Let’s Go Exploring! Poland: A Hidden Gem and the Surprise of a Life Time

FIRECracker
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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Before coming to Warsaw, my overwhelming knowledge of Poland consisted of two things:

1) Perogies
2) Communism

Whenever I heard the world “Poland”, I would imagine two soldiers shivering in their communist uniforms, huddling over a single boiled perogy.

I know. I’m so worldly.

Anyway, good thing Warsaw ignored my silly misconceptions. It simply waited until I entered its clutches and then proceeded to dazzle me with all its historical charms: gothic-spired cathedrals, cobble-stoned alleyways, and opulent royal castles that made me feel like I was in the middle of a fairy tale…

Warrior mermaid, the symbol of Warsaw…oh and some random statue in the background.

Castle Square in Warsaw, at night. Photo credit: Oliver Kratzke, license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Except, I didn’t need a handsome prince to come steal my heart. Warsaw took care of that all by itself.

Somehow it knew that the key to my heart was…

 

By stuart_spivack [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

BUN CHA!

This was one of my favourite things that we ate in Vietnam and I couldn’t believe I found it in Warsaw of all places! And not only that, there were at least 5 authentic Vietnamese restaurants, all within talking distance from my Airbnb.

As soon as I bit into the juicy, fatty, grilled pork, I was transported back to Hanoi.

I couldn’t even find this northern dish in Toronto and yet, somehow in Warsaw, I walk into the first (of many) Vietnamese restaurants and suddenly find myself eating Bun Cha?!

As it turns out, Poland has the 4th largest Vietnamese community in all of Europe! Apparently, back in the 1950s and 1980s, Vietnamese and Polish students exchanges were popular because Poland was buddy buddy with its communist brethren, Vietnam.

Never thought I’d say this, but YAY, communism?!

After the Bun Cha surprise, I got an even bigger surprise when I looked at our bill.

That’s it? $9 measly dollars for our whole meal?

I thought we were in Central Europe not South East Asia?

I was suddenly hit with an even bigger surprise. Even thought Poland is part of the EU, it doesn’t actually use the Euro. Its currency is the “Zloty”.

Compared to the Canadian dollar, it trades 3 to 1. Compared to US dollar, 3.5 to 1.

And compared to the Malaysian Riggit?

Exactly the same.

No wonder our AirBnb host, a Polish man who lived in Malaysia for two years, found that the cost of living in Poland was essentially the same as living in Malaysia.

That’s right, readers. POLAND has the same cost of living as MALAYSIA.

If that wasn’t enough to make me contemplate moving to Poland, I also came across another one of my favourite things.

Gelato.

Specifically $1 Gelato. Being an Optimizer, I’m pretty obsessed with value. So when I found high-quality Gelato, comparable to some of the best I’ve tried in Italy (and even then the best value Gelato there was $1.60 Euros or $2.50 a scoop).

So what is an Optimizer supposed to think when she finds the best value in all of Europe?

“I’M HOME!”

Photo via Good Free Photos

Needless to stay, I spend the rest of our days in Warsaw consuming my whole body weight worth of Gelato. IT. WAS. AWESOME.

I also ate my fill of Polish food, which unlike what my ignorant brain thought, wasn’t just potatoes and Perogies (though I did eat my fill of that too). Turns out I absolutely LOVE polish food.

Moist, flavourful, and served with big heaping portions, I devoured every last morsel…even when the buttons on my pants threatened to pop off.

Here are 3 of my favourite foods that we ate in Poland:

Golonka (Stewed Pork Knuckle):

By Petar Milošević (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bigos (sauerkraut and meat)

Oscypek (Smoke Cheese Made from Salted Goat Milk)

Mulled Wine with oranges, cinnamon, and star anise.

Even though Polish food didn’t have the prettiest presentation, it makes up for it in SPADES in taste! I was pleasantly surprised at how good everything tasted, considering how my picky taste buds were, expecting it all to be bland.

And the attractions were pretty exceptional too. In addition to the opulent castles, Poland was also famous for its salt mines, like this one in Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium (Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The idea of going to a salt mine made me scratch my head at first. Salt mines? REALLY? If I wanted to go to the salt mines, all I had to do is just go back to my old job.

