Krakow. Whenever I heard about fellow travelers’ experiences in Poland, this city was one of the first words off their lips, or off the proverbial lips of blogs. Krakow was a clear favorite of many and given these high praises I wondered how it would all hold up in person. I had created high expectations and wondered if they would be met. And perhaps part of me wanted my opinion to differ. After all, had all these people set aside two weeks to travel around Poland? Surely I would prefer less touristy city like Wroclaw.
There is certainly more to Poland than just the city of Krakow and the country deserves more time of a traveler to experience its diversity. Yet I’m going to admit it - I utterly fell in love with Krakow. It’s a must-visit on any Poland itinerary, and if I were to formally draw up a top 10 of Europe list, Krakow would make the cut.
Let me try to back my opinion up - if the food alone doesn't convince you, here are some things I did and saw that made me join the ranks with many others declaring Krakow a Polish favorite.
Take a walk
Exploring cities on foot is my favorite ways to get familiar with a city. Krakow is no different and it’s an easily manageable city to walk everywhere.Here are some of the things I saw on my strolls:
Let's get a feel for Krakow, starting with the Rynek Główny.
It seems like a natural starting point. It’s the center of Krakow and is huge - the largest medieval square in Europe. From this angle we’re looking at St. Mary’s Basilica (above), and in the photo below we have our backs to the church. But here’s the thing - in most European cities, these would create the boundaries of the main square. But on the other side of that building (called the Sukiennice, meaning the cloth hall) is the other half of the square! The Sukiennice is worth visiting for its museum (and its cafe I wrote about), but more on that a little later.
Take your time and enjoy the Rynek Główny. Michael has declared it his favorite square in Europe to date, and while I don’t know if I can name a definite favorite, it’s definitely up there.
If you get hungry wandering around Rynek Główny, you’ll notice that there are lots of carts lining the square selling what we nicknamed “free bagels.” They look similar to bagels and come in a few flavors, like with poppyseeds or plain. Yet they are definitely not bagels. Some refer to them as Polish pretzels, and an article by the Wall Street Journal named them as obwarzanek krakowski. They make a great snack despite whatever you decide to call them, and at a price of about $0.50 (USD) each you might just go back and try every flavor variation!
But I digress. Keep walking to work up an appetite for pierogies later.
If you want to get away from the main tourist area, cross the river from the cool Kazimierz district. I headed this way to see the Plac Bohaterów Getta (translates to Ghetto Heroes Square and pictured on the right, below). During WWII the Jews were forced out of Kazimierz into the Podgórze ghetto which was here. This square was also where Jews were rounded up and sent out to death camps. They left their belongings behind here, which inspired the redesign of the square. 70 empty chairs fill the square to symbolize the absence of their owners, people who would never get to return.
In this area we also saw part of the ghetto wall still standing (see the picture on the left). Notice how the wall was designed to look like tombstones to surround the Jews who were forced to live within its bounds. These aren't the cheeriest of sites to see, but a large part of what inspired me to travel to Krakow was to connect with its grim past.
If you’re still up for more walking to see something likely not in your guidebook, keep walking south to the Kopiec Krakusa. When we travel, our division of labor is that I do the research on where to go beforehand and Michael provides the navigation to selected places on the trip. Even when my research leads to obscure places, Michael still leads the way on my adventure. Can you guess what it is?
If you said pagan burial mound, you are correct! It’s a mysterious mound surrounded by legend that the founder of Krakow, King Krak, is buried here. It’s free to climb, and although the view wasn't as wonderful as I had hoped, it was a quirky little stop to get away from the main part of the city and explore this park of sorts.
Jumping back to town, up north of Rynek Główny is the Stary Kleparz covered market. There has been a market here for over 600 years, making the it oldest continuous market in Krakow. It isn’t like London’s Borough Market or Budapest’s Central Market Hall where you go to eat (and it’s much smaller than either of those); it’s more for locals to purchase produce, food, and other trinkets. I enjoy markets like this to see what people are shopping for and to learn some names of foods in the local language. It isn't a must-see in my opinion, but a nice stop if you’re in the area (especially if markets are a happy place for you like they are for me).
