We often chat with people we meet along our round-the-world route. The conversations always start the same way, with a question about where we are from. While everyone is familiar with Holland, Germany, or France,  Poland seems a bit more unknown. We’d get questions like, “Is it beautiful? What is there to see?”

I always felt I couldn’t answer these questions properly even though I was brought up there. I’d always wanted to see more of the country, so when my partner and I heard that my best friend was getting married back home, the decision was made. We would include The Land of Fields in our journey around the world–and we didn’t even need a travel guide, Poland was once my home.

Our first stop had to be my home town, Poznan. I’d visited it many times after I left for Holland five years ago, but never to see it as an outsider. There was plenty to be rediscovered. In a place where seemingly no one wanted to live, there was now a vivid mural of 3D houses and their inhabitants. Around the corner there was a new, futuristic museum about the history of our cathedral and further into town, old buildings had been brightened with murals and poems. The sadness and greyness I’d known in my childhood had disappeared. After a while, it was easy to let my intuition guide–travel in Poland would be exciting, I thought. 

Even the main square looked somehow different—more colorful and vibrant than I remembered it. There was life everywhere and new cafes on each corner.

Crowned the 2016 European Capital of Culture and hailed in every Poland travel guide out there, Wroclaw had to be our next stop.

As soon as we arrived in the city, we started on the most fun thing to do in Wroclaw: searching for little dwarf statues. It all started with the first statue in 2001 to commemorate the Orange Alternative initiative against communist regime. Since then, the little gnomes have spread throughout the city. They watch TV, drink, hang off lamps, eat, deliver mail, and even butcher. Spotting them brought us plenty of joy and laughter.

But one of the most remarkable things we saw in the city was an elderly man in a cape turning on the old gas lamps one by one, all 103 of them. They are the only thing that survived the modernization in the 1960s and this man  is the last “lamplighter” in Poland. This beautiful tribute to the past happens every day at sunset and repeats the next day at dawn when the lamps have to be switched off. The “wizard,” as he likes to call himself, will be out in rain, snow, or sunshine, happy to chat and share stories of the city.

Tired after traversing the city, we spent the evenings enjoying the remarkable atmosphere in the main square, listening to street musicians and sipping (weird but delicious) earl grey beer cocktails in one of the city’s microbreweries.

Since I was a little girl I have always loved castles and palaces, so we couldn’t miss the spectacular sights just outside Wroclaw.

Moszna Castle, where we stayed for a night, was a psychiatric facility for many years and only recently opened as a hotel, restaurant, and museum. The long and somewhat dark corridors get a bit spooky at night, but there is nothing better than experiencing the splendor of centuries past for yourself.

Wroclaw, like many other popular Polish destinations, is easily reached by train. Check out our tips for how to get the best of train travel in Poland here: Poland From a Passenger Car: The Country by Train.

Ksiaz Castle, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Although from a distance it looks very much like it’s out of a fairy-tale, its history is far from that of Disney tales. Some say it was intended to be Adolf Hitler’s residence but, in fact,it ended up being part of one of the nearby concentration camps.

Moszna and Ksiaz are the most famous, but there are actually thousands of smaller castles that don’t get any recognition. The tiny palace in Kobylniki, near Poznan, was a hidden gem we stumbled upon while exploring the region. With only a few rooms, a little restaurant, and a big garden, it nevertheless has an intimate, cozy atmosphere. It has also recently been given back to the family that lost possession of it during the World War II.

Summer is a perfect time to discover some of country’s best natural destinations. We started in Bialowieza, one of the last primeval forests in Europe. This dense, seemingly untouched part of the country reminded me more of Russia than Europe. Driving through the region, we watched as Catholic churches disappeared and were eventually replaced with orthodox ones, and brick houses are were nowhere to be seen among a kingdom of wood. Though we woke at four in the morning to give ourselves the best chance to see the famous bison, we weren’t lucky enough to spot them.

But it was in Zalipie, in the southeastern part of the country, that we saw the most spectacular village ever. “The Painted Village” is famous for its wooden houses painted by the owners in intricate floral patterns. It wouldn’t be nearly as special if the tradition stopped at their homes. But the flowery decorations continued onto dog houses, benches, and inside the houses. It’s a town overtaken by folklore art.

We jumped at the last chance to visit the Tatras in the autumn, the tallest mountains in southern region of the country. Since we visited the Andes we had fallen in love with the view from the top and the feeling of achievement that comes with climbing mountains. After making it to the top of a few of the peaks, we realized just how colorful autumn can be. Trees, fallen leaves, berries, wooden houses all combined to create a setting that seemed straight out of a fairy-tale. To our dismay, it turned into a winter wonderland a little too soon, which shortened our visit.

Too often, we travel so far to praise beautiful places we’ve only seen in photos. But there are always charming spots waiting to be discovered in our own backyards, not far from where we grew up.

Looking to pinch a few pennies, or should we say zloty during your Polish adventure? Check out Poland With Tight Pursestrings for the best tips on budget travel in Poland.