We’ve been to Poland 5 or 6 times already. Each time we are enchanted by the cool towns and natural wonders we see there. Many cities in Poland are charming, have a rich history and stunning architecture. They should definitely get many more tourists than they do. I felt like they are highly underrated. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing as a tourist, as you don’t have to clump with thousands of other tourists. But I think they are still not well known internationally. Otherwise, they’ll be on everyone’s bucket lists.
No matter if you’re planning a city break, a road trip to Poland or you’re just looking for a stop-over on your way to other destinations, here’s a list of the best cities and towns to visit in Poland. You might have already heard of the beauty of Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Best cities and towns to visit in Central Poland
Warsaw – the capital of Poland and one of the best cities to visit
No list of the best cities to visit in Poland would be complete without Warsaw, its capital. This was also our first contact with Poland almost three years ago. Needless to say that it charmed us. Its UNESCO World Heritage historical center, museums, green spaces, neat appearance, delicious restaurants and lively atmosphere determined us, not only to return to Warsaw once more, but also to discover other parts of Poland.
Despite the elegant city center we see today, Warsaw had a difficult past. During the World War II, 85% of the old town was destroyed. After the war, even if the authorities thought about moving the capital city, the people returned to Warsaw and started to rebuild what they could. Warsaw was the capital “rechosen” by the people and the authorities, seeing this, decided to take part in this general efforts. The historic center was rebuilt from scratch following drawings and photos. The beautiful buildings we see today are perfect replicas of the originals, at least on the outside. On the inside, there are normal post war apartments. This became the first reconstruction to be included on the UNESCO list heritage list.
In order to learn more about the most significant moments in its history, one of the best things to do while in Warsaw, is a visit to the Royal Castle of Warsaw. Music enthusiasts can visit Chopin Museum, while science lovers should add Marie Curie Museum to their itinerary. If you only want to listen some pieces of Chopin’s work, just sit on one of the 15 musical benches scattered around the town and enjoy.
Lódz – the Phoenix bird of Poland and one of the best cities to visit
Lódz is not one of those postcard-pretty towns, cute and neat, where you suddenly feel transported back in medieval ages. It’s industrial, edgy, grim and quite modern.
In the pre-war era, the city evolved as the most important textile manufacturing hub in continental Europe, a “Polish Manchester”. But a lot of factories were owned by Jews. During the second World War they were closed into a ghetto and forced to work for the Germans, until they became too old or weak and were sent to concentration camps. Lódz struggled to recover since then. Its economical decline brought it the nickname “Grey Lódz”.
But during the last decades, paint and imagination transformed it into a cool and creative city. Crumbling walls have been covered with bold colorful murals. Derelict factories and cotton mills were transformed into entertainment areas, with loft apartments, restaurants, pubs, shops and clubs. The main word that can describe Lódz is repurpose. Manufacktura, the conversion of a vast textile factory into a shopping mall, became the symbol of this.
Lódz is also the birth place of Polish cinematography. Famous directors as Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda were schooled here. Wajda even directed a film about the textile industry in Lodz. The city even has its own Walk of Fame, part of the main pedestrian street, Piotrkowska.
Bydgoszcz, built along the banks of the River Brda, is also known as Polish Venice. Visitors will be pleasantly surprised by its red-brick buildings, great food scene and laid-back atmosphere.
As Poland’s biggest inland navigation center, water defines the city. The best thing to do while visiting Bydgoszcz is to take a Water Tram Trip. This is a fun way to see the town and get acquainted with its main sights. In the Old Town, the solar-powered boats pass through a 100 years old lock. On the way, one can admire the Opera and the marina.
Back on foot, walk along the streets of the old town to the pretty Bydgoszcz Market Square. When you feel ready for a change of scenery, cross the river to Mill’s Island, the locals’ favorite green oasis. On your way there, don’t miss the Man Crossing the River, the city’s most famous sculpture, dangling over the Brda River.
The unique Museum of Soap and the History of Dirt will take you through the history of hygiene and soap manufacturing process. You can even make your own soap in their workshop.
