The prevailing perception of Poland among non-Poles generally still centres on WW2 and, given that it was tucked firmly away by the Russians for a good 40 years, it’s entirely understandable. Most regard it as a weak country utterly trashed, the backdrop for the holocaust and generally not a pleasant place to have to visit at any stage unless you’re mate is organizing a stag do. Ask any click-happy tourist why they chose Warsaw and they’ll say the Old Jewish Quarter, ask anyone what they’re doing in KrakÃ³w and the first thing out of their mouth will either be a sombre Auschwitz or a drunken Tits!
Death and destruction or vodka and strippers? The temptation to do Poland like a package holiday is clearly too much for the vast majority of visitors but needless to say, if you dander into the country with head bowed and blinkers on, you’re going to miss out on a lot. Ok, you’ll hang out in KrakÃ³w and be bowled over by the beauty of the old town and the quaint atmosphere, which somehow still manages to manifest itself despite the suffocating, pedestrian-rage-inducing crowds. Everyone loves KrakÃ³w and that includes the Poles themselves, whose eyes will visibly glaze over as they recite to you just how magnificent Wawel Castle really is.
Comparatively few people think of hitting GdaÅ„sk, PoznaÅ„ or WrocÅ‚aw though, apart from ageing Germans who would happily reinvade to get their old childhood homes back, but all three of these cities would easily hold their own in a metaphorical arm-wrestling bout with the big K. They’re not just worth it in terms of scenic value either as you’ll find them cheaper, less-crowded and generally more fun(check out http://www.1stopjamboree.com for tons of activity ideas). You’ll get to stroll around and see the sights in relative peace, converse in broken English with friendly locals who don’t want to sell you tourist tat and let your beer linger a while without the fear of table eviction hanging over you.
However, see one Polish city and you’ve pretty much seen them all. They all have a central rynek (market place), they all have little cobbled side streets which will confuse the hell out of you after a post-dinner nalewka (schnapps) and they all have at least 20 churches for you to bore yourself with when you realise that you’ve covered ALL the sights on your first day. Standing on a smelly tram, under the cold glare of a plain clothes ticket inspector who looks like he’s on parole for something, for the umpteenth time should be enough to convince you that the Poland worth seeing is well and truly outside the cities.
With 23 national parks protecting over 3000km2, you’d think it would be hard not to spot the natural attractions of Poland but such is often the case and visitors to these areas tend to be overwhelmingly Polish. In winter the skiers descend upon Zakopane, and various other resorts dotted around the impressive Tatra Mountains, in gold rush fashion but during the warmer months it’s an epic case of take your pick. The centre of the country isn’t too inspiring, consisting largely of big fields and the smell of pigs, so it’s best to head for the outer parts.
Hill-walkers and mountaineers can consider themselves lucky as the southern border is pretty much one long mountain range, the areas to the south of KrakÃ³w and to the south-west of WrocÅ‚aw being particularly scenic. Animal-lovers can stalk bison with cameras to their heart’s delight in the beautiful and untouched areas around BiaÅ‚ystok and SuwaÅ‚ki in the north-east and, if you just want to relax on the beach, there are plenty of pleasant (but fishy) resorts all along the north coast. Just don’t expect a lot of towel space on the almost perfect sand in June/July.