* Prices may differ from that shown
We had our main holidays booked for the year and wanted somewhere to go for a short weekend break in the winter. The only requirement was cheap and from a local airport! I searched various places and Krakow came out on top!
We had been to Prague the previous year and really enjoyed the different architecture associated with eastern Europe, we felt we had been somewhere different than where we had been before.
We researched things to do in Krakow and decided that it was easily do-able in a 3 night trip and we could take in a visit to Auschwitz and maybe the salt mines whilst we were there.
So we went ahead and booked it! 3 nights flying from East Midlands airport with Ryanair (see separate review), staying in a 3 star hotel (Hotel Matejko - see separate review) , a night in a Travelodge before hand (see separate review) and car parking worked out at less than £250 for the 2 of us! That certainly ticked the cheap requirement!!
We did our research and were prepared for the extreme cold (we travelled at the end of jan/beginning of feb) - thermal underwear and layers a definite must! Whilst we were there it was about -8 to-10, but the week before it had been about -20. Don't under-estimate how cold this will feel! A hat is a definite must, there is a biting chill in the air and it can give you a headache!
We arrived mid afternoon on a Saturday and took the train to the city - this was easy - just a 5min walk or a 2min bus ride from the airport and it takes you into the city centre, it cost 8PLN each and took about 15mins. We checked in and freshened up and went for a walk round the old town. We walked passed the Barbican and through the Florian gate - both excellent examples of the towns historic past and here some ofthe old city walls aer still standing. We walked round the main square and to the University and had a wander down some of the narrow side streets looking in lots of little quaint shops. We were surprised at just how much of the old town area we covered in a short space of time
That evening we went to Sioux restaurant on the main square and had a lovely meal, we had been up early and returned to the hotel.
Our second day (sun) we spent in Auschwitz (see review). A very thought provoking place and only about an hour and half from Auschwitz on a public bus. We returned to Krakow about 5pm and again had a little wander (our hotel was only 2mins from the old town). We went to Roosters for tea and returned to the hotel to plan the next day!
On Monday we walked up to Wawal Cathedral and castle and had a look round, we decided not to pay to go in and continued walking until we found the famous Krakow dragon! He breathes fire every 10 mins! The river was partly frozen over and this was a fantastic sight to see, just a small channel in the middle remained flowing!
We then walked on to the Jewish District, I had read about a busy market square with stalls....however this was all closed! No stalls in sight! Booooo! We continued wandering round (we like wandering round new places! Very rarely do we go in many places unless we have a real interest!) and saw some lovely architecture.
Now..I had planned this walk to last all day - It was now dinner time! Okay so it wasn't as far as I thought! We decided to visit the Krakow aquarium as we were both quite cold and thought it would be nice to be inside for a while! The aquarium is also a reptile house and although on the small side was really quiet - we nearly had it to ourselves! It was a nice way to spend 45mins-1 hour and got us warmed up again!
Now we were a bit stuck what to do, we had seen the salt mines advertised and contemplated this but as my husband has a sever dislike to any cave like attraction we decided against it, I also read it was 2 and a half hours for a guided tour - I thought there's only so much salt you can look at - if we'd have been able to walk through at our own pace we'd have gone.
So we had some lunch and decided that we would return our big coats to the hotel and run across to the shopping centre (50yards form the hotel) and have a good look round (we had tried previously but carrying coats isn't ideal!). The shopping centre was fab - why can't we have C&A back in the UK?! We had a rest and had an Italian ice cream for 50p each! It was gorgeous! Every flavour you could think of and a sugar cone for 50p!!
The final day we had a quick walk back into the main square before checking out of the room and returning to the airport.
Overall, we enjoyed our short trip to Krakow. Without Auschwitz I think we would have been bored for 3 days. We are not really interested in visiting museums and found that we walked round the 2 main tourist districts fairly quickly. We chose Krakow as we had really enjoyed Prague the year before. Krakow is definitely cheaper than Prague (although we didn't find Prague expensive) but we did find that there wasn't as much to do. I think a 2night break with good flight times would have been sufficient.
If you are into Jewish history and visiting museums you could probably spend a while there, if we'd have realised how quick we'd walk round the town we'd have gone on a trip to Zakopane (the polish winter capital).
I don't want to put people off Krakow cos we did really enjoy it and the prices of food and drink are fab! I think we maybe went too soon after visiting Prague and we found ourselves comparing it - wrong thing to do I know! If you have a couple of days spare, hop over and see for yourself, it's a lovely city with lovely architecture and definitely a place we're pleased we've visited.
The wife and I have just returned from a short weekend break in Krakow, southern Poland. We enjoy the odd city break and having visited Berlin and Prague we decided to go slightly further east this year with a visit to Krakow.
Krakow is located to the south of Poland and is the country's 2nd largest city, home to 750,000 people. It's around a 2-hour flight away from the UK - we flew with RyanAir from East Midlands for a very reasonable £80 for the two of us.
We stayed in the 3-star Hotel Matejko which is around a 5-minute walk away from the centre of the city. It cost us only £130 for 3nights, which is pretty good value!
Krakow used to be surrounded by large city Walls which were sadly knocked down in the 18th century. Luckily one ornate gate remains which takes you down the Royal Walk and onto the market square. The old market square is the biggest in Europe and features many shops, stalls and restaurants as well as horse and carriage rides. In the middle of the square is the cloth hall which is currently being renovated. St Mary's Church stands in the north east corner with its two distinct towers. Legend has it that 2 brothers were commissioned to build a tower each, and when the younger brother fell behind his older brother's bigger more ornate tower he stabbed him to death and jumped off the half-finished structure. Apparently the knife he used can be found hung above a cloth hall doorway... but I didn't see it :(
Krakow's biggest attraction (if that's the right word) is Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp located around an hour away from the city. Auschwitz is a separate review that'll be posted shortly.
Here's a few things I've learned about Poland from out four days here:
- Polish people don't smile
- Fat polish people either don't exist or aren't allowed in tourist areas
- Polish beer is great
- Polish food is very cheap, even in the city centre. A meal for two was around £15-£20, including drinks
- You take your life into your own hands when you attempt to cross the road
All-in-all we really enjoyed our trip to Krakow, especially Auschwitz. It's a cheap if rather unfriendly place to visit, but one I'd recommend.
I have been to Krakow twice - the first time I visited with two of my friends and the second time I went for a romantic break with my boyfriend and I've got to say - I love this city. I think that it's a fantastic place to visit - it's scenic, there are lots of things to do and it's cheap (as Poland is yet to join the Euro).
Krakow is a beautiful city, the architecture is old, some of the buildings are falling apart, but it all adds to the charm. The square in the centre is full of hustle and bustle and most days there is a market where street traders sell pastries and fresh flowers.
The city has a real old European flavour to it and it is the perfect city to just sit, while you watch the world go by.
********** My first visit ***********
Krakow was first recommended to me by a work colleague who had been holidaying in Poland for years. It was January 2008, I was fed up, I was looking at flights to Eastern Europe and I decided to get a mini-break booked in.
I flew to Katowice with two friends in March 2008. We flew with Wizz Air, which is a budget Polish airline. The Wizz Air experience isn't anything spectacular, but they got us from A to B safely and cheaply.
Once we arrived at Katowice airport (which is about two hours from our destination), we caught a bus that took us directly to Krakow. During the bus journey we started talking to a Polish guy (who now lived in Burnley). He had decided to take his cousins and friends to Krakow to show them Poland. As a group we all instantly hit it off and we spent our evening in Poland with them. There was nothing untoward going on, we just all seemed to get on, and it was really interesting hearing about Poland from a native's perceptive.
At this point the British had started to catch on to Krakow, but there weren't tourists everywhere and you didn't feel as though everybody was after your money. The restaurants were exceptional quality - they were really good value, we paid about £4 for a main course - and you could choose to eat Chinese, Indian, Italian, Polish. There were lots of options available.
As well as eating and sampling the Polish beer and vodka, which is ridiculously cheap (we were paying about 80p a pint in pubs), we decided to visit some of the tourists destinations in and around the city.
You can arrange trips to Auschwitz and the Salt Mines directly from Krakow and that's what we decided to do.
Auschwitz was an experience that I find it difficult to describe. I personally think that everybody should visit this site at least once in their lifetime. I am so happy that the site is getting European funding to stay open and be preserved. I feel that this is a really important historical site that needs to remain open, to remind people of the suffering that once occurred and to stop anything like that from happening in Europe again.
It's one thing reading about the Holocaust; it's another seeing the human cost with your own eyes. Emotionally it was so draining to see a place where people were executed and I know that some won't want to take this journey during a mini-break, but I felt that it was so important to go and pay my respects. In fact, I've actually visited twice, I took my boyfriend (who is fascinated with war history) to Auschwitz the year after.
We paid about £20 for this trip, which included return coach travel to and from the concentration camp, as well as a guided tour. I would recommend this option because the guides are really knowledgeable and you will learn a lot from them.
We also visited the Salt Mines, which was amazing to see. Miners used to carve all sorts out underground, including a full sized, intricate church, which was simply breath-taking. This was a great trip and I would recommend it if you are in the vicinity. I also think that it's a trip the kids would enjoy. It would cost approximately £60 for a family of four to visit.
In teh evenings Krakow really does come around. There isn't a particular bar I would recommend. I would just suggest that you see where the night takes you. There are small underground bars, jazz clubs and pubs with outside seating. There are bars everywhere are most of them are open until the small hours. You will probably find a bar that you particularly like during the first evening and continue to go there night after night.
Krakow is also yet to introduce the smoking ban, so you can smoke in bars and clubs without restriction.
********** The second time around - What's changed ? ************
Me and my boyfriend booked a mini break in Krakow for August 2009. At this point flights were much more expensive, but we managed to pick up a good deal on Travel Zoo. This time I made sure that we flew with Easy Jet (because they fly directly into Krakow) and I also ensured that the hotel was close the town square.
The big change I noticed in the city was the amount of street acts and performers, as well as locals on bikes offering to show you the city for a staggering amount of money. When I visited with my friends in 2008 there was none of this and I can't help feeling that Krakow has caught on to the fact that tourists have money and they are determined to get as much off you as possible!
Also, a word of warning... negotiate a cab price before you get into a taxi and don't be afraid to walk away if you feel you are being quoted too much. We paid 100zl in a taxi from Krakow airport that we didn't negotiate (around £25) and 30zl on the way back to the airport (approximately £7.50).
The other change I noticed about the city is that food and drink has gone up in price. You can now expect to pay £6.00 for a main meal and £1.00 - £1.20 for a pint of Polish larger... This is still a bargain by British standards.
*********** Overall **************
I absolutely love this city. I think it is a fantastic place to visit and I'd recommend it for a girly holiday of a romantic break.
I think that the city has a lot to to offer. I just hope that it doesn't become another tourist trap, because it seems to be heading that way and it would be a great shame.
Get to Krakow as soon as you can. The city is magical.
