This backpackers guide to Poland digs into the basics of a visit to one of Europe’s most affordable destinations. From ancient cities to charming mountain regions and harrowing historical sites, Poland has a lot to offer anyone looking for something a bit different from a backpacking trip to Europe.
A guest post by Ann Opalka
Population: 38 million
Size: 310,000 km ². Poland is pretty big, bigger than Britain and Italy for example and only slightly smaller than neighbours Germany.
Weather: Summers are decently warm (70-85°F), with the southern part of the country leaning towards the warmer side. Winters are cold (0-35°F), with temperatures dropping below that in the mountains.
Law: Unlike some European countries, drinking in public isn’t legal, however you will see many people doing so. The Poles like a drink and drink driving is a problem here despite the zero tolerance approach of the police. Most laws are pretty comparable to those in Western countries such as the US or UK.
Exchange Rate: As of April 2023, the Polish Zloty trades at £1=5.21PLN, €1=4.61PLN and $1=4.21PLN.
Time: GMT+1 (Central European Time) same as most of continental Europe including Germany, France and the Czech Republic.
Religion: Poland is a staunchly Catholic country and the previous pope John Paul II is a source of great national pride. Younger generations tend to be slightly less devout.
No vaccinations are strongly encouraged for Poland. However, for any traveller, Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are good to have. You can also ask your doctor to prescribe you some antibiotics to bring along just in case you get traveller’s diarrhea but you are no more likely to get ill in Poland than back home.
There are loads of cheap flights to all around Poland from the UK and other European cities. Fares can be as low as 10 Pounds or Euros with Ryanair when they have flight sales on (although such bargain deals are harder to find these days).
Coming from further afield, it may be cheaper to fly into a major European hub and then catch a budget flight to your destination in Poland. Direct trains and buses link Poland to its neighbouring countries. There are modern, fast connections to the west but travelling east is currently more complicated due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine (also involving Belarus), both of which share long borders with Poland.
Poland borders seven countries in total, four of which are in the EU (Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Lithuania). These are easy to travel to and from. During safer times, Ukraine and Belarus are also worth visiting if you want to get a better feel of what Communist Eastern Europe was like. Poland also borders Kaliningrad (a Russian outpost between Poland and Lithuania).
Best Places to Visit
Kraków is without doubt one of the finest cities in Central Europe and a fitting rival to Prague. What was once Poland’s capital, this Renaissance city is now left as one of the most enchanting cities in the world. Start your time there by exploring the Rynek Glówny (market square). This is the heart of the city. Go into the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the middle of the square and look at all the beautiful jewelry, furs, and trinkets the vendors in it have to offer. Then go to Kośćiół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) and check out its beautiful Gothic design. However, the main attraction of the church is the trumpet player that plays a historical tune atop the tower every hour of every day. Notice that the tune cuts off midway. Legend has it that the trumpet player in the 13th century was shot in the throat by attackers of the city.
Afterwards, go to the large statue of Adam Mickiewicz and sit down to enjoy some people and pigeon watching. This is the spot to feed pigeons and watch the excitement of everyone around. It’s very similar to what you may see at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Enjoy the rest of the day by exploring all the little shops and cafes of the artery streets of the Rynek. At the end of Floriańska street, you’ll see a wall/gate. It was made in the 14th century to protect the city from attacks. And behind it you will see a barbican, which was also a part of the fortifications of the city.
Enjoy another day in Kraków exploring the Wawel Castle. Make sure that when you get to the top of the Wawel cathedral’s tower, you place your hand on Zygmunt’s Bell and make a wish. Two more legends fill the castle: that the castle is one of the seven chakras in the world and that a giant dragon once inhabited a cave by the castle. Finish off your day at the Kazimierz district of Kraków. This is the Jewish district and is filled with intriguing cafes, clubs, two synagogues, a beautiful church, an eerie cemetery, and the best zapiekanki in the city (located in the new square of Kaziemierz). Another day, go take a tour of the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University. It’s beautiful inside and exciting to see where Nicolaus Copernicus went to school. End the day on top of the Kościuszko Mound to get an amazing view of the city.
There are three places to visit not too far from Kraków. One is the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps (Oświęcim and Brzezinka in Polish). Located about an hour and a half outside of the city, it is an eerie and surreal experience. You can still see the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign and the massive amounts of clothes, shoes, hair from all the people of the camps, along with the barracks and the train tracks that brought the people out there. Buses go from the main train station of Kraków very often and a shuttle runs between the two camps.
The second place outside of Kraków to visit is Zakopane, a mountain town. Again buses go from the main train station and it’s about a two hour ride. Enjoy good food and bargaining for fur, cheese, and much more on the street of Krupowki. Spend whole days in the mountain hiking. For those who enjoy mountains without hiking go up to Gubałówka to Kasprowy Wierch by funicular. Make sure to bring a light jacket when you go to Kasprowy Wierch as it gets cold up there. For a pleasant hike, go to Morskie Oko. A small bus will take you to the starting point of this hike.
Finally, the last city outside of Kraków to visit is Wieliczka. The thing to see here is the huge salt mine. This is a quick day trip from Kraków, but it is definitely worth seeing.
