I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Poland, but it ended up being one of my favourite countries. From the great beer to the beautiful mountains and the fascinating history, this central European country offers a lot to travellers. To help you make the most of it, here are 20 Poland travel tips you need to know!
Hopefully these tips will cover off all the essentials from what currency to bring to what topics are dinner-party appropriate.
Most importantly, I hope they’ll help you to avoid my massive faux pas of eating a sizeable snack before going to dinner at my Polish friends’ house (my jeans still don’t button up, four days later.)
I do just want to make a very quick disclaimer here to say that I’m not pretending to be an expert on all things Polish. I also very much recognise that some of these things are generalisations, in the same way that “Australians are drunkards who love to swear” is also a generalisation (although that one is correct more often than not).
Of course not every person or place is the same, but I do hope that these Poland travel tips give you a useful starting point for your trip to amazing Poland.
1. The weather can be extreme in Poland
Honestly, when I think of Poland, I think mainly of the freezing cold. In my defence, this is partly because of the stories I’ve heard from my Polish friends about braving feet of snow to go to work. (Unlike in England, where the idea alone of a snowflake leads to pandemonium).
So, imagine my surprise when I arrived to Poland in early June and ended up sunburnt. Yep, my Australian self – raised on our national motto of ‘slip, slop, slap’ – got sunburnt in Poland.
As it turns out, Poland has a very variable climate. In the winter, it can reach freezing temperatures of -20°C, while summer sees it reach 30°C and above.
So, definitely check the weather report before you visit Poland, and bring clothes for a range of conditions. And if you’re visiting in summer – I’d recommend bringing some sunscreen!
2. Poland is perfect for walking!
Another fascinating thing I learned about Poland is that it has been referred to as the ‘Highway of Europe’ thanks to its geographic features.
As well as being located smack bang in the middle of the continent of Europe, it is also predominantly flat. Except for the area around Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains, for the most part Poland is very flat.
This makes Poland perfect for walking and cycling. I am one of the laziest people on earth, and I managed to clock up nearly 100 kilometres walked during our week-and-a-half in Poland.
I definitely think exploring Poland’s cities on foot is the way to go. Walking around the cities will allow you to take in the spectacular beauty and discover so many hidden gems.
So, make sure you bring your walking shoes and get to exploring this amazing place!
3. There are fabulous free walking tours all over the country
While we are on the topic of walking, I’ve also got to highly recommend the free walking tours that you can take in Poland’s most visited cities.
I love a good walking tour and have tried them everywhere from Spain to Savannah, but the ones in Poland were particularly top-notch. We went with Walkative (this is not sponsored), and the quality was really, really good.
They were one of the earliest adopters of the free walking tour phenomenon that has spread throughout Europe and beyond. In fact, they even got the domain freewalkingtour.com!
For over a decade they’ve been perfecting the art of giving a great free walking tour, and I think they do an amazing job. The tours were funny, informative and factually accurate. A gold star for Walkative!
Undoubtedly, if you’re looking for budget Poland travel tips, then pick up some free walking tours! They are in Krakow, Wrocław, Torun, Poznan and Gdansk.
4. Poland does not use the Euro
Poland is very much a part of the European Union, but there are a few things Poland does a bit differently than most other EU countries.
Most notably, Poland does not use the Euro. Sure, it is begrudgingly accepted in some restaurants (and gratefully accepted by the free walking tours), but it is decidedly not Poland’s official currency.
That, instead, is the Polish złoty (pronounced zwoty). The exchange rate is approximately 4 zł to the euro, but it does fluctuate a little. You’ll easily find places to exchange other currencies including USD, GBP and AUD.
Another unique thing about Poland is that although it is part of the Schengen Zone, it records arrivals and departures more stringently than other Schengen countries.
5. English is widely spoken, but Polish is appreciated
Nothing makes me feel more lazy language-wise than hearing non-native speakers of English apologise for their poor English — and then speaking it better than most English speakers.
This is certainly the case in Poland, or at least in the tourist hotspots like Krakow and Gdansk. It was really easy to find English speakers, and the command most Polish people have of the English language is very impressive.
It was so good that I wondered if it was worth trying to speak Polish, considering how I was butchering it. I asked my Polish friends, who told me that it was not expected, but would be appreciated.
I definitely felt like making some small efforts in Polish were appreciated and helped break the ice. Just really small things like hello/good morning – dzien dobry (“jin dobrey”), and thank you – dziękuję (“jin koo yeh” – that one really got me) will go a long way.
6. There is so much more than just Krakow
When I am planning to visit a new travel destination, I usually start by having a look at where guided tours visit. I like to take a look at companies like G Adventures and Intrepid to check out what they think are the hotspots.
With Poland, it quickly became obvious there is one very big hotspot: Kraków. I quickly grew bored of looking at the itineraries – it was just Kraków, Kraków, Kraków.
