It became my tradition to write articles almost two years after I visit a place. I will have to improve that in future. This article should give you an idea for a long-weekend trip. I neglected writing about short trips lately due to many longer trips I had found more interesting for you. But let’s not forget the joys of long weekends and sweet escapes into something new and different. I hope I will convince you to fly east this time.
Almost two years ago we spent a long weekend in Poland’s most beautiful city. It is proclaimed so by several Polish, whom I personally know, and currently cannot disagree with them until I visit some more. Of course I talk about Krakow.
This article is based purely on my observations during this short trip. It will bring up to you all those things which I found interesting and which had left some impression on me; either to raise up my camera and save the moment for eternity or just leave it and enjoy a good vibe, special smell or even a song coming from a street artist.
Country, region: Poland, Lesser Poland voivodeship
Name: Kraków (Cracow or Krakow in English)
Area: 326.8 km2
Population (2018): 771,069
Patron Saint: St. Stanisław of Krakow
Saint day: April 11
Currency: Polish złoty
How to reach?
Krakow is easily reachable by plain or train or, if you live in EU countries, by very cheap bus called Flixbus. Bus takes quite some time but it’s the cheapest option for budget travellers. Airport has a subway connection to the city centre, which will bring you downtown in 30-40 minutes. You can also use Uber to move around the city easily, in the parts where metro is too far away, which makes it even more flexible to move around.
Where to stay?
City has a vast number of hotels, hostels and Airbnb options. Check it out and find a perfect place to stay in the Old town. If you want a recommendation from me, you know what to do.
When to go?
High season: July – August
Shoulder: May – June, September – October
Low season: November – April
Our visit took place beginning of July. We found a nice weather; not excessively hot during the day and with fresh evenings. July and August are the most touristic months due to the warm climate and consequently attract more tourists. The city can become quite crowded and busy. End of spring offers long days and full bloom. Beginning of autumn, on the other hand, can gift you with golden colours. Winter months can be harsh and some transports may be disrupted. But don’t let that discourage you because it is probably most romantic covered with snow. And what better than a hot chocolate to warm you up while its snowing outside?
- Krakow University, established in 1364, is the oldest university in Poland and second oldest in Central Europe. Some of the famous alumni, among others, are: mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish king John III Sobieski, writer Stansłav Lem and president of Poland Andrzej Duda.
- The Main Square (Rynek Główny) in the Old Town of Krakow is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. It has been listed as the best public place in Europe by Project for Public Spaces (PSS) in 2005 due to its interesting architecture, many attractions around and lively streets. It was placed in UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978 as part of the Old Town Krakow.
- Spielberg’s famous film “Schindler’s List” was filmed in Krakow. Either on real locations like the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, Church of St. Mary and Schindler’s factory; or on ones rebuilt for the movie such as Plaszów labour camp, because nothing was left of the real camp after the war.
- St. Mary’s Trumpet Call, a five-note Polish anthem closely bound to Krakow’s history, is played by a trumpeter from the highest tower of St. Mary’s Church. It is played every hour, but why it abruptly stops during the performance? According to the legend, during the Mongol invasion of Poland in 13th century a sentinel on St. Mary’s Church Tower was sounding an alarm by playing Hejnał. The city gates closed on time but the trumpeter was shot before he was able to finish the melody. Today’s short stop of the melody is symbolises this legend.
- There is a one-painting-exposition in the Caste of Wawel. The painting in question is Leonardo da Vinci’s original “Lady with an Ermine”. Photos are forbidden inside that gallery room but you can still have a selfie with replica outside, if you want to.
Krakow is very lively student city, which has a lot to offer. Three-day trip was not enough to see many things but here are couple of highlights. Remember, I always leave something out as a reason to come back. Off we go now.
Day 1: Stare Miasto (Old Town Krakow)
We arrived to Krakow on an early and cloudy July morning. It was one of those mornings where you aren’t sure if the day will turn out moody and colourless or the sun will shine and everything will be nicer. It was still early for the check-in so we decided to walk from the main train station to the Old Town.
