Poland (Polish: Polska), is one of the larger countries in Central Europe. It has a long Baltic Sea coastline and is bordered by Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia (the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave), Slovakia, and Ukraine.
The first cities in today's Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg. located on the Amber Trail to the Baltic Sea, were mentioned by Roman writers in the first century AD, yet the first Polish settlement in Biskupin dates even further back to the 7th century BC.
Poland became a unified kingdom in the first half of the 10th century, and officially adopted Catholicism in 966. The first major settlements were Poznań, Gniezno, Giecz, and Ostrów Lednicki. Gniezno was probably the most important city at that time, as the first king's coronation, of Bolesław the Brave, took place there in 1025. A decade later in 1038, the capital was moved to Kraków, where it remained for half a millennium. The kingdom fragmented after the death of King Bolesław III Wrymouth in 1138, with his sons (and their descendants) competing for the Kraków throne for nearly 200 years. The fragmentation and loss of central authority could not have come at a worse time, with the Mongol Empire invading and wreaking havoc on the realm repeatedly in 1240-1241, 1259-1260, and lastly between 1287-1288.
Following its reunification, Poland experienced its golden age from the 14th till the 16th century, under the reigns of King Casimir III the Great and the monarchs of the Jagiellonian dynasty, whose rule extended from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas. After uniting with Lithuania in 1569, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the largest country in Europe. During this era, the commonwealth attracted significant immigration from Germans, Jews, Armenians, and Dutch, due in part to the freedom of confession guaranteed by the state, and the commonwealth's atmosphere of tolerance (a rather exceptional feat at the time of the Holy Inquisition).
Under the rule of the Vasa dynasty, the capital moved to Warsaw in 1596. The commonwealth's golden era came to an end in the 1650s, after a disastrous war with Russia coincided with an even more destructive five-year invasion and occupation by Sweden, an event known today as the Deluge (pоtор). Economically devastated by these events, the commonwealth's power dramatically declined in the 18th century. Weak in foreign affairs and internally divided by its nobility (szlachta), Russia, Prussia, and Austria seized on Poland-Lithuania's weakness and coordinated three partitions in 1772, 1793, and 1795. Responding to these partitions and a drastic need for political reform, Poland became the first country in Europe (and the second in the world after the United States) to pass a written constitution in 1791, a highly progressive and strong document for its time. Despite the constitution, the commonwealth ceased to exist after 1795, with its lands annexed by the three competing imperial powers.
The following period of foreign domination was met with fierce resistance. During the Napoleonic Wars, a French-backed semi-autonomous Duchy of Warsaw arose, before being erased from the map in 1813. Further uprisings ensued, including the 29 November uprising of 1830-1831 (in Russian Poland), the 1848 Revolution (in Austrian and Prussian Poland), and the January Uprising between 1863-1864 (also in Russian Poland). Throughout the occupation, Poles retained their sense of national identity and defied the three occupying powers with armed struggle or passive resistance.
Poland returned to the European map at the end of World War I, with a declaration of independence from the defeated German and Austro-Hungarian empires on 11 November 1918. From their ashes, the infant Second Polish Republic quickly became embroiled in violent territorial disputes with other new post-war states, including Czechoslovakia to the south, and revolutionary Soviet Russia to the east, which it fought a bloody war against between 1919-1921 to retain independence. This was further complicated by a hostile Weimar Germany to the west, which strongly resented a series of post-war Polish ethnic nationalist rebellions, Poland's annexations of eastern Prussian territories, and the detachment of German-speaking Danzig (contemporary Gdańsk) as a free city overseen by the League of Nations. Diplomatic difficulties were further compounded by domestic political chaos in the 1920s, as the republic's infant and fragile parliamentary democracy was undermined by a military coup in 1926, which brought about a semi-authoritarian regime under Marshal Józef Piłsudski, a highly-revered WWI and Polish-Soviet War leader.
All of these factors placed Poland in a precarious position of having potential enemies facing her from all sides.
World War II
World War II officially began with an attack on Poland by Nazi Germany from the west and north, and Nazi puppet Slovakia from the south on 1 September 1939. Hitler used the issue of Danzig (Gdańsk) and German nationalism to trigger a war with Poland in much the same way he used the Sudetenland crisis to divide and conquer Czechoslovakia. This was followed by an eastern invasion by the Soviet Union on 17 September. Only a few days prior to the invasion, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had signed the secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression, which called for the re-division of central and eastern Europe between the two powers. The blitzkrieg from all sides forced the collapse of the Second Republic, although Poland never conditionally surrendered, with its government-in-exile continuing the war effort from abroad.
Many of the conflict's most infamous war crimes were committed on occupied Polish territory, with much of the Holocaust taking place within the country, as Poland had the largest Jewish population of any state in the world at over three million, 90% of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Poland’s cities had especially large Jewish populations. Before World War II, Warsaw was 30% Jewish, Łódź 34%, and Lublin 35%. All six of the German Nazi extermination camps were located in Poland; of these Auschwitz is the most well known site. Much of the Jewish resistance to the Nazis also occurred in Poland, the most famous example being the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.
In addition to Jews, Poles were vigorously persecuted by the Nazis, with 2 to 3 million murdered during the occupation. Countless Polish civilians were ruthlessly rounded up, tortured, placed in concentration camps, and executed. Poland was treated much more severely than other countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Any Poles discovered hiding Jews risked being executed with their entire families (and yet many helped anyway, as documented in lists such as The Righteous Among the Nations). Throughout the occupation, resistance to the Nazis remained strong, with the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) conducting guerrilla warfare against the Germans, as well as staging a mass uprising in Warsaw in 1944.
Meanwhile, the Soviets in the east rounded up and executed the cream of the crop of Polish leadership in the 1940 Katyń Massacre. About 22,000 Polish military and political leaders, business owners, and intelligentsia were murdered, officially approved by the Soviet Politburo, including Stalin and Beria.
Due to the war, Poland lost nearly 20% of its population and its economy ruined. Most major cities were destroyed, and with them the history of centuries was gone. With the Yalta Agreement between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, it was decided that Poland would fall under the Soviet sphere of influence. To this day, this event is viewed by many Poles as an act of betrayal by the Allies, as many Polish soldiers, seamen, and airmen had fought alongside the British and Americans in the European theatre. Much of Poland's east would be annexed by the Soviet Union, while its western border would be pushed to the Oder-Neisse Line at the expense of the defeated Germany. The native Polish population from the former eastern provinces were relocated to the west, while ethnic Germans in the new western provinces were expelled. This resulted in the forced uprooting of over 10 million people, and until recently, had overshadowed attempts at Polish-German reconciliation.
Communism (People's Republic of Poland)
After World War II, Poland became a Soviet satellite within the Eastern Bloc. Between 1945-1953, Stalinist leaders conducted periodic purges of the governing Communist Party. After Stalin's death in 1953, Poland became comparatively tolerant and progressive in comparison to other Eastern Bloc states. Strong economic growth in the post-war period alternated with serious recessions in 1956, 1970, and 1976, resulting in labour turmoil over dramatic inflation, as well as massive goods shortages.
A brief reprieve in this period occurred in 1978. The then-archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla, was elected as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, taking the name John Paul II. This had a profound impact on Poland's largely Catholic population, and to this day John Paul II is widely revered throughout the country.
In 1980, the anti-communist trade union "Solidarity" (Solidarność) was founded by disgruntled Gdańsk shipyard workers and quickly became a strong opposition force to the communist government, organizing labour strikes while demanding freedom of the press, religion, and democratic representation. The communists responded by organizing a military junta, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski as prime minister, who imposed martial law in December 1981. Lasting until July 1983, this crackdown period witnessed tens of thousands of people being detained. Martial law reached into all facets of life: phone calls were actively monitored by the government, independent organizations not aligned with the communists became illegal, access to roads was restricted, international borders were sealed, ordinary industries were placed under military management, and workers who failed to follow orders faced the threat of military courts. Solidarity members were particularly targeted with imprisonment or unemployment, a serious charge in the socialist world. Atop draconian military measures to stop political dissent, the Polish economy entered free fall.
