A Travel Guide to Poland’s Largest 3 cities in 1 week: Top 10 Things To Do in Gdańsk, Warsaw, and Kraków
Poland’s history is simultaneously strange, marvellous, and tragic. The birthplace of Chopin, Maria Sklodowska (Madame Curie), Pope John Paul II, and modern pierogis amazed us more than we anticipated. The stunning beauty, cleanliness and rich history rivalled, and surpassed in many cases, more expensive metro cities we have visited in other countries. The amount of accessible and educational landmarks changed our perspectives on historical life and modern conflicts drastically. While we wanted to explore more of this underrated European gem, our time limited us. That being said, we want to share how you can make the most of Poland in a week or less.
We visited 4 cities in 7 days. It might sound like too much in a short time, but the key is to leave the cheap vodka partying to the end. Many hostels have a check-in time of 1pm-3pm. With that being the case, we traveled earlier in the morning and reached our hostels around check-in so we had a day and a half, more or less, in each city. We looked at destinations ahead of time, but also took (as always) at least a half-hour to familiarize ourselves with the hostel maps and brochures to see if there was any local advice we didn’t find online.
For those of you who want the quick tips- here are fast links to the top things to visit in Gdańsk, Warsaw, and Kraków.
Firstly, the country is incredibly affordable against the euro. For comparison, a single train ticket to downtown Berlin from the central station costs €3. In Warsaw, the tram tickets cost us around €0.78 from the Airport to our hostel downtown. At a restaurant in Hamburg, you can expect to spend around €20 each on a meal and drink. We ordered 3 plates of pierogis, multiple drinks, dessert, and it came out to €11 each. We bought local alcoholic drinks from a kiosk that cost around €0.27 🤯. Fair warning: stay away from the tourist squares because they often include service charges, hiked prices, and sub-par Americanized food. The main point is that anywhere you go in Poland is affordable as long as it’s Polish.
Secondly, many museums nationwide are free to the public one day a week, usually between Monday and Thursday. We didn’t know this before arriving, but were lucky to figure it out quickly via a hostel brochure. We visited 4 museums for free! Booking your entire trip during the week is normally cheaper anyways (regarding flights and hostels) and this is another great feature to extend your wallet.
Thirdly, there are many beautiful places to visit but, with our limited time, we chose cities that offered the most activities and cities that were centrally located. Day tours in Poland are reasonably priced and definitely worth it.
We started at the top of Poland in Gdańsk and made our way down to Kraków via train. We always recommend trains as a means of travel, especially if you want to see countrysides and landscapes.The trips we took lasted around 3.5 hours and it definitely gave us time to appreciate the natural beauty of the country. Avoiding airports is always a bonus, too. We booked ahead and the tickets between the cities were less than €8. Waiting a little longer isn’t bad, though, as you can expect to pay around €10. However, go to the stations early. In Gdańsk, there weren’t any boards that displayed the time or number of the next trains. We almost missed our train to Olsztyn because there weren’t any standard overhead indicators of where our train departed from. We ran up every platform only to find all of the station’s split-flaps covered or not in use. We resorted to asking people on each platform if we were at the right place but couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Eventually, after running around wildly, someone directed us to a paper schedule on the wall at the end of the station. This comes to our next tip: do not expect everyone to speak English. A lot of the people in tourism do, but often cashiers and information personnel away from city centres do not speak English. Plan ahead and be diligent. The internet is your best friend for research and you can buy all the tickets online (so you don’t have to struggle at a ticket desk or machine). Alternatively, prepare basic Q-cards to help you communicate with others quickly and conveniently.
Side note: most major cities have ticket machines with English options for day tickets. We normally buy 48-72 hour tickets for short trips or rent bicycles. Buy bus tickets ahead of time because in many European countries you need to tell the driver where you’re going to buy a ticket onboard because of zone price variations. If you don’t speak the local language, this process can be very stressful (even Google maps sometimes can’t save you).
