Though often neglected in European travel itineraries, Poland is a country that has more to offer than you might think. From its unique placement at the heart of Europe to its lively culture and vibrant cities, you’d be mistaken to give it a pass.
Poland is known for being the home of delicious pierogi, former pope John Paul II, and Europe’s most ancient old-growth forest. It is also a country rich in unique history and stunning geography, from the Tatra mountains to the Baltic Sea.
Read on below for some of the most crucial things to know about Poland!
1. A tricky language
Poland is the only country in the world where Polish is the national and official language. As an EU member, Polish is also an official language of the Union.
Foreigners are quick to point out just how hard Polish can be to learn as a beginner. If you already speak a language Polish is closely related to, such as Czech, you might have a different view. However, for most, Polish remains very tough to master indeed.
What makes Polish so unique is that it features many sounds not found in almost any other language. More than that, it uses a modified Latin alphabet to represent these sounds – unlike even most other Slavic tongues.
For example, can you tell the difference between sz and rz? What about ż, ź, and dz? Polish orthography becomes only more complicated, and it’s notorious for its difficulty. Most native speakers don’t even know all of the various rules!
2. Pope John Paul II
For centuries, Poland has been at the heart of Christian Europe, with a very devout Catholic population that rivals only that of Italy in their dedication to the church.
With that in mind, it is easy to imagine the excitement when a young Polish cardinal called Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected to be pope in 1978. He took on the name Jan Paweł II, or John Paul II as it is often rendered in English.
John Paul II ended up becoming one of the longest-serving popes in all of history, remaining the head of the Catholic Church for most of the second half of the 20th century until his death in 2005 at 84 years old.
Today, the former pope is commemorated all over Poland. His likeness is displayed in the form of statues, on postage stamps, and on coins and other memorabilia.
He is considered one of the most beloved Polish citizens to have ever lived and remains a national role model and icon.
3. Mythology and folklore
Thanks to the internationally successful Witcher series of books, games, and TV shows, Polish mythology has now gone mainstream.
But beyond legends of scary monsters, classic Polish folklore has a lot to offer!
Polish culture since the middle ages has been defined by a very strong and fast embrace of Catholic doctrine. At the same time, Polish people stuck with many of the Pagan Slavic myths, tales, and beliefs that their ancestors had believed in.
For example, there is the famous legend of Twardowski, a man who makes a pact with the devil to gain magical abilities and then tries to use his wits in order to keep his gift instead of going to hell.
There is a lot of Christian imagery here for sure. Not to mention the obvious parallels to Faust!
But at the same time, the way the devil and other supernatural forces work in this story are mostly drawn from old Pagan traditions.
This is why, especially for Western readers and viewers, Polish mythology can seem excitingly complex, foreign, and recognizable at the same time.
4. The beautiful ceramics of Bolesławiec
You might not know this yet, but Poland is actually famous around the globe for a particular style of hand-made pottery.
More specifically, it’s the ceramics made in the quaint little town of Bolesławiec. Situated in the picturesque Lower Silesia region close to Germany, Bolesławiec has been a center of traditional ceramics throughout Poland for centuries, and it’s made a name for itself far beyond its borders as well.
The appeal is obvious if you’ve ever seen it in person: with their playful, abstract patterns and unique craftsmanship, Bolesławiec maintains a monopoly on a uniquely Polish traditional art style.
Since every individual piece is unique, and imperfect in its own way, there’s an element of exclusivity to it too!
Bolesławiec-style pottery is often sold at public markets in any of Poland’s major cities and tourist attractions. However, I recommend a trip to Bolesławiec itself for the real deal. And while you’re there, don’t miss the local Ceramics Festival, which runs for almost a week every year in August.
It doesn’t hurt that the place itself is quite pretty and pleasant to stay in, with a lovely historic city center!
Speaking of Polish traditions, there’s no way this list would be complete without mentioning pierogi! If you’ve never tried them – stop reading right now and do yourself a favor.
