Poland (Polish: Polska), is a large country in Central Europe. It has a long Baltic Sea coastline and is bordered by Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast), Slovakia, and Ukraine.
The first cities in today's Poland, Kalisz and Elbląg on the Amber Route to the Baltic Sea, were mentioned by Roman writers in the first century AD, but the first Polish settlement in Biskupin dates even further back to the 7th century BC.
Poland was first united as a country in the first half of the 10th century, and officially adopted Catholicism in 966 AD. The first capital was in the city of Gniezno, but a century later the capital was moved to Kraków, where it remained for half a millenium.
Poland experienced its golden age from 14th till 16th century, under the reign of king Casimir the Great, and the Jagiellonian dynasty, whose rule extended from the Baltic to the Black and Adriatic seas. In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest country in Europe; the country attracted significant numbers of foreign migrants, including Germans, Jews, Armenians and the Dutch, thanks to the freedom of confession guaranteed by the state and the atmosphere of religious tolerance (rather exceptional in Europe at the time of the Holy Inquisition).
Under the rule of the Vasa dynasty, the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. During the 17th and the 18th centuries, the nobility increasingly asserted its independence of the monarchy; combined with several exhausting wars, this greatly weakened the Commonwealth. Responding to the need for reform, Poland was the 1st country in Europe (and the 2nd in the world, after the US) to pass a constitution. The constitution of May 3rd, 1791 was the key reform among many progressive but belated attempts to strengthen the country during the second half of the 18th century.
With the country in political disarray, various sections of Poland were subsequently occupied by its neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria, in three coordinated "partitions" of 1772 and 1793, and 1795. After the last partition and a failed uprising, Poland ceased to exist as a country for 123 years.
However, this long period of foreign domination was met with fierce resistance. During the Napoleonic Wars, a semi-autonomous Duchy of Warsaw arose, before being erased from the map again in 1813. Further uprisings ensued, such as the 29 November uprising of 1830-1831 (mainly in Russian Poland), the 1848 Revolution (mostly in Austrian and Prussian Poland), and 22 January 1863. Throughout the occupation, Poles retained their sense of national identity, and kept fighting the subjugation of the three occupying powers.
Poland returned to the map of Europe with the end of World War I, officially regaining its independence on November 11th, 1918. Soon, by 1920-21, the newly-reborn country got into territorial disputes with Czechoslovakia and, especially, the antagonistic and newly Soviet Russia with which it fought a war. This was further complicated by a hostile Weimar Germany to the west, which strongly resented the annexation of portions of it's eastern Prussian territories, and the detachment of German-speaking Danzig (contemporary Gdańsk) as a free city.
This put Poland in a precarious position of having potential enemies facing her again from all three sides.
World War II officially began with a coordinated attack on Poland's borders by the Soviet Union from the east and Nazi Germany from the west and north. Only a few days prior to the start of WWII, the Soviet Union and Germany had signed a secret pact of non-aggression, which called for the re-division of the newly independent central and eastern European nations. Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, and the Soviet Union attacked Poland on September 17, 1939, effectively starting the fourth partition, causing the recently-reestablished Polish Republic to cease to exist. Hitler used the issue of Danzig (Gdańsk) and German nationalism to try to trigger a war with Poland in much the same way he used the Sudetenland Question to conquer the Czechs.
Many of WWII's most infamous war crimes were committed by both the Soviets and Nazis on Polish territory, with the latter committing the vast majority of them. Polish civilians opposed to either side's rule were ruthlessly rounded up, tortured, and executed. Nazi Germany established both concentration and extermination camps on Polish soil, where many millions of Europeans were ruthlessly murdered; of these Auschwitz is perhaps the most infamous.
The Soviets rounded up and executed the cream of the crop of Polish leadership in the Katyń Massacre of 1940. About 22,000 Polish military and political leaders, business owners, and intelligentsia were murdered in the massacre, officially approved by the Soviet Politburo, including by Stalin and Beria.
Due to WWII, Poland lost about 20% of its population, added to the fact that the Polish economy was completely ruined. Nearly all major cities were destroyed and with them the history of centuries was gone. After the war Poland was forced to become a Soviet satellite country, following the Yalta and Potsdam agreements between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. To this day these events are viewed by many Poles as an act of betrayal by the Allies. Poland's territory was significantly reduced and shifted westward to the Oder-Neisse Line at the expense of defeated Germany. The native Polish populations from the former Polish territories in the east, now annexed by the Soviet Union, were expelled by force and replaced the likewise expelled German populations in the west and in the north of the country. This resulted in the forced uprooting of over 10 million people and until recently had shadowed attempts at Polish-German reconciliation.