Torun hasn’t been bombed during WWII. Therefore, it owns one of the best preserved medieval town centers in Poland. UNESCO already recognized its historical value and added it to the world heritage list. The heart of the town is its Old Market Square, that dates back to the 13th century. In the middle of it, there’s the brick-built red building of the Town Hall with a Clock Tower, the most known landmark in the city. As an important medieval stronghold, Torun had two lines of defensive walls. Long parts of them, as well as nine of the gates and towers still stand today. As an interesting fact, one of them is leaning, just like the one in Pisa, but without any crowds.
The city is also the place of birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, the great astronomer that placed the sun at the center of the galaxy for the first time. Torun is proud of this connection and references to him can be seen all around the town. If you want to learn more about him, a visit to his memorial house should be on your list.
Torun also gave the world pierniki, a traditional kind of spiced gingerbread. In fact, no one should leave the city without attending an workshop and learn hands-on how it is prepared. This is really fun and for sure one of the best things to do in Torun. If you can’t have enough gingerbread, maybe you would like to try some variations, like gingerbread beer, vodka or ice-cream. Anything is possible.
The small city of Gniezno was once the first capital of Poland. Although it has lost most of its past glory, it still retains an unique charm. Its double-towered brick Gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the main sight in town. This stands on the spot of an older Romanesque one destroyed by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century. A complete tour also includes the crypt, the basement with the ruins of the previous cathedral and the tower, for wonderful views over the town.
Besides having a great historical and religious significance, Gniezno is small and pretty. A walk around its narrow streets and the Old Market feels relaxing. The rolling hills, lakes and parks that surround it, make Gniezno one of the best destinations in Poland to relax and enrich your knowledge of the country at the same time.
Best cities and towns to visit in the south of Poland
Krakow – the cultural capital of Poland and one of the best cities to visit
Krakow is Poland’s former capital and second largest city. But it is also the main tourist hub in the country. The city attracts visitors with its history, impressive architecture and leisure activities. Although I liked Warsaw more, I can’t deny that Krakow has its own value and unique vibe.
Krakow’s Old Town was included in the UNESCO world heritage list. Wander around the Market Square and listen to the trumpeter in St. Mary’s Basilica. Admire the Cloth Hall and visit the underground museum. Then head towards the Jewish quarter, the former Krakow Ghetto, now the bohemian neighborhood. Visit Oscar Schindler’s factory to find out about the real facts behind “Schindler’s list” movie. Climb up Wawel’s Hill to see the castle where the Polish kings resided for almost 600 years and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
Poland’s cultural capital is also a great base for day trips. The most popular ones are to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration center or the world’s oldest functioning salt mines in Wieliczka. The Tatras and wonderful Zakopane are also close enough for a day-trip, even if I’d allow more time for that specific area.
Zakopane is the perfect base to explore the Polish side of the impressive Tatra National Park. No trip to Zakopane is complete without taking the funicular or hiking up Gubalówka hill. From there you get the best views over the Tatras, while lying on a artificial beach or having a picnic. If you want to see even more of the area, take the scenic cable car to Kasprowy Wierch or hike to Morskie Oko, an emerald-green mountain lake.
Back in the center Zakopane, stroll along Krupówki Street, the busiest street in town. It is full of souvenir stands, restaurants, bars and stands selling the famous local cheese, oscypek. It comes in all kinds of flavors and forms. One can even have them grilled with cranberry jam (it’s tastier than it sounds). Just try the ones that appeal to your senses!
Zakopane is also close to many thermal spas. There’s even one in town. We chose Chocholowskie Baths, in a close by village with wooden houses and loved it. Zakopane is the perfect choice for a relaxing weekend. You can combine skiing or hiking, depending on the season, with charming spas and recharge your batteries.
