Krakow is one of those places we have been meaning to go to for a while now and wow, when we finally did we fell in love! Krakow seems to offer so much for so less, it has bohemian charm, culture, exquisite architecture, edginess and of course a fascinating, tormented and brave history. The mysteriously beautiful city founded upon the slaying of a dragon…KRAKOW!
Poland has held a fascination with me for a while now, much of that fuelled by my interesting in History and the war, my Jewish ancestry which draws me to want to visit Auschwitz as well as my Art teacher in 6th Form, Kas (Real name -unpronounceable!), whose parents were from this wonderful country and who would often talk about the beauty and culture of the place as well as posting some tantalising photos on facebook!
Since Poland joined the EU back in 2004 the UK has seen a rise in Polish immigrants coming over, instead of being all UKIP about this I enjoy the chance to learn about other cultures and share our world with one another. I have been fortunate enough to be able to speak to a few Poles who have moved to my hometown and love hearing both about their impressions of where I am from and tales from their homeland too which only added to my curiosity.
Well after a few years of good intentions and always ending up somewhere else I finally got my act together and booked the damn plane tickets! And I am so glad I did, what a place Krakow turned out to be!
Reflections on experience and Impressions of Poland:
Eastern Europe we have found to be edgy, honest and beautiful when many would shy away over an irrational historical fear of the unknown lands to the east. Saying that we were not sure if we would be greeted by the surprising friendliness of the Hungarians or the somewhat predictable coldness of the Russians! But what we found was a welcoming and hospitable city with a humorous amount of grumpiness thrown in!
The first evening we ventured out late for some food and were directed towards “Plac Nowy” around the corner in our area of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. This area has a life of it’s own and we soon found ourselves quickly comfortable in our new surroundings, noticing how much the architecture of the area reminded us of Budapest but a lot more “distressed!”
However unpredictable Eastern Europe can be it is one of the reasons we have fallen in love with it and, along with it’s ridiculously cheap cost of living, have kept going back over the last few years. We love it’s honesty and authenticity, it lacks the awful arrogance of the west but yet still has a confidence about it which is expressed through it’s history, architecture and people.
So, Krakow, the cultural capital of Poland, the jewel in the crown of the old empire, the city which seems to offer something for every type of visitor… Here you will find backpackers, stag parties, Trendy city trippers, romantic breakers and older cultural strollers, all no doubt taking advantage of how far their money goes in this part of the world and the rich experiential rewards they get in return (or hangovers!)
Sitting on the meandering Wisla (Vistula) Krakow has a wealth of outstanding architecture, particularly within it’s UNESCO listed “Old Town” in which every street is a masterpiece of design. As you stroll through the Rynek you wonder of the history these buildings must have bore witness to, remarkably spared the destruction of the Nazi’s and soviets which left others in ruin. Many of these landmarks are the ancient original constructions, their resistance reflective of the Polish spirit as evidenced through the resurgence of this magnificent city from the oppressed and down trodden to one of the most popular European city destinations.
Now thriving and given a new lease of life after the fall of communism in 1989 it is an eye catching mix of medieval castles, Gothic churches as well as the labyrinth like peeling facades of bohemian Kazimierz and the the remnants of the Jewish Ghetto of Podgorze lying over the river and where so many waited before being taken to Auschwitz.
We were instantly enchanted by the charm and character of Krakow along with it’s hard and stubborn edge. There is no doubting you are in Eastern Europe here unlike the more western feel of Budapest, the thick Slavic tones of the locals ring out, many of whom speak good English but often the older krakowian’s are unwilling to assist! There is a passive intensity to Krakow which is reflected in the passion shown here for religion too.
Often the churches now firmly placed on the tourist map are very much in use and must be visited in between Mass. Many times whilst visiting these beautifully decorative temples there would be confession being taken as we wandered past the queuing faithful. Around Planty Park and to the south of Old Town, monks, vicars and nuns are a regular sight strolling majestically in their long robes through the golden leaves and low evening sun of autumn in a beautifully poetic scene.
The sound of the Hejnal Mariacki being played upon the hour from majestic St Mary’s basilica becomes a familiar call. The Krakow Anthem adding to the air of traditionalism over this area as the flocks of pigeons fill the air with every passing group of visitors. Amount the overwhelming history of this city however there is a lightness to it’s atmosphere, it lack that darkness which Prague seemed to have (although I did love that), it has a youthful energy which is infectious!
The former capital still has the air and appearance of the crown of Poland, it’s centre old, authentic and alive! Captivating Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings enjoyed by centuries of Krakowians and mesmerised visitors alike. Wawel castle where the king’s of this land were crowned for more than 500 years sitting a top the cave of the dragon which King Krakus slayed and founded the city of Krakow! Whether you believe the legend or not, Krakow has a truly mythical and magical atmosphere which you can’t help but fall in love with!
