How to spend 10 days in Poland on a budget

PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

David and Goliath comes to mind when travellers think about the strength of the ringgit against the euro but don't dismiss a European holiday just yet. Excluding flights, you can see the best of Poland in 10 days, dine in nice cafes, and have some cash left over for souvenirs, for just RM3,500 (S$1,160). Of course, you'd have to be open to hostels and public transportation - both of which I'd recommend.

The exchange rate is about RM1 to one zloty (S$0.35), the local currency. Euros are accepted but zlotys are preferred. Best to arm yourself with euros and change your money at the airport in Poland or in the bigger European airports if you're on a transiting flight. Finding a money changer with zlotys here is more of a challenge than Pokemon Go.

From her capital Warsaw, take a train to the maritime town of Gdansk. Then, hop on a night train to Krakow in the south, before taking a scenic bus ride to the Zakopane countryside.

Food prices here are like those in the Klang Valley. A main course usually comes with potatoes, beetroot, sauerkraut, pickles and gherkins. Expect to pay about RM50.

Stuffed with meat, sauerkraut and mushrooms, or cheese and spinach, the pierogi (Polish dumplings) is a national favourite, like the kotlet schabowy (breaded pork cutlet). The traditional soups - flaki (tripe), rosol (chicken noodle) and bigos (hunter's stew) are popular too.

And to wash it all down, Poland's pride - the Zubrowka (Bison Grass Vodka), of course. Mixed with apple juice, the cocktail teases with scents of cinnamon and vanilla. The taste? Apple pie in a glass!

Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

In the less touristy parts and among the older generation, English isn't widely spoken but the younger ones are helpful. Safe, cheap and beautiful, visiting Poland this summer won't break your budget and she's sure to show you a good time.

Warsaw

The Palace of Culture and Science stands alongside the more modern buildings of Warsaw. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Your first stop should be the highest viewing platform in Warsaw - the Palace of Culture and Science. Then by tram, make your way to the Warsaw Rising Museum for a sobering dose of history. The short 20-minute ride takes you to an old tramway power station, where those who fought and died for the country's independence, are remembered.

The Palace is also a short 20-minute walk from the Old Town - which ironically, is relatively new.

Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, first-time visitors may find it a little under-whelming especially if you've seen the best and oldest treasures of Poland's other European neighbours.

But when you realise that the historic centre was almost flattened by the Nazis in 1944, you'll appreciate the work that went into raising this architectural phoenix from the ashes of World War II.

Restaurants, souvenir shops and churches line the meandering alleys.

Start from the Castle Square where King Zygmunt III - the monarch who made Warsaw the capital of Poland, looks upon his subjects from a 22m pedestal. Explore the town on foot instead of hopping on the mini tourist train. You're better off armed with a free map zooming in on the attractions than paying 20 zlotys for a ride that goes around the town rather than through it.

One of Lazienki Krolewskie’s many architectural gems set in the heart of the green lung. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

For about 10 zlotys, you can enjoy a half-hour pipe organ performance in the many churches around town. Nearby the Market Square's Warsaw Mermaid - a symbol of the city, stone steps lead to the multimedia fountain park with its spellbinding lights.

Across the park, The Vistula, Poland's longest and largest river, is sandwiched between banks lined with shops and art installations, and a long sandy beach.

An evening boat ride is a relaxing way to soak in the sights. Lazienki Krolewskie - a 76ha palace-garden complex about 40 minutes away from the Old Town by foot, is among the most beautifully landscaped parks in the world.

The hanging boughs and shady leaves frame ponds and lakes like masterpieces in a gallery. Perfect for picnics.

Gdansk, the port city on the Baltic coast of Poland. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Gdansk

From Warsaw's Central Station next to the Palace of Culture and Science, hop on a train up north to Gdansk.

About three hours' away, Gdansk's main attraction is its quaintness. The black Crane by the water is the town's iconic structure. Its lifting mechanism used to be powered by men walking inside two huge wooden wheels, like modern-day hamster wheels.

The colourful buildings have a very different vibe from those in Warsaw's Old Town. The Dlugi Targ is where the historic Neptune Fountain stands. This is the town's main shopping street.

While made-in-China souvenirs are plenty, there are also shops that sell handcrafted ornaments and glassware that make great gifts. If you're into amber, there are many shops selling such jewellery. Always check the certificate of authenticity to make sure it's the real deal.

Against the backdrop of old churches like the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where a huge astronomical clock and 78m tower beckon, artists and musicians showcase their talents.

The Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Head out to the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, a Unesco World Heritage Site, for a day trip. There are frequent trains going to Malbork daily.

The medieval fortress is the most complete and elaborate red brick castle complex in Europe. If you only have time for one castle in Poland, massive Malbork won't disappoint.

Krakow

Take an overnight train from Gdansk to Krakow to save on accommodation.

Look for rooms near the cobblestoned Main Market Square, where you'll find carriage rides, buskers and kiosks selling everything from flowers to trinkets. Look out for the free walking tours. You'll need a whole afternoon for St Mary's Basilica, Cloth Hall and the Rynek Underground Museum.

Things here are a little more expensive than Warsaw but it's worth spending more time in the country's former capital because here, you'll find a little bit of everything that makes Poland great.

The brick barracks of Auschwitz. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau is a painful journey back in time, but walking on the same path over one million Holocaust victims took to their death is a sobering experience.

Quiet despite throngs of visitors, the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camps provide a glimpse into the horrors of human cruelty. Within the silent walls of the prison blocks, wooden barracks, execution yard and gas chamber, the shoes, hair and cans of poison used to murder Jews and prisoners, are displayed.

A tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine takes halfa day but time really flies when you're 135m underground.

One of the oldest salt mines in Europe, the Unesco World Heritage Site boasts of a beautiful chapel inside. Above ground, the museum looks like any old building. But descend down 380 wooden steps and you'll enter a chilly salt maze, full of wonders. Don't worry about getting back up because there's a lift.

Tourists sitting on beach deck chairs overlooking the Tatra Mountains in Zakopane. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Zakopane

The breathtaking Tatra Mountains tower over this resort town. Three hours from Krakow, coach buses and mini vans depart from the city station daily so day trips are possible. Lined with shops, bars and restaurants, Krupowki Street is always teeming with tourists.

Two nights would be ideal though, if you love the great outdoors. The air here is crisp and fresh. Distinctively Zakopane, the unique wooden lodges are like children's storybook pop-ups. When it snows, ski. When it's sunny, hike or scale its majestic peaks.

Distinctively Zakopane, the unique wooden lodges are like children’s storybook pop-ups. Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

The Kasprowy Wierch cable car - which marks its 80th anniversary this year - and the Gubalowka funicular train in the heart of town, are the main attractions.

Getting tickets for the train is easy but online bookings are recommended if you don't want to miss out on the cable car up to Mount Kasprowy or spend hours stuck in a line instead of 1,987m above sea level.

The cable car ride takes about 15 minutes.

Heading towards the steep, rocky slopes, a sea of lush green trees unfolds like a carpet spread out beneath your feet. At 1,100m above sea level, Gubalowka Hill has the best of both worlds - a sprawling view of the town and the surrounding Tatra Mountains. Leave the cable car for last because once you stand on the shoulders of Mount Kasprowy, everything you see after that will disappear in its shadow.