We all have our own bucket list of countries that we’d love to visit. Most of us are probably dreaming about traveling to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, to Italy to visit Rome, to Bali to relax by the beach, or to South Africa for a safari experience. However, not all of us would write Poland on the list. Perhaps, one of the reasons why it hasn’t earned international attention yet is due to the lack of advertisements. A lot of countries become popular because of the films, books, and novels about them. Poland, on the other hand, is a bit laid back when it comes to this. To be honest, I wouldn’t have dreamt of going to this country hadn’t my boyfriend, Mark, shared his experience during his stay there. He always admires the simplicity and serenity of Poland. Gladly, last year, I was able to witness the underrated beauty of Poland with my own eyes.
Before 2017 ended, Mark and I decided to spend the Christmas holiday in Poland. We booked an eight-day trip to Krakow and Zakopane. We arranged everything on our own not only to avoid the extra charges from the agency but also to enjoy the fun of searching the places and activities to try together.
There’s a lot of beautiful cities in Poland. Its capital city, Warsaw, attracts a lot of tourists for its historical sights and monuments. Gdansk, on the other hand, boasts its medieval ports, historic cathedrals, and the famous promenade street of Polish Kings. However, we chose to explore Krakow as it holds some of the most historical and political events in Poland; and, Zakopane for its varied selection of winter activities.
During our entire trip to Poland, I couldn’t help but wonder why most of us overlook this country. Clearly, Poland is far more beautiful than the other countries I’ve been to. Among my other trips abroad, this is undoubtedly the most enlightening and amusing that I had. Here are just some of the fascinating things I found in Poland.
1. The Historical Museums
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
One of the biggest museums that we visited in Poland is the Auschwitz concentration camp. Before our trip, I had little knowledge about its history. I was aware that it was built and operated by the Nazi when Germany occupied Poland but it did not have a massive impact on me until I witnessed the very rooms and structures where the Jews worked and stayed during the Second World War.
From Krakow Bus Station, we took a direct bus to Auschwitz which took two hours. The entrance to the museum is free! However, you can choose to pay for a guided tour which is available in different languages.
At the entrance of the museum, there is a German phrase written on top of the gate which says: arbeit macht frei, meaning, work sets you free.
Walking around the camp gave me chills. The entire place is a sobering reminder of what took place in the past. The silence is being kept in the whole camp as a sign of respect for those people who died in a ruthless way.
The world’s biggest genocide marked in the history – the Holocaust happened in this place. Gas chambers were used for the mass killing of the victims of the Holocaust.
There are four main crematoria buildings inside Auschwitz. Each of them consists a disrobing area, a gas chamber, and crematorium ovens where the victims’ dead bodies were burnt.
The victims were treated as prisoners and were slaved to forced labor. Those who were caught slacking were punished or even shot.
Aside from the buildings, they also preserved the belongings of the Jews such as jars, clothes, and kitchen tools.
Another historical museum is the Schindler’s Factory. Before going to Poland, we watched the film Schindler’s List which is based upon the true story of Oskar Schindler, who was a member of the Nazi party but was responsible for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them in his enamelware factory. I strongly recommend watching this film first before taking a visit to the factory.
There is one small room where the names of the Jews that Schindler saved are written.
A lot of things can be seen in the museum. Like in Auschwitz, some of the Jews’ possessions were preserved in this place. There were silvers, furniture, clothes, specs, as well as old newspapers, letters, and train tickets.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Last on the list is the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is located 40 minutes away from Krakow city center. The Mine is open for tourists but only with a guided tour due to safety requirements. There are several guided tours that can be found in Krakow. We booked with the Cracow City Tours. The complete tour includes a private transportation from Krakow, the entrance fee, a free lunch, and a local tour guide who speaks a language of your choice.
The museum is found several kilometers underground; thus, tourists would have to take 800 steps down. The Mine exhibits an underground lake, mythical and historical figures, chandeliers, chapels, and cathedrals – all made of salt! The famous underground cathedral caters a regular mass and is open for weddings. There is a reception area as well, a cafe, and a souvenir shop underground. A lift is available to get back up.
2. Winter in Zakopane
Zakopane is a very simple yet idyllic place. If I were to choose, I would choose to live there. We only stayed in Zakopane for four days so we tried to make the most out of it. There are plenty of winter activities available such as skiing, husky dog sledding, mountaineering, and snowboarding.
Husky dog sledding
Prior to our trip, Mark and I booked the Fun Dog husky sleigh rides online. The booking included the transportation from the hotel to the park and vice versa, 200 meters sleigh riding, and twenty minutes time to play and take photos with the huskies.
Zakopane is located near the Tatra Mountains (the mountains that serves as a natural border between Poland and Slovakia), which is one of the most touristic places in Poland. One of the most popular destinations in the Tatras is the Gubalowka.
Mark and I took the funicular to Gubalowka which took 3.5 minutes. The view was utterly stunning! There were lots of Christmas decorations with which tourists can take photos of. There were lovely restaurants and cafes lined up on the street which are perfectly located to admire the scenic view of the city.
The restaurants have a fireplace that keeps the place cozy. They have a lovely selection of warm drinks that can make your stay perfectly satisfying. Their traditional hot chocolate and mulled beers are a must try!
One of the highlights of our trip to Poland is our venture to Morskie Oko. Morskie Oko is considered to be the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. It is popular both during summer and winter. In summer, the lake will be sparkling a light emerald color which strikingly reflects the image of its surrounding mountains. When we came to visit, the lake was completely frozen so, like what the other tourists did, we walked on it!
To get to the lake, we took a minibus from Zakopane to Lyza Polana which took 40 minutes. From this point, we were given two options to get to the exact lake: by a horse sleigh ride or by walk. Apparently, we chose to walk it!
Trekking in the mountains during winter was rather fun than boring. Yes, it was a bit strenuous, especially that it took us three hours to reach the lake, but walking gave us the chance to appreciate and admire the place even more.
Planning for an early trip is highly recommended particularly in winter to evade walking in the dark and to avoid the risk of missing the minibus back to the city.
The long and challenging journey to Morskie Oko was nothing compared to what we felt when we finally reached the lake. It was nothing but a worthwhile experience!
3. The food
There is a wide variety of food that Poland is popular for. One of them is the smoked cheese called oscypek which is made from salted sheep milk. The saltiness of the cheese is perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the cranberry jam that comes with it. They say your trip to Poland wouldn’t be complete without trying this Polish grilled cheese.
Another must-try food in Poland is the pierogi. Most often, it is filled with meat, cheese, potatoes, or buckwheat. Pierogi with berries is served for deserts. Some people claim that pierogi is a traditional Polish version of fried dumplings. Honestly, I thought it was ravioli based on its look. However, the taste was distinctively delicious.
The restaurants offer a collection of high-quality food at very affordable prices. My favorite was the Stek Chalupa in Zakopane and the Beer House restaurant in Krakow. Their plate comes with big portions and tasty dishes that really satisfied our gustatory cravings. Some of their traditional cuisines that we also loved are the zapiekanka, pretzel, and their traditional cheesecake.
Polish people are also creative when it comes to drinks. Their mulled beer with cloves and honey will make you want to stay in the country forever! The same goes with their raspberry water and hot chocolate with rum.
These are just some of the beautiful things I found in Poland. It’s very surprising to take a wonderful holiday abroad, packed with exciting activities and delicious food, for a very reasonable budget. The country’s simplicity is more than enough to leave the tourists in awe. The streets, the buildings, and the houses will definitely make you feel content. The humble and authentic way of life in Poland will just leave you nothing but genuine bliss.