Summertime in 2012 will see thousands of Irish venture into the heart of the continent with football's European Championships taking place in Poland and Ukraine. The Republic of Ireland are playing their matches in Gdansk and Poznan, but there is a lot more to see throughout Poland in between matchdays.

The birthplace of Polish solidarity, Gdansk was once one of the most important port cities in northern Europe due to its location at the heart of the Baltic Sea region. The city, formerly known as Danzig, was completely destroyed in World War Two but has since been rebuilt and the historic charm of the Hanseatic City is very evident throughout the town centre. Walking the streets of the Old Town is the best way to sample the atmosphere with the spectacular Zlota (Golden) and Zielona (Green) gates at either end. The city's main attractions include the Neptune Fountain, the Gothic Town Hall, which is a popular panoramic view point, and the narrow stone-paved Mariacka Street, where St Mary's Basilica, the largest brick Gothic church in Europe, can be found. More history and culture can be experienced at the National Museum or the Gdansk History Museum. Seafood lovers are spoilt for choice in Gdansk as the Polish Baltic coast is rich in herring, cod, salmon, eel, turbot and flounder, while Gdansk is also famous for its beer brewing tradition. The coastline along Gdansk should also be explored with excellent beaches and interesting piers, while a seaside cruise can be taken from Dlugie Pobrzeze in Gdansk to Hel, a picturesque fishing port on the other side of the Bay of Gdansk.

Located on the banks of the Vistula River, the Capital City enjoys a great mix of tradition and modernity. Another city that suffered serious damage during the war, the Old Town has been successfully reconstructed and is now full of charming little streets and alleyways, which are home to numerous galleries, cafés and restaurants. The Old Town Square turns into an open-air gallery every summer, while the Museum of the History of Warsaw can also be found in the square. The Royal Road is one of the main attractions of the city, where the Royal Castle and Royal Palace can be enjoyed. The city is also famous for music festivals with a wide range on offer from jazz to classical. The Warsaw Rising Museum, the Lazienki Królewskie Park-Palace Complex and the Praga District are also worth visiting.

The city of Poznan is, like Gdansk, another of Ireland's locations for Euro 2012. This is a vibrant city and is awash with historical landmarks, including an observation platform at the Economics Academy building, 80m above ground, which offers excellent views of the city's old quarter, Ostrów Tumski. The city's main church is the huge Baroque Parish Church of St Stanislaw and it is also one of Poznan's most mysterious buildings since parts of the crypts have still not been discovered. The Poznan National Museum boasts Poland's largest collection of works by the artist Jacek Malczewski, while there are many palaces and castles to visit within easy reach of Poznan, including the palace in Rogalin.

Krakow is one of Poland's top tourist destinations and makes for the perfect City Break destination. Krakow's Market Square is the largest medieval urban centre in Europe. Overlooking the square is St Mary's Church with its magnificent high altar, where every hour a bugle call is played from the highest tower to commemorate the Tatar raids on the city in the 13th century. The square is one of the main focal points of the city with numerous cafés, bars and restaurants all within a short walking distance from one another. Another of the city's highlights is the Royal Route, which starts in Matejko Square and leads through the Gothic Barbican and Florianska Gate and continues along Grodzka Street with its Neo-Classical architecture and the Church of St Peter and Paul before reaching the cathedral and the royal castle.

Active Poland
With over 15,000 miles of marked trails, Poland is an ideal location for mountain trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts. The dunes, lakes and forests of the seaside Slowinski National Park, the high peaks of the Tatras mountains and the Sudety Mountains where the Polish, German and Czech borders meet are amongst the best in the country. Cycling holidays are also very popular in Poland, while watersports and extreme sports holidays are also widely available. Skiing and snowboarding in winter takes place in the Tatras, which have peaks that reach 8,200 feet.

The city of Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotz-wav) is another of the host cities for the European Championships next summer. Wroclaw lies in the middle of the Silesian Lowlands, where the River Odra branches out to form 12 islands. More than 100 bridges span Wroclaw and it looks like a city built on water. The city has had a very interesting past and was at one stage under the rule of the Czechs, the Austrians, the Hungarians and the Germans. The town centre revolves around the Market Square and is a hive of activity with close to 200 restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs. The Spiz Brewery, which is located in the underground section of the New Town Hall, is also worth a visit. Other attractions include a terrace on top of the tower of St Elizabeth's Church, next to the Hansel and Gretel tenement houses, which can be reached by climbing a total of 300 steps. There is also an elevator in the cathedral tower, which takes visitors to a 60m high observation platform.

UNESCO Heritage Sites
Located at the crossroads of Europe, it is no surprise to discover that Poland is full of historical gems, with many sites recognised and protected by UNESCO. The brick castle at Malbork is the largest medieval castle in Europe and was the seat of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. The beautiful old town of Torun is another historic centre and is full of medieval and gothic buildings. The Churches of Peace in Jawor and Swidnica were erected in the mid-17th century, following the end of the Thirty Years' War that ravaged large parts of Europe. Zamosc dates back to the 16th century and is best-preserved Renaissance town in Poland, while the Centennial Hall in Wroclaw and Warsaw and Krakow's old towns are also UNESCO sites. The Auschwitz Concentration Camp is another UNESCO site in Poland. Located just outside Krakow, the former Nazi camp is one of Poland's most visited sites.

Steeped in history, the city of Lublin's Old Town is the one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Poland. The Tower of the Trinity offers great views of the picturesque Old Town, while beneath the Old Town there is an underground tourist trail, which leads through the basements of former merchants' stores and wine cellars built throughout the city's interesting history. Krakowskie Przedmiescie is the main street for tourist activity with many coffee shops, artistic basement bars and restaurants to choose from. Elsewhere, the St Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Dominican Basilica is one of the most important and sacred historical monuments in Poland.

National Parks
Poland's National Parks offer a great alternative for tourists looking for a few days out of the city. Bialowieski National Park is inhabited by bison, Europe's largest mammal, and is home to the record breaking Jagiello Oak trees. The Narew river, a long section of which is protected within a National Park, is one of only two braid-like rivers in the world. And the Gory Stolowe (Table Mountains) National Park has the only plate-structured mountains in Europe. Zelazowa Wola, close to the Kampinoski National Park, was the birthplace of Frederic Chopin. Wielkopolski, Tatrzanski and Karkonoski National Parks are three of the most popular parks in Poland.

The city established in 1233 by the knights of the Teutonic Order was once considered one of the most modern cultural centres in Medieval Europe. The town, with its original medieval architectonic structures, enriched over the ages with Gothic, Baroque and Secession edifices, is an encyclopaedia of culture. Renowned scientist Nicolas Copernicus was born in Torun in 1473. In the museum, which can be found in his house on Copernicus Street, the oldest editions of his scientific work and his astronomical equipment with which he studied the cosmos can be seen.

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Ed Leahy

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