Beautiful houses at Main Market Square in Old Town Wroclaw of Poland

Ten reasons to explore Poland

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By Jonathan Bousfield
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Poland has always been the Doctor Who of the European continent, undergoing successive bouts of regeneration in response to the challenges of war, revolution or regime change. For the traveller, many of the old clichés about this country’s grim post-communist cities can be safely thrown out of the window – in fact, there’s hardly a single dull destination in the entire country. Here is a timeline of the dramatic changes that led to some of the country’s best places to explore Polish culture.

2004: Warsaw Rising

In 2004, Poland saw the sixtieth anniversary of the heroic but doomed Warsaw Uprising, an event marked by the opening of the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The first all-new museum in the country to offer an artfully designed walk-through experience, it’s an object lesson in how to impart key historical lessons to a sophisticated contemporary audience. Similar techniques have been employed in Kraków’s spectacular Rynek Underground and the Oskar Schindler Factory, which both opened in 2010.

Warsaw uprising museum, PolandPhoto credit: mw238 via Compfight cc

2005: the brewing revolution

Deservedly celebrated as a country of vodka drinkers, Poland has also undergone something of a beer-brewing revolution over the last ten years. A key moment was the decision of small-town brewery Ciechan to start producing connoisseur-friendly unpasteurized ales in 2005. Ciechan is now a cult brew, swilled eagerly by hearties and hipsters all over the country. Boutique breweries and beer pubs have been cropping up all over the place ever since; the mind-bogglingly well-stocked House of Beer in Kraków is a great place to start a sampling session, while Piwoteka in Łódź brews its own wheat beer and serves draught brews from all over the country.

2006: vodka-and-herring bars

It all started with Zakąski-Przekąski (“Snacks ‘n’ Nibbles”), the 24-hour bar that opened in central Warsaw in 2006, serving vodka, beer and traditional stand-up snacks such as pickled herring, jellied meats and gzik (sour cream, onion and cottage cheese). All drinks were priced at 4zł (roughly €1), the snacks at 8zł. The venture was an instant success, drawing hip young drinkers as well an older-generation, nostalgic for the good old days of cheap-and-cheerful nights on the town. The original Zakąski has since closed its doors, but the concept has spread all over the country and shows no sign of going out of style. Head for Kraków’s Ambasada Sledzia and Katowice’s Lorneta z Meduzą for further indications of where the trend is going.

Polish beerPhoto credit: Stian Olsen via Compfight cc

2007: design festivals and post-industrial regeneration

Held in 2007, the first Łódź Design Festival was an instant hit that brought together Poland’s best in the business. It’s now the major design event in the country, embracing exhibitions, lectures, children’s activities and a chance to buy unique designer products. A leading example of post-industrial regeneration, the former textile-producing powerhouse of Łódź can also boast an International Comics Festival, the Urban Forms street art festival, and a bohemian bar, bistro and design-store quarter in the shape of OFF Piotrkowska.

2008: contemporary art spaces

A globally esteemed art institution ever since 1931, Łódź Art Museum muscled its way into the big league in 2008 with the opening of a new gallery in a former textile factory. It was an important step in putting Polish contemporary art back on the international map, and Kraków enjoyed a similar boost with the opening of MOCAK in 2010. Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art, currently in temporary accommodation as it awaits the construction of a new building, looks set to be one of the talking points of the next ten years.

Mocak, Krakow, PolandPhoto credit: bildungsr0man via Compfight cc

2009: cult culture

There was a time when children’s cartoon characters like Bolek and Lolek and Miś Uszatek (Teddy Floppy-ear) were household names not just in Poland itself but across the whole of Central-Eastern Europe. It’s a world celebrated by Rzeszów’s Museum of Bedtime Stories, a private collection that grew into a full-scale display in 2009. Another private initiative that has proved hugely popular with visitors is the Neon Museum, which opened in Warsaw’s Praga district in 2012. This collection of former shop signs and advertising slogans sheds a misty nostalgic glow on Poland’s art-and-design heritage.

2010: Frédéric Chopin superstar

The heritage of Poland’s ivory-tinkling wonder boy underwent a spectacular relaunch in 2010 when the Chopin Museum in Warsaw was thoroughly redesigned in celebration of the composer’s 200th birthday. With interactive handsets, touch-screen displays and a Chopin jukebox, it’s a must for the music enthusiast with modern media sensibilities.

Lidz design festivalPhoto credit: Łódź Rysowana Światłem via Compfight cc

2011: the Copernicus Centre

When it comes to hands-on science museums, Warsaw’s Copernicus Centre is at the head of the pack. Completed in 2011, the boldly contemporary building comprises a range of activity zones for different age-groups on two large floors. The sheer wealth of touch-screen computers, physical tests and mind-bending challenges can keep visitors occupied for hours.

2012: hipsters at the end of a Rainbow

Few sights express the paradoxes of contemporary Poland quite so eloquently as the Tęcza or Rainbow, a metal arch covered in multi-coloured artificial flowers that spans the central roundabout of Warsaw’s Public Square. Conceived by artist Julita Wójcik to mark Poland’s six-month presidency of the EU in 2012, the Tęcza was quickly associated with the rainbow symbol used by the LGBT movement – a connection that largely won the approval of the broad-minded Varsovians who tend to congregate in the area’s hipster-friendly bars. The Tęcza has burned down three times since its construction – on the last occasion set alight deliberately by right-wing hooligans on November 11 2013. Word is the rainbow will be restored to its full floral glory by May 2014.

Gdansk, PolandPhoto credit: ghiac2011 via Compfight cc

2013: The Museum of The History of Polish Jews

Despite constituting a third of Warsaw’s population on the eve of World War II, Poland’s once-strong Jewish community had to wait until April 2013 before getting the museum that their contribution to the country deserved. The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews was opened just in time to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A glassy structure filled with organic, curvy surfaces, the building is itself a statement of Warsaw’s ongoing urban transformation. Currently only temporary exhibitions are on show, but the museum’s permanent collection is due to open in autumn 2014.

And the next ten years…

Poland’s ongoing transformation shows no sign of letting up. The most significant new attraction for 2014 looks set to be the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk, pencilled in for late summer (although no-one really knows if it will be ready on time). The multimedia museum will celebrate Solidarity, the free trade union born in the Gdansk shipyards in 1980, covering its contribution to people-power, not just in Poland, but across the continent too.

Explore more of Poland and the surrounding countries with the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetBook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.