Things to do in Poland

Sights of Warsaw – Part I

Warsaw is Poland’s largest city and the country’s capital. It has a number of sights to entertain the tourist. If I had to make a choice and could only visit either Krakow or Warsaw, I would pick Krakow. However Warsaw is still quite interesting and we found it easy to spend a couple days wandering the sights prior to our departure from Poland. For a map of places we visited in Poland, click here.

A decorative ledge support staring down on us in Warsaw Old Town.

A decorative ledge support staring down on us in Warsaw Old Town.

This post will focus on some of the general tourist highlights and my follow-up post will focus on several key World War II sights in Warsaw.

A fountain in the Saxon Gardens, Warsaw's first public park (early 18th century). The park is modeled on the gardens at Versailles, France.

A fountain in the Saxon Gardens, Warsaw’s first public park (early 18th century). The park is modeled on the gardens at Versailles, France.

Warsaw is a big city, but it has an extensive tram and bus system, which are pretty easy to navigate. Any of the hotels will have a good map with the primary tourist destinations highlighted. You can find about any kind of food in Warsaw.

One of our delicious meals in Warsaw.

One of our delicious meals in Warsaw.

In addition to traditional Polish fare, we found an excellent Indian restaurant on the Royal Way.

Palaces

There are a number of palaces in Warsaw and the two below are just a sample.

Wilanów Palace

This is a very impressive 17th century palace, a tiny bit reminiscent of Versailles, but on a much smaller scale. It was a summer residence of the Polish king.

A view of Wilanów Palace, with its beautiful gardens.

A view of Wilanów Palace, with its beautiful gardens.

Another view of Wilanów Palace.

Another view of Wilanów Palace.

The best and most impressive views are on the eastern side, which leads down to a lake. Be sure to visit the manicured gardens.

Palace on the Water

Located in the expansive Łazienki Park, this late 17th century palace was also a summer residence of the Polish king, Stanisław August. It is built on a narrow lake.

An exterior view of the Palace on the Water.

An exterior view of the Palace on the Water.

It was undergoing some restoration work during our visit, but is still very impressive.

Interior view of the Palace on the Water.

Interior view of the Palace on the Water.

The Park itself is definitely worth wandering for its the impressive gardens and fountains, and they\Park has Chopin concerts in the summer.

Old Town

Warsaw has a historic center, but unfortunately the original Old Town was flattened by the Germans in World War II in retribution for the Polish uprising (more on that in my next post).

The Royal Way leads north into Old Town from modern Warsaw.

The Royal Way leads north into Old Town from modern Warsaw.

The Royal Palace (on the right) is at the entrance to Warsaw's Old Town. It has been reconstructed since World War II.

The Royal Palace (on the right) is at the entrance to Warsaw’s Old Town. It has been reconstructed since World War II.

The Barbican. A main medieval gate into Old Town Warsaw.

The Barbican. A main medieval gate into Old Town Warsaw.

A horse-drawn carriage on a street in Old Town Warsaw.

A horse-drawn carriage on a street in Old Town Warsaw.

The Old Town has been restored over the past 50 years, although I found the restoration a little less impressive than Gdansk. I think my impression was affected by the construction work going on in one of the main squares during our visit that made the area a bit less atmospheric.

Visitants’ Church (Visitation Sisters’ Church of St. Joseph)

The world renowned Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) is a local hero. This church, right on the Royal Way that leads to Old Town is significant since Chopin played the organ here. The Visitants’ Church was constructed in the mid 1700’s and survived the bombings of World War II.

The Baroque exterior of the Visitants' Church.

The Baroque exterior of the Visitants’ Church.

Interior of the Visitants' Church.

Interior of the Visitants’ Church.

There is also a Chopin Museum nearby, but we did not make it to the museum. Also along the Royal Way are some other interesting churches.

St. Anne's Church, considered the most ornate church in Warsaw. It escaped major damage in World War II.

St. Anne’s Church, considered the most ornate church in Warsaw. It escaped major damage in World War II.

Church of the Holy Cross. It contains an urn with the remains of the heart of Frédéric Chopin, which was brought here from Paris after his death, according to his wishes.

Church of the Holy Cross. It contains an urn with the remains of the heart of Frédéric Chopin, which was brought here from Paris after his death, according to his wishes.

Kraków, Poland – One of Europe’s Finest Cities – Part 1

When people think of great European cities, the standard list includes Paris, London and Rome, which of course all certainly belong on the list. Not too many people would name Kraków, and largely because they don’t know much about it.

The Royal Way in Kraków, which is the main thoroughfare through the old town. Very little vehicular traffic allowed in the old town, making it a pleasant place to walk.

