For years, Poland has been flying under the radar of most tourists visiting Europe. However, it has been gaining in popularity and many are now discovering this curious place. So, whether you are planning to visit Poland or have already been there, here are some fun facts about Poland to get you more familiar before your visit.
As someone born in Poland, I am always amused by what I see written about it. I have come across too many ridiculous “things that will shock you” videos about Poland to realize that even those that visit don’t know that much about it. It could be a language barrier or the fact that they prefer to create clickbait titles. Hence, I thought it would be useful to put together a list of fun facts about Poland to ease anyone’s shock.
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Poland, the basics
Before we get into all the fun facts about Poland, let’s cover the basics. The Republic of Poland is situated in central Europe. Many tend to incorrectly refer to it as eastern Europe, probably due to its communist past rather than geography. Bordered by the Baltic Sea to the north, Poland shares its borders with Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania.
Poland is the ninth largest country in Europe, with a population of over 38.5 million people. While Poland is part of the European Union, it still uses its currency, the Zloty. It’s a very affordable place that won’t break the bank. You can’t say that about many places.
10 Fun facts about Poland
Now, let’s look at all the fun facts about Poland you probably don’t know about.
Poland is a lot older than you think
If you believe the legend, once upon a time, three brothers – Lech, Czech and Rus – wandered the area with their tribes. Another version says they were hunting. Either way, one day, they (or just Lech) stumbled upon a large oak tree growing on a hill, with a large nest in the branches. As the white eagle soared from the nest, Lech decided that it was a sign for his people to settle.
This was the start of Poland, with the eagle as its symbol. The other brothers moved on, creating what then became Czech and Russian lands. However, Poland’s documented history begins in 966, with the conversion to Christianity by the pagan ruler Mieszko I.
The Kingdom of Poland officially kicked off in 1025. The first coronation took place at the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków (Cracow). Mieszko was the first Christian leader of Poland. He also founded the Piast dynasty that ruled till 1385.
Warsaw wasn’t always the capital of Poland
This makes the list of fun facts about Poland because it’s an interesting story. The first capital of Poland was Gniezno. The name derives from the word “gniazdo,” Polish for a nest. Remember the eagle nest that Lech took as a sign? We’re talking about the same settlement.
Cracow became the capital in 1038. The royal city became a leading centre of trade, culture and power. Polish kings lived, ruled and died here. The city experienced significant growth and expansion over the centuries. Today you’ll still find several great European architectural styles from Mediaeval, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance, to Baroque and Art Nouveau. They all speak to the glory of Cracow’s past.
With so much going on, it might be surprising that Poland’s capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596, by King Sigismund III Vasa. Due to its central location between Crackow and Vilnius, this was the perfect place of power for what became the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Warsaw came close to losing its status as a capital after WWII. As the city was severely destroyed, there was talk of leaving the rubble behind and moving the capital to Łódź.
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Today, Warsaw remains as Poland’s capital, although many, especially in Kraków, are still pretty sore about the move. You’d think that after so many centuries, they’d move on.
It was once a powerful kingdom in Europe
This is one of the fun facts about Poland that most people don’t know about. It was once one of the largest and powerful kingdoms in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Poland was one of the first counties in Europe to adopt a written constitution in 1791. It was second in the world after the US.
Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Poland had its golden age. A few centuries earlier, the union of Polish and Lithuanian rulers gave way to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795). With the freedom of confessions and religious tolerance, unique in Europe at that time, it attracted immigrants from other nations, including Germans, Jews, Armenians and the Dutch.
Poland didn’t exist for 123 years
It’s not surprising that Poland’s history makes it on the list of fun facts about Poland. While it might not be that fun, it’s definitely interesting and probably unknown to many. Between 1600 and 1945, Poland had to defend itself from invasion 43 times. Polish forces fought battles against the Swedes, Ottomans, Austrians, Prussian and Russians. Not to mention the fight against Hitler during World War II.
Read this if you are curious about other countries that no longer exist today!
Poland has a long history of suffering and oppression. Most people associate Poland with the Second World War. The atrocities that came with the Nazi occupation and the extermination of the Jews are unmissable. However, Poland is no stranger to invasion and occupation.
After the glory of what was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, came what became known as the partition of Poland. Poland was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria through the course of three separate phases (1772, 1793 and 1795). It ceased to exist as a free nation until the end of World War I. That’s 123 years.
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During that time, the Polish people fought against their oppressors with fierce resistance. Uprisings and revolutions ensued, although without much success. During the Napoleonic Wars, the short-lived Dutchy of Warsaw gave hope, just to be erased from the map once again.
