If you're looking to explore Central and Eastern European culture and history, look no further than Poland. This beautiful and fascinating country is well-connected to major hubs in the region, including cities in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, but it has a flavor all of its own. Whether you only have time for a short trip or can afford to spend a little more time there, you're bound to have plenty of wonderful experiences while discovering the country's charming cities, towns, and countryside. Here are five reasons Poland should be at the top of your bucket list:
Poland has preserved a lot of its traditional architecture, meaning traditional town squares that could have come straight from a fairytale. There are quite a few older castles dotting the country as well. You'll find that most cities remain pretty easily navigable on foot, which is great if you're travelling and looking to see the historical sites, museums, and other attractions. There's a certain charm to be found in Polish cities that seems to be lacking in many other places in the world; it's definitely a great place for romantics or photographers.
Poland's population remains largely Roman Catholic, and cathedrals and churches remain important buildings around the country. They also are generally beautiful both outside and inside, with iconic architecture, heavily-ornamented altars, and spectacular stained glass windows. Each church that you enter is slightly different but no less stunning, and you won't have to pay to enter most of them as you do in some countries. Thus, they offer a great look into local life even if you're traveling on a budget.
Most people have heard of pierogis—little pockets of dough stuffed with various fillings. These can be baked or fried and are filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, or any combination of things. You'll also find plenty of typical Eastern European foods such as barszcz (beetroot soup) and gulasz (goulash). Make sure to try the chleb na smalcu—although it may sound weird to eat bread spread with lard and topped with other things, it's actually delicious! It's especially tasty with pickles and sauerkraut, although modern iterations can also be topped with mushrooms, salami, or really anything. Don't believe me? Wait until you try it.
A lot of Polish festivals have their roots in religion, and often include celebrations for Christmas, Easter, and Saints' Days. Often, these festivals will involve a market, concerts, and other celebrations—meaning they're a great way to learn about the local culture by browsing through handicraft stalls, trying traditional foods, and listening to traditional music. If you have some flexibility to choose when to be in Poland, check out the festival calendar and choose an appropriate time; no experience is quite the same as standing under a castle with a bunch of strangers as you watch fireworks to commemorate a foreign country's independence day!
From castles to modern history, Poland has it all. Of course, one of the most well-known landmarks in Poland is the Auschwitz-Birkenau former concentration camp, which was the site of many grisly tragedies during the Holocaust. Today, Auschwitz is an easy day-trip from Krakow, and although it's a heavy experience to visit the camp and learn about the horrors that went on there, it's definitely something that everyone should see at least once. After all, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Take some time to wander through the old barracks and buildings remaining at the camp and learning about the history of the people who were sent there.
If you haven't already made a point of visiting Poland, be sure to visit soon! Compared to other countries in Europe, it's both a cheap place to take a vacation and a place where you're sure to learn a lot about the local life and the history. Whichever city or cities you choose, you're sure to have an amazing time seeing all this small but culturally-rich country has to offer.