Where: Krakow, southern Poland.
When: February 2011
Why: Jeff and I went for an Eastern European mini-tour to celebrate my birthday. We started our trip in Krakow in Poland, then visited Zakopane (a ski resort located in the High Tatras Mountains, about two hours from Krakow), Zidar and Bratislava in Slovakia, before ending up at Budapest in Hungary.
I love Krakow and in many ways it is my perfect long-weekend city. It’s beautiful, interesting, historic, has amazing bars and restaurants – and it’s in Poland, so everything is great value and it is full of the friendliest people you could ever meet.
Krakow is great for sightseeing. It is the former capital of Poland and so it has a castle, a cathedral, amazing churches, walls, squares galore and a dragon.
There’s also a heartbreaking side to Krakow, as Krakow was located at the heart of the holocaust. Oscar Schindler made his list and ran his factory in Krakow – and you can visit his factory in the old Jewish quarter, kazimierz. You can also, if you can bear it, visit Auschwitz, which is about an hour from Krakow. Horrible and disturbing as it is, it’s something that I recommend everyone should do at least once in their lifetime – just so that they can bear witness to what happened and not let it ever happen again.
On the flip side to the sadness of the past, one of the things that I loved about Krakow was its sense of humour and how surreal it is. They have a dragon under the castle who used to breath fire if you texted him; every hour a bugle player plays the trumpet, then stops mid-song in tribute to a bugle player who died whilst warning the city of an attack. The devil lives in the basement of one of the houses on the main square – and apparently he appears as a cockerel or a foreign looking gentleman (I have images of the devil wandering around in a fake chicken suit). A scientist used to live in the house next door and when he died he went to the moon. Every year, his spider assistant comes down from the moon to spy on the people of Krakow and to find out the gossip.
I think it’s wonderful that a city which should be so sad is just so funny.
With cheap flights to Krakow from many UK cities, it’s easily accessible. There’s great value accommodation, lots of places to eat and drink and more than enough to keep you busy for a few days. The city is really easy to navigate and it’s small enough to feel cosy – but big enough to be exciting.
And they have cake. Lots of cake. And bison grass vodka. And honey vodka. And perogis. And amazing sausages. And great beer. Oooooooo – and good bread and cheese. And fantastic wine. And bagel necklaces which are to keep children quiet when they visit cemetaries (we had a lot of fun eating those).
It rained for the full three days we were in Krakow and I still love it and cannot wait to go back and I highly recommend that everyone take a trip there as this is one of my favourite cities in the world.
Getting there and getting around
I flew to Krakow with Ryanair from Birmingham International Airport. It departed at 16.30 on a Friday afternoon – perfect timing for a long weekend. The flight, with all the fees, cost £36.
To get to Krakow city centre from the airport we caught a shuttle bus to the local train station (which was just a platform in the middle of nowhere) and then a train to the central station. The journey took about half an hour. We bought our tickets from the conductor on the train and they cost us 12PLN (£2) each.
Krakow central station is next to a huge modern shopping mall and is just outside of the old city walls.
You can find train times, up to date prices and information about other ways to get into the city at the Krakow Airport website.
Most of central Krakow is walkable and there are many nice squares and pedestrianised streets to walk through. There is a bus and tram system too.
Within Krakow, we mostly got about on foot, although it might have been better if we had jumped on a tram as it’s quite a distance to the far side of town (and it was cold and wet).
You can download a bus and tram route map from the MPK website. Here they also have timetable and ticket price information, in English.
Krakow to Auschwitz (Oświęcim)
We caught the bus to Auschwitz Museum and then took a train back. We caught the bus from Krakow’s main bus station, which is on the far side of the train station.There were many buses running throughout the day. We just turned up at the bus station and brought a ticket from the desk, then found the bus.
It took us about an hour and a half to get to Auschwitz and it was very cheap (I think about £2 – £3). The bus dropped us off at the museum car park.
Oświęcim train station is about 2km from Auschwitz Museum. We caught the train back from Auschwitz to Krakow. This cost us 37PLN each (about £7) and seemed to take forever – with the train trundling along at an average speed of 10mph. It was a very boring journey, so I think it’s better to get the bus.
You can get train information and buy tickets, in English, from the Intercity website.
Krakow to Zakopane
After Krakow, we travelled to Zakopane which is on the edge of the High Tatras mountains. To find out how we got there, visit the Zakopane page.
What we did on our holiday
Wandered around Krakow Old Town (UNESCO)
Like many eastern European cities, Krakow is a city to wander. It is full of delightful streets, squares and sights, is mostly pedestrianised and is very easy to navigate.
The heart of Krakow is the old walled city. The walls run from just by the train station, down to the river and the castle. Around the outside of the walls is a lovely park, which is great to stroll in.
