Confession, while Krakow was on my list of places to visit from the moment I arrived in Europe, it took me ten years to get around to it. My maternal grandparents were from Krakow and lived there until they moved to Australia in 1950. My grandfather was part of the Polish underground who worked against the Nazis during WWII and then against the Russian occupation, and my grandmother wrote a novel based on their experiences (which I painstakingly translated in order to read – I don’t speak Polish, it was hard!). I literally have no idea what took me so long to get around to going!!
If you are a bit more proactive and planning a trip to Krakow, read on for my tips on where to stay, what to eat, and what to see, including an essential but harrowing trip to Auschwitz.
I have to admit that I spent quite a bit of time researching hotels in Krakow and it was quite challenging to find something that was both good and affordable. I knew that I wanted to stay in Old Town, as I didn’t have long in the city and I wanted to be at the heart of everything.
I ended up booking a room in the Venetian House Market Square Aparthotel which was right on the main Market Square. I managed to get a very good rate as there was a lot of construction work happening in the building while I was there. But this was no problem, as I was planning to spend my days on the streets. It felt super safe, the staff were very friendly and the location could not be beaten.
Recommended Hotel: Venetian House Market Square Aparthotel
I also ventured into the Cracow Hostel several times during my trip to meet up with friends I met out and about. Just a few steps from my own place off the Market Square in Old Town, it had a great vibe. The communal spaces were vibrant, the staff friendly, and it was a great place to spend an evening. When (not if) I go back to Krakow, I’ll definitely be booking myself in there.
Recommended Hostel: Cracow Hostel, Old Town
One of my main goals when in Krakow was to eat as much good food as possible! Food I haven’t been able to indulge in now that my mother lives so far away! (She is in Australia while I am in Brazil.)
On the menu, Pierogi (lots and lots of pierogi), Polish sausage, Golabki (cabbage rolls stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce), Placki (potato pancakes), and more pierogi. As well as seeking out restaurants, I also made my way to a local street food area in Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) to try what was on offer! This was less traditional cuisine, but I had an amazing hamburger, and some of the best tasting chips ever.
There was also a surprising amount of ice-cream available in the city, with ice-cream parlours on every corner, with long queues and open late into the night. Not complaining!!
One restaurant I would definitely recommend is Ed Red, a steak restaruant where I ate an amazing meal after a long day on my feet. This was probably the most expensive meal I had, but finding a proper dinner at 4pm can be challenging. To indulge in more traditional cuisine I went to Chłopskie Jadło, where I got a plate of everything!
I didn’t have a list of sites I wanted to see, I mostly just wanted to soak in the culture in general. One exception was the university, as my grandparents went there and it featured almost as a character in my grandmother’s book (oh, and Copernicus studied there too…). I went to the Collegium Maius (part of the Jagiellonian University) on a Saturday morning. The building was originally built in the 14th Century, and in the 1960s was restored to how it looked in the 1840s. I joined a crowd for a special chiming of the clock, which happens at 11am, 1pm and 3pm. It was probably the largest and most elaborate cockoo clock that I have ever seen, but to be honest, I didn’t really get the excitement.
Krakow was much more like the Western European cities of France and Germany than I had expected with a big cafe culture. Perhaps this was because most of my knowledge of the city was based on a book written about 1940s communist Krakow… it does seem logical that things will have changed a bit. The people I spoke to did say that this was a relatively new thing in the city, partially linked with major renovation work on the Market Square.
Archaeologists excavated under the square in the 2000s, revealing a lot about the history of the city. The new square was built over the top of the excavations, but the archaeological site was preserved underground and converted into a museums which opened in 2010. I had a look around the museum – the Rynek Underground – and it was definitely interesting. However, the ex-museum worker in me was underwhelmed. It probably didn’t have enough interpretation (in Polish or English) to really get me engaged. After looking around at the spectacle of what they had achieved, I then found the content fell a bit flat. Also, I was a bit put off as it was very busy and it was necessary to buy timed tickets well in advance. This turned out to be true of most of the major tourist sites in Krakow.
I found the same thing when I went walked up to Wawel Hill, which is home to the Royal Castle and Wawel Cathedral among other things. While there, I only managed to actually go inside the Crown Treasure and Armoury because of the restrictions with timed tickets. It was cool though, the had lots of winged armour – angelic!
The hill itself is nice to walk around as well as it is home to a range of different historic buildings showing the different architectural trends that have dominated in Krakow over the centuries.
