Poland: Celebration Atop the Ruins of Empire

During the high middle ages, Poland ruled an empire that stretched over most of eastern and central Europe. That was its heyday, perhaps. Since then, Poland has been conquered and partitioned, reborn into a modern republic, conquered a second time to set off World War II, controlled by Communists, and only recently reborn anew as a republic. Poland has been the site of great tragedies, such as the horror of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Yet, its people still manage to celebrate the good in life. Traveling here for a vacation allows you to join in the party.


Getting in, out, and about


Poland is part of the Schengen agreement. For US traveler’s this means your valid passport is acceptable for entry into any part of that area. You do not need a special visa for a vacation stay in the Schengen area for up to 90 days within a six month period. However, EU regulations require that non-EU travelers get their passports stamped when entering any Schengen country. To be on the safe side, you should request a stamp at any official border entry. If you are stopped by a government official and your passport lacks such a stamp, you may have to pay a fine before you’re allowed to leave the country.


The CDC recommends that traveler’s be up to date on their routine vaccinations. The tap water in Poland is comparable to that found in the US; thus, it is safe to drink. Nevertheless, the CDC also recommends that most travelers get an additional vaccine against Hepatitis A, which is transmitted through contaminated water and food. Some travelers might find it beneficial to also get vaccinations against Hepatitis B or rabies, but this largely depends on what your travel plans consist of. Consult with your local doctor while planning your trip to determine if any vaccinations are appropriate for your needs.


If you want to drive in Poland, be forewarned that you’ll be dealing with some of the worst road conditions in Europe. Since the train system is better, you may want to go this route when traveling from city to city. If you do decide to drive, keep the following in mind. You will need a valid driver’s license from the US as well as an International Driver’s Permit. The permit is only good for up to six months in Poland. After that, you will need a Polish driver’s license.


Additionally, you must drive with your headlights on at all times, and cell phone use while driving is prohibited. Poland is quite strict when it comes to drinking and driving. The legal limit on blood alcohol is .02%, which is significantly lower than anywhere in the US. Right turns on red lights are prohibited, and a red light with a right turn green arrow means you must stop first and make sure there is no oncoming traffic, since you do not have the right of way.


Be wary of other drivers trying to signal to you that something is wrong with your car. This may be legitimate, but if so, don’t stop until you have reached a well-lit service station or other public area. Despite having a relatively low rate of violent crime, this can often be an attempt to get you to stop so that the signaler can rob you. If you get stopped for a traffic violation, it is standard operating procedure for the officer to collect any fines assessed at that point. This is not a case where the officer is trying to get a bribe. Any unpaid traffic fines will prevent you from being able to leave the country.


Inside all the major cities, public transport is widely developed, safe, and mostly inexpensive. Since you have to pay for parking in many areas, foregoing a car rental in Poland and using public transportation is usually your most convenient and economical approach. Many of the tourist centers in Polish cities are compact, so that you can see everything while on foot. In addition, some of the cities have a system of bicycle rentals that allows you to return the bicycle at any station, rather than the one you first rented it from.


For travel to and from Poland’s cities and other sites, in addition to the train or a car (if you must), you can also use chartered buses or hitchhike. Hitchhiking is legal except in areas where it is specifically prohibited, usually at entrances and exits to major highways. There can be some danger involved in hitchhiking, although reports of problems are infrequent.


The traveler’s tongue


The official language of Poland is Polish, and learning a few phrases and words will put you in good stead with the locals. Since English is taught in the schools from early on, you will find it widely spoken in cities, particularly in tourist centers. In extreme rural areas, you may be hard-pressed to find English speakers, but everywhere else should not be a problem. It is a good idea to refrain from speaking Russian in Poland because of the country’s long and difficult relationship with that country. Speaking German or Ukrainian is acceptable, however.


Money matters in Poland


The main Polish unit of currency is the zloty. You can exchange money at most banks, ATMs, or specialized exchange booths, but keep in mind that the rates are better outside of tourist areas, trains stations, and airports. You can use major credit cards in all but the most rural of areas, where cash rules instead.


Poland tends to be one of the more inexpensive places to travel in Europe. Hostels average under $20 USD a night per person, and you can find many that are less than $10 USD. Three star level hotels average around $50 to $70 USD per night per person. Average meals in touristy areas will run around $15 USD, but you can easily find much cheaper. If you stay in a hostel with a kitchen, grocery shopping is a good idea because Poland’s food prices are among the lowest in Europe. Travelers on a budget can get by reasonably for less than $50 USD a day when they stay in hostels, shop for groceries and limit eating out, use public transport, and engage in low cost sight-seeing activities.


In Poland, it is more common to tip in restaurants than throughout much of Europe, and 10-15% of your check is appropriate. Tipping hotel porters, cleaning services, tour guides, and drivers is also appropriate. Tipping a taxi driver is not common, but if you decide to do so, rounding up to the nearest whole zloty is appropriate.


Highlights of a vacation in Poland

The Polish have much to show any travelers venturing their way. From medieval cities and castles to pristine forests to the hottest nightlife around, Poland has something for everyone. Here are a few of the highlights:


  • Krakow. This city has one of the most gorgeous old town medieval squares in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as excellent art throughout the town, including a statue of a dragon, or more precisely, a fire-breathing statue of a dragon. But the aspect of Krakow that has travelers around Europe buzzing the most is the party atmosphere that sweeps through the city once night falls.
  • Warsaw. While not as popular a destination as Krakow, the capital of Poland is a beautiful city in its own right. Its old town, destroyed along with much of the city during World War II, has been rebuilt and is a great starting point for sightseeing. Take the Royal Road which connects the Royal Palace to the Royal Castle, or spend some time in Warsaw’s numerous museums, including the Warsaw Uprising Museum which documents the city’s fight against the Nazis during the occupation. Another highlight is the Heavens of Copernicus planetarium exhibit, one of the best of its kind throughout Europe.
  • Bialowieza National Park. Near the border with Belarus, this park features the last untouched remains of a forest that once covered much of central Europe. Another UNESCO World Heritage site. There are numerous national parks in Poland which offer all sorts of activities for outdoor adventurists.
  • Auschwitz. Taking in the site of the most notorious Nazi concentration camp is not a happy excursion, but a necessary one to understand the depth of the tragedy that occurred here. ‘If we ignore history we’re doomed to repeat it’ comes the oft-repeated refrain, but after seeing Auschwitz, you will come away with the somber conclusion that humanity must strive to ensure this happens ‘never again.’
  • Wieliczka Salt Mine. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, this daytrip outside of Krakow allows you to explore the underground mines where salt was produced for Poland.
  • Malbork Castle. Poland has numerous medieval castles that dot the countryside. One of the most famous and most beautiful is the red brick fortress of Malbork Castle. It’s about an hour and a half’s drive outside of the city of Gdansk.


Numerous sites and activities await you when you travel to Poland. Come and celebrate life with a people who have come to appreciate it through all trials.