The main route within the old, walled city is the Royal Road, which runs from St Florian’s Gate (near to the train station) down to Wawel Castle. The Royal Road runs down pedestrianised streets, through elegant Rynek Główny, the main square in town, past the fabulous market hall (Cloth Hall), past churches, fabulous frescoes, cosy bars, lovely houses and great shops.
Krakow is a window shoppers delight. I spent a lot of time drooling over chocolates, cakes and jewelery.
Being a touristy city there were lots of street performers when we were there, but rather than being annoying these jesters and flute musicians added to the jovial atmosphere and brightened up the cold, dark February days.
Krakow is a photographers dream with fun, interesting statues everywhere and buildings with beautiful facades. Many of the facades and the beautiful buildings were designed by the architect Teodor Talowski. We loved ‘Under the Spider’ house, which has a big spider on the roof (see photo above). As well as the spider house he built the Rams House, Frog’s House and Dragon’s House.
I spent half a day wandering the city on my own, in the rain (Jeffski was a little hungover) and I had a great time. On my journey I wandered from St Florian’s Gate (the main entrance on the city walls), down through Rynek Główny (the main square), through the Cloth Hall (which had amazing craft stalls), then down to the castle, past lots of baroque churches and interesting buildings. The walk took me about an hour.
Rynek Główny, the main square, is an amazing space. It is a large, medieval market place. Sitting in the centre of the square is the wonderful, baroque Cloth Hall, still full of interesting market stalls. Behind the Cloth Hall is the freestanding Town Hall Tower, and then next to this is the big head.This is Eros Bound, by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. You can climb into him and peer out from his eyes – but I wouldn’t recommend it as one night we saw drunk locals peeing into his eyes – which is not very nice (poor thing).
St Mary’s Basilica is the distinct church in the corner of Rynek Główny. It has two towers of different heights. You can climb one of the towers to get great views over Rynek Główny.
St Mary’s has an interesting tradition: a bugle player plays a tune every hour here, but stops mid-bugle. This is in tribute to a bugle player who warned the city of an attack by the tartars, and who died whilst doing so. mariacki.com.
Between the main square and the Castle there are a number of beautiful churches, including the blocky, stony Church of St Andrew, which is nearly 1,000 years old. This is next to SS Peter and Paul, which is a big, baroque church with pretty statues out front.
Wawel Castle, Wawel Cathedral and the dragon
Krakow Castle and Cathedral are located on a strange hill overlooking the river. This is Wawel Hill. There are great views from the top of the hill and it was interesting to have a look around the grounds at the top.
Wawel Castle is rather a strange looking castle: it’s very boxy and hidden away behind large white walls. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge of a castle, made up of different buildings in different architectural styles.
I visited late in the day, close to closing time, and so I didn’t have time to visit inside, only time to look into the main courtyard (also, this was free).
There’s a strange story attached to Krakow castle, which two friends who had previously visited told me. Apparently, one of the Earth’s chakra points is located in the main courtyard in Krakow castle. Hindus believe that there are seven chakra points on the planet: Delhi, Delphi, Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, Velherad… and Krakow Castle. The seventh chakra is said to reside in the north west corner of the castle’s courtyard, centred in the chancel of St Gereon’s Church.
My friends told me that the guides don’t like people asking about this, but that when they were there they found the supposed spot, and though they were outside in the freezing cold, when they found this spot they were warm and content. I didn’t find the spot (I don’t think), but I was warm and content anyway as I was with the man I love in one of the best cities in the world.
Today, Wawel Castle is an important art gallery, which holds many treasures, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with Ermine (I thought she had a ferret).
Hidden inside the castle is Wawel Cathedral (a.k.a. Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on Wawel Hill). Wawel Cathedral is the burial place of Polish saints and kings. It is very cathedral like: pretty, ostentatious and interesting. It’s 900 years old and is where Polish coronations used to take place. Pope John Paul 2 used to be a priest at the cathedral. Again, I visited at closing time and so only had time to have a quick look around the interior. I didn’t have time to visit St Leonard’s Crypt, which is where Polish kings, saints (including St Hedwig) and national heroes are buried.
Under the castle, by the river, is the dragon’s den, where the dragon used to live. Now he lives just outside his cave and he breathes fire about every ten minutes. We heard a rumour that you can get him to breathe fire by texting him – but we couldn’t find his number so we can’t confirm this.
Kazimierz: The Jewish Quarter
One of the main reasons to visit Krakow is to visit Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, which is on the far side of the castle. Krakow had a huge Jewish population that was decimated in the holocaust (as shown in the harrowing film Schindler’s List). Oscar Schindler had his factory here and you can visit his factory and the Jewish quarter of town. We sadly didn’t have time to go: www.mhk.pl/branches/oskar-schindlers-factory.
