Poland’s rich history has sometimes been a difficult one. Close to both Russia and Germany, it has often found itself at the center of a tug-of war between the two of them. That also explains the pride and determination you’ll see on display, the sense of a country determined to stand alone.
The cities here aren’t on same scale as those you’ll find in many countries, but they’re places full of charm and quirkiness. There are also ample places to wander, camp, hike and more, with miles and miles of unspoiled countryside just waiting to be explored.
Crack open Krakow
Prepare to be transported back to the past as you wander around Krakow. The architecture here will take your breath away, whether it’s the Renaissance beauty of the 16th century Wawel Castle, the elegant brick towers of St. Mary’s Basilica with its 14th century stained-glass windows or the Royal Cathedral,dating from 1364.
They’re all set in marvelous market squares, including the largest in all of Europe, Rynek Glowny. Period details will delight in even the most unassuming of streets, and you can explore the old Jewish quarter Kazimierz. Tour the exhibits of the Oskar Schindler enamel factory where the industrialist sought to save his employees’ lives in WWII.
Just over an hour’s drive from the city of Krakow is Auschwitz – the largest Nazi concentration camp. Now a memorial and museum, it serves as a permanent, haunting reminder of the atrocities that took place here during the war. You can take a guided tour around the grounds to learn more about the camp and those who were sent here.
Warsaw has been wracked by numerous wars and was razed to the ground during WWII. This goes some way to explaining its layout and lack of a grand, unifying square. Instead, it’s a mixture of the modern and what could be rescued from the old.
There are numerous traces of the long Soviet occupation, not least the stark and imposing Palace of Culture and Science, but also elements from further back in Poland’s of history. The Royal Castle, which originally dated from the 14th century, was destroyed by the Nazis but has been rebuilt with some wonderful interior restorations.
One place that did survive the war with little damage is the wonderful Wilanow Palace from 1677, which boasts an ornate interior and exterior. The nation’s 20th century history is explored with grace at both the Warsaw Rising Museum and the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
There’s much to find in Poland, from pretty maritime Gdansk with its harbor and churches, to the often overlooked but gorgeous walled town of Torun, complete with Gothic elements. But the countryside begs to be driven through as well.
Head for the Great Masurian Lake District to find tiny towns, forests and lake after lake, including Mamry and Sniardwy. You’ll chance upon fortresses and strongholds built in centuries past to repel the Russians and, most notably, the Wolf’s Lair. Close to Gierloz and Ketryzn, this was where Hitler built a headquarters, one he seldom left for three years until the Red Army turned the tide of the war.
A gem in Eastern Europe, Poland is a country that is both proud of its history and keen to embrace the new. Car rental in Poland means you can navigate between the big cities, wind your way through the mountains and explore the lakes at your own pace.