Quirks/ Discoveries/ happenings:
When you stay in areas outside of the main tourist centre it can be a rewarding experience, you get to see these other districts in more depth than a fleeting visit from the centre, you walk the streets every day taking other routes and making new discoveries.
However it can also lead to strange and sometimes bewildering first encounters with a new city, this happened to us in Tokyo and overall enriched our experience of the city by providing us with another perspective me may have missed by confused the hell out of us when we arrived in the working class warren-like Ueno – not what we expected at all!
Kazimierz is the same in many respects, the famous soaring medieval churches of Krakow where nowhere to be found, the immaculate cobbled streets and pastel coloured facades of the detailed buildings were nowhere to be seen. Instead the crumbling splendor of the dusty maze of streets, many unaltered since the darkest days of this region. At first being dropped off by the taxi driver down a dark alley in this initially “dodgy” looking area with only the word “out” being uttered didn’t fill us with confidence!
In all honesty though I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else than Kazimierz upon our inevitable return. We were but 10 minutes walk from the Rynek and throngs of tourists, but yet here we could still see more of the everyday life of the people, the houses and shops, the streets were full of reality and not just visitors.
Another thing we discovered in Kazimierz was the amazing “Zapiekanka”…this is now our new obsession! Advised to seek out “Plac Nowy” for a late night snack we came across the proclaimed best place to get zapiekankas in Poland no less! This halved baguette is covered in cheese and mushrooms traditionally with a choice of numerous other toppings and sauces, our favourite being crispy onions, feta and barbeque! I can’t even put into words how delicious these are! I mean like, one of the all time top things I have ever eaten and so simple! They are really cheap too, our combination costing 5.50zl, which is only £1.04 ($1.63), and for that you are guaranteed to be full too!
I love paprika crisps… so basically Poland is heaven on that front! And the toilet paper seemed strangely stretchy and elastic, maybe it was just our hostel! Our taxi driver, who resembled Phil Michell (for those unfamiliar with the comedic ‘ard man: Angry Phil!) got out of the car in the middle of the motorway to threaten some workers with a chorus of “kurwas” which was a bit of a wft moment!
The currency is Zloty which is usually widely available from all counties. The exchange rate is favourable and the general cost in Poland is cheap so your money will go much further than back home. Alcohol and food are ridiculously cheap even in the very centre a three course meal for two on average will cost around £15 at a nice restaurant.
There are also lots of even cheaper places to each like small cafes and the famous milk bars, a throwback to communisim era Poland where you can eat simple and filling food for just a few coins. Then of course there are the street vendors selling the Krakow Begel, a must try at only 1.50zl and don’t for get your late night Zapiekanka’s either.
Two other must try meals include pierogi, described as dumplings they are more like ravioli filled will all variety of traditional flavours, cooked in butter and covered in onions, we loved the potato and cheese variety. Then you have the Polish pancake, a bit like the good old Staffordshire Oatcake I survived my student days on, available savoury or sweet they are a delicious snack or dessert!
Krakow has a great tram network which covers the majority of the city well and runs 22 regular and 3 night lines. Unlike many other cities we have visited we rarely used the trams in Krakow as the city is quite compact and it is easy to walk around. We did however use it when travelling a little further a field and loved the combination of older and newer model trams.
Tickets are cheap and we bought them when we needed to rather than buying passes. You can purchase tickets from machines at the larger stops and also from smaller ones on the tram itself. The map covers zone 1 and 2 but almost all of the city is in zone 1, you must select tickets for the length of your journey, most we took were covered in the 20min ticket at 2.80zl for a single, a return will cost you 7.20zl but cover you for further. Once on the train you must stamp in as soon as you can using the orange machines as quite often plain clothed inspectors will board the tram to check tickets.
More info and maps here: www.mpk.krakow.pl
Things to do:
Address: Wawel 3, 31-001, Metro: Wawel (18,6), Price: 12 zl
Opening times: 9:00am – 4:00 Mon to Sat, 12:30 to 4:00 Sun
The whole Wawel region is unbelievable beautiful, the cathedral being one of the focal points along with the castle. The cathedral itself is over 900 years old and from the outside looks like a melting pot of chapels and extensions all harmoniously coming together to create this unique and exquisite church.
It is truly one of the must see attractions of the city and much like many other eastern European churches the inside is filled with immense detail and passion. It is like a warren inside with so much to see, from the various crypts, chapels and towers with amazing views and the Royal Sigismund Bell, one of Poland’s national symbols.