Rseszow is a quiet small town in Podkarpackie province, in Sandomierska Valley. It has an amazing old market square overseen by the beautiful building of the town hall. The city is also home to the Museum of Bedtime Cartoons. You might not be accustomed to Poland cartoon characters, but they even run them there, so that you can understand better. One can also learn how older cartoons were made and how much work was involved. In Rseszow, visitors can also take a guided tour of its underground tunnels that starts in the old market square. Lubomirski Palace, dating back to the 18th century, is another jewel of the city.
Katowice was until recently mostly an industrial city, rarely visited by tourists. Lately, it has emerged as a cool destination, with museums, monuments, a neoclassical cathedral and modern architectural pieces. The city is also an UNESCO city of music, hosting many local and international festivals, as well as a guitar museum and a concert venue that resembles an UFO.
Start your trip with a visit to the Silesian Museum, where you can learn more about the history of the region. Furthermore, this sits on a former coal mine. In summer, chill out at Three Ponds Valley, a real oasis in the urban jungle, with beaches, cycle paths and live music. No matter the season, make sure to take a stroll in the Niszkowiec suburb, a 100 years old workers’ district with brick buildings, shops, street art and surprising architecture.
Krosno is one of the less known destinations in the south of Poland, but it still has a lot to offer. Besides a beautiful town center with a market square, tower and Lutheran church, it is home to an old glass factory. Visitors can now tour its grounds, find out how glass is produced, see some of the most valuable pieces ever produced, true works of art, and even make their own souvenir out of glass. Non-polish speakers can also take the tour with an audio guide and the guide of the group will answer to the questions they might have.
Best cities to visit in the east of Poland
Back in the 11th century, Sandomierz was one of the three royal seats in Poland. Its administrative importance decreased after the Swedish siege, a major fire that almost destroyed it and the two world wars.
However, it still is an important religious center in the country. Nicknamed “Little Rome”, Sandomierz spreads on seven hills and has no less than four churches only in the old town. The most significant of all is the Cathedral Basilica of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. Just as the Italian capital, it also has a network of underground tunnels and cellars that can be visited. In fact, the terrain under the center of the town is just like the Emmental cheese and efforts are made to save it from collapse.
The heart of the city is its Market Square, unique due to its slope. It is surrounded by beautiful centuries old houses and dominated by an impressive town hall. Sandomierz once had massive defensive walls with four gates. Out of these, only Opatowska Gate survived. From the top of it, visitors can admire the old town and Vistula river from above. Don’t leave the town without tasting the local delicacies, toffees and artisanal cider.
Zamosc is one of the most interesting and beautiful towns in Poland, also on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was first established in the 16th century as the ideal town, according to the Italian theories of the times. The heart of the town is the town hall with a clocktower located in the old market square. In Renaissance style, as most of the surrounding colorful buildings, and with winding stairs, it’s the most Instagrammable spot in Zamosc. One can also climb the tower of the Cathedral of the Resurrection and St. Thomas the Apostle to check out the old town from above.
Lublin is one of the largest cities in Poland, at the same time having a rich and long history. However, it doesn’t feel crowded, maybe because it’s on the country’s eastern side, far away from the popular Krakow.
The city was once an important trading hub, with entrance gates, cobbled stone streets and pastel-colored merchant houses. Many of them can still be seen today in the old town, including two of the impressive gates. Even if Poland lost a lot during the WWII, and most of Lublin’s Jewish population perished, the old town of Lublin was left intact.
Just beyond the city gates, on the outskirts of the old town, visitors can check out Lublin Castle or go shopping on Krakowskie Przedmieście street. Because of its past, Lublin was always a multicultural city and this can also be seen in its cuisine. In the market square one can find, among others, Armenian, Italian or Jewish restaurants.
Less than one hour by car from Lublin, on the right bank of Vistula, lies Kazimierz Dolny, one of the most picturesque small towns in Poland. Its golden era was in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the grain trade on the Vistula was in full bloom. As the trade declined, its economic development froze. Thus the town kept its Renaissance appearance. Charming tenement houses surround an old market square having at the center a well with a black wooden roof. The hills and the castle make for great viewpoints. During the last centuries it attracted more and more artists and became a popular holiday destination. Its cobblestone alleys are full of tiny galleries and painters selling their work on the streets. A cruise on the Vistula will offer the opportunity to admire the city from the water as well as an amazing sunset.