Poland’s geography covers it all
If you don’t know much about Poland, chances are you are not aware of its geography. That’s why I’ve included it on the list of fun facts about Poland. If you love the outdoors, there are plenty of activities for you to enjoy the country’s vastly diverse nature.
In the north, the Baltic Sea offers beaches and ports. While not as warm as the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, it’s a great summer destination for many. If you’re more into the mountains, Poland has three mountain ranges for you to enjoy. Head over to the Tatry, Bieszczady and Karpaty mountain ranges in the south. Here you can do some serious hiking, climbing and skiing.
Between the sea and the mountains, Poland is relatively flat. Forests make up over 30 per cent of the country, with the Białowieża Primeval Forest alone covering about 380,000-acres (150,000-hectares). This is also home to about 800 bison, brought back from extinction in the wild by breeding and reintroduction programs.
Poland is also home to dunes (Pomerania region), wetlands (Biebrzański National Park) and islands (Woliński National Park). It is also home to one of Europe’s largest lake districts – Mazury (Masurian Lakeland), with over 2,000 lakes.
It’s a religious country
Another one of many facts about Poland is that it’s the most religious European country, with over 90 per cent of people identifying as Roman Catholics. While in most countries, there is a separation of church and state, that’s not the case in Poland.
The country’s legislation on abortion is one of the strictest in Europe. Its severity puts women and adolescents’ lives and well-being at risk, proving that women’s rights are not seen as equal. The severe restrictions prompted the UN Human Rights Committee in 2016 to express concerns over the health and lives of women. Not a lot has changed since then.
The pope John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, is revered in Poland. He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. You can find numerous items with his image from plates, pictures and even tapestries. If you’re religious, you’ll find lots of souvenirs with the pope’s image to bring home.
Famous people you didn’t know were Polish
I couldn’t resist adding this to the fun facts about Poland. There are many famous Polish people and some of them might surprise you. Who are they?
Joseph Conrad (Teodor Józef Konrad Nałęcz-Korzeniowski), a famous English writer known for short stories and novels, was born into the Polish nobility in 1857. If you remember from the other fun facts about Poland, the country didn’t technically exist at that time. Today, his birthplace is in Ukraine.
Another famous Pole is the musical composer Frederic Chopin (Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin). He was born in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw in 1810. He left Poland in his 20s and lived in France for the rest of his life. He died in 1849 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
We know her as Marie Sklodowska-Curie (Maria Skłodowska), the first and only Nobel laureate in two different sciences and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was also the first female professor at the Sorbonne University. Marie was born in Warsaw in 1867 and moved to Paris in 1891. There she met and eventually married Pierre Curie. She is famous for discovering Polonium and Radium as well as her work with radioactivity. Today, her remains are interred at the Pantheon in Paris.
Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik) was born in Toruń in 1473. He is best known for being the first person to suggest that earth is not the centre of the universe. His work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, was a major event in the history of science.
Culinary facts: beyond vodka and pierogis
We wouldn’t have fun facts about Poland without talking about the culinary scene. Polish food is mainly based on meat, potatoes and cabbage, and spices. From pierogis (stuffed potato dumplings) to bigos (cabbage and meat stew) and everything in between, Polish food involves some of these ingredients or a combination thereof. Pickled foods and cold cuts also play an integral role in the Polish diet.
But did you know that cabbage wasn’t always a huge part of Polish cooking? In the 16th century, Italian-born Bona Sforza became the queen of Poland. She brought with her cooks, gardeners and popularized the use of numerous vegetables in Polish cuisine. While vegetables like leeks, lettuce, celeriac and cabbage were known in Poland, they were not widely used by the common people. Even today, some of these vegetable groupings are referred to as “włoszczyzna,” meaning of Italian origin (Włochy is Italy in Polish).
While many associate Poland with vodka, beer is also widely consumed. Poland ranks fifth among countries with the highest beer consumption per capita. Some people drink their beer with raspberry or blackcurrant juice (piwo z sokiem). A hot beer with cloves and cinnamon, sweetened with honey, is also a popular choice (piwo grzane).
Additional items that make up the fun facts about Poland in the food category are pączki and zapiekanka. Pączki are fried doughnuts with filling, usually plum jam, but there are many other fillings like apple, blueberry or cream-filled. You can eat them at any time, but they are traditionally consumed on Fat Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Zapiekanka is a sliced piece of a baguette, topped with cheese, mushrooms and ketchup. You can get them at various stands and carts.
