Poland lies in the very heart of Europe. It is steeped in history, its culture enriched by the dozen or so ethnic peoples. It is also blessed with natural diversity, from sea to mountains to lakes to sand dunes. Its capital, Warsaw, still bears the scars of World War II and is not Europe’s loveliest city—drab apartment blocks and social-realist architecture from the post-war Soviet era take up much of the skyline. But in the six years since Poland joined the European Union, glitzy new luxury hotels are springing up here, and in the city’s richly historic old town, Stare Miasto, is always worth a visit.

From the historical treasures and lovely architectural landmarks of Cracow, to the spectacular Tatra mountains to the south, Poland’s incredible cultural and natural abundance are a unique combination.

The country has one of the best-preserved collections of wooden architecture, dating from medieval times. Most of its sacred architecture is Roman Catholic, with some belonging to the Orthodox and Jewish traditions. In the rural areas, Polish villages almost serve as open-air museums, providing glimpses into olden customs and lifestyles. There are also grim reminders of the past, such as the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, and the Jewish ghettos in some cities.

The country’s magnificent natural resources include subterranean salt mines, dense forests rich in wildlife, and mountain ranges with river valleys and pristine lakes. Any lover of nature will be amazed at how the country has balanced its industrialized and urban centres with protection of natural areas and city parks.

The Poles are legendary for their drinking prowess, but they also like to have long conversations in cafés and enjoy hearty stews with bread and sausage. A friendly people, they can also be frugal and hard-working. Most are Roman Catholic, but there are some Orthodox and some Jews.

Germany’s invasion of Poland is generally considered to have set off World War II in 1939. The Soviet Union also invaded it a few days later, and the country was split into two occupied zones—one under Nazi Germany and the other under the Soviets. Several cities suffered heavy Allied and Axis bombing and were devastated, and Poland lost over six million of its population, around half of them Jews; it had one of the highest death tolls of any country during the war. Soon after the war ended, the country became part of the Soviet regime, until the trade union Solidarity, led by Lech Wałęsa, spearheaded the peaceful end to Communist rule in the 1980s.

Since then Poland has become a remarkable story of successful transition to democracy and economic progress. One of the biggest economies in Central Europe, the nation joined the European Union in 2004, experiencing further growth that has improved the country’s standard of living.

The government has been fiscally conservative and Poland remains stable, with strong potential. Most investment property available to foreigners would be in major cities such as Warsaw and Cracow, or in the lesser known but equally dynamic Poznań, with its international trade fairs, and Wrocław, in the Silesian province. The coastal city of Gdańsk has a rich history. It is also the gateway to other seaside places in the region.

Since 1998, the country has been divided into 16 provinces, called voivodeships.