A guide on things to do in Eastern Poland and why you should travel to Podlasie region, Eastern Poland
Where are the lovers of wilderness, untouched nature and intact ethnic traditions? I’ve got a gem for you! It can be found in the north-eastern part of Poland and it goes by the bodacious name of Podlasie in the Podlaskie Voivodeship. Also known as the border region to Belarus, Podlasie is particularly famous for the village of Bialowieza, home to the last primeval forest in Europe.
The most diverse Voivodeship of Poland is shaped by vast forests, lakes, and plains with relatively few towns and a poor network of roads and railways. Thus visiting Podlasie can be compared with traveling back to an original state where nature is abundant and people live in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings.
The Podlaskie Voivodeship boasts up to 4 national parks, the most famous being the Bialowieza National Park.
However, there are plenty of more reasons why you should Podlasie in Eastern Poland! This post will give you the motivation to hit the road from Warsaw or Gdansk to the untouched East of Poland.
Putting first things first, I´ll give you a short introduction in the cultural and historical heritage of Podlasie, as it had a major influence on the region’s current state as an ideal destination for sustainable travel and nature lovers.
Disclaimer: I have been a guest of Podlaskie Travel and Polish Tourist Board in exchange for an honest review. All my opinions, as always, are my own. This post contains affiliate links. In case you purchase one of the items, I’ll receive a small commission. The price remains the same for you.
Historical and Cultural Facts about Podlasie, Poland
- The Podlasie region is part of the Podlaskie Voivodeship and its capital is Bialystok.
- Podlasie is an ethnic melting pot. The region was inhabited by Lechitic, Baltic and Ruthenian tribes. Podlasie was part of the Lithuanian Grand-Duchy in the 14th century. In 1795, the Podlasie region was split among the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Kingdom of Prussia. Poldlasie only became part of Poland again in 1918.
- Nowadays, Podlasie is still a confluence of Polish, Belorussian and Lithuanian culture that was strongly influenced by the presence of Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, and Tatars. In my opinion, this becomes the most obvious when you read the menu of any Podlasie restaurant.
- Anyone’s still surprised that the “Esperanto” language was invented by a citizen from Bialystok, capital of Podlaskie Voivodeship?
- Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths coexist peacefully in Podlasie and you can spot temples of every religion while visiting the area. Often, you can even spot Orthodox and Catholic crosses standing next to each other.
Let’s get to the reasons you should visit Podlasie as soon as possible and what are the things to see and things to do in Podlasie.
How to get to Podlasie, Poland
The fastest way to get from Warsaw to Bialowieza is by car. It takes about 3 hours to reach the National Park. Get here the best rental car deals.
Warsaw – Bialowieza: There is a direct bus service from Warsaw (near the West Train Station-Warszawa Zachodnia) to Bialowieza (267 km, +/- 5 hours). Buy here your tickets in advance.
Warsaw – Bialystok – Bialowieza
The train from Warsaw to Bialystok takes about 2.5 hours. From Bialystok to Bialowieza (often with a change in Hajnówka), you can take the public bus service. The journey takes approximately 2-3 hours. Book here your Bielowieza tour from Warsaw.
Warsaw – Siedlce – Hajnówka – Bialowieza
The most scenic route: Travelling by train from Warsaw to Hajnówka takes +/- 4 hours. From Hajnówka to Bialowieza, you can get by public or private bus service (30 min).
Eastern Poland is quite affordable if you are a Western European traveller, check more about Poland trip costs here.
1. See the last wild European Bison
If there is one, super obvious reason why you should visit Podlasie as soon as possible, then it is because you might have the magnificent experience to see the last European bison living freely!
The European bison is the heaviest mammal on the European continent. Bison (Polish: zubr) used to live all over Europe but due to massive deforestation, they just remain in the Bialowieza forest, Podlasie. But also here, the king of European mammals was extinguished. However, after considerable efforts in the 20th century, the European bison was bred and reintroduced in the Bialowieza forest.
Nowadays, there live about 1500 free bison in Poland. However, it is still hard to spot them. The best time to spot bison is during winter when temperatures go as low as -35°C in the Bialowieza forest. That’s the time when they move in herds and leave the woods to find food in the hay distributors. If you want to spot them during summer, you’ll need to get up at 3 am as they are active at sunrise.
If you don’t have the time or patience to go for bison spotting in the Bialowieza forest, I recommend visiting the “Bison’s Show Reserve”. This large animal park recreated the original living conditions of the bison and is a semi-open structure. Here, you can spot the most important mammals living in Bialowieza forest such as the moose, lynx, deer and of course the bison.