It took us 10 minutes to reach the 15th century fortified Old Town gate – Barbakan Krakowski. This gothic-style barbican has been built due to fear of attack by the Ottoman Empire and it served as a checkpoint for all who entered the city. It is one of the three remaining outposts of that kind in Europe, along with Warsaw Barbican and Saint Laurence Gate (Drogheda, Ireland) and it’s the best preserved one.
We stepped through the gate and first things to greet us were a long street, framed with cafés and chocolateries, and a street gallery. The town was slowly waking up, smelling of just baked bread and that inviting dash of freshly grained coffee. We had to yield to that temptation so we went for a breakfast in one of the chocolateries. Maybe even the first one that was smelling good. It was a cozy little place where I was enjoying a croissant with homemade marmalade and sipping my coffee with the street view, observing more and more passerby as they rushed to work. It was Friday morning after all.
Our accommodation was in the Old Town, several minutes on foot from the Main Square. It was a small room in a very lively street full of bars and restaurants. After leaving our luggages in the room we rented, we could finally explore the city without any obstacles. We took a long walk through the nearby park Planty krakowskie to reach the south gate. Planty krakowskie encircles the Old Town and it’s more chain of gardens, walkways and lawns surrounded by trees. It has a second role as an open air gallery for many sculptures around it. Even if you don’t plan it during your break on a bench in the shade, you can still enjoy and admire some art.
At the south gate, we passed by Representative Royal Chambers and Danish Tower, which are surrounded by red-brick wall, just to enter the city and find the first memorial place – The Cross of Katyn. It has been erected in 1990 in front of Church of St. Giles 50 years after the Katyn massacre. Its purpose is commemoration of the victims and to warn that such horrific events shouldn’t take place ever again. Tough start of the city tour but expectable knowing history wasn’t always so gentle to Polish people.
Grodzka street took us further to the Main Square (Rynek Główny). This huge medieval square is the heart of the city. I literally mean it. It is both placed in the very core of Krakow Old Town and gathers all the crowd and events around it. It feels like every street in the Old Town will bring you to this place. Turning here and there, hearing the cheerful crowd or the church bells, you will eventually find yourself on one of the biggest medieval squares in Europe. It is so untypical with Town Hall Tower and Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) in the middle hiding the other side of the Square from your eyes. It impresses and makes you explore more. You just have to go all the way around to see what’s on the other side and take a better look on Town Hall Tower on one side or Church of St Adalbert on the other; all that while observing historical buildings called kamienice, most of them being centuries old.
The main purpose of this historical square was commerce. It was destroyed during the Mongol invasion of Europe and rebuilt again in the second half of 13th century. Its famous landmark, Cloth Hall, was built in 14th century. Original building was caught on fire and today’s one was rebuilt in 16th century with some parts being added later such as the arcades from 19th century. Our first encounter was grey and moody but I couldn’t resist the good atmosphere that surrounded me and cheerful voices from all around. Square is lined with so many cafés and restaurants that you won’t be able to decide where to go first.
That is why we didn’t end up drinking a second coffee, although every café was inviting. Instead, we proceeded to admire the St. Mary’s Basilica. It’s a gothic church made of red brick and it dates back to 14th century. There is no architectural plan which would explain why the church towers have different heights. Nevertheless, the legend says that two brothers, the best constructors in the city, were hired to build the towers. When younger brother realised that older brother’s tower is much higher than his, he killed him out of envy and added cupola to his brothers south tower. North tower could now be completed as the taller one. A decision to kill his brother was impulsive and his regret for such an act was rising. On the day of church’s consecration, he killed himself with the same knife he used for murdering his brother and dropped dead from the north tower. The legendary knife is exposed in the Cloth Hall. Wether this is true or not, fact is that this church is beautiful. Mysteriously different towers just make it perfect, especially under the pink sunset sky. Oops, spoiler alert. We had a long walk around the Old Town’s cobblestone streets, passing by the horse carriages, different styled buildings with neoclassical, gothic to renaissance or baroque decorations and then we returned to our room.
