By Rick Steves
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- Rick's firsthand, up-to-date advice on Kraków, Warsaw and Gdańsk’s best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more, plus tips to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Wander the cobblestone streets of Warsaw’s Old Town or learn about Jewish history in Kraków's Kazimierz neighborhood. Enjoy handmade pierogi, chat with locals as you sip wódka, and stay at a charming B&B
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
Exploring more of Poland? Pick up Rick Steves Central Europe for comprehensive coverage, detailed itineraries, and essential information for planning a countrywide trip.
Table of Contents
Map: Kraków's Old Town Hotels & Restaurants
Map: Greater Auschwitz
Map: Auschwitz I
Map: Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Map: Warsaw Overview
Map: Central Warsaw
From the Main Town to the Solidarity Shipyard
Map: Gdańsk Day Trips
HEL PENINSULA (MIERZEJA HELSKA)
Map: Malbork Castle
Making Hotel Reservations
Resources from Rick Steves
How Was Your Trip?
Polish Survival Phrases
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves' Eastern Europe, introduces you a trio of grand Polish cities: historic Kraków, thriving Warsaw, and gorgeous Gdańsk. Covering the best of Poland, this book offers an enjoyable cross-section of this proud nation.
Poland's historical capital, Kraków, clusters around one of Europe's biggest and most inviting market squares. Explore Kraków's picture-perfect Old Town—filled with museums, restaurants, university life, and Old World charm—and head to the Kazimierz neighborhood to learn about Poland's Jewish story. Side-trip to the world's most powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
For a look at today's Poland, visit Warsaw—leveled in World War II, rebuilt soon after, and now rapidly gentrifying. Stroll through Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town, promenade along newly spiffed-up boulevards, gape up at the communist-style Palace of Culture and Science, and dip into engaging museums on WWII history, native son Fryderyk Chopin, Polish painters, and much more.
On the Baltic Coast, Gdańsk combines a vibrantly colorful main drag fronted by opulent old Hanseatic facades, with inspiring tales from the toppling of communism at the shipyard where the Solidarity trade union was born. Nearby in Pomerania is a pair of medieval red-brick sights: the imposing Gothic headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, Malbork Castle; and the appealing, gingerbread-scented town of Toruń.
To help you have the best trip possible, I've included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
• Sights with ratings:
♦♦—Try hard to see
♦—Worthwhile if you can make it No rating—Worth knowing about
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and boats
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, phoning, making hotel reservations, eating, transportation, and other helpful hints, plus Polish survival phrases.
To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It's my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you'll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
Szczęśliwej podróży—happy travels!
Americans who think of Poland as run-down—full of rusting factories, smoggy cities, and gloomy natives—are speechless when they step into Kraków's vibrant main square, Gdańsk's colorful pedestrian drag, or Warsaw's lively Old Town. While parts of the country are still cleaning up the industrial mess left by the Soviets, Poland also has some breathtaking medieval cities that show off its kind-hearted people, dynamic history, and unique cultural fabric.
The Poles are a proud people—as moved by their spectacular failures as by their successes. Their quiet elegance has been tempered by generations of abuse by foreign powers. The Poles place a lot of importance on honor, and you'll find fewer scams and con artists here than in other Eastern European countries.
In a way, there are two Polands: lively, cosmopolitan urban centers, and countless tiny farm villages in the countryside. City-dwellers often talk about the "simple people" of Poland—those descended from generations of farmers, working the same plots for centuries and living an uncomplicated, agrarian lifestyle. This large contingent of salt-of-the-earth folks—who like things the way they are—is a major reason why Poland was so hesitant to join the European Union, and remains fiercely "Euroskeptic."
Poland is arguably Europe's most devoutly Catholic country. Catholicism has long defined these people, holding them together through times when they had little else. Squeezed between Protestant Germany (originally Prussia) and Eastern Orthodox Russia, Poland wasn't even a country for generations (1795-1918). Its Catholicism helped keep its spirit alive. In the last century, while "under communism" (as that age is referred to), Poles once again found their religion a source of strength as well as rebellion—they could express dissent against the atheistic regime by going to church. Some of Poland's best sights are churches, usually filled with locals praying silently. While these church interiors are worth a visit, be especially careful to show the proper respect (maintain silence, keep a low profile, and if you want to snap pictures, do so discreetly).
Visitors are sometimes surprised at how much of Poland's story is a Jewish story. Before World War II, 80 percent of Europe's Jews lived in Poland. Warsaw was the world's second-largest Jewish city (after New York) with 380,000 Jews (out of a total population of 1.2 million). Poland was a magnet for Jews because of its relatively welcoming policies. Still, Jews were forbidden from owning land; that's why they settled mostly in the cities. But the Holocaust (and a later Soviet policy of sending "troublemaking" Jews to Israel) decimated the Jewish population. This tragic chapter, combined with postwar border shifts and population movements, made Poland one of Europe's most ethnically homogeneous countries. Today, virtually everyone in the country is an ethnic Pole, and only a few thousand Polish Jews remain. (For simplicity, in this book I've used the term "Pole" to describe someone who's ethnically Polish as opposed to Jewish—though many Jews were "Polish" in that they were citizens of Poland.)