The bison is strongly rooted in the identity of the Bialowieza region. You’ll see logos, drawings, souvenirs and references to the bison almost everywhere. Even the most important drink from Poland, vodka, has its own reference to bison: the Zubrowka vodka is prepared with the precious bison grass! Read more about Zubrowka and other Podlasie food here.
2. Hike in the last primeval forest in Europe
Did you know that originally, the entire European continent was covered with a primeval forest? The last and the largest part of its remains can be found in Bialowieza, one of the main attractions in the Podlasie region.
Declared UNESCO World heritage, the Bialowieza natural forest covers a surface of 141.885 ha. However, that’s only ⅓ of the primeval forest, the other ⅔ lay on the other side in Belarus.
What does it mean “enjoying the last primeval forest in Europe”?
It means that you’ll enjoy nature in its purest form as the forest has been existing without any human interference for more than 900 years. You are not even allowed to get off the path and walk in the woods. It’s strictly forbidden to leave any traces.
How come that the Bialowieza forest was so well preserved, whereas the rest became a victim of deforestation? Well, because the efforts to preserve the Bialowieza forest go back more than hundreds of years too. Very quickly, the reigning power recognized the unique value of the Bialowieza forest.
On top, the forest was a private property of the Russian tsars and only the tsar had the right to hunt. If anybody else would have killed a bison, they would have risked the death penalty!
Nowadays, the Bialowieza forest is a unique habitat that will teach you how the circle of life works. On top, it’s a dream destination to see bison in their natural environment as well as elks, lynx, and deer. Furthermore, the Bialowieza forest is one of the most coveted places for birdwatching.
When planning your visit to the Bialowieza forest, keep in mind that one part, the Bialowieza State Park, is open to the public whereas the Bialowieza National Park has restricted access and can only be visited with a guide.
Read more: things to do near Bialowieza.
Entrance fee to the restricted area: 6 PLN (1,37 €), can be bought at the ticket counter of the “Nature and Forest Museum”
I highly recommend going with a guide which will explain to you in the most accurate way why Bialowieza is so unique and important. I went with Barbara Banka and Lukasz Lswyraz and I highly recommend both of them. This in-depth guide to Bialowieza provides everything you need to know.
3. Have the tastiest food in Poland
Where are the food lovers? You’ll be in heaven when visiting Poland, and particularly the Podlasie region!
After my visit to Pomerania and Gdansk in 2018, “discovering” the Polish food was a life-changing experience! Before my visit, I was guilty of thinking that Polish food was all about sausages, potatoes, and cabbage! Well no; a whole new universe opened up to me!
The best thing about Polish food and particularly the Podlasie cuisine is based on local and seasonal ingredients. On top, compared to Western Europe, the portions are large and come at an excellent price!
The cuisine of the Podlasie region is strongly influenced by the woods. Wild game, berries, and mushrooms can be found on almost any menu card in the region throughout the year!
My favorite food from Podlasie was definitely chołodziec, the cold, pink beetroot soup and the kompot juice with fresh berries. Here, some of the most typical dishes to try in Bialowieza in the Podlasie region:
- Babka ziemniaczana – a potato cake with bacon bits
- Cepeliny, kartacze sejneńskie – elongated, oval potato dumplings stuffed with meat
- Chołodziec litewski – a cold soup made with soured milk, beet leaves, beets, cucumbers and chopped fresh dill (one of my favorite dishes during summer)
- Pierogi ruskie (Ruthenian pierogi) – quark cheese and potato dumplings (the favorite of our guide)
- Pierogi in all forms
- Kompot – a juice prepared with strawberries and wild berries
- Sękacz – pyramid cake, made of many layers. It takes hours to prepare it by painting layers of dough onto a rotating spit over an open fire.
- Zubrowka vodka – vodka with bison grass
4. Experience the slow life surrounded by vast landscapes and forests
Visiting the Podlasie region and particularly the Bialowieza area, was to me not so much about traveling “back in time” as they often say. It was about traveling back to an original state where people and nature coexisted peacefully. The local community is marked by the omnipresent forest and some even talk about it as if it would be alive.
It was surprising to see how many young people in Bialowieza dedicated themselves to birding, fishing or wood studies.
During my conversations with the guides and the local community (I´m so happy that I had a translator), I acknowledged how emotional they got about the Bialowieza forest and the vast marshlands of the Podlasie region. As if they would be talking about a vulnerable gem that needs our kindness and respect.
Isn’t that the quintessence of the slow life?
As villages are separated by kilometers of wild and vast landscapes, plains and forests, I had the impression that the villages’ communities are even more close-knit. Old traditions and collaborative work are cherished and every generation is participating.
