History, culture, folklore, architecture, great food and fun bars…What more could you want out of a city, right?
Well Krakow ticked all these boxes; and so much more. ..
1)The Old Town seems frozen in time…
My first impression….You know those Hollywod Christmas romances that invariably appear every December on Hallmark (n now on Netflix). Young American girl meets the handsome prince, of a European principality that no one’s heard of…
Well just imagine Krakow to be straight out of one of those movies…
With its medieval castle replete with tales of a resident dragon in fact, parts of Krakow are straight out of a fairy tale.
But, after 2 world wars and the accompanying horrors; and almost 4 decades of communist-era hardships, Krakow – Poland’s 2nd largest city and its former capital, has a very distinct other side to it.
Almost like an alter-ego. Its not a grittier under-belly that you see in several cities.
Krakow’s other face is a result of its past. A re-emergence almost… Its easy to get swept away in the city’s medieval charm; but the historic dark shadows are also something to be explored. In a way this adds to the character of the city….
The spirit of the ‘Krakowians’, is best reflected in a phrase you’ll hear from quite a few locals – “It could be worse”.
2) It is historic (extremely so in fact), but not in the least bit boring…An inter-active open air museum is how I’d describe it.
The city’s divided into 2 distinct zones on either side of the Vistula River; with the Old Town being the cultural and touristic hub.
In 1978, the entire Krakow Old Town (Stare Miasto) was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its heart is the main Market Square (Rynek Glowny)…In medieval times, the largest square in Europe.
Dominated by the Cloth Hall on one side and St Mary’s Basilica on the other.
Even though its packed with cafes and bars today (and even some high street fashion brands), the square seems almost frozen in time right down to the horse carriages traipsing all around.
This is also where the Christmas Market (counted amongst the Top 10 in Europe) is held every year.
The stalls are an interesting mix of local food, candy and some artisanal woollen wear (the last is fairly expensive though).
For a meat lover, its sheer cornucopia.
Having said that, there’s plenty for a vegetarian too…Definitely enough to enjoy at least one ‘al-fresco’ meal, as long as you can handle the cold; and are quick enough to finish eating before the meal freezes ?.
My suggestions…the 2 stalls with the grilled Polish cheese (with or without the ham on it) and the soup stall.
Oh..the French Fries are sinfully good (and worth the cheat ? ). Also the mushrooms at the place with the chicken skewers.
Don’t miss a photo-op with the ‘face’. No one knows for sure…but its supposed the be Eros – the God of Love. ..And his vacant stare symbolic of ‘love being blind’? .
St Mary’s Basilica with its red-brick face and the 2 towering and filigreed spires, has become an image that’s synonymous with Krakow’s Old Town.
Standing tall since the 12th century, the church has witnessed some of history’s most important events, including the Mongol invasion of Europe.
The church is simply stunning on the inside too…
Its bright blue ceilings, hand-painted motifs, stained glass windows and the ornate gilded altar are a must see.
Although smaller than the churches in Southern and Western Europe, with the gilding and the colors, its almost more inviting.
Look out for the trumpeter that appears every hour, on the hour from one of the turret windows. This was the city’s fire alarm in ancient times’, but legend says the trumpeter also once saved the city from an enemy invasion…
You can climb the 239 steps up to the tower’s windows for the view (supposedly gorgeous)…but if you intend to….look up the timings (coz its reduced hours in the winter); and make the reservations up ahead (as its only 10 people every half hour).
The Cloth Hall was a bustling enclosed market-place back in the day..Today it houses stalls selling souvenirs and woollens. Overpriced honestly (probably the only local market ever, where I have’nt picked up a single thing)
From the main market square, Florianska Street is a bustling ‘avenue’ (well its all of only 3 blocks), leading you to St Florian’s Gate (one of the city’s old entry points along the medieval walls – also the starting point for the free walking tours) .
Its crammed with quirky, but interesting souvenir stores, cafes and bars.
LL Tip...Oh the exchange rate gets much better as you go further from the main square. (Typical of most touristic sites, but something I’d forgotten, coz since the Euro’s been introduced, we hardly ever need to do the currency conversion in Europe any more…). Well although Poland’s a part of the EU and is also Schengen country, it still maintains its own currency – the Zloty (PLN).
And on a side note, bear in mind that the worst exchange rate you’ll get, is at Krakow airport; so better to keep your Uber / Bolt settings on credit card mode.
Across the Market Square leading towards the castle is Grodzka Street, the large avenue that leads you to to the castle. (Its really pretty; and packed wall to wall with bars, cafes, restaurants, boutiques…and the yummiest desert place – details below ? ). Do make a mental note to be back here, once you’re done with the sightseeing).
