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Since the Iron Curtain lifted three decades ago, Poland has undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions from a stagnant Eastern Bloc state into one of Europe’s hottest destinations for tourism. No wonder: the choice of travel experiences in this vast land is as wide as the country’s borders. Lying in the throbbing heart of the continent, the Slavic country is steeped in history and culture and awash with natural wonders. Whether you’re into museums or nightlife, picturesque cities, placid lakes or alpine mountains, fine dining or comfort food, Poland has you covered. Visit its capital city, Warsaw, gloriously reborn from rubble and ruin, fly to historic gems such as Gdańsk, Kraków and Wrocław or marvel at the medieval Malbork Castle, the largest fortress in the world, no less. Could use some fresh air? Roam the white sandy beaches of Poland’s coastline, hike among jagged peaks in the majestic High Tatras or go island-hopping in the Masurian Lake District, home to rolling hills, dense forests and over two thousand lakes.
Surrounded by powerful neighbours, Poland has had more than its fair share of dramatic twists and turns. Reminders of the country’s long history are everywhere, from fairy-tale castles, soaring church towers and Communist-era buildings to poignant museums and monuments. Poland’s historic city centres are a smorgasbord of the past centuries: take a stroll in Warsaw’s beautifully reconstructed old town, marvel at Europe's largest medieval town square (Rynek Główny) in Kraków or check out the colourful port city of Gdansk, fusing Germanic, Baltic, Scandinavian and Eastern European influences. To see where it all began, visit bustling Poznań, known as the 1000-year-old birthplace of the Polish nation. Or dive into the country’s rich Jewish heritage in Kraków’s bohemian Kazimierz district and visit Lublin, a vibrant cultural hub in southeastern Poland, once nicknamed ‘the Jewish Oxford’.
Poland is one huge showroom of spectacular attractions, both natural and manmade. For a heapinged dose of old-world charm, head to Warsaw’s Old Town. Razed to the ground in Nazi bombing campaigns during the Second World War and the Warsaw Uprising, the oldest part of the capital has been meticulously rebuilt to its former glory and is now protected by UNESCO. Visit the Old Town Market Square, dating back to the 13th century, and its crown jewel, a bronze statue of the Warsaw Mermaid, a symbol and guardian of the city. For a peek of a different side of Poland, head to Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (PKiN), given to the city by Stalin as a ‘“gift from the Soviet people’”. Standing at a staggering 231 metres, the building divides and fascinates in equal measure, but is an unmissable shape in the city’s skyline. Are you a die-hard castle enthusiast? Visit the world’s largest fortress, Malbork, a spectacular red-brick marvel built by the Teutonic Knights, just a short train ride from Gdańsk. The historic residence of kings and an eternal symbol of Polish national pride, Kraków’s Wawel Royal Castle also has a well-deserved place on any history buff’s must-visit list. If stark contrasts amaze you, make a stop on your Kraków tour at the ginormous steelworks of Nowa Huta, the epitome of utopian socialism.
Mixing European traditions with eastern flavours, Poland delivers a weighty culinary punch. Rich with local produce, such as potatoes, beetroots, mushrooms and buckwheat, and warm and comforting in every bite, Polish fare is a triumph of the country’s agriculture and seasonal cuisine. Meals usually kick off with a thick soup, like barszcz (beetroot broth) or żurek (made of soured rye flour and meat). If there’s one dish to rule them all, it’s bigos, the well-loved Polish hunter's stew, packed with sauerkraut, cabbage, mushrooms and smoked sausage. Pierogi, another must-eat local speciality will go lighter on your palate, provided you can stop eating it. These delicious dumplings come in many shapes and with an endless variety of fillings, including ground meat, potato, cottage cheese, mushrooms and cabbage, or for dessert, strawberries or blueberries. Pączki is another staple on Polish tables. Don’t forget to grab one – or a dozen – of these pillowy, sugar-sprinkled doughnuts, filled with jam, custard or lemon curd.
Itching to get outdoors? Pack your boots and head to the Polish Tatras mountain range, which packs 300 kilometres of hiking trails, deep blue mountain lakes and plenty of alpine scenery into its pocket-sized area. Looking for solitude? Emerald Białowieża National Park in the country’s northeastern corner is still largely under the tourist radar, despite harbouring the largest swathe of primeval forest left on the continent as well as some thousand European bisons. Wedged between Ukraine and Slovakia, the sparsely populated Bieszczady region is as wild and remote as it gets, with wild horses roaming freely in dense forests and wide meadows. If you’re more of a water-lover, head for the Masurian Lake District, a kaleidoscope of 2000-odd interconnected lakes, tiny villages, thick forests and unspoilt nature. Or make your way to the north to Szczecin, and hop in a canoe to discover the Szczecin Lagoon, fed by the Oder rRiver, or sunbathe on its glorious beaches.