Gdańsk was the smallest major city out of three we visited and definitely didn’t have as many activities, but the cute harbour town certainly boasted a lot of character. You can walk along the main canal while appreciating Polish red-brick architecture and smell the Baltic Sea rolling off the cobble stones while you peruse the endless amber jewellery booths. The city was 90% destroyed in WWII, so not much of Gdańsk is original, but it was rebuilt using the rubble from buildings in attempts to make it look as similar as possible. We actually only spent about a day here because we decided to take a day trip to another nearby city called Olsztyn: the birthplace of Larissa’s Grandma. Gdańsk’s old town is a lot smaller than others we visited in larger cities, so we got to see everything we wanted in the time we had. There is a lot more to see and do in Gdańsk than what we accomplished: free walking tours, pub crawls, cathedrals, churches, museums, and lots of historic architecture. (Check out the city website for places, times, prices, and what is free!) Something special that you can’t miss is the big ferris wheel called the Ambersky. Right along the river, it gives riders an unbeatable view of the entire city. It costs 28 PLN per adult for 3 times around, kind of pricey but well worth it. Check the website for seasonal business hours and price variants.
Fun Fact: We went 20-15 minutes before closing and got to ride it until they closed. We went around 6 times, so we really got a deal! If you’re a night rider, give this a try!
Top 10 things to do in Gdańsk.
- The Ambersky Ferris Wheel
For those of you who skipped ahead:
Right along the river, this attraction gives riders an unbeatable view of the entire city. It is often open in the day as well as the night. It costs 28 PLN per adult for a 15 minute ride. Check the website for seasonal business hours and price variants. Pricey, but worth it!
2. St. Mary’s Basilica
This Roman Catholic Cathedral is one of the largest brick cathedrals in the world. Construction started in the 1300s according to the cathedral website and can hold approximately 25,000 people for service! While it was damaged in WWII and large parts were reconstructed, a lot of the original relics inside were saved and are on display today. You can also climb the tower if you’re open to a 400-step adventure (seriously, no elevators). This late gothic gem is a must-see as it is not only beautiful, but is still an active part of Polish life and culture.
3. Main Town Hall and City Market (Długi Targ/Long Market)
Enter through the Green Gate on Długa Street to experience this fun and historic area of the city; the Long Market not only offers visitors a chance to appreciate Polish Gothic-Renaissance architecture, but offers several other points of interest. The Town Hall holds the Gdańsk City History Museum which has free admission on Mondays from May-September and Tuesdays from October-April. Other notable attractions include: Neptune Fountain, Artus Court, Lion Castle (Schwartzwald Family House), the Golden House, and if you keep walking about 7 minutes past the Green Gate, you can see the Golden Gate and Brama Wyżynna. The last two items are 16th and 17th century fortification gates that held well during WWII (original parts still remain!). Brama was the gate used to welcome the King and offers viewers symbols of Poland, Prussia, and the city of Gdańsk. If you’re looking for tacky tourist souvenirs and quirky shops, this is the place.
4. The Amber Museum
This museum dives into the 6,000 year history of trading and harvesting amber as well as the ‘golden’ age of Gdańsk. With its harbours and access to Baltic Sea amber, the city still benefits from the sale and trade of the precious stone; visitors can view some of the most stunning pieces Poland has to offer. Not only does this attraction have sculptures made of amber, but it has many bugs, animals, and precious items frozen in golden-red walls. If that isn’t enough to entice you, the museum is housed in the city’s old prison tower and torture chamber; there is a separate eery section in the building for those intrigued by ancient ways of Polish torture and old torture devices. AND in summer the ticket includes access to the observation deck so visitors can view the city from the old tower. For the full price of 12 ztl or the reduced (student/senior) price of 6 ztl, this site is definitely worth the trip!
