When I tell people I’ve been on holiday to Poland, I’m usually met by a smirk, or worse, a look of bemusement with the retort “why”?
Many Brits have become familiar with Poles visiting and setting up home in the UK, but few have travelled in the opposite direction – that is, apart from groups of stag parties motivated by cheap booze and cheap thrills.
With spectacular old towns that wouldn’t look out of place in Vienna or Prague, Poland is of course about so much more than being ‘cheap’.
As the country begins to shake off its Communist past, so the look and feel of Poland is changing. The identical-looking ‘block houses’ built during this period now sit alongside ultra-modern apartments. New motorways are filled with new cars; gleaming new shopping malls home to luxury brands.
Why is this all relevant? Well, my most recent travels have taken me to perhaps the epicentre of this change. An area which personifies a new confidence, new style, and which may well just surprise many of those Brits and western Europeans who have seen Poland as a second-rate, maybe even ‘grim’ destination.
I have come to Sopot, Poland, which is heralded as being at the heart of the Polish Riviera. Sat on the Baltic Sea, in the north-east of the country, Sopot is part of the Tricity, along with Gdańsk and Gdynia. As is so often the case when travelling in Poland, once you pass the slightly dilapidated outskirts which reflect the years of under-investment, you are greeted by landmarks of real magnificence, sublime architecture full of craft and detail, as well as large squares which are vibrant hubs of activity, especially in the warm summer months.
The centre of Sopot is no different. Fresh fish and polish delicacies are cooking away on the many food stalls as we arrive. Locals and the hordes of tourists (mostly Swedes and Norwegians) sit around drinking and eating on benches that line the square. But, it’s not these food tents I’m interested in. The Slow Fest food festival has just started. A short walk away is the famous boarded pier (eight zloty per entrance) where many of the best restaurants from the city and Gdańsk are dishing up some exquisite plates, which include sushi, Mexican, fresh seafood, meats, and pasta. The smallest tasters are just five zloty (around £1).
Food isn’t all this quaint, outward-looking beach resort is becoming known for. The miles of long, white sand beaches – “yes, white sand” – are a major draw. Just a short walk from our modern one-bedroom apartment is an entry to the beach. From here we can walk to Sopot and beyond, or, in the other direction, toward the historic port of Gdańsk.
If you visit in July or August you’ll find the beach most likely packed (weather permitting) with brave kids and adults (this is the Baltic after all) splashing around, and mostly younger, more chiseled Poles sitting in the beach bars, or playing volleyball and beach football. You might be surprised to hear this is certainly more Rio than Blackpool.
And, the surprises don’t stop there. Make sure you put the beach club and restaurant Zatoka Sztuki on your list of places to visit. With a DJ playing all day, their own pool with six-foot inflatable flamingos, and more cool, beautiful party-goers than you can shake a stick at, this is one venue that really is taking the old Eastern Europe stereotype and drop-kicking it into the great expanse of sea beyond.
For those hoping to take advantage of the cheaper prices, well, here at least, you might be disappointed. All this ‘oh-so-cool’ chic doesn’t come cheap, with cocktails at around 30-40- zloty (£5.50-£7). While this is not quite Ibiza territory, for Polish standards, it is seriously expensive. And, this is reflected in the clientele. Young, successful city slickers from Warsaw rub shoulders with well-healed Swedes and Norwegians looking for a stylish party that still costs a fraction of those in Stockholm and Oslo. The food is more affordable, and is of a really high quality. Our salmon gnocchi is perfectly cooked, and the green beans and feta cheese salad is equally delicious. Afterwards, we laze around on the large white leather beds that are dotted around the pool and beach area soaking up the smooth tunes and the warm Polish sunshine.
When you are ready to carry on the party, take a short walk back into the town’s square and then up to Monte Cassino where there are loads of bars, restaurants and clubs to suit all budgets and musical tastes. Food-wise, Śliwka w Kompot is a great option. It is modern and stylish, with seating outside, too. The menu includes more traditional Polish dishes as well as delicious steaks (£10-11) and enormous burgers. Once you’ve polished off your plate check out the bar Zła Kobieta and the club Atelier, which goes on till at least 5am on a Saturday.
When you’ve shaken off your hangover, the city of Gdańsk is well worth a visit. My top tip would be to hire a bike in Sopot and cycle. Half the journey is along the Sopot/Gdańsk beach front where you’ll ride on easy, safe cycle lanes. These continue all the way into the old town, so you won’t be troubled by traffic or forced into making any difficult manoeuvres. Leave around an hour to comfortably tackle the 9-mile (14km) route. Bike hire is generally around £10 (40 to 50 zloty) for 24 hours.
This old port is less about ‘the party’ and more about museums, historic streets with majestic baroque-style architecture, and cafes and bars which are the ideal spot for a beer and some people watching. The last time I visited Gdańsk was 10 years ago, and it has certainly evolved. The river is now a major attraction, with flash hotels, apartments and bars, and the cranes signal there’s more development to come. This city, like much of Poland is on the move – perhaps it’s about time more of us caught on.
FLIGHT: Doncaster/Sheffield to Gdańsk, June-August, prices start at £100 with Wizz Air, flight time is 1hr45
ACCOMMODATION: Sopothouse Apartment W Sopocie, entire home/flat hosted by Klaudiusz, via Airbnb £40 per night
TRANSFER: Taxi Gdańsk to Sopot is 70-100 zloty (£15-20)