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Some notes on Poland, the 3 main cities and some mountains

I’m not much of a writer and so many of you are very good at telling your stories, but here are just some tips and suggestions for the planning overthinkers out there, which I tried not to be but definitely am. The original plan was to do a long weekend tour to Bialowieza Forest. That got cancelled a few months before I left and the timing didn’t work to reschedule another one, so I added a couple nights in Zakopane but filled in the other nights with the cities I was already going to. There is plenty in them to keep busy without having to move around as much. The forest will be on the list for next time.

CLOTHES: You can all stop worrying about clothes. Europeans, both the locals and the vacationers dress as terribly as we do when it’s lucifer-hot and they aren’t going to work. Go ahead and pack your printed t-shirts, your baseball caps, whatever tennis shoes don’t make you want to die at the end of a long day. Men, if you’ve ever wanted to try capris, now is your chance. Fanny packs are fine. (Just don’t wear them correctly. Apparently, no one has explained to the youths what a “fanny” is). Rejoice! And wear whatever you want.

ENGLISH: is wide-spread at hotels, restaurants, random people on the street. No everyone will be able to help, of course, but they are certainly better at English than I am at Polish. I tried to learn but failed. I think Poland designed their language to annoy all the neighbors that keep invading it.

BOOKS: are a terrible souvenir. They’re heavy and we can get them here. I buy them anyway. I may be the only one because most of the museums didn’t have much selection in foreign languages, i.e. English.

TRANSPORTATION: The high-speed trains have a/c. The less expensive TLK ones do not. This matters in the summer. I didn’t buy ahead since I wanted to be flexible, but for reference, the price was about 50pln to buy early and 150pln last minute from Gdansk-Warsaw and Warsaw-Krakow. Also, if you write down directions using the trains in Gdansk, don’t then buy tickets for the tram. These are different things with different stops and you’ll get lost. But then again, you may get to see something you hadn’t planned on! I used Google maps offline (no public transit) and Here Maps offline (public transit but not always accurate). Neither of these were great with transit but better than nothing. Use them to get started and then look at the signs at the stops when you get where you’re going to check return trips and take a picture. This is especially needed in Krakow where the maps, even when online, had no idea what was going on with transit. But there are trams going everywhere so it shouldn’t be a big problem once you get out of the train station. The Krakow train station sucks. Can I say that? It does. I had a heck of a time figuring this one out so allow a little extra time when using it or the bus station. Generally, the cities had great transit (unless foreign politicians are visiting and mess everything up). But what I really liked were the intersections with no signals! This is very exciting if you are into cities, trust me. As far as I can tell, the trams have the right-of-way, cars stop for pedestrians and bikes, and then the cars figure it out amongst themselves. The cars do almost always stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, which takes getting used to. The fine for not stopping must be enormous or they are just much better drivers than we are.

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GDANSK FOOD: I went to both of the Piergarnia Mandu locations in Centrum and Oliwa, and they’re the same! Weird, right? They earn their good reputation. The one in Centrum was a little busier when I went but they have comfy chairs out front and even brought out a lemonade for the wait. Across the street from the Ibis is a good restaurant called Smojski Smak that was great for a couple dinners, with the bonus of being so close to the hotel that the extra shot of vodka didn’t hurt the walk home. For vegetarians or anyone craving cold soup and cold salad (it was very hot), try Manna 68.

GDANSK SHOPPING: Amber, anyone? There are a lot of similar items out there, but I picked up a long beaded necklace from Moja Forma on el. Mariacka. It’s the proprietor’s studio and she had some more unique designs that you didn’t see everywhere. She also offered to fill out the VAT refund form even though it was only about 6 bucks back. Plus, I liked her so recommend that you give her your money if you’re giving it to someone anyway. AmberArt on ul. Długa also had some things that were a little different. No VAT refund but they did give a discount. I also got a ring at a shop that didn’t have printed prices on items. I like it and don’t regret the purchase, but probably overpaid. They also “didn’t know” what the whole VAT refund thing was, so if you plan on spending a lot of money at a store, confirm this first. I did already get the 6 bucks back on the credit card, but usually figure if it’s too expensive without the refund, it’s too expensive.

GDANSK TO DO: The Solidarity Center and WW2 Museum are well discussed here and worth the time. Figure at least 3 hours for each, more if you read everything. I love museums but have decided that my brain shuts off at about the 3 hour mark so have to limit the exhibits. Both have many video/digital supplements to the displays so you could easily spend all day in one. The Solidarity Center is especially interesting, maybe because it’s less known to me, but it’s very well done. The audio guide is recommended. For the WW2 Museum, I didn’t find the audio guide as helpful since it didn’t add much new info. Better to follow the arrows that lead you through the museum and read the exhibits. I went on the free day in the morning and it was busy but not unbearable. Being summer, I should have gone in the afternoon when it was extra hot because the museum has a/c. (I may be emphasizing the a/c too much, but it was high 80’s-90). One of the other sites in old town was also closed that afternoon so I missed it.

