Poland is a nation of incredible beauty and terrible tragedy. Rarely have I felt so many conflicting emotions in one destination. But to travel there and overlook the past is impossible. As a Polish friend told me, everyone she knows has been affected in some way by war and occupation, whether through the loss of family, friends, or possessions. The stories permeate the fabric of their lives. That makes modern Poland’s economic success all the more remarkable. This seven-day itinerary will take you to Warsaw, Krakow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, three of Poland’s most historically significant sites. There will be moments of joyful discovery and also some tears. Hopefully by the end of the week you will have gained a better appreciation for this complicated part of the world.
Warsaw – Two Days
Begin your lesson in the Polish capital, Warsaw. Founded in the 12th century, medieval Warsaw was obliterated by the Nazis during World War II. Heavily bombed at the start of the War, the worst damage was sustained in retaliation for the courageous Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation. By the time the Nazis were defeated by Allied troops, 85% of city buildings were destroyed and the ethnically-diverse population was wiped out. Adding insult to injury, the Soviet “liberators” stuck around, claiming Poland (and much of Eastern Europe) as spoils of war. Polish fighters and citizens were persecuted by the new Communist government which remained in power until 1989.
Despite all this, the people of Poland managed the most brilliant reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town that you can possibly imagine. I was flabbergasted by the attention to detail! (So was UNESCO, who rewarded the effort with World Heritage status.) The painting and plastering techniques used by local experts make the buildings seem authentically old – even upon close inspection – yet they date only to the 1950s. Looking back through my photos, I still can’t believe what they managed to achieve.
Spend one day in Warsaw wandering the re-created medieval streets and admiring the pastel-colored architecture. On day two, visit the Warsaw Rising Museum and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. These informative and interactive museums will give you a better understanding of the struggle and perseverance of the city and its people. On the morning of the third day, take the train (2.5 hours) to Krakow.
Krakow – Two Days
While Warsaw was annihilated, Krakow’s beautiful structures were left more or less in tact. What began as a small trading settlement in the 7th century flourished as a member of the Hanseatic League. Krakow was established as the capital of the Kingdom of Poland in 1038 and became a respected center of learning thanks to its royally endowed university. Copernicus can be counted among the city’s many illustrious students. Merchants flocked to the important hub and established a covered market in the center of town that could stay open for business year-round. That magnificent structure – the Cloth Hall – forms the heart of Krakow’s Old Town to this day.
But just because Krakow’s architecture survived WWII doesn’t mean that the city and its people didn’t suffer tremendously. They did. The large Jewish population was forced into the Krakow Ghetto, where many perished from starvation and disease. The rest were murdered at Nazi camps. A few were saved by Oskar Schindler who employed Ghetto inmates in his factories. Schindler’s enamelware factory and a fragment of the tombstone-shaped Ghetto wall still stand as reminders of that dark time. Amazingly, seven of Krakow’s original synagogues were also left standing despite the wholesale demolition of Jewish places of worship elsewhere in the country. Several now serve as museums.
Spend two days exploring Krakow, from its fairytale-esque Old Town to Kazimierz, the rejuvenated Jewish neighborhood now home to museums and restaurants. (I’ll be publishing a more in-depth guide to Krakow’s many attractions soon.)
Auschwitz-Birkenau – One Day
No place is more emblematic of Poland’s heartbreaking history than Auschwitz. More than 1,100,000 human beings, 90% of them Jewish, were systematically murdered here by the Nazis. I have read a lot of books about WWII and the Holocaust, and still it’s unfathomable to me that a genocide of this magnitude was allowed to go on. I’m not sure anyone can ever understand the cruelty or the monstrous hate. Visiting the Auschwitz extermination camp is a brutal experience. (I was impressed to see so many German tourists there; it can’t be easy to own that history.) Walking past the piles of discarded prosthetic limbs and eyeglasses, standing inside the crematorium where the victim’s bodies were incinerated, I was overcome with a deep sense of loss and despair. The voice of our guide, shaking with emotion and describing unimaginable horrors, echoed in my ears. Her dark words and the evil buildings stood in stark contrast to the lovely spring weather, the blue skies and yellow flowers seeming so out of place.
From Auschwitz we traveled on to Birkenau, a nearby Nazi extermination camp also known as Auschwitz II. While most of Birkenau’s buildings were demolished after liberation, it was chilling to stare down the train tracks that delivered so many humans to their deaths. The size of the place was mind boggling. At the end of the tour, our guide beseeched us to return home and tell others about what we’d seen. I couldn’t help wondering about her personal connection to the site – how many family members did she lose? It is an experience I won’t soon forget.
Krakow – One Day
I gave myself one full day in Krakow to recover from Auschwitz (really, that took weeks) and soak up some more of the city’s gorgeousness. Wawel Castle is a fantastic note to end on. The hilltop fortress dates to the 11th century and includes a grand cathedral and “modern” 16th century royal palace. The complex is surrounded by thick stone walls and reminded me more than a little of Prague Castle. I spent several hours exploring, from the top of the Wawel Cathedral bell tower all the way down to the royal tombs. A highlight was the Cathedral Museum, which was overflowing with papal jewels and silver.
Later that day or the next morning, take the train back to Warsaw for your return flight home. You can check the schedule and purchase tickets here.