I loved the time I spent in Krakow and, in my previous post on this city, I mentioned that I think it has something to offer most travelers. Here are eight reasons your next European vacation should take you to Poland’s cultural capital.
1. The Price is Right
Poland is not an expensive country. Currently, 1 Polish Zloty is equal to 0.32 United States Dollars, so if you’re from the US, the UK, or the Eurozone, your money can go far. You can easily eat dinner for under $10, and a six bed dorm room directly off the main square (conveniently named Main Market Square) will only set you back $15 per night. You could easily find cheaper accommodation by staying somewhere else in the city or sleeping in a larger dorm room. The shopping is also plentiful, and I was sorely tempted to buy leather boots that I didn’t need because the styles were beautiful and the price was right.
2. Krakow is Walkable
If you decide not to stay near Main Market Square, to save money or cut down on noise, you’ll have no trouble getting around Krakow. An inexpensive and comprehensive tram network runs around the city, but, if you enjoy walking, you won’t need it. Many attractions are within a 15 minute radius of Main Market Square, and with plenty of pedestrian-only streets, the city is perfect for exploring on foot. Especially having just visited sprawling Berlin, Krakow felt manageable, and I think I saw a good portion of the city over the course of six days.
3. Pierogi and Other Gastronomic Treats
I’m biased because my family is Polish-American and I liked Polish food before I visited Krakow. However, if anyone tells you Polish food isn’t delicious, they probably just didn’t know what to order. Poland’s contribution to the world of dumplings, the humble pierogi, is sure to please. Traditionally, pierogi are boiled dumplings filled with cabbage, and you may have seen them in your grocery store’s freezer aisle stuffed with potatoes and cheese, but pierogi fillings are as diverse as a chef’s imagination. At Pierozki U Vincenta, a pierogi restaurant in Krakow with a Vincent van Gogh theme(!), there are at least 30 pierogi options — vegetarian and meat fillings, plus sweet fillings, such as ricotta and dates topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. If you don’t like dumplings (what’s wrong with you!?), you may enjoy the paper plate-sized latkes, that abound at small stands around the city. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to try some hearty Polish food, I love gołąbki — minced pork or beef and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves, baked, and served with tomato sauce. Definitely don’t leave Krakow without trying a zapiekanka; a local favorite, these open-faced sandwiches are made on half a loaf of French bread and smothered with various toppings. Filling and cheap.
4. Krakow is Poland’s Cultural Capital
I’m an art and architecture fan, so I like cities full of museums and interesting buildings — Krakow meets both of these requirements. I happened to be in Krakow the weekend of the 10th annual Unsound Festival, which is dedicated to electronic and new music, and included free concerts around the city as well as art installations. If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, Krakow is also home to a da Vinci, so that’s pretty cool. With regard to architecture, Wawel Castle is an architectural orphan which has been built, and rebuilt, and added-on to since the 14th century, and the result is stunning. Main Market Square is a dazzling collection of churches, cafes, and historical landmarks such as the Cloth Hall, a Renaissance building that was once a center for international trade. Main Market Square is reminiscent of Prague’s Old Town Square, but with half as many tourists.
5. Krakow is Resilient
But why is Krakow home to so much beautiful architecture while other large cities in Poland, such as Warsaw, are filled with boxy Communist-era buildings? During World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland, the Polish army made the strategic decision to retreat from Krakow, allowing them to focus their resources and protect their capital city instead. The Nazi invasion of Krakow lasted only a day, and the city sustained little physical damage as a result. The Occupation, however, lasted until the end of the war in 1945, and this era of Poland’s history is tragic, as well as immensely important. I would recommend visiting the Historical Museum of Krakow’s location at Schindler’s Factory for an exhaustive and well designed explanation of the city’s six years of Nazi Occupation. I would also recommend the walking tour I took around the city, which focused on Krakow’s Jewish history. Poland was home to over 3 million Jews before WWII — one of the largest populations in the world — but after the Holocaust only 200,000 remained. Learning this history can be difficult but, if you visit Krakow, please take the time to educate yourself — it will enrich your experience.
6. You’ll love the Poles
Rather than creating an insular and fearful society, years of invasion and occupation seem to have created a proud Polish society with a lot to offer visitors. The Poles I met were warm and helpful, and while sweeping generalizations about groups of people are stupid, I wanted to mention that my experience was positive. It was shaped in particular by my amazing couchsurfing host — a Polish woman about my age who had been living in Krakow for a few years while she studied translation at a local university. She opened up her home to me, took me to her favorite bar, and showed me her favorite hike on the outskirts of the city. We chatted about our mutual love for languages — I shared the handful of Polish words I knew thanks to my Polish-American family, and she taught me a few more, then I helped her with her translation homework by explaining some strange English turns of phrase. I’m sure every couchsurfing host in Krakow isn’t as amazing as mine was, but I want to share my experience regardless.
7. The Tourist Infrastructure is Growing
If the previous six reasons haven’t yet convinced you, Krakow is only becoming more friendly to travelers, especially English speakers. My grandfather, uncle, and cousin visited Poland in the early 2000s and had a terrible time. They said that no one spoke English, and they ended up eating at McDonald’s because restaurant menus weren’t translated so they never knew what to order. I think that complaining when no one speaks English is often indicative of a bad travel attitude, but the point stands that much of Krakow’s tourism infrastructure has been built up in the last five years. The Historical Museum of Krakow’s Schindler’s Factory location, which I recommended earlier, was opened in 2010. I went on two free walking tours around Krakow, both by a company that was founded in 2006. Many young Poles are learning English in school, so if you don’t speak Polish, and you’re not a fan of pantomiming your needs, it is easy to find young people who speak English. There are many restaurants with English menus, and it was easy to get help and recommendations for what to do or where to go from the staff at the hostel where I stayed during the first half of my visit, and I already mentioned my friendly and helpful couchsurfing host. Krakow is becoming an easier and more interesting place for English-speaking tourists to visit, and I think it’s worth getting there sooner rather than later.
8. Sunset Over Main Market Square
That’s it. That’s reason number eight.
Krakow is a stunning city, and it deserves a place on your European itinerary.
Have you ever been to Krakow? Do you understand why I list Krakow along with Paris and Barcelona when friends and family ask about my favorite places I visited during my trip?