But, apparently, back in the middle ages, salt mines were all the rage.

If you were a Hungary princess back then and got married, you wouldn’t want a diamond, gold, or platinum.

Instead, you would say “Oh please Daddy, I’ve always wanted my very own salt lump.” To which he would reply by giving you one. At which point, you would stick your diamond engagement ring in it, toss it into a salt mine and force your fiancé and a bunch of poor peasants to dig it out. And once it was found, your Dad the King would declare you patron of the mine!

That wasn’t me being funny. That’s actually the story of how Wieliczka was founded. Hungarian princesses are weird.

Scene depicting the princess getting a salt mine as a wedding gift. Weirdo.

Anyhoo…so growing up in Canada, ice sculptures is our thing, but apparently in Poland, salt sculptures are where it’s at.

Like this virgin Mary statue:

Or Christ and the last supper:

By Adam Kumiszcza [Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported], via Wikimedia Commons

Or this salt crystal chandelier:

And finally the piece de resistance: an entire underground cathedral made of…

You guess it…SALT!

So with all this tasty food, beautiful historical architecture, European lifestyle, and fantastic value Poland turned out to be one of the biggest hidden gems we came across in Europe.

And the best part? It’s not even crowded! I guess too many people had the same thought I did when they hear the word “Poland”. Let’s hope they continue to think that. Although this post probably blew the lid on that secret. Oh well. What can I say? When I love something I have to shout it from the rooftop–er blogtops?

Here’s how much (or rather little) we spent:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $34 USD/night $42 CAD/night We stayed in Airbnbs in Warsaw and Krakow at $35CAD- $46CAD/night. Out of curiosity, I look into long term rentals and you could easily find a central 1 bedroom condo for rent for only 2300 Zloties (or $657 USD). Sweet!
Food: $15 USD/day $19 CAD/day ($12/day for eating out, $7/day for groceries) Surprisingly, food was one of my favourite things in Poland. We pretty much ate out every day, binging on gelato, pho, and Polish comfort food. Polish beer was super cheap and good as well, at only $1. Eating out was actually pretty comparable to Malaysia prices which is unthinkable for Europe!
Transportation: $17 USD/day $21 CAD/day The intercity buses in Poland were very cheap at only around $1/person per ride. Trains from the airport were also inexpensive at $6/person/trip. Travelling from Warsaw to Krakow only cost $12/person for a 4 hour trip. We flew from London to Warsaw on RyanAir for only $66/person, which average out over the time we spent in Central Europe ended up being only around $6/day.
Entertainment: $10 USD/day $13 CAD/day There were a lot of free things to see in Warsaw (like old town square/Castle square) so we only paid for tips for the walking tour. The Salt Mine was a bit pricey at $32/person but for a big attraction that you can spend half a day in, I thought it was worth it. Just make sure you buy tickets ahead of time because waiting in line will cause you to waste at least an hour and half.
Total: $76 USD/couple/day $95 CAD/couple/night Food prices and accommodations were comparable to Malaysia prices, but we did end up spending more on transportation because we had to fly there from London. In Malaysia, we simply took a train from Singapore. Attractions were also pricier but only because of the Salt Mine. I would say if we were to live in Poland long term, our cost of living would actually be pretty similar to Malaysia. The most surprising thing about Warsaw was the unexpected cheap authentic Asian food which is so hard to come by in Europe.

The salt mines, historical architecture and food was great, but turns out Poland had even more surprises in store for me…but that’s a story for next week’s post.



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40 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Poland: A Hidden Gem and the Surprise of a Life Time”

  1. Too bad the Polish government has taken control of their highest court, took away the media’s independent voice, rolled back women’s rights and other steps that are propelling them away from democracy (or at least western Europe’s idea of democracy)…..

  2. I’m glad you’re having a great time in Poland. I love bun cha too! I’m Vietnamese, so I love bun cha, pho, banh my and a lot of other Vietnamese dishes.

    When I think about Poland, the first word that comes to my mind is communism too! I didn’t know there were so many Vietnamese people in the country. Hubby and I need to make a trip there sometime!

    1. I know, I was shocked too! It’s hard to find cheap authentic Vietnamese food in Europe so I was overjoyed that they had it! Definitely worth a trip.

