restoration to maintain its resonance over thousands of years.
The Gate provides passage into the Old Town, often referred to as ‘Little Krakow’ due to its condensed, cultural treasures. From renaissance burgher houses, to an underground tourist trail consisting of old wine cellars and shop basements, to the stunning, Baroque-style cathedral, there is so much to explore. Much of Lublin’s original structure was destroyed in World War Two, yet its medieval core was miraculously untouched, marking it as one of the most authentic and picturesque in Europe. With students making up one-third of its population, Lublin fuses heritage with an atmosphere of budding buoyancy, securing it as one of the most characterful and underrated Polish cities.
Zalipie – a small ancient village in South-Eastern Poland
Affectionately dubbed “the Painted Village,” the picturesque Zalipie is the birthplace of a whimsically enchanting tradition; its beauty may not be carved by nature, but it is by no means any less wondrous. Extending back almost a century, in (we assume) response to soot-stains built up by impractical ventilation, the women of the community began exhibiting a mode of self-expression as functional as it was eye-catching.
In an attempt to keep their homes looking immaculate, they crafted paint-brushes from cow-hair and paint from pigments thickened by fat from their dumplings, and gilded their walls with pretty, floral designs. Akin to the Japanese art of Kintsugi (repairing cracked pottery with gold), the essential act of mending generated a beauty more outstanding than the original form – so much so, that the floral adornments spilled outwards, spreading as fluently as seeds sown until every house was illuminated with colour, inside and out. From there, the process evolved with every cultural leap. With access to professionally concocted paints and brushes, Zalipie’s women sustained their creativity and refined their art to a point of vibrant, intricate detail.
Now, it seems everything that stays static for long enough receives the Zalipie flower treatment: chicken coops, the village well and bridges, sun-dials, dog kennels, bins – anything bare is eventually emblazoned. One woman’s especially ornate living space (Felicja Curyłowa) has been turned into a museum to celebrate and encapsulate the artistic spirit of the village. The tradition still thrives, most markedly in the form of an annual competition in which new paintings emerge and existent designs are rejuvenated.
The Bieszczady National Park – a stunning place to visit and explore in Poland
In the very southernmost region of Poland dwells an expansive treasure trove of wild beauty. The Bieszczady National Park provides a natural sanctuary for an abundance of wildlife, including large, elusive predators such as bears, lynx and wolves as well as deer and Poland’s second-largest bison population.
Characterised by stunning pastures soaring high above the tree-line of the Carpathian Mountains, the Park consists of an extensive network of trails. However, only about 75% of the 113 square miles is accessible, as most of the land is protected. The designated hiking trails are mostly rated moderate to dangerous, so not advisable to the faint of heart!
About 80% of Bieszczady Park is shrouded in forest – dominantly beech – making it an incredible ecosystem to support the conservation and growth of its many native organisms. Tarnica’s peak provides dazzling views of the Wolosatka Valley. One of the most unique aspects is the Podkarpackie Wooden Architecture trail; this route contains relics of pre-WWII settlements and an old, Greek Orthodox Church.
Written by Alisha Riley.