While perhaps not as popular as Prague or Budapest, Krakow, the former capital city of Poland, boasts several UNESCO World Heritage sites - plus culture, scenery and great food and drink too!
"No, not ‘crack whore’, Krakow!" I responded, chuckling, when asked a second time where my boyfriend and I were going. While perhaps not as well-known as the likes of Prague or Budapest, the former capital city of Poland proves a superb destination for a city break.
Where to stay
One of those adages mums seem to favour frequently rings true in Krakow: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’. Our first glimpse of the conveniently-situated Hotel Kossak (Plac Kossaka 1, 31-106) sent our spirits plummeting. "That can’t be it!" I exclaimed, taking in its dull, somewhat shabby exterior. "It’s supposed to be a four-star hotel that only opened in 2009!" The interior therefore came as a total shock – in a ‘wow, this is lovely!’ kind of way. The view from our window took in Wawel Castle and the Vistula (Wisla) River. And aside from traffic roaring past from early morning until late at night (take earplugs!), we couldn’t fault it.
The Old Town
A10-minute walk from Hotel Kossak, the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, boasts some fantastic architecture, both in and around the Rynek Glowny (Market Square).
The largest market square in Europe (A map of central Krakow can be found here: www.cracow-life.com/map/map.php), it’s bordered by countless restaurants, bars, cafés and shops. Considering the number of horses and carriages poised to whisk tourists around the town, it’s also surprisingly clean. Not once did we have to witness equine bowel habits, watch our step or tolerate the faintest whiff of anything dung-like!
The giant Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) occupies the middle of the square. It comes as no surprise to learn that this is where merchants used to meet, haggle and trade, particularly during its heyday five centuries ago. Events such as balls have also been held here, and in more recent times, visitors have included Prince Charles and Emperor Hirohito. Unfortunately we found the building mostly obscured behind scaffolding and vast sheets of plastic, so had to use our imagination!
A tourist information centre (located in Ul. Jana) and tour company offices such as those of Cracow City Tours (Ul. Florianska 44; www.cracowcitytours.pl/) are also situated just north of the main square, and are definitely worth visiting when planning your activities. We booked three trips through Cracow City Tours and received a modest discount for our loyalty.
Wawel Castle and cathedral
Just south of the Old Town, perched on Wawel Hill and overlooking the river, is the magnificent Royal Castle and Cathedral (31-001 Kraków, Wawel 5; www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/). The castle was originally built during the reign of Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370), and while nothing quite that old remains, Wawel’s substantial history results in an eclectic but fascinating mix of architecture. Along with Krakow’s dragon mythology, it makes Wawel a must-see destination.
Avoid visiting on a Monday, though, as the castle is closed. Sadly, our timing couldn’t have been worse as conservation work was also being carried out, meaning that the Royal State Rooms were shut for three weeks. And the legendary Dragon’s Den cave? Closed!
Such is the down-side of travelling out of peak season. On the other hand, it does provide an excuse to visit Krakow again!
Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter
Kazimierz (www.cracow-life.com/poland/krakow-kazimierz), named after King Kazimierz the Great, was once a prosperous area. Not surprisingly, the Nazi invasion of 1939 had a devastating effect, and only during the last decade or so has renovation taken place. Compared with the surrounding area, it does appear a little run down. That said, Kazimierz is in easy walking distance of the Old Town, and possesses both history and gritty character.
Guided tours are available, but we chose to explore on our own, a grim, rainy day providing a suitable atmosphere for viewing the 16th century cemetery, several synagogues and a ‘place of meditation’, complete with a plaque commemorating the 65,000 Jews from the Krakow area killed by the Nazis during the Second World War.
We stumbled across a couple of pleasant-looking restaurants and decided to return to Kazimierz for dinner. Later that night, however, we found the area mostly deserted and slightly unnerving. Feeling conspicuous and a little uncomfortable - and finding the restaurant we’d decided on closed - we swiftly headed back to the comparative bright lights of the Old Town.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Visiting a site - now a UNESCO World Heritage site - where 1.1 million people were killed is clearly not to everyone’s taste, but we felt it was a must. A trip run by Cracow City Tours cost 90 Zloty (around £21) each and included the hour-long coach journey each way plus a sensitive, knowledgeable guide.
Walking under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign feels significant in a way that’s hard to explain. Not surprisingly, books and documentaries on Auschwitz have nowhere near the impact of actually seeing the watchtowers, electrified fences and prison blocks; the colossal mound of human hair, shorn from the scalps of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; the remaining gas chamber and crematorium…
And if Auschwitz itself were not horrific enough, the vast, muddy Birkenau camp, with its rudimentary wooden barracks built to house 100,000 prisoners, is even more of an eye-opener.
Sombre and moving as it is, visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is nevertheless a valuable, fascinating experience that really drives home the enormity and horror of the Nazis’ Final Solution.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
A short drive from Krakow is the compelling UNESCO World Heritage-listed, 700-year-old Wieliczka Salt Mine (ul. Daniłowicza 10, 32 - 020 Wieliczka; www.cracow-life.com/poland/wieliczka-salt-mines). This was the second of our Cracow City Tour trips and cost 100 Zloty (approx £23) each.
The seemingly interminable (dizzying, if you take it too quickly) trek down countless flights of stairs is worth every step. The sculptures, carved from rock salt by miners themselves, are astonishingly good. The highlight, however is the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, 200 metres underground and again carved entirely from rock salt. Chandeliers, bas-reliefs and statues ensure that you’ll quickly eat into your camera’s memory card!
Breathe deeply while in the mine; our guide told us that the air has restorative properties and is known to help respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema!
Where to eat
Visiting Krakow during late winter, we often had bars and restaurants almost to ourselves during daylight hours.
Just as with our hotel, though, outer appearances usually proved deceptive. All of the eateries we visited not only boasted appealing décor but were cosy, welcoming and brimming with character in a way that few British restaurants seem to.
One thing’s certain: you won’t go hungry! Balaton Restaurant (ul. Grodzka 37; www.balaton.krakow.pl) particularly impressed us with its Hungarian cuisine. The potato cakes with venison goulash and salad I ordered for 36 Zloty (around £8-9) was delicious – and twice as much as I could eat! It was one of those “C’mon, have some of mine so it doesn’t look like I don’t like it!” moments. My boyfriend struggled to finish his beef in Gypsy sauce (29 Zloty) before bravely tackling my leftovers, and was equally impressed.
Alcohol is cheap and readily available. And it’s probably fair to say that many Poles love vodka. After all, it is their national drink (they seem to know how to handle it too, so don’t even think about challenging the locals to a drinking contest unless you’re prepared for the consequences!).
While not a fan of mainstream-brand vodka, I certainly took a shine to the Polish variety. Czysta de Luxe Zoladkowa Gorzka tasted as crystal-clear and pure as its name implied. And the flavoured stuff? Better still! Grapefruit, lemon, pepper…take your pick, drink it neat and savour the warm glow that ensues!
If you're thinking of visiting Krakow, it may be best to do so before it becomes as popular and swamped with tourists as its Eastern European rivals!