5. Wisłoujście Fortress
Well known for its shape and capability to hold over 1000 people, this fortress has stood on the shores of Gdańsk for over 500 years. Improvements have taken place since its construction in the 15th century, but it was destroyed in WWII. Efforts in the last few decades to restore it have gone well but restoration is not yet complete. That being said, visitors can access the observation deck on the top of the tower, the underground bunkers, the weapons collection, and houses built inside the fortress. Interestingly enough, it is also home to a large number of bats which are protected, making conservation efforts more difficult. Notes: the fortress is closed during the winter and getting there is not as simple as you’d think. A fun way to get there is to take the F5 water tram departing from the the front of the Hilton hotel at Targ Rybny; tickets for the boat can be purchased onboard. You can also bike or bus. Bus 106 plus a walk will get you there in around 20 minutes. Wait for the 106 in front of the Music Academy on Łąkowa street and ask the driver to drop you at the Wisłoujście stop. Biking is bit longer (30 minutes) but is very worth it if you plan on going to the next destinations on this list (Westerplatte and/or Oliwa park). There will be a little note/map at the end of this section on a day bike tour of this area 😀.
6. Ruins at Westerplatte
source: Wikimedia Commons
The war monument at Westerplatte brings many people to pay tribute and appreciate the historical battle significance. However, something even more eye-opening sits just a 5 minute walk from the main monument: the battle barracks. The walkable battle barracks are original from WWII and some experts believe that Westerplatte was the location of WWII’s “first shot,” making it one of the most historically significant places in regards to WWII.
7. Oliwa Park
This area of Gdańsk has more to offer than just beautiful gardens. Inside and around the park visitors can enjoy 7 major points of interest: Abbot’s Palace, the Department of Modern Art (Gdańsk National Gallery), Oliwa Cathedral, Groty Szeptów (Whisperers Grotto), Ogród Francuski (French Gardens), the Palm House, and the Bukowa Aleja. Visitors can explore the park year-round to find even more prime spots! The Cathedral is the most notable site along with the National Gallery. Abbot’s Palace also has an additional special place called The Whisperer’s Cave (Dionysus’ Ears) where if one person stands in each ear, they can hear each other while barely whispering.
8.European Solidarity Centre
This building is not just a structure, it’s a living archive, library, museum, and monument of Polish resistance to war and fascism. Visitors can enter the ECS for free which allows access to the ground-floor atrium, the library archives, the roof-top terrace, reading rooms, several conference halls, library archives, reading rooms, the gift shop, cafe, and restaurant. The museum is impressive with interactive displays and the finest technology Poland has to offer. The full entrance price is 20 złt and the reduced price is 15 złt. One of the most unique parts of the ECS is the “Play Department” which allows visitors to leave their children in a supervised park (including ball pits, climbing nets and obstacle courses) so they can explore everything the ECS has to offer.
9. Museum of World War II
This unique building is the result of an architectural contest. Built in 2008, the museum’s original purpose was to maintain culture and national heritage but now it not only hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions on those matters, but it has a cinema, education facility, science displays, and even apartments for rent! It has child friendly exhibits as well. The website is updated regularly to show patrons what is offered each week. Tickets are as follows:
Normal ticket – 23 zł
Reduced ticket – 16 PLN
Family ticket – 55 zł
Temporary exhibition – 5 PLN
10. St. Mary’s Gate
This area is a wonderful place to take a water-side walk along Gdańsk’s main canal. Along the way, you can find a number of shops, restaurants, gargoyle’s and beautiful homes. Through the gates you can enter a number of amber shops, many of which display their products on walk-up booths. Note: remember, if you buy any amber it should come with a certificate of authenticity!
Warsaw was the third Polish City we visited on our week-long adventure. Being the capital of Poland, it is the biggest city in the country, subsequently leaving it 85% decimated in WWII. It was later rebuilt based on paintings. We hustled hard for a day and a half, which we felt was a decent amount of time. A brochure in the hostel had a list of museums all over the city that you could get into for FREE, including the business hours. We are large supporters of free stuff. Museums are unbeatable for learning about the places we travel and it’s made fun/easy, so we really took advantage of the freebies; we entered 4 different museums within 2 days! One of the best we have ever been to was the Museum of Warsaw; it was unexpectedly large and full of information. Located right in the middle of Old Town, it is definitely worth a visit if you want to learn about Warsaw (it is also one of the museums you can enter for free).
