Sometimes not knowing much of your destination is a refreshing way to travel. Two years ago I flew to Kraków equipped only with the knowledge it was beautiful and walkable. Of course I could have done research before I travelled, even written a proper itinerary, but on city breaks I tend to find out about the fun/quirky/interesting places to see and things to do once I’ve arrived. Even having to book admission tickets in advance is not a problem as you can usually find free Wi-Fi somewhere. (Admittedly, occasionally you need to do a bit of detective work to find those places!)
Yes, Kraków. The little I had heard proved to be true: the historic centre, one of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, is absolutely stunning with its beautiful architecture, archways, market stalls, and cobbled streets. It’s also easy to explore on foot. Some areas are dedicated car-free or restricted-traffic zones, which creates a relaxed, even nostalgic, atmosphere, especially if you see one of the old trams rattling past. Tramway is the primary form of public transport in Kraków and provides a great alternative to walking if you want to rest your legs or venture a bit further. The vehicles range from the old trams from the 1970s to the sleek modern ones all of which are still in regular use (or at least that was the case two years ago). You can buy tickets in advance from kiosks but many main tram stops have ticket machines, too.
Regardless what time I arrive, I always like to go for a walk to get to know the city. Even if it was late in the evening and I didn’t get further than around the block, the next day I feel I’m already somewhat familiar with the place. As the Kraków main market square, the largest medieval market place in Europe I found out, was close to our hotel it became the natural first destination on our arrival day. This lively hub of the old town is surrounded by historic townhouses and churches. Its central feature is the impressive Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice, which was erected as a market hall in the 13th century and has since been renovated and further refurbished. In its heyday it was a centre of international trade, and its ground floor is still used as a market hall with dozens of stalls selling handcrafted gifts, chess sets, lace, amber, and souvenirs. Even if you aren’t a shopper, the beautiful interior and the atmosphere of the market make it worth a visit. The art gallery upstairs is part of the National Museum, and I heard a rumour about a cafe with a view, too…
The square is a place where people gather to sit and chat, browse the market stalls (you can even buy flowers till late at night), or, like us, use the free Wi-Fi; buzzing cafes and restaurants with their numerous outside tables are a great place to enjoy a drink or a meal and soak up the atmosphere; horse-drawn carriages going slowly around in the old streets definitely offer a more sedate way to see the city than a sightseeing bus.
In Kraków art is everywhere. You can see a range of colourful paintings by local artists displayed on city walls, find little shops and market stalls selling pottery and handcrafts, and of course be delighted by bold street art and quirky statues. One of my favourites was the life-sized sit-by-me statue of cabaret director Piotr Skrzynecki which depicts him sitting at an outdoor table having a cup of coffee. Another fun find was a statue named Eros Bendato, a hit amongst the kids (and some adults) as you can go inside the head and peek through the eyes.
Sampling local foods in independent eateries or restaurants is always a big part of my travel experience. As a non-meat eater I did wonder before travelling how easy it would be to find vegetarian food in a country well known for its sausages and other meat products. In the end I had nothing to worry about: the hotel breakfast offered plenty to vegetarians and in the evening I usually tucked into delicious traditional pierogi, or dumplings, which come boiled or fried with a good choice of fillings. (I seem to have a soft spot for dumplings of any type – Tibetan momos, Japanese gyoza, Chinese wontons, Italian ravioli – so no wonder I was quite taken by pierogi too.) A traditional twisted Obwarzanek bagel, a registered regional delicacy, is a popular snack among the locals and bagel sellers with their bright carts are a common sight on many street corners.
You need more than a few days to thoroughly investigate the city but we did cover quite a lot of ground without feeling rushed. As the weather in March was warm and sunny, we walked everywhere apart from a couple of tram rides just for fun! I remember our walking up to the Wawel Castle and cathedral one day and enjoying the sunshine at an outside cafe before heading down to the river Wisła for a stroll. An accordion player in his traditional costume was providing music for the visitors.
As climbing up hills and towers seems to part of our travel tradition, one afternoon we climbed Kościuszko Mound just to get a good view over the city – and came across two nuns who seemed to be practicing their Nordic walking! On the way back we made a little detour to visit one of the local cemeteries, too. I often find myself strolling through old cemeteries, regardless where I’m in the world. They have calm, peaceful atmosphere and give fascinating insights to the local culture and traditions, too.
People in Kraków are friendly and accommodating, even towards tourists who can’t speak a word of Polish. You know what it’s like: you keep repeating certain key phrases, such as ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’, in the local language, walk into the shop – and your mind goes blank! Luckily most people spoke at least a little bit of English, and in the post office a pen and paper proved to be useful in purchasing stamps! My husband also offered to help push someone’s car by just making a pushing motion and nodding towards the vehicle – and he got a smile and nod in return. Nothing like a bit of improvisation and good will to communicate across language barriers.
Despite thoroughly enjoying the vibe and beauty of the city, I didn’t want to leave it without a visiting some of the places that serve as stark reminders of the horrors of the relatively recent history. Before the Second World War, about 25% of Kraków’s population were Jews. The majority of them were killed during the Nazi occupation.
The large open space known today as Plac Bohaterów Getta (the Ghetto Heroes Square) was once the centre of the Jewish ghetto and is today a memorial to the victims killed or sent to concentration camps. The 70 oversized empty chairs represent furniture and other belongings discarded by the deportees. Close by is Oskar Schindler’s old factory, which is now a historical museum. (Unfortunately we arrived too late for the last admission.) On our last day we also went on a sobering expedition to Auschwitz and Birkenau (the local tourist information office can arrange everything for you). Visiting such sites in person hits you in a totally different way than just reading or hearing about them. Sometimes history really shouldn’t be allowed to repeat itself.
Have you been to Kraków? What places should I visit on my next trip there? Was there anything that didn’t meet your expectations? It would be great to hear your thoughts.