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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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Gdansk Old Town (Gdańsk Stare Miasto)
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One of the largest historical centers in Europe, Gdansk Old Town (Gdańsk Stare Miasto) will take you back to the Middle Ages. Due to significant damage during World War II, many buildings are reconstructions of their historic counterparts, but a good number of original structures do remain. Almost one third of the streets in the Old Town have had the same names for more than 500 years.

The Old Town doesn’t have a main square; instead, activity centers around the long pedestrian street known as Dlugi Targ, or Long Market. Standing in the middle of Dlugi Targ is the impressive Neptune Fountain, built in 1633. One highlight of any tour around the Old Town include the 14th century Gothic style city hall, which today is home to the Historical Museum of Gdansk. Another must-see is the House of Uphagen, an 18th century town house that offers a glimpse into how the wealthy burghers of that era lived. Also of note are the 12th century Green Gate, the Dlugie Ogrody (Long Gardens), the colorful and cobbled Mariacka Street, St. Mary’s Church and Targ Weglowy (Coal Square).

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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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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. Don’t miss historic monuments like Agnieszka Osiecka, ode to the Polish poet and journalist who authored over 2,000 songs; Kapela Podwórkowa, a tribute to pre-war cloth-capped buskers and musicians known as The Courtyard Band; and Monument of Kościuszko Division (Pomnik Kościuszkowców), a tribute to the 1st Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division, who tried to help during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
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The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is the resting place for some 1.5 million people, as the site once served as a concentration camp and extermination site of the European Jewish community during World War II. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important historical area, allowing visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors that occurred during the genocide.

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Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki)
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A towering 758 feet (231 meters) high, Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science was commissioned by Stalin during Poland’s communist era. Today, the country’s tallest building comprises concert halls, offices, shops, restaurants, and a 30th-floor viewing terrace.

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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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Wieliczka Salt Mine (Kopalnia Soli)
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An eerie world where everything has been carved from salt blocks, the Wieliczka Salt Mine (Kopalnia Soli) is made up of a labyrinth of tunnels, the deepest of which lies 1,075 feet (327 meters) underground. The ancient UNESCO World Heritage site is a major part of Poland's salt mining history, one of the country's most popular attractions, and one of the world's oldest salt mines, having produced table salt from the 13th century until 2007.

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Warsaw Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie)
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The haunting monuments and memorials of Warsaw’s former Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie) tell the story of its tragic past—during World War II, it was the largest Jewish Ghetto in all of Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Zakopane
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Considered Poland’s winter capital, Zakopane is a snow-sports paradise situated at the foot of the Tatras. Attractions include the Gubałówka mountain resort, the nearby thermal springs, and the Wielka Krokiew ski jump. The town is also known for its rich Goral heritage and traditional architecture, as well as sweeping summertime views.

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Krupowki Street (Ulica Krupówki)
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Krupowki Street (Ulica Krupówki) passes through the heart of Zakopane and ranks among the most famous streets in all of Poland. Stretching for a little over half a mile (1 kilometer), the walking street is lined with restaurants, hotels, bars and boutique shops selling sportswear and luxury fashions. No matter the season, Krupówki Street always bustles with activity; street performers entertain passing tourists while portrait artists draw caricatures. Horse-drawn carriages ferry passengers up and down the promenade.

Each summer, the street hosts the International Festival of Highland Folklore, one of Poland’s oldest and largest folk festivals.

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More Things to Do in Poland

Warsaw Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski)

Warsaw Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski)

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Rebuilt following the destruction of World War II, the Royal Castle stands watch over the entrance to Warsaw Old Town. Explore beyond the brick facade to find a trove of historic furniture, artwork, and gilded decor. From the Great Apartments to the Throne Room, Warsaw Royal Castle showcases centuries of Warsaw history.

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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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St. Mary's Basilica (Kościól Mariacki)

St. Mary's Basilica (Kościól Mariacki)

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The lop-sided towers of the majestic Saint 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.

St Mary’s Basilica is most famous for the much-loved bugle call that rings out across the city on the hour, every hour, played by a trumpeter standing at the top of the structure’s taller, northern tower.

