About six and then again two years ago I took two separate trips to Germany where I was able to see the dorfs (villages) where my grandmother and grandfather lived before they immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s. My mom still keeps in contact with some of her cousins and relatives there, so we were able to see them, and I was able to see some cool family history like the house where my grandfather lived before he moved to the United States and the house of my great-grandparents. It was a very cool experience to see your family history come alive and be in the actual place where your recent ancestors lived.
The other (mostly) half of me is Polish, so I wanted to do the same for Poland. Unfortunately the family history there is not as simple/known, so it was a bit more tricky to pinpoint an exact location. Regardless, I still wanted to go and that is what prompted my cousin and I (and our partners) to take a vacation to Poland!
Poland was a wonderful place to visit. There is enough to do that you won’t be bored, but also not so much to do that you’ll be overwhelmed by everything you need to see. There is a tourism infrastructure in the larger cities, but it’s not overrun by tourists. Poland gets around 15 million tourists a year, while somewhere like France gets 85 million. The people are friendly and many in the larger cities spoke English. If you greet people with a “Dzień dobry!” (Hello!) you will probably get spoken to back in Polish, which is a great thing! By the end of the trip I was able to do some very basic communications…aka mostly ordering food and saying hello/thank you. Poland was also so, so cheap. It’s a member of the EU, but still uses its own currency, the złoty, which currently has an exchange rate of 1 złoty to $.25 USD. Prices are not inflated and you can get a full meal + beer and water for around $8 USD.
The easiest place to fly into if you’re coming from the US is probably Warasaw. We all flew into Warsaw, traveled to Przemyśl (which is where our great-grandfather is from and five hours southeast from Warsaw), Krakow (2 hours west from Przemyśl) and parted ways. My cousin and her husband went to Austria, while my fiance and I went to Zakopane (2 hours south from Krakow). We drove back up to Warsaw (5 hours from Zakopane) to get our departing flight. Because of our stop in Przemyśl and the fact that there was four of us, we decided to rent a car at the Warsaw airport the day we were departing Warsaw to go to Przemyśl. Driving in Poland was pretty simple, but people do drive very fast and will be on your bumper if you don’t move out of the left lane fast enough!
Because this post is so long, check out my other post solely about Polish food and all the yummy food we tasted on our trip!
We stayed in Warsaw for two nights and one full day. I felt this was enough to see everything I wanted to see in Warsaw (except the Neon Museum – was a little bummed to miss that), but I could have stayed another day to see ALL the main points of interest. Unfortunately Warsaw was 80% destroyed during WW2, so in terms of history, there is not much to see. The city itself is very modern and there are plenty of parks, museums, and the public transportation is excellent.
What To Do
Old Town, Royal Castle & St John’s Cathedral – Old town was fun to walk around and the Royal Castle and church were really beautiful. There are lots of restaurants you can eat outside at or grab a drink. I tried Polish wine here and it was the only place we went to where I saw Polish wine on the menu (vodka is more their thing).
Inside the Royal Castle
Fotoplastikon Musuem – very small and cheap museum that uses an old machine to show you old pictures in “3D.”
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
River Walk – simply walk along the river. By our hotel on Saturday night there were a bunch of food trucks and people playing music outside
A few things we didn’t get to see – Łazienki Królewskie Museum & Park – Church of the Holy Cross – Neon Museum- Warsaw Uprising Museum – Palace of Culture and Science
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Warsaw River View. It was a very simple city hotel, which is what we wanted. You get a wonderful breakfast included and it was clean and in a good location.
Przemyśl isn’t exactly the hottest tourist destination in Poland, although it does have its own tourism app and public wifi! It’s essentially on the boarder of Poland and Ukraine and we decided to go here because it is the hometown of our great grandfather. Not only that, Przemyśl was really cool because it’s one of the oldest settlements in Poland and it’s clearly not heavily visited by non-Polish tourists. This is what made it one of my favorite parts of the trip because I felt like we got to see what “real Poland” looks like. We arrived in the late afternoon on Sunday and left for Krakow Tuesday morning.
What We Did
Fort Borek – This is a pre-WWI fort that you can walk around. It was very quiet and we had the entire thing to ourselves which was pretty cool. On our quests to find these forts and in search for another fort we ended up driving through a legit cornfield for wayyyy longer than we should have. They were doing road work on the normal route, so we decided to take a different way that Google maps had mapped as roads, but they were definitely not real roads. So don’t be fooled. To get to Fort Borek I think you do have to go on a dirt road for a little, but it’s not long and also is a normal dirt road, not through corn 🙂
Przemyśl Underground – These are 15th and 16th century tunnels. The whole thing will take you around 30 mins and is in the center of town. It’s an interesting part of Przemyśl’s very old history.