Let me tell you a little secret that we use to practice on our city trips: visit your accommodation in the afternoon for a one- or two-hour siesta (Spanish will understand instantly the importance of this). Anything that exceeds the two hours is not good. After the whole day of walking, concentrating constantly on new things, your brain and your legs need to relax and process the information. You will feel completely recharged afterwords and not broken after the whole day of rushing to cross everything from the list. That way you can better enjoy the city’s nightlife too. This siesta is not always possible but try it whenever you can and you’ll be amazed. Especially if you had an early flight and start to feel the tiredness in the afternoon.
Fully energised, we could now enjoy the Main Square once again and this time not moody and grey but incredibly colourful under the pink sunset light casting its spell upon everything. I almost expected unicorns to show up. I haven’t had my camera with me because sunsets are, of course, the best when I don’t have it. We discovered couple of great places to eat (contact me for a recommendation). After dinner, a bit of digestive is necessary and that’s how we find a perfect spot for vodka tasting. You would be surprised how many flavours can vodka have and how well they make it in Poland.
In the evening, you can actually realise that Krakow is a student city. All the students finally free from daily lessons relax in lively bars. So many young people and contagious cheerful atmosphere. I guess it is a beautiful and inspiring place for studies. At least it would have been to me.
Day 2: Stare Miasto – Kazimierz
Incredible how much you can see in a day even when you do not overdo it. Our second day started with breakfast in a nearby café-bar and a local experience. When I say local experience, I mean we had company.
As we were waiting for our food to come, sipping slowly the first morning coffee, a cheerful man came smelling of alcohol. He engaged in conversation with staff just to sit with us in the next moment. Vodka at 9 a.m. was new thing to see. However, he was not impolite or anything. He was only searching someone to talk to. We could hardly get what he was saying but one part was definitely that Poland is a nice country. Then he moved to the next café bar-guest and we were relieved not having to smell alcohol in the early morning. I guess he was the owner of the place and that is why the staff didn’t kick him out.
We began today exploring with a walk to and through Wavel castle. Grodzka street took us first to Evangelic-Augsburg Church of St. Martin, a white early baroque style building, dating from 17th century. It wasn’t the church itself that left such a strong impression on me, it was a small book flea market in front of it and sounds of Ennio Morricone’s film music. A street artist with a violin was playing in front of the church, enriching the flea market with the musical background. Luckily for me, I could buy myself a souvenir in a form of a book. I also learned that Krakow joined UNESCO City of Literature program in 2013 as the first Slavic and second non-English speaking city.
I wasn’t that impressed with Wavel Castle although the place has a long history. We descended to the river to see Wavel dragon that blows fire every now and then, making a spectacle for so many children waiting to see the dragon alive. That is where the the long walk along Vistula river begins. It even has its own Walk of Fame on Czerwiensk boulevard with handprints, among others, from Roman Polanski, Luc Besson, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. It was an unexpected yet amusing to discover. Long walk along the boulevard and tree alley following Vistula was so relaxing. The day was sunny and quite hot but we walked in the tree shade, enjoying all the green around us and observing the boats cruising on this lazy river.
The path brought us to Kazimierz, once a Jewish district, today a lively quarter with alternative bars and restaurants where you can get the whole fried camembert. Yes, the whole thing. So don’t hesitate and write me, cheese lovers. I cannot pick just one thing that I found cool in this part of the city. There were many murals, old Synagogue, bars made in old abandoned train stations. Everything hat its own unique charm.
After lunch we walked back to the Old Town. It was time for some art. We wanted to see da Vinci’s “Lady with an ermine” but we didn’t really check up where exactly it was exposed so we went directly to National Museum of Krakow. First surprise was that it was free of charge but we were thrilled that it was so. Then we realised that we were in the wrong museum. This was the museum with old Polish art works, mostly related to religion and church icons and sculptures. We went through the whole collection, which dated back to medieval period and many splatter scenes of murder depicted up to the modern period, changed technique and more realistic portraits. If you are not that into this kind of art, you can skip this museum.
