5 DAYS IN KRAKÓW, POLAND
Poland has long been on my list of must-see places to visit. Each year my Mum and I take a trip together and armed with recommendations from our Polish friends we were excited to explore the country, starting with a stay in Kraków.
Easily accessible via many budget airlines and rail connections, the European city has plenty to offer the curious traveller. Whether you want to cram in sightseeing or prefer a leisurely stroll, gazing up at the city's beautiful architecture, this really is a city with something for everyone. The journey from Kraków airport to the city centre is easy and well-signposted - the train journey a mere 9 złoty - around £1.90 - per person and you can buy tickets from a machine on the train. The journey to Kraków Główny, (central station), takes less than half an hour.
Kraków is a city riding the crest of a wave of popularity among tourists - according to Statistics Poland, of the 33.9 million visitors to the country in 2018, 5.6 million chose to spend their time in the former capital. The city is easy to navigate on foot but if you fancy something a little different you're bound to be offered a tour on one of the many electric cars, segways or even horse and carriage in the central Grand Square, Rynek Główny. Buses and trams are frequent and inexpensive and the city feels well-connected. Where it falls down a little is on accessibility, particularly in the older parts of town. Wheelchair users may struggle to access some of the older buildings, many have steps at the entrance and few apartment buildings have elevators. It's not impossible to get about if you have mobility issues but it's a city that definitely requires a bit of forward planning.
Right away we were struck by how clean the city was and by how many beautiful parks there were. Green space feels like it's been a planning priority and parks are well maintained and enjoyed by all. It was lovely to see people enjoying their lunch on the benches or seeing street performers entertain passersby. Even though the city was heaving with visitors there was no shortage of quiet places to take a moment and enjoy being outside.
Another thing we enjoyed about the place was the wealth of free culture on offer. Everywhere we went squares were filled with families, day and night, enjoying everything from circus performances to clowning for kids, to classical concerts. We came away with the sense that local people really prize art and make an effort to support its many forms when they can.
Most people spoke English and we found everyone so friendly and willing to help whenever we got a bit lost or were searching for a recommendation.
As we had a few days in Kraków we wanted to make the most of seeing the surrounding area, as well as the city itself. A friend had recommended a trip to the salt mines so we decided to organise our own transport to get there and I am so glad we did. Everywhere you turn in Kraków you will find tour operators willing to take you pretty much anywhere you want to visit. However, this can soon become costly so if you're planning to be there for a few days it's worth making the effort to organise a few trips of your own and using the money you save for souvenirs!
A single journey to the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine costs 7 zł - approx. £1.50. You can purchase a ticket in advance but be aware you need to know the time you want to travel if you do this. Otherwise, you can purchase this on the day, on the train itself if you're running late.
Tickets can be purchased on the day but it's an extremely popular place so if you want to skip the queue you can buy your ticket in advance at the sales office in Kraków. We got a deal that included the 'Tourist Route' and a visit to the newly opened Graduation Tower for 100 zł per person - just over £20. If you plan to take photos you will need an additional permit, priced at 10 zł, (£2.10). Try and buy this in advance to avoid having to stand in the queue on arrival (like me!) Tickets include a 2.5 hr guided tour in your chosen language with plenty of photo opportunities as well as the chance to buy refreshments or souvenirs. If it's a hot day bring a water bottle with you though note you might not be able to refill it on site. Bags larger than the size of an A4 envelope aren't permitted but you can leave them at the site's left luggage office for free for the duration of your visit. All in our day trip came to 224 zł, which worked out at just under £25 per person. Had we booked via a tour operator, this would have cost upward of 360 zł / around £38 per person.
The tour involves a fair amount of walking, starting with a staircase descent some 135 metres below ground before embarking on the 3km tour. Each guide hands out a radio device so you can hear the tour but don't hang back or you'll lose reception and risk being stuck in the bowels of this 250km sprawling maze.
Accessible tours run twice daily, at 9am and 5pm, whereby visitors can take the lift underground instead of the stairs. It's advisable to book these in advance to avoid disappointment.
The mine is temperature controlled to between a refreshing 17 and 18°C so, whatever the weather above ground, be sure to bring a light jacket or scarf with you in case you feel a chill.
The salt mine itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, boasting in excess of over 1 million visitors annually. They offer 2 main tours - the gentler-paced 'Tourist Route' which we did or the more authentic 'Miner's Route' which involves suiting up and exploring the mine a little more the way the miners did back in the day. There is an additional 'Pilgrims' Tour' you can book - they all cover pretty much the same sites; they are just accessed in slightly different ways. This tour is mainly for group visits where you'll be accompanied by a Priest who will give a Mass at the end of the tour for those who would like one. There's also a weekly church service for churchgoers though it's for early-birds only - it starts at 7am.