With flights coming in from all over Britain and the rest of Europe, Kraków is one of Poland's most accessible cities, and almost certainly its most welcoming. The surge of popularity the last decade or so has seen, however, has brought influxes both good and bad. On the positive side, the flow of tourists in the city has seen supply more than meet demand, resulting in a wealth of accommodation and entertainment options, and a varied, cosmopolitan cuisine that only the capital, Warsaw, can really rival.
The flip-side of this has been the arrival of hordes of stag-parties looking to make the most of favourable money-to-inebriation exchange rates. Those arriving in search only of Poland's celebrated resources of beer, vodka and beautiful women (of which there is much of each), however, miss out on one of the richest, most attractive cities in Europe, bearing comparison with the likes of Paris and Tallinn.
+ + + + + + + + + + Kraków's Place in History + + + + + + + + + + + +
Poland's capital from 1038 to 1596, Krakow (or Cracow, anglicised) shows off proudly all the remnants of its days as a seat of royalty. The Old Town (Stare Miasto) at the centre of the city, surrounded by a ring of greenery, contains these most picture-perfect attractions, from St Florian's Gate at its northernmost end to the lair of the fearsome Smok Wawelski, the dragon of Kraków (who was vanquished by Krakus, the supposed founder of the city) at the southern apex. Above it all, Wawel Castle overlooks the bend of the Wisla (Vistula) river, which winds south-north through Poland, cutting through Kraków, Warsaw and Torun, amongst others, en route to the Baltic Sea.
More recent events have of course been a darker, bleaker part of the history and the city and the surrounding area. The remains of Oswiecim Detention Camp, better known by its German name, Auschwitz, lie not far to the west, and visits to the site feature on many Kraków itineraries. The scars inflicted by the Second World War are also evident within the city, in the former Jewish ghetto in the Kazimierz district, south of the centre.
+ + + + + + + + + + Orientation + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
For most visitors, the Old Town and the sights along the Royal Road which runs through it are the base and focal point of the stay. If you arrive by bus or train, the walls of the Stare Miasto are less than five minutes' walk to the south-west, if you can navigate through the new shopping centre which has swallowed up the railway terminus. Pope John-Paul II Airport is seven miles west of the centre; a short hop by taxi (expect to pay 20-30 zlotych) or train, taking around fifteen minutes.
If you happen to be leaving the city, trains depart from the central station for cities across Poland and a number of international destinations. The capital, Warsaw, is a two-and-a-half/three hour journey to the north, whilst the mountain resort of Zakopane, surrounded by the dramatic scenery of the Tatra Mountains, is two hours away to the south, and if you've the time, makes a refreshing change from the city. The bus is slightly quicker than the meandering train heading south; the stations are next to each other in both Kraków and Zakopane.
The Market Square (Rynek Glowny) is the heart of both the Old Town and the city of Kraków at large. One of the widest squares in Europe, it is a striking space, dominated by the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), an imposing building at its centre which now only seems to trade in hit-and-miss tourist souvenirs inside. The Basilica likewise is an impressive structure overlooking the square, and the Rynek is lined with all manner of bars and restaurants which exhale in a cloud of tables and chairs across it come the summer months.
+ + + + + + + + + + + + Wawel Hill + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
The Royal Road splits the Old Town, running north-south, leading from the Market Square to Wawel Hill and its stunning castle. Overlooking the Wisla River, Wawel Hill was the seat of the Polish kings and queens for years, and many are buried here. The castle is open from 9:30, although on Mondays many sections are closed (the Treasury, Armoury and "Lost Wawel" areas are free entry during the summer months, though), and offers a chance to explore the innards of these great monuments. However, for the tight-fisted and/or short of time, one can get a good impression of the scale and majesty of the place exploring the walkways and courtyards that are open to all.
Being something of a sprawling complex, there is no ticket that gains entrance to the castle as a whole; rather, each of the areas and attractions on Wawel Hill requires its own admission fee. Tickets cost from 3 zl for the Dragon's Den to 24 zl for the Royal Private Apartments; although the latter includes the compulsory guide. If you wanted to see everything, the cost would of course mount up - however, there's a lot to get round (about a dozen attractions, including those within the cathedral), and the system will work to your advantage if you decide just to visit a few of them.
Prices are generally a little lower during the winter season - entry to the State Rooms, for instance, falls from 17 zl to 14 zl from November to April. If you're a student or a teacher, reduced rates are available, and if you happen to be either under seven or a holder of The Order of the White Eagle (bonus points if you're both ...), admission to all attractions is free.
There's plenty here that everyone should enjoy something - and the views are both excellent and free. For those with children, the Dragon's Den, where the fabled Smok Wawelski is said to have lurked, will appeal - and one can meet a less dangerous, more metallic, but still fire-breathing version of the dragon at the bottom. You might want to save this one for last, as the exploration of the grotto is a one-way trip that takes you from Wawel Hill and deposits you down by the river.
+ + + + + + + + Piwo i Pierogi; Filling One's Stomach + + + + + + + + +
As mentioned at the outset, Kraków offers diversity and quality in its dining options like few, if any, other places in Poland. Wherever your tastes lie, you'll find attractive restaurants and cafes to satisfy them in the Old Town and the surrounding City Centre. There are the usual Italians (which the Poles tend to do rather well) and a scattering of Mexicans - but you'll also find more unusual cuisine, including the ever-elusive Indian. Alongside this, of course, you'll come across Polish eateries that will cater for every budget.
Although it's near-impossible to exhaust the possibilities the centre of the city offers, a visit to the Kazimierz district offers a chance to explore a different side of Kraków. A run-down, dilapidated part of the city until recently, it is still a much less polished neighbourhood than the Old Town, but has a low-key charm quite of its own. Eating and drinking options are plentiful here as elsewhere, and are likely to offer better value than those around the Market Square. Much of the appeal of Kazimierz is to be found in exploring at leisure without following a particular itinerary; find food and drink in the same manner.
At the lower end of this price-spectrum, Milk Bars (Bar Mleczny) are a canteen-style arrangement, offering simple, tasty (and cheap) eats. Most of these are likely to be found outside the Old Town, where more touristy options prevail. There are so many decent restaurants in the city, I would hesitate to recommend based on my limited samplings, but for the first-time visitor, it's worth trying Zurek (a sour soup), Pierogi (filled dumplings, in a variety of flavours) and Bigos (a tasty, filling sausage & sauerkraut dish). Make sure to give Smalec a try; a dish of mixed onions and lard that tastes a lot better than it sounds!
In terms of drinking, Irish Mbassy has a good reputation, and manages to carve out a good halfway-niche between being a heaving sports bar and offering some rather good food. Nic Nowego styles itself as a "modern" Irish pub, and is also well thought-of - again offering something more than the
+ + + + + + + + + + + + Why Visit? + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Dumplings and dragons, castles and flagons; years of history, glorious and tragic, the best beer in the world, rumour has it ...
Ahem. Excuse my dodgy poetry. The point (there is one!) is that Kraków really does have something to offer all visitors; and perhaps most attractively, it's all within easy walking distance. Poland has a lot going for it as a whole, and this city shows it off best - culture and history to rival any European city, and everything at a fraction of the cost of Euroland. The Zloty doesn't represent quite the value it used to - when I moved to Poland in 2006, it was at about six to the pound; now it's more like four - but this is still an attractive rate for a weak pound.
With the concentration camps, mountains and Wieliczka salt mines all relatively close to Kraków, there's enough here to comfortably fill an extended visit; even living in the country, I've been to neither the first nor last. That said, you needn't fill a stay with ticking off boxes on a tourist's itinerary. Great pleasure is to be found in taking a seat at one of the endless streetside bars which appear come warm weather, watching, drinking and relaxing. Whatever works for you, Kraków provides a rich, welcoming backdrop against which to do it; even the resident dragon is taking in visitors now.
Krakow is one of the most stunning cities in Europe, it was possibly the only Polish city that was not destroyed in its entirity by the German invasion. This they put down to the Smoka Jama (A dragon that lives under Wawel Castle and protects them), although the real story is actually just as interesting.
Set in South East Poland, Krakow is a regional capital and is one of the cultural capitals of Poland. It is the scene of great history and includes amongst tourist trips, the amazing Wawel Castle, the rynek (main square). Kazimierz (The Jewish district in which parts of Schindlers List were filmed). Auschwitz (Something you don't want to see, but have to in a way to accept that history can never be allowed to repeat itself) and the Wieliczka caves which are a Unesco site.
Krakow is a fun city, it has become infested by people taking cheap package trips and stag parties and is the worse for it, but despite the economic upheavals in Poland it has retained its class and charm and resisted the desire to fill every second road with a McDonalds or Starbucks.
It is a great place to go all year round, during the summer the main square is packed until late into the evening with people eating and drinking outside cafes and restaurants, in the Winter there is the fantastic winter markets where hot sausage, sauerkraut and mulled wine are the order of the day.
The town centre is large and you can easily walk the main touristy parts in an hour or two, if you step out of the centre, it becomes more residential and there are more relevant shops for locals and a lot more traffic, it is dirtier but it always would be, you can travel in the City Centre by Tram, bus, taxi or by walking, there are wonderful synagogue tours, fantastic trips up the main town square church and there are a couple of Polish Premier League football teams for those that way inclined.
A few highlights of my many trips include going to a prohibition style Jazz haunt (Poland loves Jazz), all smoke and beers and people who really do look like they had stepped out of Blow Out, underground bars which haven't changed a bit in structure for decades, but obviously have with their recommendations of Polish Hip Hop or the latest rave!!
I also loved going to the Wawel Castle, Kazimierz is a charming area, and the Jewish restaurant Ariel is particularly special with traditional Klezmer music and Jewish specialities, it is fun and relevant and yet has an old world charm. I enjoyed a restaurant called Chopskie Jadlo which means 'Man's Food' I believe, it offered amazingly large peasant food dishes, you could have bread with Smalec (Lard) which is delicious, or a plate of smoked Polish Sausages (Amazing flavours), you could have whole fish, or huge hocks of Pork, this is a place where vegetarianism is a new fad and is often frowned upon by locals.
I found the people incredibly lovely, they would chat in pubs and laugh at my Polish but appreciate the effort, share vodka and beers and talk about communism, football and how English people can't drink (True but I gave it a damned good try).
Overall Krakow is a developing city, it has a young arty population, you can buy incredible pictures, go to funky relevant bars and nightclubs, or soak up the history and culture of this ancient city and imagine how different things could have been.
Drink is a mainstay of the City, there is vodka and Beer everywhere, Tyskie or Zywiec seem to be very popular and Vodka and Apple is a national treasure, just don't ask a Pole how much they can drink, they'll drink you under the table without a doubt!
I stayed with friends on my visit so boarding was minimal but there are numerous places to stay within 5 minutes of the main square, flights are available through a host of providers, I generally go with EasyJet or Wizzair who are cheap and cheerful, its not a long journey, but is a hell of a lot quicker and more comfortable than it used to be on 28 hour coach journeys.
