Despite Poland’s tortured past, rife with invasion and war, the medieval candy-coloured city of Krakow miraculously remained intact and its Old Town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city's visual beauty, delicious cuisine and friendly people should land Krakow a spot on your bucket list. And...it's so cheap to visit! It's a perfect city-break for anyone on a budget.
Take the the train directly from the airport to the Old Town in 20 minutes (~£2 and the ticket machines are in English and accept credit cards) and drop your baggage as quickly as possible so you can proceed directly to Przystanek Pierogarnia (Bonerowska 14) for plates of homemade piergoies topped with fried onion (~£2/plate). Our favourites were the ruskie (potato with cottage cheese), student (potatoes and bacon) and pork meat.
If you’re staying in the Old Town, you’re only a 10 minute walk from the station and piergoie heaven. If you’re staying further afield like Kazmierz (Jewish Quarter), then a taxi would be better choice to get to your hotel and then your dumpling quest can begin.
My husband, James and I stayed in the Venetian House Market Square Aparthotel (Rynek Główny 11) right on the Main Square— the largest medieval square in any European city. The location was fantastic—we could walk everywhere.
However, the hotel did not live up to its rave reviews or luxury description on TripAdvisor. This place was a basic two star hotel—three star max—with a very firm bed and a missing light bulb in the bathroom. However, for £70/night, I didn’t bother getting too worked up about it.
We decided to dive straight into heavy WWII history with a walk through Schindler’s factory. Just to jog your memory, Oskar Schindler, was a German agent who bought an enamel factory as a cover. The factory was turned into a labour camp for both Jews and Poles and although the conditions were heinous, they were significantly better than neighboring camps. Schindler, heroically went to great lengths to protect his Jewish workers from being hauled off to their deaths at the concentration camps.
This specialty museum, provides an interactive journey from prewar Krakow to life in the concentration camps. Although it was well-done, I had wished there was more information and photographs of Schindler’s life and factory.
Walk back toward the Old Town through the Jewish Quarter and stop at Remuh Synagogue (currently undergoing restoration). On the same street, you’ll also see a lane of turn-of-the-19th-century Jewish shop fronts. The inside belongs to the romantically lit cafe, Once Upon A Time in Kazmierz which serves Jewish-Polish fare from breakfast to dinner.
Save dessert for one of the restaurants further into the Quarter, not because it’s better, but so you can sit outside (with heaters and blankets in the winter) and listen to free Klezmer music (Fri-Mon at 8pm) at Restauracja Max 14 located at Szeroka 14.
If a few songs wasn't enough to get your fix of this festive music originating from itinerant musicians in ghettos across Eastern Europe, for ~£12 you can attend a Klezmer concert in a small recital room at The Klezmer Music Hall (Sławkowska 14; off the Main Square) at 5:30pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Just a heads up that concerts will not be taking place from 26 November to 7 January.
Buy your ticket ahead of time online or pay cash at the door.
If Klezmer doesn’t get you going, Krakow is also Chopin's hometown so you can catch his greatest hits daily at 7pm also at Sławkowska 14 for ~£12.50 including a glass of wine. Check here for tickets.
There’s many good restaurants serving traditional fare and advance reservations are a must. Preferably, book a table before you even step foot on Polish soil. We booked while we there and Starka was booked solid for dinner through our entire stay.
We did eat at The Old Town Restaurant & Wine Bar, a low-key spot a short walk from the center of the Old Town which had good food at reasonable prices.
We also tried Trezo in Kazimierz, which was more atmospheric with live music (nightly at 8pm), but the portions were considerably smaller.
For an after dinner drink, there’s no shortage of bars and clubs. We chose to get our craft beer on starting with. Craftownia (Wawrzynca 22) in Kazimierz which was declared the best craft beer bar in Krakow by a local drinking next me. I must admit it has an impressive selection of beers on draft. There's also lots of board games on hand in case you don't want to speak to your partner after he announces the beer you chose tastes like horse piss. The atmosphere was buzzy, but never overcrowded even on a Saturday night.
House of Beer (Tomasza 35) had an impressive selection of Polish bottled beers, but it had more of a sports bar feel. The bros atmosphere didn't stop me from downing a rich pumpkin ale.
Don’t get your drink on too aggressively because there’s a lot more to see tomorrow!
After breakfast (or more piergoies in our case) walk over to Wawel Castle. There will be a relatively long and slow-moving line for a limited number of tickets. By the time we got there, the private apartments were already sold out. We had a great time wandering the state rooms and armoury. However, the most impressive part of the castle is its exterior. The tickets for the exhibition rooms are timed, so we went into the cathedral first (free unless you want to go into the tower and catacombs). We showed up early for both of our exhibition entry times and were admitted, so don’t feel like you have to stand around and wait.
On your way back to the Old Town, stop at the Stained Glass Museum. It’s actually a workshop that was established in 1902 and is still churning out stunning handmade creations for cathedrals across Europe. For ~£7 you get a guided tour—English tours are every hour on the hour. Our tour ended up being just us.
All that sightseeing worked up an appetite so we proceeded to a treats window off the Main Square for large hot chocolates and chocolate and toffee filled donuts. For a more savoury treat, try a homemade soft bagel pretzel sold on almost every corner for about 20p.
When we were feeling slightly less gluttonous, we would have a beer or mulled wine at a cafe on the Square and people watch.
Once revived, make your way to St. Mary's Basilica in the Main Square (buy £2 tickets across the street from the entrance). Like me, you’ve probably seen dozens of stunning basilicas, but I guarantee you haven’t seen anything like this. Firstly, it’s gothic stone ceilings are painted like the night sky with a blanket of golden stars and the gothic altarpiece is the largest in the world with its figures standing 2.7 meters high!
After the cathedral, walk across the square to Cloth Hall, a shopping arcade that dates back to the Renaissance. It's filled with touristy trinkets, but none that I found to be treasures. Krakow is one of the few places I've travelled where I struggled to find a worthwhile souvenir (that wouldn't start moulding in my hand luggage) and came home empty-handed!
While there’s many more museums to peruse, sights to see (Barbican, mound, Jagiellonian University) and treats to try, we found 2.5 days/ 3 nights was enough time to enjoy the city without doing irreversible damage to my waistline.
You'll need extra days if you want to sightsee further afield to places such as Aushwitz or the Wilenzka salt mine (take the train to get from the airport to the city center to the end of the line).