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Things to Do in Poland

Poland is a country renowned for reinvention. Warsaw, the country's capital, emerged from the ashes of World War II destruction and transformed into one of Eastern Europe’s brightest stars. A sightseeing tour of Warsaw reveals Gothic, communist, and modernist architectural styles, while the Warsaw Rising, History of Polish Jews, and Neon museums are top draws for history buffs. Highlights of Poland’s countryside are the snow-smothered Tatra Mountains and rustic towns of Zakopane and Malbork, all doable on a day-trip from major Polish cities. Hiking opportunities are many, especially in the summer when the lakes in the north are perfect for kayaking and relaxed wanders. Polish pearl and former capital, Krakow, boasts historical gems such as Wawel Castle, Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square), and Kazmierz (Jewish District). If you’re short on time, combine a city sightseeing tour with a visit to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also listed is the former German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, which allows visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors of the Holocaust during a guided tour. Plus, don’t miss out on a visit to the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home to the revered painting of the Black Madonna.
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Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)
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The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall has stood in the same spot in various forms for about 800 years but was originally built to house the local textile traders. From its humble beginnings as a small open-air market, the Renaissance-style hall is now 354 feet (108 meters) long and hosts Krakow’s biggest and best souvenir market, with stalls on the ground floor selling painted eggs, amber jewelry, wooden puppets and organic goods. The hall is gloriously floodlit by night.

On the first floor of the Cloth Hall is the charming, revamped Gallery of 19-Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach). It reopened in 2010 after an extensive facelift, and its artwork hangs in elegant Renaissance salons. The highlights are the two massive satirical works by Polish nationalist artist Jan Matejko.

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Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera)
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Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.

Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war.

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Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto)
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The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars.

From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The district contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall.

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Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square)
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Measuring 650 ft x 650 ft (200m by 200m), Kraków's Rynek Główny is the largest medieval town square in Europe and one of the finest urban designs of its kind. It s layout, based on that of a castrum (Roman military camp), was drawn up in 1257 and has been retained to this day, though the buildings have changed substantially over the centuries. Most of them now look neoclassical, but don't let the façades confuse you - the basic structures are much older, as can be seen by their doorways, architectural details and interiors. Here you will find the Cloth Hall (the world's oldest shopping mall at 700 years), the 13th century Gothic Town Hall Tower, the magnificent 14th century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary, and the small church of St Adalbert, some of which dates back to the 11th century.
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Kazimierz (Krakow Jewish Quarter)
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Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches.

A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country.

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St. Mary's Basilica (Kościól Mariacki)
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The lop-sided towers of the majestic St Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower.

The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

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Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Wawelski)
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The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians.

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Warsaw Old Town (Stare Miasto)
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Almost entirely destroyed during WWII, Warsaw’s historic Warsaw Old Town (Stare Miasto) underwent an extensive restoration that transformed the area into a vibrant riverfront hub. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the neighborhood boasts striking recreations of 17th- and 18th-century structures, as well as the Warsaw History Museum.
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Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki)
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The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, completed in 1955 as a gift to Poland from the Soviet people and Joseph Stalin himself. The building iscalled Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish, abbreviated PKiN, and has over 3,000 rooms on its 42 floors, which include offices, institution headquarters and the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is a post office, cinema and swimming pool, as well as museums, libraries and theaters.

The Congress Hall (Sala Kongresowa) and Concert Hall (Sala Koncertowa) are considered the most important of their kind in the country. The former can hold nearly 3,000 people and has been considered the home of Poland’s jazz music scene. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones have performed here. Not surprisingly, there have been some negative feelings around the building, as many Polish citizens believe it is a symbol of Soviet domination.

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More Things to Do in Poland

Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)

Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)

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Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.

The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones.

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Great Barbican

Great Barbican

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In 1499 Krakow was a wealthy city under constant threat of attack, especially from the rampaging Ottomans. So they made themselves into a fortress. The Great Barbican is both the principal entry point to the city and a massive seven turreted point of defense. These days it looks like a fairytale city gate, back then it was either a massive relief to reach it with your wagons intact, or a deterrent to your planned attack on the city.