Franciscan Church in Przemyśl – Baroque church right in the town square. I was surprised at how ornate it was inside given the fact that Przemyśl is a smaller city.
Casimir Castle – Not much to see inside, but you can go up to the top and see really nice views of the city.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at this Airbnb. I would highly recommend. It was a really nice Airbnb and was about a 10 minute walk from the city center.
What We Did
Main Market Square (Rynek Główny) – There are lots of restaurants where you can sit outside (I’d recommend only getting a drink though; they are most likely very touristy), get an obwarzarnek, and do some shopping. We also did a vodka tasting and visited the famous Polish chocolate company’s store E. Wedel. It’s worth a stop! You can also see traditional horse drawn carriages and do all your souvenir shopping in the yellow building in the middle of the square. In this huge building there are tons of vendors with all kinds of Polish handicrafts. Out of all the places we visited, I would recommend getting souvenirs here. Zakopane also has a decent market, but I thought the one in Krakow was the best.
Obwarzarnek in Krakow’s Old Market Square. There are many small carts selling these!
Plac Nowy – really cool if you like flea markets and street food. Here is where we got our zapiekanka in Krakow. There’s also a meat stand with kielbasa as well as an ice cream stand. There’s a variety of different vendors selling things from carved rolling pins (so your pin will make a design in the dough) to traditional flea market type stuff, including some very “interesting” WW2 memorabilia (German stuff…if you catch my drift).
St Mary’s Basilica – I’ve been to a million churches in Europe at this point and I must admit, this one is pretty cool.
Wawel Royal Castle – We didn’t end up going inside, but walked around. There is a legend of a Krakow dragon that if you go inside I’m sure you’ll learn more about because he allegedly lives in the castle. Outside the castle on the water-side, there’s a iron statue of the dragon that randomly spews fire! We saw the fire, but when we waited around for a few minutes, he didn’t do it again.
Polish Aviation Museum – this is a bit outside the city so we saw it on our way out. It was a really comprehensive Aviation Museum with a gigantic outdoor lot filled with old planes. Kevin said it was the best aviation museum he’s ever been to because it had a bunch of old WW2 era planes, new planes, and a bunch of design failures, so you got to see plane designs you wouldn’t normally see.
Auschwitz-Birkenau – Auschwitz-Birkenau is an intense place to visit, but it’s also an important part of history. Words cannot describe visiting a place like this. It is solemn, sad, and shocking, but there’s also a juxtaposition that it was a beautiful day, with trees and green grass. But then you go inside and see the rooms filled with hair, shoes, and other possessions of the victims as well as their pictures on the walls with their arrival and death dates, and it brings the reality back that this happened. It’s extremely important to remember what happened here and to keep this part of history preserved, albeit dark and devastating, so future generations understand that this happened.
You can take day tours, but we had a car so we were able to drive ourselves. I believe you need to reserve a tour in order to see the entirety of the monument and museum. A few tips – plan to get there at least a half hour before your tour. Your tour will leave on time and if you’re late, they will make you catch up to that tour. You’ll miss some important parts and also be “those people” in a place you definitely do not want to be “those people.” We were running a little behind because of traffic and road construction that caused us to miss our exit and instead of letting us join the next tour, they had someone find our tour guide and walk us through to meet them. Considering it was very crowded, it was kind of a long and awkward walk/push through a ton of people.
You also have to go through a security line that includes a metal detector and are only allowed to bring a very small bag. Think like a 12” thin bag. I had to check my bucket bag I usually travel with.
At the end of the war, the Nazis destroyed the gas chambers to try to hide their war crimes.
There are plaques in each language of the people who were murdered there.
Other things to do we didn’t get to: St Francis’ Bascilica – Oskar Schindler’s Factory -Wieliczka Salt Mine – Kościuszko Mound
Where We Stayed
Because we were traveling as a group, we decided to stay in an Airbnb again. Personally if I’m traveling with a group of people, I prefer to stay at a place where we can hang out and decompress together for at least a few of the nights. This Airbnb was in Kazimierz, which is Krakow’s historic Jewish Quarter. It’s right by the Plac Nowy flea market and a bunch of cool restaurants. It was large and clean. If you have a car in Krakow, you can easily park it on the street. It was a little confusing at first to figure out where exactly you can park it (since all the signs are in Polish), but we mostly just followed the lead of other cars by parking in between people who were already parked. You need to pay for the day to park, but the good news is you can pay for a few days in advance and just put the ticket on your dashboard. I think it was around $10 USD/day to park.