Legend has it that in the 13th Century AD a Hungarian princess named Kinga was due to be wed to a Polish Prince - Bolesław. Her father, the King of Hungary, was prepared to offer a dowry of gold and silver riches but Kinga wanted her dowry to be of greater benefit to the Polish people. At that time Hungary was rich in salt mines so she requested her dowry be a wealth of rock salt. Not quite knowing how to transport a Hungarian salt mine to Poland she prayed to God, threw her engagement ring into a mine and made her way to future husband in Kraków. En route she decided to stop and survey some of the land over which she would later reign. Upon halting her carriage she asked some of her entourage, who happened to be Hungarian salt miners, to dig a little on the land. They dug until they hit rock, chipping a piece of it for Kinga to inspect. She recognised it as rock salt; not only that, but within the rock was her engagement ring. God had answered Kinga's prayers and brought rock salt to Poland. Queen Kinga went on to reign as one of Poland's most beloved Queens and as such the miners carved a chapel dedicated to her out of the rock salt in Wieliczka. She was beatified in the 17th Century, and canonised by Pope John Paul II to become Saint Kinga in 1999.
There are numerous chapels and sculptures dotted throughout the mines and faith was said to have been very important to the miners - perhaps in part due to the treacherous nature of the work they carried out there. The sculptures have been lovingly carved, entirely out of salt found in the mine, and were amazing to see up close.
The salt at Wieliczka is said to also have healing properties, with many visitors coming from all over the globe to visit the spa to sample its restorative properties. Booking for this is essential, so if it's something you're interested in make sure you book a spot in advance of your visit.
This was probably my favourite place to visit. We found ourselves wandering around the Castle grounds on multiple occasions. (You can do this for free.)
On Sunday we took a tour of the Cathedral and burial vaults and I cannot recommend this enough. We paid a little extra for an audio guide and it was absolutely worth it all in it was 19zł / £4 per person.
If you want to learn a lot about Kraków's history this is a great way to do so in the most beautiful surroundings. Unfortunately photography is forbidden inside the Cathedral and it's monitored strictly, but you can take pictures in the bell tower. You'll get the best view of the city from here so do bring your camera along.
The audio tour was so informative as it literally guides you, step-by-step, through the Cathedral. I learned so much about Polish history on this tour, like how a young Queen Jadwiga, having succeeded her father, was announced as 'King' rather than 'Queen' of the country to assuage any doubt that she might be fit to rule, to King Władysław I - also known as Władysław the Short because he was 'L' height - the length of one's forearm to their fingertips.
CONCERT AT THE CASTLE
My Mum celebrated her birthday while we were in the city and we wanted to mark the occasion with something special.
As luck would have it our trip coincided with the inaugural Wawel at Dusk concerts.
For only 100 zł between us - around £20 - we were treated to the most exquisite musicianship in beautiful surroundings. The first concert in the series celebrated Polish music so we heard incredible performances of music by Chopin (Fantasy on Polish Airs in A Major) as well as a reinterpretation of German composer Beethoven's 5th Symphony.
It was such a great way to mark Mum's birthday. We particularly enjoyed listening to the swifts coming in to roost for the evening, who attempted to chorus with the orchestra as the sun was setting. The concerts run until the end of August so if you're in the city, looking for a special treat this is definitely something worth considering.
AUSCHWITZ & BIRKENAU
These were the only places we visited with a tour operator and I think it was definitely worthwhile to do so. It was pricey, at 199zł / approx £40 per person but so well organised that we were happy to pay a premium.
We started early at 06:00 where our See Kraków tour operator picked us up outside our Airbnb and we drove for around 2 hours before we were met by our guide at the Auschwitz Museum. Again, you can't bring a backpack in here so these have to be left on the bus. Photographs are allowed in most places. However, anywhere that photos are forbidden is clearly signposted. Although we could take pictures it didn't feel right to do so.
I was quite reticent about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. I've worked with a lot of WW2 archive material and seen many pictures and footage from these places. It has always haunted me so I was wary of what standing there might feel like. That said, I'm really glad we decided to book this tour and came away feeling that now, more than ever, we must speak out against injustice and look out for one another.
