Tourist Attractions Czestochowa This city (pronounced chens-toe-HOE-vuh) is primarily of interest to devout Catholics. It's home to the holiest relic in Poland, the Black Madonna, also known as "Our Lady of Czestochowa." The object, a painted wooden panel, is kept in the 600-year-old Jasna Gora (Luminous Mountain) Monastery. (Copies of the icon are displayed in many churches throughout Poland.) On major religious holidays (such as Ascension Day), as many as 2 million visitors may go there to pay homage. It's a tradition for pilgrims to walk to the shrine from their homes - residents of Warsaw leave nine days earlier. The icon is displayed during religious services only, so plan ahead to see it (don't expect to get a close look). The monastery also has three museums, one of which contains Lech Walesa's 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. On holy days, and even on weekends, accommodations can be very tight. Because the town offers few other attractions for tourists, it's best to stop for a service at the monastery while en route from Warsaw to Krakow. If you do stop in Czestochowa and have the time, you can take an interesting day trip to the nearby town of Olsztyn (not to be confused with the northern Polish city of the same name). The scenic Eagles' Nest Trail starts there and continues south to Ojcow National Park near Krakow, passing the Mirow Castle, the Bobolice Castle and the beautiful Ogrodzieniec ruins en route. The trail can be traversed on foot or bicycle or by car. 130 mi/210 km southwest of Warsaw. Gdansk This old port city (pop. 480,000) on the Gulf of Danzig was established in the 10th century. We think it's one of Poland's loveliest cities. Allow at least a day to see the ornate row houses in the Old City (Stary Miasto) and to visit the port. Don't miss the beautifully restored 14th-century Town Hall (the interior is overwhelmingly ornate); the magnificent houses along the Royal Way; the city's gates; the prison tower (and its torture museum) and the huge St. Mary's Church (the largest brick church in Poland). Gdansk was almost totally leveled during World War II, which makes the restored buildings and monuments all the more remarkable. The city is the birthplace of Gabriel Fahrenheit (of thermometer fame), philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, writer Gunter Grass, the Solidarity trade union (a monument to the organization can be found at the shipyards) and its leader, Lech Walesa. Another monument stands at Westerplatte, the promontory at the mouth of the harbor, to mark the spot where 182 Polish soldiers held out for a week against Nazi dive bombers, troops and a battleship during the opening battle of World War II. Visit the nearby suburb of Oliwa, to see and hear the famous organ in the cathedral. The organ is really something - mechanized angels blow trumpets, ring bells and fly around when the organ is playing. Two other cities, Sopot and Gdynia, are often included on a tour to Gdansk. Sopot is a nice seaside town with an excellent beach (the water is usually quite chilly) and the longest pier (1,680 ft/512 m) on the Baltic Sea. It has an international song festival in the summer. Gdynia is a port city with a large marina and a maritime museum - it's rather noisy and unattractive, however, and we don't recommend going out of your way to see it. Instead, take a minibus or train from Gdynia to the charming Hel Peninsula. Gdansk is 180 mi/290 km northwest of Warsaw. Gniezno Inhabited since the eighth century, this town was once Poland's capital. Its beautiful cathedral was the site of royal coronations for 300 years during the Middle Ages. Although the church was desecrated by the Nazis in World War II, it still retains its original 12th-century bronze doors and the silver sarcophagus of St. Wojciech (Adalbertus), patron saint of Poland. The Museum of the Origins of the Polish State is also in town. It has an interesting multimedia presentation - available in English - about the development of medieval life in Poland. Gniezno is also associated with the historical figure Lech, leader of the Polonie tribe that gave the country its name. 28 mi/45 km northeast of Poznan. Kazimierz Dolny Located on the banks of the Vistula, this is one of the most charming towns in Poland and a favorite of Poles. It was never scarred with ugly Soviet-style buildings (which makes it a popular movie location). Start your stroll at the main square, which is lined with stunning Renaissance