Chris and I have just returned from a short break in Krakow, Poland’s charming second city! A short break that was actually shorter than planned but I’ll deal with the logistics later…
Krakow is compact and we spent our 2 days exploring the main sites of the city on foot, interjected with pitstops in some of the many bars, cafe’s and restaurants.
The main market square, Glowny Rynek, is in the heart of the medieval old town and is buzzing with tourists and locals alike. This is Europe’s second largest market square and is surrounded on all sides by open air cafes with all kinds of activities and entertainment throughout the day and evening.
Huge and imposing as it stands proudly in the centre of Rynek square, the Cloth Hall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is called the Cloth Hall as during the medieval times of the 18th century it was a trading centre for stalls selling mainly cloth although the original Cloth Hall was first built in the 13th century.
At 700 years old, the magnificent Cloth Hall is said to be the world’s oldest shopping mall and each day market stalls open their wooden shutters to sell a range of goods such as bags and jewellery, particularly amber.
We had coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice both mornings in the cafe on the left above. It was a bit pricey by Krakow standards but worth it for some interesting people watching.
We had decided to have a look inside the Saints Peter and Pauls church and discovered you can go down to a large crypt! Visit Krakow explains during the late 16th century a lot of money was poured into the building and development of churches which led to such extravagant interiors.
Next we walked south towards Wawel Castle, pronounced in Polish as ‘vavel’.
Wawel Castle is in a strategic position overlooking the River Vistula. (The tower doesn’t lean BTW… this is the effect of my wide-angle lens trying to squeeze the building into the image!)
You can wander around the grounds of Wawel Castle for free although you need a ticket if you wish to look inside.
You can enter the Wawel Cathedral to have a look inside but you need to buy tickets. There are only so many churches and cathedrals one can see in a day so we gave this one a miss! But the clock on the clock tower outside was very impressive.
Onto lunch and of course, to immerse yourself in the culture of a different country or city it is important to sample some of the local cuisine! We enjoyed day 1 lunch in a pleasantly shady open air restaurant where we tried ‘pierogi’ which are small traditional Polish dumplings stuffed with potato and cheese.
Above are images of St Mary’s Basilica the focal point of the main square! We were disappointed to find that all of the tickets to the top of the tower had been sold for the day – we later found that just 10 tickets are available every day at half hourly intervals. However we paid just £5.65 for two tickets to visit the grand interior. You can buy tickets from a little ticket office just across from the entrance.
Signs of the zodiac can be seen on the sundial which is located on the south wall of St Mary’s Basilica.
St Mary’s Basilica was built in the 14th century and every hour, on the hour a bugle call is played. This can be heard across the square and is in honour of the mythical trumpeter who was shot in the neck while belatedly warning the city of Mongol invaders. This tradition has taken place for centuries! Inside we looked around in awe at the blue ceiling and intricate golden decoration and historic paintings.
Back outside again we headed to the left of St Mary’s Basilica and made our way to St Florian’s Gate an impressive Gothic structure at the entry to the old town that once had a drawbridge connecting it to a city moat.
Later in the afternoon, before heading back to our hotel we relaxed in the main square with a shot of home made lemon vodka! Vodka is the national drink and has been a tradition of Poland for centuries where it was deemed necessary to help people get through long dark winter months.
Maly Rynek means ‘small square’ and is located next to the main square of Glowny Rynek. This little sister square had a lovely relaxed feel about it.
The above alley can be found between the ‘big’ square and the smaller square. There are several arty little bars and later in the evening it is heavily frequented by young people… Thankfully there was a nearby bar with some ‘old’ people!
Located near to the St Florian Gate is the ornate Slowacki Theatre. We didn’t go inside but this is one of Polands most popular theatres.
Keen for something traditional we treated ourselves to a candlelit evening dinner in the Galicyjska Restaurant which is located near to St Florian’s Gate in atmospheric 18th century cellars. There wasn’t a great choice for vegans or vegetarians however being a pescatarian I enjoyed a wonderful salmon dish with white wine sauce and fresh vegetables while Chris had a double starter of more cheese dumplings. The cost of the meal was very reasonable at only £24 for both of us, including wine. We were also given complimentary apple vodka to finish with 🙂
Having spent our first day wandering around the highlights of Krakow to get a good overview of the city, we spent our second learning more about its history. We began by going underground with a visit to subterranean Krakow.
The museum starts with exhibits which demonstrate what life was like in medieval Krakow including some of its gruesome horrors. The exhibition was very informative and with hundreds of artefacts and several educational films it gave you a really good idea of life in the past. And there was an English interpretation for each which was most helpful.
However what was really fascinating was the second stage where you walk along a glass floor through the subterranean streets. These were only excavated in the early 2000’s so less than 20 years ago!
The above photograph shows the Cloth Hall in October 2005 where the entire market square was dug away to expose the medieval village. It’s incredible to think that hundreds of people walk all around the square today without seeing the history underneath their very feet!
I had to pre-book tickets to this museum a day or so in advance. This was done online on their website but got a bit complex with several emails subsequently sent in Polish… good old Google Translate… Tickets were good value at £10.70 for two.
Back in daylight and with a firm understanding of the history of medieval Krakow we then walked for about 20 minutes to Kazimierz, the historic Jewish Quarter.
