Poland has been underrated by travelers for many years. Still, those who have never visited this country tend to think Poles don't have chewing gum and washing machines.
That's not surprising.
Not that long ago (1989) we were under Russian occupation, communism was thriving and people were poor as hell. Fortunately, this has all ended and now Poland is fast-growing country with booming economy and standard of living getting better every year.
Actually, there are many reasons one would like to visit Poland. Interesting cities. Beautiful mountains, lakes and seashore. Low prices. No terrorist attacks.
So, if you decided to travel to Poland, make sure you go to the South of the country - there are lots of fantastic places to visit.
1. Tatra National Park
Tatra mountains are definitely number one must-see in Poland. They are the highest and most beautiful mountains in the country. Majestic peaks, clear lakes, dense forests and vast meadows create breathtaking landscapes, unique in this part of Europe.
Loads of hiking trails (all well-marked!), interesting flora and fauna, well-developed tourist infrastructure all make Tatra National Park great place, not only for nature admirers. Hikers, skiers, backpackers, families with children - all will feel amazed there.
The most popular peaks:
- Giewont - 1895 metres. Landmark of Tatra mountains with big cross at the top. Often referred to as Sleeping Knight - the massif of the mountain resembles a lying person. The final ascent is a bit tricky - there are chains and the path is very narrow. Beware - there's very little space at the top.
- Kasprowy - 1987 metres. There's a cableway going from Zakopane Kuznice to the peak, but it's very popular among tourists and unless you come early in the morning, you will have to stand in line for a few hours.
- Czerwone Wierchy - massif in Western Tatras. Consists of 4 peaks:
- Ciemniak – 2096 m
- Krzesanica – 2122 m
- Malolaczniak – 2096 m
- Kopa Kondracka – 2005 m
Red trail leading along Czerwone Wierchy peaks is one of the most beautiful in Tatra National Park.
- Rysy - 2499 metres. The highest peak in Poland. Part of High Tatras. Rysy is actually a mountain massif and higher part of it belongs to Slovakia. On Polish side there are chains and the trail is narrow, so if you hike with children, it's better to ascend from Slovakia.
The best valleys:
- Chocholowska - the longest valley in Tatra mountains (about 8 kilometres). One of very few places where bikes are allowed. Nice, wide trail with amazing views. Perfectly safe to hike with children, also in strollers. There's mountain hut at the end of the valley.
- Koscieliska - considered one of the most picturesque valleys in the area. In lower part there's a stream which provides chill on hot days. In upper part there are fancy stones, perfect for an interesting shoot. In the past this valley was used for mining industry, but (thank heavens) now is solely for tourists. Added bonus in Koscieliska valley are numerous caves. The most popular is Mrozna cave. It's open from May until the end of October.
- Pieciu Stawow (Five Lake Valley) - my favorite valley in Tatras! Everything there is the -est. The highest waterfall Siklawa (70 metres), the longest and deepest Tatra lake Wielki Staw Polski (about 80 metres), the highest located lake in Poland - Zadni Staw Polski (1890 metres), the highest Polish mountain hut (1670 metres). Shortly speaking, it's the best! Trail is nice and safe, but in winter you will need crampons to get to Five Lake Valley.
Main tourist resort in Tatra mountains. It's immensely popular among tourists - there are about 33 thousand of Zakopane residents and close to 3 million tourists visiting this town every year!
Tourist infrastructure is well-developed - variety of accommodation types, restaurants, pubs, museums and discos. It's impossible to get bored in Zakopane, although this town may be too much for peace seekers.
- Gubalowka - the most popular mount in Zakopane. It's not high (1126 metres) but it offers amazing panorama view of Tatra mountains. There are 2 ways to get to the peak: hike black trail which starts on Krupowki street, or take a ride in funicular. Restaurants, pubs, souvenir stands are in great variety on Gubalowka. For thrill seekers there's a fun slide. It's open from April until the end of November (it may be closed on rainy days). In winter there's snowpark.
- Krupowki street - famous pedestrian area. Ton of restaurants, pubs, cafes and shops. And everything else. Get your wallet prepared, as it's impossible not to spend money on Krupowki street.
- Cemetery of honored highlanders - great place to visit after Krupowki's hustle and bustle. Peaceful and quiet, good for reflection over passing time. This 19th cemetery was only for rich and notable people who worked for the good of Tatra mountains.
- Wielka Krokiew ski jump - the biggest ski jump in Poland. You can hike to the top or get there by chair lift. Great panorama view of Zakopane.
- Zakopane Style museum in Koliba villa - traditional mountain architecture, lots of interesting exhibits, friendly staff. Great place for folklore and history aficionados. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
- Upside down house - you can check there how your bony labyrinth works.
- EXPO wax museum - nice place for rainy weather. Open everyday 10AM - 10PM.