houses. Then head to the 16th-century Franciscan monastery and finish at the ruins of the 14th-century castle that overlooks the city. The town can be visited on a day trip from Warsaw or en route from Warsaw to Krakow. It's surrounded by walking trails - ask at the PTTK office (located on the main square) for a trail map of Kazimierz Park. 57 mi/92 km southeast of Warsaw. Krakow Krakow (pop. 750,700) is almost everybody's favorite Polish city - this 1,000-year-old former capital is the only large urban area in the nation that escaped World War II without serious damage. (The retreating Nazis wired the city so they could blow it up with dynamite, but the Polish resistance cut the wires.) Coupled with Krakow's physical beauty is its standing as the country's cultural center, making it a truly must-see destination. You can take a fast train between Warsaw and Krakow - it makes the journey in a little more than two hours. If time permits, drive there from Warsaw; though the journey can take as few as four hours, allow the better part of a day so you can stop and soak in the beautiful farmland, rivers and towns along the way. In the center of Krakow is the largest medieval square in all of Europe, Old Market Square. It's lined with historic buildings, and in the center of the square are two important structures: the 13th-century Cloth Hall, now home to souvenir and crafts stalls, and the Town Hall Tower, which hosts a summertime tavern in the cellar (a vast improvement over its original use as a torture chamber). Also on the square are St. Mary's Church (try to be there at noon when the elaborate altarpiece is opened) and the Wierzynek restaurant, located in a building where the kings of Poland, Hungary, Denmark and Cyprus met with the German emperor in 1364 to discuss the threat from Turkey. Within walking distance and west of the square are the Gothic 14th-century buildings of Jagiellonian University (the second-oldest university in eastern Europe - its Collegium Maius houses Copernicus' instruments). Wawel Castle, a 1,000-year-old palace/fortress atop a hill, lies south of the square. The castle, which holds great historical significance to Poles, has a number of interesting things inside: the royal treasures (including one of the best collections of tapestries in Europe), the enormous Sigismund Bell and a cathedral with the crypts of several Polish monarchs. The castle museum also displays the winged armor used by Polish hussars (pirates) under King Sobieski when he drove the Tartars out of Vienna (the wings, which whistled when the soldiers rode into battle, gave the soldiers a supernatural appearance). Stroll along nearby Kanonicza Street, one of Poland's loveliest thoroughfares. Other structures of note in Krakow include the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (baroque interior), the National Museum (which includes works of Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci), the History Museum and the town's old Defense Walls and Barbican. There are dozens of other interesting old buildings; plan a couple of hours just to wander the cobblestone streets, poking your head in stores and taking a break in a local coffeehouse. The best place to check out Krakow's theater, opera and ballet offerings is the Center of Cultural Information. You can also purchase opera and ballet tickets in season at the box office inside the lovely Slowackiego Theater, one of Poland's most distinguished music halls. Its lavish interior should not be missed, and the performances are generally excellent. Take a walk along the Planty, a greenbelt surrounding the old city where the city walls once were, and along the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, known as Kazimierz. There are a couple of interesting synagogues (one has been turned into a museum) plus a cemetery with hundreds of engraved tombstones, some 400 years old. Near the cemetery, an intimate coffeehouse called Ariel offers live gypsy or Jewish music along with lunch and dinner. Another incredible sight, just a couple of blocks off the Rynek (main square), is the crypt in the Church of the Reformed Franciscans on Reformacka Street. The crypt has an unusual climate that causes the bodies to mummify without embalming. There are hundreds of bodies (we were particularly struck by the woman in a wedding dress). This morbidly fascinating crypt may be seen by special arrangement with the priests. Allow at least two days to see the sights of the city