Kraków – Southern Poland’s Visual Gem

March, 2015

Dating back as far as the 7th century, Kraków is one of the oldest cities in Poland. According to legend, Kraków was built on the dragon’s cave that the mythical King Krak had slain. 

Krakow

Records state that in 966, a Jewish merchant from Spain officially mentioned the name Kraków and described it as “an important centre of trade in Slavonic Europe”.

With this much history, this city can only be but a visual delight for any traveller!

The plethora of sites and activities in this dazzling city makes your head giddy and you won’t know where to start enjoying yourself – it really is that amazing.

Tip: This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

Travel

Today was going to be a longer travel day but I still believed that the train times and connections were set in stone. After all, this is Europe not SE Asia, but alas, things don’t always go smoothly on travel days as any independent traveller will tell you…

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Street Art Seller – Old Town wall

Taking trains

So, the journey was supposed to eventuate with the train from Zamość (9:06, 15PLN) to Lublin taking about 2 hours, then having to wait for only 11 minutes until catching the connecting train to Kraków at 11:24hrs, which should arrive in Kraków at around 16:31hrs. However, as we know, sometimes things just don’t go to plan and this is what happened…

stained glass, poland, krakow, St. Francis Basilica

Incredible stained glass window – Basilica of St. Francis

After arriving at Lublin and buying the onward ticket (62PLN) to Kraków, hopped on the next train with only a few minutes to spare, sat down to check the tickets (as there were 2 separate tickets), and discovered we had to change trains again. Realised then that this is what the lady selling the tickets tried to explain in Polish but was lost in translation.

One ticket goes from Lublin to Deblin with a 55 minute wait at Deblin for the connecting train to Kraków at 13:12hrs, to arrive at 16:31hrs. Oh well, at least all 3 trains were not rammed like the train from Lublin to Zamość last week.

So, 3 trains and 8 hours later, we finally arrived!

Market

As it’s Easter next week, night markets are on in the Old Town’s square.

Many delicious local food stalls (not cheap though) and the obligatory handmade goods such as knitted winter garments, handmade Easter reed arrangements, and much more are on offer in the square.

Not sure if these markets are on at other times of the year. I’d say probably at Christmas time like many other European cities.

Sights

Wawel Royal Castle

Standing proud on Wawel Hill, this Gothic castle’s grounds are like a small city, hosting chapels, a cathedral, restaurants, and much more.

Although very touristy, the gorgeous architecture and lovely ambience wandering around this site makes it a must see when visiting Kraków.

Leave yourself a good half-day to enjoy the castle grounds, which is free entry. However, entering different buildings and exhibitions on the grounds have entry fees.

Wawel castle grounds, poland, krakow

Inside the grounds of Wawel Royal Castle

Old Town

As the centre of Poland’s political life from 1038 until 1596, this medieval town was one of the first sites chosen for UNESCO’s original World Heritage List.

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The Cloth Hall

Although it’s end of March so not even high season yet, the Old Town is busy with local and foreign tourists.

I’m quite surprised of just how many tourists there are in Kraków every day and would not like to be here during high season.

Rynek Glowny (Market Square)

Both locals and foreigners seem to gravitate to this square in the Old Town. Perhaps as this seems to be where a lot of the action is…it’s not hard to see why this 200 metre square space is ranked as one of the largest Medieval squares in Europe!

old town, poland, krakow, horses

Old Town tourist transport

Originally designed in 1257, this square is graced with many relaxing seating areas, gorgeous architecture, elegant townhouses, restaurants, cafés, human statues, buskers, and much more; and an excellent starting point to venture further afield.

Barbakan

In the late 15th century and based on an Arabic (not European) defensive strategy, the circular Barbakan fortress was added to the city’s fortification. This fortified outpost was once connected to the city walls, which is one of the few remaining complex fortification and defensive barriers that encircled this once royal city.

Kazimierz

After about a 10-15 minute walk from the Old Town centre, you arrive at Kazimierz (former Old Jewish Quarter), which is the historical district of Kraków.

Apart from strolling down the narrow streets and some lovely old 14th century architecture, I don’t think this area is particularly impressive. Perhaps it’s because many modern buildings diminish the significance from this once historical district.

The abundance of tourists here also detracts from absorbing the ambience.

Kazimierz was a place of “coexistence and interpenetration of Christian and Jewish cultures” for many centuries. However, in 1941, Kazimierz’s inhabitants were forcibly relocated to Krakow’s ghetto across the river by the occupying German forces.

Day trip to Auschwitz Museum and Birkenau Camp

A must-see during any visit to Kraków is the Auschwitz Museum and Birkenau Camp, which is in the town of Oświęcim.

