One of Europe's most underrated countries - but not for long. Poland is taking its place on the tourist trail as the world discovers its beauty.
Mountain-top castles. Crooked forests. Snowy alpine lakes. Stunning cathedrals. Pastel coloured tiny towns as pretty as a postcard. Poland has everything that you could dream of in a European vacation, yet remains one of the most underrated countries in the region.
Forget images of a place that is cold, industrial and dull - Poland is vibrant, lush, colourful, and, best of all, quite affordable for tourists. According to TravelAndy, you can easily explore beaches, hike through ancient forests, and visit beautiful cities, which means Poland has something for everyone. Plus there's vibrant nightlife, delicious food, and a rich history to boot.
Check out these 20 awesome pictures from around Poland, which will surely kick start your travel planning.
20 Krakow - A city fit for a King
Poland's second largest city is a historical gem, with hundreds of years of history and gorgeous architecture. It was the seat of the country's royal family until the 1500s, and Krakow was extremely fortunate to avoid the heavy destruction of WWII which destroyed so much of the capital city, Warsaw.
The cobblestoned Old Town and Jewish district Kazimierz are on the UNESCO World Heritage list due to their historical value, with the highlights being Wawel Castle, the gorgeous stained glass at St. Mary’s Basilica, the Florian Gate, and the Barbican, a 15th century fort.
19 Rysy - Conquer Poland's highest peak
At 2,500 metres, Rysy is the highest in the land, but thankfully it is known for being a relatively easy hike. Located on the border of Poland and Slovakia, the peaks offer unbelievable views of lakes and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Be aware that going all the way to the peak can cause altitude sickness in some climbers, so you could instead make a day trip to reach the lookout point in the picture above, Czarny Staw, and then turn back, if the hike is too difficult.
There are also mountain huts where you can stay overnight and continue hiking, depending on how hardcore you are.
18 Sopot - Yes, Poland has beaches too!
Say the word 'riviera' and probably you think of Mediterranean countries like Italy, Spain or France. However Poland's northern coast faces the Baltic Sea, and many are surprised to find out that in summer time Poland can be incredibly hot.
The locals escape to the seaside town of Sopot, which has mineral springs and a long coastline. One key attraction is the long wooden pier where people stroll at sunset, and after stretching your legs you can choose from a number of beach front bars, cafes and restaurants to sit and relax.
Sopot in recent years has also become a kitesurfing hot spot in Europe, attracting younger crowds.
17 Gdansk - The city of magic
Not far from Sopot, and also along the Polish Riviera, lies the city of Gdansk, which Lonely Planet has described as a 'grand old dame' with a personality that is quite distinct from the rest of Poland.
This colourful port city was once a hub of maritime trade, and as a result has a lot of influences in terms of its architecture and culture, such as its many Gothic buildings, giving it a unique feel.
Some of the most popular experiences are to take a scenic boat ride or kayak on the Motlawa River, visit a real-life pirate ship which still plies the waters (pirates not included), and wander the cobblestoned streets of Old Town.
16 Table Mountains - An awesome natural wonder
An incredible 42-kilometre sandstone mountain range straddles Poland and the Czech Republic, with unusual rock formations, deep canyons, and a labyrinth of crevices and trails.
The Stołowe Mountains, also called Table Mountains, have a number of trails, and the more popular lookout points at the top of the cliffs do have railings for safety, lest you accidentally fall down the steep horizontal walls of the canyons.
This awesome natural wonder is nicknamed the 'Table Mountains' due to the smooth, flat surface of the range, worn away by millennia of rain.
15 Zakopane - Get lost in this winter wonderland
Poland's answer to the Alps, this remote town tucked away at the bottom of the Table Mountains is a mecca for skiing and snowboarding, but remains an unknown winter destination. Though it may not have the awesome towering mountains available in neighbouring countries like France or Switzerland, it is offers a great ride and beautiful scenery.
In 2015, the town came up with the idea to create an attraction called Snowland, with a giant ice labyrinth - the biggest in the world - along with incredible ice sculptures.
Zakopane is a popular destination in the winter, but is also a beautiful place to visit at any time of year to enjoy the mountains.
