Krakow (and Poland in general) has been on my travel radar for a long time but somehow I never had the chance for a visit. This changed when a friend of mine moved back to Krakow and invited me over for a weekend in December. Who cares about grey and cold weather, I certainly didn’t: my flight was booked within a second and Krakow was awaiting me with its winter charm.
Krakow – what to expect and where to eat
Krakow and its surroundings have a lot to offer and 3 days hardly do it justice:
- there are hundreds (no kidding) of old, beautiful churches,
- great museums,
- the Jewish district with several Synagogues to visit,
- food, markets, restaurants and pubs that will make you happy and
- the close-by memorial and museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (former Nazi Concentration Camp).
In other words: if you like history and culture, Krakow is your place to go. Just go for a walk and enter the churches that appeal to you or pick a certain synagogue or museum. Don’t forget to take a break of sightseeing though and try some Polish food. The Polish cuisine is quite heavy, meat- and potato-laden and perfect for cold days (I am not sure I would have eaten as much in summer). They also have good bread!
Here is a list of good restaurants that serve traditional Polish dishes (recommended and tested by my friend who has lived in Krakow for several years):
- Miod Malina – Grodzka St. (next to main square), cheap ($).
- Polskie smaki – Tomasza St. (next to Szczepanski square and also close to main square).
- Morskie Oko – Szczepanski square (close to main square): they have traditional Polish mountain style food.
- Ed Red – Slawkowska street: a fairly new place in town, my friend called them the “masters of meat” – it’s traditional Polish cuisine with a modern twist.
- Marchewka z Groszkiem – Jewish district, Mostowa St., very cheap ($).
- Kuchnia U Doroty – Jewish district, Augustianska St., very cheap ($).
- Gościnna Chata – Sławkowska St.: apart from traditional Polish food they also have Lemko cuisine (Lemkos are a small ethnic sub-group from the South-East of Poland). They are a tad more expensive ($$$).
- Szynk – Podbrzezie Street, Jewish district.
- Miodova – Miodowa Street (next to Starowislna street), Jewish district, expensive ($$$).
- Then there is also a range of Jewish restaurants on Szeroka Street like Klezmer Hois, Awiw or Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu.
I went to Gościnna Chata and to Szynk and liked both places a lot. Polish restaurants tend to have quite a rustic feeling, they have heavy wood tables and country-style tablecloths. Also, don’t forget to try their hot beer – it sounds disgusting but it is actually not bad and just the beer equivalent to mulled wine (it is hot beer with ginger syrup but I also saw it with blackcurrant or raspberry syrup).
For a good and comfy cafe, I recommend Les Couleurs (Kolory Cafe) on Estery St. It is a bit arty and the perfect place to take a rest after a walk in Kazimierz.
As you can see, you basically only need to stay close to the main square and the Jewish District where you will find most restaurants and sightseeing stops.
Krakow – Sightseeing and Museums
Visiting Krakow in Winter has its pros and cons: there are definitely a lot less tourists compared to the warmer months of the year (although I was still surprised of how many there were in December) but it is dark and cold, sometimes rainy and some attractions close earlier than in summer months. This is the reason why I need to come back to Krakow and visit Auschwitz at another time of the year: I trusted that it will be open until the afternoon but it actually closes at 2 p.m. in December (the opening hours depend on which month it is, have a look at them here).
Nevertheless, there is still a lot to see and do and one of the most important things you should do is to visit the Wawel Castle. The Wawel Castle is more than a castle, it is like a small town on a hill with its own cathedral (the Wawel Cathedral). I found both the castle and the cathedral impressive: the castle consists of several buildings, showcasing different architectural styles. The same is true for the cathedral (and for many other churches in Krakow) that was built and enlarged over several centuries.
Beneath the cathedral is the St. Leonard’s Crypt which holds the tombs of Polish kings, saints and other notable Polish persons. I learnt that the remains of former president Lech Kaczyński and his wife are buried there as well and although I knew of the plane crash from 2010, I was not aware that their deaths are still discussed in Polish media and politics. It seems that this is a rather delicate topic (among the many controversial decisions and actions of the current Polish government).
Leaving the Wawel castle, I recommend wandering through the streets of the Jewish district and visiting one of the synagogues. My favourite was the Old Synagogue (where I was sadly not allowed to take pictures) which is the oldest synagogue left in Poland and now a museum. If you ever wanted to learn more about Jewish rituals, the Old Synagogue is your place to be.
If you are more of an explorative kind of person or you’re travelling with children, I think the Rynek Underground Museum is the best option for you. This is a fairly new museum which is literally located right beneath the main square. You can visit tunnels and the remains of streets, houses and cemeteries that were discovered by archaeologists some 10 years ago. The exhibition also shows how Krakow has developed since its early beginnings (2000 BCE), the history of its trading and how and where its inhabitants lived. This is a very modern museum with many interactive screens and it is a must if you would like to learn and know more about Krakow.
My friend and I were not the only people interested in the museum, though: it seems to be quite popular among adults and families alike and it’s best to reserve tickets for the next day.
Although I loved the Underground Museum, I liked the Museum of Contemporary Arts (MOCAK) even more: the museum shows art of the last two decades, ranging from pictures, over modern sculptures and videos to 3-dimensional design (like the room above). One of the current exhibitions was Art Taken Out of the Ordinary by Daniel Spoerri, featuring collages that showed a weird but fascinating output of how the artist processes our daily life and leftovers.
Another room showed different videos and I ended up watching one of them for almost 20 minutes. It showed a group of men sitting together and commenting on a video about everyday life in the streets of Vienna. Nothing special, some comments are funny, others clever or even deep and meaningful, and then there are the occasional racist remarks. The men are all members of an extreme right-wing party from Lithuania and although this is clear from the beginning, the video itself is not judgemental. It is in fact very calm and almost ordinary. And this is why it is also so disturbing. Anyway, it is the perfect example of why I like art, it moves you in a certain way.
My last recommendation is something that I sadly couldn’t do myself, it is taking a guided tour to Nowa Huta (a part of Krakow that was built during communism). Please learn from my mistake and better plan ahead: the tours are sold out a couple of days in advance. I wanted to take the communism tour with Crazy Guides that will take you to Nowa Huta in a genuine Trabant but they had no free tour left.
Krakow – A Conclusion and Outlook
My three days in Krakow were more than worth the visit. Krakow is beyond entertaining with its many bars, restaurants, historic buildings and places as well as museums. The city is also not too big, you won’t be overwhelmed but pleasantly surprised of its cultural and arty atmosphere. Also, it is damn cheap!
My next visit will definitely include a tour to Auschwitz and to Nowa Huta. Another thing that I didn’t have the time to explore were Polish natural cosmetics but my friend mentioned two brands (Ziaja and tołpa) that I would like to check out next time. As to perfume, I could not resist and paid the local niche perfumery a visit – the respective Perfume Shopping in Krakow post is already in process 😉
Have you been to Krakow or would you like to go?