A Tale of 5 Cities: Poland’s Remarkable Duality

The Republic of Poland is a true challenge to describe because perhaps more than any other country, this nation of about 38 million is a case study in duality. It possesses both lavish architectural beauty and Cold War austerity. Harsh grey winters are offset by Europe’s lush summer foliage. While Poland is steeped in 20th century academic history, one of its most captivating treasures is its astounding natural beauty.

Having endured a brutal Nazi occupation, Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, is a tantalising mash-up of medieval history, postwar modernism and Soviet occupation. There’s likely no better way to understand the complexities of the Polish journey to independence than a trip to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Equally important is a visit to the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews built on part of the old Warsaw Ghetto.

Now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town is a popular tourist destination that was rebuilt brick by original brick after WWII. Filled with shops and cafes, the Old Town Market Square is the bustling centerpiece of this reconstruction. At the entrance to Old Town, on Castle Square, you’ll find one of the most recognisable buildings in Warsaw, the Royal Castle, once home to Poland’s monarchy. Grab a quick bite, coffee or pastry at To Lubie, our choice for a cosy cafe rest stop.

From Old Town, you can’t miss walking up Nowy Swiat (New World) Street past all the fun shops and cafes. Another great summer activity is to pick up some drinks and street food in the cool, upscale neighborhood of Saska Kepa and go picnicking in Skaryszewski Park.

Plaid blanket and green grass not your style? You’ll definitely enjoy the elegant confines of Dom Polski, one of our top restaurants choices when in Warsaw. Other notables include Boathouse Restaurant & Bar, Warszawa Wschodnia and Stixx, which also is a great bar with music.

Kraków, Poland’s second largest city and one of the least expensive to visit in Europe, is located 3-hours south of Warsaw near the Czech Republic border. This city dates back to the 7th century and should not be missed. The Kazimierz district is probably the best place to start your exploration. This historic Jewish district was one of the major locations used in Schindler’s List and you can visit the Schindler Museum at the site of his actual factory. Kazimierz is now a creative arts Mecca filled with amazing street art, hip bars & cafes with too many art galleries to count.

Krakow also enjoys a UNESCO designation for its Old Town and if you think Poland is primarily adorned in cement and Soviet Era gray, think again. One visit to the festively colorful Church of St Francis of Assisi will definitely change your mind. This beautiful church, built during the 13th-century, is famous for it stunning stained glass windows.

Among Krakow’s best highlights and immediately south of Old Town, is the Wawel Castle, once a royal residence and now a prestigious art museum known as the home of da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. This complex of buildings is considered by many Poles to be one of the most important buildings in the country.

While in Krakow, perhaps the single most important destination on your itinerary should be a day trip out to Auschwitz II–Birkenau, the most evil of all Nazi concentration camps. While this is a truly sobering visit, it is also deeply moving and critical to one’s own humanity.

Getting to Krakow from Warsaw is easy — just take the 3-hour high-speed PKP train called the “Pendolino” and relax in the dining car with one of Poland’s renowned Żywiec beers.

Gdansk is a port city on the Baltic coast that Nazi Germany and the Soviets took turns bashing into submission. While the city bent, it never broke and would, in the 1980s, birth the Solidarity Movement that ultimately dismantled Soviet oppression.

Dlugi Targ, often called the “Royal Way”, is the main street through Gdansk, running from the west side’s Golden Gate and ending at the Green Gate. Add to your Instagram feed at the Town Hall with a snap of its beautiful Gothic Clock tower, which provides the most scenic views of the city and Baltic Sea.

If you enjoy walking, Gdansk is easily negotiated and we heartily recommend a stroll along the Motlawa River and dinner at the riverfront Goldwasser Restaurant. Increase your Fitbit steps and find the oldest house in Gdansk while shopping for amber along the charming Mariacka Street accented with imposing gargoyle waterspouts.

Gdansk, like all of Poland, is deeply attentive to history, especially because WWII essentially began here with the Nazi invasion in 1939. A wonderful example of “never forgetting the past” is the recently opened and visually stunning Museum of the Second World War. This is without a doubt a must-see visit.

Wroclaw, in western Poland sits on the banks of the Oder River and is crisscrossed by more than 100 bridges. If that weren’t charming enough, Old Town’s Market Square is so cute you might forget to shop… but don’t, because the shopping is amazing.

Climb St Elizabeth Church for an amazing view of this idyllic city and wander Stare Jatki, a historic street in the Old Butcher’s quarter now converted to an artist colony. Be sure to see the bronze farm animals installed as a memorial to these noble creatures.

Speaking of bronze statuary, scattered around Wroclaw are 300 very unique residents. They are little bronze gnomes that symbolize the anti-Soviet movement of the eighties. It’s like an old school version of Pokémon Go! How many can you find?

Our final stop in Poland is Zakopane, two hours south of Krakow and bordering the Tatra National Park. Be sure to hike up and see the incredibly gorgeous Lake Morskie Oko and the Murowaniec Tourist Shelter where you can get some well-earned refreshments, like hot mulled wine!

We’re not too proud to admit that one of the best reasons to visit Zakopane is Oscypek, a highly addictive, smoked cheese made from sheep milk. It’s exclusive to the region and the strictly mandated recipe dates back to the 14th-century.

Whether you hike in the summer or ski in the winter, Zakopane is incredibly affordable compared to the rest of Europe. Lift tickets are about one-third the price and accommodations run from the unbelievably affordable to the astronomically expensive at the Rezydencja Nosalowy Dwór luxury hotel.

While Poland has survived the unspeakable horrors of the 20th-century, the country is boldly moving forward into the 21st-century with the same strength and determination that broke the back of the Soviet Union. Relive and remember history and make some of your own in this fantastic country.  Book your vacation today with ENTERTAINER getaways on your ENTERTAINER app! You’ll get to enjoy your vacation with up to 60% off your hotel stay!

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