14 St. Mary's Basilica - Standing proud after centuries
With two very distinct towers at its front, it is easy to see that this gorgeous church was built in two different eras. Officially known as the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, or St. Mary's Basilica for short, this is a top attraction in the capital city, Krakow.
The original church was left in ruins by raids in the 13th century, and later a second church was rebuilt in a Gothic style in 1320, accounting for the two varying towers. It has a distinctive wooden altarpiece, but visitors are mesmerized by the soaring stained glass windows which adorn this building.
Incredibly, every hour, a trumpet signal is played from the top of the taller of Saint Mary's two towers, but the song breaks halfway through, commemorating the brave trumpeter who was shot while sounding the alarm just before Mongols attacked the city.
13 Poznan - The prettiest town in Poland
What would Europe be without iconic little towns, painted in sweet colours, with old market squares, cobble stoned streets, fountains, and sidewalk cafes?
Poznan is a beautiful and historic little gem, and postcard perfect too, with its Old Town a designated Historic Monument. It was once actually a walled city, but the walls were taken down to accommodate the area's expansion.
Nonetheless Poznan still feels like a walled city, with narrow streets, merchant houses, and a Town Hall where every day at 12 noon, two mechanical billy goats come out of the tower to butt heads, a popular tourist attraction.
12 Tatra Mountains - A stunning spring bloom
The snow capped Tatra Mountain range is beautiful at any time of year, but those in-the-know flock here in the spring specifically to see millions of crocuses pushing forth, turning the hills and valleys into a blanket of blooms.
According to CultureTrip, the locals refer to this annual phenomenon as the 'purple carpet', and it is strictly forbidden to pick the flowers.
There's a very short window of 2-3 weeks in which to view the coming of spring in the Tatras, and getting there is no easy feat. Chochołowska Valley, the biggest area for blooms, is a two-hour hike from the nearest town, but it is worth the long walk.
11 Malbork Castle - A medieval masterpiece
The impressive Malbork Castle, officially named the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, is the largest castle in the world, dating back to the 13th century.
According to UNESCO, it is the most complete and elaborate example of a Gothic brick-built castle standing today, and is a World Heritage Site.
There is a scenic red-bricked courtyard, a domed chapel, and the Great Refectory with its stunning vaulted ceiling. In the gardens are statues of the Grand Masters and Teutonic Knights, taking you back in time to the days when the castle was an important fortification for Poland.
10 Crooked Forest - A unique mystery
What could have caused some 400 pine trees that all grow at a particular 90 degree angle to suddenly curve and then go straight back up? According to IFL Science, it is a mystery that has long mystified both locals and tourists, many of whom have come up with conspiracy theories, aliens, enemy tanks plowing over saplings which then rebounded, and a unique gravitational pull.
Scientists, however, believe it was caused by a particularly bad winter when the trees were young, which bent the trunks at the same angle, followed by a warm winter which then spurred the trees to grow upwards. Although all the theories are just that for now - theories - nonetheless it is an interesting, unique and beautiful sight of Poland, and a mystery yet unsolved.
9 The Temple of Rock Salt - If you had to work underground, you'd pray too
The incredible Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland is one of the oldest and longest running salt mines in the world, having operated from the 13th century until 2007.
Located some 327 metres deep and running 287 kilometres long, it is known for its incredibly detailed carvings, made entirely of salt, of historic statues, mythical creatures, and religious icons, such as Leonardo DaVinci's 'Last Supper'. Even the chandeliers are carved out of salt!
Today the mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and, lucky for you, it is also a hotel where you can stay the night. Not many people can boast about having slept in a real salt mine!
8 Zalipie - Pretty as a postcard
You know you've got something special when Japanese tourists - some of the most specific in the world - choose a tiny town nobody has heard of as one of the most beautiful places in all of Europe. This was the case with Zalipie, a village approximately 100km from Krakow known for its quaint little cottages painted with beautiful motifs.
According to the Polish Tourism Organization, in Zalipie the whitewashed walls, doors and ceilings of every house, barn, and even dog kennel are adorned with many painted flowers, and every year a competition is held to choose the most beautifully decorated cottage.
While there are only about two dozen of these houses, Zalipie has made a mark on the tourist trail for its beautiful designs, proving that size doesn't matter.
