In this modern age of more sanitised football experiences you can still find more authentic offerings – you just have to look a little harder. If that’s something you’re after one destination that should be on your radar is Poland.
There’s a passion and edge in the grounds at many Polish fixtures that you’ll rarely find back home these days. And Polish cities have some beautiful historic centres. With many low-cost air links from the UK, and with prices considerably lower than at home. it’s an exhilarating and inexpensive weekend away.
How do I get to Poland?
The explosion of Eastern European low-cost routes, driven by WizzAir whose very first flight left Katowice bound for Luton in 2004, means Poland is one of the most accessible countries on the continent.
The busiest airport is Warsaw Chopin with up to half a dozen connections daily with Luton via WizzAir, who also fly in from Birmingham, Doncaster/Sheffield, Edinburgh and Liverpool. BA connects Warsaw with Heathrow while LOT Polish Airlines serves Dublin, London City and Heathrow. The airport is linked to the city centre by a regular rail service in 20 minutes and tickets can be bought from machines at the station or on board.
Ryanair use the slightly more distant Warsaw Modlin Airport with connections to Birmingham, Bristol, Dublin, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, and Stansted. There is a bus connection to central Warsaw taking 40 minutes.
In the south of the country Katowice and Krakow Airports are barely an hour apart and can be your gateway for either of those cities and indeed the region. Poznan, Gdansk, Lodz, Lublin and Szczecin are just a few of the other Polish cities with regular flight services from the UK.
A journey to Poland by rail is possible, via Brussels and crossing Germany, but you would need at least one overnight stop in Germany on the way.
Where do I stay in Poland?
Most major cities in Poland are at least a few hours apart on public transport so on a short break you are best off choosing one base. The two most obvious places to stay in Poland for a first-time visitor are the capital Warsaw, and the former capital of Krakow.
For sheer beauty, mixing tourism with football, you may want to plump for Krakow. This royal city in the south of the country is a medieval gem that can rival the likes of Prague, Budapest and Tallinn. However, the sheer size of the old centre means you can easily escape the crowds and explore at your leisure. At the very heart is the main square, Rynek Główny, the biggest of its kind in Europe, while a stroll away is the Royal Palace.
Many visitors take the opportunity to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines just outside the city – it’s a labyrinth of caves and tunnels including beautiful underground chambers.
On a darker note, Poland lost more people per head of population in the Second World War than any other country and the scars remain. Oskar Schindler’s factory is now a fascinating place to visit, while just an hour away is the truly sobering former death camp of Auschwitz, now a memorial museum.
Turning to football, Wisla Krakow and Cracovia are regulars in the top division and these bitter rivals are separated by parkland a short walk or tram ride from the city centre. From Krakow, Katowice is an hour away by bus – see more below.
In contrast the capital Warsaw is a bustling metropolis, with former communist buildings now dwarfed by glistening modern apartments and office blocks. The city centre was virtually destroyed in the war, although the old town was carefully rebuilt in its original medieval style. It’s a fascinating city with an eventful recent history, documented in several eye-opening museums.
Legia Warsaw are one of the strongest teams in Poland and a match at their Pepsi Arena, formerly the Polish Army Stadium, is always a passionate event. Polonia Warsaw play further down the leagues these days but are an entertaining and more chilled alternative. Lodz is a very reachable 90 minutes away by regular rail services, with Widzew and LKS the well supported city rivals in rebuilt stadiums.
If your sole purpose for visiting Poland is to see football you may prefer to try Katowice. Poland’s long-time industrial heartland, Upper Silesia, is home to several clubs such as Gornik Zabrze, Piast Gliwice, Ruch Chorzow and GKS Katowice. Katowice itself is a fairly functional city – although nowhere near as grim as some guidebooks will suggest – and it’s easy to get around the region on local trains and trams.
Two cities with a couple of top-flight teams are Poznan – with Lech, and the less famous Warta – and Gdansk, a base for Lechia Gdansk and nearby Arka Gydnia. Both cities will offer enough to keep you occupied for a weekend.
Poland as a country has come on leaps and bounds since the fall of communism 30 years ago. The major cities have buzzing centres with a lively pavement café culture, particularly in the summer months, and most younger Poles speak excellent English. Yet prices remain lower than the UK making it a very affordable, and engaging, destination.
How do I travel around Poland?
Poland’s rail system is reasonably extensive and great value – to the extent that you may want to enjoy first class tickets for longer journeys, the cost difference is small and can be worth it to secure a less crowded ride on busy services.