Our guide was extremely informative and although the Museum was very busy we didn't feel rushed through and there was a little time to reflect and take in the enormity of the atrocities which took place here. Auschwitz is a place highly charged with emotion and both Mum and I found elements of the tour extremely difficult, particularly seeing rooms filled with every day items the victims had brought with them, not knowing they would never be allowed to use them: their best shoes, along with polish and brushes to maintain them. Nivea face cream - the same beauty staple that sits on the shelves of millions of beauty gurus around the world. Brightly painted ceramic pots and dishes to cook dinners they were never allowed to share.
There's a picture I had never seen before but still see now when I close my eyes and think back to our visit. In the photo is a little boy, perhaps around 6 or 7 years old, holding hands with his younger siblings, one either side, as he leads them forward. His little cheeks puffed up, bottom lip protruding bravely, he drags them along as they lag slightly behind. They are frightened but he is the oldest, striding forward with a tight grasp on their hands, even littler than his. When the trains came in, people were sorted instantly, to the left or to the right. Pregnant women; the elderly; the infirm and children were automatically herded to the 'showers' on the left. The little boy could never have known he was hurrying his siblings along to certain death.
If you have time I would urge you to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. You can pick up a tour at any ticket office in the city. It feels somewhat macabre that concentration camp tours are sold on street corners. However, while these are undoubtedly harrowing places to visit they are also important to acknowledge, especially at a time when numerous political leaders around the world are trading on the dehumanisation of anyone who poses a threat to their power.
FOOD AND DRINK IN KRAKOW
We ate very well in Kraków - a city whose many delicacies abound, from the moment you step off the train! Virtually everywhere you turn older ladies and gentlemen can be found with little blue carts from which they sell Obwarzanek - a boiled bagel which is then sprinkled with seeds - usually sesame or poppy - before being baked and sold from dawn until sell out for as little as 2zł / 40 pence. These are specific to Kraków - you're unlikely to find them outside the city. They taste best in the morning when they are fresh but locals can be seen grabbing these as a snack to eat on the go at any time of the day. (I have no pics of this one I'm afraid - it was gobbled upon purchase!)
Eating out can be expensive in the main tourist areas but just a few streets away you can find some fantastic, cheap eateries. Chimera was a big favourite of ours. It's a quirky gothic-style basement whose walls are adorned with the proprietor's own works of art. The staff are friendly and the food is terrific. So good, we went back for a second visit. This restaurant prides itself on locally sourced produce - a theme we often saw across the city.
For a shared starter, two mains, desserts and a carafe of wine - well, we were on holiday after all! - our bill came to 185 zł, or £39. If you fancy something a little lighter the restaurant also has a salad bar at ground level that's open until 10pm. I think food is priced by 100g portions so you pay for whatever your plate weighs once you've chosen your meal. A good option if you fancy a tapas-style dinner.
You can't go to Poland and not try pierogi - little dumplings. If you want to try a classic choose Pierogi Ruskie - savoury dumplings made with potato and soft cheese served either in butter or with onions. The name translates to English as 'Ruthenian Pierogi' - a nod to the once Polish-governed, now Ukranian territory of Red Ruthenia. Pierogi is the plural, so called because a single pieróg would never be served and, to be quite frank, I'm yet to see a restaurant goer exhibit the restraint to eat a solitary dumpling and be full from it.
There are plenty of places in Kraków to try pierogi but we opted for Pierogowy Raj, who seemed to offer the widest array of fillings. There are pierogi here to suit every palate, from traditional to meat-filled - I recommend the sweet cabbage and pork - to vegan or even sweet for dessert. You can also create your own combination if you fancy trying out a few different flavours.
This is a small, popular spot with limited indoor seating but service is quick and it's a great place to pop in and refuel. Prices start at 2zł / £0.40 per piece. We washed ours down with an alcohol-free beer from a Polish brand named Lech. While we were visiting we noticed a big push in advertising for alcohol-free beers, targeting a young audience. I'm not sure why this was but it was so refreshing to see a good selection of alcohol free alternatives. I wish we had more of these in the UK, other than plain old soft drinks. I recommend the lime and mint-flavoured Lech Free - it's so good!
And with that, our 5 days in Kraków have come to an end. I hope you enjoyed coming along for the ride with us. We loved exploring the city and there's so much we still want to see. Have you visited Kraków already? What did you see that we have to include on our next trip? Let me know in the comments below or over on Instagram.
Be sure to check back in next week as we head south to Zakopane for a couple of days in the beautiful Tatra mountains.
Until then, keep wondering, Laura