You’ll of course want to see some of Krakow’s sites as well. Here’s what I recommend doing in Krakow:
Schindler’s Factory Museum (Fabryka Emalia Oaskara Schindlera):
You’ve probably heard of Oskar Schindler, even if only in association with the movie Schindler's List. Schindler came to Krakow after the Nazis invaded Poland and took over this factory (where the museum now stands) that was owned by Jewish businessmen. The factory produced metal pots and cookware, and once Schindler took over, it also made products like artillery shells and such for the German military. He employed Jewish workers at the factory. When the Nazis were liquidating Krakow’s Jewish ghetto and sending the Jews to their death, Schindler argued that he needed his employees to continue working at the factory. He was allowed to relocate his Jewish staff (at his expense) to a new location he had secured in Bohemia. Schindler was able to save over 1,000 Jews who were later liberated by Soviet forces.
The museum is more focused on the history of Krakow during WWII than the story of the factory and its famous owner. However, there was a good short film that told the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved, and you can enter his former office. I was really interested in his story and would have loved to read more about the factory, but perhaps I just need to set aside the time to watch the notoriously long movie. I still do highly recommend the museum for those like me who are interested in learning some WWII history and trying to understand what Krakow endured during those dark days. Just imagine - the Rynek Główny that I showed you in the beginning of the walk once went by the name Adolf-Hitler-Platz.
Schindler’s Factory Museum [Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa, Fabryka Schindlera]
4 Lipowa Street, 30-702 Kraków
Opening hours: Winter season (November – March): Monday 10am-2pm, Tuesday - Sunday 10am-6pm / Summer season (April – October) Monday 10am-4pm except every first Monday of the month (open until 2pm), Tuesday - Sunday 10am-8pm
Admission: 19 PLN adults, reduced rate of 16 PLN, free admission to the permanent exhibition every Monday on a first-come first-serve basis (prices as of Jan 2015)
Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej):
Next door to Schindler's Factory is the Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej). I really enjoyed this art museum, and the price was right since we happened to go on a Tuesday when entry is free all day.
Museum of Contemporary Art [Muzeum Sztuki Współczesnej w Krakowie MOCAK]
4 Lipowa St, 30-702 Krakow
Opening hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 am-7 pm
Admission: Normal price 10 PLN, reduced price 5 PLN, free for children under 7 years old, free admission on Tuesdays (prices as of Jan 2015)
Don’t forget about the nearby Sweet Surrender cafe for a lunch or coffee break when you’re visiting either of the above museums!
Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX Wieku):
The other museum I really enjoyed was the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art (Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX Wieku). I’ve mentioned it previously as its cafe has a wonderful view over the Rynek Główny square. But do check out the museum as well. I really didn’t know much about any Polish artists and really enjoyed seeing their work.
Also note that both of these art museums are modest in size, so it’s easily doable to do a visit within an hour at each.You won’t feel overloaded or overwhelmed as you tackle the collections.
Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art (Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie Galeria Sztuki Polskiej XIX wieku w Sukiennicach) [English version of the website is not up yet as of Jan 2015]
Rynek Główny 3, 31-000 Kraków
Opening hours: Closed Monday, Tuesday - Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 10am-4pm
Admission: Normal price 14 PLN, reduced price 8 PLN, children 7 years old and under are free, free admission to the permanent collection of Sundays (prices as of Jan 2015)
The last attraction to see is the Wawel Castle. I’ve been to a fair share of European castles and palaces and honestly can’t say the Wawel Castle ranks up there with the more memorable ones. I enjoyed other castles in Poland more, though I really loved walking around its grounds.
You can walk through the grounds and enter the cathedral for free. There are a few museums you can pay for entry to, and we chose to follow Rick Steves’ advice by only going into the Royal State Rooms. Pretty rooms to walk through, but just wait until I show you what’s inside the the Royal Castle in Warsaw!
Wawel Royal Castle State Rooms
Wawel 5, 31-001 Kraków
Opening hours: closed Mondays, April 1st-Oct 31st: Tuesday - Friday 9:30am-5pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm / November 1st-March 31st: Tuesday - Saturday 9:30am-4pm, Sunday 10am-4pm
See website for special closure dates
Admission: High season normal price 18 PLN, 11 PLN reduced rate / low season (Dec-March) normal price 16 PLN, 9 PLN reduced rate, free admission for the entire month of November! (prices as of Jan 2015)
Exploring Krakow shouldn’t stop after dinner! Discover some of the cool hang out spots in Kazimierz by evening. Have some Polish beer and be sure to try some of many, many flavors of flavored vodka that Poland boasts. Na zdrowie! (Cheers!)