From some of the most beautiful squares in Europe to Socialist Realist skyscrapers, vast red-brick castles to elegant Baroque palaces and the peaks of the Tatras to a great wild forest where bison roam, discover the best famous landmarks in Poland in our guide here.
The wealth of famous landmarks in Poland is incredible, and they make a fascinating introduction to one of the most intriguing countries in Europe.
Poland’s boundaries, and often rulers, have shifted frequently down the centuries, leaving an amazing legacy of architecture with influences as far afield as Amsterdam and Moscow.
Poland is famous for its Gothic red-brick architecture, especially in the medieval cities of Gdansk and Torun and the stupendous Castle in Malbork. Its cities are also distinguished by their magnificent town squares, most famously in Krakow and Warsaw, and there are also Renaissance and Baroque palaces to discover.
It was also the location of numerous Nazi death camps during World War Two, when millions of Jews and other minorities were murdered in the gas chambers, and these are among the most painful, but necessary, places to visit in Europe to gain a grasp of the history of the 20th century.
The landscapes of Poland are also compelling, with the High Tatras mountains, vast forests and the dunes and beaches of the Baltic coast all great reasons to visit Poland. Hopefully this guide to the best landmarks in Poland will give you a clearer idea of what to see in Poland when you go.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – Warsaw
Old Town Square Warsaw
The Old Town Square – Rynek Starego Miasto – is one of the best few Warsaw sights to see, a wonderfully atmospheric, intimate square surrounded by fine townhouses, with cafes and restaurants occupying many of the ground floor spaces.
It’s one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and what’s most remarkable about it is that it was only completed around 1970, following the obliteration of the Old Town during World War II. You’ll pay more for your pivo (beer) and pierogi here than elsewhere in the city, but the indulgence is worth it, at least once.
Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw
When ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin decided to bestow a gift on the people of Warsaw, the recipients were hardly in a position to refuse. The Palace of Culture and Science – Palac Kultury i Nauky – was to become the most despised of Polish landmarks, a Socialist Realist skyscraper dwarfing everything else on the shattered Warsaw skyline when it was completed in 1955.
It was designed by Lev Rudnev, who was also responsible for the famous ‘Seven Sisters’, a series of similar towers at the Moscow State University. Mentions of Stalin were removed once the old dictator became officially discredited.
The tower is now one of the most recognizable icons of Warsaw, and houses a Congress Hall, cinema complex, offices and University. You can also ascend to the gallery, which offers superb views over ever-changing ‘downtown’ Warsaw.
The Palace of Culture is one of several stops on this Communist-themed tour of Warsaw, which takes you around the city in a classic Nysa 522 Socialist-era van.
The Warsaw Ghetto occupied the suburbs of Muranow and Mirow, around a mile to the west of Warsaw’s historic Old and New Towns. Most of it was levelled by the Nazis after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the area is now home to several historical Warsaw landmarks well worth seeking out.
The Umschlagplatz, the departure point for most inhabitants of the Ghetto for the gas chambers of Treblinka (see below) is one of the most famous monuments in Poland. Here are remnants of the Ghetto Wall and several markers showing where the Wall also once stood.
Several tenement buildings from the south of the Ghetto have survived the depredations of war, and although you can see the exteriors from the street, these are the oldest surviving buildings in the Warsaw city centre area.
Four of them stand on Prozna, a couple of minutes’ walk from the Palace of Culture and Science, and the poster-sized photographs of former residents is another sombre reminder of the many who were murdered by the Nazis.
Another tenement house still stands on nearby Walicow 14. The excellent POLIN Museum of the History of the Jews in Poland is the place to learn much more, and picture how vibrant the community once was in this area.
One of the most famous landmarks in Warsaw, Wilanow Palace is a Baroque royal residence in the southern outskirts of the city, built for King Jan III Sobieski towards the end of the 17th century.
It’s among the finest palaces in Poland, and also one of the oldest museums in the country, dating back to 1805. You can visit the royal apartments on one floor, while the other level plays host to an exhibition of paintings of Polish monarchs through the centuries.
Buses 116, 180 and 519 run to Wilanow from Warsaw city centre, and walk-up tickets are available at the Palace. Alternatively, this skip the line tour of Wilanow Palace and Garden with a private guide also includes hotel pick-up.