  3. Hah. I was about to rail against the impermanence of Poland’s “salt statues” before I realized that our “ice” sculptures aren’t exactly fossil-grade… Regardless, looks like some epic architecture, I’d love to visit someday!

    1. Railing about the impermanence of things is one of my favourite things to do too! Stupid changing states of matter. *shakes fist at nature*

  4. Sounds like an awesome trip. I had no idea how cheap Poland was to travel, I assumed it was similar to the rest of Europe.( it might have to be on my “to go list”) Thanks for the cost breakdown.

  5. Wow, who would have thought Poland would be so surprisingly affordable?!

    Those salt caves are now on my list of things to see if I ever hit-up that part of the world. Given the cold winters though, it probably won’t be too soon.

    1. Yeah, out of my WAVES (Walkable, Asian food, Value, Eternal summer, Safe) criteria Poland gets a solid 4/5. Cold winters is the only unchecked checkbox. Luckily, Southern Spain and Portugal is only one RyanAir flight away.

  6. Great post, planning on trip to Eastern Europe June 2019. I’ll definitely be re-reading your posts. This summer I’ll be heading to Italy turkey and Ukraine. Have you been to either of these countries?

    1. That’s awesome! We’ve been to Florence, Rome, Venice, and Naples in Italy and Istanbul and Izmir Turkey. Loved all those places…especially the blue mosque in Istanbul, the Vatican, Pompeii in Naples and Venice Italy. Have a great time! You’ll love it. Oh and eat EVERYTHING! Italy will ruin pizza and pasta for you forever. I can’t eat North America pizza anymore.

  7. I had no idea that Poland was such great value. I’ll have to convince my partner to make a visit sometime. Is it easy to navigate Poland with just English? I don’t know any Polish and would just pick up a few key phrases before a visit (lazy me). If it was a longer stay, I might take some lessons.

    Also because you’re traveling around the world continuously for a while, how light do you travel? I don’t know if you’ve posted about this before, if not, please share!

    1. I thought we’d have trouble, not knowing Polish too, but it was no problem at all. Most people in Poland speak English really well. Even if you run across a person or two who don’t speak it, someone next to them will likely speak it. Never had any problems with language in Poland.

      As for packing, we only have 2 backpacks (32L and 40L) and 1 purse and a laptop bag between the two of us. That way we don’t have to check any bags (it’s SO awesome when you don’t have to wait in line or worry about lost luggage). Here’s a post I wrote about packing:

      https://www.millennial-revolution.com/freedom/cost-travelling-world-1-year-part-2-packing/

      1. Do your backpacks hold all the worldly possessions you have now, or is there a storage unit (or more likely spare room/basement space in a friends/family members house) with some of your stuff? I love the minimalist aspect, making memories type thing, but then my kids LOVE to go through the photo books from our vacations, as do I…

        1. We have 2 boxes of stuff in Wanderer’s mom’s basement. It used to be 6 boxes, but after travelling the world with just 2 bags we purged 4 of them. Now we’re thinking we probably don’t even need the 2 boxes either. For any pictures or mementos, I just take pictures or scan them and then toss them out. If we didn’t need it for 2 years, chances are we won’t need them ever.

          If you’re planning to do some world travelling with your kids, you could get a small storage locker to hold mementos. If you’re interested in minimalism, I highly recommend Fay Wolf’s book “New Order: A Decluttering Handbook for Creative Folks (and Everyone Else)”. She talks about how to declutter and I really enjoyed reading it.

  8. so Poland or Thailand for you guys as a base ??

    or you could leave Thailand in the hot season ( March onwards )
    and then move to Poland for 6 months ?

    1. We don’t currently have a base. In Thailand, we could easily move around in South East Asia via trains to avoid the Visa restrictions. But for Poland, we have a 90 day visa restriction. So we could potentially live in South East Asia (3 months in Thailand, 3 months in Malaysia, 3 months in Vietnam or Cambodia) and then go to Poland for 3 months in the summer. That would make our living costs ridiculously low–around 20-25K/year. So I guess if we wanted more of a base in the future, that could be an option.

      Another option is to apply for 1 year Youth Mobility visa to stay in Poland for 1 year. Or get the Spanish wealth visa and then fly to Poland.

