Getting lost in Krakow, along its four square miles of preserved streets and buildings, at night in the rain felt magical. From our hotel we could spot a looming castle in the distance.
A couple of days here in Poland wasn’t really enough to absorb Krakow, after exploring a myriad of lanes with duck-in cafes, unique food trucks and cool haunts. You’ll probably feel the same as you meander green parks via narrow cobblestone streets, pass by stores that say Alkohole (meaning “alcohol” in polish, you’ll find these bottle shops everywhere) gawk at ancient churches (20 of the city’s 120 are located in the center) that seem to be everywhere.
Start at Europe’s largest and most authentic medieval market square. You will know you have arrived at this plaza since it is dominated by the 15th century Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) with vaulted ground floor passages. Look up and you will see St. Mary’s Church with mismatched towers. Marvel at the architecture and the white horses pulling carriages with tourists, as well as the bars, restaurants, and the streets marked with gaiety.
WHERE TO SLEEP
The Sheraton Grand Krakow located at the banks of the Wisla River stares at the famous Wawel Castle and is just a ten minute walk to the Old Town Market Square and Kazimierz District. As you can expect the Sheraton offers basic clean rooms and a hearty breakfast, but stay here for the location.
If you are looking for a more lavish option, the Hotel Stary Krakow with a pool and spa offers 53 guest rooms right off the square in an adapted 14th-century residence with centuries-old frescoes and a modern design. You can almost touch the towers of St. Mary’s from the rooftop terrace.
The stately Hotel Copernicus is located on the oldest street in Krakow and is a short walk to Wawel Hill. This 29-room inn blends 16th century décor with modern comforts The Gothic cellar holds a Wellness Spa, and apparently Pope John Paul II lived across the street as a young priest and considered it the best place to live in town.
A couple of days here in Poland wasn’t really enough to absorb Krakow, after exploring a myriad of lanes with duck-in cafes, unique food trucks and cool haunts. You’ll probably feel the same …
WHERE TO EAT
Wesele in the Main Square with its home-y Polish décor offers traditional cuisine like home-made dumplings/pierogis filled with cheese, meat and potatoes. We gorged ourselves for only $20 per person with 3 plates of pierogis, mulled wine, salad with strawberries and mascarpone, and potato latkes with melt in your mouth beef.
For a really posh experience, head to Wierzynek to enjoy traditional Polish specialties, seasonal game or trout in the elegant café or one of the eight salons in the upstairs restaurant. King Casimir the Great hosted his daughter’s wedding banquet here in 1364.
Look out for the food truck scene in Kazimierz or the Jewish area where the large mural called “Judah” hangs created by Israel’s most famous street artist Pil Peled. A London school bus called Big Red Bustaurant serves soup, sausage, and fish and chips on the double decker bus, while other trucks served mini crepes, burgers, sushi, loaded jacket potatoes (Pan Kumpir), and coffee and treats (Chimney Cake Bakery truck).
We passed many impressive beer stores with hundreds of different kinds of local brands and there are many brewpubs to be found.
WHAT TO EXPLORE
The best way to experience Krakow is to walk around and get lost. Every street near the city center seems to offer up a new curiosity. Spend an afternoon exploring the Royal Castle and Cathedral on Wawel Hill filled with Gothic and Renaissance buildings, gardens, royal treasures, ornate art, armory, and royal crypts. Ogle at the design and imagine what it would have been like to be a king in medieval times. Looking towards the river on top of the hill you can spot a dragon sculpture that actually spews fire down below outside the castle wall. Apparently one of the seven Hindu chakras or one of the seven stones with its cosmic energy is located beneath the Chapel of St. Gereon in Wawel Hill.
The Church of St. Anne in the historic center of Krakow is awe inspiring with its Polish Baroque architecture. Its impressive interior with elaborate paintings, gold, 3-D illusionary decorations, and stuccos revealed a surprise from the less ornate exterior. My mouth was agape as a service ensued. This church was one of many I stumbled upon, but definitely the most memorable.
Enjoy the Jewish area known as the Kazimierz District, a bohemian neighborhood with its many synagogues, cemeteries, historical sites, art galleries, and interesting almost Parisian-like cafes that feel like they have been around since pre-war hiding behind peeling facades. This edgy area once the center of Jewish life for 500 years before being destroyed in WWII, has had a resurgence since the 1990’s thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure from Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
DAY EXCURSIONS NEARBY
Auschwitz is disheartening to say the least, but an important place to remember the crimes of the past with hope that these kinds of camps will never be replicated. Around 1.6 million people, mainly Jews, were victims transported were from all over Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Most painful to witness are the gas chambers, shooting wall, rooms full of hair (used in the textile trade), luggage, eye glasses, and baby clothes. About an hour drive from Krakow, both camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau where the trains arrived) are about a mile apart. In nearby Krakow you may wish to visit Schindler’s Factory, a metal factory turned into a museum that shares how Krakow was affected during the Nazi siege.
Wieliczka Salt Mines, an underground salt cathedral turned museum is located 443 feet below the ground with three chapels, numerous statues, and the entire cathedral carved out of rock salt by miners. This 13th century mine produced table salt until 2007. The mine, a product of work of tens of generations of miners, is a monument to the history of Poland and to the Polish nation. The mine is about six miles from the center of Krakow.
Have you been to Krakow or elsewhere in Poland? Tell us about it!
Images via Melissa Curtin