Poland, the largest of the former Eastern European states, has become one of the major destinations for travellers. Its beauty can be admired in both its old cities and in the wild scenery of its national parks and nature reserves. The country's regions are largely divided into horizontal bands: the Baltic Coast and the hilly post-glacial lake district. Central Poland is split into northern lowlands and southern uplands, including the Kraków-Wielun Upland with its limestone areas, caves and medieval castles. The Carpathian Mountains, including the Tatras, lie in the extreme south; their mountain scenery, folklore and sports facilities contributing to their charm.
Poland is a nation with a proud cultural heritage, and theatre, music and opera companies abound. It is the native soil for composer, Frederick Chopin, scientist Marie Curie (neé Skladowska) and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus. The former textile city of Lodz is proud of its film school, alma mater to directors Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski. There is also a strong tradition of graphic design and glassware.
WHEN TO GO
A country this size has enough to make it a year-round destination, however most people visit when the weather is warmer, namely May to October. The tourist season peaks in July and August when schools and universities are on holiday and most Polish workers and employees take their annual leave. It's a time when things can get very crowded, particularly in the tourist hot spots such as the Baltic beaches, Masurian Lakes, and Carpathian Mountains. The likes of Kraków and Warsaw can also seem overrun with visitors then. Naturally during July and August transport becomes more crowded too, and can get booked out in advance. Accommodation may be harder to find, and sometimes more expensive. Fortunately, a lot of schools, which are empty during the holidays, double as youth hostels, as do student dormitories in major cities. This roughly meets the demand for budget accommodation.
If you want to avoid the masses, the best time to come is either late spring/early summer (mid-May to June) or the turn of summer and autumn (September to October), when tourism is underway but not in full flood. These are pleasantly warm periods, ideal for general sightseeing and outdoor activities such as walking, biking, horse riding and canoeing. Many cultural events take place in both these periods. The rest of the year, from mid-autumn to mid-spring, is colder and darker. This doesn't mean that it's a bad time for visiting city sights and enjoying the cultural life as it's no less active than during the tourist season. Understandably, hiking and other outdoor activities - aside from skiing - are less prominent in this period. Most camp sites and youth hostels lock up shop at this time. The ski season runs from December to March. The Polish mountains are spectacular, but the infrastructure (hotels and chalets, lifts and tows, cable cars, transport etc) is still not well developed. Zakopane, Poland's winter capital, and the nearby Tatra Mountains have the best ski facilities.
TOP THINGS TO DO
• Go to the theatre in any of the major cities where there will be local or national companies in residence.
• Hike in some of Poland's national parks and nature reserves. Nature enthusiasts can visit the Kampinos National Park, near Warsaw. Further afield, Bieszczady National Park, part of the Carpathian mountain range, contains the surviving fragments of the Great Bieszczady Forest, home to the brown bear, lynx, wolf and wildcat.
• Discover the Bialowieza National Park (website: www.bpn.com.pl); it is the last major refuge of the European bison as well as being home to many other rare forest-dwelling species and trees over 400 years old. Nature trails, cycling and exploring with a ranger are on offer.
• Jump on a horse. Horses have traditionally been popular in Poland and horse riding enthusiasts have a large choice of riding schools to choose from. Polish stud farms are internationally renowned and welcome guests. Inexperienced riders may prefer riding a Hucul - a very rare Polish mountain pony.
• Pick mushrooms in the early autumn in any unprotected forested regions. Mushroom picking has been a Polish tradition for centuries and several delicious varieties exist.
• Climb or ski in the Tatras. Zakopane is a centre for climbing and winter sports where a fairytale atmosphere pervades with its ‘gingerbread' wooden cottages; some inhabitants still wear traditional Goralskie dress. Visit the beautiful Koscieliska Valley, the mountain of Kasprowy Wierch and the glacial lake Morskie Oko.
• Ride in a horse-drawn sleigh and be sure to have either warmed beer or heated honey vodka afterwards. Snow falls throughout Poland so these types of rides are on offer throughout the country.
• Escape to the beach resorts of the Pomeranian coast, such as Kolobrzeg (large and fashionable) or Leba (with a beach of fabulous white sand). The beach connects to the Slowinski National Park (website: www.slowinskipn.pl), known for its giant ‘wandering sand dunes' which can shift several metres each year.
• Head further east to the Hel Peninsula, which also has some good beaches and camp sites.
• Sail a boat in the Mazurian Lake District (consisting of over 1,000 lakes), also a favourite angling destination. A popular lake-trail can take you through several lakes and canals. Local towns such as Mikolajki and Gizycko host sea shanty festivals and other lively events.
• Slip into the water in a canoe in the Brodnica or Mysliborz lakelands, or the rivers Brda, Czarna Hancza and Obra.
• Pay tribute to the victims of the holocaust at Oswiecim-Birkenau (Auschwitz-Birkenau) concentration camp, 70km (43 miles) from Cracow. It's a sobering experience, but helps give you perspective on a grave and sensitive historical time (website: www.auschwitz.org.pl).
TOP THINGS TO SEE
• Take an elevator to the 30th floor observation deck of the Palace of Culture and Science for a great view of Warsaw. This edifice was gifted to Poland in 1953 from Stalin as a symbol of 'Polish-Soviet friendship' (website: www.pkin.pl).