I did get out to Oliwa and saw the church there (the unplanned extra after getting lost from taking the tram instead of the train). I got there in time for the organ concert. I’m not into organ music but I am a fan of free entertainment, and the church does not disappoint. The organ has stars that spin around and angels that bobble when “playing” the trumpets. It’s a full-on miniproduction. It’s also near one of the recommended pierogi places. Murals in Zaspa done on the sides of many apartment buildings are on the way back from there to the main station. I think there are walking tours of them but I just walked around on my own and looked until it started getting dark. Google Zaspa murals for more info. I liked them and if you like contemporary mural art and have time, it’s worth a stop.

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GDANSK TO DO, CONT.: I also did an evening kayak trip with Gdansk z Kajaka/Gdansk Kayak that I highly recommend if you’re into this sort of thing. He plans the trip based on the skill of everyone, and since our group was experienced kayakers, we got to go around the islands across from the main waterfront and quite a way out to see some of the 200-plus year old flood control and old city walls, and learn a bit about things unique to Gdansk that I wouldn’t have gotten just from walking around. Highly enjoyable even though the sunset we wanted to see didn’t cooperate. The starting point is in an industrial area but not hard to find and easy walking distance from Ibis.

WARSAW HOTEL (5 nights): Ibis Styles Warsaw City, since I had already signed up as a member. Also not in the middle of anything except a business area, but central between the Warsaw Uprising Museum, Polin, train station, and not too far from the Old Town. With a transit pass worth the price, it’s easy enough to get around. It’s also near the plac Grzybowski that had some things going on, so that was a bonus. It’s at the edge of what was the Jewish ghetto so you’ll see markings on the street showing where parts of the wall was.

WARSAW HOTEL 2 (1 night): I had one night back in Warsaw before catching the flight home, and I splurged on the H15 Boutique Hotel. I was going to try the Bristol but by the time I made the decision, the prices had jumped up. Hotels it turns out have dynamic pricing, but the H15 was not a bad option. It’s in the neighborhood south of the train station, which I really liked. It’s architecturally interesting and has shops and restaurants that cater more to locals. I didn’t get to fully enjoy the room since it was only one night, but it was comfortable and had enough amenities and supplies to have a cheese and wine dinner/appetizer in the room if you wanted to do grocery shopping.

WARSAW FOOD: Ibis is across from a place called Folk Gospoda and near Czerwony Wieprz that I think is in the RS book. Not the places to go for a light meal, but they were both good for traditional Polish. There is also a Spanish place down the street with tapas for a light dinner. Lunch at the Amber Room near Lazienki Park is a nice splurge, although this is the only place I had an issue with dynamic conversion. Most places asked and it was never an issue to pay in zloty (even heard people recommend zloty to anyone who waivered), but I took too long here to press the button and the machine automatically chose dollars for me. This is nothing against the restaurant, which I enjoyed. The recommended Bar Bambino is near the H15 hotel and it was very good. Pay, give your ticket to the women in the next window, and wait for the food. They have an English menu behind the cashier’s glass, but I went with things I know and like. Decide before you get to the cashier because this is a locals place and I don’t think they’d appreciate waiting. I ate the last night at the restaurant at H15, which was my other splurgy meal. I sat in the covered courtyard and watched the Polish soccer team while eating my fancy duck dinner. Not a bad way to finish the trip.

WARSAW SHOPPING: Need more amber? There were a couple place in Old Town on ul. Piwna that had some interesting designs that didn’t look like what I saw in Gdansk. For clothes, the Mysia 3 shops had some things that were just interesting enough but not too over the top for an unfashionable shlub like me. I was there at the end of the day (7pm) which was probably good for the wallet. No time to buy too much. The internet says other malls are open on Sundays, but the food courts are open. The stores are probably not. Sunday is not a shopping day.

