We visited Poland for a week in February 2018. After Warsaw, we went to Krakow.
What we Did
We spent a lot of time in the Old Town. We enjoyed walking through the Planty, the city’s former moat that is now a park, which surrounds the entire Old Town center. It snowed off and on during our stay, which was kind of quaint and just felt right for the city.
Like the moats, much of the old city walls were removed. A few remain near the 14th Century Florian Gate and the 16th Century Barbican. Near these, we also saw a monument to Jan Matejko, a famous painter from Krakow.
We went many times to Rynek Glowny, Krakow’s market square, the largest in Europe. There you can find the Town Hall Tower, the only remains of Krakow’s 15th century town hall. You can also visit the Cloth Hall. Originally from the 14th century and built to house the clothing trade, the Cloth Hall is now home to stalls of artisans and other vendors selling tourist tchotchkes.
The other large attraction in the square is St. Mary’s Basilica. From the outside, we made sure to listen for the hourly (on the hour) trumpeter playing the hejnal (trumpet call). We also toured the inside of the church which has existed in its current state since the 1750s. It is beautifully ornate inside, almost too much so if you are prone to sensory overload. You must pay extra to be able to photograph its unique blue and gold ceiling. Additionally, there is a separate entrance if you are visiting the church to attend mass.
Underneath the Rynek Glowny is a surprise (to me) attraction, the Rynek Underground Museum. Amidst archaeological ruins and artifacts, this museum tells the history of Krakow back to the Middle Ages. While there, you are literally walking among the centuries-old ruins of the square. We enjoyed this museum as it put what was above us into historical context. It had some unique hands-on exhibit elements for our son to interact with.
We spent half a day touring the various sites at Wawel Hill, and easily could have spent more time there. First, we toured the 16th Century Wawel Castle. Highlights for me there were an extensive collection of tapestries made in Brussels, wooden carvings of heads that adorned the ceiling in the Hall of Deputies, and the large collection of art on display. I seriously can’t believe I just said tapestries were a highlight. I’ve never been all that excited by tapestries, but the more time I spent looking at these, the more I was impressed by their level of detail and storytelling. Pictures were not allowed within the castle, so I’m sorry, I don’t have images to share.
We visited the Lost Wawel exhibit (an additional ticket price). It featured archaeological artifacts, mainly building ruins and beautiful tiles. We saw a lot of instances of large, tiled stoves in Poland that were used to heat buildings. They were beautiful. I’ve really come to appreciate tile work since living in Europe! Tile work and tapestries, apparently.
Unfortunately, the Treasury and Armory of the Castle were closed during our visit. I think our son would have enjoyed those.
Wawel Cathedral was lovely, and like St. Mary’s Basilica, incredibly ornate. What was most interesting to me about this cathedral was the wide variety of architectural styles represented by all its chapels. It is the most varied in design of any cathedrals we’ve seen in Europe so far. From the exterior it looks like a total hodgepodge.
Our last stop at Wawel was supposed to be the Dragon’s Den, the tunnels leading down and out of the Castle grounds that are, according to folklore, the remains of the home of the castle’s dragon. Our son was excited to see this, but unfortunately, it was closed for the winter season during our visit. However, we still got to see the statue of the dragon at the base of the hill. If you wait long enough, he’ll breathe fire for you!
We visited the Płaszów labor and death camp that was built and run by Nazi Germans in 1943-44. While operating, it held 25,000 Jews from the Podgorze ghetto in Krakow. This camp is the setting of the story told in the movie Schindler’s List. There was so much to see here and I have a lot to say about it, so I have decided to devote a separate post to it. Stay tuned.
We made a day trip from Krakow to the “painted village” of Zalipie. I wrote a separate post about that (link).
What we ate
We ate all our breakfasts at our hotel as it was included in the rate. They served a nice variety of options, mostly European breakfast foods (pastries, meats, breads, fruit, yogurt), but also had eggs and sausages and some Polish sweets. I overhead some Polish women telling some British men that they must have some of the sweet treats with their breakfast. They said it was a “must” in Poland!
One day we stopped in a café, Cakester, for a treat. They served teas, coffees, and cakes. It was a fun café concept, though we were there late in the day and the options for cakes were getting slim.
