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Things to Do in Poland

Poland is a country renowned for reinvention. Warsaw, the country's capital, emerged from the ashes of World War II destruction and transformed into one of Eastern Europe’s brightest stars. A sightseeing tour of Warsaw reveals Gothic, communist, and modernist architectural styles, while the Warsaw Rising, History of Polish Jews, and Neon museums are top draws for history buffs. Highlights of Poland’s countryside are the snow-smothered Tatra Mountains and rustic towns of Zakopane and Malbork, all doable on a day-trip from major Polish cities. Hiking opportunities are many, especially in the summer when the lakes in the north are perfect for kayaking and relaxed wanders. Polish pearl and former capital, Krakow, boasts historical gems such as Wawel Castle, Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square), and Kazmierz (Jewish District). If you’re short on time, combine a city sightseeing tour with a visit to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also listed is the former German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, which allows visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors of the Holocaust during a guided tour. Plus, don’t miss out on a visit to the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, home to the revered painting of the Black Madonna.
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Oskar Schindler's Factory (Fabryka Schindlera)
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Oskar Schindler was a wealthy German Nazi who employed hundreds of Jews in his Krakow enamel factory, which ultimately led to many saved lives. Schindler’s part in all this is immortalized in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.

Since June 2010, Schindler’s old factory has housed a highly emotive, interactive and visually stunning permanent exhibition on the Nazi occupation of Krakow. The horrors of the regime are showcased, from the early days of uneasy truce between Poles and Germans to the ultimate mass genocide of Jews and Poles alike in concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The multimedia and intense 3-D diorama displays in the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit harshly bring to reality the repeated atrocities, the liquidation of 3,000 Jews from the Podgorzé ghetto in 1943 and the final days of the war.

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Kazimierz (Krakow Jewish Quarter)
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Kazimierz - or Jewish District - was for a long time an independent town with its own municipal charter and laws. Its colorful history was determined by its mixed Jewish-Polish population, and though the ethnic structure is now wholly different, the architecture gives a good picture of its past, with clearly distinguishable sectors of what were Christian and Jewish quarters. The suburb is home to many important tourist sights, including churches, synagogues and museums. The western part of Kazimierz was traditionally Catholic, and although many Jews settled here from the early 19th century until WWII - for example, the main Jewish hospital was on ul Skawińska - the quarter preserves much of its original character, complete with its churches.

A tiny area of about 300m by 300m northeast of Corpus Christi Church, the Jewish sector of Kazimierz became, over the centuries, a centre of Jewish culture equal to no other in the country.

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Rynek Glowny (Main Market Square)
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Measuring 650 ft x 650 ft (200m by 200m), Kraków's Rynek Główny is the largest medieval town square in Europe and one of the finest urban designs of its kind. It s layout, based on that of a castrum (Roman military camp), was drawn up in 1257 and has been retained to this day, though the buildings have changed substantially over the centuries. Most of them now look neoclassical, but don't let the façades confuse you - the basic structures are much older, as can be seen by their doorways, architectural details and interiors. Here you will find the Cloth Hall (the world's oldest shopping mall at 700 years), the 13th century Gothic Town Hall Tower, the magnificent 14th century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary, and the small church of St Adalbert, some of which dates back to the 11th century.
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Krakow Old Town (Kraków Stare Miasto)
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The cobblestone Main Square (Rynek Główny) of Krakow Old Town is Central Europe’s largest and has been the center of the city’s social, religious and political life since the Middle Ages. Today it still serves as Krakow’s modern pulse, dominated by the splendid Renaissance arcades of the Sukiennce (Cloth Hall), the lop-sided St Mary Basilica and an endless supply of cafés and bars.

From the square, Krakow’s complex medieval alleyways peel off in all directions and work as the focus of most visits. The district contains Baroque churches by the handful, a gorgeous ensemble of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, as well as about 25 museums covering subjects as diverse as Japanese manga, photography and stained glass. The standout historical collections are found in the many branches of the National Museum and in the Rynek Underground below the Cloth Hall.

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Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Wawelski)
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The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day. Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians.

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St. Mary's Basilica (Kościól Mariacki)
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The lop-sided towers of the majestic St Mary’s Basilica dominate the northeast corner of Krakow’s lively central square, the Rynek Główny. A church has graced this spot since medieval times, but this incarnation was built of red-brick in Gothic style and consecrated in 1320 after the original was destroyed by invading Tartars in the 13th century. The northern tower was raised to 263 feet (80 meters) and became the city’s watchtower.

The interior is handsomely decorated with a star-spangled blue ceiling, heavy Gothic ornamentation and stained-glass windows that shaft sunlight into patterns in the floor. The showpiece is the magnificent carved altar, constructed with wood by the German craftsman Veit Stoss in 1489; it took him 12 long years to finish his creation, which measures 47 feet (13 meters) across and is carved with 200 biblical figures. The altar is opened daily at 11:50 a.m. to reveal gilded scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.