Bardzo Mi Milo, Enjoy the food, drink and culture of this stunning city.
I visited Krakow in September 2008. My intention was to travel solo through Poland to Lithuania where is was to firstly meet up with my wife and then secondly run the Vilnius marathon before flying home from Vilnius.
Having travelled pretty extensively around Europe I have to be honest and say that prior to my trip Poland never really had much appeal. In fact to be honest it was a country that I knew next to nothing about.
I arrived in Krakow via a cheap and un-cheerful Ryanair flight. To be honest though for £60 return I don't care if the air stewardess eyeballs me when I unpack my own provisions for the flight. The airport, John Paul II airport is about 10 kilometres from the centre of Krakow. First tip for you, rather than wait for a bus to take you to the railway line (the easiest and cheapest way into town) you can walk. It takes about a minute. Trains into Krakow centre cost about £0.50p.
On arrival at Krakow central station I consulted my Lonely Planet Poland book (an essential to any Polish trip) and decided although Krakow is a small city, to get a taxi to my hotel. The central station is in the north of the city and marks the northern boundary of places to go in Krakow. To the north is just soviet style housing complexes. So hailing taxis on the street! As every Lonely Planet will tell you is a bad idea and an invitation to get ripped off. Well not in Krakow. My taxi driver gave me a quick tour and then dropped me at the door of my hostel all for about £5. That would be the only time I would need to use any other transport to see the city.
At this point all prices will be referred to as Polish zloty with the rate at the time of my visit £1 = 4.8zl.
My hostel, yes hostel (first time for me), was in the Kazimierz district slightly south of the castle. The hostel, the Secret Garden was an amazing find (much nicer and better than my hotel is Warsaw - Warsaw review to come). For less than £25 a night I had a double room which although had no bathroom was right next door to one. The ratio of rooms to bathrooms is about 3 to 1 so unless the hostel is in full tilt and packed you are never going to meet anyone whilst washing or otherwise. The rooms are as basic as can be with no television or phone facilities. The beds really clean and comfortable. In a communal living room there was a massive flat screen television and two free and modern internet terminals. If you are in Krakow I would 100% stay here.
Right then so out and about. Well the first and most obvious place to start is Wawel hill, home to the castle and Cathedral. Turning right out of the hostel it is only about a two minute walk until I reached the banks of the Vistula River, the river I would follow up to Warsaw. In Krakow this river is almost neglected to the south of the town centre but its banks are full of joggers, bikers and skaters. It is a really pleasant space on the late summer day to stroll to the castle.
So no surprises with a name like Wawel Hill the castle is up a hill. The walk up though not steep and only about two minutes. Once on top you get great views to the south and East of the city. The castle itself one of the symbols of Poland was the seat of the Polish royals for some 500 years until in the 17th century power shifted northwards to Warsaw. I had no real interest in visiting the chambers of the castle (15zl) my time was so valuable in Krakow.
I did go into the Cathedral (10zl) which is ornate if unspectacular. It houses to tombs of many of Poland's great and good. The real reason for my trip into the Cathedral though was to climb the tower. The climb to the tower was the only place in Poland I felt I was on a mass tourist route. It was very busy. The views from the top via the 70 steps are amazing and well worth the climb.
So the easiest way down the hill and quickest to get into the town centre is down through 'Dragons Den'. Dragons Den (3zl) takes you down from Wawel hill to a cave complex said to be the home of the Krakow dragon - the symbol of the city. As you exit the cave system back onto the banks of the Vistula you encounter a large bronze dragon which spits fire, great to photograph against a blue sky.
So from the castle it is just a short stroll across the Planty (a park that pretty much encircles the old town). The old town itself in truth, with the exception of the main square has no massive stand out buildings. The beauty of Krakow though is that every building together forms a beautiful maze of broad mostly pedestrianised streets that are perfect to just wonder.
It doesn't take long on a wonder before you arrive in the main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), the largest medieval town square in Europe, and you are immediately drawn to the massive building at the centre. The Cloth Hall is probably the image you will have seen in the tourist brochures for Krakow. It truly is a massive building impossible from anywhere in the square to fit onto one photograph. The hall was re-built in its Renaissance style in the 16th century and added to later in the 19th. It was the towns and region principle trading hall and today is still used as a trading hall selling all manner of tourist tat.
There is always something going on in the square to entertain. On the dates of my trip was the inter-Poland marching band competition in which marching bands and troops of marching dancers seemed to display from about 12om to 6pm.
The other massive structure in Rynek Glowny in the massive church to the east of the square. The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady (6zl) is far more impressive than the cathedral. Word of warning here, you are now bang in the middle of tourist Krakow. The begging Roma women her are amongst the most persistent beggars I have ever encountered anywhere even prepared to follow you into the church. You need a very firm almost aggressive no to shake them off.
The highlight of the Basilica has to be the massive altarpiece which opens like a book in the morning. At 11 meters tall and about 8 wide it is a massive piece with amazing detail.
After finding somewhere to eat is pretty much day one done and after a slow wander back to the hostel through the old town soaking up the atmosphere of Krakow's street life it was time to sleep.
The next day I was up early (I love getting up at first light to photograph). Also I wanted to catch the first train to Auschwitz to get there before this site got to busy. Having a better layout of the city and not carrying my suitcase it was only about a 20 minute walk back through the old town to the station. The first train to Auschwitz leaves at 6.20am (12zl) and takes an hour to get to Auschwitz. Read my Auschwitz review for more detail. If you are in Krakow you really do have to go to Auschwitz, it is an incredible site that will move you forever.
Oh breakfast to something I loved was a round kind of donut shaped roll or dry tasting bread with poppy seeds. You will see these sold everywhere around the station and with a coffee you can have a filling tasty breakfast for about 3zl.
Having returned from Auschwitz I planned to spend time in the Jewish quarter of town. The film Schindlers List was mostly about the Jewish community of Krakow and the prison of war camp that features is that of Plaszow 5 kilometres south of Krakow. This camp though was almost entirely destroyed by the fleeing Nazi's.
The Jewish quarter (200 meters) from the Secret Garden hostel features many of the main areas of the film. The main square now called Peace Square is where role call was called in the film. The square now has oversized hollow wooden chairs used to represent the material goods left behind by the Jews of the ghetto before. Having just returned from Auschwitz the square is a weird place to be. It is impossible not to be moved again to be standing on a site of such barbaric modern history.
On the south side of Peace Square is the Pharmacy Under the Eagle. Through the work and dedication of Tadeusz Pankiewicz this pharmacy was allowed to remain open right up until the liquidation of the ghetto's. Her Tadeusz provided free medication to the Jews of the ghetto and the pharmacy became an important centre for information sharing.
Another site I wanted to see but would not recommend that you don't both is Oscar Schindlers factory. The actual factory does still stand but it is wholly un-impressive and a waste of 20 minutes to get to.
Well the above then gives you some of the highlights of my trip to Krakow. I did one other excursion to the famous Wielicza salt mines, seen as a modern wonder of the wonder, an easy half day trip from Krakow. You can this under separate review.
In set off the next day of the first train to Warsaw. I will write up Warsaw soon and will compare the two cities in more depth then. For now though Krakow is a tourist city like say York which is easy to navigate and easy to love. Warsaw is a sprawling working city, like Manchester or Birmingham that takes more work. Krakow was the perfect introduction to Poland but for me I love, absolutely love Warsaw. Having opened up saying I knew very little of the history of Poland the history of Warsaw is like no other city of earth.
On that point two really good books if you are interested in Poland and its history. The first new out last year in hard back and only now in paperback is 'A country in the moon' by Michael Moran which covers both his travelling experience of Poland but also the history of the nation. The other book whilst only has small sections of Poland but is an amazing read of 20th century Europe is 'In Europe' by Geert Mak.
As for Krakow though 3 nights was plenty for me. This allowed me time to get to Auschwitz and the salt mines without feeling I had rushed anything. Krakow is a beautiful city full of beautiful people. The atmosphere is so relaxed and stress free.
It is the perfect city to get away from Britain for a weekend. A place to feel very foreign whilst feeling very safe and stress free.
When I was looking to go on a cheap holiday, I never would have thought I would have chosen Krakow, Poland. I was quite surprised at how cheap it actually was, it cost me £20 return with no taxes to fly there and to stay in a guest house for 5 days was only £40 - so overall a very cheap holiday. I arrived there not knowing what I was going to see, or what I was going to do! The Airport is kind of out of the way, but there is a train station right next to it, which takes you to the main centre of Krakow for 1.60 zlotie (which is about 50p) The buildings are beautiful and there's a lot of history behind them (you can read the history on the plaques on the side of the buildings - they seemed to be everywhere which was very useful!) The people were extremely helpful and spoke very good english. In the main square there's a big building called 'Cloth Hall' which has a huge number of tiny stalls selling all bits and bobs. I've been to Krakow twice now, and there always seems to be a mini festival of some sort in the main square, like mini tents with polish foods and sweets, dancers and singers - there's always something going on. they have multi storey buildings with book shops and entertainment places. they even have cafe's and restaurants all in this one square. the side roads are the best though, and if you walk far enough, you come to an old cinema which costs around £1 to £2 for a ticket. There's a lot to see and do, and its all in walking distance, its really cheap and you'll have a great time, I can't wait to book another flight out there. Police are always patrolling the streets and I've never seen any commotion. Krakow seems just as modern as Liverpool. There is also a shopping complex next door to the train station (at the town centre) which has 4 levels, including a food court.
This is a review of Krakow Old Town which is what I suggested and dooyoo have told me to put it under this heading.
Krakow has been the seat of Kings, archbishops, monks, magnates and merchants for a thousand years. Each generation has added treasures to the city, leaving an embarrasment of cultural riches to explore. If you are in Krakow for a few days then I suggest you concentrate on the famous sights of the Old Town, Wavel and Wieliczka, but if you are only visiting for a day then I think you will find all the nooks and crannies of the Old Town a rewarding experience.
Krakow is a walking city. Cars have difficulty with its cobblestones and narrow streets and public transport does not run through much of the Old Town. The main sights of Krakow are in the Old Town and mostly grouped together and well marked. If you do wander off the beaten track you will also find some wonderful buildings but today I will review the Old Town only.
Although I never use any guide books mainly because I don't like to be lumbered with 'things' I will set this review of Krakow Old Town out in a way that I think visitors will be able to easily follow.
Firstly I will start with the town's masterpiece - The Barbakan, and then take you through a tour introducing the town's most interesting features.
The Barbakan (Barbican)
Krakow's barbican is the largest in Central Europe and one of the very few that have survived anywhere. Its red brick walls are 3m(10ft) thick, with three galleries for small artillery, and pierced with 130 firing 'loops'. The barbican wallls are topped by overhanging brickwork pierced by holes (machicolation) through which defenders could shoot arrows and drop stones or hot liquid on attackers. This massive fortification is topped by seven bartizans (small look-out turrets), with steep roofs. They did not really need seven turrets, but Gothic architects were fond of mystical numbers.
