Krakow was a wonderful city to visit. We spent approximately three days here. I’m fortunate to have friends who either came from Krakow or currently live in Krakow, so I was very prepared for this city.
What I Saw in Krakow
Wawel Royal Castle – The castle sits atop a high hill overlooking Stare Miasto (Old Town) Krakow by the Vistula River. There are different sections of the castle that you buy tickets for, so you get to choose exactly how much of the castle you want to see. In order to control crowds, the tickets dictate at which time you are allowed to enter each section. We saw the State Rooms, Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, Wawel Architecture and Gardens, and Dragon’s Den. The Dragon’s Den was a fun little add-on that leads you down a cave to exit the castle. Dragon’s Den is not a must-see but it’s cheap and it takes you directly to the statue of the dragon that breathes fire. Yes, real fire, every five minutes. You can see the dragon without going through Dragon’s Den because it’s at the base of the hill by the river.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory – Of course, I first learned about Oskar Schindler from the movie, Schindler’s List. The factory is now a museum dedicated to telling the story of Oskar Schindler, the people who worked there, and general history about WWII and Nazi Germany. It was very interesting and I loved the video interviews they had of survivors and the non-Jewish Polish workers who worked at the factory. Listening to the oral histories breathed life into the cold numbers that we see when talking about how many lives were murdered by the Nazis.
Ghetto Heros Square – It’s an open square near Oskar Schindler’s factory that turned in a memorial for the Jewish Polish lives lost during the Holocaust. Thirty-three chairs are placed in the square as a reminder to the living of those who perished. Each chair represented a thousand Jewish who stood in the square before their mass deportation to the nearby concentration camps.
Kazimierz – This is the old Jewish Quarter (ghetto) in Krakow. There are several synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. I would have enjoyed taking a walking tour in order to learn more about the neighborhood and history, but traveling with my parents (mostly my father) limits me in terms of what I can do.
Cloth Hall – It’s an impressive Renaissance building in the center of Old Krakow in the main square. I generally love the main square because of its liveliness – musicians, buskers, singers, and other folks; this is a great place for people-watching. The Cloth Hall is a gallery with little shops inside and reminds of Faneuil Hall in Boston. The shops are geared toward selling overpriced trinkets to tourists, so they didn’t interest me much. I’m not a big fan of the Cloth Hall, other than to admire its exterior.
What I Ate
Stara Zajezdnia Krakow By DeSilva – A famous beer hall that was converted from an old tram depot is now a UNESCO site. This was the perfect place to eat some traditional Polish kielbasa. Kielbasa just means sausage in Polish, unlike in English where kielbasa refers to a specific type of smoked sausage. We all decided to order sausage braised in their own home-brewed dark beer and served with mustard and freshly baked rolls. It was DELICIOUS! I definitely recommend ordering their kielbasa if you’re interested in eating some tasty, tasty traditional Polish fare.
Milkbar Tomasza – This is a modern take on a Soviet-era milkbar, which is a cafeteria or canteen for factory workers to get a cheap, nutritious, and filling lunch. I absolutely adore this place. A platter of food (meat, potatoes, and different kinds of slaws/salads) costs between $6-7. There’s a fair number of choices, especially considering how small the milkbar is. There’s a daily special which changes every day. I could happily eat here for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Obwarzanki – Not a restaurant, but a braided ring-shaped bread with the texture and taste similar to a bagel. It’s sold all over Krakow from little blue stands. There are many different types – with poppy seeds, sesame, salt, multi-grain, cheese, etc. They’re quite cheap and cost around 1.60 zloty (about 45 cents). I had a poppy seed one and a multi-grain one. I wasn’t impressed with the poppy seed one. I thought it tasted like a bad white bagel. The multi-grain one was much better.
Close to Krakow
Wielickza Salt Mine – This salt mine is located about 20 mins south of Krakow. They offer tours in several different languages (English being the most common one after Polish). I learned about the history of the area and the mine itself, salt mining techniques, and some geology. They even have a restaurant inside the salt mine so you can eat a meal several hundreds of feet underground.
Zakopane – It’s small summer/winter resort town at the foothills of the Tatra Mountains, about two hours south of Krakow. If you’re into outdoor activities (e.g., hiking, biking, climbing, skiing), Zakopane is a great place to be. We woke up super early to take the Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car to the top for an incredible view. The cable car is incredibly popular. If you wish to go on the cable car anytime after 9 or 10 am, then I recommend buying tickets in advance. I read horror stories of wait times being as long as six hours.
Since we didn’t buy advance tickets, we decided to wake up super early and show up when the cable car opens at 7 am. You can’t drive up to where the cable car is. Your choices are to either take a mini-bus, a taxi, or to walk up (~45 mins). The mini-bus costs 3 zlotys per person, which is MUCH MUCH MUCH cheaper than a taxi. It also runs frequently, so taking the mini-bus was a no-brainer. You can get the mini-bus either at the bus station in Zakopane (look for the mini-bus with a sign saying Kuznice) or at the traffic circle called rondo Jana Pawla II. Both locations have a parking lot near by. Since I was going up on a Sunday, I could park for free on the street. We got on a mini-bus at 6:30 and arrived at the cable car station by 7 am. There was already a short line there. It took us about 20 mins to get our tickets and to get onto a cable car.
We lucked out with weather. Rain was predicted for the day, but while we were up on top of the mountain, the clouds cleared away and we had an AMAZING view of the valley below. It was breathtaking. We stayed up there for about 90 minutes. As we took the cable car back down, the clouds rolled back in. It became dark and gray and the skies were pregnant with rain. The weather scared away people because normally by 9 am, there’s a long line of people waiting to go up, but the line was still short.
The view was magnificent and totally worth waking up early for. After the cable car, there’s a short hike (maybe half a mile) to the peak. There are several trails leading down to the valley. I would have loved to spend more time here to go hiking and enjoy nature. Ah, maybe another time!
Auschwitz – Auschwitz is about an hour west of Krakow. Tickets for English tours sell out quickly, so you need to book your tickets several weeks in advance. Even if you can’t get tickets, you can still visit the museum. I had planned on visiting the museum on our way back to Krakow from Prague, but a section of the freeway connecting Prague to Krakow was closed for construction and all the traffic was diverted to small country roads. You can’t imagine how long it took to crawl out of the mess. Because of it, we ran out of time and had to drive straight to Krakow.