The Communist era (1945-1989) is a controversial topic. After World War II, Poland was forced to become a Socialist Republic, and to adopt a strong pro-Soviet stance. Between 1945-1953, pro-Stalinist leaders conducted periodical purges.
After the bloody Stalinist era of 1945-1953, Poland was comparatively tolerant and progressive in comparison to other Eastern Bloc countries. But strong economic growth in the post-war period alternated with serious recessions in 1956, 1970, 1976, resulting in labour turmoil over dramatic inflation as well as shortages of goods. Ask older Poles to tell you about communism and you'll often hear stories of empty store shelves where sometimes the only thing available for purchase was vinegar. You'll hear stories about backroom deals to get meat or bread, such as people trading things at the post office just to get ham for a special dinner.
In 1980, the anti-communist trade union "Solidarity" (Polish: Solidarność) became a strong force of opposition to the government, organizing labor strikes, and demanding freedom of press and democratic representation. The communist government responded by organizing a military junta, led by general Wojciech Jaruzelski, and imposing martial law on December 13, 1981; it lasted until July 22, 1983. During this time, thousands of people were detained. Phone calls were monitored by the government, independent organizations not aligned with the Communists were deemed illegal and members were arrested, access to roads were restricted, the borders were sealed, ordinary industries were placed under military management, and workers who failed to follow orders faced the threat of a military court. Solidarity was the most famous organization to be de-legalized, and its members faced the possibility of losing their jobs and imprisonment.
But this internecine conflict, and ensuing economic disaster, greatly weakened the role of the communist party. Solidarity was legalized again, and soon led the country to the first free elections in 1989, in which the communist government was finally removed from power. This inspired a succession of peaceful anti-communist revolutions throughout the Warsaw Pact block.
Nowadays, Poland is a democratic country with a stable, robust economy, a member of NATO since 1999 and the European Union since 2004. The country's stability has been recently underscored by the fact that the tragic deaths of the President and a large number of political, business and civic leaders in an aeroplane crash did not have an appreciable negative effect on the Polish currency or economic prospects. Poland has also successfully joined the border-less Europe agreement (Schengen), with an open border to Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is on track to adopt the Euro currency in a few years time. Poland's dream of rejoining Europe as an independent nation at peace and in mutual respect of its neighbors has finally been achieved.
Note that Catholic religious holidays are widely observed in Poland. Stores, malls, and restaurants are likely to be closed or have very limited business hours on Easter, All Saints Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas.
The countryside throughout Poland is lovely and relatively unspoiled. Poland has a variety of regions with beautiful landscapes and small-scale organic and traditional farms. Travelers can choose different types of activities such as bird watching, cycling or horseback riding.
Culturally, you can visit and/or experience many churches, museums, ceramic and traditional basket-making workshops, castle ruins, rural centers and many more. A journey through the Polish countryside gives you a perfect opportunity to enjoy and absorb local knowledge about its landscape and people.
Poland's administrative regions are called województwa, abbreviated "woj.". The word is roughly equivalent to a duchy or a district. Some English dictionaries use the word voivodship to describe them, but the word is exceedingly rare, and likely not to be understood.
Poland is a member of the Schengen Agreement. For EU and EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) citizens, an officially approved ID card (or a passport) is sufficient for entry. In no case will they need a visa for a stay of any length. Others will generally need a passport for entry.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: Not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union.
Airports in Europe are thus divided into "Schengen" and "non-Schengen" sections, which effectively act like "domestic" and "international" sections elsewhere. If you are flying from outside Europe into one Schengen country and continuing to another, you will clear Immigration and Customs at the first country and then continue to your destination with no further checks. Travel between a Schengen member and a non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks. Note that regardless of whether you travelling within the Schengen area or not, some airlines will still insist on seeing your ID card or passport.
Keep in mind that the counter begins once you enter any country in the Schengen Area and is not reset by leaving a specific Schengen country for another Schengen country, or vice-versa.
As of January 2011 only the nationals of the following non-EU/EFTA countries do not need a visa for entry into the Schengen Area: Albania*, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro*, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan*** (Republic of China), United States, Uruguay, Vatican City, Venezuela, additionally persons holding British National (Overseas), Hong Kong SAR or Macau SAR passports. These visa-free visitors may not stay more than three months in half a year and may not work while in the EU.
However, all British Overseas Territories citizens except those solely connected to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas are eligible for British citizenship and thereafter unlimited access to the Schengen Area.
Further note that
(*) nationals of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia need a biometric passport to enjoy visa-free travel,
(**) Serbian nationals with passports issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate (Serbs residing in Kosovo) still do need a visa and
(***) Taiwanese nationals need their ID number to be stipulated in their passport to enjoy visa-free travel.