If you are looking for a more metropolitan city, you must visit Warsaw, the nation’s capital. The city is rather new, because the majority of it was completely destroyed during WWII. Its “Old Town” was carefully reproduced after its destruction and still offers an old charm to it. Look for the mermaid in the center of the Old Town. She is the symbol of Warszawa. Enjoy some greenery by visiting both the Wilanów Palace and Łazienki. Learn some history by visiting the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and then enjoy the architecture of the city, such as the Opera House. Finish off your trip to the capital with a day at one of the malls, particularly Złote Tarasy.
If you have time, there is plenty more to see. Gdansk on the north coast like Warsaw was completely destroyed in WWII but has been restored to some of its old charm and is a nice stopping point if you’re heading across the Baltic Sea.
Finally if Krakow is getting too touristy for you then you should definitely head to Wroclaw (which people are starting to call the new Krakow!). The city has a lot to offer, built on islands much like Venice or Amsterdam, it has a ridiculous amount of bridges and boasts buzzing nightlife every night of the week to please the enormous student population.
Trains and buses run between cities. You can view train/bus times and prices here. You can also always go to any train and bus station and get information there. Most stations have at least one attendant that speaks English (usually someone younger).
In Kraków, you get around everywhere either by walking or taking a tram. In Warszawa, you will find a plethora of buses and the Metro. Avoid cabs in the capital as the traffic is extremely awful and you’ll more likely get somewhere faster by taking the Metro. In Zakopane, you’ll be walking everywhere. However, there are small buses going from the main station that will take you to hiking starting points. At certain spots you may also see horse and carriages to take you up and down mountains.
If you are looking for the best nightlife, head to Kraków. This party city claims to have more bars/clubs per square metre than any other city in the entire world. Most of the nightlife occurs underground below the architecture of the city. A great place to visit for a chill night is C.K. Browar, which is a local brewery on Krupnicza Street just outside of the Market Square. There you can get table tappers for a decent price.
Some of the best known clubs within the Market Square are Frantic, Prozak and Ministerstwo. If you really want to hang with the locals, visit Pod Jaszczurami in the Square. Finally, some of the most interesting and exciting nightlife exists in Kazimierz (the Jewish district). If you are looking for a few drinks with a great atmosphere, visit Alchemia in the New Square of Kazimierz which also has a great Hookah bar called Flower Power. And every night in the Market Square, stand attractive guys and gals with discount cards for their bars and clubs. Grab one and see where the night leads you. It saves you money and opens up the doors to new clubs.
Warsaw also has a great nightlife. The Old Town offers some cozy pubs but you’ll also find some great places down Nowy Swiat street. Outside of these cities, university towns tend to have an array of nightlife to choose from. Nightlife in cities such as Katowice can get a little rough at times and despite its history, Poland has its fair share of right-wing white supremist skinheads who often go out looking for a fight so steer clear of bars that look a bit dodgy.
For an idea of what going out in one of the less-visited cities is like, see Ben Gould’s account of an alcohol-fuelled weekend in Poznan.
English is fairly widely spoken amongst the younger generation but most people over 50 will speak little if any English so consider learning a little Polish. It will definitely earn you a bit of respect of the locals.
Good morning/hello: Dzień dobry
Good evening: Dobry wieczór
Thank you: Dziękuję
How much does this cost?: Ile to kosztuję?
What time is the bus at?: O której jest autobus?
At what time is the train to ___ departing?: O której odjeżdża poćiąg do ____
Where is ……?: Gdzie jest…?
Toilet: toaleta or WC (pronounced voo ceh)
Typical Backpacker Budget
As always the budget depends on you. That being said, Poland is certainly on the lower end of backpacking costs in Europe, considerably cheaper than most countries in the west of the continent. It even ranks at the cheaper end of our global budget travel table offering great value to visitors with €30/day a possible shoestring travel budget as of 2023, although you may want to allow for a bit more to really get the best out of your trip.
Accommodation: You can take advantage of midweek discounts in Krakow especially which is full of weekend visitors from across Europe. Roughly 10-12 Euros should get you a bed for the night in any of the major towns.
Food/Drink: There’s some groovy cheap Polish restaurants to be found serving up pirogi among other local favourites. Polish beer and vodka is exported all over the world and it is, as you would expect, cheap and of high quality in Poland. There’s a good mix of bars and clubs and the ones at the bottom end of the scale are dirt cheap by anyone’s standards.
Transport: Single tickets on the metro/trams are 1-2 Euros and if you’re staying anywhere for a while then a month pass is excellent value. The express trains between Krakow and Warsaw and also Katowice and Warsaw (there’s not alot to see in Katowice!) are very quick, much quicker than any of the trains in Britain for example with discounts for students/under 26’s. There are also slower trains and buses that link these cities and the rest of the country at a much cheaper rate with fares starting at the equivalent of around 10 Euros for Krakow-Warsaw train travel for example. Poland is a major crossroads between East and West on the European rail map and there are sleeper trains you can catch to pretty much anywhere from Berlin to Kiev or Bucharest. It’s cheaper going east and it might be worthwhile getting an Interrail pass if you intend to travel around a lot in the wider region.
This article by guest writer Ann was originally published way back in October 2010. Light updates were most recently applied to time sensitive info in April 2023.