Poland is home to a multitude of fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites — its majestic medieval castles, luscious primeval forests, and bustling political centers giving true precedence to the country’s natural and cultural importance. As a country ravaged by wars, history in Poland is equal parts tragic and triumphant.
From a peek into Krakow’s ancient salt mines, to a look into the dark history behind the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, we’re delving into Poland’s millennium of heritage through six of its most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites found in and around Poland’s major cities.
Historic Center of Krakow
What is Poland most known for? Medieval charm. And nowhere is it more apparent than Krakow. Situated along the River Vistula and at the foot of Wawel Hill, Krakow’s Historic Center allows an in-depth look into the town’s fascinating history through remnants of its 14th-century fortifications, medieval city walls, and ancient synagogues. As the former capital city and once known as the center of Poland’s political life, Krakow was a place where the cultures of East and West intertwined, cultivating a flourishing culture of arts and crafts. The Historic Center of Krakow was one of Poland’s first sites to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, earning recognition due to its pristine level of preservation, with Krakow’s central Grand Square not only the largest market square in Europe but a huge portion of the city’s integral identity. Peruse historical houses, palaces, and churches, as well as the Gothic cathedral on Wawel Hill, where Poland’s kings were once buried.
One of the most interesting facts about history in Poland is that it’s loaded with lore. Krakow is no exception, in fact, it’s home to the famous legend of Smok, a fire-breathing dragon dwelling in a cave underneath Wawel Hill. On the note of hills, Krakow also makes a great destination for adventure in Poland, not far from the Tatras, it’s an ideal gateway to soak up the best in Polish history and scenery.
Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines
Descend beneath the earth’s surface for a captivating probe into Poland’s past, amidst the staggering labyrinth of tunnels and chambers of the Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines. Visitors can explore hundreds of kilometers of galleries at depths of up to 327 meters to admire works of art and statues sculpted from salt as well as historical machines, tools, and workshops. This underground metropolis, where miners lived, worked and worshipped for more than 700 years, showcases the massive lengths Poland went to in this feat of human ingenuity.
Early Polish kings were quick to establish a monopoly over the salt mines, with Krakow being lucky enough to have been situated in such close proximity to some of the largest salt deposits in the world. The Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines neatly lay out the history of Krakow’s industrious salt production, illustrating the historic stages in the development of mining techniques and the way in which Poland carved the way in the production of salt — or as it was once known, “white gold”.
For a day at the mines, take a KML train from Kraków Główny headed for Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia. The journey takes around 20 minutes. Trains out to Bochnia Salt Mine take around 1 hour.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)
The fortified walls and barbed wire fences of Auschwitz-Birkenau make for a confronting arrival; its gallows, barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums a stark reminder of all that happened here between 1940-1945. Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp was the principal and most notorious of the six concentration and extermination camps established by Nazi Germany during World War II. They stand today as a vivid testimony and poignant reminder of the largest mass murder in a single location in human history, where an estimated 1.1 million people lost their lives.
A day spent on the complex to learn of its history allows for a deep reflection into the horrors of the Holocaust and the dark stamp that it left on Poland’s past. The collections and exhibits at the site — though grisly and upsetting — not only preserve the evidence of the methodical and inhumane efforts of Nazi Germany in its policies of mass murder and forced labor but also tells of the lives of those who lived and died at the camps. Since its liberation in January 1945, the camps have remained largely unchanged, the intact complex a silent witness to its history of human suffering and exploitation. The monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau pays tribute to the pure strength of the human spirit and is a place of collective remembrance for all who lost their lives during the tragic consequences of one of humanities darkest times.
The easiest way to get to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Krakow would be by an organized tour, however, you can also take a bus from MDA Bus Station Krakow to Auschwitz/Oswiecim which takes between 1 ½ – 2 hours.
Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork
Just outside of Gdansk, this 13th-century fortified monastery is considered to be the world’s largest brick building ever built by mankind. Once belonging to the Teutonic Order, the unique architecture of intricate vaults, sculptures, and ornaments are thought to be the first of its kind. Surrounded by deep moats and several rings of defensive walls, the Castle of the Teutonic Order was transformed and expanded repeatedly throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, with meticulous restorations taking place during the turn of the 20th century, and following severe damage during World War II.
The Gothic fortress now consists of three castles and stretches across 20 hectares. Today, the castle plays host to historical battle re-enactments, and musical and theatrical ventures, with the Castle Museum in Malbork displaying architectural and historical collections.
A proud symbol to the town of Malbork, a day-trip out of Gdansk to admire its enormous size and mighty stature from the banks of the Nogat River is a must. Direct trains run from Gdańsk Główny to Malbork castle, with the trip taking between 30-55 minutes.
Old Town in Warsaw
With its cobblestone alleyways, medieval buildings and busy market square, you wouldn’t know from looking at it that Warsaw’s Old Town was almost completely destroyed during World War II. After it was reduced to ruins, the reconstruction of the Old Town began as a symbol of the nation’s solidarity, accommodating the Polish people’s wishes to raise their fallen city from the ashes.
The utmost care was taken in rebuilding Warsaw’s architectural form, with the preservation of original building fragments. Restoration continued into the late 1960s, all of which was made possible due to historical documentation and the uncovering of hidden Gothic and Renaissance elements. The center was recognized by UNESCO in 1980, for ensuring the survival of Polish culture by restoring the city’s cultural value. The Old Town is home to Warsaw’s Historical Museum, The Palace of Culture and Science, and a host of antique shops, galleries, and churches.
Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świndnica
Despite holding a pivotal role in one of the most important treaties in European history, many people outside of Poland and Germany have never heard of Silesia’s Churches of Peace. Built in the 17th-century at the conclusion of The Thirty Years’ War, the churches are the largest timber-framed religious buildings in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia, though it halted the war that had ravaged Poland for 3 decades, effectively eradicated the Evangelical church in Silesia principalities. The Evangelicals, who made up a huge population in the area, were deprived of their religious freedom until permission was granted to build three churches.
The Churches of Peace in Jawor and Świndnica are now the only two surviving churches, bearing testimony to the quest for religious freedom. Made of wood and clay, they amaze with the splendor of their interiors and architectural complexity. The organ at the church in Świndnica is particularly famous for its beautiful acoustics.
Car is best to make the 60-70km journey to the churches, however, there are direct trains to Świdnica Miasto which depart from Wrocław Główny several times a day. Świdnica and Jawor have direct bus and train connections with each other.
Wroclaw’s Centennial Hall was erected in 1911 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the German victory over Napoleon and was designed to serve the citizens of Wroclaw. A landmark in the history of reinforced concrete structures and a work of modern engineering and architecture, Centennial Hall was constructed by famous urban architect Max Berg and resulted in the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world.
In 1945 Wroclaw became a part of Poland and the name of the hall was changed to People’s Hall, however, it is still known by its original name. Centennial Hall is a recreational building, hosting exhibitions, sporting events, and concerts, with a central space that can seat some 6,000 people and standing room for over 10,000.
The easiest way of getting to Centennial Hall would be by public transport, on either the local bus or tram.
While you’re out UNESCO hunting, you’ll need to eat. Why not fill up on what Poland is most known for – pierogi! Check out our guide here, Pierogi and Beyond: Poland’s Culinary Past and Present.
Header and other images by Lily Allen and Kyle Peters.