Poland has long been extremely pro-America. Of course, their big neighbors (Russia and Germany) have been their historic enemies. And when Hitler invaded in 1939, the Poles felt let down by their supposed European friends (France and Britain), who declared war on Germany but provided virtually no military support to the Polish resistance. America, meanwhile, has been regarded as the big ally from across the ocean—and the home of about 10 million Polish Americans. In 1989, when Poland finally won its freedom, many Poles only half-joked that they should apply to become the 51st state of the US.
Over the last few years, Poland beefed up its infrastructure to prepare for the Euro Cup soccer championship, which it cohosts with Ukraine in June of 2012. For Europeans, this is just one step down from hosting the Olympics. Cities hosting matches (Warsaw, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Wrocław), as well as the rest of the country, enjoyed a wave of new construction and refurbishment, leaving dingy old quarters refreshed and re-energized. Poland is using the Euro Cup as an excuse to improve its rail system, creating a network of high-speed trains to more quickly and smoothly link together its major cities.
See Poland Almanac
On my first visit to Poland, I had a poor impression of Poles, who seemed brusque and often elbowed ahead of me in line. I've since learned that all it takes is a smile and a cheerful greeting—preferably in Polish—to break through the thick skin that helped these kind people survive the difficult communist times. With a friendly hello (Dzień dobry!), you'll turn any grouch into an ally. It may help to know that, because of the distinct cadence of Polish, Poles speaking English sometimes sound more impatient, gruff, or irritated than they actually are. Part of the Poles' charm is that they're not as slick and self-assured as many Europeans: They're kind, soft-spoken, and quite shy. On a recent train trip in Poland, I offered my Polish seatmate a snack—and spent the rest of trip enjoying a delightful conversation with a new friend.
Restroom Signage: To confuse tourists, the Poles have devised a secret way of marking their WCs. You'll see doors marked with męska (men) and damska (women)—but even more often, you'll simply see a triangle (for men) or a circle (for women). A sign with a triangle, a circle, and an arrow is directing you to the closest WCs.
Pay to Pee: Many Polish bathrooms charge a small fee. You may even be charged at a restaurant where you're paying to dine. Don't let this minor inconvenience interfere with your enjoyment of your trip. Yes, it's an annoying hassle—but at least it's cheap (usually around 1 zł).
Train Station Lingo: "PKP" is the abbreviation for Polish National Railways ("PKS" is for buses). In larger towns with several train stations, you'll normally use the one called Główny (meaning "Main"—except in Warsaw, where it's Centralna). Dworzec główny means "main train station." Underneath most larger stations are mazes of walkways—lined with market stalls—that lead to platforms (peron) and exits (wyjście). Most stations have several platforms, each of which has two tracks (tor). Departures are generally listed by the peron, so keep your eye on both tracks for your train. Arrivals are przyjazdy, and departures are odjazdy. Left-luggage counters or lockers are marked przechowalnia bagażu. Kasy are ticket windows. These can be marked (sometimes only in Polish) for specific needs—domestic tickets, international tickets, and so on; ask fellow travelers to be sure you select the right line. Ticket and "information" windows are more often than not staffed by monolingual grouches. Smile sweetly, write down your destination and time, and hang onto your patience. The line you choose will invariably be the slowest one—leave plenty of time to buy your ticket before your train departs (or, if you're running out of time, buy it on board for 10 zł extra). For longer and/or express journeys, you'll likely be given two separate tickets: one for the trip itself, and the other for your seat assignment. On arriving at a station, to get into town, follow signs for wyjście do centrum or wyjście do miasta. Ongoing construction to improve Poland's rail lines may make some of your train journeys take much longer than normal, and delays are common.
See Top 10 Dates That Changed Poland
Museum Tips: Virtually every museum in Poland is closed on Monday. The ticket window for any museum typically closes a half-hour before the museum's closing time, and this last-entry deadline is strictly enforced. Poland's museums are notorious for tweaking their opening times—try to confirm hours locally if you have your heart set on a particular place.
Polish Artists: Though Poland has produced world-renowned scientists, musicians, and writers, the country isn't known for its artists. Polish museums greet foreign visitors with fine artwork by unfamiliar names. If you're planning to visit any museums in Poland, two artists in particular are worth remembering: Jan Matejko, a 19th-century positivist who painted grand historical epics; and one of his students, Stanisław Wyspiański, a painter and playwright who led the charge of the Młoda Polska movement—the Polish answer to Art Nouveau—in the early 1900s.