Despite the government crackdown, dissent against the regime only grew more emboldened. This internecine political conflict and its ensuing economic disaster greatly weakened the prestige and rule of the Communist Party. Facing international isolation, the government legalized Solidarity, entered into negotiations with dissidents, and soon held partially-free elections in 1989, in which the communists were finally removed from power. The election was the start of a domino effect of peaceful, anti-communist revolutions across the Eastern Bloc throughout that year.
Contemporary Poland (Third Republic)
Nowadays, Poland is a democratic parliamentary republic with a stable, robust economy, a member of NATO since 1999, and the European Union since 2004. The country's stability has been recently underscored by the fact that the tragic deaths of President Lech Kaczyński and many members of parliament in a plane crash in 2010 did not have an appreciable negative effect on the Polish currency or economic prospects. Poland has also successfully joined the Schengen Agreement for an open border to Germany, Lithuania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is on track to adopt the Euro currency on a future (yet currently unspecified) date. Poland's dream of rejoining Europe as an independent nation at peace and in mutual respect of its neighbours has finally been achieved.
As a deeply religious country, many important days on the Catholic calendar are public holidays, with the church becoming the main center of life in various cities, towns, and villages.
The countryside throughout Poland is lovely and relatively unspoiled. Poland has a variety of regions with beautiful landscapes, complete with primeval forests, mountain ranges, hidden valleys, grasslands, lakes and small-scale organic and traditional farms. Travellers can choose a number of activities such as bird watching, cycling or horseback riding.
Culturally, you can visit and/or experience many churches, museums, ceramic and traditional basket-making workshops, castle ruins, palaces, rural centres and many more. A journey through the Polish countryside gives you a perfect opportunity to enjoy and absorb local knowledge about its landscape and people.
Poland offers variety of landscapes, as well as cultural and historic territories. Natural regions of Poland one can divide in five major belts: coastal, northern lake districts, central plains, south-eastern highlands and southern mountains.
Poland's sixteen administrative regions are called województwa, often abbreviated as woj.. The word is roughly equivalent to the word "province" in English. Some English dictionaries use the word voivodeship to describe the provinces, although the use of the word is rare, and is not likely to be universally understood at first by Poles. Like other larger countries, many regions have distinct identities and traditions.
Provinces have often names of historic regions, but their territories do not match. For example, Silesian voievodship includes only small eastern part of Silesia, but around 40% of its land was never part of Silesia. Thus, this map and regionalisation is only an approximation.
Poland is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are. In addition to the Schengen visa exemption, citizens of Israel, South Korea, Canada, Japan, and the United States are permitted to stay in Poland for 90 days without a visa regardless of the amount of time spent in other Schengen states. Time spent in Poland, however, will be counted against the time permitted by other Schengen states.
Regular visas are issued for travellers going to Poland for tourism and business purposes. Regular visas allow for one or multiple entries into Polish territory and stay in Poland for maximum up to 90 days and are issued for the definite period of stay. When applying for a visa, please indicate the number of days you plan to spend in Poland and a date of intended arrival. Holders of regular visas are not authorized to work.
Ukrainian citizens do not require a separate visa for transit through Poland if they hold a Schengen or UK visa.
Most of Europe's major airlines fly to and from Poland. Poland's national carrier is LOT Polish Airlines. There are also a number of low cost airlines that fly to Poland including WizzAir, EasyJet, Germanwings, SprintAir, Norwegian and Ryanair.
Apart from direct air connections from many European cities, there are also intercontinental flights from the United States, Canada and China operated by LOT with direct flights from Beijing, Toronto, New York and Chicago. In terms of long haul flights, Emirates and Qatar Airways flights operate to and from Dubai and Doha respectively, as well as non-direct flights from other cities throughout the Star Alliance program.
International airlines fly mainly into Warsaw (WAW), the country's largest gateway. Other major airports offering passenger service include: Warsaw-Modlin (WMI), Kraków (KRK), Katowice (KTW), Gdańsk (GDN), Poznań (POZ), Wrocław (WRO), Szczecin (SZZ), Rzeszów (RZE), Bydgoszcz (BZG), Łódź (LCJ), Lublin (LUZ), Olsztyn (SZY), Radom (RDO), and Zielona Góra (IEG),
The number of flights and passengers have significantly increased since the early 1990s, with airports in Warsaw, Kraków and Gdańsk considerably expanding their infrastructure and capacities for their increasing number of passengers. Airports in Katowice, Poznań, Wrocław, Łódź, Lublin, Rzeszów, and Olsztyn have also grown to increase their standards and capacity.
The national long distance rail operator is PKP Intercity. There are direct connections to Warsaw from the following locations:
You can enter Poland by one of the many roads linking Poland with the neighbouring countries. Since Poland's entry to the Schengen Zone, checkpoints on border crossings with other EU countries have been removed.
However, queues on the borders with Poland's non-EU neighbours, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, are still large and in areas congested with truck traffic. It can take up to several hours to pass.
If you're traveling with a US driver's license, be sure to take an international license with you. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe requiring US citizens to travel with an international license in order to rent a car. Also note that most car rentals are manual. If you want an automatic it must be booked in advance and expect higher costs.
There are many international bus lines that connect to major Polish cities from most major European locations.
There are multiple ports along the Polish coast, at least at every river mouth. Bigger marinas are located in Szczecin, Łeba, Hel, Gdynia and Gdańsk. Gdansk, has two yacht docks one next to the old time (market) which is usually quickly overloaded and one in the national sailing centre 17 km. next to the city centre close to the Baltic sea. The newest yacht dock is located on Europe's longest wooden peer in Sopot. Although there are many sailors in Poland, there is still room for improvement which is being overseen by the regional governments of the voivodeships.
From the Czech Republic
[update: as for January 2015, the only passenger train connecting Poland and Lithuania, TLK Hańcza from Warsaw to Šeštokai, has been suspended on the segment Suwałki - Šeštokai]
Polish road infrastructure is extensive and currently undergoing a massive construction boom with a number of motorways and expressways in various stages of development found throughout the country, yet many local routes may be slow or poorly maintained. However, public transport is quite plentiful and inexpensive, with buses and trams in cities, and charter buses and trains for long distance travel. There is also a well-established domestic flight network.
Polish national carrier LOT has daily domestic connections between Poland's biggest cities with its hub in Warsaw. Additionally, regional airline SprintAir also provides domestic flights between several of the country's larger cities, as well as low-cost airline Ryanair.
In Poland, the national railway carriers are PKP Intercity for long-distance routes and PolRegio for regional routes. There are also several provincial-level carriers that are run exclusively by the voivodeships providing regional travel, as well as several fast urban rail systems found in larger cities, such as Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Poznań. The schedule of every train and online ticket purchasing can be found on the PKP-Rozklad planner. Note, if you search in the Polish language, provincially-operated carriers will display online tickets, although many will require some form of registration first.
Train tickets are quite cheap, but travel conditions and comfort may vary. Many routes between the larger cities offer services with fast and modern trains, while trains between smaller areas and regions can vary between the ultra-modern to the communist old.
There are no universal train tickets in Poland and combining trains of different companies means that you have to buy separate tickets (which usually cost much more than keeping to a single carrier on a long trip). In general, the long-distance trains (EIP, EIC, IC, TLK) are run by PKP Intercity and regional ones are usually owned by Pol-Regio or provincial rail operators. It is sometimes possible to make a long distance journey across the country by Pol-Regio, which is usually is the cheapest option of all.
Tickets for any route can generally be purchased at any station or online. For a foreigner buying tickets from the window at a train station, this can prove to be a frustrating experience, since only cashiers at international ticket offices (in major cities) can be expected to speak multiple languages. As a simple way to cross the language barrier, write the name of the stations and time you wish to travel, which will be easily understood by the cashier. Buying your train tickets online or from a machine will also avoid any communication difficulties or long queues.
It may be easier to buy in advance during peak seasons (eg: end of holiday period, New Year, etc.) for trains that require reserved seating.