Regular visas are issued for travellers going to Poland for tourism and business purposes. Regular visas allow for one or multiple entries into Polish territory and stay in Poland for maximum up to 90 days and are issued for the definite period of stay. When applying for a visa, please indicate the number of days you plan to spend in Poland and a date of intended arrival. Holders of regular visas are not authorized to work.
Ukrainian citizens do not require a separate visa for transit through Poland if they hold a Schengen or UK visa.
Most of Europe's major airlines fly to and from Poland. Poland's national carriers are LOT Polish Airlines . Besides there are several low cost airlines that fly to Poland including WizzAir , EasyJet , Germanwings , Norwegian and Ryanair .
Apart from direct air connections from many European cities, there are also direct flights from United States and Canada: LOT operates direct flights from Toronto, New York and Chicago, as well as non-direct flights from other cities through the Star Alliance program.
International airlines fly mainly to Warsaw (WAW) . Other major airports in Poland are: Kraków (KRK) , Katowice (KTW) , Gdańsk (GDN) , Poznań (POZ) , Wrocław (WRO) , Szczecin (SZZ) , Rzeszów (RZE) , Bydgoszcz (BZG) and Łódź (LCJ) .
As the number of flights and passengers has significantly increased since 1990, new terminal has been opened at the Warsaw Chopin airport which will significantly increase the airport's capacity. Also airports in Katowice, Kraków, Poznań, Wrocław and Łódź have been expanded to increase their standards and capacity.
Direct connections with:
You can enter Poland by one of many roads linking Poland with the neighboring countries. Since Poland's entry to the Schengen Zone, checkpoints on border crossings with other EU countries have been removed.
However, the queues on the borders with Poland's non-EU neighbors, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, are still large and in areas congested with truck traffic it can take up to several hours to pass.
There are many international bus lines that connect major Polish cities, with most of major European ones.
There are more and more ports along Polish coast, at least at every river mouth. Bigger marinas are located in Szczecin, Łeba, Hel, Gdynia and Gdańsk. Gdansk, has two yacht docks one next to the old time (market) which is usually quickly overloaded and one in the national sailing center 17 km. next to the city center close to the Baltic sea. The newest yacht dock will be located on the longest wooden peer in Sopot and will be ready in 2011. Although there are many sailors in Poland, there is still room for improvement which has been seen by the regional government.
If you are an adventurous and open-minded person, you can get very quick with the thumbs. The fastest places to be taken at are the main roads between Gdansk - Warsaw- Poznan and Krakow.
Polish road infrastructure is extensive but generally poorly maintained, and high speed motorways currently in place are insufficient. However, public transport is quite plentiful and inexpensive: buses and trams in cities, and charter buses and trains for long distance travel.
In Poland, the national railway carrier is PKP (Polskie Koleje Państwowe) .
Train tickets are quite economical, but travel conditions reflect the fact that much of the infrastructure is rather old.
However, you can expect a fast, clean and modern connection on the new IC (InterCity) routes, such as Warszawa - Katowice, Warszawa - Kraków, Warszawa - Poznań and Poznań - Szczecin. Consider first class tickets, because the price difference between the second and first class is not so big, but the jump in comfort is substantial.
It's probably easiest to buy InterCity / Express tickets online (see links below).
Tickets for any route can generally be purchased at any station. For a foreigner buying tickets, this can prove to be a frustrating experience, since only cashiers at international ticket offices (in major cities) can be expected to speak multiple languages. It is recommended that you buy your train tickets at a travel agency or online to avoid communication difficulties and long queues.
It may be easier to buy in advance during peak seasons (eg. end of holiday period, New Year, etc.) for trains that require reserved seating.
Please note, that tickets bought for IC/EC/express/etc. trains are not valid for local/regional trains on the same routes. If you change trains between InterCity and Regional you have to buy a second ticket.
Travellers under 26 years of age are entitled to 26% discount on travel fare on Intercity's TLK, EX and IC-category trains, excluding the price of seat reservation.
In some Ex and IC trains (but not on main routes to Warsaw) you can buy cheap "Last Minute" ticket (30 min. before departure time). Prices from 13 PLN.
Poland has a very well developed network of private charter bus companies, which tend to be cheaper, faster, and more comfortable than travel by rail. For trips under 100km, charter buses are far more popular than trains. However, they are more difficult to use for foreigners, because they are definitely oriented towards locals.
Each city and town has a central bus station (formerly known as PKS), where the various bus routes pick up passengers; you can find their schedules there. Tickets are usually purchased directly from the driver, but sometimes it's also possible to buy them at the station.