I was excited to try the local specialty, Obwarzanek, a bread treat that is kind of a cross between a hot pretzel and a bagel. They are covered in salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, or a combination of any of the above. These are sold by street vendors all over the city. I had very high hopes for this and ended up being disappointed in each one I tried. They are baked fresh in the mornings and if you don’t get one fresh, within a few hours they start to get hard and stale. I never did get a fresh, hot one.
We had a very non-Polish meal at a Canadian burger place, Antler Poutine & Burger. The burgers were good but messy. The poutine was great, especially to warm us up on a cold, snowy day.
We enjoyed a great salad and pizza at Ratuszowa, a restaurant in a really cool location underneath the Town Hall Tower. You feel like you are eating in a dungeon. The menu has a lot of options beyond what we ate.
We really enjoyed a dinner at Milkbar Tomasza, a modern take on the classic Polish milkbar concept. Milkbars became popular during Poland’s communist era. They were known for cheap eats in no-fuss diner settings. I had their daily special, carrot soup and a pork schnitzel, which was not at all like the German schnitzel I was imagining, but it was good!
We enjoyed a Polish meal at a pub called Dog in the Fog. Here is where I finally got to try the Polish dish, Bigos, along with some wonderful potato pancakes. Bigos is the kind of dish that varies by its maker, and by what leftover ingredients are sitting around the kitchen when it is prepared, but it mainly consists of sauerkraut, mushrooms, carrots, and sausage. I enjoyed it. Maybe it is in my genes, but I’ve always loved sauerkraut. While looking for the website for this pub for this blog, I found some negative reviews online about their service, so much so that I feel like I need to mention it. I will say, we didn’t feel super welcomed when we walked in, as an employee glared at us, said nothing, and turned around and walked away, but I chalked it up to cultural differences in hospitality. For me, the food made up for it, but consider yourself warned.
Perhaps my favorite meal of this entire trip was our sandwiches at Meat & Go, a fancy sandwich place in a part of Krakow called Tytano. Tytano is a former tobacco plant that now houses restaurants, bars, clubs, and arts and cultural venues. It was the first and only example of large-scale, modern urban renewal I saw in Poland. I reminded me a lot of the revitalization of old tobacco plants and warehouses in North Carolina, both in concept and in abundance of hipsters. My husband and son had porchetta sandwiches with slow cooked pork, my husband’s was the “hot” version. I tried their pork and it was delicious. I had the Rueben sandwich which was so good, I will now compare all future Reubens I eat to it. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. I think that I will randomly crave that sandwich for the rest of my life.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Hotel Fortuna. It was just a few blocks from the Planty and Rynek Glowny, so it was a good location. Located in what must have once been nice homes or apartments, the building is cool, but the common areas and our room could use some renovations and updates. From the website, it does look like some of their rooms have been updated, but ours hadn’t been. It has private parking and you can include breakfast with your booking, so those are nice features.
What we Missed
Maybe if I had gone to the Obwarzanek Museum, I could have made my own, fresh obwarzanek to eat. It looks interesting!
Another popular tourist attraction nearby is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a deep salt mine with hand carved chapels, tunnels, and monuments. This looks like a fun place to visit with kids.
Aside from going to Płaszów, we didn’t visit the Kazimierz or Podgorze areas. This means we missed the Jewish Quarter, the remains of the ghetto wall, old cemeteries and synagogues, and Schindler’s Factory Museum.
We intended to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau but did not secure tickets in time. Auschwitz implemented new ticket policies in January 2018. It is advised to secure your tickets well in advance of your visit. Day-of-visit tickets seem to be impossible to get. Visiting Płaszów was a suitable alternative for us.
I enjoyed Krakow. Overall, it felt more charming and less depressed than Warsaw to me, apart from the death camp, of course. Certain parts of the city were so charming and unique, especially while it was snowing, it felt like I was walking on a movie set. That said, I may have been over-romanticizing it because I felt a personal connection to the country’s history. Krakow seemed to be more of a tourist destination than Warsaw, but they both offer a lot of history to explore and unique experiences for travelers.