Please note, that tickets bought for the trains of one company can not be used on the train of another one. There is one exception in Warsaw, where the ticket of Warsaw Transport Authority can be used on Koleje Mazowieckie trains, but only in the area of Warsaw. If you are not sure you can travel with WTA's ticket on Koleje Mazowieckie, board through the first doors, find the conductor, and ask him. If your ticket is not valid, he will sell you one.
Travelers traveling in a group of up to 3 people on PolRegio should look into the Ty i raz, dwa, trzy offer, with 30% off.
Additionally, seniors over the age of 60 with PolRegio can obtain a REGIO Senior discount, with 25% off all routes, and 10% off all seasonal tickets. Show your identification card to the ticket office that states your age.
Weekend and holiday visitors can can get the Tourist Ticket on PolRegio, which are valid from Friday 18:00 (regional) or 19:00 (Intercity) until the next Monday at 06:00.
An early booking of the Intercity trains (7/15 days before departure) will be rewarded with additional discount (20/30%). There is also a limited amount of reduced tickets in the EIP/EIC trains; see PKP's Super Pormo offer.
For some TLK/IC trains you can travel with the offer Bilet Taniomiastowy with discounts on chosen routes
Poland has a very well developed network of private charter bus companies, which tend to be cheaper, faster, and more comfortable than rail travel. For trips under 100 km, charter buses are far more popular than trains. However, they are more difficult to use for foreigners, because of the language barrier.
In order to research buses, finding companies with the letters PKS is a good start. There is an on-line timetable available in English, which includes bus and train options, found at: e-podroznik pl. Online timetables are useful for planning, yet be aware that there are often multiple carriers at each bus station, and departure times for major cities and popular destinations are typically no longer than thirty minutes in-between.
Each city and town has a central bus station (formerly known also as PKS), where the various bus routes pick up passengers; you can find their schedules displayed there in either paper or electronic formats. Bus routes can also be recognized by signs on the front of the bus that typically state the terminating stop. This is easier if picking up a bus from a roadside stop, rather than a central depot. Tickets are usually purchased directly from the driver, but sometimes it's also possible to buy them at the station and also online. If purchasing from the driver, simply board the bus and tell or show the driver your destination. The driver will then inform you of the price. Drivers rarely speak English, so often they will print a receipt showing the amount.
Buses are also a viable choice for long-distance and international travel; however, be aware that long-distance schedules are usually more limited than for trains.
There are several well-known nationwide bus companies that offer service to most of Poland's major cities and voivodeships, which include:
In the past, driving in Poland was often described as stressful, frustrating and often time-consuming, due to the poor quality of roads, a lack of motorway-level routes, and the aggressive driving style of the locals. Thankfully, much has changed since the early 2000s, and today, a majority of all the republic's major cities are connected by motorways and expressways thanks to an ongoing construction boom fueled by Poland's strong economy and generous EU development funds. As of 2016, there are nearly 3,100 km (1,925 mi) of completed motorways and expressways throughout the country. However, much still needs to be done, as will be evidenced by many construction detours or finding yourself traveling on roads far above capacity for the volume of traffic they are carrying for.
Roads in Poland can be divided into several categories. Red and white-numbered roads are known as national roads (droga krajowa), which handle the bulk of the republic's traffic. A subcategory of national roads are motorway-class A roads, which are signed with an A followed by a number. The motorway speed limit is typically 140 km/h (87 mph). A second high speed subcategory are expressway-class S roads, whose speed limits range from 100 km/h (62 mph) to 120 km/h (75 mph). Confusingly, many S-class roads often look and feel like motorways, although there are several S-class roads that are limited to one lane in each direction. Finally there are the standard national roads without an A or S, and are often limited to two lanes between 90 (56 mph) to 100 km/h. A separate category of roads are the voivodeship roads (droga wojewódzka), which are roads maintained by the provinces. They are typically lower in importance than national roads, and will be signed on a yellow background with black letters, involving three digits. Voivodeship roads are often smaller than their national road counterparts.
If you are not travelling on A or S-class roads, generally assume two hours for each 100 km of travel. If you're driving through larger cities, you can safely double that. When travelling between smaller cities or towns (usually on voivodeship roads), you will routinely encounter slow moving vehicles, such as farm vehicles and tractors, and sometimes bicycles. Drunks, on foot or on bicycles, are a common sight. This includes having them weave through fast moving traffic at night, although this activity is considered highly illegal.
Be aware that the A2 and A4 motorways are tolled in certain locations. Toll rates vary from station to station, although generally speaking they are between 9-17PLN for most vehicles. Tolls can be paid either electronically or with cash at a tollbooth. At the current time, other motorways, expressways, national and voivodeship roads are not tolled. viaToll provides greater information regarding tolling locations, rates, and electronic payments.
Polish road death statistics are statistically higher than the European average, although rates have significantly fallen since the 2010s. While driving etiquette on major routes is similar to other European states, visitors may confront a "dynamic driving style" in certain rural areas. In practice this means that some drivers can drive aggressively and recklessly, push in, "meander" through surrounding cars, routinely disrespect speed limits (frequently by a large margin) and overtake at less-than-safe distances. Overtaking is a critical and potentially dangerous manoeuvre that is commonly done in a hazardous way in rural Poland. In heavier traffic it's common to overtake "on 3rd" meaning that at some point during the manoeuvre there will be three cars (the overtaken, the overtaking, and the vehicle approaching from the opposite direction) next to each other side to side (or close to that). An unwritten code is followed to make this possible and "safe". The driver that is driving behind a slower vehicle and preparing to overtake expects that the slower vehicle will move to the right as far as feels comfortable also using the half-lane if it is separated with a dashed line and completely sure to be free of bicycles or pedestrians. The vehicle approaching from the opposite direction is advised or sometimes forced to also slightly move to the side. Such style of overtaking is illegal and unsafe. The above information is intended to explain the reality on the ground and help understand the traffic. Don't do it. If you hit someone or something on the shoulder, you get penalised and the driver who caused you to do it has long since driven off. Particularly reckless drivers will attempt to overtake "on four", when overtaking in both directions is taking place in roughly the same space, but this is rare.
Tailgating can rarely happen. Aggressive driving up behind you and flashing of headlights means "get out of my way". If you're driving on a two-lane road, which will be most of the time, and you are under slight obligation to do so, the law states you should keep to the right most lane whenever possible. Rather don't expect that the driver may throw something out of his window or suddenly step on his brakes once he has passed you, but better let drive faster people, who know aera better than you.
If you leave a safety gap in front of your car, it will be filled by another driver as they are trying to push through traffic.
Poles work long, so peak time in major cities frequently last till 7 or 8pm. Roadworks are common as many new road developments are under way and roads require frequent maintenance due to damage inflicted by winter conditions and with older roads built with sub par quality.
Parking in cities and towns is often allowed on sidewalks, unless there is a no parking sign. There is usually no provision for parking on the tar-sealed part of the street, so do not leave your car parked at the curb, unless it is clearly a parking bay. Parking meters in cities and even smaller towns are widely used.
Some peculiarities of driving in Poland include:
Roads marked droga szybkiego ruchu (rapid transit road) are frequently anything but that. The rule of roads going through towns and not around them still applies and speed limits change rapidly from the allowable 90 kmh to 70, down to 40 and then up again to 70 within only a few hundreds of metres. Speed cameras (in unmarked dark grey pole-mounted boxes) are common (and the income from those goes to the local council.) Radar-equipped traffic police are also frequent but that apparently does little to deter the speeding drivers. In recent years there has been a resurgence in CB radio popularity. The drivers use it to warn each other about the traffic police.
Some drivers flash their headlights to warn those approaching from the opposite direction of a police control nearby (you are likely to encounter this custom in many other countries). It may also mean that you need to turn your lights on since dipped headlights need to be on at all times while driving. A "thank you" between drivers can be expressed by waving your hand or, when the distance is too great, by turning on blinkers or hazard lights for one or two blinks.
Hazard lights can be used to indicate failures but also as a way of showing that the vehicle is rapidly slowing down, or already stopped in a traffic jam on a highway.