1.The Royal Castle
The original building was started in 1598 but WWII destroyed it entirely. Through private donations, the Polish people rebuilt the palace which now hosts beautiful memorials, a museum, and gardens for the public. It has a large, powerful WWII art installation always free to view just inside the courtyard. Our walking guide told us one of the most visited memorials in Warsaw also rests here; it’s in honour of a janitor who worked at the palace during the war. He managed to hide hundreds of priceless paintings and treasures underground before he died during an air assault on the building. Free on Wednesdays!
2. The Oldest Escalator
Kind of a hilarious thing…the escalator was a gift from Russia post WWII. This yellow house stands across the Royal Palace in the square. It has FREE public washrooms (this is huge in any European Metropolitan) and it takes visitors to-and-from the Vistula’s riverbank. We wanted to include this on the list because it makes viewing the river’s edge much easier and quicker. Not to mention this will be a must-see unless you have an iron bladder.
3. St. John the Baptist Church
This is the most important church in Warsaw. If you only have time to see one, this is it! Originally built in 1370, the entire building was destroyed in WWII. Rebuilt in 1956, the church was not only made to be a symbol of faith, but also of triumph over injustice. The stained glass windows inside depict important people in Polish history dating back hundreds of years. Even more notable, the church has a unique display of flags that represent each war Poland has fought in for the past 1000 years. If you thought that was it, it’s not! An exact replica of the Black Madonna, the patron protector of Poland, lives here. The famous original is hidden in a southern Polish monastery where over 100 000 people pilgrim each year to pay patronage.
4. Old-Town Wishing Bell
This is a quick stop but a very magical one! It’s located right behind St. Joseph’s Cathedral which is about a 3-minute walk from the Royal Palace. The cobblestones you see were laid over a graveyard behind the church due to animals digging up bodies. The Polish ground is hard during most of the year so Polish graves were dug to place the bodies standing instead of in horizontal in coffins. This strategy made it easy for animals to dig out heads and pick at them (horror snippet for you, sailors). A statue of the Madonna reminds passerby of the people who rest beneath their feet.
The story of the bell is the most interesting part of this area. Several myths float around the history of the bell but the core of the tale is that the bell-maker made a mistake (or someone else sabotaged him!) and when the bell was first struck, it cracked and never rang again. Not only that, but the bell-maker mysteriously died shortly after. Since the church commissioned the beautiful bell, it was used as decoration in this courtyard for visitors to admire. The bell-maker is buried in the small square underneath his bell. More mystery entices locals as the bell is famous for requiring few repairs and having no signs of ageing, which is impressive considering it’s over 400 years old. Legend says that if a visitor makes a wish (or prayer) while touching the bell, it is heard immediately by higher powers. It is also said that the bell-maker’s ghost visits the bell on October 31st when the barriers between worlds are most thin. If you’re lucky, you might see him working on his bell!
5. A Local Milk Bar
If you’re looking for cheap, local Polish food, hitting up a milk bar is essential. These places are subsidized by the government so they’re guaranteed to be a great price but often have a limited menu. The history in these places dates back to the 1950s after communism settled in. Communist leaders decided that they wanted to feed workers building the future of Poland affordably and with health in mind. With all that being said, prepare yourself for the scariest old Polish ladies serving you if you hit up an original milk bar. They won’t say hello to you, may yell at you for any reason at all including not having exact change, won’t smile at you, and have essentially no customer service (spoken accurately by our walking guides). The newer milk bars have different ideas of business but the oldest ones still have communist era workers in them – some have been working in a milk bar for over 30 years! Most milk bars actually went bankrupt when communism ended because of globalization. That, and Polish people wanted to detach themselves from the old state. However, in recent yearsPoles have expressed desires to open these facilities again in order to maintain overall population health and uphold Polish food pride at affordable prices.