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WARSAW TO DO: On the recommendation of y’all (or one of y’all), I went on the Walkative “free” walking tour of Jewish Warsaw. Highly recommended for the extra information you get about the area. There was a new highrise going in next to the Ibis with a part of an old brick wall at the base being preserved. This tour is where I learned that wall was part of an old factory that served as part of the ghetto boundary and that the old brick building across the street that was in the ghetto and is being restored as a cultural center. We heard interesting stories about these and other areas, and then the tour ended at the Polin museum. The forum decided 40pln was enough but I gave 50. He was worth it. Polin is worth at least 3 hours. They didn’t have audio guides left, but I had a quick lunch in their café and was able to pick one up before starting the museum. I was glad to have it but it’s not a necessity if you can’t get it. I couldn’t give it the full 3 hours because I went to the Jewish Historical Institute first. They have an exhibit there of written stories by people who lived in the ghetto collected by Ringleblum and others, and buried so the people and their experiences wouldn’t be forgotten. It’s worth the detour to see what people wrote, hoping the world would see. They also have genealogy researchers there. I popped in to ask how they work and was given an hour of someone’s time. They work on donations only, so I plan on sending them something. If this is part of your history and you want to do real research, they should be contacted for an appointment.

For art types, the National Museum is worth a visit. Can’t say Matejko (well-known Polish painter of the 1800s) is really my style, but they also had some early 20th century art that was very interesting and more my taste. The tower at St. Anne’s is nice at sunset. Summer in Warsaw brings free jazz concerts on Saturday evenings in the Old Town Square. August also has the Singer Jewish Culture Festival. There is a lot going on with it, but for most of us, the free concerts are the best part and are in plac Grzbowski downt he street from Ibis. They had food and stuff for sale with the festival along with the music at night. And the Chopin concerts in Lazienki Park are worth the effort if you don’t have to fill Sunday with museums. Free concerts are the benefit of summer travel.

I had planned on spending my extra day in Warsaw going to Kampinos Park to hike, but the feet were not interested in this. If you are and use public transit, the easiest starting point might be Truskaw. It’s part of the transit pass zone 1. I also considered starting there and ending in Palmiry, which would be a zone 2 pass. There is more info online, but this will get you started. Instead I went on an Odd Urban Things tour in a communist van. It covered same of the same ground I had seen in the ghetto, still worth seeing and hearing about, and then went to Praga neighborhood across the river for a brief tour and lunch. They planned on doing more of the communist era sites, but the visiting politicians really messed up traffic around the center of town. We spent an hour rather stuck in it. The guide filled in the time with stories and we made the best of it. Praga would be good walk for anyone interesting in architecture, brutalist and soviet style. There is a Konesar vodka museum there that I wanted to go to, so got dropped off there after the tour. Unfortunately, it was closed so that’ll be on the list to do for next time. That, along with a day trip to Lodz, which I didn’t do this time because museums are closed Monday and that was my free day.

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KRAKOW HOTEL (4 nights): Stayed at an Airbnb to save some money, Apartment Jonek. As per the hotel theme of the trip, it wasn’t in the middle of anything but central to all. It’s on Wojciecha Bogusławskiego (which is a real name), in the area between Old Town and Kazimierz and an easy walk to both, along with Wawel. There were tram stops, groceries and bakeries nearby, and it’s around the corner from a great local bar (Radocha). Most importantly, it had a washer. After all the heat earlier, this was important. I really liked it and was fine with the Airbnb thing, but if you prefer hotels and like the idea of the area, look up Legend Hotel. Wielpole us also not too far and I think in the RS book.

KRAKOW FOOD: Bar Grodzki was a good milk bar for lunch and I went a couple times. There is a café on the 6th floor of the music academy on Świętego Tomasza. I went up for an espresso and to take in the view. They have food these but no English menus as it’s mostly for students and people who know about it. The Blue Van is still there and the kielbasa is very good. The best flavored vodka was Elderflower, and I wish I had bought some.

KRAKOW TO DO: Naturally, Wawel Castle was on the list. I wanted to see the state rooms given their importance in Poland’s history, but there isn’t much to see. They are old rooms, and old furniture and tchotchkes, but no explanation as to what the room was used for. Maybe Poles would get it, but without descriptions, it didn’t mean anything to me. The cathedral was more interesting, using the RS tour in the book. I had thought about doing the Crazy Tour to Nowy Huta, but by the time I called, they were fully booked. Plan ahead if this is important to you. If you’re traveling alone, though, the prices are higher than shown on the website. It’s also on the list for next time. Skipped the salt mines entirely. Places are only a must see if you personally must see it, and I couldn’t get interested in this.

Auschwitz- I decided to do this on my own at my pace rather than do the tour. This meant getting there early. I didn’t see info online about the minibuses and don’t remember seeing them at the station in the morning, but there is a company called Lajkonik that has a 6:20am bus. You can buy a ticket online (15zl) ahead of time but it’s not necessary since you can buy directly from the driver and you aren’t guaranteed a seat if you buy ahead. It wasn’t a problem at the station (but still get in lines 10 minutes ahead), but they pick up other people on the way who had to stand. We got there, to the stop in the parking lot by the outdoor café, by 8am. Check the sign at the stop for return times. I had an 8:20am ticket but was allowed in early. I read Olga Lengyel’s book, “Five Chimneys” before leaving on this trip and recommend it to learn what it was like in these camps, and to get a better idea of what you are seeing when there.