At the centre of Kazimierz is Szeroka Street with a square lined with cafes and bars. This area is also full of vintage and other quirky bohemian shops and we both sensed a very different feel from the medieval old town. It was like being in a different city altogether.
Chris and I walked everywhere during our 48 hours in Krakow however there are many different options! You can travel around by taxi, uber, bike, electric scooter or even in a golf cart! At least I thinks that’s what they were…
Schindler’s List Passage was featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film ‘Schindler’s List’ and was the a hiding place for Jewish people. Today it is a quiet backstreet with an outdoor cafe at the end.
Along Schindler’s List Passage you can see an exhibition of some of the photographs from Roman Vishniac, a Russian American photographer who took some of the iconic images of Jewish life in the 1920s and 1930s.
Within the Kazimierz district is the huge Corpus Christi Church, the building of which began began in the 14th century. It is worth popping inside to see and appreciate the intricate gothic interior.
Across the River Vistula to the south of the city is Ghetto Heroes Square which has a tragic history as being the site of mass execution and the place where Nazi occupants gathered Jewish people ready to send to concentration camps such as nearby Auschwitz. There are 70 chairs made from iron and bronze which have been placed in the square as a tribute to those who lost their lives. This is a quiet, sombre and moving place and worth taking a few minutes to reflect.
While in the Jewish Quarter we came across an Israeli restaurant called Hamsa which seemed the perfect place for lunch! Being all shabby chic we nestled amongst bold bright cushions which were scattered over seats made from wooden pallets as we sat outside in the pleasant courtyard enjoying a delicious meze.
The 140 m long foot bridge provides a pleasant walkway as it links the north and south sides of the city and was our route back to the main square of the Old Town. There are sculptures of acrobats suspended above the bridge; the bridge being named after Father Bernatek, founder of a hospital.
Even though the bridge was only built in 2010 there are already thousands of padlocks on it. This is a thing if you wish to declare your eternal love to your beloved and something we’ve seen on other bridges around Europe.
Back in the Old Town and after another refreshing pitstop in another outdoor cafe – absolutely necessary in 27 degrees – we headed back towards the old market square in the centre.
Hurrah! We were hugely fortunate to obtain tickets to climb to the top of the ‘Bugle’ tower which is the one on the left. On the off-chance and with no real hope of getting any, we called into the ticket office at 5 pm on the Sunday. To our amazement there was 2 tickets left for the 5:05 pm session! (5:05 pm being entry is permitted 5 minutes after the hourly bugle call).
We eagerly climbed the 239 steps to reach the top of the 80 m tower and were rewarded with magnificent views across the city! Our short break ended on a real high. Literally! This was one of the absolute highlights of the trip.
As alluded to at the beginning this was meant to be more of a ’72 hours in Krakow’ rather than 48. For the last few weeks, the UK has been plagued by last minute flight cancellations. I’m not entirely sure why… I think its something to do with a massive upsurge as people book trips and holidays in a bid for some post-covid freedom. And some of the airlines, amazingly, were unprepared… it doesn’t take a genius to work out this would likely be the case… But I’m no expert. Probably things are much more complex than my humble self realises or appreciates…
Our long weekend was booked from Friday to Monday, and was moved from the original booking from December 2021 when we had to re-schedule thanks to the Omicron variant. However as we were about to leave for the airport on Friday morning, our Monday return flight was suddenly cancelled! A quick decision was made to try and book a different flight home and all that was available was a late Sunday evening flight. Not the end of the world but instead of enjoying a third and final night in Krakow we spent it travelling home.
We stayed in the Amber Hotel, about 5 minutes walk from the edge of the Old Town. The staff of the hotel were most helpful and served us complimentary coffee and biscuits in their little courtyard garden. They also allowed us to change our booking from three nights to two nights at the last minute and without any hesitation.
We arrived at Krakow International Airport and from a choice of pre-booked transfer (which we hadn’t organised), taxi (we didn’t have any cash), train (the next train was in an hour) we checked the app and found Uber was available! Perfect! At £17, as a busy time it was apparently more than the usual Uber cost for the 25 minute journey however well worth the convenience. And the return Uber journey was incredibly cheap at only £6.35!
This was the first 100% cash free trip abroad we have ever taken. For many countries we usually have a few euro’s or dollars kicking around that we are able to take with us to tide us over when we first get there.
This time, the idea was to withdraw some Polish Zloty’s from an ATM upon arrival but we didn’t and kept putting it off as we paid for everything using either Monzo (commission free cash card) or JaJa (commission free credit card). As well as saving any conversion costs it also meant we didn’t have spare Zloty’s to use up, given it might be a while before we return to Poland!
Finally we had our first ever experience of being served pizza by a robot! It was unfortunate that we were not enjoying pizza in one of the outdoor restaurants in Old Town Krakow but, as mentioned, we had to spend Sunday evening travelling. This was in an Italian restaurant at the airport as we waited for our flight home!
Steeped in history and culture and with many interesting sites as well as delightful restaurants and bars to experience, Krakow is a wonderful place in which to spend a few days. We could have ventured more widely and left the city to visit the famous Wieliczka” Salt Mine or the harrowing Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz but on this occasion we had already decided to stay put in Krakow despite being there for 2 days (Friday to Sunday) instead of 3 (Friday to Monday).
Rather than trying to cram too much into any city breaks we envisage long future road trips exploring Europe at a slower pace… the prospect of using a car rather than a plane is even more appealing at the moment!