A recent plague of flashing LED advertising hoardings has been spreading along Polish roads. As well as adding to the already high level of visual pollution these have a more immediate effect of distracting drivers during the day and blinding them at night, as advertisers leave output levels set at "high". Poland has no legislation to prevent this from happening, and the hoardings are placed at or only slightly above the line of sight. This, added to the condition of the roads and the behaviour of the locals, makes driving on rainy nights additionally difficult.
At the gas stations
In Autumn or in Spring it is common for small traders to set up their stands with fruit or wild mushrooms along the roads. They don't always stay in places where it's safe for cars to stop and you should be careful of drivers stopping abruptly and be watchful if you want to stop yourself. Wild mushrooms are a speciality if you know how to cook them. A cautionary note: There is a slight possibility that the people who picked the mushrooms are not very good at telling the good ones from the poisonous, so eat at your own responsibility. Never feed wild mushrooms to small children as they are particularly vulnerable. Rely on the judgement of your Polish friends if you consider them reasonable people.
Use only those that are associated in a "corporation" (look for phone number and a logo on the side and on the top). There are no British style minicabs in Poland. Unaffiliated drivers are likely to cheat and charge you much more. Like everywhere, be especially wary of these taxis near international airports and train stations. They are called the "taxi mafia", and it is generally best to ignore them.
Because of travellers advice like this (and word of mouth), taxis with fake phone numbers can be seen on the streets, although this has dramatically decreased since the 2000s thanks to police and government intervention. Fake phone numbers are easily detected by locals and cater for the unsuspecting traveller. The best advice is to ask your Polish friends or your hotel concierge for the number of the taxi company they use and call them 10-15 minutes in advance (there's no additional cost). That's why locals will only hail taxis on the street in case of an emergency.
You can also find phone numbers for taxis in any city on the Internet, on municipal and newspaper websites. Some taxi companies, particularly in larger towns provide for a cab to be ordered online or with a text message. There are also stands, where you can call for their particular taxi for free, often found at train stations. US-based international taxi company Uber also operates throughout Poland, though currently is concentrated in the larger cities.
If you negotiate the fare with the driver you risk ending up paying more than you should. Better make sure that the driver turns the meter on and sets it to the appropriate fare (taryfa):
Prices can vary slightly between the taxi companies and between different cities, and there is a small fixed starting fee added on top of the mileage fare.
When crossing city limits (for example, when travelling to an airport located outside the city), the driver should change the tariff at the city limit.
Every taxi driver is obliged to issue a receipt when asked (at the end of the ride). You can inquire driver about a receipt (rachunek) before you get into cab, and resign if his reaction seems suspicious or if he refuses.
Cycling is a good method to get a good impression of the scenery in Poland. While the quality of most national roads are fairly good, some roads (particularly provincial voivodeship roads) are mixed, either in excellent or in poor condition, and bicycle lanes are not normally painted. However, these same voivodeship roads in the rural areas of the country are fantastic for cycling. Be aware of drivers, as some are careless, yet the situation is gradually improving as cycling becomes more popular, drivers become more aware, and more marked bicycle lanes are in the process of being marked and divided. However, it is recommendable to avoid national roads leading to and from big cities or any significant settlements in the rush hours of 7 to 8am and 3 to 6pm.
Especially in southern Poland, you can find some fantastic places for bicycling, especially along the Dunajec River in Lesser Poland from Zakopane to Szczawnica, or Krynica-Zdrój to Stary Sącz, or in Lower Silesian Voivodeship between Zlotoryja, Swierzawa, and Jawor. Specially mapped bike routes are increasingly appearing across the country and there are specialised guide books available so ask a bicycle club for help and you should be just fine. Away from roads which join major cities and large towns you should be able to find some great riding, fantastic scenery and staying at agroturystyka (a room with board at a farmer's house, for example) can be a great and unique experience.
In eastern Poland, the 2,000 km (1,240 mi) GreenVelo Trail traverses through gorgeous scenery and various national parks. Along the coast, through the center, and in both the east and west, EuroVelo maintains several routes, although the network is still being established.
Bicycling in Poland's larger cities is a growing trend. Some cities, like Wrocław, Poznań, Kraków, Warsaw, and the Tri-Cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot have sophisticated bike paths, with renting a bike easy, painless and affordable.
Hitchhiking in Poland is (on average) safe and reliable. It's slower than its Western (Germany) and Eastern (Lithuania) neighbors, yet waiting times will be quite acceptable. The best places to be picked up at are on standard national roads, mostly on routes between Gdansk, Warsaw, Poznań and Kraków. Use a cardboard sign and write the desired destination city name on it, and stay on the edge of the road where there should be a dashed line painted there, not a solid one. Under no circumstances try to hitchhike on the sides of A or S-class high-speed motorways or expressways, unless it is at petrol stations, rest stops or on-ramps.
As in any country, you should be careful, there are several reports of hitchhiking trips gone awry, so take basic precautions and you should be as right as rain.
The official language of Poland is Polish, a Slavic language spoken by 55 million around the world. Foreign visitors should be aware that virtually all official information will usually be in Polish only. Street signs, directions, information signs, etc. are routinely only in Polish, as are schedules and announcements at train and bus stations (airports and a few major train stations seem to be an exception to this). When it comes to information signs in museums, churches, etc., signs in multiple languages are typically found only in popular tourist destinations.
Most of the young people and teenagers know English well enough. Since English is taught from a very young age (some start as early as 4 years old), only Poles who grow up in isolated towns or communities will not be given English lessons. Older Poles, particularly in rural regions, will speak little or no English at all. However, it is highly possible that they will speak either French, German or Russian, taught in schools as the main foreign languages until the 1990s.
It is wise to refrain from speaking Russian on account of the countries' historically turbulent relations. In spite of this, German is still taught in many schools throughout the country, and is especially popular in the western districts. Ukrainian also has many similarities to Polish, as does Czech and Slovak.
A few phrases go a long way in Poland. Contrary to some other tourist destinations, where natives scoff at how bad a foreigner's use of the native language is, Polish people generally love the few foreigners who learn Polish or at least try to, even if it is only a few phrases. Younger Poles will also jump at the chance to practice their English. Be advised that if you are heard speaking English in a public setting outside of the main cities and tourist areas people may listen in to practice their understanding of English.
Do your homework and try to learn how to pronounce the names of places. Polish has a very regular pronunciation, so this should be no problem. Although there are a few sounds unknown to most English speakers, mastering every phoneme is not required to achieve intelligibility; catching the spirit is more important.
With almost 94% of the contemporary population ethnically Polish, Poland's recent history has made it a very homogeneous society, in stark contrast to its long history of ethno-religious diversity. Before World War II, 69% was ethnically Polish, with large, vocal minorities of Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Germans; less than two-thirds were Roman Catholic, along with large Orthodox and Protestant minorities. Poland also had the largest Jewish community in Europe, estimated variously at 10 to 30% of Poland's population before 1939.
Outside of the touristic areas of the major cities, you'll find that there are few, if any, foreigners. Most of the immigrants in Poland (mainly Ukrainians and Vietnamese, as well as smaller numbers of Italians, Portuguese, Spanish and Greeks in recent years) stay in the major cities to live and work. Poland's small group of contemporary ethnic minorities, which includes Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Silesians, Lemkos, and Kashubians, all speak Polish and few regional dialects remain except in the south and in small patches along the Baltic coast.
Ever since Poland joined the European Union, international travellers have rapidly rediscovered the country's rich cultural heritage, stunning historic sites and just gorgeous array of landscapes. Whether you're looking for architecture, urban vibes or a taste of the past: Poland's bustling cities and towns offer something for everyone. If you'd rather get away from the crowds and enjoy nature, the country's vast natural areas provide anything from dense forests, high peaks and lush hills to beaches and lake reserves.
