One wintry December, we headed off for 3 days in Krakow, Poland. The temperatures ranged between -2 to 6 degrees Celsius, and although it was chilly, there was also sunshine and blue sky, which was more than what perpetually-grey-London offered. There are also far less tourists during the off-season, and hotels and flights are correspondingly cheaper. Taxis are plentiful at the airport, and soon we are off to our hotel in Kazimierz, in the Jewish Quarter.
Krakow Day 1: The Jewish Quarter
Located only 15 minutes walk from Rynek Glowny, the main square and the heart of Krakow, Kazimierz is served by tram stops and overlooked by Wawel Castle, bounded by the river, and filled with lots of bars and restaurants – in fact, it is where the locals come to unwind. The streets are cobblestoned, and there are still many surviving synagogues, as well as lovely renaissance apartment blocks. Join a historical walking tour to explore the architectural and historical highlights of the Jewish ghetto. The guides tell the stories that make up the fabric of the community here, so nearly decimated in the war.
Fuel up at Kuchnia u Doroty, a local establishment with small tables scattered around a woodchip stove. The waitresses are young, wear black with cute white aprons. Find a table amidst the hustle and bustle, and order barszcz, the Polish version of borscht, a jewelled beetroot soup, in its many wonderful variants; clear and peppery with dumplings, served with sour cream and potatoes, or with dark rye bread as an accompaniment. There’s also pierogi and kielbasa on the menu – quintessential Polish foods.
Krakow’s attractions can often border on the sober, but they remain no less important and the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, a real-life Samaritan who saved over a thousand lives during World War II, is now the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. Hop across the river to this expansive museum for a fascinating glimpse into the past. The permanent exhibit compellingly maps the lives and deaths in the city through from the onset of WWII through to the breakdown of the Jewish ghetto.
End your first day in Krakow back in the Jewish Quarter, with a taste of the local tipple – vodka. There are plenty of bars in the Jewish Quarter itself – Bar Singer, with its old sewing machines now serving a second life as bar tables, was our go-to. Or for an exercise in excess, head to Wodka Cafe Bar, which offers over 100 types of vodka.
Day 2: Krakow Castle and surrounds
Start your second day in Krakow in the historic centre, where a few main streets criss-cross each other, dotted with churches and old medieval houses. All streets lead, eventually, to the main square, which is bordered by handsome houses. The Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice, is right in the middle, where stalls selling craft are located. Upstairs is the National Museum of Krakow – worth a visit to pass a few hours.
There are two churches in the square itself; one of them, St Adalbert Church, is tiny, with only a few rows of pews, while the other is the towering, twin spired, Gothic St Mary’s Basilica. Inside, the narrow, soaring ceilings and walls are painted a rich blue and dotted with golden stars. A trumpeter plays from the church tower every hour – St Mary’s Dawn, or Krakow’s Anthem, a truncated melody that legend has arising from the Mongol invasion, and how a trumpeter sounded the alarm before the city could be ambushed, but was fell, mid-trumpet, by an arrow to the throat.
Spend some time inside the Cloth Hall, exploring the produce on offer – mostly amber, vodka and pearls. If you happen to be visiting Krakow, as I did, at Christmas, there will be Christmas markets, with mulled wine, gofry (a waffle snack served with cream and jam or chocolate sauce), pierogi, kielbasa, a giant tree dressed up in lights and girls dressed in angel outfits carolling. Stop for a meal here at one of the restaurants ringing the square, and soak in the atmosphere.
After the Cloth Hall, wander up the gently stepped path, built originally for carts and horses, towards Wawel Castle. Krakow’s castle cathedral dominates the structure, and is a mishmash of architectural styles – Baroque, Gothic, Romanesque. There is the Black Cross, where Poland’s queen saint lies, and a climb up into the tower to see the views over Krakow and Sigismund bell. Knock on it with your left hand for luck, and then back down the steep wooden staircases to ground level.
For dinner, make your way to Pierozki u Vincenta, a restaurant that specialises in pierogi – delicious filled dumplings that are a Polish speciality. There are all types of pierogi to choose from – try the sampler plate, which offers dumplings filled with meat, cheese, vegetables or fruit. Don’t forget the butter, or do as the locals do and add a dollop of sour cream.
Krakow Day 3: Outdoors and art
If your last day in Krakow dawns fine and sunny, take a walk in Planty Park, Krakow’s green lung, encircling the historic are of Old Town. This two-mile walk meanders underneath towering trees towards Wawel Hill, taking in views of the castle and cathedral, as well as across the Vistula River. Go through the courtyard and over the hill, down towards the rivers grassy banks and follow the water until you arrive at the Laetus Bernatek Footbridge, a new addition to Krakow’s streetscape that links Kazimierz and Podgorze.
Cross the bridge to Podgorze and make your way towards one of Krakow’s newest attractions. Visitors to Krakow’s Museum of Contemporary Art are greeted with a sign – Kunst Macht Frei – art sets you free, a riff on the haunting slogan that hangs over the entrance to Auschwitz. The collection within is no less provocative, giving a glimpse into the psyche of the local art scene.
Other notable galleries in Krakow include the Poster Gallery, which showcases 20th century graphic design, an art form that arose in Poland after WWII, and the Bunkier Sztuki Contemporary Art Gallery, which reminded me of London’s Tate Modern – a huge warehouse-like space offering avant garde, large scale installations.
3 days in Krakow is just enough to see the best of the city’s sights, but to venture further afield to the salt mines or Auschwitz, you will need an extra day or two. Organised daytrips are recommended, unless you are familiar with the local transport – I struggled to find the bus that would take us to Auschwitz and by the time I had it figured out the day was almost over. Lastly, Krakow is an underrated and under-visited city, filled with its own charms even in the depths of winter.