At Gate No. 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa led the shipyard strikes of 1980, protesting the communist government. The nearby European Solidarity Centre tells the story of the movement.
At least once while in Poland, you need to visit a milk bar, a traditional cafeteria-style diner where wholesome meals come cheap. Bar Mleczny Neptun, on Długi Targ, is the most famous in Gdansk. For the polar-opposite experience, make a reservation at Restauracja Ritz, the modern-fine-dining brainchild of Polish MasterChef winner Basia Ritz.
Brovarnia is a fantastic brew pub in an old granary, with yummy traditional Polish food. The Red Light Pub on Piwna Street (Beer Street) slings locally brewed beer and cocktails in a casual setting, with live music and DJs playing on weekends.
To many, this port city on the Baltic Sea is synonymous with the Solidarity movement, which ultimately brought down Polish communism. But it’s also the spot where Germans fired the first shots of WWII, at Westerplatte. (A new Museum of World War II opens this summer, sure to bring the war buffs.) If you have time after wandering the city’s stunning old quarter, markets and marine-themed museums, take a side trip to the neighbouring beach-resort town of Sopot, where locals converge to sunbathe and spa.
Długi Targ, or the Long Market, is the heart of Gdansk’s historical Old Town, bordered by ornate medieval gates and peaked facades. Within are the 17th-century Neptune Fountain, topped by a bronze likeness of the sea god, and the outrageously ornate, 14th-century, Main Town Hall. Hulking St. Mary’s, the largest brick church in the world, sports a 78-metre-high viewing platform, while adjacent Mariacka Street is known for its gargoyles, pretty porches and amber shops. Head a few blocks north for real retail therapy at the tiny clothing, shoe and vintage shops, which seem to dot every corner.
Wherever you go in the city, keep your eyes peeled for small bronze statues of gnomes (krasnale). They started appearing in 2001 to commemorate the Orange Alternative, an anti-communist group from the 1980s that protested using humour and absurdist symbols. Today there are more than 300 of the little guys.
In Market Square, have a belly-busting perogie feast (you have to do it once) at touristy-but-tasty Pierogarnia Stary Młyn. Recover with organic vegetarian fare at Machina Organika. For upscale Polish delicacies such as wild boar, try JaDka, situated in a medieval cellar.
Poland’s first brew pub, Spiż, set up shop in 1992, serving delicious craft beer in the basement of the Town Hall building. Also be sure to try one of the cheap vodka bars outside Market Square. At the Ambasada, all drinks and dishes are 5 zł, or about $1.75. Here, older Poles—and not many tourists—gather amid retro travel posters and airline souvenirs to nibble herring, swill vodka and tell tales.
Wroclaw is the most beautiful Polish city you’ve never heard of. Packed with gothic architecture, and fantastic cafés, theatres, galleries and parks, it’s the largest city in the west. It’s also the reigning 2016 European Capital of Culture (alongside San Sebastian, Spain). Celebratory events and performances in architecture, film, literature, music, visual arts, theatre and opera run all year (see wroclaw2016.pl for the calendar). Before you go, learn how to pronounce the city’s name, which may look like “rock-law” to an English speaker. It’s actually “vrots-wahv.”
Candy-coloured Old Town Market Square is home to the 13th-century Town Hall, Wroclaw’s most iconic building. For a drone’s-eye view of peaked red rooftops, climb the 300 steps of St. Elizabeth’s Church tower. Then walk along the Odra River, crossing one of the city’s 100-plus bridges to Ostrów Tumski, or Cathedral Island, to see dozens of preserved gothic structures, like St. John the Baptist’s Cathedral.
This year, Senses restaurant, on Bielańska, earned Poland its second Michelin star, with its modern-Polish tasting menus. If you prefer meat-free fare, pop into Veg Deli, in the leafy Powiśle neighbourhood, or Tel Aviv Café, on pretty Poznańska Street. For excellent traditional Polish food in a campy Communist-revival setting, marshal your comrades at the Red Hog, northwest of downtown.
Cuda na Kiju (“Miracles on a Stick”), serves Polish and international craft beer from the base of the former communist party headquarters on Nowy Świat. Beer Heaven, on Foksal Street, has 100 brews on tap, and you can order a decent-size taster of anything for 1 zł ($0.35). If cocktails are your thing, run for rum-soaked Kraken on Poznańska, or take the train to Warszawa Powiśle, a saucer-shaped station converted to an ultra-cool bar—offering tasty vodka concoctions and outdoor musical performances.
Gloriously green Łazienki Park (The Baths), is home to a baroque palace and manicured grounds that evoke Parisian postcards. Go on a Sunday to catch Chopin in the Park, a series of free open-air piano performances under a monument to Frédéric Chopin, Warsaw’s favourite native son.
The Palace of Culture and Science, built by Joseph Stalin as a show of supremacy in 1955, dominates the city skyline. Once a communist-party stomping ground, today it serves as a culture hub, housing theatres, pubs, cafés and museums. Ride the elevator to the top for a 360-degree view of the city.
Urban beaches and open-air pubs (made from shipping containers) line the banks of the Vistula River. If Warsaw’s National Stadium, across the water, looks like a red-and-white version of B.C. Place, it’s no accident—the buildings had the same team of structural engineers. Also on the east bank: the hip Praga neighbourhood, and the Soho Factory development, where you’ll find galleries, restaurants and a neon museum.
Until recently, Poland’s capital had it rough. Almost destroyed in the Second World War, the city scraped by during the Soviet and post-Cold War years. But recently it has roared back to life, taking its rightful place as a centre of culture, style and commerce. Local designers and restaurateurs have colonized old Soviet tenements, and the city’s medieval treasures have been restored to their pre-war, gold-leafed splendor. If you’re not sure where to start, hop on a city bicycle and cruise the expansive network of bike paths. Or, order an ice cream cone and go for a stroll in one of countless parks, watching the sunset from a canvas folding chair—you’ll blend right in with the locals.
Start out by exploring the vibrant Old Town, wandering among colourful buildings, cobblestoned alleys, medieval churches, fairy-tale spires and the cinnamon-coloured Royal Castle. It’s hard to believe this ’hood was ever flattened to rubble in the Second World War. Residents rebuilt it all brick by brick, based on old plans and paintings.
Polin, the Museum of the Jewish People of Poland, on the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto, was recently named European Museum of the Year for 2016. Spend an afternoon wandering its fascinating exhibits about Jewish life in Poland, from peaceable co-existence in the Middle Ages, through to the Holocaust and present day.
What to do, see, eat and drink in Poland
Most North American tourists, if they visit Poland at all, make a quick stop in Krakow (admittedly magnificent) and carry on their way. But there’s so much more to see. If you’re planning a trip—perhaps tempted by the country’s affordability, or new Air Canada Rouge flights to Warsaw starting this June—add at least one of these incredible cities to your itinerary.
Click through for our guides to Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk, Poland.