Most of the major cities boast lovely old centres and a range of splendid buildings, some of them World Heritage sites. Many old quarters were heavily damaged or even destroyed in WWII bombings, but were meticulously rebuilt after the war, using the original bricks and ornaments where possible. Although remains of the Soviet Union and even scars of the Second World War are visible in most of them, the Polish cities offer great historic sight seeing while at the same time they have become modern, lively places. The capital, Warsaw, has one of the best old centres and its many sights include the ancient city walls, palaces, churches and squares. You can follow the Royal Route to see some of the best landmarks outside the old centre. The old city of Kraków is considered the country's cultural capital, with another gorgeous historic centre, countless monumental buildings and a few excellent museums. Just 50 km from there is the humbling Auschwitz concentration camp which, due to the horrible events it represents, leaves an impression like no other World Heritage Site does. The ancient Wieliczka Salt Mine, also a World Heritage Site, is another great daytrip from Kraków.
The provincial capital of Poznań is an underestimated city, but definitely worth a visit. With the oldest cathedral in the country and also the second biggest necropolis in the country for kings and rulers, a beautiful Renaissance town hall with two battling billy goats (seen only around noon), and an impressive 20th century imperial palace built for the German kaiser (just to mention a few attractions) makes a great impression on most visitors.
Once a Hanseatic League town, the port city of Gdańsk boasts many impressive buildings from that time. Here too, a walk along the Royal Road gives a great overview of notable sights. Wrocław, the capital of Lower Silesia, is still less well-known but can definitely compete when it comes to amazing architecture; its Centennial Hall being the prime example. The city's picturesque location on the Oder and countless bridges make this huge city a lovely place. The old town of Zamość was planned after Italian theories of the "ideal town" and named "a unique example of a Renaissance town in Central Europe" by UNESCO. The stunning medieval city of Toruń has some great and original Gothic architecture, as it is one of the few Polish cities to have completely escaped devastation in WWII. The city of Lublin additionally boasts an impressive historic old town, castle, and serene surrounding countryside.
With 23 national parks and a number of landscape parks spread all over the country, natural attractions are never too far away. Białowieża National Park, on the Belarus border, is a World Heritage Site as it comprises the last remains of the primeval forest that once covered most of Europe. It's the only place where European bison still live in the wild. If you're fit and up for adventure, take the dangerous Eagle's Path (Orla Perć) in the Tatra Mountains, where you'll also find Rysy, Poland's highest peak. Pieniński National Park boasts the stunning Dunajec River Gorge and Karkonoski National Park is home to some fabulous waterfalls. The mountainous Bieszczady National Park has great hiking opportunities and lots of wildlife. Wielkopolska National Park is, in contrast, very flat and covers a good part of the pretty Poznań Lakeland. The Masurian Landscape Park, in the Masurian Lake District, with its 2000 lakes, is at least as beautiful. Bory Tucholskie National Park has the largest woodland in the country and has many lakes too, making it great for birdwatching. The two national parks on Poland's coast are also quite popular: Wolin National Park is located on an island in the north-west, and Słowiński National Park holds some of the largest sand dunes in Europe.
Castles & other rural monuments
The Polish countryside is lovely and at times even gorgeous, with countless historic villages, castles, churches and other monuments. Agrotourism is therefore increasingly popular. If you have a taste for cultural heritage, the south western parts of the country offer some of the best sights, but there's great stuff in other areas too. The impressive Gothic Wawel Castle in Krakow may be one of the finest examples when it comes to Poland's castles, but most of the others are located in smaller countryside towns. The large, red brick Malbork castle (in northern Poland) is perhaps the most stunning one in the country, built in 1406 and today the world's biggest brick Gothic castle. The castle of Książ, near Wałbrzych is one the best examples in Lower Silesia, along with the atmospheric, semi-ruined Chojnik Castle, perched atop a steep hill near Jelenia Góra and within Karkonoski National Park. After surviving battles and attacks for centuries, it was destroyed by lightning in 1675 and has been a popular tourist attraction since the 18th century. The picturesque Czocha Castle near Lubań originates from 1329. A bit off the beaten track are the ruins of Krzyżtopór Castle, in a village near Opatow. The Wooden Churches of Southern Lesser Poland are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, just like the Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świdnica. The Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa and the beautiful, World Heritage listed Kalwaria Zebrzydowska park are famous pilgrimage destinations. The lovely Muskau Park in Łęknica, on the German border, has fabulous English gardens and is a UNESCO site shared with Germany.
Hit the trail with professional guide and reach some peaks of the Beskid Mountains. A knowledgeable guide will choose hiking destinations based on your fitness level and interests. Whether you’re a casual walker or an advanced hiker, a guide can customize your hike to include panoramic views or lush wooded trails.
Studying in Poland can be an incredible experience for foreigners. Foreign students can finance a B.A. education for as low as 24,000PLN and a M.A. education for as low as 20,000PLN.
There are many international schools and excellent centers of higher learning, from them Jagiellonian University in Kraków is the most presitigious, being a member of the Coimbra Group and the Europaeum. Dating to 1364, Jagiellonian is the oldest university in the country, and among one of the oldest in the world. The University of Warsaw is Poland's top-ranked public university, while the National Film School in Łódź is the most prestigious academy in the republic for film production. Other notable universities include Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, and the University of Wrocław.
Private universities are a recent invention, but have been successful enough where several private schools are competing with the major public universities in terms of quality. Private schools may actually be cheaper for foreign students, who are not entitled to a free education at one of Poland's public universities.
At the moment Poland is one of the best places around the world to find a job as an English teacher. TEFL courses (that's Teaching English as a Foreign Language) are run in many cities across Poland. The demand for TEFL teachers is enormous and teaching language is a brilliant way to fund your travel and earn as you go.
Even if you don't have a work visa or EU/EEA citizenship, it should be no problem for you to offer private lessons. The going rate is about 30PLN for conversation or lessons. Doing these private lessons is a great way to make some money and meet some English-speaking educated, interesting Poles at the same time. In general students, private and in classes, are very friendly toward their teachers, inviting them for dinner or drinks, and sometimes acting quite emotional during their last lesson. Post your services on telephone poles and bus stops with an email or phone number, or use Gumtree, Poland's version of Craigslist.
Gumtree Polska is useful for finding students, and everything else, including accommodations, used cars, pets, Polish tutors, etc. Ekorki is good to make a profile if looking for longterm teaching positions. More formal than Gumtree, it is used by serious employers. and is similar to Monster.com in the US. Another popular work website is Praca.pl.
The currency in Poland is the złoty (international symbolisation: PLN), often abbreviated locally as zł placed after the amount. The złoty is divided into 100 grosze. Poland is expected to adopt the euro (€) sometime after 2020, yet plans remain tentative.
Private currency exchange offices (kantor) are very common, and offer euro, pound, or US dollar exchanges at rates that are usually comparable to commercial banks. Be aware that exchanges in tourist hot-spots, such as train stations or popular tourist destinations, tend to overcharge. Avoid "Interchange" Kantor locations, easily recognised by their orange colour; the rates they offer are very bad.
A word of warning: You will be offered the "service" of having your card billed in your home currency almost everywhere. This option gives you a very unfavourable exchange rate (including up to 7% commission), even if it says "no fees". Always insist on paying in złoty when using your card - you always have the right to do so. On automated machines, hit the "cancel" button if it mentions your home currency; you can then proceed to pay in złoty.
Credit cards can be used to pay almost everywhere in the big cities. Popular cards include Visa, Visa Electron, MasterCard and Maestro. AmEx and Diners' Club can be used in a few places (notably the big, business-class hotels) but are not popular and you should not rely on them for any payments.
Cheques were never particularly popular in Poland and they are not used nowadays. Local banks do not issue cheque books to customers and stores do not accept them.
Super and hypermarkets
Hypermarkets are dominated by Western (and some domestic) chains: Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan, Real, Rabat, Biedronka, POLOmarket, Dino, Lewiatan, Lidl, Top Market, and Netto. Some are open 24 hours a day and they are usually located in shopping malls or suburbs. More commonly, there are smaller convenience stores located throughout the country, with Żabka and Groszek found on many street corners.
However, Poles shop very often at local, small stores for bread, meat, fresh dairy, vegetables and fruits, where which freshness and quality is essential.
Prices in Poland are among the lowest in the EU.
