We went to Krakow in southern Poland back in 2013 and weren’t really sure what to expect. The trip had been a Christmas present from my Mum, and I’m so glad she chose it for us, as it’s probably a destination we would never have picked on our own.
We arrived to find a beautiful city packed full of historical buildings and stunning architecture. It had been snowing the day before so everything was white and sparkling, and made the whole city look so romantic!
The town centre is filled with bars and restaurants to suit all tastes, so there’s always something to keep you occupied. The Polish people were among some of the friendliest I’ve ever met while travelling.
If you’ve never considered a city break to Krakow then I’d definitely recommend that you add it to your list!
Bars & Restaurants
Andy & I were both surprised at the amount of nightlife on offer in Krakow, and it’s no surprise that the city is fast becoming a top destination for stag and hen parties. Fear not though, most parties don’t really get going until late afternoon / early evening, so there’s still plenty of opportunities to go for a quiet drink, if that’s all you’re looking for.
Greg & Tom
One of our favourite bars was the Greg and Tom youth hostel, located just a few streets from the main square. There was a good range of beers, wines, spirits, and shots, and it seemed to be the main meeting place for groups of partygoers heading on organised bar crawls. There was also live entertainment on one of the nights we were there.
The oldest microbrewery in Krakow, where they actually make the beer in the backroom of the pub. Because of this the selection is rather limited, but at least you know the beer will be as fresh as possible. They also serve their beer in a 5ft tube, which is a bit of a novelty, but may save a trip to the bar if there’s a group of you drinking. I wouldn’t bother with the tube if there’s only a couple of you though, unless you enjoy drinking warm, flat beer.
We partied the night away in here with a group of Irish chemistry teachers we’d met in a previous bar. However, we couldn’t keep up drinking with them and eventually had to go home early after a few too many beers and Jagerbombs! The food looked tasty too, although we didn’t actually eat here. The menu is based around an Austrian / Central European theme, which means a lot of meat. There are also TVs showing sport.
Another of our favourite bars was the Grodzka 42 rock music bar and venue, located just south of the main square. The bar is in a basement and is decorated with weapons and medieval instruments of torture, which adds to the overall atmosphere. The music was right up my street, and covered everything from The Offspring to Iron Maiden. There is also a venue attached to the bar which hosts regular live gigs.
There was a huge selection of bottled beers, displayed in a giant fridge – you just go up and help yourself then pay at the bar. The barman seemed to know everything about all the different beers, and could tell us what each one was made of and where it came from, just by smelling the empty bottle. He was a bit of a character!
Unusually, we did quite a lot of fast food while in Krakow, which isn’t something that we normally eat. However, the standard was so high – much better than your usual Burger King and KFC. We got a huge bowl of spicy chicken wings which were probably the best I’ve ever tasted, and the kebab shop was so good we went back for a second time!
If you’re looking for a proper sit-down meal then you’ll find restaurants to suit every taste – we even found an American rodeo-themed restaurant. Our favourite was Bar Italiano Pizzeria, where Andy ordered a Pizza Smacki “for men, with a lot of garlic.”
Places of Interest
Old Town Square
The Old Town Square, Rynek Główny, is the largest medieval town square in Europe. It contains numerous buildings and landmarks, including the Renaissance cloth hall which was once a trading centre, but now contains a range of gift shops and market stalls. The entire old town of Krakow is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, was the centre of Jewish life in Krakow, until the second war when most of the Jewish population were wiped out. Today it is bustling with bohemian style cafes, galleries and historic sites, as well as some spectacular old synagogues.
Wawel Castle is a magnificent Gothic castle which overlooks the town, and is visible from almost anywhere in Krakow. It dates from the 1300s and for centuries was the main residence for Polish Kings. Nowadays it hosts an art gallery and museum, including a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine contains a maze of underground corridors, carvings, chapels, and an underground lake. The mine was originally built in the 13th Century, and the carvings and sculptures have been carved out by generations of miners. The entire underground tour is approximately 3km/1.9miles in length.