6. The Chopin Museum
Built in 1954, this museum is dedicated to the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. Since then, the location has modernized and contains countless interactive displays; the lower level allows visitors to spend as much time as they desire listening to original Chopin compositions (organized in categories for convenience) from individual booths. Beautiful, elegant, and affordable with reduced tickets at 13 złoty (regular price is 22 złoty), this is a must-see for both music and history admirers.
7. Polish Vodka Museum
A little more expensive than other activities, but still affordable, the vodka museum guides visitors through the legendary history and process of creating smooth, delicious Polish vodka. Not only can visitors tour the museum, but they can take workshops on vodka making as well as hold events. The museum also hosts special events that can be attended by anyone with a ticket, but make sure you buy well in advance because they don’t stick around for long! Ticket prices vary depending on the day, time, and age of the patron. Check out the availability and ticket prices on the museum’s website.
8. Museum of Warsaw (our fave!)
This museum blew away every expectation we had. Originally we went in because it was free on that day (Thursdays) and it was also a great place to escape the rain. With 6 different levels, utilizing 11 of the houses in the market square, this museum has everything from post-war oil cans to lifelike 16th-century bronze sculptures. Each level has a different theme and the top gives visitors a wide view of Warsaw’s Old Town Market. In our opinion, for its price and what visitors can access, this is one of the best museums in Warsaw and one of our favourites in Poland! Ticket/exhibition information is available on the website.
9. Old Town Market Square
Warsaw’s Old Town is a place to not only get a quick coffee and cake, but a way to appreciate Polish history and culture. It’s an escape from the busier part of Warsaw for locals and tourists alike. With its large square design, the white umbrella and outdoor table setup, unique shops, restaurants, points of interest, and cafés, it’s easy to spend hours exploring what Old Town Square has to offer. In the square visitors can find the Warsaw Mermaid, The Museum of Warsaw, the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, and, of course, the flea market on certain days!
10. Palace of Culture and Science
This monument, fondly nicknamed “Stalin’s middle finger” by the people of Warsaw, started development in 1952. The palace was a post-war gift from Russia to Poland in attempts to reconcile. It remains one of the tallest buildings in the entire European union and hosts a number of activities for patrons including the following:
restaurant, cafe, bars, cinema, shopping mall, postal services, colleges, gardens, observation deck, and several museums.
We didn’t spend too much time in the palace as we decided other museums were of more interest to us. That being said, the observation deck was quite rewarding due to the elevation. However, at over €4, it was more expensive than what we wanted to pay (lucky we had out student cards!). If you’re looking at a cheaper observation deck with a great panoramic view of Warsaw, St. Anne’s Church Bell Tower costs less than €1.50.
Final note: as with any major tourist city, the streets are filled with overpriced restaurants, bars, bakeries and souvenir shops. We wandered outside of the tourist trap and found some nice, less expensive restaurants, but again Poland is crazy cheap so it really isn’t too bad if you want to stay in the touristy areas.
Krakòw was the last city we visited and was a favourite for us. Unlike Gdańsk and Warsaw, Kraków was almost untouched by WWII. Which means many of the buildings, or at least some parts of the buildings standing in the city today, are original. Being the old capital of Poland until 1596, Krakow’s ‘Old Town’ isn’t too big so it can easily be seen on foot. We spent about a day walking around on our own, but we also took a free tour which showed us the city, including Wawel Castle (a 10-minute walk from the town square). You could spend hours at Wawel; it has 5 separate sections that you can visit (they all need separate tickets) so you could easily fill an afternoon or even a day just at the castle. The Old Town square is actually located right above the Rynek Underground Museum. This museum will take you 4 meters under the centre of the main square and you can explore the newly excavated medieval stalls. Kraków also has an amazing Jewish quarter. We took a walking tour of the Kraków ghetto and it was a great way to see the other side of Krakow’s history.
