Poland has always occupied a special place in Europe: centrally located, many a bloody battle has been raged on its soil.
From an atlas, it’s a country with no defining features. When I first landed in Poland to begin a teaching assignment in 2005, I haphazardly drew a circle as the map of the country for a class. The class chuckled and commented on its remarkable accuracy.
Back then Poland was viewed as the gateway to Eastern Europe. Seven countries, including Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to the east, border Poland. To the West was Germany, a mainstay on any European travel itinerary and the Czech Republic, a must-visit land of beer and stunning architecture. Czech Republic was a country that, for many, was about as far East in Europe as they would travel, thank you very much.
Which left Poland an inexpensive and relatively undiscovered country by backpackers and wallet-waving tourists alike, with beer just as pristine and architecture to hang its hat on.
I always assumed the secret would eventually get out on Poland. I assumed it’s rolling hills and awe-inspiring Tatra mountain range (where Intrepid has a new trip!) would benefit from snow-loving thrill seekers. I had to believe a trip to northern Poland on the country’s constantly improving train system to Gdansk, a must visit for any 20th century history buff, would be commonplace. After the 2012 Euro Cup, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine I couldn’t help but think that sports buffs would descend on its many stadium.
But by all accounts, I’ve been proven wrong. Poland remains undetected by the hordes of travellers (comparatively speaking, of course). This is both a great shame and a great opportunity.
If you’re after rich culture, delicious and unique cuisine, beer that can hold its own against nearly any in the world, architecture you can lose yourself in and immaculate outdoor opportunities, do not waste another second overlooking Poland.
1. The Rynek
Let’s start where you’ll likely begin your Polish journey and may end up having a difficult time leaving: the Rynek. Most cities have these square-shaped pedestrian medieval marketplaces filled with shops, bars, restaurants (in summer, the walking space in every Rynek shrinks due to expanded patios).
Architecture styles will range from Classical, to Baroque and even some Gothically-designed buildings. But all will be a delight to the eyes from morning until night. When I first arrived in Poland, I couldn’t get over how “Candy coated” these buildings appeared, as if pulled straight from a Hans Christian Andersen story. The most picturesque Ryneks are in Krakow and Wroclaw; bring extra memory cards for photos as there’s always a different building in a different light that just has to be captured.
When you’ve got your fill of photos, you’ll soon discover one of the Rynek’s other main purposes: a venue for you to while away your time with the most underrated beer in the world.
2. The beer
Yes, Poland is known to many as a vodka stronghold but it is their centuries-old, tried and true beer that will surprise travellers and keep them occupied for many an afternoon.
There is no better people-watching than on the patios of Poland’s Ryneks, and few better pale lagers in the world to enjoy than Zywiec and Tyskie, mainstays in any Polish bar or patio. Polish beer, poured for a fraction of the cost compared to Western European counterparts, generally masters the great beer paradox: it goes down easily enough that you can spend all day with it and it also packs enough flavour and punch.
3. The food
When there’s beer drunk en masse, food isn’t usually far behind. Ask around and take a few steps beyond the Rynek to find a “Bar Mleczny,” or what translates to a “Milk bar.” No, these are nothing like the Australian counterparts: they are cafeteria-style restaurants that exclusively serve cheap, hearty and well-prepared food. They were born out of the hard economic times caused by the Soviet communist regime and provided all Poles with inexpensive meals while they worked.
Many of the meals prepared were dairy-based but you can now find a variety of Polish staples, including pierogi (Meat, potato and cheese filled dumplings) and bigos (Cabbage and bacon-laden stew) that will fill you up on the cheap.
Milk bars are rarely advertised in guide books and as such, you’ll have to be a bit adventurous when ordering. Most milk bars I’ve ever stepped foot into were thankfully free of the English language. It might be a surprise what ends up on your plate but don’t be surprised to rub elbows with Poles from all walks of life and taste the type of dish prepared with a grandmother’s love.
4. The history
It would be all to easy to spend days on end eating and drinking your way through the Polish cities such as Krakow, Wroclaw, Warsaw and Gdansk, soaking up the world-class museums and historical monuments as you please.
Of particular note in Gdansk is the European Solidarity Center, which tells the story of Lech Walesa and his fight to take on the oppressive communist government. It was here where the fire was lit and changed the course of history. Walking the cobblestone streets through the old town and then towards the shipyards where Walesa began the Solidarity movement, it is in turn impossible not to visit Gdansk and not feel moved by its historical legacy.
5. The wilderness
But there’s so much more of Poland to explore and no trip to this underrated Central European gem is complete without a trip to the town of Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra Mountains.
This is world-class skiing and snowboarding on a budget. A temperate climate atop Kasprowy Wierch means you can enjoy both beginner and advanced downhill opportunities without much in the way of stress. The mountains are easily reached in two hours by train from Krakow and feature both awe-inspiring views and a range of activities.
And it’s these common themes of fascinating history, hearty food, delicious beer and the distinct lack of mass tourism that make Poland a truly untapped European gem.