The best way to enjoy the slow life in the Podlasie region is by doing one of the numerous (food) workshops offered by the local community.
Here, a short selection of workshops that I enjoyed a lot and fully recommend:
- Wedding cake baking in Dobrowoda – Prepare the traditional wedding cake in Dobrowoda with the cultural association. Workshops can be arranged here
- Workshops in Sliedkiso Soce – The guest house is managed by a Polish couple that moved from Sydney to Soce, a village without paved road access and in the heart of the Land of Open Shutters. Heaven for slow travelers, they offer mechanical, yoga, massage and natural cosmetic workshops. Workshops can be arranged here.
- Dumpling workshop – Dumplings (pierogi) are a cornerstone of Polish and Podlasie cuisine! They come in 101 variations and you can have sweet or salty pierogi. A pierogi workshop is a perfect opportunity to meet the local community and spend quality time together. I especially appreciated the warm welcome in Polana Zubra and dumpling workshops can be arranged here.
- Flower crown workshop – Flower crowns are a key element in the Slavic culture. Often prepared among a group of girls, it’s the perfect occasion to have some girls talk. And in the end, you’ll see that we’re all moved by the same topics and matters. I had a blast while doing my flower crown with Agnieszka Pracowina and I also recommend her pottery workshop. Workshops can be arranged here.
If you want to get even more active and want to enjoy slow travel in Podlasie, Poland, I highly recommend doing a canoeing or biking tour in Bialowieza. It’s the perfect way to enjoy the infinite plains, woods, and quietness of Podlasie.
5. Visit Villages Lost in Time
The Podlasie region is a place where the present and past coexist. While the capital Bialystok and all other large towns in Podlaskie, Poland in Podlaskie Voivodeship have nothing to envy from any other Western European towns, you can also travel back in time without much ado.
Indeed, there are plenty of villages that are cut off by the large woods and vast plains that characterize Podlasie. Some don’t have paved road access, which only enhances the sensation of traveling off-the-beaten-track.
The quintessence of villages lost in time can be found in the Land of the Open Shutters.
Formed by the villages of Trześcianka, Sotse (or Soce) and Puchły, the Land of the Open Shutters is characterized by wooden house cabins and their colorful window shutters.
Each house in the village has different shutters and the wood-carved decoration varies according to the proprietary of the house. For example, our hosts in Siedlisko Soce had kangaroos in their window decoration as they lived a long time in Sydney.
In Soce, you can find a museum and get a glimpse inside the houses. We had the honor to meet one of the oldest inhabitants of Soce who kindly invited us into her house.
It’s absolutely incredible to witness how cozy the cabins are but also how hard life must have been. Until the ’60s, there was no electricity in Soce, but during the winter, temperatures could go as low as -35°C!
Visiting villages like Soce reminds us thus to be grateful and be in awe of the former generations. Nowadays the villages suffer from depopulation. However, there are new guest houses opening up that are perfect to enjoy the quietness of the Land of the Open Shutters.
If you want to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of this region, I recommend staying at the Siedlisko Soce guest house which also offers mechanical, yoga and natural cosmetics workshops.
Where to stay: Slow Travel Vacation Home Siedlisko Soce
6. Experience Slavic folklore at its finest
The Podlasie region is probably the most diverse region in Poland! It’s a place where Ukrainian, Belarus, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish and Tatar cultures mingle. They say that on market days in Bialystok, you can hear more than 5 languages. No wonder that the city is the birthplace of the Esperanto.
This unique cultural melting pot becomes the most obvious when reading menu cards or seeing Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim temples next to each other. Indeed, the food of Podlasie as countless influences.
However, my favorite way to enjoy this vibrant mix of cultures is during folklore events. That’s when you can actually live, hear and celebrate the characterizing mix of the Podlasie’s melting pot.
Whereas there are plenty of cultural events to choose from, I went to the Kupala event in Bialowieza. The Kupala event can be compared to the Scandinavian “Midsummer”.
I was amazed by the colorful dresses, the lively-melancholic songs, and rituals. There were groups invited from Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and all over Podlasie.
Here, you can find a complete calendar with the best festivals and events in the Podlasie region.
7. A unique Flora and Fauna
If you are a nature lover, Bialowieza will be a highlight for you! Why? Because it boasts unique and intact flora and fauna that can’t be found anymore in Europe. It’s a wonder that is the last of its kind.
Due to the primeval forest and the presence of a large quantity of deadwood, the circle of life has not been interfered by human beings. Unlike most woods in Europe, the trees of Bialowieza forest have germinated naturally.
