7 things you didn't know about Poland
Krakow, with its old-world charm and fantastic value for money, is deservedly popular, but wander off the beaten path and you'll find that Poland has a lot to offer beyond its most famous city.
1. There are tons of vibrant cities that aren't (yet) crowded with tourists
Most people can only name a handful of Polish cities, though they're often vibrant centres with all the colours of an ice-cream counter and direct flight routes from London. Wroclaw springs to mind as Europe's Capital of Culture for 2016, but plenty of others merit a visit: Torun has a walled old town that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Lublin was once the heartland of the Jewish intelligentsia and nicknamed "the Jewish Oxford"; and Lodz (pronounced "wodge") is brimming with colourful murals, red-brick buildings and hipster enclaves.
2. Much of the countryside is totally unspoilt
The Bieszczady Mountains remain "one of Europe's last great travel unknowns," according to National Geographic Traveller. Located in the country's extreme southeastern corner, this wild range is inhabited by roaming wolves and bears. Further north, you can find the last remaining primeval woodland in Europe, Bialowieza Forest. Some of its oak trees are over 500 years old, and it is teeming with wildlife -- it is the last refuge of Europe's largest land mammal, the European bison.
3. Traditional Polish folklore is alive (and weird)
If you've ever visited Krakow, you'll know that it was once home to a fire-breathing dragon, but there are plenty of other legends that sound like they came from the pages of a fairy tale. In local folklore, a resident mermaid has protected the city of Warsaw since she washed up on the riverbank in the middle ages. For the more ghoulishly inclined, historians have found numerous vampire burials throughout the country, and the Skull Chapel in the southwest has an interior that's adorned with thousands of human bones.
4. The food is way more colourful than you think
There's more to Polish cuisine than endless dumplings. Plenty of the food trends of recent years are old news for the Poles, who have long been enjoying fresh, seasonal produce and pickling and fermenting anything they can get their hands on. Expect doughnuts filled with wild rosehips; hearty sourdough bloomers; cherry-infused vodka; artisan raspberry honey; locally sourced salads sprinkled with fresh seeds; and earthy, hand-foraged mushrooms. Make sure you eat out at a traditional Polish milk bar -- these no-frills Soviet-style diners play a significant role in the nation's culinary heritage.
5. It has some of Europe's best biking trails
When it comes to immersive scenery, Poland has it all -- from the gentle, pine-fringed beaches of the north to the toothy, snow-capped mountain peaks of the south. There are plenty of routes to suit beginners and experts alike, taking riders through gingerbread villages and dense fir forests. Most cities are also very bicycle friendly, with well-planned, segregated cycle lanes.
6. You're guaranteed to fill your feed with photos
Poland is blessed with the kind of well-preserved architecture and pristine nature that demands to be photographed. There are plenty of guided photography tours that help you to uncover the best shots, with themes ranging from autumnal landscapes to baroque palaces. We recommend heading out to Zalipie, a small village to the north of Krakow -- the streets are covered with intricate paintings of flowers, and the interiors of many of the houses are also covered with floral designs. It might just be the most Instagrammable place in Europe.
7. There's a party for every occasion (and this year it's the 25th annual Sausage Dog Parade)
The Poles really know how to celebrate -- some of the best times to visit the country are during its traditional festivals, which are peppered throughout the year. We love the idea of a day dedicated to eating doughnuts before Lent (aptly named Fat Thursday), and National Water Fight Day on Easter Monday. If you aren't already convinced, Krakow hosts an annual Sausage Dog Parade, where you'll be encircled by the pattering paws of hundreds of costumed dachshunds.
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