Telephones: Remember these Polish prefixes: 800 is toll-free, and 70 is expensive (like phone sex). Many Poles use mobile phones (which come with the prefix 50, 51, 53, 60, 66, 69, 72, 78, 79, or 88).
Poland is flat. Take a look at a topographical map of Europe, and you'll immediately appreciate the Poles' historical dilemma: The path of least resistance from northern Europe to Russia leads right through Poland. Over the years, many invaders—from Genghis Khan to Napoleon to Hitler—have taken advantage of Poland's strategic location. The country is nicknamed "God's playground" for the many wars that have rumbled through its territory. Poland has been invaded by Soviets, Nazis, French, Austrians, Russians, Prussians, Swedes, Teutonic Knights, Tatars, Bohemians, Magyars—and, about 1,300 years ago, Poles.
The first Poles were a tribe called the Polonians ("people of the plains"), a Slavic band that showed up in these parts in the eighth century. In 966, Mieszko I, Duke of the Polonian tribe, adopted Christianity and founded the Piast dynasty (which would last for more than 400 years). Centuries before Germany, Italy, or Spain first united, Poland was born.
Poland struggled against two different invaders in the 13th century: the Tatars (Mongols who ravaged the south) and the Teutonic Knights (Germans who conquered the north). But despite these challenges, Poland persevered. The last king of the Piast dynasty was also the greatest: Kazimierz the Great, who famously "found a Poland made of wood and left one made of brick and stone"—bringing Poland (and its capital, Kraków) to international prominence. The progressive Kazimierz also invited Europe's much-persecuted Jews to settle here, establishing Poland as a haven for the Jewish people—which it would remain until the Nazis arrived.
Kazimierz the Great died at the end of the 14th century without a male heir. His grand-niece, Princess Jadwiga, became "king" (the Poles weren't ready for a "queen") and married Lithuanian Prince Władysław Jagiełło, uniting their countries against a common enemy, the Teutonic Knights. Their marriage marked the beginning of the Jagiellonian dynasty and set the stage for Poland's Golden Age. During this time, the Polish nobility began to acquire more political might, Italy's Renaissance (and its architectural styles) became popular, and the Toruń-born astronomer Nicholas Copernicus shook up the scientific world with his bold new heliocentric theory. Up on the Baltic coast, the port city of Gdańsk took advantage of its Hanseatic League trading partnership to become one of Europe's most prosperous cities.
Foreign Kings and Partitions
When the Jagiellonians died out in 1572, political power shifted to the nobility. Poland became a republic of nobles governed by its wealthiest 10 percent—the szlachta, who elected a series of foreign kings. In the 16th and 17th centuries—with its territory spanning from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea—the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe.
But over time, many of the elected kings made poor diplomatic decisions and squandered the country's resources. To make matters worse, the nobles' parliament (Sejm) introduced the concept of liberum veto (literally "I freely forbid"), whereby any measure could be vetoed by a single member of parliament. This policy—which effectively demanded unanimous approval for any law to be passed—paralyzed the Sejm's waning power. Sensing the Commonwealth's weakness, in the mid-17th century forces from Sweden rampaged through Polish and Lithuanian lands—devastating the landscape in the so-called "Swedish Deluge." While Poland eventually reclaimed its territory, a third of its population was dead. The Commonwealth continued to import self-serving foreign kings, including Saxony's Augustus the Strong and his son, who drained Polish wealth to finance vanity projects in their hometown of Dresden.
By the late 18th century, Poland was floundering—and surrounded by three land-hungry empires (Russia, Prussia, and Austria). The Poles were unaware that these neighbors had entered into an agreement now dubbed the "Alliance of the Three Black Eagles" (since all three of those countries, coincidentally, used that bird as their symbol); they began to circle Poland's white eagle like vultures. Stanisław August Poniatowski, elected king with Russian support in 1764, would prove to be Poland's last.
Over the course of less than 25 years, Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided Poland's territory among themselves in a series of three Partitions. In 1772 and again in 1790, Poland was forced into ceding large chunks of its territory to its neighbors. Desperate to reform their government, Poles enacted Europe's first democratic constitution (and the world's second, after the US Constitution) on May 3, 1791—still celebrated as a national holiday. This visionary document protected the peasants, dispensed with both liberum veto and the election of the king, and set up something resembling a modern nation. But the constitution alarmed Poland's neighbors, who swept in soon after with the third and final Partition in 1795. "Poland" disappeared from Europe's maps, not to return until 1918.
Even though Poland was gone, the Poles wouldn't go quietly. As the Partitions were taking place, Polish soldier Tadeusz Kościuszko (also a hero of the American Revolution) returned home to lead an unsuccessful military resistance against the Russians in 1794.