That means that you’ll find centuries-old trees, young ones but also some that are dead. But even dead, wood is full of life as it becomes the host of mushrooms and tons of deadwood loving insects. The quantity of deadwood cannot be found anywhere else in Europe.
Particularly birdwatchers will enjoy the Bialowieza Forest as some European birds can only be found here. It’s the only place where you can observe all the European woodpeckers in one place. Some of them can only nest in dead spruces, thus it’s vital that the circle of life isn’t interrupted.
In managed forests, everything is controlled from planting to cutting down trees and taking them out of the forest. In the Bialowieza forest, all is left to the goodwill of nature. And usually, nature knows best.
8. Dine like a Tsar
You always wanted to know how it is to feel like a royal personality back in time? There is a train station surrounded by mystical forests that was built only to host the Russian tsar.
The news is that it has been converted into one of the most elegant restaurants in the region and that you can actually sleep in old trains!
That’s why Carska is one of the most unique places to stay in Podlasie.
Indeed, the Bialowieza forest has long been cherished by rulers. The fact that they fell in love with the primeval forest is one of the main reasons why the original state of the forest could be preserved.
Not only the Russian tsars loved the Bialowieza forest, but also the Polish and Lithuanian kings converted Bialowieza into their hunting ground. However, it was the Russian tsar who built huge palaces, hunting huts and converted the forest into his private hunting ground.
Whereas the Tsar’s Palace has been destroyed during WWII, the Carska train station was built in 1903 for Tsar Nicolas II and was fully renovated. The restaurant serves fine cuisine with Polish and Russian roots. All the meals are slowly cooked and vary according to the season.
The historical water tower next to the train station and the train wagons have been converted into luxury apartments. This oasis of peace is heaven for gourmets and slow travelers that enjoy being surrounded by nature with a royal touch.
9. Visit Temples of (almost) any Religion
When traveling to Podlasie, I would definitely consider church or temple-hopping as a thing! First, because you can see temples of almost any major religion. Second, because every single one is of such intriguing beauty that they will catch your breath.
Due to the unique cultural mix in Podlasie which unites Ukrainian, Belarus, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish and Tatar cultures, you’ll stumble upon Catholic and Orthodox churches, mosques and synagogues.
The most visual symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Catholic and Orthodox church is probably the wayside Catholic and Orthodox crosses.
However, it’s striking that there are only a few synagogues. Poland boasted the second-largest Jewish community in the world but it was annihilated during the war.
The most famous synagogues are the Tykocin synagogue and synagogue w Orli. Read more here about Jewish traces in Podlasie.
The Orthodox churches are the most colorful and particularly the blue ones are famous for the Podlasie region. Most are wooden structures with intriguing ornaments. One of the most famous Orthodox churches is the Grabarka pilgrimage site with its “Forest of Crosses”. It’s one of the top places to visit near the Bialowieza Forest.
The most beautiful, colorful Orthodox churches can be found in Trześcianka, Puchły, and Narew.
The Tatars came to the Podlasie region during the 14th century and nowadays, there remain only 2 mosques in Eastern Poland.
The Tatar village of Kruszyniany is a fascinating place to visit as you can learn about this intriguing culture whose origins go back to the descendant states of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan. The Bohoniki Mosque and the Kruszyniany mosque are the 2 remaining ones.
10. Jump over the border and visit Belarus
If you love to collect stamps in your passport, you might want to cross the border to Belarus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do this by myself but I gathered all the information so that you can visit this enigmatic country.
The last recluse dictatorship of Europe is less than 1 km from the Bialowieza forest, one of the main attractions of the Podlasie region. It’s the easiest to visit Belarus within the frame of a permit to visit the Natural Park of Bialowieza.
Indeed, ⅔ of the Bialowieza Forest can be found in Belarus. But for a long time, the border was hermetically closed. However, in order to attract tourists to the pristine Bialowieza forest in Belarus, a 3-day permit was created so that foreigners can visit without getting a Belarusian visa.
At the checkpoint “Pererov – Bialowieza“, you need to show your passport and online permit. Read more here how to cross the Belarus border in order to visit Bialowieza Belarus. However, the permit limits your visit to the Bialowieza forest only.
Practical Information for travel to Podlasie Region, Eastern Poland
✈ Book cheap flights to Poland with Skyscanner
$ Withdraw money without hidden fees and avoid exchange rates with Wise (you’ll get a free card on top!)
⚘ Get a travel guide in order to prepare your trip. I recommend the Lonely Planet Guide – Poland
In order to get more information on tourism in Podlasie and Poland in general, I recommend the site of Poland.Travel for its surroundings. Some of the pictures in this article have been taken by the talented Kostas Deko