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Palace of Culture and Science (Palac Kultury i Nauki)
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The Palace of Culture and Science is the tallest building in Poland, completed in 1955 as a gift to Poland from the Soviet people and Joseph Stalin himself. The building iscalled Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish, abbreviated PKiN, and has over 3,000 rooms on its 42 floors, which include offices, institution headquarters and the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is a post office, cinema and swimming pool, as well as museums, libraries and theaters.

The Congress Hall (Sala Kongresowa) and Concert Hall (Sala Koncertowa) are considered the most important of their kind in the country. The former can hold nearly 3,000 people and has been considered the home of Poland’s jazz music scene. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones have performed here. Not surprisingly, there have been some negative feelings around the building, as many Polish citizens believe it is a symbol of Soviet domination.

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St. Stanislaus Church (Skalka)
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The Skalka Sanctuary and St Stanislaw's Church are a Roman Catholic Church and monastery on the banks of the Vistula River in Krakow. The original Romanesque church which stood on this site was the place of one of Poland's crucial historic events - the murder of Stanislav, bishop of Krakow by the king, Boleslav. There are differing reasons why this happened but regardless, the people were not happy and Stanislav was eventually made a saint by Pope Innocent IV in 1253 - he has been called the saint of moral order. He was the first n ative Polish saint and remains patron saint of Poland. His relics are now in Wawel Cathedral.

The current Gothic church which stands on the site dates from the 14th century, with a Baroque update from the mid-18th century. Beginning in the 19th century, the church became a place for burial for well-known artists and writers, including Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz.

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Wawel Cathedral (Katedra Wawelska)
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Wawel Cathedral - or Katedra Wawelska - has witnessed most of the coronations, funerals and entombments of Poland's monarchs and strongmen over the centuries, and wandering around the grandiose funerary monuments and royal sarcophagi is like a fast-forward tour through Polish history. The cathedral is both an extraordinary artistic achievement and Poland's spiritual sanctuary. The building you see is the third church on this site, consecrated in 1364. The original cathedral was founded sometime after the turn of the first millennium by King Bolesław Chrobry and was replaced with a larger Romanesque construction around 1140. When it burned down in 1305, only the Crypt of St Leonard survived.

The present-day Katedra Wawelska is basically a Gothic structure but chapels in different styles were built around it later. Before you enter, note the massive iron door and, hanging on a chain to the left, huge prehistoric animal bones.

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More Things to Do in Poland

Warsaw Royal Route (Trakt Królewski)

Warsaw Royal Route (Trakt Królewski)

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Originally used as a communication route, Warsaw's famous Royal Way (or Royal Route) is a beautiful, 2.5 mile-(4 km) long road that goes from the The Royal Palace at Old Town to the Wilanow Palace. Walking this road assures you an incredible view of Polish historical landmarks, including St. Anne's Church, the Tyszkiewicz Palace, the Holy Cross Church, St. Alexander's Church, Lazienki Park, and so much more. An entire day can be spent exploring the monuments and side streets that are considered part of the "Road of Kings", and there are innumerable sights to be seen.

An impressive monument to the Polish composer Chopin sits in the Lazienki park, and during the summer, classical musical concerts are held on the lawn. In addition to being the living quarters of many Polish nobles, including the Polish president, museums, chic shopping, people-watching, and fine eateries are abound on this most beautiful and historic of streets.

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Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta)

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In March 1941, thousands of Krakow’s Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated within the Podgórze ghetto south of Kazimierz. Plac Zgody, a large square in the heart of the ghetto, was the departure point during World War II for Jews boarding trains to Paszów, Auschwitz and various other camps. It has since been renamed Ghetto Heroes Square in honor of the Jewish deportees.

Today the entire square serves as a memorial to the Krakow Jews. Designed by local architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial comprises 70 empty chairs placed at regular intervals throughout the open space — a chilling reminder of the furniture, luggage and other personal belongings that littered the square after the final deportations and razing of the ghetto in 1942 and 1943.

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Warsaw Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie)

Warsaw Jewish Ghetto (Getto Zydowskie)

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The Warsaw Jewish Ghetto - or Getto Zydowskie - is considered to be one of the most haunting and historically poignant places to visit in all of Poland, and for good reason. Before World War II, there were over 400,000 Jews living in Warsaw, and by 1942, all members of the Jewish community were forced into the German-constructed ghetto, demarcated by a 10-foot-high (3-meter high) wall circling around a specified sector of the Jewish district.

In addition to being the restrained living quarters of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Ghetto was also the place from which thousands of men, women, and children were dispatched to the Treblinka Concentration camp in the summer of 1942, which, in turn, led to the Ghetto Uprising. While the majority of the wall was destroyed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, three sections still stand and are not to be missed.