Bialystok is another one of eastern Poland’s hidden gems, with a lot to offer. During its long history, the city was a part of the Russian Empire and Lithuania. Even today, it’s close to the borders with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Bialystok was influenced by all of them and this can be seen in its architecture, culture and cuisine. The most important sights in town are the market square and Branicki Palace. Do not miss the garden behind it, especially in summer. It’s one of the most beautiful castle gardens in Poland, in my opinion. You might also be intrigued to find out that this is the place where the inventor of Esperanto, the easiest language in the world, lived.
Best cities to visit in the north of Poland
Giżycko is a small town in northeastern Poland, sandwiched between Mamry Lake and Niegocin Lake. It’s a popular destination for domestic tourists in summer due to its location in the heart of Masuria. Giżycko also has its own historical monuments, including a 14th century Teutonic castle, Boyen Fortress, the most visited landmark in town, and a water tower converted into a museum and cafe. It attracts lots of water sports enthusiasts, but for the less adventurous ones, there are also plenty excursions one can take around the lakes. The most popular one crosses three lakes and passes under 3 bridges. Giżycko’s marina is beautiful and lively and there’s a never-ending line of restaurants, bars and cafes to choose from. Giżycko is also home to one of the two hand-operated swing-bridges in Europe. That’s something that shouldn’t be missed.
Mikolajki, also known as the “Pearl of the Masuria”, is located on the shore of the largest of the Great Masurian Lakes, Sniardwy. It is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Polish people. Sailing enthusiasts might have already heard of it, as many regattas are held there each summer. Even if you don’t sail, it’s a real pleasure to walk around the busy marina, full of yachts and luxury boats. There are also a few taverns selling local cuisine, beer and entertaining their customers with traditional music. The town can also be used as a base to discover the beauties of the lakes and Masuria. Although, truth be told, for this reason I’d prefer Glzycko and save Mikolajki for a romantic evening.
The youngest and most modern of the three Tri-Cities was only founded in the 20th century. Gdynia is great for water lovers and sailing enthusiasts. In the port, one can go aboard two ship-museums. Dar Pormorza is a former sail training ship built in 1909 that has served in Germany, France and Poland and now rests in the harbor of Gdynia. ORP Błyskawica (Lightning) is the oldest preserved destroyer in the world, used by the Polish Navy during WWII. This no ordinary ship, as it has been decorated with the highest military order for gallantry in Poland, Virtuti Militari. One can also visit the National Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the Museum of Emigration and the Gdynia Aquarium.
Sopot is a small seaside resort town between Gdansk and Gdynia. Its sandy beaches, sparkling waters and exclusive atmosphere have attracted royals and rich people for centuries. Nowadays, this tiny paradise is also available for the common people. Lay on the beach and relax. Going on a short walk, you’ll get to see the longest wooden pier in Europe, Monte Casino pedestrian street and the Crooked House, a glass building with the most unusual shape you’d expect in this seaside and quite traditional looking town. In the evening, the resort at the Baltic Sea turns into a crazy parties spot.
Gdansk is one of the best known destinations in Poland due to low-cost flights, its rich history and lively atmosphere. In the shipyards of this port city, the Solidarity movement was born. This would defeat communism and its founder, Walesa, later on would become the president of Poland. As the country’s main seaport, it’s also home to a comprehensive Maritime Museum. Another museum that’s worth a visit is the Museum of the WWII. Gdansk was not directly affected by the war, but somehow it became home to some of the best exhibits connected to the war and the Holocaust.
The old part of the city stretched along the Royal Route, that dates back to the 17th century. For a few moments you might think you’re in Amsterdam. Some of the structures that were preserved are the city gates, many Dutch renaissance style houses of the ex-wealthy merchants and the prison’s tower. As the capital of amber, or Baltic Gold, shops selling the fossilized tree resin line the streets. Gdansk is also home to the largest brick church in the world, St. Mary’s. Apart from its history and architecture, Gdansk has a great atmosphere, that you should enjoy while hanging with the locals for a beer at the river.