Buses are also a viable choice for long-distance and international travel; however, be aware that long-distance schedules are usually more limited than for trains.
Driving in Poland is stressful, time-consuming and dangerous, due to the poor quality of roads, lack of motorways and the driving style of the locals. Polish road network contains fewer highways and more ordinary two-lane roads than is common in western countries. A lot of these roads are far below capacity for the volume of traffic they are carrying and the average quality of the road surface is poor.
As long as you keep by the main roads and concentrate (keep your wits about you) you should get to where you are going fairly easily but not quickly. As a rule of thumb, assume 2h for each 100km of travel (allowing for unexpected delays). When traveling between smaller cities or towns you will also routinely encounter slow moving vehicles, such as farm vehicles and tractors, and sometimes bicycles. Drunks, on foot or on bicycles, are a common sight. This includes having them weave through fast moving traffic.
Polish road death statistics are sobering and driver behaviour is often very poor in terms of impatience and lack of courtesy and foresight as well as absence of ordinary common sense. "Dynamic driving style" is expected. In practice this means that Poles often drive aggressively, push in, routinely disrespect speed limits (frequently by a large margin), and overtake at less-than-safe distances. If you leave a gap in front of your car, it will likely be filled. If you stop at a red light, expect to have someone swing out and get in front of you. If you drive below speed limit, you will probably get tailgated as impatient drivers drive up close behind and flash their lights, attempting to force you to get over into a slower lane. This is often impossible as there usually is no slow lane - the roads are mostly two-lane. If there is a hard shoulder, do not be tempted to drive on it as it is against the law and if you hit someone or something, you will be liable. If there is no hard shoulder it is unwise to get too close to the edge of the road as the tar seal is frequently pot-holed and badly damaged. Visitors have reported drivers aggressively pushing in front of them and then slamming on the breaks or throwing things out of their windows, presumably to vent their annoyance at not being let past.
Driving in cities can be difficult; city streets are crowded, often narrow, and you need to watch out for trams. When estimating driving time, if you are not familiar with local conditions, it is safe to double your best guess, especially at peak times. Poles work long hours so peak time in major cities frequently last till after 8pm. Roadworks are common.
Parking in cities and towns is often allowed on sidewalks, unless of course there is a no parking sign. There is usually no provision for parking on the tar-sealed part of the street so do not leave your car parked at the curb, unless it is clearly a parking bay. Parking meters in cities and even smaller towns are widely used.
Some peculiarities of driving in Poland include:
Roads marked "droga szybkiego ruchu" (rapid transit road) are frequently anything but that. The rule of going through towns and not around them still applies and speed limits change rapidly from the allowable 90 kmh to 70 and down to 40. Speed cameras (in unmarked dark gray pole-mounted boxes) and radar-equipped traffic police are common. Draw your own conclusions.
Some drivers flash their headlights to warn those approaching from the opposite direction of a police control nearby (you are likely to encounter this custom in many other countries). It may also mean that you need to turn your lights on since dipped headlights need to be on at all times while driving. A "thank you" between drivers can be expressed by waving your hand or, when the distance is too great, by turning on blinkers or hazard lights for one or two blinks.
Hazard lights can be used to indicate failures but also as a way of showing that the vehicle is rapidly slowing down, or already stopped in a traffic jam on a highway.
At the gas stations
PB means unleaded gasoline and ON means diesel. Petrol and diesel are roughly the same price. LPG is widely available, both at 'branded' gas stations and independent distributors and is less than half the price of petrol. Credit cards or debit cards can be used to pay at branded stations, less frequently so at independent distributors.
Use only those that are associated in a "corporation" (look for phone number and a logo on the side and on the top). Unaffiliated drivers are likely to cheat and charge you much more. Be especially wary of these taxis near international airports and train stations (but then, shouldn't one be wary of them everywhere?). They are called the "taxi mafia".
Because of travellers advice like this (and word of mouth), taxis with fake phone numbers can be seen on the streets, although recently this seems to have decreased - possibly the police have taken notice. Fake phone numbers are easily detected by locals and cater for the unsuspecting traveller. The best advice is to ask your Polish friends or your hotel concierge for the number of the taxi company they use and call them 10-15 minutes in advance (there's no additional cost). That's why locals will only hail taxis on the street in an emergency.
You can also find phone numbers for taxis in any city on the Internet, on municipal and newspaper websites. Some taxi companies, particularly in larger towns provide for a cab to be ordered online or with a text message. There are also stands, where you can call for their particular taxi for free, often found at train stations.
If you negotiate the fare with the driver you risk ending up paying more than you should. Better make sure that the driver turns the meter on and sets it to the appropriate fare (taryfa):
The prices would vary slightly between the taxi companies and between different cities, and there is a small fixed starting fee added on top of the mileage fare.