• Soak up history via a walk through the Warsaw Rising Museum; it's an educational and interactive experience. The museum features films, testimonials, slides and artefacts from the time when Warsaw residents were active in the resistance (website: www.1944.pl).
• See the manor house where Frederick Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, 53km (32 miles) west of Warsaw. Attractions include an attractive park, summertime recitals and 19th-century instruments and furniture (website: www.infochopin.pl).
• Walk through the Cracow Gate, built in the late 14th century and remodeled in 1782. It is considered to be an architectural symbol of Lublin and is the primary entrance into the Old Town; it also houses a historical museum (website: www.zamek.lublin.pl).
• Immerse yourself in Cracow's charming medieval atmosphere; it is one of UNESCO's 12 most significant historical sites. In the middle of the central Market Square (the largest in Europe) is the Cloth Hall, which was reconstructed in the 19th century from 14th-century merchants' stalls.
• Discover the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Of the 350km (217 miles) of corridors, 2km (1.2 miles) are accessible to visitors. The tourist route is 64 to 135m (209 to 443ft) underground and passes through impressive chambers, bas-reliefs, chandeliers and a chapel sculpted in the salt (website: www.kopalnia.pl).
• See the Icon of the Black Madonna, also known as the miraculous painting of Our Lady, in the huge Jasna Góra monastery complex at Czestochowa, 100km (60 miles) north of Kraków (reputed to have been painted by St Luke) (website: www.jasnagora.pl).
• Head to Gdansk to see the largest gothic church in Poland: St Mary's Basilica. The beach resort at nearby Sopot has Europe's longest pier (500m/1,640ft). Within easy reach are the forested Hel Peninsula, the Kashubian Lakeland, and the Teutonic castles at Malbork and Gniew.
• Experience the medieval walled town of Torun by walking through the gothic Old Town (website: www.torun.pl).
TRAVEL TO POLAND
Kraków (KRK) (Balice John Paul II) (website: www.lotnisko-balice.pl) is 14km (9 miles) west of the city centre. To/from the airport: Buses, trains and taxis are available (journey time - 15 minutes by train; 35 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by taxi). Facilities: Bar, restaurant, bureau de change, car hire and duty-free shops.
Wroclaw (WRO) (Strachowice/Copernicus) (website: www.airport.wroclaw.pl) is 8km (5 miles) from the city centre. To/from the airport: Buses and taxis are available (journey time - 30 minutes by bus; 20 minutes by taxi). Facilities: Duty-free shops, bar, restaurant, car hire.
Katowice (KTW) (website: www.gtl.com.pl) is 34km (21 miles) from the city. To/from the airport: Buses and taxis are available (journey time - 40 minutes by shuttle bus or taxi to city centre; 2 hours 10 minutes by road to Cracow). Facilities: Bank, bureaux de change, duty-free shops, restaurants and car hire.
Gdansk (GDN) (Lech Walesa Airport) (website: www.airport.gdansk.pl) is 10 km (6 miles) southwest of Gdansk. To/from the airport: Buses and taxis are available (journey time - 25 to 40 minutes by road to Gdansk city centre). Facilities: Bureau de change, duty-free shops, post office, tourist information, restaurant and car hire.
Polferries; website: www.polferries.com) operates between Poland and Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Tickets can also be purchased from travel agents or at the ferry terminal.
Eurail: for those travelling from outside Europe and North Africa the Eurail pass (website: www.eurail.com) offers similar discounts.
The main coach service connecting dozens of European cities to Poland is Eurolines (tel: 0870 580 8080, in the UK; website: www.eurolines.com). Eurolines offers travel passes lasting 15 or 30 days.
TRAVEL AROUND POLAND
Eurail Poland Pass: available to visitors travelling from outside of Europe. Offers unlimited rail travel within the country for five, eight, 10 or 15 days' travel within a one-month period.
Bus: There are good regional bus and coach services operated by Polish Motor Communications (PPKS), in Poland only;website: www.pks.warszawa.pl).
Car hire: Self-drive cars are available at the airport or through various car hire offices in town centres. All major firms are available. The minimum age for hiring a car is 21.
Regulations:The minimum driving age is 17. Speed limits are 50kph (31mph) in built-up areas, 90km (55mph) on other roads, 100kph (62mph) on major roads and 130kph (81mph) on motorways. Seat belts and warning triangles are compulsory. Trams have the right of way. From 1 October to 1 March, all vehicles should have their lights switched on at all times.
Emergency breakdown service: For roadside assistance, contact the Polish Automobile and Motorway Federation, Polski Zwiazek Motorowy (PZM), in Poland only; website: www.pzmtravel.com.pl).
Documentation: Tourists travelling in their own cars should have vehicle registration cards, their national driving licence (driving licences of EU nationals are accepted) and third party insurance documents. Green Card motor insurance is necessary for vehicles coming from outside the EU and Switzerland. An International Driving Permit is required for those from outwith the European Union.
Cracow: The MPK is the transport board responsible for public buses and trams in Cracow and the system works similarly to the one in Warsaw, except there is no metro. Public transport tickets are available in all towns at green Ruch kiosks, hotels and post offices.
Most public transport operates from 0530-2300; night buses, in the major cities, run from 2300-0500.
Taxis are available in all main towns. They are usually found at ranks or can be ordered by phone. There is a surcharge from 2300-0500 and for journeys out of town, as well as at weekends. Taxi drivers may insist on payment in hard currency. Tipping is welcomed.
POPULAR PLACES TO VISIT