europe, travel

Old Towns of Europe: The joys of Kraków

As a half English, half Polish girl, I have spent a lot of time visiting my mother’s home country. Whilst we have family all over the country, I have gone to Krakow in southern Poland most years. It is a city seeped in history, with stories emerging from each old building, and is beautiful in all seasons.

Krakow has fantastic and cheap transport links to Polish cities as well as easy access to other European cities. Wandering around the streets of the city is wonderful, as they are beautiful and rich in history.

Language: Polish

Currency: zloty (PLN) (£1 = 5 zloty)

Getting into the city:

The best airport to get to Krakow is Krakow airport, however, if timings or prices aren’t to your liking, Katowice airport is an hour and a half away, and a taxi is affordable to take you to Krakow.

Travel around the city is easy and cheap, with a train station that takes you into the heart of Krakow and, failing that, buses are frequent around the city, costing pennies per 20 minute journeys. Taxis are also very affordable.

Things to do in Krakow:

Krakow is seeped in history, having been established in the 7th century, and its beautiful architecture and structures being kept largely undestroyed during the second world war due to Hitler’s favouring of the city, as well as making it the capital of Germany’s General Government.

The Grand Square (Rynek Glowny) is a great starting point in Krakow, and is quite easy walking distance. The square is the location of the Sukiennice, a covered market often referred to as the world’s oldest “shopping centre”, which contains stalls selling traditional goods, usually made of wood or fur. Around the market hall structure are a number of restaurants and museums, the former being a good place to grab food or drink and enjoy the beautiful city around you. I highly recommend a pair of woollen slippers, or some gorgeous amber jewellery for very, very affordable prices.

The main square on occasion will have antique markets, or national events on.

The cathedral in the Grand Square, St Mary’s Basillica (Bazylika Mariacka), has a small figured of a man who emerges every 15 minutes to play a tune on the bugle before abruptly cutting off and returning back into the cathedral. The origin of this comes from the time of the Tartar invasion and the story goes that a scout on patrol saw the invaders coming and sounded his bugle, alerting the town. Sadly, midway through playing, he was shot by an arrow and killed. However, Krakow managed to be defended thanks to his efforts to alert the citizen and so the cathedral plays a cut off bugle in his honour.

Drinks tip:  A good way to hear the bugle and have a backdrop of the cathedral is to head up to the top of the National Museum in the Sukiennice and go to the restaurant at the top. In good weather, you can sit on the balcony outside and enjoy cocktails, or alcoholic hot drinks under blankets in winter, and enjoy the view.

Wawel Castle in the heart of the city is a beautiful place to visit, containing the castle and the chapel, whilst wandering through the caves beneath the castle will take you to the “Smocza Jama” or “Dragon’s Lair. The castle is free to enter, though entry to the dragon’s cave costs. The castle also contains “dragon bones” which hang above the church within the castle grounds. The legend goes that a dragon capture the princess of the time and a local carpenter rescued her.

The legend of the dragon remains, which much dragon iconography evident in the local artwork and gifts, as well as the must see dragon statue on the river front, which breaths fire in busy seasons.

Museums: Within the main square, alongside a large row of shops and cultural buildings on the perimeter of the Sukiennice, or Cloth Hall Market is the History Museum. This museum, which spans beneath the main square, contains the archaeological history of the area and includes reconstructions of how old Krakow may have looked, as well as examples of archaeological stratigraphy and information about the folklore of Poland, such as vampire and witch burials.

The Archaeology Museum in the city is also worth a visit, containing evidence of ancient Slavic traditions, up to more modern Polish history. The museum costs 10 PLN entry, but is free on sundays.

The old town, in the Kazimierz district, is the location of the Krakow Ghetto now hosts the artsier scene of the city, and a great place for cheap and cool bars and restaurants.

Outside the city:

Auswitz is a place every person should visit, though it is harrowing, and tours are conducted in the concentration camp for you to book ahead for. If you do not wish to go on the tour, from 3pm in the afternoons, you are welcome to go in and take the site at your own pace.

The two hour bus journey from the city centre costs about 13 PLN

The salt mines are a beautiful local tourist attraction. The salt mines opened in the 13th century and were still in use in the 21st, and their fame derives from the must-see carvings and sculptures made out of salt by the miners through history. The statues consist of characters from history, folklore, and religion, with the large chapel containing a carving in the salt wall of the Last Supper. 

For a further afield trip, please see my post on visiting Lviv in Ukraine from Krakow

Zakopane

Getting the bus from the main bus station to Zakopane costs 14 zloty (about £3 but prices can range up to around £7) and the journey takes around two to three hours depending on traffic. The main bus station will have a list of which bus is going to Zakopane.

