Do I need visa?
To get an accurate answer to this question, call your local Polish consulate. While many people can enter Poland without an official stamp of authority, others cannot. And even then, things change. For those who can come to Poland sans visa, you can visit for three months without trouble or cost or additional requirements like proof of sufficient funds or a return ticket as evidence that you're really leaving Poland. You simply have to possess a passport valid for half a year after you leave Poland.
If you can enter Poland without a visa, get them to stamp your passport when you arrive (standard practice at the airport, but not at the border). You'll not only have a cool stamp to show your friends but can also easily prove how long you've been here. If you overstay your welcome, they won't fine you but will require that you get a visa before they let you out of Poland. If you want to do things right, you have to apply for a visa before your 90 days are up. Besides the requisite paperwork to be filled out in Polish, you'll need 2 photos, a passport with at least 9 months to go on it and a good reason for staying. The cost varies from negligible to not so, depending on the type of visa you'd like; you can discover the damage when you apply.
What can I bring in?
Legally and duty-free, you can bring in all sorts of goodies. If you are over 18, you can bring in alcohol (0.5 L of the hard stuff, 2 L of wine, or 5 L of beer) and smokes (250 cigarettes, 50 cigars, or 250 g of tobacco). Otherwise, you can bring in prescription meds, gifts, and personal items. The last includes the normal electronic equipment one might have if travelling for pleasure or business (cell phone, still and video cameras, laptop, accompanying peripherals, etc.). It also includes jewellery, walkman, or binoculars. The only catch is that you've got to take all that stuff with you when you go.
You can also bring in money, as much as you'd like, which you need to declare upon entry. Never fear: no one will check if the amount is correct; this is just another empty ritual to appease the governmental bureau-gods.
As for living creatures, you can bring your healthy (vet-certified, in Polish) pet with you as long as it is not a parrot. If you bring a dog, it must be vaccinated against rabies 30 days prior to your trip.
You cannot bring in any materials which threaten the natural environment, or pornography, or illegal drugs (which all add up to the same thing in some eyes).
You might get charged import fees on souvenirs that cost over 100 USD at a going rate of 10%. If you bring in items that cost over 300 USD, then you've got to pay according to a sliding scale. Just how much it slides can be discovered with the Customs Hotline at (48 22) 694 31 94.
What can I take home?
The big no-no is art created before 9 May 1945. If your newest purchase was created after VE Day, then you can prove it with a receipt from the store or a certifying document from a National Museum (almost every major city has got one; you need the Department of Art Certification).
If your souvenir is of a different sort -- a hunting trophy perhaps -- get the appropriate documents from the tour organiser. Otherwise, you can take out items costing less than 100 USD without trouble and those costing more with a permit from the customs office (which means a fee).
As for less durable souvenirs, you can leave Poland with the same amounts of alcohol and tobacco as listed above, provided you're of age.
Finally, you are not supposed to take any Polish currency beyond the borders, nor more foreign currency than you brought in. But again, these things are rarely checked and everyone knows what nice reminders foreign coins can be of a wonderful visit.
How about driving?
If you decide to drive into Poland, you need a bit more authentication than when flying in: a valid passport, in some cases a visa (check with your local Polish consulate before venturing out), a valid driver's license, and the so-called green card denoting insurance if the car is not registered in Poland. If you are driving someone else's car, avoid accusations of theft by bringing along a notarised letter permitting you to use the borrowed car. As for the driver's license, it wouldn't hurt you to get an international license if you are not European. Foreign licenses are valid in Poland, but the European road rules are sufficiently different that you might want to save yourself the confusion (especially since Polish drivers will provide plenty on their own).
In theory, you can cross the border at any time at the spots listed to the right. In practice, the lines are long and slow during the summer, the weekends, and along the eastern border. Long can mean up to 10 kilometers and slow can mean waiting more than 2 days. Keep this in mind. Also, all borders are not equal: some can be crossed on foot, some on train, and others by car. Find out in advance before you choose the wrong route.
What time is it?
Poland counts time on a 24 hour clock, and the week starts on Monday. So 1 PM is 13:00, 2 PM is 14:00, and so on. If confused, just subtract 2 from the second digit to quickly calculate what hour is it (e.g. 15:00 - 2 is 3 PM).
"Smacznego" is the signal to start your hearty Polish meal, for hearty it will be: most Polish food is not for the timid or the dieting. The cuisine draws from a number of other nations (Slavic, and otherwise) but still retains some unique features, and home-cooking will usually beat out that found in the growing number of restaurants. Before 1989, eating out was uncommon. Since then, the idea is catching on but is haphazardly executed; something might look good from the outside, but taste like hell on the inside. The best approach to locating a good Polish restaurant: ask. If that doesn't work, go by the number of people in a restaurant. If you see a lot of happy people pigging out, and more hoping to do so, that might be a good place to try.
Before digging in to a rich entree, start with a soup. 'Zupy' remain a Polish standard, almost always made from scratch, and definitely worth an exploratory sip. In the summer, try the cold, creamy beet and vegetable soup 'chlodnik' or the hot, spicy version 'barszcz' in the colder months. Another soup worth tasting is the creamy, sausage and potato 'zurek'.
Would you like some meat with that?