The barbican was originally on an island between the two moats. You would have crossed a drawbridge over the outer moat and passed under a gateway into the courtyrad of the barbican. From there a narrow, fortified bridge crossed the inner moat to the Florianska Gate. If you tried to force your way through, you would find your path blocked by portcullises dropped from above. You were then trapped and could be shot at leisure from the battlements. Those were the days!
The barbican remained undefeated, even by the 1768 Russian attack, until the surrounding fortifications were removed in the 19th century. A plaque hangs on the wall in memory of tailor Marcin Oraczewski who, acccording to legend, when bullets ran out, loaded his musket with buttons and killed the Russian General. Well, it is a legend but I wouldn't be surprised if there was some truth in it!
The barbican is open April to October from 10.30 am - 6pm.
For hundreds of years Brama Florianska was the main gate to Krakow, guarding the open, northern approach to the city. The first gate, of earthwork and wood, was raised at some time after 1285 as part of the defences for the new districts around Rynek Glowny. It was replaced with a low, limestone tower in the 14th century. The upper storeys and their machicolated (pierced with holes) brickwork were added in the 15th century, together with the Barbican beyond the walls. The bronze crown on the tower dates from 1647.
The side of the tower that faces the Old Town I find very interesting as it is decorated with a Baroque statue, showing St. Florian, patron saint of fire brigades, putting out a burning tower with a pitcher of water. The opposite side is adorned with a Polish eagle and inside the gate is a small shrine to the Virgin Mary.
The gate, walls and towers visible today are only a small fragment of the medieval defences. There were once 39 towers, eight main gates and several posterns (secondary gates). Outside the walls ran a double moat whose inner ring was in places 22m (73ft) wide and 8m (26ft) deep. The water came from the Rudawa river and emptied into the Wisla. The outer banks of the moats was kept clear of buildings, to deny cover to any invader.
In 1810 the Habsburg authorities began to level Krakow's fortifications. The short stretch of northern walls that contains Brama Florianska was the last left standing and was in danger of being pulled down in 1817. However, an architect from Krakow named Feliks Radwanski came to the rescue and pointed out the historical importance of the gate. He stated,' that if the walls and gate were destroyed tourists wouldn't visit the town and the terrible cold northern winds would blow into Krakow exposing delicately bred women and children to this meteorological problem which would eventually cause frequent gum disease, rheumatism and maybe even paralysis.' His statement seems very dramatic to me but then the Polish people are always concerned about their health and notice I haven't used the word - hypocondria anywhere. The city walls were spared and Radwanski became a hero.
The three towers that still stand on either side of the Florianska Gate are the Pasamonikow (Tailors'), Stolarska (Joiners') and Ciesielska (Carpenters') towers. Each was named after the guild that was assigned to maintain and defend it. Although Brama Florianska is the only gate that remains open, the Butchers' Gate became part of the buildings of the Dominian Cloister and its remains can be seen from Planty (gardens) near Mikolajska Street.
Long before the town planning of 1257 set out this square, there was a market here on the crossroads of two trade routes. Maly Rynek (the Small Market Square) was originally the Butcher's Market, filled with rows of stalls selling meat and fish. in the 18th century, it switched to vegetables, and fruit. In 1903, the stalls were ejected to make room for tram tracks, which in turn were removed in 1953. It now serves as a car park in winter, a beer garden in summer. Kamienicy (town houses of the middle classes) stand along the three sides of the square. The fourth side is taken up by church buildings. I recommend visiting the beer garden in the summer as it is a hive of activity and a great spot to sit and people watch.
This is actually two, small, quiet courtyards. Next to the bustle of the Rynek Glowny, they were until 1796 the cemetry of the Mariacki church whose bulk cuts the square in two. The streets around follow the town plan of 1257. The different colours of paving stones mark where the old walls and the five gates to the cemetry stood. Until 1791 Krakovian burghers (urban middle -class) were buried here until burial regulations changed in 1791. It is interesting to note that different funerary chapels line this area with numerous memorial plaques in a variety of styles from the 16th to 19th century. Living very close to the Jewish cemetry in Warsaw I am used to seeing graves stones and very elaborate gothic monuments adorning graves and I have to say I find some of the art work fascinating and not at all depressing. This is the case here also in Krakow.
Although the main gate out into the Rynek Glowny was torn down with the cemetry walls about 1796 the Baroque figure of the Merciful Mother of God that used to top the gate has survived. She now stands on a pillar at the end of Jagiellonska Street. In one hand she holds a sceptre of authority, in the other, the broken arrows of mercy. Krakow legend states that the statue was funded by the mother of a soldier who was heavily wounded in the 1768 Russian attack and was mistakenly believed to be dead. He was buried in a mass grave in the Mariacki churchyard but when his mother prayed to the Virgin Mary, she took pity on him and revived him. The soldier clawed his way out of the grave and into the arms of his grateful mother. Another legend - you may have guessed by now the Polish people are a very superstitious lot but I find the legends very interesting and sometimes amusing.
Rynek Glowny (The Main Market Square)
I should think this square is on everybodys list of places to see and rightly so as it is always bustling and brimming with character. Rynek Glowny is a spacious square surrounded by tall townhouses and palaces, the centre of the square is dominated by the Sukiennice (the Cloth Hall) and Wieza Ratuszowa (the Town Hall Tower) while the graceful gothic towers of Kosciol Mariacki (St. Mary's) Church soar over the entrance from Florianska Street. When this huge square was laid out , it was the largest in europe at roughly 40,000 sq metres.
This market square is very different from Warsaw's and other Polish cities as they have allowed their medieval town squares to become museum pieces while moving commerce elsewhere. Krakow's main square is still the heart of the modern city, as it was in the 14th century, cafe's and shops crowd its edges while a flower market and beer gardens fill the centre. Businessmen rub elbows with students and lawyers make way for flocks of nuns on Rynek Glowny's busy flagstones.
Sukiennice (the Cloth Hall)
About 1344, work began on a large Gothic brick cloth hall to replace the stalls in the centre of the square. Completed in 1392, it quickly became the most important commercial building in town.
Its appearance now is largely thanks to 16th century rebuilding which gave it those fine Renaissance gables - copied in many other buildings in Krakow. Many of the masks on the gables are from ths period, though some are from the late 19th century reconstruction, as are the long, colonnaded arcades along the sides. The ground floor is still home to commerce, mostly souveneir shops and cafes. Upstairs is now a gallery of the National Museum, housing turn of the century art.
Open Tuesday to Sunday.
The Cloth Hall is one of my favourite haunts here in the Old Town. I love the lighting and the ambience in the arcades. People love to spend money here and although some items can be expensive if you look hard enough and barter you can find a bargain. It seems that the spirit of capitalism lives on in the Sukiennice!
When writing a review about an Old Town as interesting as Krakow it is difficult to know what to illustrate and what to edit so I have tried to keep the review a reasonable length but I fear it has gone over 'my reasonable length allowance'. I have included dates of buildings to demonstrate how old this town is and as I am a great fan of legends I have added two or three. To finish I will mention one more interesting feature of this town and that is The Town Hall Tower (Wieza Ratuszowa) and then my tour ends and you will have to visit the rest of the town and see for yourself what a wonderful place it really is.
The Town Hall Tower
Krakow's Town Hall was built about 1300 as a low, square building with a single taller tower. In addition to Chambers for the Town Council, it contained a court of justice, a jail, torture chambers and storage for merchants' goods. The Town Hall itself was demolished in 1817 - 20, leaving only its tower and cellars.
The upper storeys of the tower, now part of the Historical Museum, are entered from the stairway flanked with two stone lions. Legend claims that if a virtuous maiden sits on their backs, the lions will roar (I might add that I have heard a similar legend in Warsaw regarding the Presidential Palace). However, few Krakowian girls seem to put their virtue to the test these days! The interiors of the tower retain many Gothic features which I love and the view from the top is superb.
Opening hours change frequently so please check times.
The cellars (the ground floor when the Town Hall was first built) are entered from the opposite side of the building and they house a cafe and an underground stage.
Open every day from 10 - 4.30pm.
That' ends my tour of Old Krakow. I hope you have enjoyed the tour and will visit sometime especially in Spring when it isn't too busy or even at Xmas when it looks its most stunning with snow on the ground.
There are many coach trips on offer from UK but be warned these are long and tedious and if you have long legs like me - are very uncomfortable! Cheap flights run from Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and London airports.
Krakow is located in Southern Poland and was the capital city 1038-1598. It is currently the capital of Malopolskie (Lesser Poland or Little Poland), a province in South Poland. It's Poland's third largest city and in 2007 had a population of over 750,000 people.
== Our visit ==
I visited Krakow for the weekend in February, with my parents, auntie and uncle to celebrate my uncle's 50th birthday. We went on the Friday evening and returned on the Monday night so we had about 3 whole days to explore. I'll go through each day to give you an idea how much you could see etc in that time scale and within this I'll describe the place.
We didn't land in Krakow until about 9pm on the Friday so we didn't see much. The taxi driver that drove us from the airport to our hotel told us about the tours they do, e.g. Auschwitz and Birkenhau, and the Salt mines so we found out a bit about the area even though we didn't see much. I'm going to talk about day 1 as the Saturday.
== Day 1 ==
We got up quite early so we could start exploring the city straight after breakfast. The Holiday Inn, where we were staying, is located in the city centre so it didn't take long to get there.
We headed to the Market Square and it didn't take long to get there from our hotel. We had a look round the main square and we also looked at the indoor market (Sukiennice - cloth hall).
_Sukiennice_ was once the main focus of Krakow's trade. It was effectively the first shopping mall in the world but now functions as a place for tourists to shop. The Cloth Hall is quite large and looks beautiful from the outside. There are lots of little stalls on each side selling a range of souvenirs, from pens and wooden toys, to amber jewellery and walking sticks. I bought the majority of my souvenirs in here and I found it was reasonably priced compared to souvenirs in other countries I've been to. I really enjoyed looking inside The Cloth Hall as I found the souvenirs to be a little bit different to those of other cities I've visited. The atmosphere was really pleasant and we spent at least an hour inside. I didn't buy everything I wanted on this visit, as I knew we would be returning before the end of our visit.
When we came out of The Cloth Hall we wandered around the square. We saw some small electric cars, which resembled golf buggies, offering tours of the city. As we didn't really know where to go next and we fancied a sit down we decided to enquire about the price. The man told us that 1 and half hours would cost 250pln (about £50 for the hour and half, working out at about £10 each). The price decreased per half hour the longer you decided to go, with 1 and half hours being the maximum. Depending on the length of time you paid for, the tour was slightly different, offering more sights for the full length of time.