Zakopane wasn’t actually my first choice of mountain destination in Poland because it seemed a little built up and touristy. The original plan was to visit the Table Mountains, but Kevin requested air conditioning and absolutely reliable wifi, so I compromised and we visited the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane instead. It reminded me a bit of Poland’s Lake Tahoe or Yosemite. It wasn’t as touristy as I thought and we quite enjoyed it. We were able to get some hiking in and overall enjoy the scenery. If you’re going in the winter and are into skiing, there is also plenty of skiing in this region as well.
Beautiful wood carvings all across the region!
What We Did
Siklawa Waterfalls & Tatra National Park – It’s about a 50 minute hike to the foot of the waterfalls into the Tatra Mountain National Park. I’m not sure if there just wasn’t enough rain, or we just didn’t get close enough to see them. It was still a nice two hour total hike and we got to see some beautiful views and scenery. For the more serious hiker, there are TONS of hiking trails further into the mountains as well.
Gubałówka Cable Car – It will take you up to the top of the mountain so you can see some really beautiful views. There are also restaurants as well as a bunch of souvenir stands. (The souvenir stands are better at the bottom of the mountain though.) There’s another cable car on the opposite side of Krupówki Street as well – Mount Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car – but I read that one can have very long waits, so I decided to with Gubałówka. There was essentially no wait and it went very quickly.
Market & Krupówki Street – Krupówki street is great for shopping. There are a bunch of regular clothing stores, restaurants, and souvenir shops. At the food of hill (by the Gubałówka cable car) and Krupówki Street there is a huge market that has a bunch of things like traditional scarves, crocheted lace, wood carvings, blankets, and lots of oscypek.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Villa Belweder. It was definitely one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at. (I think its rival is the resort I stayed in in Nha Trang, Vietnam.) The room was huge and decorated with unfinished pine. It was quiet, the breakfast was delicious, and there was a free spa you could use in the evenings. They were also very accommodating for a minor request I had regarding room choice, which I appreciated. It is about a 25 minute walk from the town center/happenings, but the walk is so nice that we didn’t mind. In fact, I walked it round trip four or five times over the course of our two days in Zakopane.
Back to Warsaw
After our time in Zakopane we drove on Sunday for most of the day to get back up to Warsaw. We stayed at Airport Hotel Okecie this time since we planned to get back to Warsaw around 8pm and our flight was the next morning at 6am. They have a shuttle and also a really nice restaurant where I had a mouth-watering udon noodle curry.
We really loved Poland and I think you will too. It’s cheap, has all the charm of Europe, but with a little bit more edge. We went around Labor day and the weather was great around that time.
Knowing a lot about Polish culture, I had an aggressive souvenir list. I typically try to stick with jewelry, a piece of art, and/or a Christmas ornament or food as things to bring back for myself or others. There are a lot of cool things you can get in Poland, so here’s my list. I was ready to purchase everything, but realized that my grandparents and parents have a lot of these things already, also from Poland. As dark as it sounds, I’ll eventually inherit these one day, so I took it easy on certain things, like the wood carvings. For instance, I saw a carving of the Polish eagle and my Dad pretty much has the same exact thing.
Painted and/or carved wooden eggs – these are displayed in homes around Easter. I only saw these at a few stands in Krakow’s Main Market Square, so get them there.
Wood carvings – there are a TON of beautiful wood carvings all over Poland. You can get boxes, sculptures, plates. These are really popular in Krakow and Zakopane. I got a carved and painted plate, which is something my grandmother had also brought back for my mom.
Ceramics and Crystal table settings are very popular. There were a lot of these in the Krakow main market square.
Amber jewelry is all over the Krakow market. I already have some of this, so I didn’t get any while I was there.
Anything that says “POLSKA” – I really wanted a hoodless sweatshirt that said one of the cities we visited, but I wasn’t able to find one (not even at the airport!), so I left a little disappointed. There were lots of tshirts and hats though. We did get a really cool beer glass that says “Krakow: Satisfaction Guarantee” (yes, that is exactly what it says) at the Plac Nowy flea market.
Dolls – There are these Polish porcelain dolls (or plastic, too) dressed in traditional Polish outfits. Are you surprised to hear that I already had these as well? You can also get Polish nesting dolls – they are very similar to the Russian and Ukranian ones you are probably familiar with.
Ornaments – For some reason I was expecting a lot more Christmas stuff (even though we went in September), but there wasn’t much. A few places in the Krakow market had really nice ornaments, but there were NONE in Zakopane.
Traditional Polish outfits! These looked like they were mostly kid sized, but there were definitely some adult ones too. My cousin and I’s grandmother used to dress us and our brothers up in these as kids (our parents were also subjected to this as children)!
Please note: These are based off my own experiences and are not to be taken as absolute facts. As with anything in the world, things are subject to change at any time and your experience might not be the same as mine. Also, all of these pictures are my own and owned by me. Please contact me if you would like to use them.