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Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera)

Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera)

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A wealthy German and member of the Nazi Party, Oskar Schindler bought the Emalia enamel factory in Krakow following the German invasion of Poland during World War II. By insisting that his Jewish employees were vital to the workforce and often advocating for them, he saved more than 1,000 people from death. Today, Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera), part of the City of Krakow Historical Museum, houses a highly emotive, interactive, and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow.

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Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square)

Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square)

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The gigantic town square of Rynek Główny (most often translated Main Market Square) is the centrepiece of Krakow’s UNESCO-listed Old Town and the largest medieval square in Europe. Dominated by the Renaissance-style Cloth Hall and flanked by colorful neoclassical buildings, the square is both an architectural landmark and the main hub of local life.

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Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Wawelski)

Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Wawelski)

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Crowning Krakow’s Wawel Hill and adjoining Wawel Cathedral, Wawel Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that consists of numerous Romanesque, Renaissance, Gothic, and baroque buildings, courtyards, and gardens. Dating back to the 14th century, the castle was home to many of Poland’s monarchs and is a symbol of Polish history and pride.

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Kazimierz (Krakow Jewish Quarter)

Kazimierz (Krakow Jewish Quarter)

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Krakow’s Jewish Quarter—Kazimierz—has been the heart of the city’s Jewish community since medieval times. Traces of its turbulent past remain, but today it’s reinvented itself as a thriving cultural hub, where historic synagogues and museums sit side by side with art galleries, cocktail bars, bold street art, and vintage boutiques.

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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 composerChopin 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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Tatra Mountains Museum (Muzeum Tatrzanskie)

Tatra Mountains Museum (Muzeum Tatrzanskie)

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Dr. Tytus Chalubinski was a Polish physician who first established Zakopane as a health resort during the nineteenth century. He was also a known admirer of the culture and folklore of the local people living in the Tatra Mountains. In 1888, a group of the doctor’s friends founded TheTatra Mountains Museum (Muzeum Tatrzanskie) in his honor.

The collections at the Tatra Mountains Museum cover a range of topics, from natural history and ethnography to Tatra art from the early nineteenth century. The oldest items in the collection are the 400-plus taxidermy birds and mammals, as well as Tytus Chalubinski’s moss herbarium and a set of Tatra rocks. The collection has since expanded to include more than 70,000 items that showcase the natural and cultural history of the Tatra Mountains.

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Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

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The focal building of Krakow’s fanciful Main Square (Rynek Główny), the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) 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.

Well below ground and actually constructed underneath the Cloth Hall, a fairly new addition to Krakow’s museum scene is the Podziemia Rynku (Rynek Underground). Romping through Krakow’s turbulent backstory from prehistory to modern day, the high-tech museum uses interactive displays, special effects, informative touchscreens and holograms to engage the public. After some five years of construction, during which time the Main Square was partially under cover, the museum finally opened in 2010.

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Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)

Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)

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The coronation site of nearly all Polish monarchs, 14th-century Wawel Cathedral is the country’s major religious site. Located on Wawel Hill next to Wawel Castle, the cathedral boasts grand artworks, chapels, a museum, the 16th-century Sigismund Bell, and tombs of Poland’s royals and patron saint, St. Stanislaus.

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Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

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The poignant Ghetto Heroes Square commemorates the thousands of Krakow’s Jewish community who were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto. Plac Zgody, a square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point for Jewish people boarding trains to Płaszów, Auschwitz, and other concentration camps during World War II.

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Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto)

Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto)

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The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto or, more correctly, Stare Miasto w Krakowie) is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today the Old Town 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 Old Town 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.

The so-called “royal route” leaves the square down Grodzka and leads directly to the great architectural mish-mash of Wawel, perched on a rocky crag south of the square. Some of Poland’s most important buildings are assembled here, including the Renaissance castle, the flamboyant cathedral and the Crown Treasury, which houses the Polish crown jewels.

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Great Barbican

Great Barbican

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The Great Barbican is a 15th-century, 7-turreted bastion in Krakow that once protected the city’s main gate—St. Florian’s Gate—and the Old Town within it. One of the few remnants of Krakow’s fortifications, the barbican consists of a small museum, medieval passageways, and a courtyard that hosts summer events such as jousting and pageants.

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