It’s Poland in winter. -30 degrees below freezing and you’ve just come back from a hike. You’re glad you brought that down jacket, but still your face, feet, and hands are chilled to the bone. You feel as if your fingers and toes might drop off from frostbite.
When you get inside, all you want is a nice hot cup of tea. But you’ve been told not to drink it too quickly. Your teeth need to warm up first, otherwise your enamel might crack as soon as the hot liquid enters your mouth.
Sound appealing? Then let me tell you the good news…
Despite its reputation, Poland in winter isn’t that cold (usually). It’s colder than England but not as rainy. Perhaps on more on par with Scotland for temperatures. Cold enough to snow every year. And maybe a couple of weeks every year it goes below -5 centigrade.
So, in other words, if you take a good winter coat, you’ll be fine.
You see Poland is fast becoming my second home. Much of this is due to marrying Ola, also an author of this blog. She introduced me to a slow-paced land where the people work hard, play hard, and generally make the most of the beauty the country has to offer.
So, here’s 6 reasons you should visit Poland in winter. Next year, it might even become a substitute for that holiday to the French Alps.
Poland in Winter Reason #1: Snowy Mountains
Poland is a country you can divide into two: north and south. The north is incredibly flat, stripped away by a glacier thousands of years ago. But in the south, you have some impressive mountain ranges.
The High Tatras is the most famous of these. The range runs through Slovakia and Poland and are the highest in the larger Carpathian mountain range. They peak at around 2600 metres, around twice the height of Ben Nevis.
The alpine town of Zakopane is a great base to explore the Polish Tatras. If skiing’s your thing, then the slopes are free. You do have to pay for the ski lifts, but it’s much cheaper than in France.
Or, there’s plenty of hikes that run out from the town. When we were there, Ola took the courtesy of guiding a group of Spanish and Portuguese tourists across some local hiking routes. We had a ball.
Rabka-Zdrój is another town I went to several winters ago, this time in another mountain range further north from the Tatras called the Gorce Mountains. Again, there are ski slopes, or for the lighter hearted or less experienced you can book cross-country skiing lessons in the park. End all that with a hot chocolate (see below) in a local coffee shop called Mon Ami. Real melted chocolate with only a little milk. No cocoa needed.
You can get to both Zakopane and Rabka by bus from Kraków.
Poland in Winter Reason #2: Frozen Lakes
Ola comes from the town of Szczecinek in the province of Pomerania. Poland famously has the Masurian lakes but residents of Pomerania proudly claim there’s a much higher density of lakes in their region and a much lower density of tourists.
Wherever you decide to go, the lakes are just as worth seeing in Poland in winter as in summer. Usually for a few weeks every winter, the lakes freeze over and you can stand at the shore of one and watch fishermen walk across them.
On Trzesiecko lake in Szczecinek, Ola even used to ice-skate when she was a child. Nowadays, few dare. A word of warning, if you want to walk on the lake, ask the fishermen if it’s safe first.
There’s a lot less tourists in the lake towns in winter meaning you can get close to nature and appreciate the stillness as the sun sets over the lake.
Trains run to Szczecinek direct from Poznań.
Poland in Winter Reason #3: Evergreen Forests
I went back to my home city of Manchester, UK this winter and I was surprised by how bare everything looked. No leaves on the trees, very few conifers around. It all looked kind of dismal against a dark, grey sky.
I guess I’d been spoilt by Polish forests. If you find yourself in Poland in winter, make sure you take a train journey across it. It’s even better when it’s just snowed as the scenery looks spectacular when plastered with white.
The last train journey I took was from Szczecinek to Słupsk and back again. We rolled past matchstick forests of spruces and pines, opening occasionally into great white spaces, where animal tracks led out into the distance. Occasionally, I sighted a family of deers, grazing in a pool within a frozen lake. Then back to the forests again, rows and rows of spruces sprouting up like fingers from the snow.
Poland in Winter Reason #4: Milder Baltic Shores
Polish seaside resorts get busy in the summer. This takes prices up and so some prefer to visit the beaches of Poland in winter when things are a little more mellow.
I just came back from Ustka, one of the more popular seaside resorts. We were lucky to have three days of sunshine and so enough time for walking along the beach and port.
The beaches in Poland are gorgeous, the colour more silver than the beaches back home and the sand a lot finer. In the winter light, if it weren’t for the water, the sand would look like the surface of the moon. Huge gulls dominate the shores with the occasional crow or jackdaw.
If you’re lucky, you might even see the sea frozen in areas (for example around the estuaries). I saw this happen in a village called Puck (pronounced pootsk) several years ago, you could literally walk from one peninsula to the other.
But what makes any trip to the seaside complete in Poland is a meal of fish and chips (well, okay… French fries). This usually comes baked or fried in pancake batter. I recommend the latter.
As you walk around, you’ll also smell that glorious aroma of fish (usually cod) hanging in cast iron smokers. Trust me, make sure you have at least some smoked fish before you head back inland.
To get to Ustka or Puck, take a train from Poznań or Szczecin to Słupsk. Local buses run from there.
Poland in Winter Reason #5: Winter Markets
Get to Poland around Christmas / New Year time and you’re in for a treat. Winter markets open specially in the Old Town squares for the season. Smoke rising from wooden stalls bring with it the smells of hearty winter food.
There, try oscypek, a kind of smoky sheep’s cheese. They serve it up fried, typically with either cranberries or bacon. Also, look out for kaszanka, a blood sausage made of buckwheat or barley and pigs’ innards. This is a damn sight tastier than it sounds.
You’ll probably find golonka there as well, which is pig’s knuckle and tastes good. Or, just ask for simple Polish sausage and mash, also delicious.
Some great cities to experience winter markets are Poznań, Toruń, Gdańsk or Kraków.
Poland in Winter Reason Reason #6: Soups, Hot Chocolate, and Mulled Beer
There’s nothing like coming in after a cold hike to hot food waiting on the table. But you’re missing out if you stick only to the main course.
You see, Polish soups are often as hearty as a main course and damn tasty to match.
Take żurek for example. This is a sour rye soup served usually with bacon, sausage, egg and potatoes. Quite often it comes served within a loaf of bread making a meal in itself. Then there’s krupnik, a Polish barley soup which is fantastic when they add smoked pork ribs to it. Or, if you’ve decided to head for the Polish coastline, give zupa rybna (fish soup) a try.
Then for dessert, find a coffee shop offering gorąca czekolada (hot chocolate). If they do this well, the chocolate will be served up in a smaller cup, gooey so you eat it with a spoon rather than drink it. It’s much richer than the hot chocolate I know back in England and much more irresistible.
In the evening, it should be easy enough to find mulled wine if that’s your thing. But truly, a Polish winter isn’t complete until you’ve gulped down at least one pint of mulled beer. Cloves and oranges make this warmed beer a heart-warming seasonal treat.
It would take a book or more to write about everything Poland has in winter. I’ve only supplied a small sample.
If you have any other winter activities you’d like to share with others, or if you have anything else you want to say, feel free to leave a comment below. Oh, and share if you like too and help spread the word about this wonderful country.