Country #84: Poland

Starting off 2023 strong, I’m off to a new country. I’m planning to spend the next 10 weeks in Europe. Primarily Eastern Europe since I haven’t really tackled this part of the world previously. I was lucky to hit a lot of Western Europe during my semester abroad in London, and then I also ducked back into the region during my post-grad travels. However, Eastern Europe still has a lot left for me. 

The first country on my list is one I’ve been “saving” for a while now. I purposefully didn’t go here during study abroad because I didn’t have enough time. Poland is so full of history, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that history justice if I ducked over to Krakow or Warsaw for a weekend. So, I decided to wait until I had more time. Fortunately, the time has now arrived, and I’ve carved out 10 days to spend in the country. 

Krakow

We flew into Poland from London after a long layover. We planned to spend about 5 days in Krakow and then use one of those days to take a day trip to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. 

Although we left London around midday, it was dark by the time we actually got to Krakow because it’s wintertime in Eastern Europe. What did I expect? Everything is dark and cold. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved the city already. The city center was quaint and well-lit. We wasted no time heading to our Airbnb and dropping our luggage, so we could go grab a hot meal. Despite the darkness, the city was bustling. 

The next day, we went to Auschwitz, which can only be described as a sobering experience. Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust because I had a long-term client who was a Holocaust survivor. I worked with him for quite some time to edit the story of his life — an absolute honor for a really neat journey!

So, in addition to taking in everything that comes with a visit to a concentration camp, Karol was at the forefront of my mind. Although he was shuffled around quite a bit during the war, he spent some time at Auschwitz and was there during the liberation of the camp. Having a personal connection to associate with the camp made the experience even more tangible and heartbreaking. 

While this is a valuable trip that I would recommend to anyone visiting Krakow, Dan and I did have some complaints about our tour guide to Auschwitz. He was an English-speaking guide but with a very heavy accent. He also did not seem to be a confident English speaker because he took no questions and spoke as though he was reading off a script the whole time. If I visited again, I think I’d explore the prospect of having a private guide — our guide worked for the Memorial/Museum of Auschwitz. I’m not sure if this is possible or not, but if it is, I think it would enhance the experience. 

After Auschwitz, we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. When he visited Krakow years ago, Dan did this tour. We enjoyed it, but I don’t think either of us was quite as impressed as he was when he first did it. Still, it’s a definite highlight if you’re looking for things to do near the city. 

Otherwise, our main adventure in the city besides buying postcards and water bottles, walking around the Old Town, and finding cheap eats was a walking tour. Walking tours are some of my favorite activities in cities — see Free Walking Tours: The Best City Activity.

However, the one we did in Krakow was a bit lackluster. It was supposed to be 2.5 hours (too long already in my opinion), and it ended up being closer to 3 hours. Needless to say, we were dying a bit by the end. It didn’t help that I was also suffering from a sinus infection, which was not making me feel the best! 

Warsaw

We trained to our next city in Poland, Warsaw, on the morning of January 12th. We spent Thursday through Sunday in this city, and Dan very smartly had us stay in the Old Town. Neither of us is a fan of communist-style buildings or Soviet architecture. And I’m finding that architecture really has an impact on whether my first impression of a city is possible or negative. 

None of the Warsaw Old Town is authentic. It’s all been rebuilt in a post-war world. However, it’s incredibly cute and well done. I also noticed the exact same trend as Krakow. The Old Town was incredibly well-lit which made it much easier to take to the streets for a little walk when we got done working at like 11 PM.

Much of this had to do with the fact that all the Christmas lights and decorations were still up. This surprised me because most cities take these down by New Year’s or the Feast of Epiphany. Upon doing more research, I found that Poland celebrates Candlemas on February 2 and leaves their decorations up until then. Leaving Christmas lights up through the end of the year? Sign me up!

In Warsaw, we gave pierogies one last try. We had tried them in Krakow, and we had been disappointed, finding them a bit soggy. I’ve never liked pierogies because they often have potato fillings, but Dan had pleasant memories of them from his last trip. He was determined to find some he liked. Alas, he continually struck out until he gave up. It’s a shame because dumplings of any kind are normally a hit with us. 

We also found the cutest ice skating rink in the middle of Old Town and decided to fulfill one of my 300 by 30 List items by going on a Saturday night date. It was the real trifecta. We started by finding a delicious (and inexpensive) Neapolitan pizza place, followed it up with ice skating, and then drank some of the most delicious hot chocolate in the world. 

Final Thoughts

I think Poland is a hidden gem in Europe! It’s never at the top of people’s travel lists when they talk about Europe, but it should be. Especially if you visit in warmer weather, it has everything other popular cities in Europe do. With interesting cities, culture, history, things to do, and much more, put Poland on your list. And then come back next week to hear about my trip to Country #85: Lithuania. 

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