7 Masuria - The Land of 1,000 Lakes
Well, 2,000, actually, if you want to know exactly how many lakes there are in the Masurian district. About a 3-hour car drive from Warsaw, this is a popular vacation spot for locals who want to stay at the lake, enjoy kayaking and sailing, and visit the many spas.
There's so much to do - fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping too - making it a nature lover's paradise. Some parts of the lakes are only accessible by boat, meaning that you could have the entire place to yourself, if you're lucky.
6 Slowinski National Park - Where the sea meets the sand
But this place is not just a beach - it's a desert! Yes, Poland has a desert too. With shifting sand dunes that can move some 10 feet a year, and the blue waters of the Baltic Sea below, it makes for a very dramatic landscape. According to Routes & Trips, which runs tourist excursions in the area, the dunes can be visited by car from Gdansk, or you can take the train to Leba, the closest town.
Other than the dunes, there are also small villages to explore by bike, trails that go through the national park, and a communist-era palace where you can have lunch in the gardens, making it a great full day trip.
5 Czocha Castle - Straight out of Harry Potter
As is befitting of a country that once had a royal family, there are a lot of castles in Poland. And we mean a lot. But one stands out as being particularly famous, resembling a movie set, with an iconic bridge and looming stone walls, giving it the nickname of Poland's 'Harry Potter Castle'.
If you happen to be a fan of the movie, then this is your lucky day because at this beautiful 13th century castle, you can join the College of Wizardry, and actually spend three days staying at the castle attending classes about the magical arts.
People from all over the world have been flocking here to live out their Hogwarts fantasies, either as a student of magic, or as an instructor.
4 Wrocław - Full of tiny quirky surprises
We could wax poetic about how pretty this riverside city is, with its old Town Hall, market square, and colourful buildings, but instead you need to check out one of Wroclaw's most unique features - the 165 tiny bronze dwarves that dot the city.
They have become a tourist attraction of their own, and now there is even a fun app which helps you find them on a recommended sightseeing route through town. They are doing all kinds of things, including fighting fires, having a beer, playing musical instruments, kissing, and riding a motorbike. Though cute and quirky, the statues have a very important symbolism in the city, as they were created by the anti-communist movement, the Orange Alternative.
3 Bison Babies - Too cute to boot!
Once upon a time, wild bison roamed across the European plain. It was then commonly killed for its hides and horns, and eventually hunted to extinction. At one point the animal was only seen in zoos, but was successfully reintroduced into the wild in the 1950s. This huge beast, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, is the national animal of Poland, and some travel companies offer a 'Bison Safari' to see the animal in its natural habitat.
If in Poland, you will most likely find yourself trying the distinctive sweet taste of 'bison grass vodka', which - seriously - the bison have supposedly tinkled on. The most popular brand, Zubrowka Bison Grass, actually puts a long blade of grass in the bottle. As the locals say, Na zdrowie!
2 Lake Zakrzówek - Go diving in the city
A 20 minute walk from Wawel Castle in Krakow, this hidden spot is a deep, clear lagoon inside an abandoned quarry. With sheer limestone cliffs, it is a popular spot for thrill seekers who enjoy jumping into the deep waters below. It also draws many scuba divers who come here specifically to wreck dive, as under these waters lays a small plane (but no sign of the pilots), and a number of other strange finds which were left in the quarry before it closed.
Visitors can pay for entry for the day, and just enjoy cooling off, particularly in the summer months, when temperatures soar and the city swelters.
1 Jaskinia Raj - A paradise for spelunkers
Jaskinia Raj, or as it is translated in English, Paradise Cave, is a vast horizontal limestone cave, located in the Holy Cross Mountains. There are five chambers and caverns, adorned with stalagmites and stalactites, and huge columns of calcified rock, according to Wikipedia.
Only 15 people are allowed at a time in order to maintain the cave's internal temperature, but the trip is worth it.
It is believed to be some 300 million years old, and was only discovered in 1963. Archaeologists have found remnants of human settlement from some 60,000 years ago, with bones of many mammals, including hyenas, cave bears, wooly mammoths, and, most amazingly, the wooly rhinoceros, an extinct species which was once common in Europe (who knew?).
References: Poland Tourism Organization, Trip Advisor, Wikipedia