The electric cars sat five people plus the driver. Two passengers had to sit so that they would be travelling backwards and my auntie and I agreed we would sit here. The tour started in Main Market Square and there was an English tour guide recording playing telling us about what the sights. Due to the position I was sitting and the noise of the surroundings, I couldn't hear the recording all the time but my parents and uncle said it was quite interesting.
We left Main Market Square down one of the side streets and I enjoyed taking in the surroundings. For the first 15 minutes or so we drove up and down most of the side streets leading to and from the square. This was quite good as we could see the square from different angles as well as viewing the side streets (most of which were shops etc).
As there was only the driver and us in the car, he stopped for us whenever we wanted to take photos, (which, since we were travelling with my dad, was quite often!). The driver spoke quite good English and he told us about the sights we could see.
There are many churches in Krakow and we saw a large number of these when we were in the electric car. Some of them look really magnificent from the outside although we didn't go into any.
As our journey was nearing the end, we past Schindler's factory, which was unfortunately closed. The driver told us that when it is open there isn't really a lot to see, just Schindler's office. I got out the car with my dad and we went close to the gates and had a look. It was quiet and I felt quite emotional thinking about what happened here years ago.
On the evening of our first day we had a meal in the Market Square. There are lots of places to eat here, but we picked a restaurant that appealed to us all (which was actually quite difficult as there were 5 of us with different tastes!) It was a steak restaurant and was really nice. It was reasonably priced as well.
== Day 2 ==
We felt, we couldn't go to Krakow without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau so we decided we would visit here on the Sunday - our second day.
We booked a taxi from the hotel and he drove us there and back. It took about an hour to reach Auschwitz from our hotel but the driver spoke quite good English and he told us what about the area we were visiting.
Auschwitz was quite quiet when we arrived, as it was relatively early in the morning. We went inside and paid to get in and the taxi driver told us he would wait outside for us. He informed us we had a few hours to spend here then he would take us to Birkenau (Auschwitz II), which is about 3.5km away from Auschwitz I.
As I went outside into the camp I was surprised at how silent it was. People had told me previously about the silence but I wasn't expecting it to be so quiet.
We walked towards the main gate, which reads "Arbeit macht frei" meaning "Work sets you free". At the time of my visit I didn't know what it meant but I felt uneasy walking the gate.
Many of the barracks are open and have been converted into exhibitions, which have images and information about the concentration camps. Some of the barracks have large displays of items that were taken from the prisoners. These include shoes, suitcases, human hair, pots and pans, and spectacles. The display of hundreds of suitcases really affected me (and my mam) as I though of all the people who took their belongings with them in their cases, as they didn't know the horrors that lay ahead.
As we were walking around between the barracks more visitors were starting to arrive. The sun was shining and I did hear a few birds sing but not as many as you would expect to hear on such a warm day.
Birkenau, the mass killing camp, really moved me. We walked along by the railway line that brought the prisoners to the camp and we walked in silence. We also visited the gas chambers and some of the barracks here. I was emotionally drained and exhausted by the end of our visit and I couldn't stop thinking about it for days.
I feel like I have more of an idea about what actually went on in the concentration camps though I still cannot imagine just how terrible it must have been. It has made me think about how lucky I am and I often find myself thinking about my visit and the hundreds of thousands of people murdered in these camps.
== Day 3 ==
We visited Wawel Hill on our last day, as we were not flying home until late evening. We read that it is free entry on a Monday but the castle was actually closed. The cathedral was open so we decided to visit this.
Wawel Castle and Cathedral are located on Wawel Hill in Krakow, Poland. The hill has had religious function for a long time and the cathedral in located adjacent to the castle. The cathedral has a 1000-year history and it was once the coronation site for the Polish Monarchy. Nearly all Polish Kings and national heroes are buried here and this was also the cathedral of Pope John Paul II before he left for the Vatican. The Bell is rarely used except in special circumstances, such as when Pope John Paul II died in 2005.
I got into the Cathedral half price using my student card (£1 instead of £2). The Cathedral was beautiful and it was a lovely morning out.
We then had lunch in Market Square (The same restaurant we went to on our first day) and did our last bit of shopping in Cloth Hall.
We travelled home that evening, after a lovely weekend in Krakow.
== Weather ==
It was between 8 and 17 degrees Celsius when we were there and the sun shone most of the time we were there. The wind was cold though. We spoke to a couple of Polish people who said in February 2 years ago it was minus 25 degrees C and the cars wouldn't start. We were expecting it to be a lot colder than it was when we went but it was really pleasant. It was actually warmer than it had been in England before we left!
== Prices ==
I think the prices were very reasonable. The souvenirs were quite cheap and the amber in the market was very reasonably priced. We ate out 3 times in Market Square and each time it was very reasonable. There was five of us, and each time we each had a main meal, 4 of us had deserts and we all had a couple of drinks and 2 of us had coffee and it was only about £60-£80 (?) which is much cheaper than we could have got in England.
== People ==
All the people we spoke to were friendly and helpful. The staff in the hotel were all helpful and the taxi driver who drove us to Auschwitz was really nice. People in the shops and restaurants were also really nice and I felt welcome the whole time I was in the city.
== Overall Experience ==
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Krakow, it was beautiful and the weather was nice for the time of year. It is not one of my favourite cities but I might go back in the future. I would recommend a trip to Krakow, as it is a beautiful, historical place.
Thanks for reading!
Krakow is simply the most amazing city in Europe. The Zloty is working out around 5.8 to the pound, and food, drink, and everything else is very, very cheap. I had a two week holiday for £300 all in...
There is a park around the old part of the town, it is exactly where the old town walls used to be, called the Planty, and it is very welcome in the hot summer and hot autumn that Krakow receives.
The centre (Rynek Glowny) is the biggest market square in Europe, and has internet cafes, cafes, bars, restaurants all around. Most tourists go here, but if you can, visit the market on Sunday morning in the old jewish quarter.
Krakow has a tram service, but it is well worth walking around the city, there is museums and art galleries around every corner. You might miss something.
The castle in the city is called the Wawel, and was the seat of power of the Polish kings and queens until Warsaw was made capitol in the 17th century. You need to get up early to visit the Wawel as there is limited tickets and it is that expansive, that you need the full day to get around everythin in the castle.
There is a year-round tourist industry in Krakow, and part of the tourist thing is to be driven around the city in a horse drawn carriage. In summer they are topless and in winter, the lids go on. The drivers will be happy for you to sit in the driver seat with them, and will give you the reigns. They also will oblige if you want to pose for photos with them and the horses, even letting you sit inside to get pictures taken, even if you have no intention to taking a trip. They do not expect to get tips.
Tipping is a strange thing. Polish wages are poor, but tipping someone too high is seen as degrading to the Polish people. I made the mistake of tipping a waiter 20zl, about £4 for serving me beer all evening in a kerbisde bar. The waiter spoke good english, ( a rarity), and explained that 5zl or at most 10zl (£1 or £2) is the maximum that should be given to a beer waiter, and a silver service waiter in the best restaurants should never be tipped more than 20zl.
Speaking of restaurants, there is a common misconception that Polish food will be potatoes, pork and cabbage, sorry, this is completely inaccurate. There are Pierogi, which is a raviola type food with different fillings, there is Bigos, which is a hunters stew, it includes usually 5 different types of meat and sausage. Golabki (pronounced like go-wamp-kee) does include cabbage and pork, Golabki means Pidgeons, and it is cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, and two types of meat with either a tomato or a mushroom sauce. Excellent.
A favourite of mine is Placki (pronounced plat-kee) and is a potato and onion pancake, with a beef or pork goulash, I enjoy it with Tyskie or Okocim beers.
A warning about Polish beers. They are extremely potent.
Zywiec is a lager, like a Pils that is around 6' proof. This is a mild lager.
Okozim Zagloba is 13' proof, and they are lagers, also called Jasne - (Clear) beer, there is a stronger version of most beers called Mocne, do not touch these unless you like to get drunk very quickly and have a very sore head the next day.
Polish people: Probably the most calm, quiet, helpful people you could ever meet. If you are walking around, lost, they will approach and offer to show you around. Even if they cannot speak english, they will still try their best. In the service industry, they are the most polite, patient staff that you could find anywhere.
Looking down across the river from Krakow's ancient citadel on Wawel Hill, I tried to list in my mind the qualities that make a city an ideal destination for a short break.
To begin with, it should not be too far away from home, no further than a couple of hours' flight, but it should be a touch out of the ordinary, not just another well-worn step on the age-old tourist trail. Equally, even if contradictorily, it should not be truly obscure, since that might mean it had neither the sights nor the hospitality that make a visit worthwhile.
It should have history, still visible in its layout and its architecture. The buildings should be attractive in their own right as well as historic, and should date from a variety of periods and styles. Ideally, there would be a castle or a palace or both, maybe some ruined ramparts, and certainly some ornate churches or similar edifices. The streets too should offer variety, some broad and stately, some narrow, winding and intimate. Squares, both large and small, some perhaps reserved for pedestrians, should be found amongst the streets.
There should be greenery, parks and gardens right in the city's heart. There should be water - perhaps seashore or lakeside, but a noble river at the very least. There should be attractive countryside in the vicinity, to be seen while visiting interesting sites just out of town. These should be easy and inexpensive to reach, meaning in turn that the city should not be too large or sprawling or traffic-jammed. Public transport should be plentiful and cheap.
There should be plenty of modestly priced hotels, restaurants and cafés, with interiors full of character, appetising food and friendly staff. Indeed, the people in general should be friendly, helpful with directions and advice, unexploitative, tolerant of one's inept attempts to speak their language and ready to help out with their far better English when the need arises, as it often will.
A city measuring up to all these criteria would be ideal. Krakow measures up.
Let's take those criteria one by one:
* Visible History - Wawel Hill *
Krakow began with Wawel Hill and it's easy to see why. Perched above the Vistula, Poland's arterial river, with swampy ground to the south and east, it would be easily defensible. It has been settled since about 50,000 BC, and fortified throughout the historic era. The most recent battlement, a brick-built bastion, dates from between the two world wars.
One could easily spend all day on Wawel Hill, but two or three hours will suffice to see the main sights:
~ The Royal Castle that surrounds a magnificent, colonnaded, three-tiered Renaissance courtyard, built around 1500. Krakow was then the capital of a united Polish-Lithuanian state that also ruled much of what is now Belarus and the Ukraine, its domains about five times the size of England's at the time. Here you can see the State Rooms and Royal Apartments, of a grandeur befitting such a power. Although much of the decoration and furniture has had to be restored after the ravages of fire and plundering armies, the interiors are still sumptuous and well worth a visit. There is a charge (14 zlotys - about £2.50) for each set of rooms, and a limited number of timed tickets available; you might have to make sure of arriving early in the peak season.
~ The Treasury and Armoury, for which timed tickets must again be bought. Apparently the collection of weapons in the latter is noteworthy, but I skipped this bit for lack of time and cannot comment in detail.
