For anyone who doesn’t know any better, Poland is pretty great. With beautiful cities all over the place and prices around half of what you’d expect to pay in Western Europe, Poland is a budget traveler’s paradise. It’s getting more and more popular along the backpacker circuit (particularly the party hotspot of old town Krakow), but even so, it remains comparatively quiet, considering all the old-world charm (and spectacular vodka) that’ll greet you at every turn.
Part of the reason it’s such a positive memory for me is that years later, I met an American guy who had never been to Poland, and had grown up on American playgrounds, hearing Polish jokes all time, poking fun at his culture. He had no idea what it was really like. All I wanted to do was share what made Poland so enjoyable for me, and inspire him to go visit. I think I succeeded.
There are a million fun things to do in Poland, and although it’s becoming an increasingly popular expat destination, it’s also huge, so it’s easy to get away from the crowds. There’s lots to explore, lots of places to see, lots of pierogis to eat, lots of vodka to drink.
Onward we go!
Awesome things to do in Poland
(according to me)
1) Savor the old town charm of central Krakow
There’s a reason this is one of the most popular cities in Central and Eastern Europe, and for a lot of visitors to Poland, this is their only stop. It’s not how I like to travel, but it’s easy to see why. Krakow is one of the not-so-many cities in the region that didn’t get flattened by Team Hitler.
The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many buildings dating back hundreds of years, including many of the major sites, such as St. Mary’s Basilica and the massive Cloth Hall on the town square, and Wawel Castle up on the hill, all of which date back to the 14th century.
But for plenty of visitors, it’s not so important how old things are, but how drunk they can get. And Krakow knows how to deliver, with some of the highest numbers of bars per capita of any city anywhere in the world. From tiny hole-in-the-wall places to snazzy jazz bars and fancy clubs, there’s evening entertainment all over the place. But it’s also authentic bar culture, due to the massive student population, unlike some of the seedier nightlife in other former Eastern bloc countries.
Krakow is often referred to as “the next Prague” for its similar combination of comparatively cheap prices, lively bar culture, and nearly millennium-old architecture. It’s absolutely spectacular. The world knows it, but it hasn’t lost its charm. Which is why it’s still called the next Prague, rather than another Prague.
PS: Krakow is obviously the sound of a spaceship laser gun. Just ask Calvin.
2) Get rejected by Face Control
People will tell you this is something that happens in Eastern Europe, but in reality, it’s something that happens everywhere on the planet. If you’re not cool enough to be in the club, they won’t let you in. But it’s a little different in Eastern Europe, where it’s actually called Face Control, thus implying that the reason they won’t let you in is because they don’t like your face.
My only experience with this was in Warsaw, where the bouncer let us know the club “wasn’t open yet.” In his defense, it was only 9pm.
(Sidenote: The girl who was “totally sure” she’d get rejected by face control had no reason whatsoever to be fearful.)
This is generally only a thing in the discotheque or nightclub scene, but if that’s where you’re heading, it helps to follow a few simple tips:
- Be well dressed
- Don’t be stumbling like a drunken idiot
- Bring lots of ladies with you
- If they tell you it’s “full,” just ask if there’s another bar in the area they could recommend instead.
That last one worked like a charm.
3) Savor the magnificence of Żubrówka Vodka
If Poland is famous for anything, it’s for vodka. And they do this very well.
One of the most famous Polish vodkas is Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka, which is spectacularly good, and totally illegal in the United States. Apparently there’s a compound called coumarin in the grass used to flavor the drink that has potentially toxic effects.
Apparently no one took the time to consider the fact that alcohol will totally kill you too. Seriously, they banned a drink because it has trace amounts of harmful substances? It’s 40% alcohol! The alcohol will kill before the grass ever does!!!
Okay, rant over. I get very upset over my inability to purchase amazingly good vodka. But if you go to Poland, be sure to give this a try. It’s actually so good that you can drink it straight from the bottle. Well, I can, anyway. But it’s also mixed into cocktails along with apple juice, ginger ale, or other things.
It’s a distinctively Polish treat, and one of the very few things on the planet that hasn’t been made universally available through globalization, so it might be the only time you can ever sample the magic.
There are knockoffs available in the States (which, let me tell you, are absolutely horrible), as well as a coumarin-free version produced by the real company, but there’s no substitute for the original. Mmmmm.
4) Dig through the Wieliczka Salt Mines
Let me describe to you the most ingenious idea for reviving the fortunes of an old mining town once the mine has run out: Make it a tourist attraction!
And that’s exactly what the Wieliczka Salt Mine has become. You wouldn’t imagine that a museum dedicated to people digging for salt would become a popular tourist draw, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s an easy day trip from Krakow, and it’s just great.
The mine itself was in continuous operation from the 13th century up until 2007, and nowadays it sees over a million visitors a year, who take the tiny elevator down into the depths and explore the “buildings” inside, which include chapels, statues, and even a whole cathedral carved out from the rock. It’s fascinating, and entirely different from the usual pretty buildings that make up most tourist itineraries.