The little dumplings have made a name for themselves on every continent, but few people really identify them as an aspect of the rich and unique Polish cuisine.
This is probably because the most widespread form of pierogi are called Russian, or pierogi ruskie in Polish. Despite that name, pierogi ruskie are the most quintessentially Polish thing you can think of, and what is considered a “pirog” in Russia is completely different!
While pierogi are a staple of Polish cuisine that’s been widely exported to most of the world, kiełbasa is more like the king of local snack food. It’s a type of ready-to-eat, often homemade sausage that can consist of any type of meat.
Usually, kiełbasy are u-shaped, and can be pretty huge! However, unless they’re served as part of a full-course meal, it’s not common to eat them whole. Instead, you’re supposed to cut off smaller pieces, sharing them with the group if possible.
7. Milk Bars
Of course, the best pierogi in the world aren’t going to be store-bought – you will need to head to an authentic Polish restaurant for the full experience. And for that, there’s no better choice than a real milk bar!
Milk bars, or bary mleczne, are traditional establishments that flourished all over Poland under Communist rule. They offer canteen-style eating where you order simple meals by combining a few ingredients based on the menu of the day.
The food at milk bars tends to be mainly traditional evergreens of the Polish cuisine – for example Gołąbki, which are made of rice, meat, and vegetables rolled in boiled cabbage. Using time-tested cooking techniques and quality ingredients, the meals are known to punch far above their price as well.
And on the topic of price, you won’t believe how affordable it is to eat at a milk bar.
A lunch for two can go for no more than the equivalent of a couple dollars! This is why Poland is one of the few European countries where eating out can actually be more affordable in some cases than shopping for groceries.
And if that isn’t a win-win, I don’t know what is!
Apart from Belarus, Poland is the only European country today with a major population of bison in its Eastern forests!
Note that I’m talking about European bison, which are very different from the more widespread American bison. Nearly hunted to extinction for their fur and meat, Eastern Poland is one of the very few places where the native bison population has managed to thrive again.
Many venture into the Polish forests looking for these rare creatures, and they’re truly a sight to behold! It’s no wonder that the bison is also the national animal of Poland!
9. Europe’s most ancient forest
Speaking of Poland’s amazing wildlife, most of it is concentrated in the Białowieża forest, a gigantic expanse of flora and fauna that stretches on for hundreds of square kilometers at the border with Belarus.
Białowieża is one of the few primeval forests still dotting Europe – that is, it harbors a time capsule of an ecosystem very similar to that which covered Europe millenia ago during prehistoric times. It is also by far the largest.
Due to its unique status, Białowieża is protected by law. The forest contains practically no human settlement or influence, and its original condition is preserved as best as possible.
If you’re old enough to remember the fall of the Iron Curtain, then the word “Solidarity” must be ringing a bell about now. Solidarność, as the organization was known in Polish, was a labor union that later transformed into a nation-wide civil rights movement.
By leading massive protests and direct action across the country, Solidarity is often credited with helping bring down the Communist regime in Poland. By extension, they helped provoking the downfall of the Eastern bloc as a whole.
The co-founder and longtime leader of Solidarność, Lech Wałęsa, eventually became the first president of democratic post-Communist Poland in the 1990s.
Though he is no longer active as a politician, he remains an important public figure in the country.
The city of Gdańsk belongs to the largest metropolitan area in Poland’s North. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, it forms a tri-city area.
The three are situated right at the Baltic sea coast, and because of that have always been an important center for European trade.
During the middle ages, Gdańsk was called Danzig, and it became a member of the Hanseatic league. The cultural exchange it experienced during this period continues to define the town even today.
Featuring a very unique blend of German and Polish elements, both in architecture, culture, and geography, Gdańsk is one of those places you definitely shouldn’t miss!
It might surprise you to hear that Polish is not actually the only language widely spoken in Poland! Apart from the languages of neighboring Ukraine, Belarus, and Czechia, Poland is also known for having a whole group of native minority languages in its various regions.