but add another night for a half-day excursion to Oswiecim (38 mi/61 km west) to see Auschwitz, the grim Nazi extermination camp (commemorated by a museum and memorial), and the nearby death camp Birkenau. Make sure to visit the new Auschwitz Jewish Center, a site for prayer and education that houses the only Oswiecim synagogue to survive the war. Another half-day could be spent on a 7- mi/10-km excursion to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which run about 90 mi/150 km underground. Founded between the 10th and 13th centuries, they're claimed to be the oldest salt mines in the world. There is a chapel carved out of salt (complete with chandeliers made from salt crystals). You can also use Krakow as a base to visit Wadowice, birthplace of Pope John Paul II (his parents' apartment is now a museum), and Czestochowa. 155 mi/250 km southwest of Warsaw. Note: Despite its beauty, Krakow is one of the most polluted major cities in Europe. The dirty air poses a serious health concern for residents, and it's a long-term threat to historic structures. Things are improving, and most visitors won't be affected by the air during a short visit, but those with respiratory problems should be aware that they may experience some discomfort. Lancut In southeastern Poland near the town of Rzeszow, Lancut is worth a detour to see its beautiful baroque palace and its rare collection of period coaches. (One wing of the palace is operated as a small hotel and restaurant.) The palace hosts an important music festival in May. The best way to visit the town is on a three-day tour from Krakow that takes in Poland's lovely but rarely visited eastern cities: the gorgeous Renaissance city of Zamosc, Przemysl, Lublin, Kazimierz Dolny and Sandomierz. 105 mi/170 km east of Krakow. Leba The resort of Leba (pronounced WAY-ba) has tall, Sahara-like sand dunes and long, broad, pretty beaches. Much of the area is within the Slowinski National Park, where you can walk, bicycle or take a carriage. Several campgrounds (with wooden cabins for rent) are nestled among the pine forests. Avoid summer weekends, however, unless you like crowds - that's when Leba is overrun with holidaymakers (the beaches are considered the cleanest in Poland). You can follow the beach to the village of Czolpino (refreshments and camping available). Farther south (5 mi/8 km) is Smoldzino, which has a very pleasant small hotel and cafe named Gosciniec Pod Rowokolem. 35 mi/60 km northwest of Gdynia. Lodz This large industrial city of 852,000 is commonly called Poland's Manchester - it's grimy and industrial. Few old buildings still stand (the oldest are near Wolnosci Square). The factory owned by Oscar Schindler, whose story was told in Schindler's List (the book and the film), is located in Lodz. It's not open for tours, but you can see its elaborate iron gates. Opposite the Poznanski Palace (which now houses the Historical Museum of Lodz) is the former Jewish Ghetto, now a park. Lodz was once adorned with the opulent palaces of textile-mill magnates. A few of these structures remain, including the Palace of the Herbst Family, which is open to visitors. Lodz is an important cultural center. The city is home to Poland's film school and the country's best modern-art museum and best orchestra. Visit nearby Piotrkow Trybunalski, a medieval town to the southeast, which was the site of many religious diets and synods in the late Middle Ages. Stroll the streets of the small town, stopping by the Jesuit church and the castle. Lodz is 75 mi/120 km southwest of Warsaw. Lublin Lublin (pop. 333,000) is an ancient city with an old town center dating from the Middle Ages. We loved the atmosphere around the Rynek (Market Place) but found the rest of the city to be fairly plain. Visit the castle, the City History Museum at Krakow Gate, the cathedral and the Dominican church. Allow a half-day to see the city, another half-day if you're going to see the nearby Majdanek Nazi concentration camp (as an extermination camp, it was second only to Auschwitz). You'll find a memorial, a museum and a large park there. 95 mi/155 km southeast of Warsaw. Malbork This photogenic city is the home of the Castle of the Order of Teutonic Knights, a huge, well-preserved medieval fortress. The 13th-century Gothic structure housed more than 700 knights and thousands of attendants. Inside is a wonderful amber museum. We suggest planning a half-day there. 