Although we did try to visit this quarter of town, the dark early nights and the rain seemed to prevent us from venturing this far and so I’m afraid we never did quite make it – although we did venture close a number of times, we never did make it to the key sites.
I’m glad that we visited Auschwitz, but now I want to forget about it and never have to think about it ever again.
I have a friend who believes that everyone should visit the Galapagos Islands and that that everyone should visit Auschwitz, so that they can see the best thing and the worst thing on the planet.
I wanted to visit Auschwitz as I wanted to try to understand what had happened and to pay tribute to those who had died senselessly in the holocaust. I will never understand, but at least now I have a better comprehension of what occurred, why we must never forget what happened and why we must fight to ensure nothing like this ever happens ever again. I am a witness now.
Auschwitz is located on the edge of the town of Osweicim. We visited Auschwitz on a freezing, foggy, grey, dark day – which felt kind of apt, considering where we were.
Our bus dropped us off in the museum car park, where there was a warm ticket office and small cafe. We went in here to warm up and to buy our tickets before making our way to the camp.
We entered the camp through the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) gateway.
The Auschwitz camp itself is a horrible place to be: it’s cold concrete and has bare, barren ground. The birds don’t sing here. It’s a silent space, surrounded by barbed razor wire.
Inside the camp there are lots of prison blocks. Each nation who had citizens executed at the camp has a block where they have set up their own exhibition, focusing on the people who died. We visited the Hungarian block and it contained an exhibition about the people from Hungary who had died at the camp: who they were, where they were from, what their lives were like before the war – and what happened to them here. It was heartbreaking. Again and again and again. We couldn’t face going into any of the other blocks.
Other blocks contain exhibitions about a particular aspect of the camp – including one dedicated to the medical experiments that took place here and one which contains the exhibition of hair (which we didn’t see).
When we first entered Auschwitz we were talking quietly, but as our visit went on we became more and more silent, because there is nothing you can say. When faced with what happened here – there are no words.
And then you visit the gas chambers. I can give you the facts of our visit but I can’t tell you how it is to be there, because again – there are no words and I don’t want to think about it too hard. The gas chambers are small, innocuous looking buildings at the far end of the camp. I couldn’t believe that these innocuous looking, prefab sheds were where hundreds of thousands of people had been killed.
Inside there are two rooms. The room where the people were killed, the gas chamber, contains just a huge bunch of flowers and nothing else. The other room (I find it hard to even write this) is the ovens, and this contains some of the machinery from the time. You have to be silent in these two rooms.
I didn’t know if I could go in here and in some ways, I wish I hadn’t. Knowing how many people died here and how… well, there are no words.
Seeing the machines and the ovens is a hellish vision which I try not to think about as it’s just too disturbing.
So, as I said, I’m glad that I went – but now I want to forget about it, as its a hell on earth that should never be allowed to happen again – and everyone should go to Auschwitz to bear witness to what happened and so that we can all ensure this never happens again.
After our visit, Jeff and I walked the 2km back to Osweicim station, because we wanted to just have some time to process what we had seen and to transition back to the normal world. Visiting Auschwitz changed something in me, and I hope I never have to see it again.
There is another camp in Osweicim: Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the camp with the train tracks running into the camp and this is much larger than Auschwitz. Jeff and I didn’t make it here – partly because it was February and getting dark, but mostly because we just couldn’t take any more horror and we felt that we had seen enough.
It’s free to visit Auschwitz, although you can pay to have a guided tour. There is a visitor centre with café, toilets, book shops etc. Children under 12 are not allowed in to the museum. There are display and information boards around the museum to explain what happened in each location.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
We would have liked to have visited Oscar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, but we somehow just didn’t have the time. This is now a museum about Krakow in the war. www.mhk.pl/branches/oskar-schindlers-factory.
Another museum which commemorates the victims of the holocaust is the Galicia Museum. This museum also offers tours of the Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow: www.galiciajewishmuseum.org.
We’d have also have liked to have visited the Wielicska Salt Mine (UNESCO), where the miners carved fantastic rooms out of the salt, including a cathedral. We had to choose between visiting here or Auschwitz and so we chose Auschwitz, but if we go back this is definitely somewhere that we’ll visit. www.wieliczka-saltmine.com
I’d have quite liked to have visited Nowa Huta, which is the old communist side of Krakow. You can do a trabant tour of the city which includes a visit to this part of town with crazy tours. They were featured on Michael Palin’s New Europe TV programme.