Wawel Royal Castle
Address: Wawel 3, 31-001, Metro: Wawel (18,6), Price: 15 zl, free on Sundays
Opening times: Closed on Mondays and 11th November, Open 10:00 – 4:00
The castle and castle hill are one of the most culturally and historically important in Poland having, for centenaries, been the residence of the king of Poland. The area now a collection of different museums, galleries, state rooms, armories and treasuries, there is a lot to see around here! The whole area is lovely to wander and explore, the grounds and ivy covered towers a nice place to relax after much walking!
St. Mary’s basilica
Address: Plac Mariacki – Centre of old town/ Rynek, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7), Price: 10 zl + 5 for Photography pass. Opening times: 11:30- 18:00 Mon to Fri, 11:30 to 14:00 Sun
Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, or St Mary’s is one of the centre pieces of the city and one of Poland’s most iconic buildings which can be seen from many of the city’s vantage points. It was re-built to it’s current gothic brick construction in the 14th century and it’s highest tower plays host to the hourly Hejnał mariacki, the iconic trumpet song of Krakow.
It is one of the most popular tourist attractions of the city, the interior is absolutely stunning, the colours and detail almost too much to take in! Even the popularity of this church to visitors doesn’t stop it’s use for religious purposes either, we saw many lining up to take confession as the tourists passed by.
Address: Planty Krakow (all around inside of city walls), Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6) Sw. Gertrudy (18,6Poczta Glowna (7), Price: Free
Running around the perimeter of Old town in the footprint of the old medieval city walls stood until the early 19th century it is a wonderful place to relax during your Krakow explorations. It is scenic and quiet retreat from the bustling main square and contains numerous fountains and monuments. We often saw monks and nuns crossing its walkways towards to south of the park and in the autumn when we visited was a lovely golden colour.
Franciscan Church (Kosciol Franciszkanow)
Address: plac Wszystkich Świętych 5, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6) Sw. Gertrudy (18,6Poczta Glowna (7), Price: FREE, Opening times: 10:00 – 4:00 except Sundays
One of the most impressive of the many churches to see in Krakow but also we found it to be the quietest and felt a little out of place, creeping around the dark interior with our cameras whilst many prayed in silence! It is also a place you a certain to spot a monk or too! The interior again and absolute masterpiece with the stained glass being one of the centre pieces.
St. Florian’s Gate and Ulica Florianska
Address: Floriańska, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7), Price: FREE
Opening times: 9:00 – 6:00 closed Sunday
The gate is one of the only remaining sections of the now demolished fortifications and defence structures of the city. It is one of the main attractions of old town and serves as an entrance on to the beautiful Ulica Florianska, a main street along the royal way through to the rynek. Built in the 14th century to defend against the attacking turks it is now a lively centre for amateur art and entertainment.
Cloth Hall (Sukienice)
Centre of the Rynek Old town, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6) Sw. Gertrudy (18,6) Poczta Glowna (7), Opening times: 10:00 – 19:00
Sitting in the centre of the market square of old town this renaissance construction is hard to miss! Unsurprisingly, given it’s name, it was once the centre of international trade in Krakow and is still used my market stall holders to this day. Above the main hall is located the Sukiennice Museum which holds the largest collection of Polish paintings and sculptures.
Church of St Peter and St Paul
Old town, bottom end, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6) Sw. Gertrudy (18,6) Poczta Glowna (7), Price: FREE, Opening times: 11:00 – 15:00, Sunday 13:30 – 17:30. Closed Mondays
This church is actually one of my favourites in the city, it was one of the first baroque buildings to be built in Poland between 1597–1619, the exterior consisting of many sculptures and the interior being slightly more subtle but just as impressive than some of the others.
Very Bottom of Old town, through Floridian’s gate, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6), Closed inside during winter
Built in 1498 this is one of three remaining remaining Gothic fortifications in Europe and was once joined to Floridian’s gate as part of the city defenses and entrance into old town. It is widely considered a masterpiece of medieval military engineering due to it’s circular form and seven turrets. It was fortunately closed when we visited but I am reliably informed it looks much better from the outside anyway!
Address: Just across the street from Barbican, just outside old town and through Floridan’s gate.
Literally across the street from the Barbican this monument celebrates the battle of Grunwald which is considered to be one of the greatest battles of medieval Europe and a defining moment in Polish history. The original statue was destroyed and melted down by the Nazis the original head on display in Schindler’s factory, and was faithfully restored in 1976. The worn brass showing the tradition of shaking the statues hand of which we also obliged!
Town Hall tower
Address: Main market square, Old town, Metro: Dworzec Glowny (2,7) Teatr Bagatela (2) Filharmonica (18,2,6) Sw. Gertrudy (18,6) Poczta Glowna (7)
The town hall tower is the massive gothic focal point of the main square of old town standing 70 metres tall. It is the last remaining section of the old town hall which was demolished in 1820. Built at the end of the 13th century it leans 55 centimeters due to storms in 1703. You can climb the narrow 100 steps to the top to be greeted with an amazing panoramic view of the city!
