Visiting Kraków in Poland
Situated at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains on the banks of the Vistula river, Kraków is Poland's second largest city. Dating back to the 7th century, the city was the capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569. A center of Polish academic, cultural and economic life during this period, the city continues to be a fascinating place to visit.
I spent a year living in Kraków, working as a teacher of English as a foreign language. It is a beautiful city and was a great place to live. With its large student population, Kraków is an old place with a young, vibrant energy. Famous for its nightlife, the clubs and bars are full of activity from dusk till dawn.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Kraków?
The best times of year to visit Kraków are in the fall and the spring. Summer can be hot and humid. Winters can be bitingly cold, although seeing the city under a blanket of plentiful snow can be pretty beautiful. I spent a year in Kraków and, frankly, the winters dragged on. A white snowy landscape can look beautiful to begin with. But as the weeks of snow turn to months, looking out at nothing but gray and white day after day can eventually become a little depressing. One advantage of coming during the winter is the chance of bagging a cheap hotel room. May to August is peak tourist season when rooms are obviously much more expensive.
Getting to Kraków
Kraków Airport (also known as John Paul II International Airport Kraków - Balice) (IATA: KRK) is the main airport, located in Balice, about 12km to the west of the centre. It is the second biggest airport in Poland. Trains from Kraków run regularly to the Polish cities of Katowice (2 hrs) and Warsaw (2.5 - 3hrs).
Getting Around Kraków
With most landmarks within easy walking distance from one another, the best way to enjoy old Kraków is on foot. Public transport around the city is also good. Trams and buses serve the city well at reasonable prices. You can buy tickets at kiosks. Immediately after boarding a bus or tram you should put the ticket through the ticket puncher yourself and keep it till you reach your destination. Taxis are also plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
Kraków Old Town is the historic central district of the city. The entire medieval old town is among the first sites chosen for the UNESCO's original World Heritage List. The Main Square, Rynek Główny, is the largest medieval town square of any European city. It's a great place to spend a chilled out afternoon.
The Old Town can be lively and crowded. Horse-drawn carriages wait to give tourists a ride around the sights, which include the Town Hall Tower, the Sukiennice (also known as the Cloth Hall), and the Adam Mickiewicz Monument.
The heynal (a trumpet call), is played each hour from the highest tower of St. Mary's Church. The medieval basements and cellars beneath the buildings of the Old Town contain cafes, pubs and clubs. If you are looking for a good night, one of the bars on the main square is an excellent place to start.
The Wawel Royal Castle is a historically and culturally important site. It was the the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood for centuries. The Castle is now an art museum, with paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, porcelain and period furniture. There are permanent exhibitions which you can pay to see. These include: State rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, Lost Wawal and Oriental Art. Get there early to avoid queues. Some exhibitions can sell out quickly. There are great views from the top of the hill over the town and the river.
What is the Wawel Dragon?
The Wawel Dragon, also known as the Dragon of Wawel Hill, is a famous dragon in Polish folklore. The dragon supposedly had a lair in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill. In some stories the dragon lived before the founding of the city, when the area was inhabited by farmers. There is a sculpture of the dragon at the foot of Wawel Hill.
To the south of the Old Town is the district of Kazimierz. For many centuries, this was a place where Christian and Jewish communities co-existed. The north-eastern part of the district was historic Jewish. The Jewish inhabitants were forcibly relocated in 1941 by the German occupying forces into the ghetto across the river.
The area received worldwide exposure in the 1990s thanks to the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List. Today, Kazimierz is a bustling and bohemian district, with cafes and art galleries. Europe's largest Jewish festival of culture and music, The Jewish Culture Festival, takes place in the area every June.
It's a great place to explore. There are lots of lovely old buildings and some fascinating architecture. There are various walking tours available, if you want somebody to guide you around the area.
You can learn more about the story of Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving almost 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Schindler's Factory is now an impressive and interactive museum which tells the moving story of the city from 1939 to 1945.
Eat Polish Food in Kraków
For authentic home-cooked Polish cuisine, you should check out a bar mleczny (milk bar). Originally set up as inexpensive canteen for Polish workers, these were popular places to eat during communism. Some typical Polish dishes include:
- Pierogi: Dumplings with meat, spices and vegetables.
- Kielbasa: Sausages with fried onions and dill.
- Kotlet schabowy: Pork shnitzel dipped in egg and flour and coated in breadcrumbs.
- Placki ziemniaczane: Potato pancakes with a rich beef goulash.
- Barszcz: Beetroot soup.
Nightlife in Kraków
One thing Krakow is not short of is bars. As night falls, head out and explore some of the many night spots. Here are five to get you going:
- Alchemia. With its shabby vintage decor, this hip venue in the Jewish quarter plays host to music events and cultural nights.
- Propaganda. A Kazimierz favourite, this bar is full of memories of communist times. Enjoy the chic decor and slogans on the walls.
- Klub Alternatywy. Head deep down into this retro spot and enjoy 80s sounds, a shot bar and a dance floor.
- Wódka Café Bar. This small cellar bar is famous for its tasting trays with flavoured vodkas.
- Piękny Pies. Open 24 hours a day, 5 days a week. This place is for the serious drinkers.
If you want to get away from the medieval charm and tourists of the Old Town, you might like to head on over to Nowa Huta. One of only two entirely pre-planned socialist realist cities ever built (the other being Magnitogorsk in Russia’s Ural Mountains), it was intended to be an ideal city. Funded by the Soviet Union, it was created with wide, tree-lined avenues, parks, lakes and buildings in the approved architectural style of the time - Socialist Realism. Take a tram to Plac Centralny and you'll find yourself in the middle of Nowa Huta.
If you want to get to know the area with the help of a local guide, Crazy Guides provide the novelty of a tour of the area in a genuine Eastern Bloc Trabant 601 automobile. The tour includes a stop for food in a milk bar, a propaganda film in a communist era apartment, vodka shots and a trip to the famous steelworks. It's certainly an offbeat way to learn about the history of this area.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
For an interesting trip outside of the city, Wieliczka Salt Mine is well worth a visit. The mine, which is about 14km from the city center, dates back to the 13th century and produced table salt up until 2007. Now existing as a tourist attraction, visitors can see statues which were carved out of the rock salt by miners. There is even an underground chapel and reception room which is used for private functions, including weddings.
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