The central European country of Poland is up there as one of my favourite places to travel. Central Europe draws me back again and again with its friendly people, beautiful and intriguing old towns and hearty food. Budapest, Prague and Krakow (to name just a few) are vibrant cities and will always hold a special place in my heart.
Poland is one of those countries where I feel instantly comfortable; it’s easy to navigate and there’s lots to see. Maybe the things to see aren’t as obvious or famous as other countries, but if you know where to go, you’ll discover the charms of Central Europe like I have.
I fell in love with the Polish city of Krakow the first time I went and enjoyed it just as much – maybe even more - the second time around.
The old town main square is beautiful with its church, restaurant patios and market halls. Take the time to wander the square during both the day and night.
I especially enjoyed wandering the city just as people were getting out and about early one summer morning, and really got a good look at the city without the crowds. Krakow’s Old Town Square is the only one in Poland that didn’t get bombed in World War II because it was considered so beautiful.
After wandering the Old Town, head south to the Wawel Hill precinct to see the castle and cathedral. One of the more modern castle precincts I’ve seen in Europe, it was constructed from the 14th century onwards. You can catch a good view of Krakow from the Sigismund Bell Tower. While on Wawel Hill, look for the dragon statue – a figure in Polish mythology.
Other sights to see in Krakow include Oskar Schindler’s Factory from the famous movie Schindler’s List and the Jewish District (Kazimierz).
The Jewish District fell into disrepair after World War II but has since been rebuilt and has taken on a bohemian feel. Take the time to wander Kazimierz and see the synagogues, cafes, bars and intriguing streets filled with street art.
Many people come to Krakow to visit the Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps. Be prepared for a sombre and emotional experience.
Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and there are regular guided tours or you can walk through the precinct on your own. The website recommends to book at least a month ahead for tours.
Entry to the museum is free but fees apply for guided tours. There are buses and trains to the museum or many organised tours leaving from Krakow.
There are also regular tours to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. You can catch a train or bus but this place gets really busy during the summer, and while it sounds like a tourist trap, if you’re time poor I recommend taking a tour and skipping the queues unless you plan to get there as soon as the mine opens.
I only had a few hours to see the salt mine so I chose the tour route. The tour I went on was 130 Polish Zloty or A$45 and was run by Cracow City Tours. It was very easy getting the bus out to the mine, and our guide met us at the bus and took us straight into the salt mine on the “Tourist Route”. This route takes you through two kilometres of the 290 kilometre salt mine, and includes a look at the underground salt cathedral complete with chandeliers made of salt.
If you’re looking for budget accommodation in Krakow, don’t go past the Greg and Tom chain of hostels in Krakow. There are three of them to choose from depending on if you’re after a quiet or lively stay.
I stayed at the Home Greg and Tom Hostel. The dorms are comfortable and spacious with large lockers. They organise regular pub crawls, and also offer a free buffet breakfast and dinner for guests.
If you enjoy hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter, or are just interested to see another Polish town, then head south from Krakow to the Tatra Mountains, which straddles the Polish and Slovakian border.
The most popular place to base yourself during your visit to the Tatra Mountains is from the quaint town of Zakopane. The town is popular all year round due to its location in the mountains, particularly with the residents of Poland, Slovakia and neighbouring countries.
Zakopane is very touristy with lots of horse drawn carriages and a mini sideshow alley (at least in the summer) but it’s fun to wander around. There are plenty of shops, restaurants, and when I went there was regular street entertainment and lots of small places selling sweet and savoury Polish and Eastern European food to tempt your tastebuds.
In the summer, there are dozens of hiking trails to choose from ranging in levels of difficulty. If you enjoy hiking, plan to stay a few days in Zakopane.
Mt Rysy is the highest mountain of the Tatra Mountains and straddles the Slovakian and Polish border – the Slovakian side is considered to be easier side to approach the mountain from.
Another attraction in the Tatra Mountains is Lake Morskie Oko. There are regular buses from the Zakopane bus station to the lake and the journey takes about an hour. Then you can choose to hike in (the shortest trail will take about 90 minutes to two hours) or take a horse drawn carriage.
One of the hikes I did was Mt Giewont.
The first section is relatively flat as it’s the trail for the popular but easy Siklawica waterfall walk and it gets pretty busy. But from then on, it’s a heart pumping steep hike for several kilometres over a rocky trail and I would rate it as challenging. You need a good level of fitness for this hike.
The hike winds along a scenic trail shaded by the trees and there are informal lookouts at various points over the surrounding mountains and the town of Zakopane.
I reached the start of the Mt Giewont trail by walking from Zakopane centre up Strazyska Street. Allow at least three hours to reach the top.
If you’re hiking in the Tatra Mountains, make sure you bring some warm clothing, wet weather gear and sufficient food or water for a day in the mountains. The weather can change quickly.
Lisa Owen is a pint-sized Australian following her dreams to travel to as many places as she can, and loves to share her photography, travel hacks, hiking adventures, and food discoveries along the way. At last count, she has travelled to more than 40 countries in between working in public relations and discovering hidden gems in Australia's great outdoors.
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