This tour covers both Wilanow and Lazienki Park, another splendid royal residence and park closer to the centre of Warsaw.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – The North
Malbork Castle – the Castle of the Teutonic Knights – is one of the great landmarks of Poland and one of the mightiest castles in Europe. It’s a massive red-brick fortress, and it’s claimed to be the largest castle in the world by land area. It’s certainly one of the most imposing and impressive castles in the world – though it wasn’t impregnable.
It was built during the 13th century by the powerful Deutscher Orden, when Malbork was under German control and known as Marienburg – many other places in Poland have a similar tale to tell. If you visit, be sure to take a walk across the Nogat river for the best view of the castle.
It’s an easy day trip from Warsaw or Gdansk as it’s on the main train line between the two. Gdansk is closer, and this day trip from Gdansk to Malbork includes a guided tour in English – which aren’t very frequent. Alternatively this day tour from Warsaw to Malbork includes a guided tour (or audioguide in the off-season) gives you several hours at the Castle.
The Gdansk Crane was the largest port crane in medieval Europe, and it now dominates the Gdansk waterfront along the Motlawa River. It’s now part of the National Maritime Museum in Gdansk, and one of the best things to see in Gdansk. The best part for me was seeing the four wooden treadmills used to lift weights of several tons – an amazing piece of medieval ingenuity.
Mariacki Church Gdansk
The bulk of the massive Mariacki church looms large over the handsome Hanseatic houses of Gdansk, making these impressive buildings look like a fairytale toytown from the Town Hall tower viewpoint.
This enormous 15th century red-brick basilica is one of the largest in Europe, and is probably most reminiscent of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the most famous churches in Venice, or the fortress-like Albi Cathedral in south-west France.
It has served as both a Protestant (when the city was known as Danzig) and Catholic church, and was bombed out in March 1945. It was rebuilt within a decade, and its interior is largely bare, bright and painted white. One of the most distinctive landmarks of Poland.
See Also: The 15 Most Underrated Cities In Europe
Westerplatte Memorial, Gdansk
On 1st September 1939 the first shots of World War 2 were fired at Westerplatte, where the Nazis began their attack on what was then the Free City of Danzig. After previous capitulation to Hitler’s demands, the Allies finally delivered an ultimatum, threatening declaration of war if the Nazis didn’t withdraw.
The Polish forces at Westerplatte held out for seven days, far longer than was believed possible. The site, at the mouth of the Motlawa river, is dominated by one of the most famous Polish monuments, the Brutalist granite Westerplatte Monument, and you can also explore some of the ruined buildings at the site.
It’s easy to get to the site – this private Westerplatte tour offers transport by car or by boat, a leisurely return river cruise from the Old Town to Westerplatte, plus a guide.
Most inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto perished in the extermination camp at Treblinka, 50 miles (80 km) north-east of the Polish capital. One of the most sombre historical sites in Poland, between 800,000 and 900,000 people – mostly Jews – were murdered in the gas chambers there. Only around 60 prisoners survived this hell-hole, and these were from the Sonderkommandos who had to remove the bodies from the chambers.
The site was razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1943, and the memorials erected after World War 2 are now accompanied by the excellent Treblinka Museum. Treblinka is one of the more difficult day trips from Warsaw, involving a train and taxi trip each way, so it may be worth considering a Treblinka tour from Warsaw, which begins at the Ghetto.
Toruń is one of the most beautiful cities in Poland, and one of the oldest, having been founded in the 9th century. It grew in power and influence in the 13th century when the wealthy Teutonic Knights (see also our entry on Malbork above) built a fortress there, and at the time was known by its German name Thorn.
It became a member of the powerful Hanseatic League, a medieval trading confederation of cities most of which were on the Baltic coast. Toruń’s architecture is similar to that of other Hansa cities, with spectacular red brick buildings, from the Town Hall and Cathedral to the house of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was born in and lived in the city for much of his life.
This Torun Old Town walking tour is a great introduction to the city, and also takes you to several sites associated with Copernicus.