When crossing city limits (for example, when traveling to an airport located outside the city), the driver should change the tariff at the city limit.
Every taxi driver is obliged to issue a receipt when asked (at the end of the ride). You can inquire driver about a receipt (rachunek) before you get into cab, and resign if his reaction seems suspicious or if he refuses.
Bicycling is a good method to get a good impression of the scenery in Poland. The roads can sometimes be in quite a bad state and there is usually no hard shoulder or bicycle lane. Car drivers are careless but most do not necessarily want to kill cyclists on sight which seems to be the case in some other countries.
Rainwater drainage of both city streets is usually in dreadful condition and in the country it is simply non-existent. This means that puddles are huge and common, plus pot-holes make them doubly hazardous.
Especially in the south you can find some nice places for bicycling; e.g. along the rivers Dunajec (from Zakopane to Szczawnica) or Poprad (Krynica to Stary Sacz) or Lower Silesia (Zlotoryja - Swierzawa - Jawor). Specially mapped bike routes are starting to appear and there are specialised guide books available so ask a bicycle club for help and you should be just fine. Away from roads which join major cities and large towns you should be able to find some great riding and staying at "agroturystyka" (room with board at a farmer's house, for example) can be a great experience.
Hitchhiking in Poland is (on average) OK. Yes, it's slower than its Western (Germany) and Eastern (Lithuania) neighbors, but your waiting times will be quite acceptable!
Not necessarily a thumb but waving an extended hand is a much better recognized sign that you need a lift in Poland. Use a cardboard sign and write the desired destination city name on it.
Do not try to catch a lift where it is forbidden to stop. Look on the verge of the road and there should be a dashed line painted there, not a solid one.
As in any country, you should be careful, there are several reports of Polish hitchhiking trips gone awry, so take basic precautions and you should be as right as rain.
The official language of Poland is Polish.
Foreign visitors should be aware that virtually all official information will usually be in Polish only. Street signs, directions, information signs, etc. are routinely monolingual, as are schedules and announcements at train and bus stations (airports and a few major train stations seem to be an exception to this). When it comes to information signs in museums, churches, etc., signs in multiple languages are typically found only in popular tourist destinations.
Most of the young people and teenagers know English well enough. Since English is taught from a very young age (some start as early as 4 years old), only Poles who grow up in isolated towns or communities will not be given English lessons. Older Poles, however, especially those outside the main cities, will speak little or no English at all. However, it's highly possible that they speak either German or Russian which were taught in schools as the main foreign languages until the 1990s. Russian has now largely been abandoned, but German is still taught in many schools throughout the country, and is especially popular in the Western districts.
A few phrases go a long way in Poland. Contrary to some other tourist destinations where natives scoff at how bad a foreigner's use of the native language is, Polish people generally love it when foreigners learn Polish, even if it's only a few phrases. Younger Poles will also jump at the chance to practice their English. Be advised that if you are heard speaking English in a public setting outside of the main cities and tourist areas you may be stared at; people may also listen in to practice their understanding of English.
Do your homework and try to learn how to pronounce the names of places. Polish has a very regular pronunciation, so this shouldn't be a problem. Although there are a few sounds unknown to most English speakers, mastering every phoneme is not required to achieve intelligibility; it's rather about catching the spirit.
Poland's recent history has made it a very homogenous society today, in stark contrast to its long history of ethno-religious diversity; almost 99% of the population today is ethnic Polish; before World War II it was only 69% with large minorities, mainly Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Germans and less than two-thirds Roman Catholic with large Orthodox and Protestant minorities as well. Poland also had the largest Jewish community in Europe - estimated variously at 10% to 30% of Poland's population at the time. Outside of the very touristy areas of the major cities, you'll find that there are few, if any, foreigners. Most of the immigrants in Poland (in the main Ukrainians and Vietnamese) stay in the major cities for work. Poland's small group of contemporary ethnic minorities, Germans, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Silesians and Casubians all speak Polish and few regional dialects remain except in the deep South and small patches of the Baltic coast.
The legal tender in Poland is the Polish złoty (zł, international abbreviation: PLN). The złoty divides into 100 grosze. Poland is expected to adopt the Euro (€) sometime after 2012, but those plans are still tentative.
Private currency exchange offices (Polish: kantor) are very common, and offer Euro or USD exchanges at rates that are usually comparable to commercial banks. Be aware that exchanges in tourist hot-spots, such as the train stations or popular tourist destinations, tend to overcharge.