WW2 Historic Sites
The Schindler Museum is located in the original factory owned by Oscar Schindler, where he saved 1,200 Jewish factory workers from Nazi persecutors. They would almost certainly have been sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz and would have been murdered in the gas chambers. The story was made famous in the novel “Schindler’s Ark” which was then turned into the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List” staring Liam Neeson, and directed by Steven Spielberg.
In the windows of the museum, there is a photographic display featuring some of the factory workers that were saved by Schindler. I found this to be quite moving as it’s easy to picture a group of 1,200 people in your mind as one entity; but when you see the photographs you remember that these are all individual people.
First impressions were great, second impressions were not so good when we entered into the “hollywood” themed cafe and reception area. It seemed to be based more around the movie than the actual historical events.
The museum itself was top class though, and was based around Krakow’s experience during the Second World War. There were hundreds of displays which told the story of the German occupation, the rounding up of Jews and the creation of the ghetto.
Auschwitz / Birkenau
If you’re planning to visit Krakow then you simply MUST make the time to visit Auschwitz. Not because it’s an enjoyable day out – far from it, but because of its historical and moral importance. Some of the things were so shocking and upsetting that they were difficult to look at, and will certainly stay with me forever. Personally I felt some sort of duty that I had to pay my respects to the million people who died here, and the 11 million people overall who died during the Holocaust.
We’ve all read about the Holocaust, or learned about it in school, but until you’ve visited the camp first hand then you can’t fully comprehend the scale of the operation that was going on at Auschwitz.
There’s not much that I can write here that will do it justice so here’s just a few points regarding the things I saw
- The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign above the gate at the entrance to Auschwitz. The prisoners were forced to construct this, which translates into English as “work makes you free.” The letter B appears to be upside down, and it’s thought the prisoners deliberately did this in protest.
- Block 10, where experiments were carried out on prisoners, including injecting them with chemicals, and Block 11 where prisoners were tortured. There was also the “wall of death” at the back of the courtyard next to block 11 where prisoners were executed by firing squad.
- Entire rooms of artefacts belonging to the prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes, suitcases, hairbrushes, pots & pans, and so on. Each one of these belonging to someone that was killed. The one that particularly upset me was the leg callipers and crutches belonging to disabled people. Anyone not fit for work would have been executed as soon as they entered the camp.
- We also saw an entire room filled with Zyklon-b gas canisters. One canister contained enough to kill 600 people.
- The overall size of Auschwitz, Birkenau and the surrounding camps is 40 square kilometres (15.4 square miles) – This is impossible to comprehend unless you’ve been. As a comparison, it’s about the same size as the UK town of Swindon. The camp at Birkenau contained 250 huts which could each hold hundreds of prisoners, and at the peak of operations the camp held around 200,000 prisoners.
- For the million people killed at Auschwitz, only one pot of ashes remains. Aside from personal artefacts there is simply nothing left of the people who were killed. It’s as though they were just obliterated from the face of the earth.
We went to Auschwitz on an organised tour bus, which took around 75 minutes to get there and included entry, audio headset, and tour guide. I’d definitely recommend doing it this way as we learned so much from our guide. If you preferred you could get a local taxi company to take you there for a fraction of the price, then you are able to just wander around yourself.
Overall I learned a lot on our trip to Krakow. Prior to our trip I had an image in my head of a bleak, former Communist bloc where the people are miserable and everything is grey. How wrong could I be!? I quickly learned that Poland isn’t like this at all. In fact, Krakow is one of the most beautiful cities, the people are great, and the nightlife is up there with the best in Europe.
My biggest lesson learned was not to put off visiting a place because of any preconceptions you may have. You are sure to find that most places are nothing like you imagine anyway. Travelling is an adventure and you should embrace each new discovery.
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