Many towns, and larger suburbs, hold traditional weekly markets, similar to farmers' markets popular in the West. Fresh produce, baker's goods, dairy, meat and meat products are sold, along with everything from flowers and garden plants to Chinese-made clothing and bric-a-brac. In season wild mushrooms and forest fruit can also be bought. Markets are held on Thursdays / Fridays and/or Saturdays and are a great way to enjoy the local colour. Prices are usually set though you can try a little good-natured bargaining if you buy more than a few items.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city centre. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional local food
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favorite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, a.k.a. borscht) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings (barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki - well-seasoned tripe.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits. Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a "hunter's stew" that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, called kapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These include gulasz, a local version of goulash that's less spicy than the original, and sznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional schnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushrooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south. Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked. It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It's usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano).
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is very basic sort of fast food eatery serving cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder to find them. Invented by the communist authorities in the mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in firms that had no canteen, the milk bar's iconic name originates from the fact that until the late 1980s, meals served were mostly dairy-made or vegetarian (especially during martial law in the early 1980s, when meat was rationed). Milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating at a milk bar can be a unique experience. It is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes—students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, even homeless—all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable prices (veggie main courses starting from just a few złotych!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued—complete nut jobs dine at milk bars too, so even if you're going to for the food, you'll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching head and require the suspension of reality.
Traditionally styled restaurants
All around Poland, but especially in the Lesser Poland and Silesia regions, you can find many traditional restaurants. They are usually called chata, gospoda or oberża, translated roughly as "tavern" or "inn". Usually they are made of wood and have plenty of colorful ornaments hanging on the walls. Inside, you can feel as if you were in a 19th century family house. Many of their menus include traditional dishes and beverages, with food served on decorated tableware.
The drinking and purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
Poland is on the border of the European vodka and beer belts. Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks but they drink less than the European average. You can buy beer, vodka, hard liquor and wine in virtually all stores. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Plum brandy, known as śliwowica, is also a popular spirit, with many in rural areas making and drinking their own brews. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are also a must.
Officially, in order to buy alcohol one should be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID, however in practice most small stores found throughout Poland will not ID you if you look like you could possibly be 18.
Poland's beer brewing tradition began in the Middle Ages and today it is one of the top beer countries in Europe, although it is still largely overshadowed by Czech, German or Belgian brews. Despite its brands not being well-known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common big brands include:
Micro-breweries and gastro-pubs are on the rise, in particular in the larger cities, and many delicatessen or supermarkets carry smaller brands, including hand-crafted beers of many types.
Poles are notably proud of their vodka, which rank among the world's best. Some famous vodka brands are:
Deluxe (more expensive) brands include Chopin and Belvedere. Expect to pay about 100PLN a bottle (2007 prices). Most Poles consider these brands to be "export brands", and usually don't drink them.
Poland does make wines around Zielona Góra in Lower Silesia, Lesser Poland and Podkarpackie in the Beskids, with perhaps Golesz the most famous Polish vineyard, located in Świętokrzyskie in central Poland. Wines were previously only available from the winery or at regional festivals, such as in Zielona Góra. After the government's passage of a wine distribution act in 2008, Polish wines are also available in retail stores.
As for imported wine, apart from the usual old and new world standards, there is usually a choice of decent table wines from central and eastern Europe, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, and Georgia.
It winter, many Poles drink grzaniec (mulled wine), made of red wine heated with spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. A similar drink can be made with beer, although wine is the more popular method.
Mead - miód pitny is a traditional and historical alcohol drink in Poland. Mead is brewed from honey and has excellent unusual taste similar to wine. Original Polish mead contain 13-20% alcohol. Sometimes it can be very sweet. Mead is produced by several companies including Apis in Lublin Today Poles have a strange relationship with mead. All of them have heard of it, almost none have ever tried it.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you'll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities.
Tea and coffee
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wódka or beer, but rather tea and coffee.
When ordering a coffee, you'll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you'll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you'll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains unpopular, although chains such as Starbucks and Costa have been making inroads in the cities.
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that's as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors. Tea houses with large selection of good quality teas and a relaxing atmosphere are gaining popularity.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for 8-12PLN a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchased for around 6-9PLN unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you'll probably pay something between 9-12PLN.
Drinking water with a meal is not a Polish tradition; having a tea or coffee afterwards is much more common. If you want water with a meal, you might need to ask for it - and you will usually get a choice of carbonated (gazowana) or still (niegazowana) bottled water, rather than a glass of tap water. As a result water is never free, and is pretty expensive too compared to the average price of a meal (about 4zl for one glass). Beware that even "still" bottled water, while not visibly bubbly, will still contain some carbon dioxide.
Carbonated mineral waters are popular, and several kinds are available. Poland was known for its mineral water health spas (pijalnie wód) in the 19th century, and the tradition remains strong - you can find many carbonated waters that are naturally rich in minerals and salts. You can also travel to the spas such as Szczawnica or Krynica, which are still operational. Across the country there are broad choices of bottled water with very high content of minerals, called woda mineralna.
For travellers preferring to drink water from the tap, tap water is safe and drinkable across the country.
Lodging prices are no longer the bargain they used to be several years ago; now they're comparable to standard European prices. For the bargain hunter, standard tactics apply: if hotel prices are too much, look on the Internet for private rooms, pensions, or apartments for rent, which can sometimes be found for a very reasonable price. Best deals are usually offered off-season.
Hostels affiliated with the national hostelling association are often horrid options for backpackers because of imposed curfews. Additionally, Hostelling International (HI) affiliated hostels are frequently used by large school groups, which means young children may very well be screaming their heads off and running around the halls. Some private hostels are clean and welcoming, but others can be worse than HI hostels.
State law enforcement is carried out by the Policja. In conjunction with national law enforcement, some municipalities have their own city guards, yet their powers are strictly limited to misdemeanors or traffic safety. Most citizens respect the police, while policemen and women are largely courteous and helpful to tourists in need.
The European unified emergency number 112 is being deployed in Poland. By now, it certainly works for all mobile-phone calls and most landline calls. There are also three "old" emergency numbers that are still in use. These are:
Poland is generally a safe country. In fact, you are much less likely to experience crime in places like Warsaw or Kraków than in Paris or Rome. Overall, just use common sense and be aware of what you're doing.
In cities, follow standard city travel rules: don't leave valuables in the car in plain sight; don't display money or expensive things needlessly; know where you're going; be suspicious of strangers asking for money or trying to sell you something.
Pickpockets operate, pay attention to your belongings in crowds, at stations, in crowded trains/buses (especially to/from the airport), and clubs.
In any case, do not be afraid to seek help or advice from the Police (Policja) or the Municipal Guards (Straz Miejska). They are generally helpful, professional and can speak English if in larger towns or touristic spots.
Be astute on sleeper trains, as bag robberies sometimes happen between major stations. Ask for ID from anyone who asks to take your ticket or passport and lock backpacks to the luggage racks. Keep valuables on you, maintain common sense.
Violent behavior is rare and if it occurs it is most likely alcohol-related. While pubs and clubs are generally very safe, the nearby streets may be scenes of brawls, especially late at night. Try to avoid confrontations. Women and girls are generally less likely to be confronted or harassed since the Polish code of conduct strictly prohibits any type of violence (physical or verbal) against women. By the same token, in case of a fight between mixed gender travelers, Polish men are likely to intervene on the side of the woman, regardless of the context.
As a result of German and Soviet terror in the first half of the 20th century, modern Poland is a very homogeneous society. While quite a lot of east Asian and rather fewer African migrants have settled in the larger cities in the last couple of years, it is still quite rare to see non-Caucasians on the Polish streets. If you are a non-white traveller do not be surprised (or alarmed) if some people (especially young children) stare at you with curiosity. The overwhelming majority of Poles are warm, hospitable people who are often curious to learn more about other cultures.
If possible, try to avoid football stadiums during and right after matches and confrontations with football supporters groups.
LGBT issues remain very controversial and are still very much taboo (although decreasingly so), and routinely exploited by conservative politicians. Polish culture also has a long tradition of chivalry and strong, traditional gender roles. That said, in larger cosmopolitan areas such as Warsaw, Kraków or Wrocław, gays and lesbians shouldn't have a hard time fitting in with most not blinking an eye, although trans visitors will immediately attract attention.