The Royal Way in Kraków, which is the main thoroughfare through the old town. Very little vehicular traffic allowed in the old town, making it a pleasant place to walk.

Kraków was our favorite city in Poland and it’s one of our favorite cities in Europe. We love it because there are many things to see, it has a very classy feel to it, the people were wonderful, we had a great place to stay and the food (if you like hearty fare) was excellent. Kraków is a large, modern city, but the charming old town is relatively compact.

Our perfect apartment in Krakow, just a few minutes by foot from the old town. It is called Krakow Parkside Apartments. Highly recommended.

Our perfect apartment in Krakow, just a few minutes by foot from the old town. It is called Krakow Parkside Apartments. Highly recommended.

This is the first of three posts on Kraków. This great city also makes a good base for exploring the remains of the infamous Auschwitz Death Camps as well, which are located about 66 km (41 miles) west.

For a map of places we visited in Poland, click here.

Below are a few of the things that make Kraków a great place to visit. The list of things to see could go on and on, with a number of other museums, churches, statues and other historic places that we simply did not have time to visit.

Horse Carriage Rides. A highlight of visiting Kraków is taking a carriage ride around the old town. The rides start in Rynek Square and go to the north edge of old town before heading to south to Wawel Castle and returning to the Square.

The stately horse carriages in Rynek Square.

The stately horse carriages in Rynek Square.

The ride cost about $10 US per person. It was a fun way to see the city and to enjoy the atmosphere. The carriages, drivers and horses are dressed up and ready to show you the town.

Getting ready for our ride.

Getting ready for our ride.

Kraków Fortifications. Much of the original city was destroyed in the 13th century by the Tatar invasions. The walls and towers we see today were built afterwards in the 13th – 15th centuries.

The Barbican, one of the few surviving structures of its kind in Europe. It was built around 1498. It has seven turrets, 130 loopholes (for firing arrows) and the walls are 3 meters thick. It helped defend the Florian Gate, which is part of the remaining defenses on the north side of Kraków's old town.

The Barbican, one of the few surviving structures of its kind in Europe. It was built around 1498. It has seven turrets, 130 loopholes (for firing arrows) and the walls are 3 meters thick. It helped defend the Florian Gate, which is part of the remaining defenses on the north side of Kraków’s old town.

What remains of these fortifications is on the north side of the old town. Although many of the old walls were torn down in the 19th century, there is a ring-shaped park and walking paths that encircle old Kraków, following the foundations of the city walls.

Part of the old city walls, near the Florian Gate, the only one of the eight original gates remaining.

Part of the old city walls, near the Florian Gate, the only one of the eight original gates remaining.

For a pleasant stroll and variety in exploring the town, take advantage of these paths.

Rynek Główny (Square). This is the heart of old Kraków and is the largest medieval square in Europe. Its layout was drawn up in 1257. During our visit, there was a festival going on, with lots of music, dancing, and numerous food stalls – we found it hard to pass any of these up! Sausages, potatoes, breads, deserts and other Polish specialties were to be found everywhere.

A roasting pig on Rynek Square.

A roasting pig on Rynek Square.

The tower on the left is the only remaining part of the 15th century Town Hall. On the right is the Cloth Hall, both are in the central part of Rynek Square.

The tower on the left is the only remaining part of the 15th century Town Hall. On the right is the Cloth Hall, both are in the central part of Rynek Square.

Also in Rynek Square is the Cloth Hall, which was the center of Kraków’s medieval clothing trade. There are numerous shops here (and a good place to get gelato), as well as the ticket office and entrance for the “Rynek Underground” exhibit, which provides an extensive view of excavated ruins underneath the Square, and exhibits of medieval life in Kraków.

A view of some of the medieval ruins in the extensive underground displays. Hard to get good photos, pretty dark down there.

A view of some of the medieval ruins in the extensive underground displays. Hard to get good photos, pretty dark down there.

Come to the Square at night for special atmosphere. There are lots of good restaurants around the Square.

Rynek Square at night.

Rynek Square at night.

St. Mary's Church with its uneven towers faces Rynek Square.

St. Mary’s Church with its uneven towers faces Rynek Square.

Rynek Square is also the location of St. Mary’s Church, one of the most beautiful churches in Poland (and Europe for that matter). It is home of the Veit Stoss wood-carved pentaptych (three panel) altarpiece which took 10 years to complete and was consecrated in 1489. It is magnificent, and is considered one of the most important pieces of medieval art of its kind.

The marvelous Veit Stoss pentaptych in St. Mary's Church, Krakow.

The marvelous Veit Stoss pentaptych in St. Mary’s Church, Krakow.