Best cities to visit in the west of Poland
Wroclaw is the fourth largest city in Poland and my all times favorite. One of the best things to do in Wroclaw is to wander its streets and try to find as many dwarfs as possible. From gardeners to monks, photographers or cyclists, there are already hundreds of them all around the city. Try to spot them around corners, on sidewalks and on lampposts. The roots of this movement go way back and are connected to communism, but today the small statues define the city. While looking for them, you’ll also spot the other main attractions of the town.
The heart of the city is the beautiful 13th century market square with its city hall and St. Elizabeth’s Church. But the city also has a Cathedral Island, the streets of which are still lit by old traditional gas lamps. Wroclaw is also home to the Centennial Hall (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Karpacz is a small town, perfect for escaping the hustle of the big cities on a relaxing weekend. The area is popular among hikers, as the town is surrounded by Karkonosze National Park, a place of outstanding natural beauty. Two peaks are the most popular and can also be reached by funicular, Sniezka, 1603 m high and Kopa, 1377 m high. In winter, Karpacz turns into a winter wonderland for sport lovers. After a long day skiing or snowboarding, nothing works better than a glass of hot mulled wine in one of the traditional local taverns called karczma. Another hidden gem is the Wang Church from the 12th century, built in a style similar to the Viking structures.
Poznan – one of the best cities to visit in the west of Poland
Poznan is the perfect city for a city-break in Poland. It has a gorgeous old market square, a variety of museums, beautiful parks, cozy cafes and its own local delicacy, St. Martin’s croissant. Like many of the old towns in Poland, the one of Poznan has also been destroyed during WWII, but was beautifully rebuilt and now thrives. Every day the two most important characters in town, two goats, gather people around the town square for a small show.
Besides the old town hall and the market square, some of the places that should not be missed are St. Stanislaus Parish Church, Ostrów Tumski cathedral, the Imperial castle and Lake Malta. For an unique experience, take part in a workshop and learn how to prepare the local sweet treat, St. Martin’s croissant. It’s so special that bakeries must have a special certificate to make and sell them as such.
Swinjoujscie is a port city and holiday resort destination at the Baltic Sea. Its visitors can enjoy the islands with gently slopping beaches or its 170 years old Spa Park. Nowhere in Poland will you find a place of such exceptional insular character. Out of the 44 islands and islets, only 3 are inhabited, Uznam, Wolin, Karsibór. For the best views over the area, head to the tallest structure on the Baltic Sea, Wolin Island’s lighthouse. Karsibor Island is a paradise for bird-watching. The specific of Swinjoujscie, variety of landscapes and surrounding nature make it one of the best cities in Poland for an unforgettable holiday or city-break.
Szczecin is a small coastal town with a mix of cultures and architectural styles. Located at the German border, this city is not unknown to Germans and domestic tourists. Szczecin is located on the Oder, including several large islands between its branches. It is one of the cities that joined Poland only recently, after the WWII, according to the Potsdam Agreement. Until then is was a part of the Kingdom of Prussia and then of the German Empire. The city hides an impressive complex of underground bunkers and tunnels from the WWII. Part of the network is available for tourists on two thematic tours, World War II and Cold War. Visitors can also check out the Ducal Castle, home of the dukes of Pomerania for more or less 500 years.
Most of the charming cities on the list we’ve visited on our two weeks road trip in Poland, city-breaks or on our way to other destinations. In Warsaw and Krakow we’ve already been twice, but still feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. Zakopane made us return, just to see the Tatras from Gubalowka again. Wroclaw was love at first sight. I know that when thinking of a holiday, especially a longer one, people tend to overlook Poland. Many still think of it as gray and plain, but it has some of the most beautiful medieval towns in Europe, some original, some not, but all of them valuable and charming. Besides, its variety of museums and landscapes will satisfy even the most curious or fastidious tourist. Give it a chance now that the crowds are still missing!
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