August 11 – 25, 2016 (Summer)
Greeting: Dzień dobry
Currency: Złoty (zł)
Cost of living: Medium
Kraków is by far the top tourist destination in Poland. Its Old Town and castle buildings survived World War II relatively unscathed, though many of its people did not. It is a challenging place to categorize. It is a city that lives almost entirely in the past, alternately celebrating it and mourning it. Our usual month-per-country schedule got a mix-up this time. World Youth Day and a visit from the Pope sent Airbnb prices skyrocketing during our intended visit, so we spent two weeks in Warsaw first and waited for things to cool down, then finished with two weeks here. Everyone told us that was the right order; Warsaw was nice, but Krakow was the real gem. And while we found much to love about them both, we wouldn’t be so quick with kudos for Krakow.
Where we stayed
Our Airbnb↗ was just south of the Vistula River, across from the Kazimierz neighborhood. The main selling point was its proximity to Oskar Schindler’s factory. That was nice, but our favorite feature was the distance it put between us and the overcrowded tourist core. It wasn’t terribly far when we wanted to dive into that deep end, but we could easily avoid it and, say, enjoy a nice riverfront walk instead. Throngs of tourists made their way toward our side all day to see the factory and remains of the ghetto walls. From our balcony, we overheard tours in a dozen languages and all sorts of family arguments and banter. Krakow really is a globally popular city, for better or worse.
The apartment was simple, but suited us reasonably well for a two-week stay. It was much more lived-in than our previous home in Warsaw↗. Smaller, too. The kitchen was about the size of a closet, yet somehow squeezed in a full-size fridge, oven, and microwave. We used every available surface for storage, even the windowsill, and the “table” became our countertop. A small, screened balcony provided a home for local spiders but also room to dry our clothes. The bedroom was fine, though the minuscule bathroom definitely made us squint extra hard at future reservations. We didn’t appreciate the repeat of Portugal↗, where any stray movement in the shower could bump the water off, or worse, to extreme temperatures.
What we did
Krakow’s claim to fame is its remarkably preserved Old Town. Its structures escaped World War II mostly unscathed, from the massive castle to the market hall. Most memorable are the many ornate churches, like St. Mary’s Basilica on the main market plaza, Holy Trinity Church, notable for its blue, star-studded ceiling, and Church of St. Francis of Assisi, home to iridescent rainbow walls and an even more starry-night canopy. But our favorite feature wasn’t inside the city walls at all. Because they’re mostly gone*, replaced with the eminently walkable Planty Park. This greenbelt completely encircles the Old Town and links up with the riverfront promenade. This meant that not only was it a great destination in its own right, it was by far the best way to get from one end of town to the other while minimizing time spent jostling on the overcrowded city streets.
Of course, staying so close to Oskar Schindler’s Factory, we planned to visit early in our stay. We rewatched Schindler’s List before we did, as a primer. Also, buying tickets online is the way to go, as timed entry tickets allowed us to skip the rather lengthy line (much to the chagrin of those waiting in it). The main exhibition focuses on the true story of Oskar Schindler, as well as the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi Occupation and the lives of the Jewish citizens most affected by it. It was frankly not the best laid-out museum we’ve visited. But together with our visit to Płaszów Concentration Camp, it gave us new insight into the devastating toll of the occupation. The same complex houses another museum though – MOCAK, a modern art museum. Visiting both made for an strange juxtaposition. Some of the artwork on display commented on the oppression that still exists in the world today, while others seemed to be created mainly for the joy of being weird.
Lesser-known than the tourist hotspots we visited, Jagiellonian University Museum turned out to be treasure trove of scientific and historical curiosities. Right up our alley. We visited on a free admission day, though that did add considerably to the foot traffic. The university is the oldest in Poland and counts kings, Nobel laureates, Pope John Paul II, and Nicolaus Copernicus among its alumni. Astrolabes and globes, some dating back nearly a thousand years, show just how far science and exploration have taken us. With artifacts from astronomy to medicine to the building itself, this academic nerve center of the medieval world had us geeking out from start to finish.
