When I first went to Poland, there was still a wall separating East and West Germany. Actually getting a visa was a diabolical process but the end result was a fantastic visit to a very inexpensive country where the people were friendly, though somewhat guarded. Things have changed a lot since then. Now a visa is a straightforward process, that is if you even need one at all, and the people are no longer afraid to talk about how much they disagree with their current government anymore. Poland has embraced its entry into the EEA with all its might and you can see how much prosperity they have gained from the union with one glance at the skyline of Warsaw.
Unfortunately, with prosperity, the price of travel has also increased, but if you avoid Warsaw you can still manage on a daily budget far below that of any western European city. At the current exchange rate of well over 3 Zloty to the dollar, transport, beer and food are very economical. After all, what else do you need when traveling around Europe? Hotels can still be found in Krakow and Gdansk for around $25 a night if you are willing to go budget. This won’t last forever though, sooner or later Poland will be on the Euro.
Krakow is an amazing city in lower Poland. It is the second largest city in the country and probably the oldest, dating back tothe 7th century. Situated on the Vistula river, Krakow has that sense of Poland you don’t seem to find in Warsaw anymore. Completely spared of the ravages of World war II, it is like a giant outdoor museum. It has a sprawling main square, complete with the 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall and the splendid 14th-century Gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary. You really get a feel for what the true Poland is like, what it must have felt like years ago and a true sense of history. The huge main square is almost 10 acres, the biggest main square of any city in Europe, and it is home to a beehive of activity both night and day, It’s a fantastic place to explore, it is home to great shops, market stalls and really inexpensive cafes. The best time to go is in the early morning or late evening when the tourist hordes have left. Sit at a cafe, have a plate of Pierogi and an ice cold Żywiec. You certainly won’t have to worry about choices of beer, as Poland is the 3rd largest producer of beer behind Germany and the U.K.
Gdansk, in the north on the Baltic Sea, is another fantastic city to visit. It too, is an outdoor museum, though Gdansk was painstakingly reconstructed to its former glory after being completely leveled in World War II. It was the 1939 flash point of the war, and then in 1980, the birthplace of the Solidarity labor movement, signaling the end of Communist domination in Eastern Europe. Although it is slightly pricier than Krakow, it is still far less expensive than Warsaw and has infinitely more character. One can easily spend days wandering around the old town and never get bored. I know I did, I ended up staying for there for 2 weeks.
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