Polish cities are becoming increasingly popular as holiday destinations thanks in part to considerable urban renovation in recent years. Add to that reduced journey times and sleek modern commuter trains and there has never been a better time to travel around Poland by train. In this month’s journey, we travel from Gdańsk in the north to Kraków in the south, which now takes just over five hours (it used to take more than eight). We will also mention some of the detours and side-tracks along the way.
Most travellers arriving by train will use the city’s main railway station, Gdańsk Główny, a beautiful brick 19th-century structure located just a few minutes east of the city centre. Long-distance intercity trains are operated by the national rail company PKP. Shorter trips are managed by rail companies from each region so the type of train you travel on can vary from ultra-modern to older traditional carriages. If you are travelling with a Eurail or Interrail pass it may not be valid with certain operators so it is worth checking in advance.
Poland’s largest port, Gdańsk has a unique feel that sets it apart from other cities in the country due to its interesting history and switched allegiances between Germany and Poland. The Old Town has been smartened up in recent years and is full of characterful restaurants, cafes and amber shops (the surrounding area is the rich source of this semi-precious stone) set amidst the picturesque Burgher houses that line its streets. Although substantial parts of the city were reconstructed following mass devastation during the Second World War, the Main Town still looks much as it did 300 years ago and one of its primary attractions is St Mary’s Basilica, one of the three largest churches in the world. Head to the top for breathtaking views over the candy-coloured houses and cobbled lanes below
The city has several interesting museums detailing the city’s varied history as well as pleasure-boat cruises and expansive beaches spread along the coast of the Gulf of Gdańsk, making it a popular summer destination for Poles and foreign visitors alike.
Departing from Gdańsk Główny the first stop is Tczew on the Vistula River, known for its attractive old town and impressive 19th-century bridges. The city is a major river port and railway junction with links to Warszawa, Bydgoszcz, Poznań and onwards to Berlin. The next section is particularly scenic as you pass the turreted road bridge of Tczew and the equally breath-taking bridge across the River Nogat at Malbork. The quiet, rural town of Malbork boasts the largest Gothic castle in Europe, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is well worth a visit. Malbork’s railway station is also a sight in itself having been beautifully renovated and has wonderful wood panelling, embossed ceilings and pseudo-medieval decor.
From Malbork there is a side-track to the historic city of Olsztyn (Table 1035) with its imposing 14th-century cathedral and red-brick castle. The city is situated on the banks of the Lyna River and is surrounded by a network of forests and lakes making it a popular leisure location.
Continuing on our route south from Malbork it’s a short 2-3 hour journey through the towns of Iława and Działdowo to the capital, Warszawa the hub of Poland’s rail network. International trains run direct to Praha, Wien, Budapest, Hrodna, Berlin, Moskva and many other cities. The main station for tourist purposes is Warszawa Centralna Station which is located next to Centrum Metro Station and a number of tram and bus stops for easy transport around the city. Other large stations in the city are Warszawa Wschodnia in the east and Warszawa Zachodnia in the west.
Last week we reached the capital Warszawa. Having been almost completely destroyed during World War II, the city has been rebuilt and is now an interesting mix of diverse architecture with modern skyscrapers, royal palaces and the charming narrow streets of the reconstructed Old Town which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
There are two options for trains from Warszawa to Kraków: the modern high-speed line with a journey time of just 2-3 hours (Table 1065) or you could take the slower route via Radom and Kieice which takes just over 4½ hours (Table 1067). The fastest trains are branded Express Intercity Premium (EIP) on which seat reservation is compulsory. The scenery is not that inspiring on either line so we recommend enjoying the comfort and speed of the sleek pendolino trains as you travel towards Poland’s second largest city
The historic city of Kraków offers plenty to see and do including some appealing day trip options beyond the city boundaries. Its main sights are concentrated on the north bank of the Vistula River where historic buildings and monuments abound. The main draws for tourists are the hilltop Wawel Castle and Cathedral as well as the Old Town which contains soaring churches, impressive museums and the vast Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest market square. Local tour companies offer an eclectic mix of day-long excursions where you can explore the high Tatra peaks, lakes with inland beaches and national parks in this beautiful corner of Europe. Two of the most popular day trips from Kraków are visiting the sombre remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp located in the town of Oświęcim and the remarkable underground Wieliczka Salt Mines (see Table 1099). Trains depart frequently but some visitors may find the organised bus tours more convenient as the price usually includes travel, entry and a guide.
Following last week’s journey to the historic city of Kraków, we now head south on the scenic route through the Tatra mountain range to Zakopane.
Just three daytime services run from Kraków to Zakopane’s small railway station, together with one overnight train (Table 1066). Readers should note, however, that engineering work means buses are replacing trains until June 28. Trains take a leisurely route through the hills and valleys with some spectacular mountain scenery, stopping at many small towns on the way. Frequent buses are also available and offer a faster option if you are short on time.
Zakopane is Poland’s best-known mountain resort, famed for its hiking and winter sports. Well-marked hiking trails criss-cross the land in all directions with some extending into Slovakia, although they can become crowded in the summer months. For the less energetic there is a funicular railway from the centre of the town up to the Gubałówka Hill summit from where there are spectacular views over the town and the surrounding Tatra mountains. Just outside the town, there is also a cable car to Mount Kasprowy. At the summit there is a restaurant and, in good weather, it is well worth the climb to the meteorological observatory, the building with the highest altitude in Poland.
Zakopane’s pedestrianised centre is one of its main features and the main street is lined with a variety of shops and restaurants. Street performers, portrait artists and horse-drawn carriages all compete for space and attention. River rafting is also popular with tourists and you can be gently ferried in boats guided by raftsmen decked out in the traditional embroidered folk costumes of the local population, known as the Gorals.