(That last sentence might have been a tad self-indulgent. I just love the name Kraków).
Having been to this stunning city in south Poland, it doesn’t surprise me that Kraków features on so many itineraries. It is stunningly beautiful, and you certainly won’t get any arguments from me about adding it to your stay in Poland.
That said, there is so much more to Poland than Kraków. If at all possible, I really do think visiting other places — large cities like Gdansk, or smaller ones like Torun — will really add so much to your time in Poland.
7. Tap water is safe, but many Polish people don’t drink it
One interesting quirk about Poland is that while the water is totally safe to drink, most Polish people (particularly older people) will not drink it.
In fact, while we’d been assured the drinking water was totally safe, we couldn’t help but double check when we saw so many Polish people buying bottled water.
It’s not entirely clear to me why Polish people don’t trust the water, but I suspect it has something to do with the difficult communist times. Whatever it is, don’t be surprised if you get a bit of a funny look asking for tap water – but you can totally drink it.
8. Do not, repeat DO NOT, eat before having dinner with a Polish friend
I must put my hand up and confess that I made a terrible, terrible mistake in Poland. One of the worst of all my travels.
I had a big snack before I visited my Polish friends for dinner.
This, I tell you, is NOT A GOOD IDEA. I arrived to a smorgasbord of Polish treats, vodkas, cakes and more. Once I was utterly stuffed on those, out came the pierogis.
And they just kept on coming.
We had cream cheese pierogis. Meat pierogis. Strawberry pierogis. Blackberry pierogis.
Each was more delicious than the last, but with each bite I cursed that snack I’d had beforehand.
Trust me, Polish people feed visitors like Italian Nonnas. There will be lots of food, and it will be delicious. Just don’t eat beforehand, and don’t be shy to ask for seconds.
9. There is no “open container” policy in Poland
Many Polish cities are known as party hotspots, and attract travellers who participate in varying degrees of revelry. We’d often hear the evidence of these parties until very early in the morning.
The popularity of Poland’s pubs and bars and the many events like pub crawls mean there’s a really festive atmosphere in many cities.
While this is the case, your holiday fun might suddenly be not so fun if you get a fine for having an open container. It’s illegal to drink on the street in Poland. So, don’t take your drink away from the comfort of the bar.
To be honest, the bars in Poland are super nice – so just take a seat and enjoy, before moving on.
10. Polish people are very, very proud of Pope John Paul II
I do not believe it is possible to visit Poland without hearing a lot about Pope John Paul II. He is an incredibly well-respected figure who is said to have contributed hugely to Poland both spiritually and politically.
It’s no surprise, really. While any country is sure to be proud of raising a Pope, this was particularly so for Poland.
The country is said to be 95% Catholic, so his election as Pope really united the country. Millions of people attended his Masses, despite discouragement from the communist Government. In addition, he brought a lot of hope to the people during the communist years, and even contributed during the Solidarity movement.
While I found Polish people to be generally fairly open, our tour guide did tell us that criticising Pope John Paul II was a quick way to lose friends in Poland!
11. You will need an international driver’s licence if you’re from outside the EU
No matter how startlingly well Polish people speak English, it’s worth remembering that it is not one of the country’s official languages.
This means that legally, you need an international driver’s permit if you’re from outside the EU, and your home licence is in English.
From what I have read, it’s unlikely you will be asked to produce it by the police when driving in Poland. However, what is almost guaranteed is being asked to show it when you go to pick up a rental car.
If you’re Australian, it’s pretty easy and cheap to pick one up. They’re issued by the Australian Automobile Association (how quaint and olde worlde), and you can find out more information here.
As I am writing this, it means Brits are still permitted to drive on their regular, EU licence. Sadly, this is yet another thing Brexit is about to screw up – so get ready to apply for an IDP, guys!
12. Tipping is appreciated at restaurants etc
As an Australian, tipping is not a strength of mine. Honestly, other parts of the world make it look so easy — yet I somehow manage to make every interaction awkward.
Luckily, things are relatively straightforward in Poland. Service industries (eg restaurants and tours) generally appreciate a tip in the region of 10%.
You would usually leave the tip in cash on the table once you leave, or just tell the person to keep the change. It’s a good idea to keep some smaller notes for this purpose as the tip will often be around 5 – 15 zł.
In some of the bigger, fancier restaurants you can add service onto the credit card machine. However, I wouldn’t rely on this, especially at smaller cafes and restaurants.
13. Vodka is not as common as you might think (but there is plenty)
I thought Poland and vodka went hand-in-hand, not least because of my penchant for Soplica (if anyone knows where to get that in Australia, please let me know!).
While there is definitely vodka in Poland — it’s both drunk and crafted in high quantities — I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as prevalent as I’d expected.
Generally speaking, I found that beer was a more common offering at restaurants, bars and cafes. Of course, this may have been partly as I was there in summer, but it was definitely noticeable.
So, while you won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for vodka, there’s also fabulous beer if that’s more your thing.
14. Polish people can be quite direct
I love England, but if there is one thing I struggle with it’s the beating around the bush. Honestly, England, I love you, but why don’t you ever say what you mean? I’m bad at taking hints, and I can only imagine how many I’ve missed while residing in the UK.
You know where I was confident — Poland. While people are kind and friendly, they can also be quite direct and to the point. Your questions will be answered directly. You will not be asked “how are you” unless they really want to know.
I have been told that some people find Polish people a bit rude or blunt. This really was not my experience — my Polish friends agreed that it’s just a cultural thing.
Polish people are less likely to pad out conversations with heaps of pleasantries. It’s not meant to be offensive, it’s just the way it is!
15. Polish people are also very proud — and why wouldn’t you be?
Another general observation about Polish people is that they are usually very proud of Poland. Apparently, National Independence Day on 11 November is one of the biggest celebrations in Poland.
Poland really is very beautiful, so I’m not surprised that local people are proud of it. You’re likely to get a big smile if you genuinely compliment Poland and its beautiful cities and places.
In addition, if you appreciate the history of Poland (and particularly the way it was wiped from the map in the 19th century), it makes sense that people celebrate the Poland of today.
Polish culture has really been suppressed at various points in history, so I can appreciate why it would be so openly celebrated nowadays.
16. Politics is not off limits, but can be sensitive
While Polish people are very proud of their country, I found that overall they are more open about politics than the Brits and some other nationalities.
Of course, I wouldn’t recommend shouting about your opinions of the European Union from Neptune’s Fountain in Gdansk. But, between friends it is not a no-no to get a bit political.
Just like in Australia, politics can be a touchy subject. I’d recommend treading lightly, as there’s nothing like surprisingly opposing opinions to create an argument over your pierogi!
That said, the desire for free speech was a big driver of the end of communism, so I found that most Polish people are politically engaged and not offended by political question or discussion.
17. Parking and driving in the cities is a bit of a nightmare
Something that always catches me off guard as an Australian is how a lot of European cities just aren’t really set up for cars. Krakow, and to a lesser extent Gdansk, is definitely one of these cities.
In quite a lot of the Old Town in Krakow, cars are prohibited – makes sense when you’ve got a combination of thousands of tourists, narrow streets and cheap vodka.
Even if you can technically drive, you’ll likely be crawling along, circling the city until you find a carpark that’s got space.
If you’re planning on spending most of your time in cities in Poland, I’d recommend skipping the car in favour of your two feet, and FlixBus! (Not sponsored, I just freaking love FlixBus).
18. Even in the big cities, most shops close on Sundays
Another major fail occurred when I tried to find a birthday present at the last minute on a Sunday in Kraków.
We actually thought it must have been a public holiday because it was so difficult to find an open shop. Apart from a couple of convenience stores, things really seemed closed up.
It turns out that this is linked to the fact that Poland is so overwhelmingly Catholic. The Government has decided that shops should close on Sundays, and has been phasing this in – much to the chagrin of some Poles.
As a result, only a few stores remain open on Sundays. I believe at the moment, most shops are open one Sunday per month — but even that is set to change.
So, if you have any specific items you need (like a birthday present), make sure you don’t only leave yourself with a Sunday to get it!
19. You need to pre-book a lot of attractions
I am a bit of a hot mess traveller, if I’m honest. As much as part of me loves the idea of having a well-organised spreadsheet and printables, I’m more likely to turn up at the bus station looking frazzled.
This presented a bit of a problem in Poland. Quite a lot of the attractions – such as Schindler’s Factory, the Underground Museum and the Salt Mine in Krakow, require pre-booking. This is because only a certain number of people are allowed in at a time, and there are timeslots.
You can always turn up on the day to see if there are any extra tickets. If you do this, I’d recommend getting there right when they open.
If you have your heart set on attending certain attractions, you’ll probably want to book a minimum of 3 days – and preferably more – in advance. This is especially the case during high season!
Pre-booking transport other than buses is also recommended. As mentioned in my Poland budget wrap up, train travel in particular can be quite pricey in Poland if you’re booking last minute.
On the other hand, you can just book buses on the day.
20. A bit of knowledge about Poland’s history will go a long way in understanding it!
I love history, and I always believe that understanding a little about a country’s past will really help you to appreciate it in the present.
There are few places where this is more true than Poland.
I am, personally, particularly interested in modern history, from the turn of the 20th century onwards. I found Poland one of the most fascinating countries ever from this perspective, and learning about the major events (including the start of WWII and the Solidarity movement) really helped me to appreciate this.
I’d really recommend doing just a little bit of research to get a vague timeline of Poland’s history before you visit. It really will help you to appreciate the cities — and maybe win your next pub quiz!