Kashubian is probably the most famous of these, and it is still spoken today in the country’s North, especially in the area surrounding Gdańsk. Kashubian is the native language of the Kashubian people, an ethnic minority native to this region, and their language is closely related to Polish.
Because Polish speakers can understand Kashubian quite well, it used to be seen as nothing more than an old-fashioned dialect. Only in recent times have the Kashubian people and their language been officially-recognized as distinct from Polish.
13. The Baltic Sea
The Baltic coast of Poland is known for its unique climate and beautiful beaches and cliffs. Some of these are protected as national parks.
Yes, it can get pretty cold here – even in the warmer months, I’d only recommend taking a dip if you’re a fan of winter swimming! But it more than makes up for that with the stunning views.
It’s not just the mainland on the coast either. There are also many Polish islands in the Baltic, and they offer some of the best spas and resorts anywhere in Europe.
14. The Błędów Desert
Though Poland is usually imagined by foreigners as a cold wasteland of snow, forest, and not much else, reality begs to differ. Yes, Poland doesn’t just shatter stereotypes with its beautiful Baltic seascapes and lush islands, it also has a desert to boot!
Okay, I’ll be honest. Błędów does not, strictly speaking, qualify as a desert, because it doesn’t contain its own micro-climate or unique ecosystem. It is, however, a vast stretch of sands that covers a few dozen square kilometers in Southern Poland, far away from the coast.
It came about through the melting of a glacier at the end of the last ice age, and today it is one of the most unique places in Central Europe.
15. Polish manners
I have already mentioned how Polish culture evolved in its own unique way thanks to exposure both to Catholic ideology as well as ancient Slavic traditions. External influences from both East and West round out the picture.
However, foreigners are often surprised to see just how differently Polish people interact compared to what’s normal in most other European cultures.
For example, it is relatively common in Poland to practice a few small chivalrous gestures when meeting people in a social setting.
Many men still kiss women’s hands upon greeting them.
Polish people like saying “dzień dobry”, or “good day” – in the elevator, the stairwell, down the hall at the workplace, and generally just about everywhere else. And if there is even a single line of dialogue beyond that, expect a firm handshake with lots of eye contact.
Also be aware that it’s considered rude to not give up your seat in public transport to the elderly or pregnant women.
And believe me, when you do something wrong, you are going to get called out for it. The Polish don’t like mincing words, and they speak their mind, especially in public!
16. The stares
A second note about that eye contact I mentioned: if you ever find yourself in Poland and everyone out in the street is looking you in the eyes very intensely, don’t worry. It’s not one of those dreams where you forgot to put your clothes on, nothing’s wrong.
This is just one more of those classic Polish mannerisms. Whenever passing anyone by, introducing yourself, or generally during any kind of social interaction even if small, Polish people like to, well, stare a bit.
It’s not considered rude at all, and it isn’t a sign of anger, annoyance, or anything else. Still, for foreigners, the uniquely Polish way of making eye contact can be hard to adjust to.
Everyone knows it, some can’t stand it, and in Poland plenty drink it straight up. Of course, I am talking about vodka, or wódka as it is known here.
While many consider vodka to be a Russian invention, there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that that prize actually belongs to Poland – and either way, Polish vodka is some of the best in the world.
If you are a connoisseur when it comes to drinks, you would do yourself a big disservice to not try it at least once.
18. Pierniki toruńskie
Yes, a pattern might be emerging. One thing Poland does really well is good food. And by that, I also mean sweets! Pierniki are wonderful gingerbread cookies that are often sweetened with honey and complemented with a variety of spices.
Though in other countries, gingerbread pastries are mostly relegated to the Christmas season, you can enjoy Pierniki year-round. All the better if you ask me!
19. Polish cinema
Throughout the last century and up to the current day, Poland has contributed a lot to the cinema of Europe and beyond. Masterful directors like Krzysztof Kieślowski, Roman Polanski, and Andrzej Wajda have made a name for themselves around the world.