Słowiński National Park
The Słowiński National Park, on Poland’s Baltic coast, is where Poles head for the beach. It’s one of the busiest places in Poland in summer, with vast beaches, moving sand dunes, lakes and forests. The most popular area is around Łeba (pronounced ‘webber’), and there are some superb hikes along the coast and in the dunes, with amazing views over the Baltic coast.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – Krakow
Sukiennice – Krakow Cloth Hall
The splendid Sukiennice dominates Rynek Główny, the vast market square and heart of Krakow. It was a trading hall, where local products including textiles and salt were sold and imports from the east were bought. It was built in the 15th century, and its heyday lasted over a century until Warsaw took over as the capital of Poland. The elegant arcades are now lined with cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
This guided walking tour of Krakow Old Town is a great introduction to the city, and also takes you the short distance to the Wawel Castle and Cathedral (see below).
Mariacki Church, Rynek Główny
The Basilica Church of St Mary stands on the corner of Rynek Główny, a minute or two from the Sukiennice. One of the main Krakow landmarks, the present Gothic church was begun in the late 12th century, with additions through to the 17th century and some wonderful enhancements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Don’t miss the superb late 15th century altarpiece by Veit Stoss which has been recently restored.
If you happen to be standing on the Rynek on the hour, you’ll hear the famous bugle call being played from one of St Mary’s two towers. It ends rather abruptly – it’s a tribute to the legendary bugler in the watchtower who warned the people of Krakow of an impending attack by attar forces, who helped save the city but sadly succumbed to an arrow in the throat for his trouble.
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
One of the most famous castles in Europe, the Wawel Hill is of huge significance to Polish national identity. The Castle – which was founded in 970 AD – was, for several centuries, the residence of Polish kings, and Wawel Cathedral could be described as the Westminster Abbey of Poland, housing their tombs. The Castle also houses one of the best art museums in Poland, featuring Italian Renaissance paintings, King Zygmunt II August’s tapestry collection and a rich assortment of oriental art.
This 35-metre high artificial mound in the Zwierzyniec suburb of Krakow was built to honour national hero and military leader Tadeusz Kościuszko a few years after his death in 1817. This form of tribute is traditional in the Krakow area, with earlier mounds built to honour legendary city founder Krakus and princess Wanda. It’s one of the most intriguing things to see in Krakow, and well worth the short, steep climb for the view over the city.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
Visiting the World Heritage Wieliczka salt mine is one of the most popular things to do near Krakow, and it’s an easy half-day trip from the city. The mine was founded in the 13h century and was one of the mainstays of the local economy for centuries – and it’s still being mined to this day. The standard tourist route takes you through some of the tunnels, finishing up in the astounding St Kinga’s Chapel, an underground church where every last detail is carved from salt.
This popular Wieliczka tour from Krakow is an easy option, with hotel pickups and drop-offs in the Old Town and Kazimierz, and the full tour of the mine.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – Malopolska
Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp
Visiting Auschwitz is one of the hardest things to do in Poland. Over a million people – predominantly Jews, but also Sinti, Roma, persecuted minorities including gays, and prisoners of war – were murdered in the gas chambers or through forced labour, medical experiments and starvation.
The Nazis hurriedly abandoned the camps as the Red Army approached in January 1945, leaving behind an incomprehensibly vast mountain of evidence of their crimes. There are two Auschwitz camps. Auschwitz I was the original camp, with the old barrack buildings, while Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau, was where most of the Jews and other victims were killed in the gas chambers. It’ll be one of the gruelling days of your life, but people should visit to bear witness to the monstrous crimes of humanity committed there.
This small village near Krakow is home to one of the major landmarks in Poland, a monastery and park modelled on Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. ‘Kalwaria’ is the Polish for ‘Calvary’, the hill on which Christ was crucified, and he second part of the name comes from its founder, Mikolaj Zebrzydowski.
The site was founded in the early 17th century, and became a pilgrimage site and model for other Calvaries around Europe. It was built in the Mannerist – also known as Late Renaissance – style which had been prevalent in Italy for the previous half century and more, and was the precursor to Baroque. The site also has close associations with Pope John Paul II, who was from nearby Wadowice and visited the site many times, including while pontiff.
Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is a fairly easy day trip from Krakow, with buses taking around 45 minutes from the suburban Krakow Lagiewniki bus station (tram 8 goes there from the centre). Forget about the train there, it’s painfully slow. Another option is this tour from Krakow, which visits both Kalwaria and Wadowice.