The infamous site of the most notorious mass murder in humanity’s history is an experience I will never forget!

Auschwitz, poland, concentration camp, krakow

Auschwitz

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Death railway – Auschwitz

Organised the day tour (135PLN) from the Tourist Information office in the Old Town’s Main Square.

Auschwitz Museum

The minibus picks you up from wherever you’re staying (or close by) at around 09:50hrs and drops you back around 17:00hrs (winter timetable only). It’s about an hour’s drive from Kraków to the Auschwitz museum, which is where 2 other groups from the same company joined our group of 18.

The groups were then split out again in languages (English, Polish, German) with different museums guides.

Auschwitz, poland, krakow, concentration camp

Fences – Auschwitz

After the 2-hour tour at Auschwitz, the minibus drives you the 3kms to the Birkenau Camp, which then includes about one and a half-hours of guided tour.

Birkenau Camp

Again, this is extremely moving and I defy anyone to visit both camps and leave with dry eyes!

Our passionate professional museum guide delivered the 4 hours with emotion and conviction from a Polish perspective but still managed to stay objective throughout the tour.

Understandably, this part of history is remembered more regarding the Jewish Holocaust at these camps. However, not too much is heard about the other people also executed here such as Poles, political objectors, Romani, Sinti, Soviet POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities. Our guide made sure we were aware of everyone’s plight.

Disturbing observation: I really can’t understand tourists that take selfies and photos of each other smiling and carrying on in front of the gas chamber door as if it was a party or fun park – bizarre behaviour and lacking respect!

Accommodation

First visit

Abra Apartment (ul Cybulskiego 2, 31-117) – Lucas (owner) met us with the keys to our swish studio apartment, which has absolutely everything and just like home – well almost. Ground coffee is provided but nothing to make it with or in, which is a similar problem with self-catering apartments throughout Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. So, finally decided to buy a coffee plunger and carry this around everywhere! This apartment even has a washing machine and a dishwasher, also a great kitchen. Stayed here for 7 nights.

Second visit

Returned to Kraków for 3 nights after the Zakopane trip but stayed at a different apartment, which did not have a name, as the first apartment was fully booked.

Although not quite as upmarket as the Abra Apartment, this one still had everything we needed for a 3-night stay. This apartment is closer to the Old Town and the train station than Abra. Tomasz (owner) is very helpful and gave us many names of local places to eat and a few local tips.

Food

Cooked most meals and had breakfasts at the apartment but still managed to venture out for coffee and pastries as a daily necessity – important to experience the local delights when in a country.

Big Red food bus, poland, krakow

Cute fast food bus

  • Pierre Boulongerie (ul. Szewska 6, 31-009) – This is by far the best coffee and most wonderful pastries around in Kraków; yummy savouries and takeaways (To Go) also on offer. As this is a very small café and cheaper than what’s around, it fills up quickly, especially with students; sometimes it’s hard to get a seat. Pretty much had coffee and pastries here every day, over both visits to Krakow, so 10 days – never had a bad coffee or pastry, so consistently excellent!

    human statue, poland, old town, krakow

    Human Statue – Main Market Square

  • Restauracja Czarna Kaczka (ul. Poselska) – Celebrated my birthday by having dinner at this wonderful restaurant and apart from the excellent service, the food was also excellent and scrumptious! The wonderful cheese board is excellent value, the fried bacon wrapped smoked cheese is divine, and traditional Polish mains (27-58PLN) are absolutely delicious. The House wine is very good (36PLN for 500ml carafe) and the ambience is lovely and cosy.
  • Coffee Heaven (Old Town) – Tried this coffee chain but the coffee is pricey and not that great (too milky and weak), although the ambience is very relaxing and lovely. Savouries and cakes look good.

Kraków to Zakopane

For the first time in just over a year of travel, we have 2 weeks of accommodation booked in advance. Typically, bookings are only made when the next destination is decided, which is a great way to travel.

Although as Easter is fast approaching and prices are increasing, decided to also book Zakopane in advance, as this town is the next destination and also a local’s skiing playground.

I hope the train (14PLN Promotion fare, usually 18PLN) for the 3.5-hour trip to Zakopane has good heating, as it’s snowing outside and definitely will be snowing in Zakopane, which is in the base of the Tatras Mountains.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Poland at Image Earth Travel.

Wawel, castle, poland, krakow, buskers

Wawel Royal Castle buskers

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Bronze sculpture – outside of the Old Town wall

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Medieval church pirate – Bazylika Mariacka

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Human statue – Main Market Square

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