One of the things I love about traveling to a destination that you have never been before is discovering something special and generating lasting memories that were unexpected when you departed. The main motive for me to visit was touring Auschwitz and other historic Jewish sites during WWII, but I left with a great appreciation for the beauty, culture and cuisine of modern day Poland. Not to mention that Canadian dollars are at a 1 to 3 exchange to the Polish zloty.
We started our journey in central Warsaw which is dominated by the tallest building in Poland, the Pałac Kultury i Nauki, the Palace of Culture and Science. The building is surrounded by squares and parks adding presence to the size of the building. One side of the building is Parade Square which also gives you access to the Centrum Metro station and the Galeria Centrum shopping mall across the street.
I found central Warsaw to be a bit grey with many of the buildings built from concrete and stone, but there are some recent developments on Aleja Jana Pawla II, adding some modern architecture and and colour to this busy neighborhood. Shop the outdoor stalls for freshly cut flowers, fruit and vegetables before heading into the Mirowska market to see all there is for offer. Across the street there are many boutiques, shops and cafe’s to visit as you travel south. At Zlota you will reach Zlote Tarasy or Golden Terraces, whether you love to shop or not, this is a mall you must experience. Its charm and glamour is exuded in the natural light that streams through its amazingly contoured glass ceiling. Grab a coffee for some people watching inside this amazing structure.
For me, the beauty of Warsaw is found by traveling through the wall into Old Town. Here the city comes alive, the squares are filled with restaurant patios, the buildings are adorned with sculptures, mosaics, murals and brightly coloured tiles. It is the place to gather and have a relaxing dinner with friends while enjoying the sites and history along the Wiska River. There are even opportunities to climb up one of the towers for a great view of the square, old town and the modern city growing beyond.
When your feet have tired of walking on cobblestones venture over to Ogród Saski, The Saxon Garden. Pass the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the magnificent fountains and statues behind, venture further through the park to gardens a man made lake and a change to sit and relax at the pillared gazebo at the top of the hill.
We then boarded the Polish Railway on a first class car from Warsaw to Kraków. I have used Euro Rail and the member railways to travel all over parts of Europe. When ordering you tickets through your travel agent before you depart or when you are purchasing tickets in your destination I would encourage you to compare both 1st and 2nd class tickets. With a 2nd class ticket there are some limitations including seat availability, having to purchase on board snacks and drinks, and if you are on a busy route the sheer volume of passengers. If you have a 2nd class ticket board the cars with a large #2 on the outside. On a longer haul or a very busy route, I would suggest upgrading to a 1st class ticket. For a little more money, you are guaranteed a seat, sometimes you will even get a private cabin for your journey, often food and snacks are complimentary as well as access to VIP lounges including drinks, WIFI and more at departure and arrival stations. Boarding and departing the train can also be easier without groups of tourists sitting on their bags at exit doors.
Kraków is a much more colourful city than Warsaw, the city is focused around Rynek Główny, the Grand Square in Old Town. Around the square find many restaurants with patios, cafes and boutiques. The square is alive with artists selling their goods, tourists and locals sitting on patios people watching, and others passing through on their way to the next destination. Operators promoting their tours by horse carriage, golf cart, or bus to the historical sites of the city and Jewish memorial sites are here looking for their next hire.
The Old Town area is filled with churches and other places of worship and continued learning including the Pontifical University of John Paul II. I would suggest that Bazyliki Mariackiej (St. Mary’s Basilica) in the Grand Square is the one to explore, and probably the most famous in Poland. The interior is breathtaking with incredible paintings, brightly painted walls adorned with gold and a hand craved altar. You can also climb the stairs to the lookout on the tallest tower and hear the story of the 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm against an attack on the city. There is an homage to event every hour on the square as a trumpeter’s tune is ended abruptly from the top tower.
There is an amazing series of parks all around the old walled city, filled with people on bikes, walking with strollers, hanging out on benches or playing with their dog. There are fountains and statues and exposed sections of the wall, the area is simply picturesque, you may want to grab a seat on the bench and rest up for the upcoming staircase, giving you access to Wawel. The parks lead around the old city to The Royal Castle perched on Wawel Hill overlooking the Wisła River.
The Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanisław and Vaclav is the main attraction as it was the coronation site of Polish royalty, is the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Kraków and Pope John Paul II offered his first Mass as a priest here. There are also a couple of museums on site showing the armory of the royals of Wawel. There are a couple of great cafes here giving you a great view and a light snack.
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