The real location of da Vinci’s “Lady with an ermine” is also in Krakow’s National museum but this one. You will find different locations online. At least it was there a year and a half ago. It is not free of charge but it pays off to see this amazing painting from 1489-1490. The portrait depicts Cecilia Gallerani in the period when she was mistress of the Duke of Milan. Da Vinci was in Duke’s service at the same time. This is one of total four women portraits that Da Vinci did in his career. The others include Mona Lisa, Ginevra de’ Benci and La belle ferronnière. It has been painted on a thin walnut wood panel. Taking photos is forbidden and you can entirely enjoy the beauty of this one-piece exhibition in a dark museum room with only artificial light being casted upon the painting on the dark wall. Have fun taking selfies with the replica outside.
Time for siesta!
In the evening we visited the Main square (again) and enjoyed some cultural exchange festival with music and performance from different countries. Light, shadow, movement and music. There was a small theatre too with a children’s play. Too bad we couldn’t understand a thing because it was in Polish.
Day 3, Auschwitz – Birkenau and Wieliczka salt mines
This day we reserved for the guided tours in concentration camps and a salt mine outside of Krakow. I can give you the contact if you are interested because we were very satisfied with the whole organisation.
We booked this tour online in advance and it included following things:
- Transport from our accommodation to concentration camps, salt mine and back
- Lunch package consisting of a sandwich, cold pasta-salad and a soft drink
- Guided tour in English in both Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps
- Guided tour in English in Wieliczka salt mines
Back to the point. Concentration camps, two of the most notorious ones being nearby Krakow, are the darkest spot in humankind history. We watched many movies, documentaries, heard stories and read books but nothing can really describe the horrors of those places as being there and seeing them. I am not a fan of disaster tourism but I think that these places can teach us something. Recognise the signs and do not let the history repeat itself ever again that way.
Our driver picked us up early in the morning in front of our accommodation. We joined the other 4 passengers in a minivan, which soon took us outside of the city. We got to see the documentary about Auschwitz liberation in the car. I have to say, it was not an easy thing to watch. Gut turning and horrifying it revealed those who survived, with empty looking eyes and terribly underweight. It revealed the ones who didn’t make it until the end. I guess the people who liberated the camp couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams what they were about to find there. For me it was the most horrible documentary I’ve ever seen so if you don’t want that kind of emotion, sleep it over. Probably it’s better.
We arrived to Auschwitz concentration camp and got our headphones so that we could hear our guide better. One hint here: do not bring big bags or backpacks with you because they have restrictions on the bag size. I think max. dimensions were the size of A4 paper. Either you take the most necessary items with you (documents, phone) and leave the backpack in the minivan or you bring a very small bag. We didn’t know this so we paid for backpack storage.
We had an amazing guide who led us through the notorious “Arbeit macht frei” (“work sets you free”) gate and patiently and slowly explained everything in detail. How the camp was divided in two sections: extermination camp and concentration camp. Just the word itself, extermination, is despicable. It was a beautiful sunny day that made everything look nicer than it was, red bricked buildings of an old military barracks keeping the horrifying secrets. We haven’t seen all of them, it would be too much, but several were more than enough to get an impression. In many corridors there were photos of the Polish people who ended their lives there as part of the memorial.
You can photograph almost everything apart from couple of items consisting of human remains (ash, hair…). However, I couldn’t do it because it was overwhelming. Taking photos of someone’s personal items seemed just degutant. You would be surprised how much a pair of shoes or glasses can tell about the person’s life or how you can pack your whole life in a single suitcase, marked with white chalk. You observe those things, not as items anymore but as persons. That is when it becomes unsettling. Please be respectful and restrain from taking photos inside. Reflect on what you see and its meaning instead.
After going through the reconstructed gas chamber we exited the camp, relieved to be outside again, and returned to the car to proceed the tour in the nearby Birkenau concentration camp.
I mentioned that Auschwitz was an old military barracks and was just turned into concentration camp with existing buildings. Birkenau, on the other hand, was entirely built by prisoners. Wooden and brick barracks are still standing there, most of them destroyed. The camp gate is one of those things you often see in films, and seeing it live still gives you goosebums as a symbol for something evil.
