How to visit the Bialowieza Forest in Poland
The Bialowieza forest is one of the last patches of old growth primeval forests in Europe. The National Park stretches over large areas of both Poland and Belarus.
While most of it is in Belarus, it is easier to visit the Bialowieza forest from Poland. But even in Poland, Bialowieza Forest is a long journey into the remote and sparsely populated Podlasie province.
Why visit Bialowieza Forest?
Bialowieza forest is one of the best nature getaways in Poland. Besides the natural beauty you have a chance to see the European bison. In fact, with around 900 bison, Bialowieza forest is home to the largest herd in the world.
Bisons used to live all over Europe, but due to hunting and agriculture they slowly disappeared. They found their last refuge in Bialowieza forest where they were protected. As a result, Bialowieza forest offers you the best chance of seeing a wild bison in Europe.
But there is more, because Bialowieza forest has an incredibly rich biodiversity. With a bit of luck you might also spot wolves, foxes, wild boar and deers. It is also a great place for birdwatching and hiking. There are plenty of trails to follow throughout the forest.
Should you visit Bialowieza forest now?
The long journey to Bialowieza forest is thus well worth the effort. Bialowieza forest was on my bucket list for a very long time. When I planned my overland trip through the Baltics and Poland I really wanted to include Bialowieza forest too.
The only problem was that at that time, the migrant crisis was still causing many problems at the border between Poland and Belarus, including at the Bialowieza forest. In fact, Bialowieza town was still a military zone off limits to foreigners.
It was a dilemma whether to go or not. I did not want to be a spectator in a humanitarian disaster, but at the same time I mailed tour companies that said they were happy to show me the nature of Bialowieza in the areas that were still open.
A tough decision, but in the end I was glad we did go. We found a nice hotel in Hajnowka and arranged for a guide to go on an early morning safari. It was winter and freezing cold, but I did see two herds of bison. Afterwards I hiked through the forests on my own.
Unfortunately I could not visit the primeval forest reserve, but that did not take away the natural beauty of the place. In an area where tourism is a major source of income, both covid and the migrant crisis hit hard. Business owners are very happy with the few tourists that do come.
How to get to Bialowieza Forest?
So how to visit Bialowieza forest? Another reason why I was a bit hesitant about visiting Bialowieza forest was that Bialowieza seemed to be the main town catering to tourists and that most sights like the Bison Show reserve are spread out over a large area. I did not have my own car to drive around. Would it still be worth it?
Public transport vs own car?
Having your own car will be a big advantage if you visit Bialowieza forest. There are a number of sights that are easier to get to if you have your own transport.
The countryside around Bialowieza forest is also very beautiful, with traditional wooden homes and churches. Just driving around the small villages in this area is already a really nice thing to do when you are in Bialowieza forest.
That said, it is very well possible to enjoy the natural beauty of Bialowieza forest using public transport. Trains connect Warsaw and Bialystok with Hajnówka and from Hajnówka there are buses to Białowieża.
To visit the actual primeval forest nature reserve a guide is mandatory anyway. Although hiring a guide will be a lot of money if you have a backpackers budget, it is one of those places where it is worth the expense. I will explain more about the different kinds of tours later.
Even if you decide to not book any tour, there are lots of hiking trails in the vicinity of both Hajnowka and Bialowieza allowing you to explore the outer fringes of the forest on foot. This will not be the actual primeval forest, but there is still lots of nature to enjoy.
With or without a guide?
Hiring a guide in Bialowieza forest is not cheap (around 100-150 euro), but in my opinion very much worth the price. You will learn so much more about the flora and fauna of the forest. In addition they know the places where you will have a big chance to see bison.
The most popular tours are of course the hiking tours in the actual strict primeval forest reserve. They are also the most expensive. The outer fringes of the forest might no longer be old growth, but are still very beautiful and with a similar chance to spot wildlife.
Hiking with a guide through the forest will definitely increase your chances to see animals, but in general they are more difficult to spot in the lush greenery.
Another option is to go on an early morning safari. The guide will simply drive around the area using the main roads. Although this might sound like you are not really getting into nature, you actually have more chances to see animals.
With a car you can cover a much larger area and animals are easier to spot in the open fields. I did the early morning safari option and saw two large herds of bison and some deer.
After the tour our guide pointed out some worthwhile trails in the forest where I could hike on my own. Although I did not see any animals there, it felt good to be surrounded by nature and I did see some traces of wild boar and wolves.
Personally I can recommend the safari option and then exploring the forest trails on your own afterwards
Where to stay in Bialowieza Forest?
Bialowieza is the main town that caters to tourists with plenty of facilities and tour agencies arranging trips into the forest. It is very close to the border with Belarus and in 2021 Bialowieza became a military zone closed to foreigners due to the migrant crisis. After Covid this was of course another setback for the hotels and restaurants in Bialowieza.
When Bialowieza opens up again it is the most logical option as it is most close to the oldest parts of the forest.
Recommended: Hotel Zubrowka was the hotel we first booked. They sent us a very friendly email explaining the current situation. We were sad we couldn’t stay here as it had very good reviews, but found a good alternative in Hajnowka
As we were looking for an alternative we actually found a really nice hotel in Hajnowka. Although a bit further away from the actual primeval forest reserve, it is located on the outer fringes of the forest and a great alternative to base yourself when you visit Bialowieza forest.
It is also good to know that Hajnowka has direct train connections with both Warsaw and Bialystok and therefore also a very good option if you travel by public transport. Furthermore, there are frequent buses from Hajnowka to Bialowieza.
Although most guides and tour companies are based in Bialowieza it is not difficult to arrange tours or guides from Hajnowka either. There are also less accomodation options than Bialowieza, but there are still enough facilities to choose from that are often happy to help you plan your trip to Bialowieza forest.
Recommended: Enklawa Bialowieza is a bit outside of Hajnowka, but you are in the midst of the forest. We stayed here for 3 nights and everything was clean and modern. In the morning we could just leave the complex and we would be immediately in the forest. The owner sent us lots of useful information beforehand and recommended us several guides. The guide that we eventually called was very good.
Things to do in Bialowieza Forest
Exploring the primeval Bialowieza forest
Most people come to Bialowieza forest to either visit one of the last primeval forests in Europe or to see the European bison. The forest covers a large area and includes both old growth forests and man made forests. The majority is in Belarus, but at the moment this part is very difficult to access due to the recent political situation. Poland thus offers the most accessible way to visit the old growth forest
Bialowieza Forest Strict Reserve
The strict reserve is the oldest part of Bialowieza forest that is still untouched by logging or planting trees. To enter the strict reserve a permit and guide are mandatory and you should stick to the hiking trails.
Bialowieza Forest hiking trails
Then there are the trails around Bialowieza village and Hajnowka village that you can visit without a guide. Here you will go through a patchwork of natural and non natural forests. Still they are a great way to enjoy the beauty of the forest. They are a perfect option if you travel by public transport as the trails start from either Bialowieza village or Hajnowka.
Zeby Zubra trail
The Zeby Zubra trail is one of the most popular trails. It is close to Bialowieza and easy to do. Therefore also perfect if you come as a family with kids. It is a boardwalk path and the whole trail takes about 40 minutes.
There are a few other short educational trails that you can do with children such as the Forest trees (4 km) and the Landscapes of the forest (5 km). Do expect the educational short trails to be a bit crowded and busy.
Day hikes from Bialowieza
If you prefer longer, more quiet trails into the forest I suggest the following day hikes that start from Bialowieza. The red places of the National remembrance trail (14 km) is a loop that starts and ends in Bialowieza.
There are also the blue Bialowieza to Zwierzyniec trail (17 kilometers) and the yellow Topilo trail (19 kilometer). These end in a different place though so you will need ton arrange transport back to BIalowieza at the end of the hike.
Day hikes from Czeremcha
A number of hikes start in Czeremcha. A small town at the southern fringes of the Bialowieza forest. This town can be reached by train from Hajnowka so these trails are accessible if you depend on public transport.
You can also visit more remote and pristine parts of the park if you have your own transport or by renting a bicycle. There are several trails north of the reserve where you don’t need a guide and where the majority is still old growth forest. You can easily rent bicycles in Bialowieza and they allow you to explore a larger part of the forest than by hiking. There are a number of marked cycling trails as well.
Spotting a wild European bison is the highlight of any trip to Bialowieza forest. Although Bialowieza is home to the largest herd in the world you will still need a bit of luck to see them.
Actually the forest is not the best place to do so. Despite their big size they spend most of the day deep into the forest away from any hiking or cycling trails.
The best place to see them are the meadows around the forest where the bison come out to graze just before sunrise and the sunset.
Bison safari’s therefore start very early in the morning and don’t really get into the forest, but you will have a pretty good chance to see them compared to hiking through the forest.
The Bison Show Reserve
In case you did not see the European bison in the wild, you can always visit the bison show reserve in Bialowieza. An enclosed animal park with of course the bison. There are also Polish horses and other animals to see.
As I was lucky enough to see two herds of bison in the wild, I did not see the Bison show Reserve, so I can’t tell you about my experience.
The Nature and Forest Museum
If you want to know more about the nature and history of the Bialowieza Forest Nature Reserve you can visit the Nature and Forest museum in Bialowieza. When we were there it was unfortunately not open due to the situation.
The villages around the Bialowieza forest are quite picturesque. Being so close to the forest, many houses were traditionally built from wood. Driving around you will still see many traditional wooden homers. Some beautifully decorated. Even some of the orthodox churches are still made from wood.
I came to Bialoewieza forest to see animals and nature, but actually enjoyed the countryside and the villages just as much. If you don’t have the time or the transport to drive around the area you can visit the open air museum of wooden architecture in Bialowieza.
A good area to see wooden architecture is the land of open shutters around the villages of Soce, Trzescianka and Puchly
Try the local cuisine
Bialowieza forest is also a good place to try Polish food and there are some local specialities too. Being so close to nature and the forest, the use of local ingredients make certain dishes unique to this region and some also unique to a particular season.
For example, spring is a time when dandelion flowers are made into delicious jams and birch tree juice as well as fresh herbs are collected. It’s a great time to try the local sorrel or nettle soup. Summer brings lots of berries and you should look for berry dumplings. Autumn of course brings mushrooms and you can expect delicious creamy mushroom sauces over your meat.
Many dishes are heavily influenced by the nearby neighbors of Belarus and Lithuania. Kartacze, for example, are potato dumplings with minced meat similar to cepelinai in Lithuania. The potato babka is a Grated potato pie with bacon from the oven. A dish that is also very popular in Belarus.
Bialowieza forest practicalities
Where to eat
Bialowieza: unfortunately we couldn’t try any of the restaurants in Bialowieza, but we heard that Pokuse is great to try Polish and Belarussian food.
Hajnowka: We had delicious pierogi dumplings at the Babushka bistro. A great place for Polish food in the center of Hajnowka
When to visit
Bialowieza forest is a year round destination and every season has its charms. Most people prefer the summer and it is indeed a time of good weather and nice sunny days. However, don’t underestimate the beauty of nature awakening during spring time or the color in the trees during autumn.
Even winter is still a good time to go. It will be very cold so you need to dress warm, but you have a good chance to see bison. During winter they come out in the open fields to feed more often. I went in February and still really enjoyed my time in Bialowieza forest
What to bring
Sturdy shoes or hiking boots: Professional hiking boots are not necessary. However, if you plan to hike through the forest expect to walk long distances.
Mosquito repellent: Especially in summer there are a lot of mosquitoes and bugs in BIalowieza forest. Make sure you carry lots of mosquito repellent.
Food and snacks: There are no general stores or restaurants within the forest. Make sure you bring enough water, food and snacks with you if you go hiking for the day.
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