Linguistic note: Polish has two types of plural numbers, which you are likely to encounter when dealing with currency. Here are the noun forms to expect:
There is also an extensive network of cash machines or ATMs (Polish: bankomat). The exchange rate will depend on your particular bank, but usually ends up being pretty favorable, and comparable to reasonably good exchange offices.
Credit cards can be used to pay almost everywhere in the big cities. Popular cards include Visa, Visa Electron, MasterCard and Maestro. AmEx and Diners' Club can be used in a few places (notably the big, business-class hotels) but are not popular and you should not rely on them for any payments.
Cheques were never particularly popular in Poland and they are hardly used nowadays.
It is illegal to export goods older than 55 years that are of ANY historic value. If you intend to do so you need to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage .
Hypermarkets are dominated by western chains: Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan, Real. Usually located in shopping malls or suburbs.
However Poles shop very often at local small stores for bread, meat, fresh dairy, vegetables and fruits - goods for which freshness and quality is essential.
Prices in Poland are some of the cheapest in Europe.
Many towns, and larger suburbs, hold traditional weekly markets, similar to farmers' markets popular in the West. Fresh produce, baker's goods, dairy, meat and meat products are sold, along with everything from flowers and garden plants to Chinese-made clothing and bric-a-brac. In season wild mushrooms and forest fruit can also be bought. Markets are held on Thursdays / Fridays and/or Saturdays and are a great way to enjoy the local colour. Prices are usually set though you can try a little good-natured bargaining if you buy more than a few items.
For the most part, Polish restaurants and bars do not include gratuity in the total of the check, so your server will be pleased if you leave them a tip along with the payment. On average, you should tip 10% of the total bill. If you tip 15% or 20%, you probably should have received excellent service. Also, saying "Dziękuję" ("thank you") after paying means you do not expect any change back, so watch out if you're paying for a 10 zł coffee with a 100 zł bill. With all that said, many Poles may not leave a tip, unless service was exceptional.
Poles take their meals following the standard continental schedule: a light breakfast in the morning (usually some sandwiches with tea/coffee), then a larger lunch (or traditionally a "dinner") at around 1PM or 2PM, then a supper at around 7PM.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city center. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favorite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, a.k.a. borsch) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings (barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami), or served with a fried pate roll (barszcz z pasztecikiem). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogórkowa, a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa, typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki - well-seasoned tripe.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. There are several types of them, stuffed with a mix of cottage cheese and onion, or with meat or even wild forest fruits. Gołąbki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed or boiled and served hot with a white sauce or tomato sauce.
Bigos is another unique, if less well-known, Polish dish: a "hunter's stew" that includes various meats and vegetables, on a base of pickled cabbage. Bigos tends to be very thick and hearty. Similar ingredients can also be thinned out and served in the form of a cabbage soup, called kapuśniak. Some Austro-Hungarian imports have also become popular over the years, and adopted by the Polish cuisine. These include gulasz, a local version of goulash that's less spicy than the original, and sznycel po wiedeńsku, which is a traditional shnitzel, often served with potatoes and a selection of vegetables.
When it comes to food-on-the-go, foreign imports tend to dominate (such as kebab or pizza stands, and fast-food franchises). An interesting Polish twist is a zapiekanka, which is an open-faced baguette, covered with mushroooms and cheese (or other toppings of choice), and toasted until the cheese melts. Zapiekanki can be found at numerous roadside stands and bars.
Poland is also known for two unique cheeses, both made by hand in the [Podhale] mountain region in the south. Oscypek is the more famous: a hard, salty cheese, made of unpasteurized sheep milk, and smoked. It goes very well with alcoholic beverages such as beer. The less common is bryndza, a soft cheese, also made with sheep milk (and therefore salty), with a consistency similar to spreadable cheeses. It's usually served on bread, or baked potatoes. Both cheeses are covered by the EU Protected Designation of Origin (like the French Roquefort, or the Italian Parmegiano-Reggiano).
If you want to eat cheaply, you should visit a milk bar (bar mleczny). A milk bar is very basic sort of fast food restaurant that serves cheap Polish fare. Nowadays it has become harder and harder to find one. It was invented by the communist authorities of Poland in mid-1960s as a means to offer cheap meals to people working in companies that had no official canteen. Its name originates from the fact that until late 1980s the meals served there were mostly dairy-made and vegetarian (especially during the martial law period of the beginning of the 1980s, when meat was rationed). The milk bars are usually subsidized by the state. Eating there is a unique experience - it is not uncommon that you will encounter people from various social classes - students, businessmen, university professors, elderly people, sometimes even homeless, all eating side-by-side in a 1970s-like environment. Presumably, it is the quality of food at absolutely unbeatable price (veggie main courses starting from just a few złotych!) that attracts people. However, a cautionary warning needs to be issued - complete nut jobs do dine at milk bars too, so even if you're going to for the food, you'll end up with dinner and a show. Curious as to what the show will entail? Well, each show varies, but most of them will leave you scratching head and require the suspension of reality.
Poland is on the border of European "vodka" and "beer culture". Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks but they drink less than the European average. You can buy beer, vodka and wine. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are a must.
Officially, in order to buy alcohol one should be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID (which is strictly enforced).
Poland's brewery tradition began in the Middle Ages. Today Poland is one of top beer countries in Europe.
Although not well known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common brands include:
Deluxe (more expensive) brands include Chopin and Belvedere. Expect to pay about 100 złoty a bottle (2007 prices). Most Poles consider these brands to be "export brands", and usually don't drink them.
Poland does make a few quality wines around Zielona Góra in Dolnośląskie, Małopolskie and Podkarpackie in the Beskids with the most famous Polish wineyard in of the Dionisos of Jasło ( website only in Polish) and Świętokrzyskie in central Poland. They used to be only available from the manufacturer or at wine festivals, like in Zielona Góra. But with a new law passed in 2008, this has changed and Polish wines will also be available in retail starting in 2009.
As for imported wine, apart from the usual old and new world standards, there is usually a choice of decent table wines from central and eastern Europe, such as Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, and Georgia.
It the winter time, many Poles drink grzaniec (mulled wine), made of red wine heated with spices such as cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. A similar drink can be made with beer, although wine is the most popular method.
Mead - Miód Pitny is a traditional and historical alcohol drink in Poland. Mead is brewed from honey and has excellent unusual taste similar to wine. Original Polish mead contain 13-20% alcohol. Sometimes it can be very sweet.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you'll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities.
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wódka or beer, but rather tea and coffee.
When ordering a coffee, you'll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you'll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you'll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains highly unpopular, although chains such as Coffee Heaven have been making inroads.
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that's as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for 5 - 10 zł a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchase for the same, unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you'll probably pay something between 20 - 30 zł.
Drinking water with a meal is not a Polish tradition; having a tea or coffee afterwards is much more common. If you want water with a meal, you might need to ask for it - and you will usually get a choice of carbonated (gazowana) or still (niegazowana) bottled water, rather than a glass of tap water. Beware that even "still" bottled water, while not visibly bubbly, will still contain some carbon dioxide.
Carbonated mineral waters are popular, and several kinds are available. Poland was known for its mineral water health spas (pijalnie wód) in the 19th century, and the tradition remains strong - you can find many carbonated waters that are naturally rich in minerals and salts. You can also travel to the spas such as Szczawnica or Krynica, which are still operational.
Opinions regarding the safety of tap water vary: odds are it's OK, but most residents opt to boil or filter it anyway. Water in Warsaw, Wroclaw and the rest of Silesia has a particularly poor reputation.
Lodging prices are no longer the bargain they used to be several years ago; now they're comparable to standard European prices. For the bargain hunter, standard tactics apply: if hotel prices are too much, look on the Internet for private rooms, pensions, or apartments for rent, which can sometimes be found for a very reasonable price. Best deals are usually offered off-season.
Hostels affiliated with the national hostelling association are often horrid options for backpackers because of imposed curfews. Additionally, Hostelling International (HI) affiliated hostels are frequently used by large school groups, which means young children may very well be screaming their heads off and running around the halls. Some private Hostels are clean and welcoming, but others can be even more dangerous than HI hostels.
Studying in Poland can be an incredible experience for foreigners. Foreign students can finance a B.A. education for as low as 24,000 zł and a M.A. education for as low as 20,000 zł.
There are many international schools and great universities in Poland and of them the Jagiellonian University in particular is renowned as member of the Coimbra Group and is also a core member of the Europaeum. The University of Warsaw is the top ranked public university in Poland. National Film School in Łódź is the most notable academy.
Private universities are a recent invention, but have been successful enough where several private schools are competing with the major public universities in terms of quality. Private schools may actually be cheaper for foreign students, who are not entitled to a free education at one of Poland's public universities.
At the moment Poland is one of the best places around the world to find a job as an English teacher. TEFL courses (that's Teaching English as a Foreign Language) are run in many cities across Poland. The demand for TEFL teachers is enormous and teaching language is a brilliant way to fund your travel and earn as you go.
The European unified emergency number 112 is being deployed in Poland. By now, it certainly works for all mobile-phone calls and most landline calls. There are also three "old" emergency numbers that are still in use. These are:
Poland is overall a fairly safe country. In general, just use common sense and be aware of what you're doing.