Poland is also known for some more controversial cinematic figures, such as the “artist-pornographer” Walerian Borowczyk.
With both mainstream hits and avant-garde masterpieces, Poland has reserved a place for itself in the pantheon of high-class world cinema.
The former capital of Poland, Kraków today is one of the most popular destinations in the country for many travelers. It’s easy to see why – its old town is picturesque and combines architectural styles from the early middle ages all the way up to 19th-century neoclassicism.
Kraków is also intertwined with many famous milestones of Polish history and folklore. There’s the legend of the great dragon that was said to live here in the 1300s. To this day, Wawel castle where the king of Poland reigned from remains a major sight.
Darker chapters of Poland’s history also unfolded here. Kraków was the site of a major ghetto established during World War II, and Oskar Schindler’s factory was also just outside of town.
The Auschwitz concentration camp is about an hour away, remaining as a somber monument to one of Europe’s darkest chapters. Visiting from Kraków is easy, though you should make sure you’re able to stomach it.
Though most people outside of Poland don’t spare it as much attention as Kraków or Warsaw, Wrocław is actually one of Poland’s major cities. In fact, Wrocław is considered by many to be the best city in Poland to live in, as it is the capital of the wealthy Lower Silesia region.
This part of Poland used to be German until 1945, and back then Wrocław went by the name Breslau. Since the end of the war, Wrocław has only flourished and become one of the most well-developed cities in the country.
Should you ever pay Wrocław a visit, watch out for the dwarves! Tiny figurines and statuettes of dwarves are placed all over the city, particularly close to the center. There are constantly new ones being added, and some people have turned the hunt for dwarves into a real sport! How many can you spot?
Probably no place in Poland is as well-known internationally as Warsaw. No wonder – as the capital, largest city, and the location of some of the most infamous events of the Second World War, Warsaw has received plenty of exposure.
Unlike some other cities in Poland, Warsaw was left mostly in ruins by 1945. The Russian occupation following the end of the war didn’t help matters, and for a long time life in Warsaw was known to be particularly tough compared to the rest of the country.
Today, Warsaw has rejuvenated itself to an almost unbelievable extent. Not only its public infrastructure has improved; culturally, the city is also more alive than ever. Warsaw hosts a renowned international jazz festival, a film festival, and many other local events year-round. It also offers a beautiful old town, and some of the finest places to eat in all of Poland.
One of Poland’s oldest exports that is still going strong is amber. Already in ancient times, people in Poland were using amber to make jewelry, which quickly became popular throughout Europe.
The tradition began in and around Gdańsk and other cities on the Baltic coast, but today you can find amber products and souvenirs all over Poland.
After the war’s end, a certain style of cheap, pre-fabricated communal apartment housing was innovated in Poland. Similar to some of the mass-produced apartments popular in the Soviet Union, these “bloki”, as people affectionately call them, became incredibly popular.
With the turn of the millenium, people moved out of their bloki en masse to get a taste of the “Western”-style inner city life, but nostalgia has been bringing a lot of them back more recently. Over the past 10 years, many bloki have been renovated and re-painted in playful colors and patterns because of this.
Due to their socialist heritage, living in bloki is a much more familial experience compared to an average apartment. Bloki usually have a community garden, shared public services next-door such as kiosks, schools, and kindergartens, and the whole block is managed by a council of tenants.
Bloki are often found in clusters that can form entire block-neighborhoods. In Polish, these are known as blokowiska.
25. Mountains, mountains, mountains
Poland is known for its breathtaking landscape which features a lot of elevation changes. For fans of hiking, this is only good news!
From the Sudety in the Southwest to the well-known Tatra mountains and the Bieszczady in the south-east (which also contain their own national park by the way), Poland has a lot to offer in this department for sure.
What else is Poland famous for? If you have something to add to the list, share it in the comment box below!