The pentaptych is only opened at certain times during the day, so check across the street (to the south of the visitor’s entrance) for times and tickets.

Another view in St. Mary's Church - it takes awhile to absorb all the artwork in this church.

Another view in St. Mary’s Church – it takes awhile to absorb all the artwork in this church.

Church of SS Peter & Paul. This is a Jesuit church dating back to 1583. It’s on the Royal Way from Rynek Square to Wawel Castle, and has statues of the 12 apostles on columns at the front gate.

Church of SS Peter & Paul. Note the statues of the 12 apostles in front.

Church of SS Peter & Paul. Note the statues of the 12 apostles in front.

We were able to attend a concert in the large open interior on a Sunday evening, with a talented ensemble playing a number of classical compositions, including Vivaldi, Chopin, Bach, Mozart, Handel and others. This was particularly delightful given the setting and acoustics of the church.

The musicians at our concert in the Church of SS Peter & Paul

The musicians at our concert in the Church of SS Peter & Paul

In future posts I will share some images of Wawel Castle and the Jewish Quarter, including Schindler’s Factory (recall the epic Steven Spielberg movie “Schindler’s List”).

Reference: Lonely Planet Travel Guide – Poland

 

Gdansk – A Gateway to Poland

A word about Poland in general…We took a road trip through Poland in 2013, after completing a Northern European cruise which began and ended in Copenhagen. I really knew little about the country, but Malbork Castle and the Auschwitz Concentration Camps (near Krakow) were definitely on my bucket list. The more I studied our trip plans, the more excited I got. Poland has a lot to offer – great sights, food, and people. It’s easy to get around, the roads are good. We found prices a lot lower than Western Europe, at least for now. If you get a chance, visit this marvelous country.

The waterfront of Gdansk. At the far right is the Gdansk Crane, a medieval crane that used people in huge wheels (like hamsters) to power the crane and load or unload ships.

The waterfront of Gdansk. At the far right is the Gdansk Crane, a medieval crane that used people in huge wheels (like hamsters) to power the crane and load or unload ships.

We started our car tour of Poland by flying into Gdansk from Copenhagen. Gdansk is in the north central part of the country, near the coast of the Baltic Sea. Gdansk has a population of about 450,000. It was founded in the 10th century and became the largest city in Europe in the 16th – 17th centuries as a major trading hub and port. Much of Poland was under Teutonic (German) influence in the 1300’s and hence there are many Teutonic Knight castles, especially in the north central part of the country, the greatest being Malbork, just south of Gdansk about 40 miles. I will cover Malbork in a separate post.

Hyacinthus' Tower in Gdansk, built in 1400.

Hyacinthus’ Tower in Gdansk, built in 1400.

World War II took a huge toll on Poland, with Germany on the western border and Russia on the east. Gdansk and many other cities were bombarded heavily, but Gdansk has been restored beautifully and its Royal Way (the main street) is one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The Green Gate, built in the 1560's. Entrance to the Royal Way from the waterfront. Former Polish president Lech Walesa had his offices here.

The Green Gate, built in the 1560’s. Entrance to the Royal Way from the waterfront. Former Polish president Lech Walesa had his offices here.

A view of the Royal Way in Gdansk. Kings would make their way from one end of the city to the other via this street.

A view of the Royal Way in Gdansk. Kings would make their way from one end of the city to the other via this street.

Neptune's Well. A key symbol of Gdansk, located on the Royal Way. The bronze statue was cast in 1615 and the Well became operational in 1633.

Neptune’s Well. A key symbol of Gdansk, located on the Royal Way. The bronze statue was cast in 1615 and the Well became operational in 1633.

The 15th century Torture House (foreground) and Prision Tower, at the opposite end of the Royal Way. Public executions were held here. Now home to the Amber Museum.

The 15th century Torture House (foreground) and Prision Tower, at the opposite end of the Royal Way. Public executions were held here. Now home to the Amber Museum.

I found the city to be charming, with lots of interesting buildings, huge churches and picturesque settings. If you want to buy amber jewelry, this is the place, there are lots of shops and Poland is known for its amber trade.

Bones of early Christians (about 997 AD) underneath the early 13th century St. Catherine's Church, one of Gdansk's oldest.

Bones of early Christians (about 997 AD) underneath the early 13th century St. Catherine’s Church, one of Gdansk’s oldest.

A 15th century Astronomical clock in St. Mary's church, one of the largest red brick churches in the world.

A 15th century Astronomical clock in St. Mary’s church, one of the largest red brick churches in the world. Begun in 1343. 25,000 people can fit inside.

ulca Mariacka Street. The huge St. Mary's Church is in the distance.

ulca Mariacka Street. The huge St. Mary’s Church is in the distance.