Once souped up, move on to your entree. Poles offer up beef, pork, sausage, ham, chicken, and wild game with a frequency that shames even Americans. Most 'kotlets' are fried or grilled, topped with a creamy sauce of some sort or another and accompanied by (usually) potatoes in some form or another. A salad might come along, but it'll be a simple affair of lettuce, sliced cucumber, carrots, or tomatoes. More complex salads pop up here and there, so look for them under a separate section of the menu ('salatka' or 'surowka').
Other Polish favourites with international appeal are 'bigos' and 'pierogi'. The recipe for bigos - a stew of cabbage, sausage, meat, and sometimes mushrooms - is a national debate: every Pole has at least one passionately communicated opinion. On the other hand, pierogi seem equally popular but without exciting the same culinary fervour: similar to ravioli, pierogi are dumplings stuffed with meat ('mieso'), cabbage and mushrooms ('kapusta i grzybami'), fruit, or the all-time-best, cheese and potatoes ('ruskie'). Served cold, hot, fried, with or without sour cream, pierogi will satisfy the most neophobic of stomachs.
Like most cuisines that draw from a peasant culture, simple ingredients pop up again and again: for Poles, one staple was cabbage. You'll find it as a soup 'kapusniak', sliced up for salads, pickled for sauerkraut, the foundation of bigos, or stuffed with rice, meat, or mushrooms as 'golabki'. Potatoes are another, which show up in the pierogi, as a side to a meat dish, or fried and served with sour milk as 'placki'.
Not-so-sweets for the sweet
If you want to round out your meal with something sweet, pay for your dinner and take a walk to the nearest ice cream stand ('lody'). Ice cream is the national past-time: Poles lick it up even in the winter. If you crave something warmer, try packi (pastry stuffed with sweet jellies) or makowiec (poppy-seed cake). Other 'ciasta' on offer in the sweet shops ('cukierna') will tempt any tooth, but remember that in general, European pastries are not inundated with the fat and sugar more common to state-side tongues.
That oh-so-western contribution, fast food or take out, has (sort of) reached Poland. You can find a McDonald's on every other street corner in Warsaw, or a Pizza Hut, or a KFC if home is what you're looking for. But if something more local is your desire, try the ubiquitous 'bar wietnamski' stands (which offer the standard generic Asian dishes) or the burger/hotdog/sandwich stands that cover the other hemisphere. Some Polish quick bites not yet pushed off the market are 'zapiekanki' (half a baguette topped with melted cheese and ketchup) or its quite tasty cousin 'bulka z pieczarkami' (a whole baguette stuffed with mushrooms).
Take care when frequenting the fast food stands or bars: some use substandard ingredients and have not yet figured out how to mask them with tasty spicing. Use the 'number of people rule' and patronise those that everyone else is.
What a drink with that?
Poles like to drink, and usually they like to drink chilled vodka. So don't ever try to keep up, unless you've had lots of practice.
Vodka comes in a number of varieties, from clear ('Krakus', 'Chopin', 'Wyobrowa', 'Zytnia') or flavoured ('Zubrowka', 'Pieprzowka', 'Krupnik'). Most nip it back neat, with a chaser of some sort, but mixing it with orange or apple juice is also quite popular. If you're looking for something softer, beer is on tap everywhere and the national brands 'Zywiec', 'Hevelius', 'Piast', 'Lech', 'Okocim', or 'EB' are worth a taste.
For the non-alcoholic, ask for bottled mineral water ('woda mineralna'), a fruit juice ('sok'), tea ('herbata') or coffee ('kawa') but beware before you sip the latter two. Both are usually prepared by freely mixing the dry with the wet; if you don't wait for your tea to seep, or your coffee to cool, you're ensured a first gritty mouthful. Poles don't add milk to their tea or coffee generally, so you'll have to ask for it ('z mlekiem'). For the soft-drinkers, coke and pepsi (non-light versions usually) are standard, as are some Polish generics.
Two simple things to remember when paying: credit cards and tipping are not the norm. If you need to pay with plastic, notify your waiter before he brings the bill; you'll save a lot of time and trouble. As for tipping, rounding the total up one or two zlotys is fine in most places save the western-styled ones; if in such, tip the usual 10-15% if you liked the service. If you didn't, don't.
Dying for some vegies?
Since even Polish salads often contain meat, the decidedly vegetarian should look for 'potrawy jarskie' or 'bez miesne' on the menu of the finer restaurants, or seek out a 'bar mleczny'. These rapidly disappearing milk bars (commonplace in the communist era) offer meatless meals at a cheap price.
What am I ordering?
Since English is penetrating Poland slowly, you won't find much help from the menu or the waiter. You can get a recognisable meal if you keep in mind basic tenses. Note: don't be surprised if your waiter tells you 'nie ma'; that old communist favourite -- don't have -- hasn't quite died out yet and at times some dishes will not be available.
When do we eat?
In the bigger cities, the famous Polish hospitality can influence the restaurant hours and 'last guest' can mean just that: the restaurant finishes when you do. Some establishments in smaller towns won't be this flexible, often closing by 21.00. So if you're stuck after hours, try the bigger hotels (Orbis). While closing times may vary, one cardinal rule holds for holidays. Almost everyone goes home, where the food is probably better anyway, so don't expect to find restaurants open on holidays except, again, in the bigger hotels.