The quality of Polish roads has greatly improved in the recent years and it is now generally safe and comfortable to travel across the country. At the same time, there is still room for improvement, so be careful and watch out for potholes, especially in the country-side. Polish drivers often tend to ignore speeding restrictions (despite great numbers of speed cameras and hefty fines), do not feel compelled to do the same, as penalties for speeding are quite severe. Non-EU drivers are obliged by law to pay their fines on the spot and the EU ones can get their fines posted to their home countries.
Children younger than 12 years old and who are shorter than 150 cm (4’11”) must ride in a child car seat. You must use headlights year round, at all times, day and night. The use of cellular phones while driving is prohibited except for hands-free models.
Alcohol consumption is frequently a contributing factor in accidents. Polish laws provide virtually zero tolerance for driving under the influence of alcohol (defined as above 0.2‰ of alcohol in blood), and penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol are extremely severe.
Note that that this zero-tolerance policy extends to cyclists. By Polish law one is not allowed to cycle under the the influence of alcohol and the penalties for doing so are equally severe and may include a prison sentence.
In Polish, it takes some time before adults become familiar enough with one another to refer to each other using the equivalent of "you" (ty, equivalent to the French tu or the Spanish tú). Often, people who have worked together or have lived as neighbors for years still do not use the form "you" when speaking to one another. Men are called pan and women pani (in direct address; as Polish nouns are declined, the form of pan and pani change depending on how they are used in a sentence). That said, most Poles would just use their first names when speaking in English (or in another language without a similar form). If you are speaking in Polish, make sure to use the correct form.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous by some, but is more and more often seen as outdated. Handshakes are quite common; however, it is very important to remember that men should not offer their hand to a woman - a handshake is only considered polite if the woman offers her hand to the man first. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of opposite sex or two women will hug and kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (goodbye) when exiting the elevator.
It is also customary to greet shop-keepers or shop-assistants with dzień dobry upon entering a shop or at the beginning of a transaction at the cash register, and to say do widzenia before leaving the shop or at the conclusion of the transaction. Some Poles also use these greetings to the people standing in line when they enter a post office.
It is normal to say dzień dobry when entering a compartment on the train and to say do widzenia when you leave the compartment at your final destination, even if you have no other interaction with your fellow-passengers for the duration of your journey.
It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals. Poles will often bring vodka or whisky, but this depends on the level of familiarity, so tread carefully. Boxes of chocolates are also a very common present when invited to someone's home for a meal or special occasion; at First Communion time (May), you will find special boxed chocolates with First Communion pictures on them for the occasion.
It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women, as well as offering help with heavy packages (to acquaintances), getting heavy luggage down from overhead racks on the train (even strangers), and (if you know the woman) helping her on and off with her coat. Polish men in general have great respect for women and show women especial courtesy in these ways.
On buses and trams, seats are set aside for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women travelling with very small children (who must sit on their mothers' laps). These seats are usually at the front of trams. You can find pictures indicating which seats these are. It is permitted for anyone to sit in these seats, but the young, men, and the able-bodied are expected to give up their seats to the less able, pregnant women and the elderly, especially those seats clearly marked for such people.
Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.
The practice of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon. You can expect to be rebuked by other passengers if you put your feet up on the seats in a train while wearing shoes (in stocking feet, it may be accepted).
Poland can be described as either Central or Central-Eastern Europe. Poles themselves refer to the "old" EU west of its borders as zachód (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as wschód (East). Poles would not, however, consider Poland geographically to be part of Western Europe but rather Central European, yet will culturally place their society as Western. Try to avoid referring to the country or its people as "Eastern European", otherwise you could potentially be looked upon as knowing nothing about the world. Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the crossroads of Europe, in the continent's center, however in all definitions, is always West to the centre. The republic's religion, alphabet and political affiliations are all clearly Western. Unless one lived through the Cold War, relegating contemporary Poland as Eastern Europe will not be forgiven easily.
Another small faux pas (typically with older Poles) involves confusing the Polish language with Russian or German. Poles value their language highly as it was kept at a high price during a longer period of oppressive de-polonization during the partitions and WWII. For example this means not saying spasibo or danke for "thank you" just because you thought it was Polish or you didn't care. If you're not sure if your words are indeed Polish or not, it would be seen as extra polite to ask.
Poles may well be the most devoutly Catholic people in Europe, composing nearly 90% of the population. Similar to Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Romania, the Roman Catholic Church retains a deep historical and cultural pull over the country's national life. The late Pope John Paul II (a Pole himself) in particular is revered here, and the Catholic Church remains held in high esteem. Bear this in mind if religion is brought up in conversation with a Pole. Although Catholicism is the dominant faith in Poland, there are also Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Islamic minorities in the country. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Polish Constitution, and thus all faiths (or lack of) are legally protected.
When entering any church, be sure to dress modestly, especially during services. Poles typically dress in their "Sunday best" for Mass; dressing in sloppy or very casual clothes will be seen by many as a lack of respect, unless it is clear that someone probably does not have more appropriate clothes for the occasion (for example, a poor person or a traveller). It is generally considered offensive to enter a church for purely touristic purposes while a service is going on. Many churches that attract tourists (such a major cathedrals) post signs indicating that tour groups should not enter the church during services, but these signs may not be in your language. Also, do not talk loudly or take flash photos inside a church when there are people present kneeling in prayer (as there almost always will be).
Non-Catholics can attend Catholic worship, but should never go forward for communion (not even for a blessing, as there is a general blessing at the end of Mass). Instead, non-Catholic visitors should remain seated or kneeling when the congregation goes forward.
Catholics customarily genuflect (bend the right knee, touching it to the floor) or at least stop and bow when passing in front of the tabernacle (usually behind the altar; look for a metal—usually gold—box, and for a light—often red or an oil lamp or candle—that is burning near it). Failure to make some gesture, such as a brief pause or turning toward the tabernacle, can be seen offensive to the faithful, especially in churches where non-Catholic tourists are uncommon.
For the faithful, a light burning near the tabernacle indicates the presence of God in the Eucharist, inside the tabernacle. This light is burning 364 days of the year in every Catholic church (i.e., it is only turned off once per year, when the tabernacle is empty and left standing open). Thus loud talking, running, audible conversations, eating and drinking, taking flash photos, posing for pictures or other behavior that seems oblivious to the presence of God is highly offensive.
Men and boys should always remove their hats upon entering a Catholic church and keep them off while inside the church.
Several national holidays of Poland follow the religious calendar; i.e., Catholic Holy Days of Obligation are also national holidays. These include the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1); the Epiphany of the Lord (January 6); the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi; in June, the date varies); the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15); All Saints' Day (November 1); Christmas (December 25); and Easter (the date varies). Poles also traditionally go to Mass (and have the day off) on the Feast of Saint Stephen (December 26) and Monday in the Octave of Easter (the Monday after Easter), though these are not Holy Days of Obligation in the Church calendar. You can expect parish churches to have the normal Sunday Mass schedule on these holidays. (You can also expect most businesses to be closed and buses and trams will probably be running on the Sunday/holiday schedule.)
The most famous religious shrine in Poland is the Shrine of our Lady of Częstochowa. Her feast day is August 26th. when pilgrims from all over Poland walk (some ride bicycles or take motor vehicles) from their home parishes to the shrine especially in the period between May and August, though year-round there is a constant stream of pilgrims to the site of the shrine, the monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa.
In Warsaw, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass at St Paul the Apostle of Nations Church in Radna Street.
In Wrocław, Roman Catholics can attend English Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation at the church of Sw Karol Boromeusz (Charles Borromeo) in Krucza Street. The Pastoral Centre for English Speakers in the parish also offers confession and can arrange weddings and baptisms in English, as well as catechism for converts and pastoral care in English.
Like most European countries, small Muslim and Buddhist communities (of locals and non) of various denominations operate, generally in private settings in the bigger cities. They are usually poorly advertised and can be better approached first via internet searches.