Lake Morskie Oko, High Tatras
Lake Morskie Oko – the ‘Eye of the Sea’ – is one of the most famous natural landmarks in Poland. It’s located high in the Tatra Mountains which form the border with Slovakia to the south, and it’s surrounded by the highest mountains in Poland. Rysy is the highest point, at 249 metres above sea level, but Zabia Czuba, Zabi Szczyt Wizni and Wolowa Turnia also form the spectacular backdrop. The Tatras are unmissable, one of the great attractions of Poland.
Jasna Gora Monastery, Częstochowa
The Monastery of Jasna Gora – Bright Mountain – in Częstochowa, two hours west of Krakow, is the most popular pilgrimage destination in Poland. It houses a medieval icon of the Virgin Mary known as the Black Madonna, which is credited with miracles including seeing off Swedish forces besieging the mountain in 1655.
Visiting is quite an experience, and if you’re wondering what to do in Poland away from the obvious places like Warsaw and Krakow, this is very much worth the journey. You may well pass pilgrims walking on the hard shoulder of motorways to Częstochowa – they’ll have travelled 200 km or more to get there. Once inside, the church where the icon is housed is absolutely crammed, so expect some highly unholy jostling to catch sight of it. If you have dodgy knees, don’t get caught up in the scrum near the front, as you’ll be expected to make your way around the back of the icon on your knees.
Jasna Gora isn’t one of the most obvious tourist attractions of Poland as it’s a couple of hours or so from anywhere else. If you’re heading here under your own steam, train is the easiest option. Otherwise this Częstochowa tour from Krakow also visits Wadowice, birthplace of Pope John Paul II, and you can also visit on a day tour from Wrocław.
Zalipie is one of the most unusual tourist attractions in Poland, and one of the most beautiful villages in Europe. This small village around 100 km (60 miles) east of Krakow is notable because all of its cottages and houses are painted with bright flowers. They are often painted this way inside as well as outside, as is just about everything else in the village – fences, walls, wells, bells, buckets, you name it. The tradition began in the late 19th century when local women cleaned soot off surfaces and began decorating them.
Zalipie can be reached by bus from Tarnow, which is easily reached by bus from Krakow. Alternatively, this Zalipie tour from Krakow takes you directly there from the city, and back to your hotel.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – Silesia
Wrocław Town Hall
Wrocław Old Town Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in Poland, a splendid building that took shape over 250 years, from the Gothic Middle Ages to the Renaissance (13th to 16th centuries). Its gables, sculpture, turrets and main tower are almost fairytale in appearance, and it’s the main sight in the handsome Rynek, one of the most beautiful squares in Poland.
Świdnica Peace Church
The Peace Church in Świdnica, in southern Silesia, is one of the finest historical landmarks in Poland. It’s an incredibly elaborate wooden Baroque church, built in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War in the mid-17th century. Under the terms of the Peace of Westphalia, the Evangelicals in the region were permitted to build just three such churches, and only one other, in nearby Jawor, survives.
From the outside, the church resembles a large black and white half-timbered house. Inside, it’s an amazing spectacle, with astonishingly rich decoration throughout, including ceiling paintings and gilded Baroque statuary I’d expect to find in one of the Baroque churches in Venice rather than an Evangelical church in Central Europe.
You can visit Świdnica Peace Church on several tours from Wrocław. This half day tour from Wrocław takes you to both Peace Churches, also calling at the church in Jawor. Alternatively, this tour takes you on a tour of Świdnica and the Lower Silesian countryside.
Książ Castle is one of the most impressive castles in Poland, and occupies a hilltop site overlooking the Lower Silesian countryside near the town of Wałbrzych. Pronounced Kshee-onsh, its German name is Schloss Furstenstein, and a fortress was built on the site in the late 13th century.
The present building dates from the 16th century, when it was built in Renaissance style over the ruins of the medieval castle. It’s more of a palace or chateau than a castle fortress, and it remained in the ownership of the Hochberg family for over 300 years. It was confiscated by the Nazis in World War Two, and it’s believed that they were planning on turning it into a residence for Hitler. They also dug tunnels beneath the Castle as part of a network of bunkers to house senior Nazis and their assets known as Project Riese.
The nearest major city to Książ is Wrocław, and tours from there to Książ are a much more convenient option than slow public transport. This day tour from Wrocław includes both Książ Castle and the nearby Peace Church in Świdnica (see above).
Alternatively, this Książ Castle tour from Wrocław includes a guided tour of the Castle and Project Riese tunnels as well as private car transfer from and back to Wrocław, a 75-minute journey each way.