Kazimierz (Jewish District)
The old Jewish district has much too see and explore and offers a totally different atmosphere than old town. It is much more bohemian and authentic feeling with it’s also saturated history. The streets dustier and often covered in graffiti it has a much more youthful energy and has a maze like layout of alternative and edgy sights and sounds.
From huge historical buildings to antique shops and obscure courtyards this now resurgent Jewish epicenter has an air of pre-war Krakow which is great to explore. Not just content with it’s history Kazimierz in the heart of the alternative party with the city’s artistic community calling it home, areas such as plac nowy surrounded by bars and cafes much removed from the stag party haunts of old town.
Old Synagogue (Stara Synagoga)
Address: Szeroka 24 (Kazimierz), Price: 9 zl, free on Monday.
Opening times: 9:00 – 4:00, 10:00-2:00 Mondays
One of the most important sites in Kazimierz is the old Synagogue which is one of the oldest surviving in Poland and displays exhibitions and artefacts telling the story of the Polish Jews. It is a fascinating piece of architecture which more resembles a military construction and dates back to 1570 in it’s current form.
Podgorze Jewish ghetto
Features: Heroes of Ghetto square, ghetto walls, Metro: 9, 11, 13, 24, 34
The area of Podgorze lies across the river to the south and is where the Jewish population of the city where marched from Kazimierz and crammed into the Ghetto. A large number of those where murdered here, at the nearby Płaszów concentration camp or at Auschwitz. Much of Schindler’s list, although filmed in Kazimierz, is based on events which took place in Podgorze.
The chairs of ghetto square are a memorial to those events and their victims, a stretch of the original ghetto wall is also still in existence after most of it was destroyed. Podgorze also feel much more suburban and open than much of the rest of the city and includes beautiful rolling hills and parks.
Address: above ul. Maryewskiego, Metro: 9, 11, 13, 24, 34,
Krakus mound can be found in Podgorze and is the oldest construction in Krakow being prehistoric in origins. It is a little off the beaten track but well worth a walk up here for amazing views (although it was foggy when we visited) of the city and also down in the Liban quarry where much of Schindler’s list was filmed. This was the sight of pagan ritual for centuries and this whole area has a very different atmosphere to it that the rest of Krakow.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
Address: 4 Lipowa Street, (Podgorze), Metro: Pl. Bohaterow Getta (7), Limanowskiego (6) (a little walk from each) Price: 19 zl, Opening times: Monday (First Mon of each month closed)- 10:00 – 2:00, Tues to Sunday 10:00 – 6:00
Another must see for Krakow but this time well out of the main tourist trail of old town. Schindler’s factory is both the original factory and also the filming location from the film, now turned into a museum which documents in detail the various occupations of Krakow. It it such a fascinating place which really does teach you a lot about the war and Poland leaves you at times lost for words.
Other things to look at:
Other trips/ outside the city:
Of course whilst visiting Krakow there are also some must do things outside of the city. These include:
Visiting Auschwitz is one of those pilgrimages I have wanted to make for a long time albeit with the knowledge it would be a deeply emotional and upsetting experience. I have to say it was one of the most moving experiences of our lives and left us with a determination to make our world a better place, to be more tolerable and to appreciate the freedom we have.
Read more on my dedicated post here:
Wieliczka Salt Mines:
The salt mines are one of the most popular and breath taking sights in the region, located just outside of the city a trip to Krakow is not complete without visiting this magnificent testament to the work ethic and artistry of the salt miners, a truly unbelievable masterpiece.
Read more on my dedicated post here:
As massive football fans we could not pass up the chance to see the infamous crowds of Wisla Krakow as they were playing during our visit. They did not disappoint and the atmosphere was like non other we have experienced and a great insight into the lives of the locals.
Read more on my dedicated post here:
Krakow is also quite close to other places which can be explored. Many choose to go down to the mountainous region of “Zakopane” which is reportedly quite beautiful.
However we choose to go against convention and take a trip most don’t. We jumped on a coach and hopped over the border and into The Ukraine for a day in the unbelievably beautiful Lviv. This is something for the more adventurous traveller or someone travelling through Europe. The day as well as the journey was an experience to remember, you can read about them here:
Well, here is too another amazing trip in what is fast becoming one of my most loved regions: Eastern Europe! Poland was surprising and left quite the impression on us and quickly made it to one of the best places we have visited. Combined with our explorations into the Ukraine, the crazy Wisla football game and the deep reflections of Auschwitz it was one of the most varied, interesting and experiential trips we have been on. If you get chance, make sure to pay Krakow a visit before it gets even more popular, you will be sure to fall in love!