3)How many other places in the world can you see a ‘remnant’ of their legendary resident dragon???
Yup…Legend says that during the reign of King Krakus, a dragon had taken residence on the land.
But the legend is only one bit of the lure of Wawel Castle. Astride the river, the complex is best described as a medley.
While most of the Old Town has a distinct Gothic ‘feel’ to it; the castle also has Baroque, Rococco, Romanesque; and even Renaissance influences distinctly visible.
Originally built in the 11th century, substantial parts of it were plundered and vandalised by invading armies, ravaged by fire, razed (when it was inhabited by the Austro-Hungarian empire); and then rebuilt.
What you see today stands largely from the 16th century, with extensive restorations done in 1921 – post World War I.
In fact there’s an interesting story about how the restoration was achieved by ‘crowd funding’. Local citizens were asked to contribute and those that did were honoured with their names on plaques on the castle’s walls.
Also in the castle complex is the Wawel Cathedral. Under its gold topped chapels and green spires lie the tombs of Poland’s most prolific personalities (including the former monarchy).
That’s where you’ll see the dragon’s bone ☝…Suspended above the church entrance.
The sceptics will say its a whale bone..I choose to believe the legend ?.
4) Krakow is one of the few places in Europe that was mostly undamaged during World War II.
During the Nazi occupation in World War II, Krakow became one of the Third Reich’s most important administrative centres. And as their forces went about converting it into an entirely ‘German’ city, the Jewish population was moved out of its homes and businesses in Kazimiers; and confined into a few buildings (before the majority of them were eventually taken to Auschwitz).
At one edge of the Old Town is this neighbourhood – the ‘ghetto’ created by the German forces.
Not only did Krakow surprisingly escape most of that time’s bombings and air strikes… in 1945 it was ‘liberated’ by the Soviets; and stayed under their rule until the fall of communism in 1989. Mainly as a result of both these factors, the majority of the buildings can be seen exactly as they were during that horrific time.
Across the river – Kazimiers or the Jewish Quarter, which is today Krakow’s hip, edgy (and gritty) side; was until the 12th century an entirely separate city.
The Jews reached here in the 14th century, and they are the ones who then built it into a flourishing and thriving community of Krakow– both commercially and culturally; over the next 600 years.
It took less than 5 years for 90% of that 60,000 strong Jewish population to be wiped out during World War II. The emptied homes were looted and plundered as we all know. Completely taken over…
…Surprisingly though, the Old Jewish Cemetery (with the tombs of the community’s most important members and all of their Rabbi), was left untouched. I’m getting shivers even as I write about it now…for historians say it was left undamaged as Hitler intended it to be a monument… to an extinct community
Between the World War II events and the subsequent Soviet regime largely leaving this neighbourhood neglected…it was only in the early 90s (and thanks to the Spielberg movie ‘Schindler’s List’, that any rehabilitation of Kazimiers actually started).
The walking tour through the Jewish quarter is honestly the best way to get an insight into pre-war life, the Jewish culture; and although upsetting and heart-breaking – the Hitler inflicted atrocities.
Just as a heads up…the neighbourhood today, apart from the synagogues and the cemetery, doesn’t have any ‘monuments’ as such…Its not someplace to go for the ‘sights’. The area, or rather the tour, is purely from a cultural and historical perspective. Its more of a walk through on what there was and all that happened there…not so much what you see.
Ofcourse, today some of Krakow’s best (and most interesting) bars and restaurants are in Kazimiers…If you can manage the time, plan an evening of bar hopping and dinner in this part of town. (I’ve put in some suggestions at the end of this post).
I’m a huge fan of free walking tours (and I say it every chance I get ?). In Krakow I went with ‘Walkative’ and did both days’ guided tours (the classic old town and castle one, as well as the Jewish tour) through them. Great guides, nice and easy pace and just enough info for us to be both well informed; as well as entertained… (Book online in advance)
Auchwitz- Birkenau, the memorial to the holocaust, is 66kms away from Krakow. About an hour’s drive. We missed being able to visit as it was closed for Christmas all the 3 days that we were in Krakow; and that’s something I’ll always have strong mixed feelings about. On one hand, I knew when we planned the trip to Krakow that it’s too important a site to not visit. I also knew that going there would be gut-wrenching…Well – I guess it wasn’t meant to be for me.
5)Krakow has super options for eating out and some really cool bars
Firstly (also cause its such a personal thing for me), there’s plenty of great vegetarian options in most restaurants. Most – not all – so the sensible thing is always to first look at the menu online, or to catch a look at restaurant menus, whilst walking around.
