Located at a geographic crossroads between the forests of northwestern Europe, the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean and the rich plains of the Eurasian steppe, Poland’s history has long been characterised as a region where different cultures meet – for better or worse.
Since the Middle Ages, Poland has been invaded over and over again: by Germans, Balts, Mongols, Russia, Prussia and Austria. Yet Poland has maintained a strong sense of national culture, and is home to the oldest constitution in Europe (dating to 1791).
As a result, there are an array of fascinating sites that each tell a part of Poland’s history. These include the Krakow Cloth Hall, Wawel Cathedral, and the Florian Gate.
To help you get started, we’ve put together a guide to 10 historic cultural places, landmarks and monuments that should not be missed on any visit to Poland.
Wawel Castle in central Krakow is a 13th century royal residence and has been home to a host of Poland’s most important monarchs.
As one of the country’s most significant cultural sites, the Castle now serves as a museum within a larger Wawel complex and has a vast collection of royal and military items on display.
Just to the southeast of Kraków in Poland, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was described in the 18th century by a travelling Frenchman as “no less magnificent than the Egyptian pyramids”.
This eerily beautiful labyrinthine subterranean world of passages, vast caverns, underground lakes, chapels and crystalline sculptures was in continuous use for over 900 years until mining was halted in 1996 due to falling prices and slow but eventually inevitable flooding.
Wilanow Palace (Palac w Wilanowie) is a beautiful, late 17th century Baroque palace in Warsaw built by King Jan III Sobieski.
Combining Polish architectural style with several others from around Europe, Wilanow Palace became Jan III’s royal home and eventually the place where this military leader died.
The Warsaw Rising Museum is a World War Two museum in Poland’s capital city, dedicated to the insurgency of the Polish population against its Nazi German occupiers. It is particularly focused on the Warsaw Uprising, an operation carried out by Polish freedom fighters.
The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 was a 2 month long battle carried out by Polish freedom fighters to liberate their country from the Nazis.
Malbork Castle (Zamek w Malborku), known in Germany as the Marienburg, is a medieval fortified castle complex enclosed within thick walls.
Including a vast palace, a monastery, three castles and hundreds of other buildings – mostly homes – Malbork Castle was built in the 13th century by the invading Teutonic Knights.
The Barbakan or Krakow Barbican in Poland is a 15th century gothic fortress which today serves as a museum. Constructed in approximately 1498, the Barbakan is a formidable circular structure with 3-metre-thick brick walls and a series of defensive turrets, representing an exceptional example of medieval engineering.
Built to protect Krakow and particularly the Florian Gate, the city’s northern gate, the Barbakan is one of the largest remaining medieval defensive structures in Europe and is extremely well-preserved.
Cloth Hall or Sukiennice is a medieval market building in Krakow, Poland. Originally opened in the fourteenth century, Cloth Hall was given a Renaissance refurbishment in the 16th century. The arcades which can be seen at Cloth Hall today were added in the 19th century.
The ground floor of Cloth Hall still operates as a market today while the Małopolska Contemporary Art Gallery and 19th Century Polish Art Gallery reside on it upper floors.
Wawel Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Saints Stanisław and Vaclav) is an iconic 14th century gothic building in Krakow in Poland steeped in the country’s history.
Consecrated in 1364, Wawel Cathedral is located on Wawel Hill, one of the most historically significant areas in Poland, renowned as being the centre of the country’s power for hundreds of years.
Auschwitz Birkenau was a concentration camp founded by the Nazis near the town of Oświęcim or “Auschwitz” in Poland, which became the largest and most infamous camp of them all.
Today, Auschwitz is a site of contemplation, reflection and learning – it’s not unusual to feel shaken after visiting. Treat the site with respect.
The Florian Gate is a gothic tower in Krakow in Poland. Built under the orders of Prince Leszek II in approximately 1285, the Florian Gate was one of 8 towers which helped form the city’s defences or ‘mury obronne’. It was the main defence of the northern part of the city and was itself protected by the Barbican gateway.
Today, the Florian Gate measures around 33.5 metres in height. A tour of the gate takes approximately half an hour and can be visited together with the Barbakan.