The most enjoyable museum visit I made during my trip was to the Museum of Pharmacy, which seemed a bit obscure, but I love history of science museums. As well as being fascinated by the sometimes delightfully macabre instruments on display, I was also relatively impressed with how they managed their interpretation. It was so simple, at the entrance to each room they had a wall mounted rack with laminated copies of the interpretation in various languages. So simple, but so effective. I spent a lot of my time working in museums looking at how to deliver content to people via their mobile device. But, as a tourist who had just popped in, this was exactly what I needed. So just a reminder for me that sometimes simple is best.
One thing I knew that I was going to do on my trip was book on a day trip to Auschwitz – not trying to be a ‘dark tourist’ or anything, but it seemed like something that I had to see. I went on an organised trip that I booked through Viator and would highly recommend. On the bus on the way there we watched a video based on footage taken by one of the Russians who was part of the team that liberated the camp. It was a good way to pass the time and get a refresher on the historic background needed to explore the site.
When we arrived we had about a 2-3 hour tour around Auschwitz and Berkinau, a similar camp in the area. I don’t think that there is a better way to describe it than harrowing. Seeing the conditions in which people lived, crammed into overpacked dorms, and the gas chambers themselves where people were sent to die.
My brother had previously been to the camp and he told me that for him the most disturbing thing was the hair. In one area of the camp they collected piles of things that they confiscated from the prisoners which they intended to sell. Alongside shoes, glasses and combs was tonnes of hair. They shaved the heads of inmates when they arrived, which they would sell on to be made into fabrics. This was disturbing, but for me the thing that stuck in my mind most was a hallway lined with pictures of inmates, staring back at you.
When they first opened the camp, the first people sent there were Polish dissidents rather than Jews, and they took pictures of the prisoners when they arrived. They stopped doing this once they started to send Jews to the camp as there were too many arrivals, and clearly they deemed it wasn’t worth it. I found it startling how looking at the faces captured in the pictures made me feel. In general, with all the stories that were relayed to us throughout the tour, the most disturbing thing was how those running the camp clearly saw those sent there as less than human, choosing who lived or died based on what use they could be, like cattle. It is hard to imagine seeing other human beings in that way – or at least I hope it is.
Discussion on the bus on the way back was all on how it is our responsibility to stand witness to the past and ensure that nothing similar ever happens in the future. It was very clear just how much everyone had been moved by the experience.
I have to admit to not being much of a party animal, or particularly into the nightclub scene. I prefer to spend my evenings in nice restaurants and good basrs with quality conversation. As such, my night time activities were mostly limited to drinks in the bars around Old Town, and I also spent a night in Kazimierz, which felt much more low-key and local.
The best place I found was actually a karaoke bar, which I have to admit going to more than once (though never singing). The stage was dominated by half a dozen men, who clearly took their karaoke very seriously. They sung often, and were amazing! There was one guy who was sitting quietly in the corner, and then the first time he got up to sing he belted out an amazing operatic number, and then sat down quietly in his corner again. It was clear this group of men knew each other and went around to wherever karaoke was on regularly. I enjoyed just sitting back, having a drink and sing-a-long.
Krakow is not that big a city, so I mostly chose to get around on foot, since that way I knew that I wouldn’t be missing anything. There is also a pretty extensive tramand bus service around the city, which I got a few times when I was too tired to walk back. Tickets cost about the equivalent of one euro per ride, and it was easy to figure out which I needed to jump on using google maps.
I was also tempted to try one of the horse and buggies I saw in the street, but only tempted.
So, breaking news, they speak Polish in Poland. The problem for me, I don’t speak Polish, not even a little. This didn’t turn out to be a problem as lots of people speak English in Poland, and basic English seems a requirements for working in any kind of tourist role, or any of the bars and restaurants in the centre of the city.
Nevertheless, when I do travel I like to learn at least the basics of the local language. Though I have to admit that I didn’t do it in this occasion as I was busy learning Portuguese, and Polish just proved too much to get my head and my mouth around at the time.
When I did need a little bit of extra help, then I was able to just look things up on my phone, as it didn’t cost me any extra to use my UK Vodafone credit in Krakow.
Krakow felt very safe when I was there, even when I was walking on the streets at night. To be fair, I kept to the mains streets around Old Town most evenings, which were always with tourists, making it one of the safest areas in the city. I am told that there is a moderate risk of pickpockets and scams in Krakow as well, but I didn’t encounter anything like this. There was no one trying to sell me entrance to sites on the streets. I had to go to the official ticket office (though there, I did sometimes feel like I was being robbed).