The local Polish cuisine is really good; and has some interesting vegetarian recipes, so I’d definitely suggest trying these over at least 1-2 meals. Having said that, there’s just no dearth of other cuisines. Italian of course, as you’d find in most European cities. And there’s quite a large number of Asian eateries. Sushi, Indian, Pan Asian….of course there’s the omnipresent Falafel and Doner Kebab shops too…
Also, Eating out in Krakow is not expensive at all…Its about 20-30% less than what you’d pay in similar standard restaurants in Western Europe…Basically, great value for money.
I’ve recommended at the end of this post, some places that I really liked..
6) Krakow offers fabulous value for money…
Its not just the eating out that’s not expensive. Even accommodation and transport are less expensive as compared to Western Europe.
For a couple, or a solo traveller; a good (higher standard) Airbnb or Bed and Breakfast would be about 80Euros a night. A luxury hotel for about 150-200Euros a night (in peak season).
From the airport to the Old Town, a taxi (Uber / Bolt) would be a maximum of 12Euros. From the Old Town to the Jewish Quarter (the city’s 2 main touristic hubs) – about 4-6 Euros. On a side note in Krakow, the Bolt app seemed to be more efficient and also lesser expensive, as compared to Uber.
7) English is very widely spoken
Practically everywhere and by almost everyone (with some Uber / Bolt drivers being pretty much the only exceptions)..
Good to know…
How many days in Krakow… give yourself 2-3 full days (2 for the city itself and a third day for a visit to Auschwitz).
When to go…Its gorgeous in the winter…the cold, the slight hint of fog sometimes, the pre-snow blur…all of it just adds to the ‘fairy tale feel’ of the place. And then of course from end-November to end-January the Christmas lights are on and the festive mood starts. Add to that the Christmas Market (last week of November to the 1st week of January).
LL Tip...Avoid being there on the 24th and 25th of December..From the afternoon of Xmas Eve, almost everything starts shutting down…Literally everything…Shops, restaurants, cafes, supermarkets; even the Christmas market. By 6pm, its literally a ghost town until post lunch on Christmas day when part of the city starts coming to life.
Having said all of ☝, I’ve heard equally great things about Krakow from friends who’ve visited in the Spring (May and June) and Autumn, so I guess its really just one of those places where you can’t go wrong (except maybe in February when the temperatures drop to -23C at times).
Where to Stay…Almost as a boundary to pretty much half of the Old Town, is Planty Park. Standing over the original city wall fortifications, its 3 kms of gardens, fountains (shut in the winter of course) and some interesting sculptures. Its a pretty feature – the city’s ‘lungs’ as they call it..But the reason I’m mentioning it in the post is only to highlight that just in case you don’t manage to stay within the Old Town, having accommodation on the outskirts of Planty Park would be the next best thing.
That’s what we had..and I can’t stop raving about this Airbnb property itself. Great in every way that you can imagine, for a couple or solo traveller.
I’d looked up several highly rated options in the Jewish Quarter as well…but after having been to Krakow, I’d suggest opting for the Old Town, or as close to it as you can.
Where to wine and dine..
In the Old Town
Goralskie Praliny Just a few steps away from Main Square. You can’t miss it. Its a must do chocolate store and a tea house / coffee shop… I didn’t try the chocolates to be honest, but what we did go nuts on, are their desserts (especially the ice-cream cakes – twice in 3 days!!)
Bull Dog Bar just off the Main Square. Lively, great music (not overbearingly loud), good food and drinks (enough vegetarian options…limited wine list though). There’s a similar sounding Bull Pub nearby – that one’s not that great.
Boscaoila A few meters away from the Cloth Hall (on Szewska Street). Amongst the best Italian meals I have ever had. Yup – that good. They serve half portions and that’s great in being able to taste a variety of things.
Their Eggplant Involtini is a must try..
Khachapuri Georgian. Cozy, good food, good service. Limited vegetarian options, but those few are more than enough to make 1 great meal, out of.
Miod Malina Great local Polish food and some fabulous Pasta dishes too. Cozy traditional feel and they also have a really sweet outdoor enclosed (and heated) space. If you want to try the Polish ‘Pierogi’ (dumplings) or the ‘Borscht Soup’, this is where I’d recommend you do it.
In the Jewish Quarter / Kazimiers
Bar Alchemia Bohemian.. .and evocative of how life must have been in the 1920s and 30s. Antiques, sepia photographs, candle light… I loved the space and the mood n vibe. Good food too. Its a cafe during the day.
Starka Small, charming, unpretentious and totally deserving of its superb reviews. Traditional Polish cuisine.
The Spinach Tart is a mmuuust try. I could have had 1 more and happily made my entire meal out of just that.