Country Information


There is much debate over the early history of the region known today as Poland, mostly because of somewhat sketchy historical records, due to population by several different ethnic groups between the third and seventh centuries. The earliest significant archeological finds in Poland date from around 700 BC, from the early Iron Age.

In the mid-10th century, the first documented ruler of the region, Mieszko I, was baptized in the Catholic church and made Catholicism the official religion of the realm, and the majority of the populace adopted this faith over the next few centuries.

At the beginning of the 11th century, Boleslaw the Brave created new dioceses, further cementing the foothold of the church. When Boleslaw left part of the nation to each of his sons, Poland was broken into smaller duchies, and by 1226, one of the regional dukes had managed to draw the Teutonic Knights into combat against the Baltic Prussian pagans, which led to centuries of conflict with the Knights.

In the mid 13th century, Poland had nearly united when it was ravished by the Mongols. But in 1320, Wladyslaw finally succeeded in reuniting Poland as King. Wladyslaw’s son, Casimir III, then expanded Poland by two and a half times its size, extended protection to Jews and took the first important steps in establishing Poland’s first university.

Poland continued to be a center of migration, with Germans, Armenians and Jews settling in great numbers. Fortunately, Poland was much less affected by the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century than was the rest of Europe.

Near the end of the 14th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Union was formed, which proved to be very beneficial and lasted as one of the largest political influences in Europe for the next four hundred years. Poland continued to struggle with the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic region, until a severe defeat of the Knights in 1410 allowed the Union’s expansion far north.

What would eventually become the Duchy of Prussia was formed by Casimir IV and dynastic control was established over Bohemia and Hungary. In the south, however, Poland lost an estimated one million people to the Crimean Tatar slave traders between 1494 and 1694.

Poland was rapidly taking shape as a feudal society, due to the privileged nobles’ increasing power. But in 1505, a transfer of power that made the monarch little more than a figurehead prompted a shift toward equality, during the Golden Liberty period.

Protestants soon became integrated into the communities, and religious tolerance policies were incorporated, that made Poland nearly immune to the religious strife that was so rampant throughout the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages.

During the 16th century, Poland flourished, financially, scientifically and culturally, and Poland turned out many prominent artists, writers and scientists during this era.

The formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 further stabilized Poland and the Commonwealth became a great European power and a major center of culture. There were, however, several political crises while the Vasa kings ruled and the Commonwealth became embroiled in conflicts with Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, as well as numerous Cossack uprisings.

In the mid-17th century, the Commonwealth experienced breakups, invasions and uprisings which brought famines and epidemics and over a third of the population was lost. John III Sobieski reestablished Poland’s military power, but it was short-lived, and the Commonwealth began a steady decline.

Another bubble of cultural, educational and economic improvement was experienced in the late 18th century, but this too, was temporary, and the Commonwealth found itself being divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. In 1795, Catherine II of Russia finally succeeded in dismantling the Commonwealth entirely.

The November Uprising of 1830 nearly brought Poland its independence, but cut off from the rest of the world, the Polish military was forced to surrender for lack of food and arms. Then in 1863, yet another uprising failed to bring results.

After World War I ended in 1918, Poland’s independence was finally gained. The Polish army gave Lenin’s Russian army a sound beating in the Battle of Warsaw, effectively stopping his advance into Europe.

In spite of internal difficulties, Poland remained independent until the Nazis invaded in 1939. Poland was the 4th largest supplying nation of troops to the Allies in World War II, while a very sophisticated resistance effort at home made life very difficult for the occupying forces.

By the end of World War II, Poland had lost more than 6 million people, half of them Polish Jews. It took the country 25 years to nearly restore its population to previous levels.


Unique Characteristics

  • Poland is considered by many to be the bulwark of Christendom in Europe, with very close ties with the Catholic Church. “A Pole is a Catholic and a Catholic is a Pole” is a common saying there.
  • Since 1989, Poland has made a concentrated effort to shift as much commerce as possible to other EU nations, aside from those that were once part of the now defunct Soviet Union.
  • Poland has made remarkable progress in overcoming the social stratification that was part of its culture for so many centuries, up until the invasions of 1939.
  • Approximately 95% of Poles are Catholics, and about 75% of them are regular attendees of Mass.
  • Both Copernicus and Marie Curie were Polish. Two individuals that certainly left their marks.


Fun Facts

  • By tradition, a Polish pregnant woman should never look at the disabled, mice or fire, so as not to injure the unborn infant.
  • Pregnancies are concealed as long as possible, to avoid risk of jealousy, witchcraft or the evil eye.
  • Male babies are often breast fed for three years, and girls for two.
  • When presenting flowers to a woman, the flowers should always be of an odd number. And never give white flowers, as these are for mourning.
  • Many homes always leave one corner of the home unswept when sweeping prior to the Christmas celebrations, so as not to throw out any happiness.


Top Destinations

  • Krakow – This medieval UNESCO World Heritage Center city will fascinate you. The architecture alone makes it a worthwhile stop.
  • Warsaw – Warsaw is the the capital of Poland and was razed by the Germans in World War II. Much of the best parts of Warsaw have been reconstructed, however. Be sure to see the Royal Castle, Old Town and the beautiful Krasinski Gardens.
  • Gdansk – Gdansk is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, certainly the most gorgeous on the Baltic Sea. Visit the 14th century Town Hall while you’re there.
  • Lodz – The 3rd largest city in the country is home to the Muzeum Sztuki modern art museum. Lunapark amusement park is worth a second day, as well.
  • Wroclaw – Be sure to see the Rynek central square in the 4th largest city in Poland. If you enjoy old bridges, you’ll be in seventh heaven… the city was originally built spanning several islands, so it has plenty.
  • Torun – Once home to the famous astronomer Copernicus, Torun was founded by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century. Its beautifully preserved Old Town will make your trip.
  • Poznan- Midway between Berlin and Warsaw, Poznan was once the capital of Poland. Much of the damage done in World War II has been restored, particularly the historic attractions.
  • Zakopane – If skiing, hiking or climbing are your thing, Zakopane is a must-see stop in your travels.
  • Szczecin – This is the country’s largest seaport and the 7th largest city, with a lot of 20th century history centered here.
  • Lublin – If night life is more your style, Lublin has plenty of vibrant clubs to choose from.


How to Get Cash

While the costs of tourism in Poland haven’t yet caught up with the rest of Western Europe, the levels of amenities are competitive, and the more up-scale accommodations are similarly priced.

ATMs can be found in most towns, and the majority will accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Maestro cards.

Debit cards can be used to get cash at most major banks, with nominal fees. You can also get cash advances with your credit card at the larger banks.

Currency exchanges, called kantors, offer the most favorable rates of exchange, and will accept most major world currencies, although US dollars, British pounds and the euro are favored. The rates will vary from one place to another, but are prominently posted for easy comparison.

Credit cards will normally be accepted in airports and upscale lodging in major cities. Few other vendors will be prepared to accept them, however.

In an emergency, there are Western Union offices in any city and most large towns.

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