~ The Cathedral of St Stanislaus. The structure is early 14th century, but it has been copiously ornamented over the centuries since, and there are some fine statues and stained glass. Barely a square inch of wall-space is undecorated. Entry is free, but for a small charge you can also go up the bell tower which houses some impressively enormous bells, and the crypt, which houses some impressively enormous royal tombs - and some impressively small ones for those who never reached adulthood. I enjoyed seeing the former more than the latter.
~ Dragon's Den. Again, for a few zlotys more, you can descend from the battlements via a dried-up well and an underground cave, to which various dragon-related legends attach. A large and decidedly fierce modern bronze sculpture of a dragon marks the point where you emerge on the banks of the Vistula.
* Visible History - Old Town *
In contrast to the jutting height of Wawel, the old town of Krakow sits astride a long low hump of a hillock to the north, perhaps a kilometre in length. Imagine an animal, almost submerged, its head (Wawel) reared up, its back (the old town) just breaking the surface.
The town has in the past been fortified, but only a few remnants of ramparts remain, notably around the Floriańska Gate with its barbican at its northern extremity. Although the walls have largely gone, the old town still has an enclosed feel to it, isolated and insulated from the rest of Krakow by the belt of green gardens - known as the Planty - that originally encircled the walls. A circuit of the Planty makes for a pleasant half to three-quarters of an hour's stroll, longer if one stops to look at the many features of interest on the way.
More direct on the map, but slower still in practice is to walk from Wawel to the Barbican via the 'Royal Way', along two ancient streets - the Grodska and the Floriańska - and across the main market square - the Rynek Glówny - between the two. The route is lined with fine frontages, behind which lie shops, restaurants and cafés. This is, let's face it, the spine of tourist Krakow, and one can easily see why it has become so.
The Rynek, in particular, would be a splendid centre for any city. Its sheer size - some four hectares - might make it seem an inhospitable space, but several historic buildings lend it human scale and give the eye somewhere to settle. The square is divided almost in two by the Sukiennice - Clothiers' Hall - at its centre; this has been a market building since mediaeval times and the romantically lit interior is still crammed with stalls, most now selling curios and craft goods. For those who like shopping, this is a good place to buy amber jewellery and ornaments, much cheaper than in the west, though probably it's cheaper still if you know where to look outside the tourist area.
Also standing in the middle of the Rynek is the surviving tower of an otherwise demolished former town hall, which one can ascend for fine views of central Krakow and its outskirts. Its height is overshadowed, however, by the asymmetric spires of the Mariacki church across the square. From the upper windows of the taller of the two a trumpeter marks each hour with a short voluntary that resembles a truncated last post - allegedly a relic of the Tartar siege of 1241, when the watchman on the church-tower at the time blew his horn to alert the townspeople of the impending attack only to have his warning cut short by a well-aimed insurgent arrow. Those Tartars must have been amazing bowmen, though probably the tower was not so tall in those days.
Away from the Royal Way, there are many side-streets and squares to explore, and much to discover of interest. I particularly enjoyed little quarter that encompasses the Jagiellonian University, the oldest in Poland (founded 1364) and among the oldest in Europe, which has some fine buildings. Among them is the Collegium Maius (great college), within which is found a fascinating little museum, with exhibits including the astronomical instruments of Copernicus. The Collegiate Church of St Anne's is also worth looking into, airier and less oppressively ornate than some Krakow churches; magnificent though their interiors are, a heavy hand with the gilt and black marble is often all too evident.
* Visible History - Kazimierz *
Quite separate from the old town, though quite close by to the south-east, is the old Jewish ghetto quarter of Kazimierz, originally an island cut off by a marshy branch of the Vistula. The water has long since been drained, and its course is marked only by a leafy avenue with tramlines running between the trees.
Despite having been emptied of most of its inhabitants in infamous circumstances during the Second World War, Kazimierz still retains a distinctively Jewish character, with numerous synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and Jewish restaurants.
The heart of the area is small, perhaps half a kilometre square, an irregular jumble of alleys around Szeroka Street and Plac Nowy. Plac Nowy is a lively market square, selling food, bric-a-brac, clothing and trinkets. Szeroka Street translates as "wide street" and is not so much a street as a wedge-shaped square. At one end is found the Old Synagogue, now a museum of Jewish history. On the east side, amid an almost unbroken terrace of Jewish restaurants, another former synagogue now houses an art gallery.
On the west side is the Remuh Synagogue, still active, behind which is the 'old' cemetery. Visiting it, we were engaged in conversation by an elderly man tending the graves. In excellent, colloquial English he explained something of the background of the place, the reason why so many of the tombstones were capped by metal covers (simply, to prevent erosion by the weather) and the extortionate costs of maintenance now that Polish stonemasons could command "western wages". He also relieved us of few zlotys towards upkeep, but it was hard to resent the approach by so engaging a character.
Although called 'old', it appears that this was not the original Jewish cemetery, which was simply in the middle of the square, now a green area fence off with metal railings, wrought in the style of the seven-pronged Shabat candelabra. The much larger New Cemetery, beyond the railway tracks to the east of Kazimierz, is also worth seeking out for its solemn, secluded atmosphere.
Kazimierz has, of course, become famous as the location for the filming of Schindler's List. In point of fact, Schindler's factory was in the overspill ghetto across the Vistula known as Podgorze, an area in which Krakow's Jews, including many evicted from Kazimierz, were confined before their final transportation.
* Greenery and River *
Krakow is well supplied with open space. The Planty gardens that fringe the old town also envelope Wawel Hill and spread our along the banks of the Vistula to either side. The banks of the river are pleasant for a stroll. Two other English guests at our hotel hired bicycles and ventured along it some way out of town, apparently enjoyably.
There are other green pockets in the suburbs that I failed to explore. The guidebooks speak highly of the Blonia meadows and the Ogród Botanical Gardens; how I evaded the latter with my wife in attendance I'm unsure.
* Outings and Environs *
Krakow is an excellent base for visiting other attractions in the vicinity.
The most notable (perhaps I should say notorious, and perhaps I shouldn't say attraction) is Auschwitz, which has already been the subject of a separate review.
We also visited the salt mines at Wieliczka, an enormous and extraordinary warren of underground workings, about which I might also have written separately if Richada hadn't already said in his review on them most of what I would have had to say.
Some people recommend a visit to the purpose-built industrial suburb of Nowa Huta (New Forge) on the outskirts of Krakow, if only to see how Communist regimes approached such projects. My own feeling was that I'd seen enough of such places elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and it was one I was happy to skip. Viewing the factory chimneys in the distance from the old Town Hall Tower was enough. Apart from this though, Krakow seems to be ringed by relatively few of the grim, shabby outskirts so often found behind the old iron curtain - or maybe we just didn't find our way out of town in the right/wrong direction.
Also often recommended is the mountain village of Zatopane, now mostly devoted to skiing, and the Tatra mountains generally, which are quite near Krakow to the south. From all I have heard, I would love to walk in the Tatras, but that will have to wait until another year.
* Restaurants, Cafés and Hotels *
Central Krakow is packed full of eateries and drinkeries of every kind, at every price level. You only need to wander round and pick the one you fancy. The best place at which we ate was the Szara, right on the Rynek Glówny, with its stylish, arty interior, good food and superb service. It is, though, very expensive by local standards (we paid about £25 a head for a three-course dinner with booze) and mostly patronised by tourists. Also central, also touristy, but lively, informal and a fraction of the price, was the Chimera Salad Bar, where you can pile your plate high for 12 zlotys (just over £2).
In between the two pricewise, but located over in Kasimierz where we were staying, we ate at two Jewish restaurants (The Ariel, exotically decorated with plaster casts of animals, where we dined on traditional Jewish fare accompanied by traditional music; and Szeroka 1, which was jollier, more like a local tavern and at more like tavern prices though the food was good), and one purely Polish one, the Galicja, which was a shade lacking in atmosphere, but great value.
Polish cuisine might best be described as robust; meals tend to focus on ample meaty main dishes with plenty of potatoes and other vegetables, perhaps preceded by soup and followed by a puddingy dessert. Pierogi, meat-filled dumplings, are a local speciality. This fare can be tasty, and is probably sustaining in the winter. In the improbable event that you still feel peckish afterwards, you can always buy from one of the many street vendors selling obwazanki, the savoury local pretzels.
The local beer is good, mostly lager-style. I drank a lot of the reliable Zywiec, available everywhere on draught, and also tried Tatra, which is quite palatable. Wines are mainly from Hungary or the Balkans; French and Italian can be found but are generally more expensive.
Apart from the restaurants and bars, Krakow has several old coffee houses in that distinctively central European style, all dark polished panelling, that reminds one that the city was part of the Hapsburg empire in the period before the first world war. Sipping a coffee and nibbling a cream-cake in the Noworolski café, which is built into the ground floor of the Sukiennice, one might almost imagine oneself in Vienna.
In Kasimierz, we stayed at the Hotel Eden, small, but cosy and comfortable. In terms of catering, it boasts an incongruous combination of the only strictly kosher restaurant in Krakow and a pub, The Old Goat. We didn't try the former, but had a drink in the latter, enjoyably enough especially since it was quite unlike any British pub I've ever been to, and I've been to plenty.
We booked the Eden as part of a package deal (£279 per person for four nights including flights and transfers), but I noticed the tariff for a double room was 250 zlotys (about £45) a night. You could probably pay a lot less than this by shopping around locally (I understand many private short-term lets are available). You could also pay a lot more. Several Western chains (e.g. Sheraton, Radisson, Holiday Inn Novotel) have opened hotels in Krakow, none of which appealed to me.
* Getting Around *
Central Krakow is on a small enough scale that one can walk around to see most of the main attractions. There is, though, plenty of public transport, most notably the trams, which rumble around everywhere except the heart of the old town, and are quite comfortable when not jam-packed with people at rush hour. They are also cheap at 2 zlotys (35p) a ride, as are the little minibuses that ply the slightly longer routes around town. We found our way to and from Wieliczka by these without any difficulty. I understand that taxis are also very reasonably priced.
* Getting There *
Reaching Krakow from the UK is easy and has just become even easier, since cheap flight specialists Ryanair (from Stansted) and EasyJet (from Luton) have just started flying the route. You can also fly from Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and other regional airports. As part of our package we flew BA from Gatwick.
There are overnight coaches from London, which can be very cheap. Or if you don't mind the expense, you could catch the Eurostar train to Brussels, take the overnight sleeper to Berlin or Warsaw, and go on from there, which I have to say I rather fancy doing sometime. Alternatively, you could drive; probably a rather strenuous two day drive, with the slightly scary prospect of negotiating the local traffic on arrival, but it could be worth it to take the car for camping in the Tatras and seeing more of the area.
* When to go *
Summer might be unpleasantly hot and would certainly be more crowded than we experienced in late October. Winters are often very cold. So as usual the best times to go are probably Spring and Autumn. Aren't they everywhere?