In cities, follow standard city travel rules: don't leave valuables in the car in plain sight; don't display money or expensive things needlessly; know where you're going; be suspicious of strangers asking for money or trying to sell you something.
Pickpockets operate, pay attention to your belongings in crowds, at stations, in crowded trains/buses, and clubs.
LGBT issues remain very controversial, still very much taboo (although decreasingly so), and routinely exploited by conservative politicians. Polish culture also has a long tradition of chivalry and strong, traditional gender roles. That said, in larger cosmopolitan areas, gays and lesbians shouldn't have a hard time fitting in, although trans visitors will immediately attract attention.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous, but you will not go wrong shaking hands. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of either sex will kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (good bye) when exiting the elevator. It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals.
It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women. Poles are generally old-fashioned about gender etiquette.
Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.
The practice of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon.
It is advisable to refer to Poland (as well as to some other countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary) as Central Europe, and not Eastern Europe. Although not very offensive, if used, it may reflect foreigners' ignorance and certain disrespect on the history and clearly Latin cultural heritage of the countries from the region. Poles themselves refer to the "old" EU west of its borders as "Zachód" (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as "Wschód" (East). Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the cross-roads of Europe, right in the continent's center.
There's much more to Poland than just the German concentration camps and World War II monuments. However, the war and its consequences remain a raw wound that refuses to heal.
The Holocaust, as many historians note, is the genocide of European Jewry. However, it's also a particularly painful time for Poland. Among the victims, 3 million were Polish Jews. Additionally, over 3 million Polish Catholics were also murdered, mostly by the Germans. Many other members of minority groups, intelligentsia, and political philosophies were murdered. Between the census of 1938 and the census of 1946, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30% from 35 million to 23 million.
There is the de facto monopoly operator for landline phones - TP (Polish: Telekomunikacja Polska), a subsidiary of France Telecom, renowned for its leaving-much-to-be-desired services. There is also a number of smaller, often regional operators (Dialog, Netia, NOM, Energis). They are mainly serving the business market.
There are four mobile phone operators in Poland: Plus GSM (code 260 01), Era (260 02), Orange (260 03) and Play . The last one is mainly using Plus GSM coverage network. About 98% of the country's surface is covered by the standard European GSM 900/1800 MHz network, the remaining 2% are wildlife reserves or high mountains. UMTS is available in in about 50% of the country. Due to the introduction of virtual brands, some operators now have two names for their pre-paid services: Plus has Sami Swoi and Simplus, Era has Heyah and Tak Tak, while Orange operates Pop and Orange Go. Domestic call rates are roughly the same across all services.
All telephone numbers in Poland are 10 digits long and start with 0 - but ONLY to 1 January 2011 - after that you get "The Wrong Number" message, after 30 September 2008 you may dian ONLY 9 digits number without "0" - so if you dial number from Cracow to Warsaw - dial 0 22 xxx xx xx or 22 xxx xx xx - mobile phone number work the same - though many numbers are written the old way, that is often only the last 7 digits are listed, in which case you need to prefix the number with 0 and the area code.
There are some special numbers, notably:
Also, texting (= sending SMSes) to:
To call abroad from Poland:
To call to Poland from abroad, dial the Polish country code,48, then the number without the leading 0, as if calling from a domestic mobile phone.
International and roaming calls are expensive. To reduce your bill you can:
If you're bringing a laptop, Wireless LAN Hot-Spots are available in distinct places, sometimes free, otherwise not very cheap. Best chances of finding one are at airports, railway stations, in cafés, shopping malls and universities. You can ask in your hotel, but be prepared to pay. For those who need to connect at an internet cafe, fear not, because Poland's major cities have internet cafes.
With your mobile phone you can use: CSD, HSCSD, GPRS or EDGE, but the cost may be unattractive. UMTS/HSPA is available in almost every big and mid-size cities. If your phone is not SIM-locked, you may consider purchasing a pre-paid SIM card designed for data access. Every mobile operator offering his own pre-paid internet offer. You may purchase Era Blueconnect Starter, iPlus Simdata, Orange Free na kartę or Play Online na kartę. Internet service from Era, Plus and Orange covers all country area with GPRS/EDGE technology. In almost every big, medium and some small size cities it's possible to recive 3G/3.5G signal.
You can refill your Play account with 30 or 50 PLN
You can also consider buying a wireless 3G modem from Play
If you want to communicate with Poles, you'll need two programs - Gadu-Gadu , a Polish language instant messenger program, or Skype . Gadu-Gadu will be difficult to use for non-Polish speaking people, but alternatives such as Adium (Mac OSX), Kadu (Mac OSX/Linux), and Pidgin (Linux, Windows), all of which can be used in English, can be helpful.