Poland Tourist Information and Tips
The legal tender in Poland is the Polish zloty ( zl, international abbreviation: PLN ). The zloty divides into 100 grosze . Poland is expected to adopt the Euro (ˆ) sometime after 2012, but those plans are still tentative.
Private currency exchange offices (Polish: kantor ) are very common, and offer Euro or USD exchanges at rates that are usually comparable to commercial banks. Be aware that exchanges in tourist hot-spots, such as the train stations or popular tourist destinations, tend to overcharge.
There is also an extensive network of cash machines or ATMs (Polish: bankomat ). The exchange rate will depend on your particular bank, but usually ends up being pretty favorable, and comparable to reasonably good exchange offices.
Credit cards can be used to pay almost everywhere in the big cities. Popular cards include Visa , Visa Electron , MasterCard and Maestro . AmEx and Diners' Club can be used in a few places (notably the big, business-class hotels) but are not popular and you should not rely on them for any payments.
Hypermarkets are dominated by western chains: Carrefour, Tesco, Auchan, Real. Usually located in shopping malls or suburbs.
However Poles shop very often at local small stores for bread, meat, fresh dairy, vegetables and fruits - goods for which freshness and quality is essential.
Prices in Poland are some of the cheapest in Europe.
Poles take their meals following the standard continental schedule: a light breakfast in the morning (usually some sandwiches with tea/coffee), then a larger lunch (or traditionally a "dinner") at around 1PM or 2PM, then a supper at around 7PM.
It is not difficult to avoid meat, with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian dish. Most major cities have some exclusively vegetarian restaurants, especially near the city center. Vegan options remain extremely limited, however.
Traditional Local Food
Traditional Polish cuisine tends to be hearty, rich in meats, sauces, and vegetables; sides of pickled vegetables are a favorite accompaniment. Modern Polish cuisine, however, tends towards greater variety, and focuses on healthy choices. In general, the quality of "store-bought" food is very high, especially in dairy products, baked goods, vegetables and meat products.
A dinner commonly includes the first course of soup, followed by the main course. Among soups, barszcz czerwony (red beet soup, a.k.a. borsch) is perhaps the most recognizable: a spicy and slightly sour soup, served hot. It's commonly poured over dumplings ( barszcz z uszkami or barszcz z pierogami ), or served with a fried pate roll ( barszcz z pasztetem ). Other uncommon soups include zupa ogorkowa , a cucumber soup made of a mix of fresh and pickled cucumbers; zupa grzybowa , typically made with wild mushrooms; also, flaki or flaczki , a kind of spicy tripe.
Pierogi are, of course, an immediately recognizable Polish dish. They are often served along side another dish (for example, with barszcz), rather than as the main course. Golabki are also widely known: they are large cabbage rolls stuffed with a mix of grains and meats, steamed and served hot.
Poland is on the border of European "vodka" and "beer culture". Poles enjoy alcoholic drinks at least as much as other Europeans. You can buy beer, vodka and wine. Although Poland is known as the birthplace of vodka, local beer seems to have much more appeal to many Poles. Another traditional alcoholic beverage is mead. Polish liqueurs and nalewka (alcoholic tincture) are a must.
Officially, in order to buy alcohol one should be over 18 years old and be able to prove it with a valid ID (which is strictly enforced).
On the down side, alcoholism is rife.
Poland's brewery tradition began in the Middle Ages. Today Poland is one of top beer countries in Europe.
Although not well known internationally, Poland traditionally sports some of the best pilsner-type lagers worldwide. The most common brands include:
- Lech (pronounced LEH )
- Zywiec (pronounced ZHIV-y-ets )
- Tyskie (pronounced TIS-kee )
- Okocim (pronounced oh-KO-cheem )
- Warka (pronounced VAR-kah )
- Lomza (pronounced Uom-zha )
- Zubrowka (Zhe-BROOF-ka) - vodka with flavors derived from Bison Grass, from eastern Poland.
- Zoladkowa Gorzka (Zho-want-KO-va GORZH-ka) - vodka with "bitter" ( gorzka ) in the name, but sweet in the taste. Just like Zubrowka, it's an unique Polish product and definitely a must-try.
- Zytnia (ZHIT-nea) - rye vodka
- Wyborowa (Vi-bo-RO-va) - One of Poland's most popular potato vodkas. This is also one of the most common exported brands. Strong and pleasant.
- Biala Dama (Be-AH-wa DAH-ma) is not actually a vodka but a name given by winos to cheap rectified spirits of dubious origin. best avided if you like your eyesight the way it is.
- Luksusowa (Look-sus-OH-vah) "Luxurious" - Another popular brand, and a common export along with Wyborowa.
Poles are very keen on beer and vodka, and you'll find that cocktails are often expensive but can be found in most bars in most major cities.
Tea and coffee
Throw stereotypes out the door. For Poles, one of the most important staples to quench their thirst is not wodka or beer, but rather tea and coffee.
When ordering a coffee, you'll find that it is treated with respect reminiscent of Vienna, rather than, say, New York. Which is to say: you'll get a fresh cup prepared one serving at a time, with table service that assumes you'll sit down for a while to enjoy it. Mass-produced to-go coffee remains highly unpopular, although chains such as Coffee Heaven have been making inroads.
Ordering a tea, on the other hand, will usually get you a cup or kettle of hot water, and a tea bag on the side, so that the customer can put together a tea that's as strong or as weak as they like. This is not uncommon in continental Europe, but may require some adjustment for visitors.
For the most part, a good coffee can be had for 5 - 10 zl a cup, while a cup of tea can be purchase for the same, unless you happen to order a small kettle, in which case you'll probably pay something between 20 - 30 zl.
Drinking water with a meal is not a Polish tradition; having a tea or coffee afterwards is much more common. If you want water with a meal, you might need to ask for it - and you will usually get a choice of carbonated or still bottled water, rather than a glass of tap water.
Carbonated mineral waters are popular, and several kinds are available. Poland was known for its mineral water health spas ( pijalnie wod ) in the 19th century, and the tradition remains strong - you can find many carbonated waters that are naturally rich in minerals and salts. You can also travel to the spas such as Szczawnica or Krynica, which are still operational.
As for tap water, it's no different than anywhere else in Europe: tap water should be okay, but to stay on the safe side, boil it first and make a tea.
Lodging prices are no longer the bargain they used to be several years ago; now they're comparable to standard European prices. For the bargain hunter, standard tactics apply: if hotel prices are too much, look on the Internet for private rooms, pensions, or apartments for rent, which can sometimes be found for a very reasonable price. Best deals are usually offered off-season.
The European unified emergency number 112 is being deployed in Poland. By now, it certainly works for all mobile-phone calls and most landline calls. There are also three "old" emergency numbers that are still in use. These are:
- Ambulance: 999 ( Pogotowie, dziewiec-dziewiec-dziewiec )
- Firefighters: 998 ( Straz pozarna, dziewiec-dziewiec-osiem )
- Police: 997 ( Policja, dziewiec-dziewiec-siedem )
- City guards: 986 ( Straz Miejska dziewiec-osiem-szesc ) it is a kind of auxilary Police force found only in large cities.
Poland is overall a fairly safe country. In general, just use common sense and be aware of what you're doing.
In cities, follow standard city travel rules: don't leave valuables in the car in plain sight; don't display money or expensive things needlessly; know where you're going; be suspicious of strangers asking for money or trying to sell you something.
Pickpockets operate, pay attention to your belongings in crowds, at stations, in crowded trains/buses, and clubs.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous, but you will not go wrong shaking hands. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of either sex will kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzien dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (good bye) when exiting the elevator. It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals.