How to visit the Białowieża Forest in Poland
This post is about the Białowieża Forest in Poland. There was a time that most of Europe was covered by primeval forests. Now, most of these forests have disappeared or are replanted and managed by humans. One of the last stretches of old growth forest is the Białowieża forest.
The Białowieża forest stretches over large areas of both Poland and Belarus. While most of it is in Belarus, it is easier to visit the Białowieża forest from Poland. But even in Poland, the Białowieża Forest is a long journey into the remote and sparsely populated Podlasie province.
Why visit Białowieża Forest?
Białowieża forest is one of the best nature getaways in Poland. The Bialowieza Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site, because it is unique in Europe. Not only is it one of the last remaining primeval forests in the continent, it is also home to the largest herd of wild European bison in the world.
Bisons used to live all over Europe, but due to hunting and agriculture they slowly disappeared. Białowieża itself was a hunting ground for the Polish and Russian nobility for centuries. Nevertheless, bison found their last refuge in Białowieża forest. As a result, it offers you the best chance of seeing wild bison in Europe.
But there is more. Białowieża forest has an incredibly rich biodiversity. It is subject to strict conservation measures to preserve its pristine state. With a bit of luck you might also spot wolves, foxes, lynx, pine martens, wild boar and deers. It is also a great place for birdwatching and hiking.
There are plenty of trails to follow throughout the Białowieża forest. The landscape comprises diverse ecosystems, including old-growth forests, wetlands, and meadows, creating a complex and interconnected habitat. These ecosystems support a wide variety of flora and fauna including a variety of bird species.
Should you visit Białowieża forest now?
The long journey to Białowieża forest is thus well worth the effort. It 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 Białowieża 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 Białowieża forest. In fact, Białowieża town was still a military zone off limits to foreigners. The conflict in Ukraine has only made the situation at the border more precarious creating new security concerns.
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 Białowieża 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 forest 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 Białowieża Forest?
So how to visit Białowieża forest? Another reason why I was a bit hesitant about visiting Białowieża forest was that Białowieża 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 Białowieża forest. There are a number of sights that are easier to get to if you have your own transport.
The countryside around Białowieża 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 Białowieża forest.
That said, it is very well possible to enjoy the natural beauty of Białowieża 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 not to book any tour, there are lots of hiking trails in the vicinity of both Hajnowka and Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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 and other wildlife.
Most of the guides in Białowieża are experienced naturalists who can help spot and interpret the animals’ behavior and movements in the forest.
Białowieża Strict Primeval Reserve
The most popular tours are of course the hiking tours in the actual strict primeval forest reserve. They are also the most expensive. You will have to pay for the guide, transport and the entrance fee to the strict reserve (11PLN). There are a number of tour agencies that can organize the permits and tours.
You could contact the following agencies. I have no experience with them so I can not recommend one over the other. Wild Poland, PTTK Bialowieza, Arek Szymura, Wild Forest, Bialowieza Primeval Forest and Dzikie Podlasie. Your hotel can also bring you in contact with nature guides.
Outer fringes of the Białowieża forest
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. 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.
It is much cheaper to visit the outer fringes and you do not need to arrange a permit. Although a guide will definetly enhance your experience, you can explore some of the hiking trails on your own for free.
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 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 Białowieża Forest?
Białowieża 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. In 2021 Białowieża 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 the area.
When Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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 Białowieża.
Although most guides and tour companies are based in Białowieża it is not difficult to arrange tours or guides from Hajnowka either. There are also less accomodation options than Białowieża, but there are still enough facilities to choose from that are often happy to help you plan your trip to Białowieża 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.
The best things to do in Białowieża Forest
Exploring the primeval Białowieża forest
Most people come to Białowieża 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 Białowieża forest
Białowieża Forest Strict Reserve
The strict reserve is the oldest part of Białowieża forest that is still untouched by logging or planting trees. To enter the strict reserve a guide and permit are mandatory. There are a number of tour agencies that can organize the permits and tours. Your hotel can also help you find a tour guide
Białowieża Forest hiking trails
Then there are the trails around Białowieża 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 Białowieża village or Hajnowka.
Zeby Zubra trail
The Zeby Zubra trail is one of the most popular trails. It is close to Białowieża 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 Białowieża
If you prefer longer, more quiet trails into the forest I suggest the following day hikes that start from Białowieża. The red places of the National remembrance trail (14 km) is a loop that starts and ends in Białowieża.
There are also the blue Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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 Białowieża forest. Although Białowieża 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 Białowieża. 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 go 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 Białowieża Forest Nature Reserve you can visit the Nature and Forest museum in Białowieża. When we were there it was unfortunately not open due to the situation.
The Białowieża forest is not just about nature. The Podlasie province also has a lot of culture. The villages around the forest are charming and picturesque. Being so close to the forest, many houses were traditionally built from wood. Driving around you will still see many traditional wooden homes that are beautifully decorated. Even some of the orthodox churches are still made from wood.
I came to Białowieża forest to see animals and nature, but actually enjoyed the countryside and the villages just as much. A good area to see wooden architecture is the land of open shutters around the villages of Soce, Trzescianka and Puchly.
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 Białowieża.
Try the local cuisine
Białowieża 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.
Białowieża forest practicalities
Where to eat
Białowieża: unfortunately we couldn’t try any of the restaurants in Białowieża, 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
Białowieża 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.
Spring (April to June) is a great time to visit for bird watching as many species of birds migrate through the forest during this time.
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. I went in February and still really enjoyed my time in Białowieża 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 Białowieża 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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