Napoleon offered a brief glimmer of hope to the Poles in the early 19th century, when he marched eastward through Europe and set up the semi-independent "Duchy of Warsaw" in Polish lands. But that fleeting taste of freedom lasted only eight years; with Napoleon's defeat, Polish hopes were dashed. The Congress of Vienna, which redistributed Polish territory to Prussia, Russia, and Austria, is sometimes called (by Poles) the "Fourth Partition." In a classic case of "my enemy's enemy is my friend," the Poles still have great affection for Napoleon for how fiercely he fought against their mutual foes.
The Napoleonic connection also established France as a safe haven for refugee Poles. After another failed uprising against Russia in 1830, many of Poland's top artists and writers fled to Paris—including pianist Fryderyk Chopin and Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz (whose statue adorns Kraków's main square and Warsaw's Royal Way). These Polish artists tried to preserve the nation's spirit with music and words; those who remained in Poland continued to fight with swords and fists. By the end of the 19th century, the image of the Pole as a tireless, idealistic insurgent emerged. During this time, some Romantics—with typically melodramatic flair—dubbed Poland "the Christ of nations" for the way it was misunderstood and persecuted by the world, despite its inherent nobility.
As the map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, Poland emerged as a reborn nation, under the war hero-turned-head of state, Marshal Józef Piłsudski. The newly reformed "Second Polish Republic," which patched together the bits and pieces of territory that had been under foreign rule for decades, enjoyed a diverse ethnic mix—including Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and an enormous Jewish minority. A third of Poland spoke no Polish. The historic Baltic port city of Gdańsk—which was bicultural (German and Polish)—had been given a special "free city" status to avoid dealing with the prickly issue of whether to assign it to Germany or Poland. But the peace was not to last.
World War II
On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler began World War II by attacking Gdańsk to bring it into the German fold. Before the month was out, Hitler's forces had overrun Poland, and the Soviets had taken over a swath of eastern Poland (today still part of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania).
The Nazis considered the Poles slawische Untermenschen, "Slavic sub-humans" who were useful only for manual labor. Remember that Poland was also home to a huge population of another group the Nazis hated, Jews. Nazi Germany annexed Polish regions that it claimed historic ties to, while the rest (including "Warschau" and "Krakau") became a puppet state ruled by the Generalgouvernement and Hitler's handpicked governor, Hans Frank. The Nazis considered this area Lebensraum—"living space" that wasn't nice enough to actually incorporate into Germany, but served perfectly as extra territory for building things that Germans didn't want in their backyards...such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious death camp that functioned like a factory for the mass-production of murder.
The Poles anxiously awaited the promised military aid of France and Britain; when help failed to arrive, they took matters into their own hands, forming a ragtag "Polish Home Army" and staging incredibly courageous but lopsided battles against their powerful German overlords (such as the Warsaw Uprising). With six million deaths over six years—including both Polish Jews and ethnic Poles—Poland suffered the worst per-capita WWII losses of any nation. By the war's end, one out of every five Polish citizens was dead—and 90 percent of those killed were civilians.
Throughout the spring of 1945, as the Nazis retreated from their failed invasion of the Soviet Union, the Red Army gradually "liberated" Poland from Nazi oppression, guaranteeing it another four decades of oppression under another regime. At the war's end, the victorious Allies shifted Poland's borders significantly westward—folding historically German areas into Polish territory, and appropriating previously Polish areas for the USSR. This prompted a massive movement of populations—which today we'd decry as "ethnic cleansing"—as Germans were forcibly removed from western Poland, and Poles from newly "Soviet" territory were transplanted to Poland proper. Entire cities were repopulated (such as the formerly German metropolis of Breslau, which was suddenly renamed Wrocław and filled with refugee Poles from Lwów—now Lviv, in Ukraine). After millions died in the war, millions more were displaced from their ancestral homes. When the dust settled, Poland was in rubble...but almost exclusively populated by Poles.
Saddle on a Cow: Poland Under Communism
Like other Soviet satellites, Poland suffered under the communists. A postwar intimidation regime was designed to frighten people "on board" and coincided with government seizure of private property, rationing, and food shortages. The country enjoyed a relatively open society under Premier Władysław Gomułka in the 1960s, but the impractical, centrally planned economy began to unravel in the 1970s. Stores were marked by long lines stretching around the block. Poles were issued ration coupons for food staples, and cashiers clipped off a corner when a purchase was made...assuming, of course, the item was in stock. It often wasn't.
See The Heritage of Communism
The little absurdities of communist life—which today seem almost comical—made every day a struggle. For years, every elderly woman in Poland had hair the same strange magenta color. There was only one color of dye available, so if you had dyed hair, the choice was simple: Let your hair grow out (and look clownishly half red and half white), or line up and go red.
- On Sale
- Feb 6, 2024
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Rick Steves