We passed the railway gate and found ourselves in front of a very small train wagon. I still can’t comprehend how 90 people could possibly fit inside. It was the point where the selection took place. Women, children and older people unable to work to one side and younger and stronger ones to the other. What you can still see are the remains of the gas chambers and crematoriums. The big gas chambers have been completely destroyed just before the camp was liberated. Nazi wanted to hide all the crimes they did during the war period. I will not write you here about the camp history, horrors it witnessed and how bizarre the organisation of the entire thing was. I will just recommend you to go, see for yourself and make sure to do your part for such things never to happen again by being more open-minded, empathic, generous and kind.
The sun was high up in the sky when we thanked our guide for an informative, respectful and careful explaination of historical facts. Trust me, a good guide is what makes the tour and not just the information provided.
It was time for a short lunch and a ride to salt mines. It took us one hour by car to reach the Wieliczka salt mine (Kopalnia soli Wieliczka) where our witty guide in a suite was waiting ready to show us some underground wonders. I was so thrilled because I’ve never visited a mine of any type before. Don’t miss it under any circumstances, it’s impressive!
This salt mine dates back to the 13th century. It was operating and producing table salt until 2007 as one of the oldest salt mines in the world. Commercial salt mining was stopped in 1996 due to the falling salt price on the market and mine flooding. Today, the mine is one of Poland’s historic monuments and on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1978. The mine is 327m deep with a horizontal maze of passages and chambers more than 287km long. During the 2-hour tour you get to see something around 1% of it.
We started by taking 350 stairs down to the mine shaft, c.a. 64m underground. The spiral wooden staircase took us down steeply and steadily. The temperature down there is around 15-18°C but the air is really good. It almost feels like being near the sea but without the sound of the waves, only the whistling of the wind through the air-locked doors.
On the way, you will see different chambers (around 20 of them) and unusual places, first one of them being Danilowicz Shaft. Here you will learn more about the mine’s history, legends and natural forces related to it. The path took us further through different chambers with salt sculptures, which are depicting the history of the mine. The salt colour is of unpolished granite i.e. grey. Nevertheless, if you place a light source behind the sculptures, you can see through them. All the chambers and sculptures were made by miners themselves. They were free people, not slaves, working in the mine. Unlike working in the coal mine, the air here was good and pay check was in salt, which was precious back days when.
The most impressive chamber is the Chapel of St. Kinga, saint protector of the mine. You will hear a legend about her at the beginning of the tour. The entire chamber and its interior are made of salt, even the chandeliers. If you don’t believe me, try licking the pavement or the walls 🙂 There is even da Vinci’s replica of “The last supper” carved in salt wall. The miner had only a picture back days when to reproduce this piece of art in salt. This chamber should give you an idea of what can you achieve when you love the work you do.
You will also be able enjoy the view of a saline lake with Chopin music in the background. How amazing is that? You will pass through many corridors, shafts, old mining machines and a small shop during the tour only to take a fast elevator to get you back to the surface. In 30 seconds it brings you to the museum shop where you can buy, wait for it… salt!
There are couple of things to keep in mind when visiting the salt mine:
- Walking alone without the guided tour is not possible. Book your tour in advance. You can even check for the private tour on their website.
- Bring a jacket or cardigan with you due to the lower temperatures underground.
- The tour is 2 and a half hours long and it includes many steps and passages. Wear comfortable shoes.
- Some parts of the route are adapted for wheelchairs. Book in advance in this case.
- Toilet facilities can be found along the route, 40 and 90 minutes from the beginning of the tour.
- Smoking or open fire are strictly forbidden.
- Animals are not allowed inside the mine.
- Although most of the chambers and corridors are spacious, there are some narrow parts of the route and the elevator at the end. Take that into account if you suffer from claustrophobia.
On our way back to Krakow, I could reflect on this amazing day. It started with some sad emotions but it ended cheerfully in such an amazing place. I may never go again to Auschwitz but I definitely plan to pay another visit to the salt mine. Next time maybe even for some special event because I saw they organise it. Still under impression of the city, its vibe, history and beautiful pink sunsets, I could not think about my morning flight at all. The only thing I could think of was what to do next time visit it. Aż do następnego razu !