UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe
Most tourists visit the bigger salt mine at Wieliczka, but the salt mine at Bochnia is actually older and less Disneyfied. Bochnia Salt Mine has continuously been open since 1248 and was in operation until 1990. Though Bochnia is less touristic than Wieliczka, it has a fair share of clever made multimedia effects, a fun underground train ride and a mine elevator to take you the 212 meters underground - and back up. On the tour you're of course offered to lick the walls to make sure that they are made of salt. There are about 3 km of mine tunnels in total, but tourists can only visit about 1 km (but they're extending). The two mines, Bochnia and Wieliczka, are enlisted as one UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Charming Krakow is not just Poland's second largest city, but also its biggest tourist magnet. The main market square (Rynek Główny), that makes up the heart of the Old Town (a UNESCO site), is the biggest medieval town square in Europe and one the most impressive you will ever see (the town wasn't destroyed during WWII). The square is flanked by historical townhouses while the many halls, towers, and ancient churches catch your attention. Add to that a pretty riverside castle and a bohemian Jewish quarter with bars at every corner, and you will quickly understand why Krakow is considered to be the new Prague. If that shouldn't be enough reason to put Krakow high on your to-do-list, there is also a handful of major sights just a daytrip away (Auschwitz, salt mines, to name a few). Oh, did we mention the nightlife is pumping?
The 13th-century castle is the largest in the world (measured by area) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally it was a fortified monastery. Over time the ownership changed hands many times between Polish, German and even Swedish occupation. Today, the castle stands meticulously restored as one of Poland's most impressive historical sights.
Poland has many elegant medieval Old Towns, but some are more magnificent than others. UNESCO-listed Old Town of Toruń is extraordinary rich in historical buildings, since the fine walled city was mostly spared during WWII. Remarkably, it's also spared today from the tourist hordes, since nobody outside Poland seems to know about charming and authentic Toruń. The best way to explore the Old Town is to just wander the cobbled streets and turn back, when you hit the modern part. It will be evident to any visitor to Toruń, that the famous scientist Nicolaus Copernicus was born here.
Warsaw might not impress at first sight. Though the tourist-haunted old town is UNESCO enlisted, most buildings needed to be rebuilt after WWII. Outside the Old Town, Warsaw is an odd mix of imposing 19th centuries mansions, Soviet-era 'masterpieces', tired workers' apartment blocks and sparkling new glass'n'steel business towers. Nowhere is this more evident than around the 'Palace of Culture and Science' which was a hard-to-decline present from the USSR. Its 231 m still make it the tallest building in Poland, but the modern skyscrapers around it are getting higher and higher every year. The amount of black luxury SUVs in the streets indicate that many are surfing the capitalism wave, leaving solidarity to the past. But Warsaw is still raw and full of lovely places with cheap beers, vodka and hearty food served through a hole in the wall.
Several hundred meters below the streets of the town Wieliczka snakes a real wonder of mankind: The Wieliczka Salt Mine, where miners since the 13th century have dug out more than 280 km of tunnels. Today the salt mine is UNESCO enlisted (along with Bochnia Salt Mine) and one of the biggest tourist sights in Poland. The tours will take you down 389 wooden steps (135 m), through damp tunnels all carved out of pure grey rock salt – and yes, you're welcome to check the taste for yourself by licking walls. There are artworks carved out of the rock salt by the miners through time, but the main attraction is the underground cathedral, also carved out of solid salt, with a highly polished salt floor, salt crystal chandeliers and a salt relief of the last supper. If salt is to your liking, you can even get married here.
You might wonder how a gem like Wroclaw can go under the radar for so long. Wroclaw is a smaller version of Krakow – smaller in size, but equal in charm and grandeur. There are old townhouses, a market square only second in size to Krakow's, and several islands on the Odra River with beautiful cathedrals. For great views of the old town, follow one of the many trails along the river, which will eventually cross some of the town's many bridges. For a 'uh' experience, visit the monstrous concrete exhibition complex, Centennial Hall, which is an UNESCO site. Just to top it off, the town also has a great young vibe (thanks to the many students) and therefor plenty of cheap bars to choose from.
Belém, or more precisely Santa Maria de Belém, is a monument-packed neighbourhood that oozes history. It's here you find the grandiose Jerniómos Monastery, which holds the tomb of the ancient explorer Vasco de Gama, who discovered the seaway from Europe to India. Across the marina, stands another famous Lisbon landmark, the Tower of Belém. It was built to protect Lisbon from pirates and was located in the river a bit off shore, but the devastating earthquake in 1755 redirected the river, so the tower suddenly was standing on the shore. Both the Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Other points of interest in Belém are a handful of museums and parks, the nice promenade and the ridiculously popular pastry shop, Pastéis de Belém, where people queue up to buy... hold your breath, egg tarts!
The fine university town of Coimbra is for Portugal what Oxford is for United Kingdom. Coimbra University is one of Europe's oldest, and some of the faculties' grand buildings and libraries can easily match those at Oxford. The lovely medieval old town is a confusing maze of narrow winding lanes running from one square to another while passing monasteries and other impressive buildings which could easily date back to the Middle Ages when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. Due to the large student population, the city's vibe is arty and unpretentious, though you might catch a glimpse of students wrapped in the traditional black cloak - something you will for sure see during the Queima das Fitas, the rowdy student spree held in May.
The well-preserved historical centre of Evora is considered one of the finest in Portugal - and is, of course, on UNESCO's World Heritage list. The old town, which dates back to Roman times, is still enclosed by 17th century walls and boasts a large amount of exquisite monuments and medieval buildings, including a Roman temple, a fine cathedral, and a chapel decorated with human bones. With cobblestone alleyways and houses kept in a strict white-and-yellow colour scheme, Evora is very picturesque - and popular with visitors. However, the town manages to tone down its status as a tourist magnet and keeps a humble attitude to its fine heritage.