Krakow is an unbelievable city; a fusion of the old and the really old, charming buildings, incredible food and a whole lot of history. I have to say, I don’t know what I expected, but it blew all my expectations out of the water. We spent three days here and it was just enough time to get a real feel for the place, but I could have easily spent a few more days exploring the historic streets and eating all the unbelievable cuisine on offer. Want to know how best to spend your time here? Read on…
After landing late morning and transferring to our hotel, we set right out to explore and get some food. From the first wander through the Old Town, I was enchanted – this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right, and chock-full of beautiful architecture, from the 15th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall to the 13th-century St Mary’s Basilica, a Baroque, two-spired church which looms above the square. At some point, you’ll most likely hear the sound of a trumpeter ring out from one of the spires, who stops abruptly before the end of the tune as his ancestor did when being shot in the throat by a soldier during an invasion in 1241.
One of the best things about this city is how walkable it is – we planned money for taxis into our budget but didn’t end up getting a single one, and only got on the tram once for the fun of it, even though we could have easily walked. After you’ve explored the square and its surrounding streets, head to Świętego Tomasza to grab a bite at Milkbar Tomasza, a tiny little communal-dining spot where the food is both cheap and delicious. Milkbars originally emerged as canteens for workmen Soviet-era Poland, and several have survived, providing a fascinating spot for a truly authentic Krakowian meal.
We opted for two orders of pierogi, both fried, one filled with delicious, garlicky spinach and the other “meat” (I’m not sure what it was, but it tased damn good), and they were undoubtedly the best pierogis we had on our trip. On each table was a bottle of something called Przyprawa W Plynie, a sort of soy-sauce-Worcestershire-sauce hybrid whose name literally translates to liquid seasoning. Again, I don’t know what it was, but it adds an incredible salty edge to the pierogis and is definitely worth a try.
Once you’re good and satiated, continue north, and from here you’ve got a few options. There’s a lovely park which surrounds the Old Town, and at the northernmost edge you’ll find St Florian’s Gate and the Barbican, both part of the ramparts of the historic city walls, now purely decorative, yet beautiful, and great photographic subjects if that’s your thing. If you’re looking for something fun yet informative, Historyland is just up the road and showcases Poland’s history in a novel way: with Lego. Now, disclaimer, we love a bit of Lego, so this was right up our street – and some of the creations were really impressive – but if this isn’t your thing, why not check out Stary Kleparz, Krakow’s oldest continually-operating marketplace, which is just around the corner.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at Cat Café Kociarnia being entertained by the mischievous antics of their resident felines and drinking great coffee (though not the best we had – that came on day two). For dinner I recommend Pod Wawelem, which sits on a corner by Wawel Royal Castle and is famous for its huge schnitzel – fame which is well deserved. Alongside this giant, breaded piece of meat, we had a potato pancake (a polish favourite) stuffed with beef, lots of sour cabbage on the side and topped it all off with a cream cake for dessert. Deeeeelish.
We decided to book our Auschwitz tour for the morning of our second day – I recommend you do the same – and had a great experience with Krakow Discovery, who picked us up promptly and got us there and back with no hitches whatsoever. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience all in all; nothing if not harrowing, and it really made me question mankind’s ability to do such evil, and wonder if anything like it could ever happen again. Our guide approached the tour with poise and respect, even in the worst parts, and I can’t fault the information we were given, only the fact that we had to be told it in the first place.
We visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, and though some of the more haunting parts – the rooms full of shoes and the gas chamber itself – were in Auschwitz I, it was the sheer size of Auschwitz II – Birkenau that really got to me. It’s so huge you can’t see one side from the other, and the thought of all the people who had once been taken there, lived there, and died there, was the really hard-hitting part for me.
After returning to the city you’ll need some time to process – we definitely did – so why not take a walk through Kazimierz, also known as the Jewish Quarter. The streets become even more quaint and cobbled here, and it was actually my favourite part of Krakow – it had so much character flowing through its walls. The Jewish Square is bordered by charming restaurants if you need to eat, and we found a gem of a coffee place called Coffee Garden, which serves epic M&M lattes in a tranquil, plant-filled shop.