* Conclusion *
Talking of "when to go", I suspect the truest answer would have been "a few years ago", but unless you have already been it is too late to heed this advice, and "the sooner the better" would be the next best thing. There is no doubt that Krakow has now been discovered as a tourist destination, and is probably on its way to being spoiled in consequence. But this hasn't happened yet. Krakow is still at the stage of wanting visitors and welcoming them. This makes it a few years behind Prague, for example, in the stages of touristic development, and all the better for it.
Krakow's a lovely place, historic and exceptionally well-preserved because, unlike so many cities in central and eastern Europe, it somehow evaded serious damage in the war. It is a comfortable, as well as an attractive place to visit, and inexpensive by west European standards. For a short city break it is ideal, and I heartily recommend it.
©(first published under the name torr on CiaoUK, Nov 16th 2005)
We chose Krakow in Poland for our five day summer city break mainly because my Paternal Grandmother was Polish, and having visited Russia in 2003 to get closer to my Russian Grandfather's roots, I needed to in some way imagine what my Grandmother's life was like before she fled to Britain from Poland for safety; these emotions were all the more heightened for me because they were both Jewish and if they hadn't escaped they too could have been victims of 'Hitler's Final Solution' and I wouldn't be sitting here typing this story of my Krakow experiences.
Krakow was once the royal capital city of Poland and was designated to be the European City of Culture in the year 2000 and it is easy to see why. The city universities carry the same status as Oxford and Cambridge and as soon as we arrived at our Hotel Wyspianski, after a two hour flight from London Gatwick and the short drive from the Pope John the Paul 11 Airport, by late afternoon and within a three minute stroll we were in the centre of the vast, magnificent, medieval Old Town market square, second only in size to St Mark's Square in Venice. The square is surrounded on all sides by cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as imposing merchant houses and palaces, so we sat under a sun umbrella of the nearest café and christened our safe arrival with flavoursome cold Polish beer, absorbing the surroundings and the grand variety of architectural styles of buildings, the flower sellers, musicians, mime artists and people meeting up under the central statue of Adam Mickiewiicz, Poland's premier romantic poet and philanderer.
The tourist rated Hotel Wyspianski has a restaurant, and although we spied many enticing restaurants surrounding the square and in the cobbled side streets, travelling is tiring so we were ordering dinner in the hotel restaurant by seven o'clock. This first meal was memorable. Herring and soured cream and meat balls for first courses, then veal escalope and rabbit plus potatoes and onions fried in goose fat, plus two deserts and several drinks and we signed for a bill of twelve pounds for two of us. The Zloty is the Polish currency and we were unfamiliar with this, so we double checked the bill but this was the true cost.
Next day, after a filling breakfast, including a wide range of International and Polish hot and cold buffet style dishes, we were ready for our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the satellite camp of Auschwitz. It was a bright, sunny August morning and the thirty two miles drive from Krakow through the surrounding countryside was very interesting. Particularly the way the Poles farm in small individually owned strips and even the smartest new build houses grew fruit and vegetables, and kept chickens and rabbits in their large front gardens rather than the landscaped yucca and gravelled minimalist gardens we favour in the UK.
The moment we arrived at Birkenau and stepped down from the coach, an icy cold wind blew across the huge expanse of the grim looking camp with wooden sheds stretching as far as the eye could see. It was silent. I imagined a cold deserted winter day here and not the crowds and sunshine of the peak tourist period in August. The Final Solution at Birkenau was carried out at a fast pace by the SS with Jews transported by rail from all across Europe being killed in their thousands every day. As we walked across the railway line and over the unloading platform towards an incinerator an old Jewish man was shuffling towards us held up by two very young Jewish males; I imagine his Great-grandsons. The old man was in his nineties, small, bent double and dressed in white robes with the Israeli flag bordering them complete with white skull cap. I looked at his bowed head and the shape of his brow and the tears welled up in my eyes and my heart was overturning. My Jewish Father died four years ago in his mid-eighties and this old Jewish man could have been him. He was his double.
I hadn't expected to cry. I knew the history of the Holocaust. I looked at the rest of our group, and realised that very young people were crying too as the English speaking Polish guide softly relayed the background information of the 'bathhouses,' corpse cellars and crematorium ovens; an industrial extermination factory; as I imagined for many of the younger visitors this may have been the first time they had heard the truth in as much detail. Auschwitz itself is two miles from Birkenau. The short journey on the coach to Auschwitz with our fellow travellers was spent in silence. Walking through the infamous gates of the extermination camp at Auschwitz sent chills down my spine. My lasting memory will be the floor to ceiling displays of hair shaved from the female prisoners, false limbs, spectacles, shoes and childrens' clothes.
We had been out all day visiting the camps and when we arrived back in the Market Square in Krakow at 4.30pm we understood why there had been no lunch-break. Who could eat in that horrific environment in the knowledge that millions had died of starvation in Hitler's Final Solution?
We sat in another café/bar appreciating our freedom and putting our lives into perspective as I sat sipping my Cherry Vodka, a perfect black coffee and a mammoth slice of sultana cheesecake as sweet and sour as my Polish Grandmother used to make, raising my glass of Vodka and silently thanked her for being so brave and giving me life.
In the centre of the Market Square is the Gothic and Renaissance Cloth Hall, an elegant shopping arcade lined on both sides with wooden stalls, and a history that goes back to the 14th Century when it was a major trading centre with the East, trading silk and spices in exchange for lead, salt and textiles. The stalls sold mainly amber jewellery, leather goods, clothes and tourist memorabilia and had a charming atmosphere and I loved the happy smiling faces of the Krakow stall holders as they took loads of money from the hordes of visitors buying their goods. The Poles are embracing tourism - and so they should after years of repression. They appeared to be enjoying taking money from us with broad smiles and a happy attitude.
Our rung out emotions needed to dwell on pleasanter things so the next day we started the morning walking the mainly pedestrianised city as it is surrounded by beautiful gardens with the ring-road placed beyond them; rather good urban planning; then to explore the Jewish Quarter stopping for lunch to eat a real kosher meal. We began our cultural experience at the famous Jagiellonian University of Krakow in the six hundred year old Collegium Maius where Poland's famous son Pope John Paul 11 studied. The Gothic courtyard houses the University Museum with memorabilia of famous students and tributes to the USA President Herbert Hoover who was responsible for aid and support to Poland after both World Wars.
Then we hopped onto a double horse and carriage driven by a beautiful young Polish woman wearing the same coloured livery as her sleek and healthy steeds and we clip clopped along the cobbled streets to visit the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz, where in 1941, up to 68,000 Jewish people were confined by the Nazis to ghettos before being transported to Auschwitz for 'resettlement' in other words - extermination. Stephen Spielberg chose Kazimierz as his location for the film Schindler's List. Kazimierz is run down and dilapidated as the area has been left as it was after the war as tribute to the horrors that took place there. Nevertheless, I had promised Morty a kosher meal like my Grandmother used to make, so we sat in the courtyard of the Ariel Jewish restaurant in the central square of the Kazimierz district and ate herring and sour cream, dumplings, potato latkes, chicken liver with egg, gefiltre fish, matzos and honey cake topped off with kosher beer. Food I happily remember from my childhood.
We walked off our substantial lunch with a stroll back to the royal castle of Wawel, the residence of Polish kings for centuries. Wawel Castle is a magnificent Renaissance building with an arcaded courtyard and houses many museums illustrating Polish history and culture, including the Royal Apartments, the Armoury and Treasury. We enjoyed the underground tour of the remains of pre-Roman and Gothic walls under the foundations of the Castle and the Dragon's Den, a long cave that was once allegedly home to a child eating dragon. Just time to walk back to the Market Square to catch the hourly single trumpet fanfare from the tower of the 14th Century Gothic St Mary's Church, which historically warned the city of impending attacks, before my daily requirement of Cherry Vodka, coffee and cheesecake and a rest before dinner.
Krakow has a comprehensive range of places to eat from the ubiquitous McDonalds to inexpensive and expensive national dishes and globally fashionable cuisines, such as Italian, French, Chinese and Japanese. Whatever your pocket and your palate eating in Krakow is fun with something to suit everyone with excellent service and all of a very high standard. You won't go hungry. After dinner there are many jazz clubs and blues bars to visit, all offering live music until the early hours of the morning. Our hotel was minutes away from the late night-life yet during our five night stay we were never disturbed by people turning out to go home at three in the morning as can happen in the UK and late night drinking. The Poles know how to drink. It wasn't unusual to see people of all ages and gender drinking a litre of Polish beer at 9.00am in the morning. Perhaps 'Binge-drinking' isn't in their vocabulary or culture?
We were up early the next day for our trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, thirteen miles outside Krakow and Poland's oldest working salt mine and UNESCO World Culture Heritage site. The mine has ninety miles of galleries, chambers, tunnels and lakes all sculpted from salt, but we were only to walk for about three miles. But first we had to walk down eight hundred steps having been assured we would ascend via a lift! It was far more interesting than I thought it would be illustrating amazing engineering skills from over nine hundred ago. There is a chapel with alter, chandeliers and art all carved from the salt rock complete with a Polish military band 'Ooompahing' away and available for weddings.
We were deep down in the mine for over two hours and I began to feel slightly claustrophobic and wanted to get to the surface. We began queuing for the lift. I had imagined something resembling a large cable car carrying a hundred people at a time as there were thousands of people following on from each other along the tunnels. We queued for a long time. The panic was rising in my throat. Was there something wrong? Suddenly, an official guide grabbed nine of us and we were shoved into a minute industrial miner's cage with no lights. I have never been as intimate with strangers before. Everyone screamed in shock as the tiny cage lifted off in total darkness, shooting to the surface in 45 seconds, then the cage door opened and we all stumbled blinking and disorientated into the reception area. An extremely pretty young Polish woman approached me and said sweetly 'I love your perfume. It smells so good. What is it please?' and I realised that for 45 seconds I had been physically closer to another female than ever before in my life.
Our last day was spent visiting the numerous art galleries in Krakow; all are within easy walking distance of each other as it is a city to explore on foot and at leisure. Krakow has a temperate climate with hot summer days and frosty winter ones complete with a ski season from December to March on the Tatra Mountains, a two hour drive from Krakow. The rest of the year the Tatra Mountains offer hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, cycling and paragliding for the more energetic and activity minded. There are National Parks and castles all within easy reach of this stunning city.
There are many cheap flights to Krakow offered on the Internet as well as a variety of accommodation for the independent traveller.
So be it art, history, culture, academia, music, religion, activity or simply a Cherry Vodka, a coffee and a slice of cheesecake that you fancy, then Krakow has it all.
When I was a child a close family friend visited Krakow several times for work and brought back lots of photographs including some of the Rynek Glowny - Krakow's strikingly beautiful market square. I was instantly enchanted and resolved that one day I would see it for myself.
We arrived In Krakow, Poland's second city and the first UN designated World Heritage Site, by train and without accommodation. We were approached immediately by locals offering rooms to rent but our first stop was to change some money and get some refreshment.