Don’t expect the trains to go at any great speed: even intercity ‘express’ services will peak at 80-100mph, frequently much slower. Be advised that any local service will be just that, stopping at tiny platforms along the way.
The cities have decent tram or trolley bus systems while Warsaw also has a new underground metro. Often single and day tickets will be available at machines at the stops, with English translations now more widely available.
The Polish Ekstraklasa has 16 clubs who play each other twice. At the end of the regular season the division is usually split into a ‘championship’ group and ‘relegation’ group and the seven teams in each group play each other once more. These games are packed into a tight schedule through May so there are frequently midweek options to consider.
Match times are scheduled around a month in advance and for the past few seasons the games have been spread out right across the weekend, all televised, giving you plenty of options. The kick-off times are usually Friday at 6pm and 8.30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm, 5.30pm and 8pm, and Monday at 6pm. 1 Liga has 18 teams, with most games taking place on Saturday late afternoons but a few are switched across the weekend and the same goes for 2 Liga.
It’s worth keeping an eye on fixtures in III Liga – this is regionalised into four leagues and does often offer the chance of more games in the area of your choice, although most clubs will only attract a few hundred fans. Saturday at 5pm is the most common time at this level but there are exceptions.
The best website to keep up to date with fixture times is www.90minut.pl – it’s in Polish only but it’s relatively easy to navigate by selecting the division in the menu.
How do I get tickets?
A growing number of clubs do sell tickets in advance via their website, usually with a print-at-home option. This is common in the Ekstraklasa, while it will depend on the size of the club further down the leagues whether there’s an online option. However in nearly all cases you may have to try to navigate Polish language only sites and don’t expect tickets to go on sale more than a couple of weeks ahead.
Where you can hit a problem is when the website asks for your PESEL number. This is a Polish ID number, made up of your date of birth and other random numbers and letters. Many websites will not let you pass until you input one, which is an obvious problem for foreign visitors. This is the point where you have to contact the ticket office by email.
The majority of games won’t sell out so you can buy at the ground on the day of the game. However, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. Go early, and we mean early – a couple of hours before kick-off or ideally earlier in the day. The queues at ticket windows build up in the final hour. It’s slow to the extent you may miss the start of the game or even the entire first half.
In the past foreign visitors have been obliged to complete a form and have a photo taken for ID purposes, although this requirement seems to have been relaxed. However, bring your passport, as you will almost certainly be asked for it, and take both cash and cards to cover all eventualities: you don’t want to reach the front of the queue and then find your credit card keeps being refused.
Even tickets in the top-flight are unlikely to cost more than £15-£20 and below that level prices are likely to be nearer £4-£5.
Nickes.Com is making connections in Polish football and may be able to assist you with arranging tickets for your trip, possibly even great value VIP tickets (as well as trains, hotels etc).
What is a Polish matchday like?
A matchday in Poland can still be a lively affair. You won’t find too much going on in the city centres beforehand, but once you’re in the vicinity of the ground there’s often a more edgy atmosphere that has largely disappeared in major leagues.
Poland has had its problem with hooligans and, while it hasn’t entirely gone away, the vast majority of matches pass off without incident. If you’re unsure it’s best stick to slightly more expensive seats on the sides of stadiums and you’ll be in a good place to take in the atmosphere from a safe distance.
Expect to witness a vast number of police in the area around the away end. It’s not uncommon for roads to be closed after the match to keep rival fans apart.
Some of the more modern stadia have matchday fan bars doing a steady trade, but both at these and at other more basic venues you’ll find the majority of fans gathered on paths and in parks nearby drinking from cans.
The ultras can look unwelcoming: by keeping your head down you’ll be fine, but it’s probably best to take any photos from a distance, as some ultras don’t always take kindly to football tourists.
Whether you’ll find beer served inside the ground depends on the stadium and the security level of fixture, so don’t count on it. One thing you can expect to find at most places, usually sizzling on a barbecue, is kielbasa – the traditional Polish speciality of sausage served with bread and sauce.
The football itself may be of a slightly lower standard than in the UK but the leagues are very competitive and although Legia Warsaw have been a dominant force in the Ekstraklasa lately, they haven’t had it all their own way. The tifos on display on the terraces are hugely impressive.
There’s a real mix of stadia to explore. The arrival of the Euros in 2012 saw Poznan, Gdansk, Wroclaw and the National Stadium in Warsaw play a part and all now have impressive large arenas. Many others have also been redeveloped in recent years but a few relics from a bygone era remain, such as Pogoń Szczecin, Ruch Chorzow, Wisla Plock, Polonia Warsaw and GKS Katowice to name a few.