It’s a tongue twister!
It wouldn’t be a list of fun facts about Poland without mentioning the language itself. Polish makes many of the “most difficult languages” to learn lists; however, I don’t think it’s that difficult. Mind you, it was the first language I learned, so maybe I’m partial.
Polish is an Indo-European language and part of the West Slavic language family. It’s closely related to Czech, Slovak and Sorbian. Some of the other languages in this family of languages include Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Russian and Ukrainian.
I read somewhere that if you know Polish, the others will be like a walk in the park. I call bullshit. Maybe it’s my tone-deafness or lack of language skills, but I don’t understand any of these languages. I found myself utterly clueless in Prague and Croatia when I heard the locals speak.
The Polish alphabet is based on the Roman alphabet and consists of 32 letters. Several of them you won’t find in any other alphabet. They are ą, ć, ę, ł, ń ó, ś, ż, ż. In addition to these “rustling” letters, there are numerous combinations, called “digraphs” that add more challenging sounds. These are cz, ch, sz, rz, dz, dż and dź.
The hardest sentence in Polish is: W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie. (In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed, for which Szczebrzeszyn is famous.) Have at it.
The language is filled with diminutive forms for nouns as well as names. For example, tea is “herbata,” but you can say “herbatka.” It still means tea. The language also involves word-formations, which is very challenging to explain. For example, the verb “lecieć” (to fly) can lead to “wylecieć,” “nalecieć,” “ulecieć,” “polecieć” and “przelecieć.” Isn’t that fun?
Fun Polish customs
This category could be its own list of fun facts about Poland, since these customs and practices are interesting to outsiders.
Name days are bigger than birthdays
In Poland, birthdays take a backseat to name days “imieniny.” Like in many other countries that celebrate name days, they are associated with days commemorating different saints. There is even a calendar that lists what names are to be celebrated on what day. Name days are celebrated with parties, food and drink just like a birthday.
Don’t wear hats indoor
It is considered rude to wear a hat indoors. I remember my dad having a fit every time he would see someone wearing a hat inside. So, if you don’t want to offend anyone, take the hat off when you go inside.
Kissing a woman’s hand is still a thing
What might be considered old fashioned and weird in other countries, kissing a woman’s hand is still a thing in Poland. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that every man will be grabbing your hand at every chance they speak to you.
Differentiation between male and female last names
In Polish, last names are similar to adjectives in that they match the gender. For example, a man’s last name would be Kowalski, whereas, for a woman, it is Kowalska. It doesn’t matter whether you’re married or not.
Mushroom picking is also a thing
I still remember going mushroom picking with my grandmother when I was a kid. I’m not sure why this is such a popular thing, but many do it even if they live in cities. Going to a forest at the end of summer looking for mushrooms is a common activity. While I don’t know every single mushroom in the world, I’m pretty confident when it comes to distinguishing an edible mushroom from a poisonous one.
Bonus fun facts about Poland
Polish inventions aren’t necessarily themselves fun facts about Poland, but they provide some interesting facts. Some of the notable ones include a Kerosene lamp, invented by Ignacy Lukasiewicz in 1853 and the bulletproof vest invented by Jan Szczepanik in 1901. The people behind the Commodore 64, The Witcher and the Matrix were also Polish.
Poland is also home to 16 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the world’s largest castle by land area – the Marlbork Castle. It is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe. The Jagiellonian University, located in Kraków, was founded way back in 1364.
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Poland is also home to two of the oldest salt mines in the world. The Wieliczka Salt Mine near Cracow is a magnificent example of a salt mine that dates back to the 13th century. It’s known for chiselled salt sculptures, underground chambers and chandeliers made from salt crystals. The even older Bochnia Salt Mine dates back to the 12th century and today is an extension of Wieliczka.
To top off the list of fun facts about Poland, it’s important to mention that the country is the world’s biggest amber exporter. The fossilized tree resin comes in various colours from golden and brown, to reddish, white and transparent. Amber products and jewellery make great souvenirs and gifts.
Final thoughts about fun facts about Poland
I hope you enjoyed this list of fun facts about Poland. This was by no means a full list of all facts, but something to give you an idea of what Poland is about. Like any other country, it has its quirks that might seem baffling to foreigners.
Poland has changed a lot over the years and it’s still trying to forge its path. The number of visitors to Poland has been steadily increasing over the years, as many discover its many charms. So, whether you’ve already been to Poland or are looking to visit, I hope this list helps you in your travels.