The actual gate to the city was St Florian's gate, linked to the Barbican by a covered passageway. But the Barbican and the series of moats and walls which lead away from it, ringing the city, were the first point of entry to Krakow in the Middle Ages. Today, you still enter the Old Town of the city through the impressive Barbican.

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Warsaw Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski)

Warsaw Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski)

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Built in the beginning of the 17th century, the Royal Castle of Warsaw - or Zamek Krolewski - marks the entrance to Old Town, and was the official seat of the Polish monarchy up until the beginning of the 19th century, and also housed the Polish Parliament throughout history. Although, like most of Old Town, the castle was destroyed during World War II, it underwent major reconstruction between 1971 and 1984, and is now fully open to the public.

The beautiful brick facade of the castle is bookended by the bulbous spires so common to Polish architecture, and the castle square alone is worth visiting. In addition to the classic Polish architecture, Italian influences are strong, as the palace was designed by an Italian architect. As such, the building is exquisite, and should be on every Warsaw visitor's agenda. Containing an incredible collection of artwork and art objects, the interior of the castle is a beautiful also houses part of the National Museum.

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Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

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In March 1941, thousands of Krakow’s Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto south of Kazimierz. Plac Zgody, a large square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point during World War II for Jews boarding trains to Paszów, Auschwitz and various other camps. It has since been renamed Ghetto Heroes Square in honor of the Jewish deportees.

Today the entire square serves as a memorial to the Krakow Jews. Designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial comprises 70 empty chairs placed at regular intervals throughout the open space — a chilling reminder of the furniture, luggage and other personal belongings that littered the square after the final deportations and razing of the ghetto in 1942 and 1943.

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Warsaw Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)

Warsaw Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)

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The Old Town Square Market - or Rynek Starego Miasta - is the oldest part of Warsaw, originally constructed in the late 13th century. After being destroyed by the German army, it was restored after World War II to its beautiful prewar charm, lined with 17th and 18th century houses, shops, and restaurants. The historic center of Warsaw, cafe life is at its height with street vendors and performers abound.

Stop to try a local beer or taste traditional Polish fare and admire the incredible architecture all around you. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this area is not to be missed.

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Warsaw Royal Route (Trakt Królewski)

Warsaw Royal Route (Trakt Królewski)

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Originally used as a communication route, Warsaw's famous Royal Way (or Royal Route) is a beautiful, 2.5 mile-(4 km) long road that goes from the The Royal Palace at Old Town to the Wilanow Palace. Walking this road assures you an incredible view of Polish historical landmarks, including St. Anne's Church, the Tyszkiewicz Palace, the Holy Cross Church, St. Alexander's Church, Lazienki Park, and so much more. An entire day can be spent exploring the monuments and side streets that are considered part of the "Road of Kings", and there are innumerable sights to be seen.

An impressive monument to the Polish composer Chopin sits in the Lazienki park, and during the summer, classical musical concerts are held on the lawn. In addition to being the living quarters of many Polish nobles, including the Polish president, museums, chic shopping, people-watching, and fine eateries are abound on this most beautiful and historic of streets.

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Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński)

Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński)

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Founded in 1364, Jagiellonian University is the second oldest university in Central Europe. While it has survived to celebrate its 650th jubilee in 2014, its history has been turbulent. After briefly collapsing in 1370, it was revived in 1400, and in the early 16th century, it enjoyed a golden age in the midst of the Polish Renaissance. However, the prestige of the university eventually declined as Poland’s position in Europe got worse and the country was partitioned multiple times. After nearly closing in the 19th century, the university then hosted major scientific achievements. It was then targeted by the Nazis, who sent dozens of faculty members to concentration camps and destroyed university libraries and laboratories. Jagiellonian continued to suffer under Communism, and it wasn't until Poland’s Communist government was overthrown that the university once again began to flourish. Today it is considered one of the top universities in all of Europe.

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Praga

Praga

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Praga is Warsaw’s right-bank area that was once an independent town, from the time of its first mention in 1432. In the late 18th century, it became formally associated with Warsaw as a small settlement. In its early days as a suburb, many buildings were repeatedly destroyed by natural disasters and military battles; the only surviving historical monument from that time is the Church of Our Lady of Loreto.