- Tatra museum - named after dr Tytus Chalubinski, pathology professor and nature admirer. He researched Tatra mountains nature and made Zakopane well-known as health resort. Lots of exhibits present basic knowledge about history, culture and nature of Tatras region. Definitely worth a visit.
- Zakopane waterpark - fun place for families with children. A few slides, sauna, jacuzzi, outdoor and indoor pool (outdoor with thermal water and mountain view).
- Bungee jumping - jump from 90-metre crane for adrenaline junkies. In winter open only on weekends. Cash only.
The biggest and most famous city in Southern Poland. Beautiful area with well-preserved historical sites. Packed with museums, exhibitions, cathedrals, and also restaurants and discos - it attracts all kinds of tourists.
- Old Town - the oldest part of Cracow. There are the main tourist attractions in the city. Together with Wawel hill and Kazimierz district it was added to UNESCO heritage in 1978. Mariacka basilica, Sukiennice (cloth hall), medieval underground museum, antique churches on every corner - folks interested in history and architecture will be delighted.
- Royal Castle on Wawel hill - trademark of the city. Enormous museum with lots of exhibits. Guided tours available. And don't forget to say "hi" to famous Wawel dragon.
- Planty park - unusual urban garden which encircles the Old Town. Ideal place to have a rest after day spent on exploring the museums.
- Schindler factory - in my opinion the most interesting museum in Cracow. Holocaust history presented in accessible way, even to children. Since it's very popular, the best idea is to buy tickets onilne.
- Kazimierz Jewish district - almost as popular as Old Town. Beautiful place with specific atmosphere. Packed with restaurants, churches and museums. Na Skałce church, Mostowa street, Ethnographic museum, Corpus Christi church, saint Wawrzyniec street, Jozefa street, Tempel synagogue, Kupa synagogue, New Jewish cemetery.
- Barbakan - interesting example of medieval defence architecture (king Jan Olbracht was afraid of Turks). It was built in 15th century, but is one of the best preserved monuments in Cracow.
- Camaldolese monatery in Bielany - located on the hill named Silver Mountain. Charming place, but if you're a woman, you can enter there only 12 days a year! (on catholic holy days like Easter).
- Mogila abbacy - built in 13th century (!), currently being renovated. Great place not only for believers - if you're not into religion, but appreciate old architecture, then this is definitely a must-see for you.
- Botanical garden of Jagiellonian University - beautiful place for relaxation. Lots of flowers, ponds and exotic trees make this place a perfect getaway from the city's tumult.
- Kopiec Krakusa - 16-metre high hill. Great place for a walk. Cracow panorama is seen from the top of the hill.
4. Wieliczka salt mine
If you're in Cracow, it'd be a waste not to visit Wieliczka Salt Mine. Built in 13th century, it's one of the most prominent monuments in Southern Poland. UNESCO thinks the same - in 1978 the mine became part of World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.
Queues to ticket windows are ridiculously long there, so it's best to buy tickets online.
Wieliczka mine offers interesting stone formations, labyrinth of tunnels, salt ponds, mine exhibits and ride in narrow-gauge train. Sightseeing takes about 3 hours and it's always done with a certified guide.
It's definitely worth to attend a concert there - the underground chamber enhances the sounds and the effect of music is much more intensified.
Also, keep in mind that sightseeing is done about 130 metres underground, so it's necessary to have additional clothing, even if it's hot summer day on the surface.
5. Pieniny National Park
Some say Pieniny mountains are the most beautiful range in Poland, they even surpass in beauty Tatra mountains.
I'm not sure about that, but I say they're definitely worth a hike!
Pieniny National Park isn't very big, but there are a few picturesque hiking trails. The best one leads to Trzy Korony peak:
Pieniny trails are nice, wide and definitely not steep, perfect for family trips.
Other tourist attractions in the area:
- Rafting on Dunajec river - peaceful ride for families with children. If you're more of a thrill-seeker, go for pontoons or kayaks. Whichever option you choose, the landscape will take your breath away!
- Homole gorge - located in Jaworki village, this scenic trail is about 1 kilometre long, perfect for relaxing walk and photo sessions.
- Dunajec castle and Czorsztyn castle - the beginnings of those castles reach 14th century! Dunajec castle is better preserved (it even offers accommodation in chambers!). Czorsztyn castle is more like a ruins, but still great place for unforgettable photos!
- Cerveny Klastor museum - the most popular sacral building in Pieniny area. Built in 14th century by a guy from Hungary as an atonement for his murders.
- Pump room in Szczawnica village - many different kinds of healing mineral water there.
- "ABlandia" ropes course in Kroscienko - fun place both for children and adults looking for some adrenaline.
- "PKL Palenica" chairlift - takes tourists up to Palenica peak (722 metres). Fantastic panorama view on Pieniny mountains from the peak. Consider buying only one-way ticket - there's a gravity slide going down the mountain.
6. Babia Gora National Park
Only for hiking addicts. This National Park is part of Beskidy mountains. It surrounds the highest mountain in this region - Babia Gora (1725 metres).
