Poles delineate their country's attractions as "the mountains, the sea and the lakes", their emphasis firmly slanted to the traditional, rural heartlands. To get the most out of your time, it's perhaps best to follow their preferences.
The mountains – above all the Carpathian range of the Tatras – are a delight, with a well-established network of hiking trails; the lakes provide opportunities for canoeing and a host of other outdoor pursuits; and the dozen or so national parks retain areas of Europe's last primeval forests, still inhabited by bison, elks, wolves, bears and eagles.
Yet you will not want to miss the best of the cities – Kraków, especially – nor a ramble down rivers like the Wisła for visits to Teutonic castles, ancient waterside towns and grand, Polish country mansions, redolent of a vanished aristocratic order.
Unless you're driving to Poland, you're likely to begin your travels in one of the three major cities: Warsaw, Kraków or Gdańsk. Each provides an immediate immersion in the fast-paced changes of the last decade or so and a backdrop of monuments that reveal the twists and turns of the nation's history. Warsaw, the capital, had to be rebuilt from scratch after World War II, and much of the city conforms to the stereotype of Eastern European greyness, but the reconstructed Baroque palaces, churches and public buildings of the historic centre, the burgeoning street markets and the bright shopfronts of Poland's new enterprise culture are diverting enough.
Kraków, however, the ancient royal capital, is the real crowd puller for Poles and foreign visitors alike, rivalling the central European elegance of Prague and Vienna. This is the city where history hits you most powerfully, in the royal Wawel complex, in the fabulous open space of the Rynek, in the one-time Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, and in the chilling necropolis of nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau, the bloodiest killing field of the Third Reich.
Gdańsk, formerly Danzig, the largest of the Baltic ports and home of the legendary shipyards, presents a dynamic brew of politics and commerce against a townscape reminiscent of mercantile towns in the Netherlands.
Despite its much-publicized pollution problems – problems it is now finally making a serious attempt to address – Poland has many regions of unspoilt natural beauty, of which none is more pristine than the Białowieża Forest, straddling the Belarusian border; the last virgin forest of the European mainland, it is the habitat of the largest surviving herd of European bison.
Along the southern borders of the country lie the wild Bieszczady mountains and the alpine Tatras and, further west, the bleak Karkonosze mountains – all of them excellent walking country – interspersed with less demanding terrain. North of the central Polish plain, the wooded lakelands of Mazury and Pomerania are as tranquil as any lowland region on the continent, while the Baltic coast can boast not just the domesticated pleasures of its beach resorts, but also the extraordinary desert-like dunes of the Słowiński national park – one of a dozen such parks.