Whilst researching this page, I’ve learnt about Rynek Underground, which is under the Cloth Hall in the main square. This underground area contains old medieval market stalls, but it has been updated with snazzy holograms and stuff. It looks really cool. Apparently the ticket office is at the back of the Cloth Hall. www.podziemiarynku.com.
Where we stayed
Greg and Tom’s
We had our own apartment in Krakow old town, about two minutes from the main square, all for £10 each per night.
The apartment was part of Greg and Tom’s hostel. We had to go to the actual hostel, which is close to the train station, to check in and to get the keys for our accommodation.
Actually, we didn’t have our own apartment as for the first two nights we had to share it with a Polish/Danish couple. It was a little awkward at first, but once we shared a little food and a few drinks we got on brilliantly and had a great time together. Agata, our Polish ‘flatmate’, gave us a great introduction to Krakow, Poland and Polish vodka.
The apartment was modern and large and had every facility we could need. The bathroom was lush: with a huge bath, heated towel rails and a power shower. There was a fully equipped kitchen, a washing machine and stereos in both bedrooms. There was also a living room with TV, books and leaflets, but we didn’t really use this.
Greg and Tom’s hostel is actually located just outside the city walls, by the stations, and we could go here for a free breakfast, for information and to use the internet.
I’m not sure that I’d stay at the actual hostel, as I’d prefer to be in the old town – but I’d definitely stay at the apartment again.
Mama’s Hostel (Maybe now called Pink Panther)
Jeff arrived in Krakow a few days before I did and for those nights he stayed at Mama’s Hostel. Mama’s Hostel was located between the main market square and the castle. He says that it was nice and friendly (they had a free wine night) but there was quite a noisy group also staying when he was there and that it was a bit of a party hostel.
Mama’s appears to have been re-branded as when I search for it now, somewhere called The Pink Panther Hostel comes up. I guess it’s the same place. I’ll have to go back to find out. pinkpanthershostel.com.
Where we ate and drank
Krakow is amazing for food and drink with many wonderful cafés, bars and restaurants. Polish food is rich, hearty and delicious. Specialties include perogis (meat or cheese dumplings with bacon fat on top), rich grain breads, roast meats, rich soups and stews, smoked cheeses, beer, vodka and wine from Hungary. We ate so well here. Jeff ate nearly 100 perogis in one day!
Lucky Jeff met a girl who was writing her dissertation on Polish milk bars – the ex-communist restaurants found in people’s living rooms – so he had an amazing introduction to typical Polish food. Milk bars serve excellent, canteen-style food for rock bottom prices, and if you can find one to visit, I’d highly recommend going in for some traditional Polish food. We went to a few in the city and we had perogis, sausage and barley soup, carrot soup, pork cutlets and veg, and an amazing stewed fruit drink called compot. A full meal and drink set us back about £1 – £2.
Krakow is a meat lovers paradise with lots of roast meat restaurants, pork knuckle festivals, great sausages etc etc. We did find a few vegetarian restaurants as well though (there was a chain which has one or two vegetarian restaurants in town and a great pizzeria in the central square).
We also found some amazing cake shops. There was a particularly wonderful cup-cake shop next to the spider house which we visited for Black Forest cupcakes and coffees.
If, like us, you end up self catering or you’d like to make a picnic then there’s a huge supermarket in the modern mall by the station. We bought great bread, cheese, sausage, wine and vodka here – the perfect picnic.
Krakow is amazing for drinking and has many cool, interesting and quirky bars. In particular, I liked Singer which is a bar which seems to be in someone’s living room (it’s the size of a living room). It has singer sewing machines in the middle of the tables. It had loud music, was preposterously packed and I loved it! In my memory, people were dancing on the tables and swinging from the ceiling; there were hidden curtained rooms. It was a crazy-cabaret kind of place. Singer don’t appear to have a website but they do have a facebook page.
We also really liked Alchemia, which was on the same square as Singer. It was a nice shabby-chic, wooden bar with great beer and cheap wine. Apparently there is another, much larger section of Alchemia where they hold cultural events. www.worldsbestbars.com/bar/krakow/city-center/alchemia
Finally, our Polish ‘flatmate’, Agata, took us to a fabulous beer bar called the House of Beer, where we drank excellent Polish beers. www.houseofbeerkrakow.com.
Krakow would be amazing to visit for a party weekend and we so did not do this city justice. I bet it’s an amazing party place in summer. We’ll just have to go back to find out.
If you are looking for some cool bars in Krakow (or anywhere else for that matter), then check out the World’s Best Bars website.
For a really in-depth, in the know guide to Krakow, check out In Your Pocket. I have used their website a number of times whilst researching this apge and I find their information extremely comprehensive and useful. www.inyourpocket.com/krakow.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.