Although it suffered repeated damage in its early days, Praga managed to resist WWII destruction, and today, it’s considered one of Warsaw’s trendiest neighborhoods, oozing a cool bohemian vibe. Post-industrial buildings have been converted into art galleries, cinemas, and pubs. Also look for pre-war elements like sidewalks, apartments and lampposts. Praga is quite a departure from the well-traveled tourist spots in Warsaw proper. Its popularity is on the rise, so now is the best time to visit.

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Warsaw Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie)

Warsaw Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie)

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The Warsaw Jewish Ghetto - or Getto Zydowskie - is considered to be one of the most haunting and historically poignant places to visit in all of Poland, and for good reason. Before World War II, there were over 400,000 Jews living in Warsaw, and by 1942, all members of the Jewish community were forced into the German-constructed ghetto, demarcated by a 10-foot-high (3-meter high) wall circling around a specified sector of the Jewish district.

In addition to being the restrained living quarters of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Ghetto was also the place from which thousands of men, women, and children were dispatched to the Treblinka Concentration camp in the summer of 1942, which, in turn, led to the Ghetto Uprising. While the majority of the wall was destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, three sections still stand and are not to be missed.

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Krakow Town Hall Tower (Wieza Ratuszowa w Krakowie)

Krakow Town Hall Tower (Wieza Ratuszowa w Krakowie)

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Pisa’s leaning tower may have all the fame, but Krakow’s Town Hall Tower (Wieża Ratuszowa w Krakowie) is a must-see nonetheless. Quite literally–as one of the focal points of Krakow’s main market square, it’s pretty hard to miss. Built towards the end of the 13th century, the 70-meter tall tower started leaning (it currently tilts by as much as 55 centimeters) after massively strong winds in 1703. It should be said, however, that the tower survived many fires and was therefore weakened considerably throughout the years.
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St. John's Archcathedral (Archikatedra Sw. Jana)

St. John's Archcathedral (Archikatedra Sw. Jana)

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This stunning Gothic cathedral in the heart of Warsaw's Old Town is one of the most interesting historical landmarks. Built in the 14th century, St John's Cathedral - or Katedra Sw Jana - is one of the oldest churches in all of Poland, but was completely destroyed during World War II during the Polish Uprising. However, like much of the Old Town, it was reconstructed after the war, true to its original architecture.

In addition to being the site of many historical events, such as the coronation of the last Polish king, the cathedral also houses the beautiful red marble tombs of many Mazowian dukes, and its crypt is the resting place of many celebrated Poles such as Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienklewicz. The Gothic architecture and artwork is some of the most impressive in Warsaw, and is not to be missed.

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Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh)

Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh)

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Remuh Synagogue (Synagoga Remuh), the smallest of the historic synagogues in Krakow’s historic Kazimierz district, was founded by Israel ben Josef in honor of his son, Rabbi Moses Isserles. The Jewish community began worshipping in the synagogue in 1558, and it’s one of only two active synagogues in the city, as well as the site of the last well-preserved Renaissance Jewish cemetery in all of Europe (Rabbi Moses Isserles is buried there).

Like many of Krakow’s religious buildings, Remuh Synagogue was used as a storehouse by Germans during World War II and looted of its ceremonial objects and furnishings, though the building itself was spared. The cemetery houses some of Poland’s oldest surviving tombstones.

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Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga)

Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga)

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Built during the fifteenth century blending German and Bohemian Gothic architectural styles, the Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga) is the oldest surviving synagogue in Poland. The structure was rebuilt in 1570 by Italian architect Mateo Gucci, who added a Renaissance aesthetic, and was subsequently renovated several times throughout the early twentieth century. During World War II, Germans took over the building and used it as a warehouse, during which time the furnishings and the ceiling were destroyed.

Today, the reconstructed synagogue houses a Jewish history and culture museum; the collection includes Jewish ceremonial items, Ark curtains, Torah adornments and holiday costumes and craft items, as well as a permanent exhibit on family and private life.

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