The Holocaust and World War II
The Holocaust was the genocide of European Jewry. The Nazis murdered 90% of Poland's Jews. In addition other ethnic, religious and political groups were also targeted. It is now estimated that the Germans killed 3 million Polish Jews. Additionally, over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered, and many others were enslaved. Many members of Poland's minority groups, the intelligentsia, Roman Catholic priests, and political opponents of the Nazis were among the dead. The Soviets (who invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis and later occupied it after the World War II) also were determined to exterminate various sections of Polish society (including, among others, members of the anti-Nazi resistance, business owners and democratic activists). Between the census of 1939 and the census of 1945, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30% from 35 million to 23 million.
In this context, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that the time of war and Soviet occupation was a tragedy for not only Polish Jews, but most all of Polish society in the 20th century. Poland was the only Nazi-occupied region where helping Jews was punishable by death to one's entire family - a policy that was to a large part implemented in response to the widespread solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in occupied Poland. It is seen in Poland as offensive to downplay the sufferings of non-Jewish members of Polish society during World War II. At the same time, there was some collaboration between Poles and Nazis (szmalcownicy), and this topic is still being hotly debated in Polish society.
Similarly to Germany and Austria, displaying Nazi symbols is illegal, except when used for educational purposes. Holocaust denial is also punishable by law. Both could result in a prison sentence. While exceptions are technically made for the swastika when used in a religious context for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, you may be subject to lengthy questioning by the police, if you choose to wear a swastika. That said, the laws against swastikas are not enforced nearly as strictly as they are in Germany, and neutral display of the symbol will almost never be a problem, although it is surely advised against. Prosecutors have been known to dismiss charges against swastikas due to the ambiguous nature of the symbol.
Due to the extremely painful experiences of the Soviet occupation and brutal communist rule, the topic of communism (or socialism) remains controversial and sensitive in Poland. While some tourist-oriented businesses might be playing with communist-kitsch symbols or offer "communist-style tours" (especially in Kraków), many Poles see communist symbols and rhetoric as only slightly less unacceptable than Nazi swastikas or slogans. Unlike in the West (or even in other former Eastern Bloc states like the Czech Republic), few people in Poland—especially the elderly—find communist symbols romantic, funny or trendy. Ask older Poles to tell you about communism and you will often hear stories of empty store shelves, backroom deals to get meat or bread, politically-minded arrests, and telephone bugging. Many Poles are proud of the Solidarity movement and its hand in the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Bear these issues in mind if communism is brought up in conversation with Poles and make sure not to disrespect anyone's memory or feelings regarding this issue.
There is the de facto monopoly operator for landline phones by Orange Polska, a subsidiary of France Telecom, renowned for its leaving-much-to-be-desired services. There is also a number of smaller, often regional operators (Dialog, Netia, NOM, Energis). They are mainly serving the business market.
There are four mobile phone operators in Poland: Plus (code 260 01), T-Mobile (formerly ERA) (260 02), Orange Polska (260 03) and Play. Most of them have information available in Polish only. Their prepaid services are often called na kartę. Prepaid brands or virtual brands with English information on its web sides are as follow: Heyah, Klucz, Lycamobile and Vectone. About 98% of the country's surface is covered by the standard European GSM 900/1800 MHz network, the remaining 2% are wildlife reserves or high mountains. UMTS is available in in about 50% of the country. Domestic call rates are roughly the same across all services. Prepaid starter kits with SIM card (called starter in Polish) are widely available in reasonable prices (from 5 to 20PLN, of which most is available for calls), in many shops (for example Żabka and most malls). Ask for a starter and be sure to name the network you want. Accounts are valid for outgoing calls for few days, so it is good to fill them up for, let's say, 20PLN (doładowanie [do-wa-do-va-nye] in Polish, be sure to give the value you want).
Polish telephone numbers
All telephone numbers in Poland are 9 digits long, and never start with 0, although they used to do so. Sometimes numbers are written the old way, that is often only the last 7 digits are listed, in which case you need to prefix the now obligatory area code (eg. 22 - Warsaw, 61 - Poznań, 12 - Kraków) - OR a 0 is included in the beginning, in which case it must be skipped. As of yet, it does not matter whether you call from a landline or a mobile.
There are some special numbers, notably:
Also, texting (= sending SMSes) to:
When calling overseas, use 00, or +, and then country code.
To call abroad from Poland:
To call to Poland from abroad, dial the Polish country code,48, then the number without the leading 0, as if calling from a domestic mobile phone.
International and roaming calls are expensive. To reduce your bill you can:
If you're bringing a laptop, smartphone or tablet, wi-fi hotspots are widely available and often advertised in transportation centers, restaurants, cafes, and other public settings. There are still some internet cafes found throughout the country, although their numbers are dwindling due to the rapid expansion of public wi-fi.
With your mobile phone you can use: CSD, HSCSD, GPRS or EDGE, but the cost may be unattractive. UMTS/HSPA is available in almost every big and mid-size cities. If your phone is not SIM-locked, you may consider purchasing a pre-paid SIM card designed for data access. Every mobile operator offering his own pre-paid internet offer. You may purchase Era Blueconnect Starter, iPlus Simdata, Orange Free na kartę or Play Online na kartę. Internet service from Era, Plus and Orange covers all country area with GPRS/EDGE technology. In almost every big, medium and some small size cities it's possible to receive 3G/3.5G signal.
You can refill your Play account with 30 or 50PLN
You can also consider buying a wireless 3G modem from Play
If you want to communicate with Poles, you'll need two programs, Gadu-Gadu, a Polish language instant messenger program, or Skype. Gadu-Gadu will be difficult to use for non-Polish speaking people, but alternatives such as Adium (Mac OSX), Kadu (Mac OSX/Linux), and Pidgin (Linux, Windows), all of which can be used in English, can be helpful.
Poczta Polska is the national postal service. If you wish to send letters by post, look out for the red post boxes though they are not as plentiful as in developing countries but are still available. A stamp to Europe for a standard letter or postcard costs 5PLN whilst a stamp to the rest of the world costs 5.20PLN and can usually be paid only with cash.
Poland has a thriving media landscape, though the media is largely restricted to the Polish language and will largely not be understood by visitors. However, English-speaking visitors can still remain informed on national, provincial, and local news in the country through a variety of sources. Many English language publications are excellent ways to discover upcoming local cultural events.
Be aware that in Poland the comma is used as decimal point, and the space to group numbers. eg. 10 500,46 zł is ten thousand five hundred złotych and 46 groszy. That said, the period is increasingly often used as the decimal point, especially on price tags and bills. Occasionally a dot is also used as the separator for groups of 3 numerals rather than a space.
It is illegal to drink alcoholic beverages or use drugs in public, though it's quite often done by the locals, especially in parks, on some buses, and some of the more congested city streets. Doing it puts you at risk of a small fine (from 20 to 100PLN) and being scoffed at by the City Guards. And losing your booze.
It is illegal to be drunk in public, if you behave in bad way - you may be taken to special place (izba wytrzeźwień) to sober up... but it is not a very interesting place to find yourself in - you will be treated as an alcoholic and won't be released until sober. And you'll have to pay around 240PLN for that experience.
The possession of recreational drugs is illegal and subject to a criminal offence. However, the possession of medical cannabis is legal with permission from the Ministry of Health.
Most public toilets have turned to pay-per-use schemes; expect to pay 1-2PLN to use a public restroom, eg. at a bus station or at a fast-food place (unless you're a customer there).
Toilets for women are marked with a circle on the door, and toilets for men are marked with a triangle.
All restaurants and bars are forced by law to have toilets inside (but not all comply). It's not a common practice to use their toilet without ordering (at least coffee), but if you ask a waiter, he wouldn't mind in most cases. Sometimes you have to get a key to the toilet at the counter. If there seems to be a lack of public toilets you may want to try to visit McDonald's (or another fast food place) just to use the toilet.
In case of larger events or remote venues, organizers provide so called toi-toi toilets (from one of companies that service them). From outside, they have an appearance almost identical to the American "Porta-Potty." They are narrow plastic booths, usually blue, not very comfortable, often not very clean, and hardly ever with water or paper. Expect them to smell bad.