This done, we started trawling the hotels but without any luck. We were on a tight-ish budget but even when we upped the amount we were willing to pay we still had no luck. We then went along to the accommodation bureau by the train station and struck gold. The office can arrange private accommodation in rooms or apartments, with private facilities or sharing with the owners.
We were able to secure an apartment just off the Rynek Glowny with own kitchen and bathroom for just twenty seven pounds per night (for two people). It was an absolute bargain. Had we been willing to go a little further out of the city, we could have paid even less and if we had shared bathroom and cooking facilties with the owner, less still. (I should add that we were not intending to do any cooking, though it did mean that we could buy some lovely bread and cheese for breakfast and eat at our leisure).
The apartment was reached through a passage way off the street and the owner was there at the top of an high iron spiral staircase to greet us. The apartment was on the top (and third floor) but the owner kindly helped me get my rucksck up there.
The apartment was clean, very comfortable and home for the next three days. I wouldn't usually say so much about accommodation in a general review about a city, there's so much more to mention, but I think in this case it's useful information because it shows just what good value you can get for your money when you travel independently.
The Rnyek Glowny is a good place to start; many of the city's famous architectural sights are on this very square - the Town Hall Tower, several churches and probably the best known by sight, the Sukiennice, the vast cloth market hall.
If you are in the square around the top of the hour you will hear the bugler play a fanfare but you'll hear it four times at different volumes because the bugler plays it once at each corner of the tower.
The cloth hall is the centrepiece of the Rynek and is incredibly beautiful. It has two arched entrances leading to the two wide aisles which are lined with stalls selling gorgeous (and reasonably priced) amber jewellery and other souvenirs (some nice, some a bit tacky).
It's lovely to sit outside one of the many bars and cafes on the square and watch the world go by. You'll see loads of nuns crossing the square to and fro (Poland is one of the world's highest contributing countries of nuns and priests to the Catholic church) and there are always at least two or three bands playing around the cloth market. On weekend evenings in particular, the square's cafes and bars are thronged with locals meeting up to meet friends and be seen.
A couple of other bars to mention are The Still Bar which is in a street behind the Rynek and Shakesbeer which is on the same street. The Still Bar is reached through a dark passageway and is no lighter inside but the locals are friendly and were only too happy to advise us where to go to hear live music. Shakesbeer (great pun) is a lively place which was full of Brits, Aussies and Kiwis when we were there. I usually prefer to go to places with a local flavour but this place was lovely.
And while I'm on the subject of local flavour, what about the food?
The best place to go to eat real Polish food is Chlopskie Jadlo on ul. Sw Agnieszki and also Sw Jana 3. The decor is that of a traditional Polish country inn where you sit at wooden tables on settles covered with sheepskins. There is a big old stove in the middle of the restaurant from which hang lovely pots and copper pans. Food includes many Polish specialties including smoked eel (delicious), herrings (which I enjoyed with a couple of vodkas) and various kinds of pierogi which is described as a dumpling but is, I think, nearer to ravioli. The filling can be sweet or savoury but the most common filling is a mixture of fried onion and cabbage. They are very filling, very cheap and are a staple food of the Poles even today.
You will never be stuck for somewhere to eat in this city. While there we had, in addition to traditional Polish food, Mexican, Italian and some fantastic sushi at a fraction of the price you would pay in Britain.
In between meals, you'll be sightseeing of course and Krakow could keep you occupied for weeks, even if you just stay in the city and its environs. Most visitors make for the Wavel but here it's best to see what's on offer and then pick a couple of activities because there's so much to see - state rooms, private rooms, Museum of Music, the Royal Art collection, the Dragons Den and even the beautiful gardens.
We opted for the State Rooms and the Dragons Den and which occupied us a whole morning. The state rooms give an insight into the life of the castle and the various rulers who used it. There are some fantastic tapestries and furniture but the rooms can eventually start to look the same and it's rather dark inside, partly to preserve the exhibits.
The Dragon's Den is also dark but for a different reason. A network of caves were discovered under one of the buildings of the Wavel and visitors can now descend a spiral staircase and see the caves for themselves. It is quite remarkable with the beautiful stalactites and well worth a visit, but perhaps not everyones' cup of tea as they are a little dank and cold.
A fascinating area to see is Kazimierz just on the edge of the main part of town and this merges with and brings you to the old Jewish ghetto. This is Schindler Krakow and the main synagogue and it's cemetery is particularly interesting. (Please remember that men visiting the synagogue should request suitable headwear on arrival).
If you know the story of Oskar Schindler, this is the area where he had his famous factory where he employed and protected many Jews form being sent to concentration camps. There are several companies who offer guided tours around the area pointing out the sites of significant episodes.
Krakow is a city full of museums and cultural attractions; we did not visit many due to time constraints but it seems to me that there is something for everyone with musuems as diverse as the ones dedicated to pharmacy and Asian arts. There are signs outside many of the churches advertising musical events being held there, but the main draw in Krakow (as with much of Poland, we found) is jazz and there are many jazz clubs in town. Harry's on the Rynek Glowny is the best known but we found a great cellar bar with jazz musicians on Florianske, just off the Rynek. There is also a thriving metal/alternative scene and plenty of bars and musci venues for those with such tastes.
Krakow is easily tackled on foot but a fun way to get around is to use the little electric carts which courier passengers between the Rynek and the main attractions (Wavel, Kazimierz, Etc) and operate all day and evening.
With so much going on and only having limited time in Krakow, I felt like I had only scratched the surface. But I do know that after years of having dreamed of visiting this fairy-tale like city I was not disappointed. It lived up to and exceeded my expectations
Krakow is surely one of the best cities in Europe, if you like monuments. It can be very cold in the middle of winter, going to minus 15, and it can be solid packed in summer with tourists. Still, it is a great destination, and you should hurry there before prices go up. You like visiting churches? Then you are in for a treat. Even if you are not a churches buff, starting from the main square of Warsaw, you have St Mary's church. There are 2 towers, and you will see they are asimettric. Legend has it that 2 brothers were commissioned to build them, one got jeaulous of the other and at night he was damaging his brother's work (the one which is less straight). However, one night he was hit by remorse, and the day after he decided to throw himself from the tower he had already finished. There are regular guided tours of the church. You can book organized tours of the city form one of the companies in the old center. Price change, they used to be much cheaper until a couple of years ago. Still, you can book a half day walked tour of the old city and the Castle for 5 euros. Additional tours of the castle are available, read below. Wavel is probably the big attraction in Krakow. You may skip churches, but you should pay a visit to it. It is a huge complex. There are different sections and you will be asked to purchase a ticket for each of them, which is not a bad idea, since it allows you to skip some parts of it. Entry tickets are quite cheap, most of them for less than one pound Many Jewish people lived in Krakow before WWII. A visit to the Jewish ghetto will allow you to see the remains of the wall which separated them from the rest of the city. You can also visit the synagogue, when I did it last time, there was an old rabbi, and the whole place, it was winter, was a bit chilling. To cheer you up, the old center has many venues where you can enter for free or for little money. Some of the most famous names
have more English speaking amongst their guests than the average pub in London! Finally, for accommodation, please refer to my previous review on Poland. Thank you for reading. Rating not important
Krakow is a former City Of Culture and is also a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the capital of Poland for over 500 years and unlike many other Polish cities, it came through World War 2 relatively unscathed. By the outbreak of World War 2, the city had 70,000 Jews living in it. During the war, Krakow, like all other Polish cities, witnessed the silent departure of Jews who were never to be seen again. It is in this city that the Oscar winning film Schindler's List was filmed. I am sure that you will recognise several of the places as I did when you wander around. The city centre has an old world atmosphere and is centred around the main square. You will find a fine selection of cellar bars selling the high quality Polish beers of Zywiec and HB. I can't think of a better way to spend a freezing cold, wet evening in February than to go into one of these.There are also many eating places and if you venture towards the Kazimirez District you will have the perfect opportunity to sample authentic Jewish Cuisine. I have seen the city in all seasons and can recommend it on a crisp autumn day. There are less tourists around at this time and you can find accomodation more easily. SIGHTSEEING * Wawel Hill and Castle - this is the most historical area of Poland. It was the seat of the kings for over 500 years. Here you will also find the cathedral which was once the home of the current Pope Jean Paul II. The only drawback you may find (as I did on one trip) is the hoards of school children being shown around. As such, try and visit on a weekend when they aren't running everywhere. * Kazimirez - here there is a small 300m square in Kazimirez makes up the Jewish Quarter. It is somewhat run-down with only the architecture revealing what was once a Jewish town. Miraculously most of the synagogues survived the war though only two of them continue to exist as places of worship. Some of the area was used in
shots of the film Schindler’s List. It is here that you can find several Jewish restaurants serving Kosher food. Look carefully at the price lists as some are more expensive than others. * The Krakow Dragon - this mythical creature has a statue dedicated to his existence. The statue actually breathes fire if you catch him at the right moment. You can also visit his lair which is fun for children (although if you visit during school outings it will be an absolute nightmare) * St Mary's Cathedral - this is located on the Rynek and it is here that a Polish tune called the hejnal is played on the trumpet from the tower every hour. There are only five notes played in memory of the soldier who had an arrow pierce his throat while he was playing. It is a strange sound as you keep waiting for more and more to follow - but it never does. * Market Sqaure - there is a huge indoor market with a selection of traditional Polish handicafts. The prices of the goods are very low compared to UK prices. I managed to pick up quite a few bargains for Christmas presents such as carved wooden bowls and also some really warm mountain goat wool gloves. It is also worth a trip to the cellar bar here to sample the hot mead if you are there in winter. It will soon warm you up ACCOMODATION There are some reasonably priced rooms in the vicinity of the railway station that range from about £15 for a double room per night. The Polonia is an excellent place to stay and has a real old world feel. TRANSPORT There are good rail links to all major Polish cities and also places such as Zakopane in the mountains. There is a small international airport on the outskirts of the city. One way of visiting the city is on a day trip. Several companies such as Transun offer the destination in their day trip schedules. Getting around the city is very easy as there are lots of trams and buses which cover most areas of the ci
ty FURTHER AFIELD If you decide to stay in the city Auschwitz is well worth a visit as it is about 30 miles away. It is also worth venturing to see the Salt Mines (as long as you go early in the day). WARNINGS * Many of the shops tend to be closed on a Sunday unlike in the UK. * If you decide to take a trip to Auschwitz make sure you catch a bus rather than the train. For a 30 mile trip it can take 2 1/2 hours on the local train as it stops at every haystack! SUMMARY * Most of the major sights within the city are easily accessible on foot. Though if you are feeling a little lazy the public transport is excellent. * It is a relatively cheap destination to visit. * There are lots of good cafes and bars on the Main Square and on the streets leading just off it. * There is plenty to see and do.
The second largest city in Poland after the capital Warsaw, Krakow is a veritable treasure chest of interesting architecture and culture.