When you think of the big European cities that people tend to visit, you get familiar with the names that come up: Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris. Krakow, Poland’s second city and former capital, barely gets a mention.
I lived in Krakow for a year and fell hopelessly for its charms, its wonder and its enchanting streets. Krakow looks like a city straight out of a Disney movie. Cobbled streets lined with horse-pulled carriages, beautiful squares surrounded by pretty buildings and churches, and a huge castle that gives Cinderella’s castle a run for its money.
Though I’ve probably shown more than enough enthusiasm already, below are six reasons why you should visit this underrated gem.
Krakow: the sights
When a city has been around for as long as Krakow has, there are plenty of interesting things to see and do.
Nearby is the Wieliczka Salt Mine. An original UNESCO World Heritage site, this labyrinth is home to cavernous halls filled with intricate salt carvings, including a grand hall with a giant replica of da Vinci’s Last Supper on the walls. My tour guide encourage us to lick the walls to confirm that it’s all salt – whilst nobody else did, I relished the opportunity (and can confirm that it is indeed salt).
Oskar Schindler’s factory – the one that Liam Neeson’s Schindler’s List movie was about – is now a museum open to the public, and provides an interesting glance into life in Krakow during the Second World War.
There’s also an immersive communist tour of industrial Nowa Huta in an authentic communist era car. It shows the grey reality of Poland under communism, stopping at museums and a communist-style restaurant to provide an experience you’re unlikely to find in many other places.
To the north of the old town are Florian’s Gate and the Barbican. These are buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries that made up part of Krakow’s city walls, designed to protect against enemy invaders. Miraculously, the buildings of Krakow escaped the Second World War unscathed, and despite being hundreds of years old, they’re well maintained and definitely worth an explore.
Just outside of Krakow lays Auschwitz, the infamous site of one of history’s greatest tragedies. Tours are respectful, emotional and well informed, and are likely to be something you’ll never forget. (If you want to know what to expect on a visit to Auschwitz, here’s a guide.)
Krakow: the history
Entire history books could be devoted to the history of the old city, and in fact many have. From falling under siege to the Mongols to the heroics of Schindler’s factory, Krakow has had more than its fair share of misery, yet that’s only resolved to make it stronger and more endearing.
Perhaps the best historical quirk is that of the Hejnal Mariacki. Every hour, from the impressive St Mary’s basilica, a tune is played on a trumpet that end abruptly. According to legend, when the Mongols invaded in 1241 a sentry sounded played the tune to raise the alarm, but he was stuck by an arrow before he could finish, hence the abrupt ending. I always took the time to stop and listen; Krakow’s a great place to reflect and learn not only about history, but maybe even something about yourself.
Krakow: the food
You’re probably familiar with pierogi, but Polish cuisine has so much more to offer – let’s not forget, bagels were invented here!
Few things are more warming on snowy, wintry days than a hearty serving of zurek, a rye soup often served in a bread bowl with an egg and meat in the middle, or the more well known borscht – a luminous purple-colored beetroot soup. For an authentic experience, you should try eating at a bar mleczny, or milk bar. Originally a cheap place to eat subsidized by the communist government, they’re now great places to eat traditional Polish food at prices you won’t try believe. A helping of meat pierogies from Milkbar Tomasza every day must have seen me add about ten pounds when there (worth it).
Foodie tip from Eliza Korzeniewska, an Intrepid tour leader in Central and Eastern Europe:
I recommend a visit to Stary Kleparz market, which is arguably the oldest continually operating market in Krakow. It’s walking distance from the old town (therefore convenient) but still retains a very local feel. If you come early in the morning, you’ll blend in with the locals who come to do their daily grocery shopping. Little English is spoken but that’s all part of the adventure!
Another must-visit is Pod Wawelem at the foot of Wawel Castle. The traditional décor and music playing inside is the perfect accompaniment to the huge jugs of beer and Man vs Food-level servings of grilled meat on offer. It’s becoming more and more veggie friendly, too, with restaurants like such as Glonojad just north of the old town proving to be a hit with both locals and tourists alike.
Krakow: the cafes
Poland has wholehearted grasped the coffee Western coffee scene with two hands and has hip coffee joints that wouldn’t be out of place in Portland, OR. Popular Charlotte’s Bistro in the heart of Old Town – which doubles up as a bakery – is a good place for breakfast but the best coffee shops are found by the university on Krupniczka street.
Karma Coffee is a Krakow institution, whilst Cafe Tektura a little further down the road offers all the top-knots and brewing methods you could possibly need.
Full of young professionals and student hipsters alike, coffee bars in Krakow are great places to find out what’s going on in the city and get your much-needed hit of caffeine.
Krakow: the bars
The bars of Krakow are both high in quality and in number, and make for some memorable nights. From the dirt-cheap students favorite Bania Luka to the fancy rooftop cocktail Taras Widokowy, there’s something for everyone here.
For a night where you feel like you’ve been transported back in time, you have to head to the Jewish quarter Kazimierz. With more bars than you can count all centered around a square, you’ll be hard to find a better place to drink in Europe.
Bars such as Alchemia and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierz look like throwbacks to a bygone era; the furniture is rickety and wooden, the fixtures hold the same rustic charm and the curious atmosphere is something you really need to experience – these bars are different to any other you may have been in before, with Alchemia seeing you climb through a cupboard like you’re entering Narnia.
Also found in Kazimierz are tables equipped with antique Singer sewing machines and swings suspended from the roof to act as bar seats, giving you ample opportunity to spam everyone’s Instagram feed and make them über jealous.
Krakow: the prices
The icing on top of the cake has to be the prices in Krakow. For a fancy meal, drinks and deserts you’d be hard pressed to spend more than $10, and if you’re eating at a milk bar you can halve that figure and get change back. Sampling local beers won’t cost more than $3 and glasses of wine are about the same.
Local tours and entrances to museums are also considerably cheaper than other Western European cities, leaving you no excuse not to take in a little culture and a lot of sights.
Underrated – but not for long
Nothing stays hidden forever, and it won’t be long until you’re hearing people talk about “this one time, in Krakow”. It’s a city with a rich past, but its head is firmly turned towards the future. International cuisine, trendy bars and hip coffee shops have really put Krakow on the map, bringing more and more people to its cobbled streets.
In a few years it’ll be talked about in the same vein as Prague or Budapest, so make sure you get there first before those milk bars turn into coffee chains.
Want to see the delights of this gorgeous city for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures in Poland.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x2, iStock, Intrepid Travel x2, Cafe Tektura FB page, Alchemia FB page, Intrepid Travel)