25 mi/40 km southeast of Gdansk and 150 mi/242 km northwest of Warsaw. Mikolajki Set in the center of the lovely Great Mazurian Lake District, picturesque Mikolajki affords many opportunities for camping and invigorating hikes in the surrounding forests. From May to September, lake boats depart the town dock for scenic day cruises to Gizycko and Ruciane-Nida. Visitors can then return to Mikolajki by rail. It's best to visit in summer. North of Mikolajki, near Ketrzyn, are the remains of Hitler's headquarters known as the Wolf's Lair at Gierloz. A simple hotel, cafe and campground are nearby. 110 mi/175 km north of Warsaw. Olsztyn This city (pop. 155,000) is associated with the astronomer Copernicus. Visit the 14th-century Great Gate (now an inn), St. James Cathedral (Gothic), old Town Hall and Olsztyn Castle, which was defended by Copernicus from attack by Teutonic knights in 1521 (it's now a museum). Popular nearby lakes include Lake Plaszno and Lake Lanskie, where there are camping facilities. 80 mi/130 km southeast of Gdansk. Poznan Set on the banks of the Warta River, 1,000-year-old Poznan blends Gothic and baroque in much of its architecture. Highlights of this industrialized city (pop. 586,000) include a 10th-century cathedral, Dzialynski Palace, Palm Garden, Raczynski Library, the Opera House and the Museum of Musical Instruments (it houses Chopin's pianos). In Old Town Square, a crowd gathers on the hour to watch the clock on the old town hall that dates back to 1550. Poznan hosts the largest international trade fair in central Europe. It's held in June, a festive though crowded time to visit the city. 165 mi/270 km west of Warsaw. Sandomierz This small hilltop town is a nice stop en route to Krakow from Warsaw. Guided tours are available for the burghers' houses on the main square, the 14th-century town hall and the 15th-century cellars beneath the town square. 115 mi/185 km southeast of Warsaw. Szczecin This city (pop. 397,000) in the northwestern corner of Poland is usually seen by visitors who cross into Poland from Berlin. We recommend stopping to see the 11th-century Pomeranian Knights Castle and 14th-century church. Stargard Szczecinski, south of Szczecin, is a quiet town with spectacular medieval walls and towers - excellent for walking around. It has the picturesque Hotel Dom Wycieczkowy. The seaside town of Swinoujscie, 40 mi/65 km north, is a pleasant place to overnight. You can take a ferry across to Scandinavia. Near Swinoujscie, in Miedzyzdroje, are the posh Amber Baltic Hotel and golf course. 125 mi/ 200 km northwest of Poznan. Torun This university town dates from the 13th century - it was an important trading city in the Middle Ages. But it's perhaps best known as the birthplace of the great astronomer Copernicus. Tour his home and museum as well as the Old Town Hall museum, which displays antique stained glass and paintings. Torun is considered the best-preserved Gothic town in Poland - the atmosphere of the Old Town is worth making the day trip from Warsaw. Its medieval walls and remaining gates are gems. (A small guidebook titled The Medieval Walls of Torun is available in English in the local Tourist Information Office.) While you're in Torun, sample the delicious local gingerbread, which is popular throughout Poland. 135 mi/220 km northwest of Warsaw. Warsaw A ravaged beauty, "destroyed and rebuilt." You'll hear the phrase, spoken with pride and sadness, everywhere in Warsaw. It's applied to palaces and churches, to entire neighborhoods, even to individual cobblestone streets. In order to fully appreciate this one-time "Paris of the North," remember that just over half a century ago, most of it was razed to the ground, its people decimated. You'll come across monuments documenting atrocities and memorializing acts of resistance. Warsaw has survived the stranglehold of Soviet terror and, in the past decade, the upheaval of capitalism. It has moved rapidly into a new phase of economic structuring with the European Union. As it continues to rebuild and reinvent itself, with a defiant bravado masking an undercurrent of sadness, the city is becoming more and more beautiful. Its balance of preservation and renewal is a testament of its resilience. Wroclaw This lovely city of 640,000 is off the beaten path but merits one day to see the impressive Gothic cathedral, the gorgeous town hall and city square and the Raclawice Panorama. The Panorama, a canvas half the size of a soccer field, depicts the 1794 battle of Raclawice. (In 1997, the city faced