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Chopin Concert Hall (Chopin Gallery)

Chopin Concert Hall (Chopin Gallery)

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The Bonerowski Palace is a luxury hotel in the heart of Krakow’s Old Town. Dating back to the 13th century, it was then significantly renovated in the 19th century, at which time the entire building was raised up to three floors and a new staircase was added.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the building has many remarkable features, including a 70-foot-long chandelier in the lobby (the longest in Europe), a Gothic pillar on the first floor and a 17th-century polychrome on the second floor. It was opened as a hotel in 2007 and has been named the best luxury hotel in Poland. The palace is perfectly situated to explore Krakow as it is within walking distance of a number of important attractions, including the Czartoryski Museum, the Collegium Maius building of Jagiellion University, the Dominican Church, the Franciscan Church and the Barbakan fortress.

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Maly Rynek (Small Market Square)

Maly Rynek (Small Market Square)

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Tucked away behind the flying buttresses of St Mary’s Basilica, the Maly Rynek is the baby brother of Krakow’s landmark Rynek Główny, just as beautiful but without the constant crowds. The oblong square is lined with townhouses painted in muted greens, yellows and reds, some with Baroque embellishments dating from the 17th century. The brick-red apse of the Church of St Barbara backs on to the piazza; with its origins in the early 14th century, it was Krakow’s Jesuit church for centuries and its interior has a mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture, several rare icons and an mournful sculpture depicting Christ in the Garden at Gethsemane.

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Tempel Synagogue (Synagoga Tempel)

Tempel Synagogue (Synagoga Tempel)

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Tempel Synagogue dates from around 1862 and was built by Krakow's Reform Jews. It is the only still functioning synagogue in Kazimierz, the Jewish area of Krakow which had its population decimated during World War II. The building is a Neo-Classical style with Moorish interiors. It was badly damaged during the war when the Nazi's used it to store ammunition, but it was repaired and services resumed after the war.

These days services are only held a few times a year, but the synagogue remains a place of worship. It also hosts concerts of Jewish and classical music. it is worth seeing for the contra st between the austere facade and the brightly decorated interior of gilded woodwork and ceiling, lit by stained glass windows.

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Galicia Jewish Museum

Galicia Jewish Museum

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Entirely dedicated to honoring Holocaust victims and celebrating Jewish culture of the former Austro-Hungarian region of Galicia through photographs, this museum features poignant and contemporary exhibits that will leave no one indifferent. It highlights a time in Poland when the Jewish community flourished, choosing to focus on what was and what remains, rather than on what was annihilated. The main exhibition, called Traces of Memory, presents the work of photojournalist Chris Schwarz and depicts what is left of the Austro-Hungarian’s heritage through photographs of cemeteries, houses, synagogues and other structures that are still visible today, and that once were at the heart of the Galician Jewish community; it also features video testimony of survivors. Additionally, the Museum also hosts two to three temporary exhibitions as well as concerts and other commemorative events.

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Great Barbican

Great Barbican

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In 1499 Krakow was a wealthy city under constant threat of attack, especially from the rampaging Ottomans. So they made themselves into a fortress. The Great Barbican is both the principal entry point to the city and a massive seven turreted point of defense. These days it looks like a fairytale city gate, back then it was either a massive relief to reach it with your wagons intact, or a deterrent to your planned attack on the city.

The actual gate to the city was St Florian's gate, linked to the Barbican by a covered passageway. But the Barbican and the series of moats and walls which lead away from it, ringing the city, were the first point of entry to Krakow in the Middle Ages. Today, you still enter the Old Town of the city through the impressive Barbican.

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St. John's Archcathedral (Archikatedra Sw. Jana)

St. John's Archcathedral (Archikatedra Sw. Jana)

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This stunning Gothic cathedral in the heart of Warsaw's Old Town is one of the most interesting historical landmarks. Built in the 14th century, St John's Cathedral - or Katedra Sw Jana - is one of the oldest churches in all of Poland, but was completely destroyed during World War II during the Polish Uprising. However, like much of the Old Town, it was reconstructed after the war, true to its original architecture.

In addition to being the site of many historical events, such as the coronation of the last Polish king, the cathedral also houses the beautiful red marble tombs of many Mazowian dukes, and its crypt is the resting place of many celebrated Poles such as Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienklewicz. The Gothic architecture and artwork is some of the most impressive in Warsaw, and is not to be missed.

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Warsaw Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)

Warsaw Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta)

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The Old Town Square Market - or Rynek Starego Miasta - is the oldest part of Warsaw, originally constructed in the late 13th century. After being destroyed by the German army, it was restored after World War II to its beautiful prewar charm, lined with 17th and 18th century houses, shops, and restaurants. The historic center of Warsaw, cafe life is at its height with street vendors and performers abound.

Stop to try a local beer or taste traditional Polish fare and admire the incredible architecture all around you. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this area is not to be missed.

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