The ski town is fantastic in both the warm and the cold seasons. In the winter, when it is absolutely heaving with snow, the rustic wooden buildings and market stalls feel like something out of a fairy tale, and the ski slopes contain a variety of routes for both new and experienced skiiers. The mountains and the stalls can be enjoyed during the warmer months too, but there is something far more magical about Zakopane in the snow. Hiring ski equipment and using the slopes is often incredibly cheap, especially out of season, with hiring being as little as 15 to 20 zloty.

Gubałówka Hill, the large mountain in the heart of Zakopane, is best traversed by taking the funicular to the top and skiing down, or walking- be careful, bears and wolves have been known to be in the area!

Wandering down the main street, Krupówki, is a delight, with the shops and markets full of interesting local The stalls sell traditional Polish items, often wooden or woollen craft, for a fraction of the price that they cost in the hardly pricey Krakow. The rustic looking restaurants serve up copious amounts of meat, which goes well with one of the tasty local beers.

For food, little stalls or food shacks sell amazing smoked cheese, Oscypek,- ask to have it fried, it tastes delicious. The cheese also comes in various designs, such a plaits, or even reindeer.

If you visit Zakopane in the summer time, places will still be open and the funicular will be running to take you to the top for some summertime mountain views! However, sometimes the stalls and shops at the top may not be open.

Places to stay

There are plenty of very affordable hotels and hostels within both Krakow and Zakopane, and Air BnB has an awray of gorgeous, cheap rooms to stay in for your visit. If you arrive in town on a whim, many locally owned bnbs will have

If you have a bit more time

It is possible to get down to Slovakia from Zakopane, if you are comfortable hiring a car, there are fantastic castles and monasteries along the border of both countries such as Niedzica Castle and Cerveny Klastor. Just make sure you keep some euros on you if you trek into Slovakia (though they do take zloty in places along the Slovakian border). Stara Lubovna Hrad is a beautiful castle whose oldest sections date back to the 13th century, and is open for people to explore and wander around. Climbing to the top of the tower results in stunning views of the Slovakian countryside.

Depending on the weather, rafting along the Dunajec river is quite an experience- although I haven’t done it since I was a kid, and my mum forced us to wear traditional Polish outfits while we sat on the river…but I do wish to go back as an adult to appreciate it better!

If you end up using Katowice airport and want to spend some time there, the industrial city has becoming very up and coming in arts and events in recent years. If you fancy something different historically, the Tyskie beer factory costs £5 entry (includes a pint) and shows the history of the beer brewing as well as history of the factoy such as Nazi occupation.

The church of St Michael in Katowice is a beautiful wooden church from the 16th century, located in Kosciszko Park and is well worth a visit.

Tasting the Local Cuisine

Wodka abound! Polish wodka is delicious, either drinking it straight or mixing it, and most restaurants will provide you with shots to either down or sip, depending on how adventurous you feel. Local Polish beer is also incredibly tasty.

Any trip to Poland is not complete without pierogi- dumplings that are boiled and then fried, commonly stuffed with sauerkraut and dried mushrooms, though meat filled ones are equally tasty, and sweet pierogi is also offered. Restaurants known as Milk Bars will serve up cheap, hearty local food and around Krakow you can find late night pierogi restaurants serving up til the early hours to fix all cravings!

Polish soup is a must-eat, especially if you are there in the winter. Mushroom soup, made from wild mushrooms, and Zurek, a sour potato soup¸ are often served in a bread bowl, meaning you can eat everything on your plate and won’t run out of things to dip in the soup! Goulash in bread bowl, or goulash with potato pancakes are incredibly filling and tasty and served at most restaurants.

For the sweet tooth- Polish waffles are delicious, and often pretty cheap to get a big waffle absolutely covered in cream, fruit, and sauces! It will cover your face too! These are a common delicacy in Zakopane.

Cheese – the smoked Polish cheese, ocsypek, is delicious and can be bought at delis in large quanities. Some food vendors will sell small portions heated up with cranberry sauce (usually for £1) and it is so delicious.

Whilst my food recommendations are meat and cheese heavy, please don’t be intimidated to visit Krakow as a vegan. Krakow is a modern city, containing many delicious vegan restaurants.

Ambasada Sledzia – (Herring Embassy) is a great bar, serving cheap and delicious drinks as well as tasty, interesting bar snacks. Highly reccomend!

I haven’t been to a bad restaurant in Krakow, and usually insanely affordable – keep an eye out for lunch deals usually consisting of 4 courses and a drink for around 20 PLN (£5)

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