  9. And now Poland is on my list. Actually it was already on there, but I think it just bumped up a few spots based on your glowing review. Will you go somewhere that I have already been so I can stop growing my list? What am I saying, just keep doing the great recon that you are doing and hopefully one day we will catch up on all these cool places.

  10. Is it wrong that I’m looking at that Cathedral and thinking..

    “Hmmm I wonder if I could just walk up to the wall and scrape some onto my french fries?”

    But I’ll agree with the Mrs. You guys are certainly not doing any favors to our travel budget. Ehhh, if that’s what we enjoy, that’s what we enjoy. We try to make up for it else where.

    Also, is there a place you have been that wasn’t awesome so we don’t have to add it to our ever growing list?

  11. “Hmmm I wonder if I could just walk up to the wall and scrape some onto my french fries?”

    Oh tell me about it. Wanderer was trying REALLY hard to keep me from licking everything.

    Hm…a place that wasn’t awesome. The suburbs? Yeah. Avoid the suburbs like the plague. It will destroy your soul. Maybe this is why I like Europe and Asia so much. Everywhere is walkable and things are too delicious.

  12. Poland has always been on my list for cheap travel, but Bun Cha and Pho with gelato for dessert?!? Ok, now it just jumped way up on the list. I’m so glad you guys are having a great time in Europe! I can’t wait to go less than full time so we can start hitting the road and worldschooling somewhere other than the US…

    1. I know, right? So shocked by all the cheap, authentic Viet food…really hard to find in Europe.

      I can’t wait for you guys to start hitting the road too! Then I can read about all your world schooling adventures 🙂

  13. Hello from your avid reader from Poland on my way to FIRE! Few years left until I pull the plug, until then I cash in on the low cost of living and continue the investing. Any questions you may have, ping me!

    1. Hi there! Great to hear from you and congrats on being so close to FIRE-ing! I’m a big fan of Poland and I’ll have to pick your brain on Gdansk if we go there next year.

      1. Sure, be my guest. Gdansk is beautiful. I live in Kraków, and if you’re into couch surfing, be my guest 🙂 we have a nice big guest room and we would love to hang out with you guys!

        1. Cześć Agata! Cześć Firecracker 🙂 Kraków resident here as well 🙂
          On my way to fire as well, though I expect 10 more years. Firecracker, let us know when you come back, we’ll organize fire community meet up 🙂 I don’t think it will host a lot of people though, we’re the odd ones out 🙂

          —-
          I’m glad you liked your stay here. I think Poland is really attractive to western visitors. I don’t know how to describe it, but you get all the comforts of civilization (minus subway in Krakow :() in a “peculiar package”. Does that describe your experience? 🙂

          1. Ha ha, yes. Definitely the comforts of the west with a south east Asian price tag 🙂 I love Poland. Beautiful country with friendly people and, somehow, delicious Vietnamese food?

            Will send you a message the next time we’re there so we can meet up!

  14. The secret is out! I’ve loved Poland since my first visit about 8 years ago and went to Warsaw again last summer. Everything you mentioned is spot on, and the value is incredible. Hopefully you’ll discover the other hidden gem countries in Eastern Europe (cough*Romania!*cough) and expose them as well!

  15. Poland was on my travel list because of my avid WWII history buff buddy, but now I must go for the Salt mine and $1 gelato. I still day dream about my sesame gelato in Italy.

  16. Great post! Poland is on my list of countries to see when i get to FIRE. Quick question…Do you guys actually stay in Canada for few months or so to keep your Taxpayer status (for CRA) so that you can use the free social services here like Doctors, etc. or have you guys already ditched the Canadian taxpayer status? I am asking personal question, feel free to ignore if you find this too personal, i just wanted to plan for the days when i will be FIRE.

    1. Taxes and healthcare have difficult requirements. We kept our residency for tax purposes. So for any side gigs, passion projects, we still pay Canadian taxes. For healthcare, we’re planning to use expat insurance (for example, using Cigna insurance) going forward, once we no longer meet the OHIP requirements (you’re allowed to have 2 one year vacation gaps. After that you need to be in Ontario for 5 months out of the year). Expat insurance isn’t too expensive though (provided you stay out of the States) and is estimated to be around $1500-$3000/year for 2 people.

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