This is a guest post by Susan Guillory of The Unexplorer.
If you’re looking for a country that’s just as entertaining, as full of great cuisine, and as welcoming (if not more) than its Western European counterparts, I highly recommend Poland. Having had no preconceived notions about the country, I was continually delighted on a recent trip there.
No matter what your pleasure, there’s more than enough to keep you busy.
For the World War II Buff
I visited Poland on a media trip, and we covered a ton of museums that specialized in WWII and the Jewish Holocaust. Just before the trip, I rewatched Schindler’s List, so when we visited Schindler’s Factory, the details were fresh in my mind. There are fantastic exhibits on not only Schindler’s Jews, but also the Jews in Krakow in general. Interestingly, Schindler was not revered as a hero by the Polish people because of his association with the Nazis until Steven Spielberg decided to film a movie about him and open a museum about his work saving Jews during the war.
Another must-see for history lovers is Auschwitz-Birkenau. We took a guided tour around both the concentration camp where 1,000 people slept per cramped building and worked at nearby factories, and the death camp, where 75% of the Jews who were brought by train were gassed within a matter of days. It’s hard to really grasp the severity of what happened there, but walking through the buildings and by the ruins of the gas chambers brought it to life more than any history book could.
If you don’t know anything about Warsaw’s history in the war, visit the Warsaw Rising Museum. Sick of being under German rule, citizens of Warsaw rose up against the Germans in 1944 to liberate the city. During the 63 days of the Warsaw Uprising, 150,000-200,000 Polish civilians died. The museum honors those who fought for their humanity.
Insider Tip: Because there are so many Jewish history and World War II museums in Warsaw and Krakow, you can easily get overwhelmed with the amount of information available. Pick one or two museums that focus on your interests.
For the Foodie
While I was right in my assumption that Poland is a land of pierogi, pork, and soup, it’s so, so much more. We were treated to some of the most innovative cuisine I’ve ever had, with flavors like cucumber soup with smoked tea garnish (Miodowa 8 in Wadowice). We also had a fantastic cultural culinary experience in cute mountain town Zakopane at Karczma Regionalna Przy Młynie, where we had a demonstration of the chef making various treats with potatoes.
For the luxury experience, try Hotel Bristol’s Restauracja Marconi. The service is first-rate, and the sour zurek soup was the best we’d had — and believe me, we sampled it many times.
Insider Tip: While Poland celebrates meat (and will provide oversized portions everywhere), you can get vegetarian options. Even if you don’t see something on the menu, just ask the kitchen to prepare something without meat.
Odds and Ends
There were several pleasant surprises on our trip, one of which was visiting Pope John Paul II’s boyhood home in Wadowice. His home, ironically located in the shadow of the Catholic Church next door, houses a fantastically tech-savvy museum highlighting his life from birth on to being a Pope. Even if you’re not Catholic, the museum is worth the trip.
Another fun trek is to Warsaw’s Targ Śniadaniowy, or Breakfast Market. A bit like a farmer’s market, you can buy prepared or take-home foods, and not just for breakfast. I enjoyed a fried flatbread from Hungary topped with cheese and sour cream.
If you’re looking for an Instagrammer’s paradise, check out Warsaw’s Neon Muzeum. During the Communist era, the government tried to spruce up the gray city with neon signs advertising types of businesses. Those neon signs were abandoned when a design-savvy couple decided to rescue them and display them in a museum.
Where to Stay
In Krakow, we stayed at the Golden Tulip Krakow City Center, which was a 10-minute walk to the Market Square, where you can find plenty of restaurants and shops. The rooms were small but tidy and comfortable, and the breakfast buffet was ample. It’s a good place to try some local delicacies like herring and sausage.
In Warsaw, the Sheraton Warsaw Hotel had unique touches like a light that automatically came on when you opened the door. The hotel is being renovated, and the updated rooms were uber comfortable. This hotel is in a business district, but shops and bars are a 15 minute walk away.
Insider’s Tip: Some of these attractions don’t take much time, so see what else is in the area to build a day of activity around them.
I only visited a few cities in this amazing country, but what I saw made me want more!
Article and photography by travel writer Susan Guillory. I received complimentary accommodations, meals, and attraction tickets, however all opinions are my own.