Finally, Krakow was a good base for visiting Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. Visiting this site was heartbreaking but necessary, almost emotional homework. We cover it in detail here↗, but suffice to say it was every bit as powerful as we imagined. Sadly, it was far from the only one of its kind. Płaszów Concentration Camp, just a few kilometers south of the city, was the internment place of many of Schindler’s workers, but was thoroughly destroyed by the retreating Nazis in a desperate attempt to cover up their crimes. Now it is a memorial parkland with just a few ruins left standing. A nearby quarry served as its stand-in for scenes in the movie Schindler’s List. Krakus Mound, a steep and prominent hill, overlooks this area and offers a soul-soothing view of the city and surroundings.
Food & Drink
After being spoiled by a massive Carrefour in Warsaw, the array of tiny convenience stores in Krakow were a letdown. Zabka (the frog one), Biedronka (the ladybug one), and Lewiatan (the one without a cute mascot) had some staples, but were clearly geared to service walk-by tourists with ice cream and bottled water. On a few occasions we ventured further, first to Alma, which turned out to be way too expensive for our needs (think Whole Foods), and then to Piotr w Pauwel. That was a good 20 minute walk away, but had the best selection-to-price ratio we could find.
Fortunately, we had good reasons to eat out in Krakow, so we had less pressure to cook at home anyway. One of the happiest coincidences of our stay occurred when we stumbled on the Pierogi Festival. Dozens of dumpling providers filled Mały Rynek, the “Little Market Square” from 11-15 August. Of course, familiar flavors like potato-and-cheese (here dubbed ruskie) were ubiquitous. But we also discovered filling combinations beyond our wildest dreams. Salmon, duck, pizza, spicy chicken, game meat, spinach, even dessert flavors like blueberry, raspberry, plum, rose, and chocolate banana. Many came with complimenting sauces for maximum flavor. We visited as often as we could and ate everything we could get our hands on.
Kazimierz was the Jewish Quarter of Krakow until its residents were forced into the ghetto during Nazi occupation. It was neglected by the communist government after the war, but has since gentrified and is now the hip part of town for restaurants and foodies. Our favorite spots were Corner Burger (for dishing up some warm and filling chili fries) and the Judah Square (corner of Wąska and Świętego Wawrzyńca) food truck park.
Our little corner shops didn’t carry that extensive a selection of beers, but we still managed to find lots to enjoy. Right on our route to the Old Town, Czarny Kot beer shop provided access to a wealth of craft brews. And once again, Poland’s big-name brands (like Żywiec) are way better than they ought to be. We didn’t buy many wines during this stay, and none from Poland. But we did get to try our first Ukrainian wine. Red and semi-sweet, it tasted surprisingly good for the latitude it was grown at. Bisongrass vodka was once again a tasty treat.
Stuff of interest
The Play SIMs↗ we purchased in Warsaw worked perfectly in Krakow as well. They featured 3 gigs of data for just $5 apiece.
We traveled to Krakow from Warsaw via train. The journey took less than three hours and we passed lots of pretty forest and farmland along the way. Krakow Główny is just outside the Old Town gate, but quite a ways from where we were staying. We hailed an Uber↗ and raced around to find a spot where the driver could meet us. We likewise used Uber to get to the airport at 3:30 in the morning. Unlike some cities, there were plenty of cars out even at that hour.
We visited the city during the height of the Pokemon Go! craze. It was actually a pleasant way to discover little hidden treasures throughout the city (which usually show up as PokeStops) and added an incentive to explore the parks and green spaces. One particularly productive spot outside the Manggha Centre featured three overlapping PokeStops and a gym; crowds of people hung out there, drawn in by a combination of ever-present lures and a spirit of camaraderie.
What we learned
Like Dubrovnik, Kraków was too over-touristed for our tastes. We still loved what the city had to offer. But Warsaw, the city we booked to kill time before Krakow, surprised us as the more livable of the two and our favorite.