While touring the former capital, a visit to the UNESCO listed Auschwitz-Birkenau is well worth it. It wont be the most exciting or happiest of places you will travel, but it is truly something worth experiencing. We booked a tour that took us to the 2 Auschwitz camps (Birkenau being the camp with gas chambers) and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. They also just do tours of Auschwitz but we chose to do both. The tour took about 6 or 7 hours as it isn’t too far from Kraków’s ‘Old Town’ centre. Our tour bus picked us up and dropped us off near out hostel. We had a very knowledgable guide at Auschwitz (all of the tours are guided) and we learned so much. We walked around the camps which allowed us to have an in-depth look at what physically happened at this place. We were permitted to enter the gas chambers, contingent on silence, the prisoners living quarters, and were shown the exact spots where people were executed by gunfire or hanging. The train tracks are also something that visitors can walk along in the the exact way Jewish prisoners would have walked when they got off the train and were sentenced to death. The Auschwitz museums have some of the prisoners’ suitcases, hair, shoes, and clothes on display. These displays give viewers a stark visual on how many people actually lived in the camps. We found it to be such an eye-opening experience that we recommend the journey to Auschwitz not only if you are in Kraków, but anywhere near the site.
- Wawel Castle
Every major European city has a castle in it or nearby with a unique lineage to share and this one is no exception! It’s one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world, is exceptionally close to the Old Town (10 minutes walking), and has several attractions for visitors – besides its spacious green walkways and views of the city. Over centuries, the castle received many additions as new kings wanted to leave their impression. Architecture lovers can appreciate at least 4 different types just on the exterior: pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance. The castle has permanent exhibitions as well as temporary ones and one of the most famous sites in Kraków is attached: the Wawel Castle Cathedral. On top of that, visitors can find a magical creature at the bottom of Wawel castle. A sculpture of the “Wawel Dragon” terrorizes the “dragon’s den” by breathing fire every few minutes to warn oncoming travellers.
2. Alchemia Bar
This tip is for the music lovers and night dwellers! Arguably the most famous bar in Kraków, Alchemia hosts a number of soulful lives acts and cultural events every week. Its unique sultry atmosphere combined with cheap drinks and cozy furniture attracts local and foreign visitors alike.
If the evening isn’t your forte, Alchemia also serves great dishes and drinks in the afternoon. The alchemy tools on the wall as well as the antiques invite visitors of all genres. Definitely worth a dip.
3. Main Market Square
Interested in viewing a 600 year old tradition? How about walking below the streets? Or maybe art is your interest? The main market square has a slice of Kraków culture and history to pique everyone’s interest.
Main Market is the largest medieval square in Europe and was best known for its influential cloth trade. Today, locals and tourists alike can walk through the trade hall to purchase goods. Once travellers become flustered by the crowds, they can retreat under the streets to the Ryek Underground. The Ryek is a massive underground museum that takes viewers on a journey of 11th century Poland. Free on Tuesdays, this museum should not be missed if for the aesthetics alone.
You’ll always be punctual in Kraków as every hour on the hour a trumpet call – known as the Hejnał mariacki– sounds from each window of St. Mary’s Basilica. This 600-year tradition utilizes an even older tune known by every Pole; the trumpet call continued through war, communism, and occupation which is an incredible testament to its cultural importance. Dating back to the 14th century, St. Mary’s Basilica itself is also a Polish relic and the finest example of Polish Gothic architecture in existence. For 15 PLN you can climb to the top of the bell tower to snag some awesome pictures of the square. However, be sure to check the website for times and seasonal closures!
One of the more recent additions to the square grabs the attention of art fans from around the globe. Internationally recognized Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj gifted Kraków “Eros Bendato,” called “The Head” by locals. Originally, the city didn’t know what to do with the sculpture. With Igor’s specifications of where the art couldn’t go, the city decided to put it at the edge of market square. The citizens of Kraków apparently detested the change and still do not enjoy “The Head” in their main square, but the installation attracts thousands of visitors a year regardless.