Kłodzko is one of the hidden gems of Poland, a gorgeous historic town beneath the vast, imposing Klodzko fortress. The latter was founded in the early Middle Ages but was substantially remodelled in the 17th century. The town has been nicknamed ‘Little Prague’ because of its beauty and architecture, and also the Gothic St John’s Bridge over the river Mlynowec. This has been compared with the Charles Bridge in Prague, especially because it’s lined with statues like its more famous counterpart, and the view along it to the Baroque church is pretty spectacular too.
Kłodzko is a great example of the shifting boundaries of central Europe and Poland over the last thousand years and more. It was originally a Bohemian own, known in Czech as Kladsko, and later came under Austrian and then Prussian rule, when it was known by its German name Glatz. It has been under Polish rule since the end of World War Two.
Park Mużakowski – Muskauer Park in German – is a fascinating landscaped park area straddling the river Neisse, the border between Poland and Germany. It was created by Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau between 1815 and 1844, subtly enhancing the local landscape (around the Polish town of Łęknica, pronounced ‘wenk-nee-tsa’) and across the border around Bad Muskau with some additional planting.
You can freely cross from the Polish part – which includes the Terraces – and the German part via two bridges. The restored Castle (pictured) is on the German side. The Park is one of the top tourist attractions in Poland and most easily reached by car if you’re visiting from the Polish side.
You may also be interested in: Pruhonice Park Prague
Famous Landmarks In Poland – Western Poland (Wielkopolska)
Poznan Town Hall
The superb Renaissance Town Hall in Poznan is one of the most famous landmarks of Poland. It’s an amazing construction, with its triple arcade, turrets and tower giving it the air of something out of a fairytale fantasy. The ornate 16th century building now houses the Museum of the History of Poznan. The Town Hall is also known for its famous mechanical goats, which headbutt each other at noon daily.
One of the facts about Poland that few would guess is that its ecclesiastical capital – the equivalent of Rome or Canterbury – is Gniezno, a small city in the west of Poland, 30 miles (50 km) east of the area’s major city, Poznan. Indeed, several Polish kings were crowned there before the royal seat was moved to Krakow.
It seems odd that the seat of the country’s primate should be one of the hidden gems of Poland, but it is well off the Poland tourist trail. The present Gothic brick Cathedral was built in the 14th century following the destruction of its Romanesque predecessor by the Teutonic Knights in 1331. It claims to hold the relics of St Adalbert of Prague (Wojciech in Polish, Vojtěch in Czech), one of the patron saints of Poland and the Czech Republic. He was Bishop of Gniezno before being martyred preaching to the Prussians in 997. Some believe that the relics of St Adalbert are held in St Vitus Cathedral, Prague – they were, after all, stolen to order – but it’s believed that the Czechs actually got the bones of St Gaudentius, brother of Adalbert, instead.
One thing that definitely didn’t end up in Prague is the unique set of bronze doors at Gniezno, which date from the late 12th century. They are a unique survival in Europe, and depict scenes from the life of St Adalbert. All in all, one of the most fascinating places to visit in Poland.
Famous Landmarks In Poland – East and South-East Poland
Zamość Main Square
The town of Zamość was founded in 1580 by army leader Jan Zamoyski, and it’s one of the best surviving examples of a planned Renaissance town in Europe. It was designed by Paduan architect Bernardo Morando, and its focal point is the vast Rynek Wielki (Great Square).
The stunning Town Hall and row of Armenian tenement houses are among the most famous buildings in Poland, and it’s well worth a day or two of your time to head down to this relatively unexplored part of the country to see them and, indeed, the rest of the town, including its fortress, churches and synagogue.
The south-eastern city of Lublin should be one of the top places of interest in Poland, but its distance from everywhere else means it’s still relatively undiscovered, certainly in comparison with Krakow. The city’s main landmark, Lublin Royal Castle, is the oldest building in the city, its keep dating back to the 13th century. Also seek out the superb frescoes in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity.
After destruction by Swedish forces during the Great Deluge of 1655, the Castle was rebuilt, though the outer walls – built in English Gothic Revival style – bear no resemblance to the originals. He Castle now houses the Lublin Museum, and sits above the lovely Old Town, one of the most beautiful in Poland.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.
You can read more of my articles on famous landmarks in Europe below: