How many times have you said to yourself, “Let’s take the family on a two-week road trip in Poland?” I’m here to tell you why Poland should be your next summertime road trip destination. From visiting Europe’s largest castle to making gingerbread, windsurfing on the Baltic Sea and hiking in the stunning Tatra mountains, Poland is rich not only in history and culture, but also warm-weather activities for the family.
What’s more, a two-week trip in Poland won’t break the bank, but it will change your perception of what this central European nation is all about and how it has changed in recent years. While flying into Warsaw and renting a car is probably the best option for travel, this whole trip is also entirely doable by train and ferry.
The best place to start your Polish adventure is in the capital, Warsaw. Destroyed during WWII, this central European town has rebuilt, and it has a certain pride, modernity and bustling vibe that beckons you to explore. With fantastic science and history museums, a wide array of green spaces and parks that boast singing benches and musical fountains, and a colorful Old Town reminiscent of what Warsaw looked during its “golden days,” you will want to spend at least two days exploring.
Highlights include the Old Town, the Royal Palace, the Copernicus Science Center (a huge hit for family members of all ages) the Warsaw Rising Museum (better with older children), Saxon Gardens and Royal Park Lazienki. For accommodations, look no further than the historic Hotel Bristol, a luxurious respite for the whole family that is within short walking distance of the Royal Palace and Old Town. Check the hotel’s wall of fame to see which celebrities, from Pablo Picasso to Sophia Loren and ZZ Top, have been guests over the years.
From Warsaw, head two and a half hours north to Torun. Small but mighty in its impression, Torun will reel you in as you fall in love with its beautiful Gothic architecture, cobbled streets, outdoor sculptures and stunning location on the banks of the Wisla River. This is the place to see and experience authentic Polish culture and avoid the crowds.
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The quaint town is known for two things: astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (who was born here) and gingerbread. Both Polish and foreign visitors make special trips to this to this remarkably well-preserved medieval European trading town just to sample and learn the secrets of its gingerbread-making ingredients and techniques. Affectionately known as Poland’s “gingerbread capital,” Torun has museums, hands-on bakeries, gingerbread ice cream and gingerbread beer dedicated to the popular Christmas delicacy. Stop by the interactive Museum of Torun Gingerbread to learn about the city’s history of gingerbread-making and even participate in a baking workshop yourself (book in advance online).
Next door to the museum is Central Coffee Perks. If you are a Friends fan, it may be worth a visit for a cup of coffee and some classic Friends reruns, which play without interruption. Also on the must-do list is the Old Town square, Copernicus’ home and the Teutonic Knights’ Castle ruins. Consider climbing the Tower of the Old Town Hall for an excellent view of the city. In the evening, walk the bridge across the Wisla River to see the panorama of the Old Town — it’s nothing short of magical.
Depart Torun in the morning and stop in the seaside town of Gdynia for lunch and a stroll less than two hours later. Gdynia is a a relatively new city, born out of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It offers beautiful beaches and walks plus some excellent restaurants. Visit the Orlowski Cliff, a 165-foot cliff along the Baltic Sea and one of the most commonly photographed natural sites in Poland. Afterward, take a stroll along the adjacent pier, dating from 1934.
Speaking of the Hel Peninsula, this is where you should head next. Very unlike its ominous name, the 20-mile sand bar peninsula offers sandy white beaches, windsurfing, go-karting and biking (a bike trail extends nearly the entire length of the peninsula). To unwind completely, spend a few nights in the town of Jastarnia. We rented a fabulous bayside apartment with a deck for views, grilling and watching the sunset. The peninsula is a great place to relax and engage in some outdoor family fun (note, traffic during summer can be quite congested).
At the very tip of the peninsula lies the town of Hel. Hop aboard the ferry here and take the two-hour journey to Gdansk, one of the most captivating and grand cities in Poland. While you could drive to Gdansk, we recommend entering by the sea — there really is no greater way to experience the grandeur of this maritime town, which has belonged to several groups and nations over the centuries and has the luster and allure to prove it. The ferry will drop you in middle of the Old Town. Gdansk is so unique (its architecture is markedly un-Polish, much more like that of Amsterdam) and has such a rich and interesting history that it is worth enlisting a tour guide for a walk around this mesmerizing, lively place, which is sure to transport you back in time.
Wander the narrow, cobbled streets of the Main Town, gaze into the massive red-brick churches (St. Mary’s in particular, the largest brick church in the world) and pop into charming cafes and amber shops. Visit the Long Market (Dlugi Targ), which was once the center of town and the main city market. Long and narrow, it’s adorned with charming, vibrantly colored homes and ornate sculptures atop triangular roofs. It is also home to the famous Neptune Fountain, which delights younger guests. Pass through the Green Gate leading to the end of the Royal Way and the river; it was built as a medieval defensive gate and a residence for kings. Although a whopping 90 percent of Gdansk’s structures were destroyed during WWII, it has been immaculately rebuilt with the help of recovered manuscripts and aging watercolors from hundreds of years ago.
After a relaxing few days on the coast, head south to visit the largest castle in the world (by land size) and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Malbork Castle. Living in Poland for three years, I discovered just how many castles there are in this part of Europe, but Malbork is truly special. A medieval brick castle that dates back to the 13th century, it fell into decay and was destroyed multiple times, but was restored and rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries. Opt for the English audioguide tour — our kids adored walking the grounds, audioguides in hand, hearing about the castle’s history and interesting details.
After the two-hour tour, have lunch at the Gothic Cafe and Restaurant inside. We stumbled upon this gem, and it was the cherry on top of a great Malbork experience. The restaurant treats children like kings and queens (literally crowing them), bringing baskets with assorted breads from a different era, and offering a phenomenal modern menu to choose from. It mixes the old world feel of the historic castle with a modern foodie experience — something truly not to be missed!
Three hours south of Malbork Castle, you will happen upon Lodz. Once an industrial town, it now boasts a retrofit of some of its largest factories into trendy hotels and restaurants. Explore the popular Manufaktura district with its many fountains, carousels and unique dining venues (the square turns into a fantastic Christmas market during the holidays). Stay in the Vienna House Andel’s Lodz, a former garment manufacturing factory that offers spacious interiors (rooms are more than adequate for large families), a glassed-in rooftop pool with great views of the city, and a generous breakfast buffet with a special section for children and a gluten-free bar.
The next morning, make a beeline for charming and romantic Krakow. Unlike many other large Polish cities, Krakow was largely untouched by WWII. Because its architecture has been preserved throughout the centuries, it has a very different feel from Warsaw.
Once the capital of Poland, Krakow is home to Wawel Castle, which lies on the banks of the Wisla River. Kids will delight in entering the castle gates, taking in the beautiful interior garden and making their way down into the dragon cave (open only during the summer season). At the end of the cave lives a sculpted metal fire-breathing dragon. Mosey around Krakow’s Stary Miasto (old town square, the oldest medieval square in Europe), hop aboard a horse and carriage for a 20-minute ride around the old city, enjoy street entertainers who make bubble displays for the children, and go in search of traditional pierogis (Polish dumplings) and obwarzanek (circle-shaped bagels).
Krakow has a number of museums to choose from. With kids, the Rynek Underground Museum and the Museum of Municipal Engineering (think trams, cars and interactive science exhibits) should be at the top of your list. Be sure not to miss a stop in the Kazimierz district, once home to Krakow’s Jewish community, and now a trendy part of the city full of restaurants, coffee shops, the best ice cream in the city (Good Lood), museums, cool architecture and a reviving Jewish scene.
From Krakow, head two hours south to Zakopane, Poland’s mountain playground in summer and winter, which lies very close to Slovakia’s northern border. In the summertime, Zakopane offers a host of alpine slides, fantastic hikes in Tatra National Park, and aerial adventure parks. In the winter, it boasts Poland’s best skiing, a giant ice maze, the yearly European ski jump championship and relaxing outdoor thermal pools.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Loren Braunohler.
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