4. St. Florian’s Gate and Barbican
source: Land Sailors Travel
At the pinnacle of Kraków’s old town, St. Florian’s gate and Barbican are remnants of a massive defence system surrounding the city. Up until the 19th century, there were 47 towers jointing the massive medieval walls. The St. Florian gates were special throughout history as they were the warm welcome for royalty and honoured visitors. They also commenced parades and royal processions. According to some historians, the St. Florian gates survived for two reasons: modesty and significance. After Austria invaded, Austrian leaders planned to tear down all of Kraków’s walls. St. Florian’s gate and Barbican survived due to the cunning ideas of Feliks Radwański. Most historians agree that he won the argument with the idea of preserving medieval history for future generations, but others speculate that the final convincing piece of the argument was that the wall prevented pesky crosswinds. Apparently, the crosswinds would work against modesty by blowing up the skirts of ladies walking by. The respectable Austrians apparently did not want to dishonour their noble women so they agreed to leave the wind shield. That’s the local story, anyway!
This part of old town is home to art installations and is another location in Kraków where you can buy local street art. Not only that, but tourists can enter the barbican to view art and Polish relics. Definitely a must!
5. St. Joseph’s Church
St. Joseph’s church differs from many churches situated in European metropolitans due to its age. Built at the start of the 20th century, this church gave a modern spin on antique Gothic architecture. The age of the church doesn’t attract visitors, but its beauty and location makes it a desirable destination.
6. Schindler’s Factory
One of the most memorable movies surrounding the holocaust is “Schindler’s List.” The movie is based off of the actions of Oskar and Emilie Schindler. The pair saved the lives of approximately 1,200 Jews by bribing SS officials and employing Jewish workers in the factory that was supporting war efforts. Ultimately, the combination of money and wartime support led German officials to spare the workforce throughout the duration of WWII.
Free on Monday’s, this interactive museum is another piece of Kraków that visitors should place priority on. The documents, videos, photos, and rotating exhibitions are world-class and renowned. On top of being a museum, part of the factory is reserved for cultural events and lectures (check the website for upcoming events, you may be lucky).The factory is popular so it is recommended you book ahead on the Kraków museum website. Be warned, it is an emotional experience.
7. Czartoryski Museum
Where are the Da Vinci fans at!? This highly regarded museum is one of the oldest in Poland and it hosts a number of rare antiquities and art pieces. Most notably, Da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine resides here but several other famous artists’ works are displayed here year-round.
The museum has a colourful history. In 1796, princess Izabela Czartoryski formed a collection that she believed was important to Polish heritage and culture, beginning with battle trophies. Her motto was “The Past to the Future.” Over the span of her life, she saved several items from Wawel castle and received items from private collections of Polish nobility. She also scoured other countries for lost or stolen relics. After her death, the collection found different homes. Fortunately, her grandson, Władysław Czartoryski, wanted to follow her lead of enlightenment and the items were requested back to Kraków from Paris by him in 1870. The current museum opened in 1878 with the oversight of museum founder, Władysław Czartoryski. Many of the items were moved several times during WWII as Nazi leaders wanted some of the treasures for their personal collections or for German citizens to enjoy. The dedication of art lovers and curators of the museum over decades has saved many pieces from being lost.
Ticket information can be found here. Free on Tuesdays!
8. Kraków Ghetto
Walking through the ghetto is a tough experience due to the horrendous history located at every turn. Even the street tiles in some places are a reminder of the inhumanity Jewish people faced. During German occupation, the tombs of deceased Jews were used to make pavement for the ghetto; ancestors were forced to walk on their parents’ graves. There is a famous memorial, Plac Bohaterów Getta, that can be viewed by visitors free of charge. 70 large empty chairs stand in the square as a reminder of those who had their lives taken in the war. Many Jewish people were shipped to crematoriums from this ghetto’s main square but were lied to, told they could bring one piece of furniture to their “relocation.” Many of them chose a chair, especially families where each person could take a chair, because the people of the ghetto had no idea of their final destination.