a different kind of crisis when its citizens rallied to save its historic landmarks from a devastating flood.) Visit Wroclaw's Market Hall, a short walk from the university - food is sold in stalls downstairs and crafts are available upstairs. Wroclaw's beautiful Opera House offers an extensive repertoire from September to April. Its Music Theater features popular musicals in Polish. If time allows, you can take a day trip to Ksiaz Castle, with 415 rooms and lovely gardens, or to Klodzko, a fortified medieval hillside town, located about 60 mi/95 km south of Wroclaw, that dates back to the 10th century. There is an Underground Tourist Route in the village that traverses abandoned cellars and defensive tunnels that played roles in various conflicts over the years. Napoleon's army was unable to capture this fortress, but Hitler's troops holed up there. Wroclaw is 190 mi/305 km southwest of Warsaw. Zakopane Set in the Tatra Mountains, this year-round ski resort is renowned for its folklore, hiking, skiing and architecture. Near the center of Zakopane is the funicular to Mount Gubalowka. The top offers spectacular views over the Tatra range - and the beginning of several walking trails. The walk leading to the funicular passes several stalls where locals sell Tatra handicrafts. Be sure to see other nearby towns and villages in the Tatras, where people live much as they have for centuries. If you have time to visit only one, go to Chocholowska, in a lovely mountain setting, where you'll see typical log houses built without nails. The countryside offers waterfalls, lakes (such as Morskie Oko Lake), caves, forests, rivers and the Beskidy Mountain towns of Orawka and Sucha Beskidzka. If you get the opportunity, take a raft trip through the Dunajec River Gorge in Pieniny National Park. After the raft trip, visit Poland's most picturesque mountain castle, Niedzica. You can stay in the castle. 52 mi/85 km south of Krakow. History Much of the country's turbulent history is at least partly the result of its location: It had to be traversed by various European powers on their way to do battle with other European powers (even the Swedes ventured forth across the Baltic to conquer it). At one time, Poland itself ruled a large empire, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In the late 1700s, the Polish state disappeared for nearly 130 years, as it was partitioned among three major powers. The territories were more or less evenly divided among the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. When those empires collapsed during World War I, Poland was reconstituted as an independent nation. The respite was brief - the nation was devastated just 20 years later in World War II, and after the war, Poland became a Soviet puppet state. Despite its history of occupation - or perhaps because of it - Poland became a leader in the movement for a free eastern Europe. Repeated strikes and rebellions from the early 1950s onward created an atmosphere in which independent trade unions, such as Solidarity, could be formed. Elections in 1989 threw the communists out of power and set Poland on its present course. After 50 years of suppression, the full range of emotions surfaced, and even now, it's not unusual to meet someone who speaks joyously about freedom in one sentence and then blasts the current government for causing unemployment and hardship in the next. This paradox was also reflected in the 1995 presidential elections, when incumbent president Lech Walesa, former Solidarity leader and adamant anticommunist, was narrowly defeated by Alexander Kwasniewski, a former Communist Party leader. However, the country's efforts to move beyond a history of political oppression were most visibly demonstrated when Poland joined the NATO alliance in 1999. On 1 May 2004, Poland was one of 10 nations that joined the European Union, a move that many hope will strengthen the country economically. Gradually, the terrible legacy of Soviet-era pollution is becoming a thing of the past. Because of strict environmental controls, plant closures and the beginnings of eco-tourism, Poland now has some of the most pristine forests in Europe. Dining Enjoy eating real Polish ham, sausages (kielbasa), hunter's stew, kalaches (fruit pastries), sauerkraut, pierogis (dumplings filled with meat, mushrooms, cheese or fruit), stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes and great desserts (try kisiel and gingerbread). Duck is also a common (and