Also did the Walkative tour for Kazmierz, which was also good and informative. Since I didn’t do the Crazy Tour and the ticket to the National Museum (art including-for now- a Leonardo) included some other smaller museums, I checked a couple out. There is a lovely Rembrandt at the Europeum Centre. It’s a very small museum and won’t take much of your time if you want to see it. The Jozef Meyerhoff home museum was also a worthwhile stop with time. The best church is the Franciscan as the art deco designs of the 1920’s are a nice change.

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ZAKOPANE HOTEL (2 nights): This was my filler stop since I couldn’t get to the forest. I stayed at Villa Vita located at one end of the main pedestrian street- Krupowki- and near the main street for transit from the station. It’s only about 10-minute walk, which is fine unless your suitcase has gotten much heavier than when it started. The location was good, the hotel was fine, but they have a safe in the room and it needs to be used. I usually keep the important things locked in the suitcase, and either didn’t lock it properly or it’s a terrible lock because someone got in and took the dollars I had. It wasn’t too much and could have been much worse with the passport, and cards that have since been replaced in there. (Yes, I am sure that it happened here, and no, you do not need to lecture me about using a moneybelt because I still won’t. They are annoying and since I got lucky, I’m not going to dwell, but will be a little more careful. My usual security involved diaper pins and carabiners, and I’ve recently added zipties. These work for better for me than moneybelts. Normally.) I would still consider staying here again but with more caution. The reception is only open 7:30 to 6, so if you’ll need to check out early, do it the day before.

ZAKOPANE FOOD: I wasn’t here long enough to eat out much, but for a nice dinner, Goralska Tradycja was very good. This is very much a tourist town (think Colorado mountain town) so there are plenty of places to choose from.

ZAKOPANE TO DO: The reason to come in the summer is hikes. The weather didn’t really cooperate, with clouds and rain, but it was still worth it. There is a gondola up to Kasprowy Wierch that often has very long lines. There is a place on the main street, roughly Krupowki 48, where you can tickets ahead of time. I was told there wasn’t a line so no need to do this, but at a busier time of year, it would be important. The bus stop to do to the start was a little way down the road- pay when you get off. There were only a few of us in the gondola on the way up, but near the end of the day going down, it got crowded with all the people who had actually been hiking and wanted a lift down. Buses to the start of the Morskie Oko hike are plentiful, although I never did find out how late they run. There is a lot online about other hikes that can be done in a day, and a site where you can plan your own, with estimated times and distances and elevation changes. I didn’t get to do the more extensive one I wanted given the weather and a little late start, but that is also on the list for next time. I also didn’t bring proper hiking shoes for just this, but with socks (dollar store that can be tossed after), the Keen Rose sandals were fine.

That’s it. And holy cow this is longer than expected so I hope it helps someone. And now I’ll be looking for herring in oil because it turns out I like it and didn’t stock up before leaving figuring I could get it here. Still looking!

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Thank you for taking the time to give all those details.

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KC, thanks for your trip report. We were in Poland 10 years ago and stayed in Krakow for 5 nights. While there, we visited Auschwitz and Zakapone. We were looking into going to Auschwitz and spoke with the hotel desk. Since there were 3 of us, they recommended hiring a driver, rather than bus tours. It worked out great for us since that was less expensive than a tour, and we added on the salt mine tour that day. The next day we used the same driver to go to Zakapone and enjoy the Tatra Mountains. I agree with a lot of your suggestions—clothes, English, and transportation.

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I really enjoyed your candid, detailed report! So helpful. BOOKMARKED. ;)

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Enjoyed your report! Makes me want to go back to Poland!

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Thanks for your report! Brought back many happy memories.

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"I’m not much of a writer"

Au contraire - this is a great trip report! It brought back lots of memories, from my difficulties learning even basic Polish (I found it surprisingly much harder than basic Russian), to my local Warsaw bus being diverted by a political demonstration (it took forever to find a way back to my hotel after the bus dumped me blocks away when it couldn't get through the march).

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KC I Like your writing style. I felt like we were having a friendly chat, sipping tea, and sharing travel stories/Your upbeat attitude and flexibility are good traits for solo travelers who use public transport and don't want to be on a guided tour. I have plans to visit some of these same destinations so I found your comments quite helpful.

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Thanks, All, for the kind words. I've put in my two cents for other posts but haven't done the full on trip report before. Figured for Poland, since it's less traveled here, it might be worth while. I'm ready to go back!