On a lighter note, the Jewish quarter used to be a separate city due to the distance from Kraków’s old town. Allegedly, King Casimir III the Great had a Jewish concubine who he fathered two sons with. Due to his love for her and her people, he extended protective laws for Jewish culture and religious practices, naming the Jewish quarter Kazimierz, after himself, a suburb of Kraków. This is a Polish myth, however. What historians do know is that several centuries later, in the 1800s, the riverbed was filled and the walls separating the old Jewish town of Kazimierz and the Polish town of Kraków were torn down, finally connecting the cities.
If you want an opportunity to learn more about Jewish heritage and culture, then look no further than the Old Synagogue. As it is no longer a working synagogue, the building has been transformed into a museum and cultural centre. It also plays key role in the annual Jewish Cultural Festival which is in its 30th year!
Tickets to the Synagogue can be nabbed here. Mondays are free!
9. Auschwitz Concentration Camp
This is one of the most emotional experiences we have ever had while abroad. The energy is different. I truly believe that if no one told me what occurred at this place, I would have felt the evil through my boots. Known as “The World’s Largest Graveyard” by local guides, Auschwitz was the final destination for 1.1 million people. When travelling the grounds, you walk over ashes of hundreds of thousands of people. The museum is gut wrenching and eye-opening; we learned more facts about Nazi actions during the war in a few hours than we did in high school. We recommend booking your ticket well ahead for the best price and a guaranteed spot. We also recommend that you leave a few minutes to peruse the plaques located outside the camp (near where the busses stop) as they contain the voices and stories of survivors.
While this location may not be suited for everyone, we strongly recommend attending the site even if it is to just pay respect. It is stressful and sad, but it is such an important part of understanding history and creating a better future.
For further information, click here.
10. Wieliczka Salt Mine
To be honest, we had no idea salt could be mined the same way precious stones or metals are before travelling to Poland. This UNESCO world heritage site is a scene unlike any other we’ve been to. Once visitors travel down nine flights of winding stairs, they can wander approximately 2% of the 245km mine, but that 2% is more than enough. Everything on display in the mine is carved out of salt. Visitors, while not entirely recommended, can lick the walls as the the salt has cleansing properties.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine was created at the end of the 13th century and operated up until 2007, making it one of the longest operating salt mines in the world. It is theorized that the funds from the salt mine during King Casimir III the Great’s era led to Poland’s prolonged prosperity.
Today, there is a large salt lake, a chapel, a gift shop, and many other beautiful salt-related items to view in the mine. The mine is also a museum, spa, and Polish treasure. Even though the salt is no longer commercialized, miners still work to maintain structural safety. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy some mine salt at the underground gift shop, though! To extend, the Wieliczka salt mine plans to open more of the labyrinth in the future with renovations. Stick with your guide, though, or you might never find your way out.
Side note: we planned an Auschwitz and Wieliczka salt mine day as it was emotionally better, we thought, to end the day on a lighter note. Just make sure you travel with a legitimate company – ask your hostel or a walking tour guide what companies are best to ensure you are receiving a quality trip at a fair price.
Conclusion and Overview
Poland is a beautiful country that Larissa holds dear; her grandmother immigrated to Canada with her family from Poland in the 1950’s. Experiencing the kind-hearted people, the delicious food, and the rich traditions of Polish culture captivated us. We have preached Poland as a travel destination to anyone with patience and we highly recommend it to you as well, dear reader!
TIP: Learning how to say “thank you” in Polish melts the heart of every Pole-do it! It goes a long way 🙂
That’s it, sailors! We hope this guide is helpful. If you have any questions, please message us! If you’re going to Poland, make sure you experience as much as you can.
Dziękuję! Keep working hard 💪