I hail from a Midwestern family whose surname has far too many consonants and vowels for most people to even have the slightest idea how to pronounce. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I’m of Polish descent, and one of my favorite cities that I have visited to date is Krakow, Poland.
Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland, meaning that from a tourist’s standpoint, there is a ton of historical and cultural things to do and see. Pair the city’s culture with a bustling nightlife and amazing food, and how could anyone not have an amazing time in Krakow?!
So, what’s there to do in Krakow?
Get your World War II Learning On.
Visit Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Although I’m certainly not starting on a lighthearted note, Auschwitz is one of the most visited landmarks in the country, and is probably the most important historically. If you’re unfamiliar, Auschwitz is a complex of concentration camps built by the Nazis in World War II to hold and exterminate political prisoners, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and many others that the Nazis considered enemies.
The surviving prisoners at Auschwitz were liberated on January 27, 1945, and the camp has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you can imagine, visiting Auschwitz is a disturbing and moving experience. I was shocked (and horrified) to learn that approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed during the Holocaust died at this one concentration camp. You can still see blood on the wall where executions by fire occurred. If you’re like me, you will leave the camp depressed and questioning the sanity of the human race, but Auschwitz is an important part of world history and can’t be missed if you’re visiting Krakow.
Since Auschwitz is actually over an hour outside of Krakow’s city center, I’d recommend scheduling a private transport for a more comfortable experience (which will also cater to your own personal schedule). If you’re looking for a more budget conscious option, you can get there by bus, or take a mini bus group tour leaving from Krakow.
While you’re at it, I would also recommend a visit to Schindler’s Factory located within the city limits. I’ll save you the history lesson (hopefully you have at least seen the movie), but Schindler’s Factory has now been transformed into a modern museum devoted to the wartime experiences in Krakow while the city was under the five-year Nazi occupation. The museum is an interesting way to spend a couple of hours to reflect on the atrocities that the Nazi’s victims endured during the war. To get to the museum, take the tram to Ghetto Heroes Square.
Partake in some sightseeing.
Krakow does have more to see than just Auschwitz! Hike up Wawel Hill to Wawel Castle. This Renaissance Castle used to house the kings of Poland and is now one of the country’s premier art museums.
Or, hop on a bus to see the Wieliczka Salt Mines, just outside the city. A portion of the large mine is open to the public as a museum. In the museum you’ll see chapels, with everything (the statutes, the altarpieces, even the chandeliers) carved out of salt.
Experience Krakow Street Culture at the Main Market Square.
This was, hands down, my favorite thing to do in Krakow! The Main Market Square is a 13th century medieval market square in center of historic Krakow.
The square itself is gorgeous – it’s surrounded by historic townhouses, palaces and churches, but the real attraction is what goes on inside the square. Grab a seat at one of the many cafes on the square and drink a frosty piwo (beer) as you listen to live music from the street performers. Or, peruse the street vendor booths where you can procure anything from one-of-a-kind art, to jewelry, to delicious street food.
The square is the perfect place to relax, people watch, and soak in some Polish culture. Additionally, the square offers a great starting point to explore the city, as you’ll find yourself wandering down the small cobblestone side streets stumbling upon quaint restaurants, bars, and boutiques.
Lose yourself in Krakow’s nightlife.
I was surprised to learn that Krakow has a thriving nightlife. In fact, we couldn’t go anywhere in the evening without running into a British “stag do” (or as we Americans call it, a Bachelor Party). Aside from many bars and pubs, I’d imagine that Krakow is a popular destination for such parties due to the low prices of food and alcohol (Poland is not yet on the euro), and the bevies of beautiful Polish women out and about.
From my experience, Krakow’s nightlife has a way of sneaking up on you. On more than one occasion my evening started with laid-back live music and a piwo in the square, and ended with Crystal and I stumbling out of an underground cave bar only to realize that the sun had risen hours ago.
Indulge in Poland’s unique cuisine.
As a “meat and potatoes” kind of girl, I was in heaven with my culinary choices in Krakow. Once you get your bearings, I would recommend that you find a “bar mleczny” or milk bar. The milk bar is a no-frills cafeteria style restaurant where you can sample a slew of traditional entrees for an extremely low price – a typical three course lunch could cost you as little as 2 euros! That being said, be aware that milk bars cater to the working class, and not tourists. From my experience, the menu was completely in Polish and no one spoke English. Be adventurous – point at a few dishes, and enjoy them!
Another “can’t miss” experience would be indulging in some good, old “street meat” in the square.
The vendors grill the meat in open air allowing you to point to the meat, potatoes, and occasional veggies that you want them to stack on your plate.
Near the meat vendors, you will also probably find a pierogi vendor, my personal favorite. A pierogi is a Polish dumpling, similar to an Italian ravioli, but is typically stuffed with potatoes, sauerkraut, or minced meat. They are boiled and then fried and topped with bacon, onions, or dill. The possibilities are endless, and every single pierogi I sampled was delicious.
I’m hoping to get back to Poland soon, but in the meantime, I’ll have to settle for reminiscing about my trip to Krakow and perfecting my pierogi recipe!
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