I’ve followed Karol Gajda on the internet for years. Poland born and transplanted to Michigan at a young age, Gajda is always an interesting, informative and inspirational read. Not so long ago, he sent out an e-mail blast to his subscribers offering a 24 hour period that he would dedicate to helping anyone that asked.
Well, he’d written extensively about travelling the world. He got into great detail about returning to his homeland of Poland and living for an extended period of time. The thing is, mostly all of what he’s written is travel advice for single, young vagabonders with no family in tow.
Poland is never mentioned when a European vacation is considered. I wanted to know from Karol just what the country had to offer and if he had any advice for those with time restraints and with kids in tow.
My expectations weren’t high. After all, if all his readers sent in requests from him, how much would he be able to dedicate to each one? I would have expected a one paragraph reply with a link to some detailed article on the web.
Wrong. What I got back from Karol rivals official travel guides. Take a read below. What I asked is in blue. Karol’s responses are in normal text. At the bottom, I’ve included some very general info about the country.
Poland Travel Hints
You’ve talked a lot about your time in Poland. It’s not exactly a top tourist destination for those from North America – quite frankly, beyond knowing that Warsaw is the big city, I’d say most know little about the country.
Here’s my question to you, if you didn’t have family connections, what tips do you have for those thinking about making the journey?
Although eastern Europe does have a lot of tourists, it’s usually passed up in favor of western Europe. It should be the other way around! Not only is it far cheaper, it’s also often less crowded and more interesting.
As to Poland specifically. I’ve covered Wrocław pretty well here: http://karol.gajda.com/wroclawnomad/ and here http://www.ridiculouslyextraordinary.com/wroclaw-poland/ (sorry about the ads, not my site anymore, use AdBlock! hehe)
If you want to relax on water then the Gdańsk area of north Poland on the Baltic sea is great. It’s pretty touristy, but a nice place full of history. If you like WWII history you can visit Westerplatte which is where the war started. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Westerplatte
The Mazury (Masurian in English I believe) area of north east Poland is wonderful. They call it the land of 10,000 lakes or something like that. Lots of tiny towns with lots of lakes. The only issue is you do need a car to go there because the public transport isn’t great.
Poland itself is full of old architecture, lots of it rebuilt/restored due to WWII, so if you’re into that there is lots to see in every big city.
What hidden treasures/gems have you found that should be visited?
Hidden gems: Probably the mountains. I don’t think people realize Poland has them. The easiest place to go as a family is Zakopane. It’s the mountain tourist town, about 2 hours south of Krakow and there are a bevy of train and bus connections. The salt mine near Krakow is heavily promoted so there are lots of tourists, but it’s a pretty outstanding place if you’ve never been to anything like that. I think the whole city of Wrocław is a hidden gem, because so many people miss it. It’s popular amongst Germans and the British though. (And also backpackers to a small extent.)
Accommodation: use booking.com (at IAT we promote hotels.com – yes, booking through the ad on this page could help fund the continued survival of the site), my favorite hotel site for Poland and Europe. It’s easy to find hotels and apartments for $50/day or less. AirBNB as well, but I’ve found AirBNB to be overpriced in Poland. (well, in Wrocław it is anyway). Hostels are an option as there are plenty, but for a family they are not really cost efficient.
Are there tourist traps and scams to avoid, like in other European centres?
Tourist traps and scams: none, really. No more so than your own hometown. This isn’t Barcelona, Paris, etc where you have to watch out for touts and scammers. Not there are none, but there just aren’t enough tourists to have attracted them yet (I speculate). One thing to keep in mind is that Polish people don’t make a lot of money (avg Master’s degreed office worker makes maybe $3kUSD/month after a dozen years of working) so don’t be flashy. But that’s good advice anywhere. That said, you’ll find many luxury brands in Poland. It looks far more westernized than people expect. Anything you want is here.
What’s the best way to get to Poland from North America?
Best way to get here: If with a family I’d definitely go direct to Warsaw. Non-stop from Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, and NYC (and probably other places). I love the low cost airlines of Europe, but not if I’m worrying about getting a family from one airline connection to another. Unless you’re on a very very tight budget and can’t find cheap flights to Warsaw. Then maybe it’s worth looking into a flight to London or Barcelona or any number of other cities with RyanAir and then take RyanAir to Poland.
Note: From Toronto, Polish Airlines – LOT does have direct flights but they are not overly frequent. However, with one stop, you can get from Toronto to Warsaw pretty much any day of the week.
Once you’re there, how do you get around?
In country transport: the trains are OK. I don’t prefer them, but I don’t prefer them anywhere (I’m not a train guy). I would take them for the experience though since they’re the most common form of long transport for citizens of Poland. Buses as well. I recommend PolskiBus.com. Car rental is possible. Best if you can drive a manual as automatic is about double the price and uncommon. I rented a small manual trans car for about $15/day the last time I rented a car, which isn’t often since I usually use planes/trains/buses. RyanAir.com is also an option between a few cities.
Any other helpful advice?
Helpful: plan a little, but not every detail. Unless absolutely necessary I wouldn’t even book my hotels until the day before I need them. Except maybe the first night or two and the last night of the trip.
If you’re going to try to see “all” of Poland in 2 weeks give that up right now. I’d stick to a few cities that interest you (Wrocław, Krakow, Warsaw, Zakopane are all within a few hour’s travel of each other) for a few days each and maybe even do a side trip to Prague for a couple days (it’s a 5 hour $25 bus ride from Wrocław).
Note about places like Auschwitz: it’s a fascinating place but incredibly depressing. I think it’s good to see because I don’t think most westerners realize the atrocities of war, especially WWII, but know it won’t be an uplifting day.
The country has a population around 40,000,000. Poland has a pretty good stretch along the Baltic Sea coast. This is a great base to get stamps in your passport if that’s your thing. Poland is bordered by Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia.
Russia? Yes. There is a small 223 square kilometre piece of land that sits between Poland and Lithuania along the coast of the Baltic Sea. This piece of land belongs to Russia and is known as the Exclave of Kaliningrad.
The country has been a member of the European Union since 2004 but does not use the Euro as its currency. As of October 30, 2015, one Canadian Dollar will get you 2.95 PLN while a single U.S. Dollar will get you 3.87 PLN.