There are many trails leading to this mount (all well-preserved with many guideposts), but the best one starts in Krowiarki's Pass:
Beware - the weather in Babia Gora National Park is extremely unpredictable. Shockingly instant changes of weather happen there very often - you start hiking in full sun, then you wander in thick fog, only to see a beautiful panorama of Tatra mountains within the next few minutes. Also, be prepared for strong wind (can happen every season).
If you can't or don't want to hike, there's Mosorny Gron chairlift - it will take you up to 1045 metres. However, during spring and autumn it's open only on weekends.
7. Gorce National Park
Gorce mountains are picturesque range, but less popular than Pieniny or Tatra mountains. That's why they're perfect option for people who appreciate peace and quiet on the trail.
Those mountains aren't high - the tallest peak Turbacz reaches 1315 metres. Close to the peak there's also spacious mountain hut from which you get to admire amazing panorama of Tatra mountains. The best trail to hike to Turbacz:
Trails are wide and safe, there are many guideposts and some benches here and there. In Gorce National Park there are lots of nice meadows, perfect for family picnic. I really like those mountains!
Other attractions in the area:
- "Rabkoland" amusement park - the biggest theme park in Southern Poland. Carousels, exhibitions, puppetry, arcade machines, cafes and restaurants. You can buy online tickets here.
- Orthodox church - this sacral building is currently a catholic church, but has well-preserved orthodox decor. Interesting place for those interested in sacral architecture. Located in Jaworki village.
- Lookout tower on Luban peak - 22-metre high tower in Eastern part of Gorce National Park. Amazing view on Tatras, Pieniny, Gorce and Beskidy mountains.
8. Thermal pools
In the South, close to the mountains, there are numerous water parks with healing, mineral water pools. Here are the best ones:
- Chocholowskie Termy - modern facility built in 2016. Ton of attractions for adult and children: indoor and outdoor pools (total: 30 pools and barrels with thermal mineral water), hydro-massage in salt spring water, swimming pools, slides, kids zone, salt grotto, saunas, SPA, sport center, outdoor sandy beach, restaurants and bars. This water park is very popular, so buying tickets online is a good idea.
- Terma Bania - another popular water park with indoor and outdoor thermal pools, slides, kids zone, relaxation zone, SPA and saunas. Online tickets are available here.
- Termy Bukovina - located close to Tatra mountains this water park offers beautiful views from the outdoor pools. It's smaller than the above mentioned water parks, but has all that's needed for fun and/or relaxing visit. You can purchase online tickets here.
- Termy Szaflary - there are 4 pools with hot mineral water (2 indoor and 2 outdoor pools). Hydro massages, slides, saunas, gym and restaurants. Added bonus is that the place is less crowded than other water parks in the area. Online tickets are available here.
- Aquapark Zakopane - conveniently located close to Zakopane's centre. Outdoor pool with thermal water, fitness club, bowling alleys, entertainment zone for kids. Great option for relaxing evening after a day's hike.
9. Auschwitz concentration camp
Horrifying Nazi death camp located in Oswiecim town, between Cracow (70 km) and Katowice city (40 km).
In my opinion, it’s one of the most important museums in Europe. We all need to remember that human cruelty has no limits and war is the worst thing in this world. We definitely don’t want history to repeat itself.
It may not be the best idea to go there with small children, but it’s a must-see for adults and teenagers.
After visiting this concentration camp, you'll feel true relief that you can leave... alive.
Open all year round, 8AM - 3PM. The museum is big, there are 2 camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau), so it's good to reserve at least 3 hours for visit.
In 1979 Auschwitz concentration camp was added to UNESCO World Heritage List.
Quick historical facts:
- Auschwitz was one of the biggest Nazi death camps in Europe.
- There were about 1.3 million of registered prisoners deported to the camp.
- About 1.1 million died.
- 900 thousand of Jews were murdered in gas chambers immediately after arrival.
- Besides Jews, there were mostly Poles, Gypsies and Russians.
- Over 50% of registered prisoners died from hunger, hard work, cold, executions, epidemic diseases, punishments, tortures and medical experiments.
- In the first years occupant directed there mostly Poles – well-educated elites like politicians, writers, artists, doctors, priests, officers, professors and teachers.
- In 1942 Nazis started to send there prisoners from other invaded countries.
Online tickets can be purchased here.
The majority of tourists who travel to Oswiecim, visit only Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, but there's actually a few other interesting places to see in town:
- Defensive castle - medieval castle built in 13th century. Destroyed by Tartars and rebuilt to defend the borough from further invasions. There's also lookout tower from which tourists can admire Oswiecim's panorama.
- Jewish Museum and Synagogue - Jewish cultural and religious center, the only one left in the area after Holocaust.
- Wooden church in Grojec village - built in 17th century. This richly ornamented church is a treat for sacral culture aficionados.