16 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Going to Poland
To save you from reading an elaborate intro (or to save me from writing one - you'll never know!), today I'm sharing all of the things I wish I had known before going to Poland. From things I wish I had researched better, to things I wish people had told me and things I hope will help anyone headed to this beautiful country. Because if you love to travel but could do without Europe's overrated destinations, you'll be pleasantly surprised in Poland.
1. They don't use Euro in Poland
I should have known that, despite being in the European Union, Poland does not use euro. The national currency in Poland is złoty (pronounced zwoty) and a quick google search would have told me so. Instead, I didn't find out until the night before we left for Poland which, I'll admit, was a rookie mistake. Złoty is abbreviated as PLN or zł and groszy is the equivalent to cents in Poland. The odd hotel or restaurant may accept euro or dollars but ATM's and exchange counters can be found throughout the counter so you won't have a problem getting local currency.
2. Yes, they Speak English
After their native tongue, English is the second most common language spoken in Poland. It's taught in schools and almost anyone working in the tourism industry of a big city speaks English to some degree. You may not hear it in small towns and among older locals but you'll get by just fine in the country's top tourist destinations. And while I can attest to the fact that many speak English, I've also witnessed that, if asked, many pretend not to understand when shy or afraid to reveal their accent. I heard "Sorry for my bad English" quite often despite their English being better than my Polish.
3. It won't hurt you to Learn Polish
After visiting the country twice now, Wes and I have learned a few words and phrases to help us get by. Knowing some basic greetings when visiting a new country will go a long way and came in handy for us when travelling off the beaten path to cities like Tarnow and Lodz. However, I can't say Polish is an easy language to learn. I stopped trying to sound out the overwhelming number of sz's cz's and dz's in the language and instead focus on how Polish words are spoken. It was much easier for me to ask a local how to say 'excuse me' in Polish than to try and figure out how in the heck to pronounce the word 'przepraszam'. To save you the headache, it sounds like shep-rush-am.
4. Milk Bars are not Bars that Sell Milk
Ok, you can't blame me for assuming here! Contrary to the name, milk bars (or bar mleczny in Polish) are affordable, cafeteria-style restaurants that you'll find throughout Poland. In the past, milk bars were subsidized by the government for workers but today you can visit one and find complete homemade-style meals for as little as $2-3. Our visits to milk bars included a lot of guesswork and miming but it's an experience we would recommend to anyone travelling to Poland.
5. You will be eating more than just Pierogi
If you had asked me two years ago to name one Polish food other than pierogi you would have heard crickets. Ask me now and I'll tell you not to leave Poland without having (at least) tried bigos, borscht, żurek, kopytka, gołąbki, placki ziemniaczane and zapiekanka. But despite all the delicious food to be had in Poland, I have to admit pierogi is what I look forward to having first!
6. You will drink more than just Vodka
Another stereotype we've all heard is that Polish people only drink vodka. And, while we did have our fair share in Poland, there is more to be enjoyed. Like beer. Often ranking in the top 10 for world's biggest beer drinkers, beer is no joke in Poland. Žywiec and Tyskie aside, there's an impressive craft beer scene growing in cities all over the country. I was pleasantly surprised to nearly always find a local IPA in bars, eateries and grocery stores. It's worth noting that, unlike neighbouring Germany and Czechia, drinking in public is not allowed in Poland. This is also where Wes and I first got a taste of kompot: a deliciously sweet beverage made with fruit and served either hot or cold (depending on the season).
🍻 CHEERS = NA ZDROWIE 🍻
7. The Buildings are Not Dull and Grey
There are, regrettably, many people in this world who still think of Poland as a bleak country full of gloomy cities and run-down buildings and that's just not true. Not even in the underappreciated city of Katowice. Instead what you'll find are beautiful town squares complete with colourful buildings, cobblestone roads and an undeniable European charm. If I had to pick, Poznan and Wroclaw have my favourite old towns. But Krakow's main square is beautiful too. And then there's Torun, Gdansk... You see, they're all beautiful in their own right.
8. Be Prepared to Meet the Most Hospitable People
Just the other day, our friend Marta (from the YouTube channel Marticore) asked Wes to participate in her next "Tweets about Polish People" video. It's a funny video series about exactly that and we were asked to address the tweet: "I'm thinking of moving to Poland. I wonder if Polish people are welcoming." You can watch our answer here but, in short, Polish people share that same feed-you-till-you-have-to-unbutton-your-pants level of hospitality that we've found in countries all over the world. You may inevitably cross paths with a grumpy shop owner but, in our case, we've encountered some of the most welcoming people in Poland. Maybe even too welcoming...
Not hungry? Here, have some gołąbki (cabbage rolls).
Already ate? Ok, have some pączki (doughnuts).
Lost? I'll walk you all the way to where you're going.
Thirsty? Let's just finish the bottle.
9. Make Time to Travel Beyond Warsaw
If Poland has made it's way on to your travel list, you've likely made plans to visit Warsaw. Maybe even Krakow. I'd really encourage you to make time for some of the other well-preserved cities though. In my opinion, Wroclaw, Poznan and Gdansk are worthy of making their way onto a first-timer's itinerary. If it weren't for the dozens of recommendations we were getting from viewers, we might not have had the chance to discover so many of Poland's beautiful cities.