delicious) ingredient in Polish cooking. Until recently, Poles were meat-and-potatoes eaters with vegetables limited to cabbage, beets and cucumbers. Things are slowly changing, and you see a lot more variety in vegetables, particularly in upscale restaurants. If you get tired of starch and meat, try one of the delicious soups. Prices, even in restaurants in the deluxe hotels, are very reasonable - it won't make much of a dent in your pocketbook to eat at least one meal in the best restaurant in every city you visit. In Krakow, be sure to try the Wierzynek restaurant. Not only does it have good, authentic Polish food at reasonable prices, but it's also in a historically important building. Poland does have fast food - pizzas and hamburgers, mainly - but don't expect it to taste similar to what you're used to back home. Poland's traditional "fast food" is a hot bowl of potatoes, grease and sour milk, which tastes as good as it sounds. We preferred the local ice cream called lody, which comes in a variety of delicious flavors. Tipping Tip taxi drivers and waitstaff 10% (if a service charge has not been included in the bill). Travel Tips Although more and more young Poles speak English, do learn a few phrases of Polish or take along a language guide of some kind. Your best bet, especially in outlying areas, is to ask for help from Poles age 25 or younger, who often speak basic English, French or German. Do try to experience Polish folk music and dance - it's among the most distinctive in Europe. The mazurka and polonaise of central Poland were popularized by Chopin - the polonaise is more stately and ceremonial than the lively mazurka. (The polka is claimed by both Poland and the Czech Republic). Do take a credit card or bank card to use in ATMs, which are widely available in Poland's major cities. Banks close relatively early in the afternoon, and private exchange offices (kantors) don't accept traveler's checks. Also, you may have difficulty changing traveler's checks if you arrive in the country midafternoon and if you travel beyond the bigger cities. Don't change money on the street - you'll only be ripped off. Don't expect to see a Western-style economic system in action throughout Poland, even though the communists have been out of power for years. Much of the old system remains, and you will still encounter bureaucratic hassles and unmotivated service workers. Do look for the Warsaw Voice and the Gazeta International. Published weekly in English, they offer a local slant on politics. Do carry your passport with you at all times. It's also essential to have it if you're taking a domestic flight. Do expect to pay a premium if you get into a taxi with an Orbis sticker on the windshield (or a sticker with your hotel's name on it). The fare will be at least twice that of normal taxis (you're paying for its return to your hotel). Even worse, you may have to pay the amount on a preprinted form, an amount that may come to as much as four times the normal fare. Shopping Krakow has the best selection of souvenirs and crafts in Poland, though there are several nice stores in Warsaw and elsewhere. Shop for locally produced arts and crafts (dolls, lace, glass and crystal, wood carvings, peasant rugs and embroidery). Be sure you know the difference between good and bad amber before you spend a lot of money. Leather boxes, chessboards, woven goods, leather-and-glass sculpture, icons (new), woolens, embroidered shoes and wooden plates are good buys. Oil paintings and watercolors, silver, painted wooden boxes and chests, painted wooden eggs and political and religious paraphernalia also make nice mementos. (If you're buying a painted egg, make sure it's wooden. Some are made from real eggs and won't survive the journey home.) Heavily embroidered native costumes are also available. Prices are very reasonable. Most tourists end up in the big national chain stores: Cepelia (local arts and crafts) and DESA (fine art, sculpture, etc.). Be sure to go in some of the smaller local stores as well. Some DESA stores are antique shops, but you won't be able to export anything made prior to 1945. Komis shops are consignment shops; most sell clothing, but occasionally you'll see one with a selection of other interesting used items. Shopping Hours: Monday-Friday 11 am-7 pm, except grocery stores, which are open Monday-Friday 6 am-7 pm, Saturday 7 am-1 pm. In larger cities, a few stores may have weekend hours. Banking Hours: Monday-Friday 8 am-6 pm.