From religion to Hip Hop
Polish culture is closely connected with its intricate 1000-year history & Kraków is considered by many to be the cultural capital of Poland. On this page, we provide a very brief introduction to Polish culture so that you can better understand the locals.
Kraków has some of the best museums in the country and several famous theatres. It became the residence of two Polish Nobel laureates in literature: Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz, while a third Nobel laureate, the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric also lived and studied there. It is also a home to one of the world’s oldest universities, the Jagiellonian University of Kraków.
Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman’s hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman’s hand is considered to be chivalrous, but you will not go wrong shaking hands. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of either sex will kiss three times, alternating cheeks.
A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (goodbye) when exiting the elevator. It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone’s home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists’ kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals.
It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women. Poles are generally old-fashioned about gender etiquette. Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.
It is advisable to refer to Poland (as well as to some other countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary) as Central Europe, and not Eastern Europe. Although not very offensive, if used, it may reflect foreigners’ ignorance and certain disrespect on the history and clearly Latin cultural heritage of the countries from the region. Poles themselves refer to the “old” EU west of its borders as “Zachód” (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as “Wschód” (East). Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the cross-roads of Europe, right in the continent’s center.
A big and important part of Polish culture is religion.
Older Polish people are strongly religious while younger thirty-somethings tend to be medium religious (attending church on major catholic holidays) or not at all religious. The so-called ‘Generation JP2’ (JP2 is short for John Paul II), people between the age of 16 and roughly 25, tend to establish a neo-conservative look on religion in Poland, just like Americans did in the ’80.
The vast majority of youngsters remain officially catholic and occasionally go to church, but in fact do not give much attention to religion. During Easter, the churches have a lot of ceremonies and are very well visited by the locals. Saturday evening is for candlelight ceremonies outside the churches.
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is a holy icon of the Virgin Mary, that is both Poland’s holiest relic and one of the country’s national symbols.
Because of the Black Madonna, Częstochowa is regarded as the most popular shrine in Poland, with many Polish Catholics making a pilgrimage there every year. Often, people will line up on the side of the road to hand provisions to the pilgrims as those who walk the distance to Częstochowa walk the entire day and have little means to get things for themselves.
Regular stores are closed during main religious holidays (25th & 26th of December, Easter Sunday, and Monday), other holidays may mean shorter working hours.
Dialog and the interpenetration of cultures have been a major characteristic of Polish culture & tradition for centuries. Customs, manners, and style of clothing have reflected the influences of East and West.
The traditional costumes worn by the nobility in the 16th and 17th centuries were inspired by rich Eastern ornamental style with its Islamic influences. The style of clothing is called Goral (Pronounced GOO-RAL).
Polish cuisine is yet another aspect of Poland’s cultural identity. Distinctive Polish foods include kielbasa, pierogi (pierozki), pyzy (meat-filled dough balls), kopytka, golabki (pronounced Go-waunm-b-ki), sledzie (sh-ledje-eh), bigos, kotlety (schabowy and mielony) and much more.
Polish cities and towns reflect the whole spectrum of European styles. Poland’s Eastern frontiers used to mark the outermost boundary of the influences of Western architecture on the continent.
History has not been good to Poland’s architectural monuments. However, a number of ancient structures have survived: castles, churches, and stately buildings, often unique in the regional or European context. Some of them have been painstakingly restored, like Wawel Royal Castle, or completely reconstructed after being destroyed in the Second World War, including the Old Town and Royal Castle in Warsaw, as well as the Old Towns of Gdańsk and Wrocław.
The centre of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula is a good example of a well-preserved medieval town. Poland’s ancient capital, Kraków, ranks among the best-preserved Gothic and Renaissance urban complexes in Europe. Meanwhile, the legacy of the Kresy Marchlands of Poland’s eastern regions with Wilno and Lwow (now Vilnius and Lviv) as two major centres for the arts, played a special role in these developments with Roman-Catholic church architecture deserving special attention.
In Vilnius (Lithuania) there are about 40 baroque and Renaissance churches. In Lviv (Ukraine) there are Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque urban complexes with influences of the orthodox and Armenian church.
The music of Poland has a long history and is inextricably linked with Polish culture. Fryderyk Chopin, inspired by Polish tradition and folklore, conveys the quintessence of Romanticism. Since 1927, the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition has been held every five years in Warsaw.
Polish classical music is also represented by composers like Karol Szymanowski, Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, Witold Lutoslawski, Wojciech Kilar, Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, and Krzysztof Penderecki – all of whom rank among the world’s most celebrated composers.
Contemporary Polish jazz with its special national flavour has fans and followers in many countries.
Artists from Poland, including famous composers like Chopin or Penderecki and traditional, regionalised folk musicians, create a lively and diverse music scene, which even recognises its own music genres, such as poezja śpiewana (sung poetry) and disco polo.
Poland is one of the few countries in Europe where rock and hip hop dominate over pop music, while all kinds of alternative music genres are encouraged.
Poland has always been a very open country to new music genres and even before the fall of communism, music styles like rock, metal, jazz, electronic, and New Wave were well-known. Since 1989, the Polish scene has exploded with new talents and a more diverse style.
Poland has a very active underground extreme metal music scene. Some of the bands that have heralded and helped the cause are Behemoth, Vader, Yattering, Decapitated, Indukti, Hate, and Lux Occulta. This has paved ground for a large underground movement.