10. The People are Proud (but Sensitive)
There's an undeniable sense of pride among Polish people. They value their traditions and can be sensitive to criticism. This all came to our attention after various bold comments on our YouTube channel but it certainly helped us understand more of the culture in Poland. They mean well but are not the least bit shy to correct you when you're in the wrong. Which brings me to my next point...
11. Avoid saying you're in Eastern Europe
I can't tell you how many times we were corrected and/or reminded that Poland is in Central Europe and not Eastern Europe. There's no solid line running down the continent to help you identify this but I can't blame Polish people for not wanting to be labelled as Eastern Europeans. There doesn't seem to be a clear-cut consensus online that distinguishes between Western, Central and Eastern Europe but if you know of a reliable source, please share it in the comments.
12. Warsaw's Palace of Culture is not that Beautiful
One of the first things we noticed when coming out of the main train station in Warsaw is the towering Palace of Culture and Science. Initially we thought it looked like a beautiful building but the skyscraper is actually very controversial in Poland. Construction began in the 1950's amid Warsaw's post-war ruins and was somehow intended as a 'gift' by Stalin himself. Some say you truly get the best views of Warsaw from its observation deck because you can't see the Palace if you're in it.
13. You Will Not Experience Racism
I wasn't sure if I should include this on the list at all but it's here. Wes' blue eyes and fair skin allow him to blend in well when we're travelling in Europe which isn't the case for me. Racism in Poland is something I've read a lot about online but, after weeks of travelling throughout the country on two separate occasions, I can say that I haven't experienced any hostility or racist behaviour myself.
14. You'll Find the Biggest Castle In The World
I had no idea that the biggest castle in the world (when measured by land area) is found in Poland. Malbork Castle was built by the Teutonic Knights and we visited the impressive castle grounds as a fun day trip from Gdansk. Despite it's size, there's a long list of castles in Poland that are even more beautiful than Malbork!
15. You Will Build Friendships That Last
Wes and I have travelled to over 20 countries together but nowhere have we built more lasting friendships than in Poland. Because of our travels and videos, we were able to meet Arek in Warsaw, Marta in Lodz, Adam, Sonia and Ines in Wroclaw, Michał in Torun, Ola and Antonina in Poznan and Czarek and Eva in Northern Ireland. They've graciously showed us around their hometowns, fed us delicious foods and even hosted us on their couches. No words can express how grateful we are for the generosity and support. We keep in touch regularly and look forward to returning the favour at some point!
16. You Will Fall in Love
There's something to be said about visiting a country that blows any and all of your expectations out of the water. We first landed in Warsaw with the idea that this was simply our cheap ticket to Europe and ended up not wanting to leave some 5 weeks later. And while I wish I had known how much I would come to love Poland, I do appreciate the element of surprise. Dziękuję Polska. Dziękuję bardzo.
One last thing I wish I had known before travelling to Poland is that our YouTube channel would BLOW UP the second we published our first video in Poland. When we landed in Warsaw, we wanted to update our audience (of less than 1,000 subscribers at this point) and published a casual video about our flight, our first days and our Workaway experience. I'd likely cringe if I were to watch it now but that video is our most watched video on the channel with nearly 225,000 views. As our travels continued in Poland, so did our channel's momentum and we ended up leaving the country 5 weeks later with over 5,000 subscribers. If it weren't for the hundreds of comments and suggestions we received in those weeks, I'm not sure we would have seen as much of Poland as we did that year. While our YouTube audience is more evenly spread out over the globe now, our views still triple every time we publish a video that has anything to do with Poland! And yes, this is me plugging our channel here.
Travel in Poland: Where to go
Over the last two years, we've spent several weeks exploring different cities in Poland. In no particular order, here is a list of all the cities we've been to with links to our Poland travel videos and blog posts to keep inspiring your future travels:
POZNAN, Poland: See the iconic merchant houses, try the legally-protected croissant (Rogale Świętomarcińskie) and roam Cathedral Island.
TORUN, Poland: Learn about the tradition of gingerbread in the charming, medieval city where Copernicus was born.
KATOWICE, Poland: Visit the impressive Silesian Museum and marvel at the unique Nikiszowiec neighbourhood.
TARNOW, Poland: With a charming town square and dozens of museums, Tarnow is a great escape from Poland's busier cities.
LODZ, Poland: An underappreciated city with plenty of trendy bars along Piotrkowska, a lively arts and film scene and Manufaktura.
GDANSK, Poland: An impressive base for exploring Westerplatte and more of the tri-city area with lots of great restaurants.
SOPOT, Poland: Experience the seaside charm, wooden pier and relaxing beaches along the northern shore of Poland.
MALBORK, Poland: Tour the grounds of Malbork Castle, the largest castle in the world (by land area).
KRAKOW, Poland: Uncover hidden gems and enjoy delicious food in one of our favourite Polish cities.
WROCLAW, Poland: Try to spot the painted window in the colourful old town, admire the city from Sky Tower and enjoy Ostrów Tumski at dusk.
When (not if!) we're back in Poland again, our plan is to continue exploring some of the country's lesser-known destinations. From the northern coastal spots of Kolobrzeg and Hel to the southern Tatra and Bieszczady mountains, we've still got plenty to uncover. Until then, we hope we've inspired you to see more of the world and add some of Poland's beautiful cities to your travel list!