If you’re an architecture junkie, there are so many sights to see around here, from the Corpus Christi Basilica to the Old Synagogue, which dates back to the 15th-century. After all that I learnt about Krakow, it was incredible to me that so many of its historic building were still left standing through its torrid history. During our wanderings, we stumbled upon some incredible street art, including one huge mural dedicated to a family who lived in the area for 400 years, until 1941, when they fled and spent years smuggling medicine and money into the ghetto.
For something fun to do after this tough day, look no further than the Krakow Pinball Museum. For just the small sum of 40 złoty (about £7), you’ll get a whole day’s entry to the “museum”, which is really just five rooms packed full of retro pinball machines and other arcade games, and unlimited plays. Now I can’t say I’ve ever been a huge pinball fan, but it’s incredible how addicted one can get so quickly. We thought we’d only be there an hour or so, but one hour turned into two, which turned into three. We ended up heading out for dinner then going back for another two hours afterwards, and now I really feel like buying a pinball machine is a good move for my life.
Our second-night dinner spot was Kucina U Doroty, which sits on a quiet street right on the edge of the Jewish Quarter. The service left something to be desired, but the food definitely didn’t: a three-course meal and drinks for £11 each – who can resist! I ticked another couple of dishes off my Krakow food bucket list – Zurek, a sour Polish soup with sausage and hard-boiled eggs, and maczanka krakowska, succulent, melt-in-the-mouth pork in a soft roll, covered in gravy. Even though we were absolutely stuffed, we crammed in some racuchy z jablkami (apple pancakes), which turned out to be some kind of incredible doughnut-beignet but with apple situation – they were dreamy.
On your third day in Krakow, I suggest you venture further south into Podgórze, the site of the ghetto, and home of Oskar Schindler’s Factory. Now for another disclaimer: we weren’t blown away by the factory, mostly due to the fact that very little of it is about Oskar Schindler. If we’d have known this before we went, we might have enjoyed it more – and actually, I did really enjoy the parts about the factory and the ghetto, but these were few and far between, popped in almost at the very end of their permanent exhibition on Krakow Under Nazi Occupation. If you’re interested in this, then you’ll love it; the exhibition was full of interesting graphics, really immersive settings and lots of information, but we – somewhat naively I’m sure – thought we were going to be able to see inside the factory itself, so it was somewhat of a disappointment for us.
About a five-minute walk from the factory you’ll find the ghetto square, also known as Heroes Square. After spending the previous day at Auschwitz, I found the empty chairs to be really poignant; a symbol of those who lost their lives in the ghetto between 1939 and 1941. We spent some time here, then headed back up to Kazimierz, but you could pay a visit to Eagle Pharmacy. Now a museum, this was once the business and residence of the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the ghetto, who, alongside his staff, risked his life to get medicine and falsified documents to the Jewish ghetto citizens.
For lunch, head to Plac Nowy, a lovely little market square whose centre is filled with tiny food stalls which sell only one thing: Zapiekanka. Once you decide which of the many little holes in the wall to poke your head into, and which of the many, many options to choose, you’ll be presented with some kind of delicious open toasted baguette loaded with your choice of meat and veggies. I went for mushroom, spinach, mozzarella and chicken with garlic sauce. There aren’t many seats in the square, so you’ll likely be munching on this standing up, face covered in sauce, and that’s definitely half the fun.
If you’ve got it in you, this afternoon could be a good time to explore the castle, which sits impressively on the edge of the Old Town. We just admired it from the outside, but there are loads of things to see inside, from the staterooms and private apartments to a huge exhibition of oriental art. By this point in our trip, we were exhausted, so we decided to have another coffee break, this time in Nowy Świat, to the west of the city centre. We found the cutest little English-language bookshop-cum-cafe, where we feasted on pecan pie, played chess and browsed the books. I bought the most beautiful special edition of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, which I am literally in love with.
For our final dinner, we headed back to the Old Town Square and decided to sit in one of the little fairy-lit cabins that line the outside, though I’m guessing these aren’t here all year since they’re best for warming up after a cold Krakow day. This dinner was significantly more expensive that the Polish meals we had outside of the centre, so if you’re on a budget it’s better to find somewhere local, but it was a lovely, cosy spot to spend our final evening.
Got any more tips for things to do in Krakow? Hit me up below!