There’s plenty of beauty here too, of course, but it’s interesting to walk through something that was a real work site for hundreds of years. And for most of that time, no one had flashlights.
5) Somberly visit Auschwitz
So it’s not all fun and games in Poland. In fact, most of Poland’s recent history has been anything but fun, and nowhere is this painful history more visible than at Auschwitz.
I’ll save sharing my experience visiting Auschwitz for its own post, but suffice it to say it’s something of a disquieting experience, though I’ll make the quick point that it was a massive tragedy for huge numbers of non-Jews as well.
The (required) tour provides a great deal of information, taking the visitors through the showers and ovens, and other exhibits built later.
Particularly striking were the shoes, collected by the millions, and now piled behind a glass display. Every pair was a person. You can see which ones were the kids, the men, the women, and you start imagining stories, personalities, families, friends, and everything else that a real person has.
Of all the things to see in Poland, Auschwitz is a must if you’re anywhere in the area. It’s an easy day trip from Krakow, though the camp is large enough that the visit plus the drive will take several hours.
6) Confuse your friends by visiting sand dunes
“Hey guys, I’m in Poland! Check out the sand dunes!”
No one will have any idea what’s going on.
Over at the Słowiński National Park in northern Poland, it looks just like the Sahara. You can take beach-like photos and annoy your buddies who thought you were going to a frozen wasteland because that’s all they think Poland is. Yay!
Campsites and hotels offer accommodation for those wanting to stick around a bit longer, and walking trails lead you through the park. Aside from the sand, there are forests as well, so it’s a nice place for the outdoorsy types to enjoy in between city visits.
7) Indulge your inner 7-year old boy at all the castles
Despite the fact that most people associate castles with Western Europe, and their only image of Central and Eastern Europe is communist propaganda and bread lines, this part of the world has been at war with itself for thousands of years, and thus…castles!
Easily the most visited is Wawel in Krakow, since, well…it’s in Krakow. And no amount of vodka-induced hangover can keep people away. But there are plenty of other castles in Poland, some easily accessible, some a bit out of the way, and they’re all pretty great. I mean, all castles are great. If you disagree, go away and hide in a cave forever.
Lesser-known Polish castles include Książ (which is absolutely spectacular), plus the ruins of Chojnik and Krzyżtopór. And I’ll always vote in favor of visiting an out-of-the-way castle, since then you can get it all to yourself, and it’s amazing.
8) Confuse the intricately carved cheese for wooden sculptures
So I know this is a bit of a dumb suggestion, since it’s not that big a deal, but I love discovering distinctively local things, and “cheese that kinda looks like a neck massager or something” is something I’ve only ever seen in Poland.
And I had a lot of it.
This smoked, salted sheep’s cheese, made exclusively in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland, and known as Oscypek, is sold all over, and makes for a nice backpacker snack that’ll last for a while and give you plenty of calories when you’re dumbly stuck in the middle of some train station layover town out in the semi-wilderness. It never happened to me, I swear. Shut up.
I almost feel bad eating it because it’s so decoratively carved, but then I bite into it and I don’t feel bad anymore.
9) Get your Tatra on
The Tatra mountain range offers spectacular hiking opportunities to fans of the outdoors, with beautiful forests, craggy peaks, tranquil lakes, and diverse wildlife.
And I was far too exhausted to deal with any of that. Night trains take a lot of out a person, and dammit, I was tired.
But I did hike in the Slovakian Tatras, and that was pretty neat. They’re the same mountains anyway. That’s my excuse!
But if you love the mountains as much as I love a good bottle of vodka, there are hiking opportunities all over southern Poland, particularly around Zakopane. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s Orla Perć, which is considered the most challenging and dangerous of any hike in the Tatras.
Suck it, Alps.
10) Stay at an old lady’s house
This is a tradition that might not be around forever. Back in the day (and that day is still somewhat here), tourist infrastructure was insufficient all over Eastern Europe, and many countries encouraged citizens to rent out a spare room to visitors. It’s the original AirBNB! Well, not the original, but…whatever.
It’s actually pretty neat. I was only able to do this a few times, and it’s really all over the place in terms of accommodation quality, and it’s not like you can see the room ahead of time (though you can say no once you get there), but come on, staying in an old Polish lady’s house? How can you say no?!?!
They hang out at the train stations in some of the smaller towns, holding signs that say “room” in several different languages, and although the language barrier was practically insurmountable (it helps if you speak German), they were always friendly, helpful, and happy to have a guest. And just like any mom, the Polish lady that hosted me in Zakopane offered me a cup of tea before bedtime.
Prices are similar to budget hotels or hostels (which, in Poland, can be very cheap), and it’s a great chance to get a look at “real” life, which is so often completely invisible on the backpacker trail. I enjoyed it every time. Don’t expect a fancy shower, though. Expect an authentic cultural experience. And a new Polish mom.
Share your favorite things to do in Poland!
So this was just my personal list, which should be rather obvious given its 10% vodka ratio, but I can’t possibly list every amazing Polish activity out there. If you’ve got any things to do in Poland that you’re dying to share, share ’em, and I’ll get to them on the next trip. Eventually.