Krakow seems to be one of those destination’s which has became popular in recent times with the help of the low cost airlines operating there offering cheap flights from around Europe. That and a lot of positive reports in the media hyped up everything about the city. Just about everyone I know has been there and they all raved about how fantastic the city is. I guess I built it up a bit too much in my head because when I got there I initially wasn’t that impressed.
It didn’t really help that the first 2 days there we were completely fogged in so there wasn’t much sightseeing or exploring going on. It felt like we’d gone back in time to the prime of communism. Grey, bleak, and cold, just how I imagined life to be under communism. But eventually the fog lifted and I could see more than 10 metres in front of me and I started to warm to the city, in fact I started to fall in love with the city.
Not having made any plans as to what to do or see, we first headed the main square which you can’t miss because it’s massive. There was some kind of military parade going on and there were thousands of people everywhere. The last thing I wanted was to push through the crowds so we took the first form of transport out of there.
Yep, we went on a horse and buggy ride around the city. That is quite possibly the most touristy thing I have ever done in my life but hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it and it was actually quite fun and relaxing and not at all stinky.
The Poles are a religious bunch and Krakow is home to something like 120 churches. Our driver/guide kept pointing out all the religious places of interest but I firmly believe that if you’ve seen one church you’ve seen them all. Sure they’re pretty but I have no desire to go inside them and look around.
One day we met up with a friend of a friend of a friend who showed us around the town for a bit. She kept pointing out all the churches too. She wasn’t too impressed when I told her I wasn’t interested in churches and that I was in fact an atheist but she kept showing me more churches anyway. I had no choice but to snap a couple of photos.
Eventually I got her to talk about other stuff and one of the things I was curious about was the bar mleczny which are ‘milk bars’ set up by the government during communism. They were created and subsidised by the Polish government to provide the people with cheap meals and to create a market for local farmers. They originally sold dairy based vegetarian meals but some meat dishes were later added. After the fall of communism most of them shut down due to the loss of subsidies but a few remain which are quite popular because the food there is very, very cheap.
A bar mleczny is basically just a cafeteria type restaurant and I wanted to try it out of curiosity but the menu (which was written on the wall) was in Polish, obviously, and I had no way of figuring out what was what. I couldn’t get anyone to help translate and there wasn’t food on display to point to so I gave up. When I told the Polish lady that I wanted to try it she thought it was the most ridiculous thing and said only peasants and homeless people eat there. I’m sure that’s not the case and next time I’m going to eat there no matter what.
Most of the streets around the main market square are packed with bars, cafes and restaurants, most of which didn’t exist 10 years ago. You can find traditional Polish cuisine and pretty much any other cuisine too. Most places had Polish vodkas on offer which come in just about every flavour imaginable. You can have vodka shots, mixed vodka drinks or coffee/hot chocolate with a shot of vodka. I recommend the raspberry vodka if you get a chance to try it. Cafe Camelot is a cosy little cafe where you can try local vodkas as well as coffees and light meals.
By the time I made it up to the Wawel Castle, I’d had enough of playing tourist. Wawel is the most visited site in Poland and the Crown Treasury, State Rooms etc in the castle area are supposed to be some of the highlights of a trip to Krakow but I couldn’t bring myself to wait in the queues to get in. Instead we just wandered around for a bit and then went back to the main square and drank vodka.
Kazimierz, The Jewish Quarter
By far the best meal we had in Krakow was at the Arenda Cafe Restaurant in Kazimierz. We were wandering around for ages looking for a place to eat and were so lucky to have stumbled upon this place. We each had the set menu which had four courses: zucchini soup (with delicious home made bread), grilled vegetables, cheese and spinach pierogi, and raspberry cheese cake. The food was amazing, the 5 star service was unexpected, and it wasn’t expensive. I loved this place and am considering going back to Krakow this summer just to eat there again.
Around the corner from the Arenda Cafe you can try the famous Polish street food, Zapiekanka which is a toasted baguette with pizza like toppings. I had read about these before I arrived but only found them on our last day. This is one thing I regret not trying because they looked delicious but we’d already eaten that day so I missed out.
I wouldn’t go to Krakow for shopping but if you’re interested in crafts or souvenirs, check out the medieval Cloth Hall (the building in the first photo above). I almost bought one of the hand crafted, wood carved chess sets but the practical side of me decided I’d have no where to put it in my tiny apartment. I was also tempted by some of the locally designed hand bags which were available in both the Cloth Hall and in a little store at the large and very modern shopping centre, Galeria Krakowska, just next to the main train station.
Day Trips from Krakow
Auschwitz / Birkenau – I found this to be the most interesting of the day trips and even with a short visit you can learn so much more than you ever would from a text book.
Wieliczka Salt Mine – So many people suggested I visit the salt mines for the fascinating salt sculptures and salt cathedral but it’s way overrated if you ask me. It would be ok if you could do a quick visit but you have to do a tour which drags on and on…
Nowa Huta – Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit Nowa Huta, a communist built town for working class people and a centre for heavy industry in Poland. Tours to Nowa Huta show what it was like to live under communism but you don’t have to do a tour, you can easily get there via public transport and have a look around. This is something I’ll do on my next trip to Poland.
The more time I spent in Krakow the more I liked it (except for the crowds) and the more interested I became in Poland itself. I would put Krakow in the same category as Prague and Dubrovnik, great cities almost ruined by the hordes of tourists but not to the point where I don’t want to return.