After traveling through fifteen countries in eight weeks, it was time to settle down and catch up on the blog. Originally I had planned to go to Germany after Prague, perhaps Dresden or Leipzig and then Berlin, but instead picked the cheaper and shorter journey to Krakow, Poland. I’m very glad I did.
My arrival into Krakow was something beyond spectacular. I left Prague in a train, but switched to a bus on the border. It turns out this is because the Czech Republic and Poland use different size railroad widths. Shortly after boarding the bus, the rain started to fall. Within a few minutes it had turned into the most impressive thunderstorm I had ever seen. Lightning started crashing down every couple of seconds. Toward the end of the trip it was striking the ground only a couple hundred meters from the bus. The rumble of the thunder didn’t cease with the continuous crashes. By the time I arrived at the bus station, the rain was coming down so hard that even underneath the roof of the bus station, I got drenched by the water moving sideways. Luckily my bag has a waterproof covering, and the hostel I picked was less than a kilometer away. But with the underpass flooded and several of the streets as well, I was thoroughly drenched by the time I arrived.
I checked into the Pink Panther Hostel for two weeks (initially for a week) which allowed me to get a discount for only €10 a night instead of €15. I was planning to change hostels after the first week but couldn’t find anything better in town. The hostel was really well equipped with a great kitchen, plenty of bathrooms, spacious common areas and comfortable beds. It was also very clean, and the staff were more than friendly. I also tried to work for them while I stayed but I wasn’t able to get in contact with the manager so it fell through. That just gave me more time to work on the blog and tag over 2000 photos from the recent countries.
Each day I explored Krakow more and more. I tried different restaurants, nearly all of the free city walking tours, paid for a tour to Auschwitz, explored Schindler’s Factory, went to CouchSurfing events and much, much more. It’s hard to say what was best about the town. Usually a lot of tourists put me off a bit, but not here. Probably because there are still so many locals intermingling among them. And the weather was perfect for me. I found out I arrived the day after a three-week heat spell with temperatures above 40° each day. That would have been unpleasant.
Taking a tour of Auschwitz is a must, not just for those going to Poland but really anyone traveling through Europe. I’ll write a whole post about it soon, but for now just know it’s one of the best historic museums for World War II. Did you know it opened as a museum in 1947?! One of the only times it was closed was for the filming of Schindler’s List in 1992. A lot of residents of Krakow were grabbed to be extras in the film. The rest of the facts I’ll put in a dedicated post for the museum.
Wawel Castle is probably the main attraction of the town. If you don’t want to sound like a foreigner, know that in Polish a W is pronounced as a V. So Wawel sounds like Vavel. For that matter, Krakow is pronounced Krakov, and they also sometimes spell it Cracow. The castle complex includes the palace, a cathedral and the ruins of the original civilization which settled on Wawel Hill in the 4th century. It doesn’t take long to see the grounds, certainly not like Prague. But going to Krakow and not seeing the castle would be silly. While there, make sure you take a trip down to the dragon’s cave. It’s less than €1 for the attraction. Or you can just see the dragon sculpture behind the castle and watch it breathe fire every 10 minutes.
Krakow has more than its share of churches and synagogues. Over three hundred in total, although thirty five of them are inactive. St. Mary’s Basilica dominates the Big Market Square in the center, while the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul down the street and the Old Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter are two of the most famous. Wawel Cathedral isn’t anything to write home about, but worth the visit nonetheless. If houses of worship are your thing, this is a city for you.
As one of the first cities to feel the wrath of Hitler’s persecution against the Jews in World War II, this city is filled with historical significance. The Jewish quarter will take you a full day to explore by itself, including the scene locations for Schindler’s List. Speaking of which, make sure you also take a tour of Schindler’s Factory for €5. It’s actually not the factory itself but rather a memorial museum tour fully describing the true story behind the movie. It will take you about three hours to read everything. Before you leave the Jewish Quarter, make sure you try a zapiekanka (half a French bread loaf with meat, cheese and vegetable toppings) sold in Endzior Square.
That leads me to the food in Krakow. First of all, it’s CHEAP! My favorite place to eat is Gospoda Koko, one street south of the Big Market Square. For only €3.50 you get a delicious soup (the mushroom soup is the best), salad, main course and side of potatoes or fries. Just be warned that one portion is almost more than one person can handle. Of the several times I ate there I never successfully finished a meal. More importantly, this place fully meets the requirements of a true local restaurant. There is no sign outside, the menu is only in Polish and the staff are friendly but not really accommodating to tourists. In other words, perfect.
Another great place to eat at is Moaburger. I ate there three times, only because I couldn’t decide which hamburger to eat the first time so kept returning to try more. Each time I also brought several more guests from the hostel. Their burgers are about €5 each, plus €2 for fries and another €2 for an amazing shake. The burgers I tried were the Moaburger (with pineapple), the Bacon and Avocado Burger and the Harissa and Mint Lamb Burger. They were all fantastic, but I think the last was simply the best. As in best burger ever.
As long as you avoid the obvious tourist restaurants, you’re sure to get a delicious meal at an absurdly cheap price. If you want a really local cuisine, you can also visit a Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar). This is a cafeteria, subsidized by the government, serving local dishes. Don’t worry, it’s not an establishment for homeless as it might be in other countries. The patrons are primarily families and uni students, and the portions are huge. Actually, there were very few meals I had in Krakow that I could finish by myself. Seems their portion sizes are trying to compete with America.
There are a couple local meals you specifically need to try. I already mentioned the zapiekanka. Zurek (sour bread soup) is probably the most famous dish to try. Polish sausages are a must, as are pierogi. I was lucky enough to arrive on the weekend of the annual pierogi festival, only to be fully overwhelmed by the dozens of flavors to try. Literally too many. I had over a dozen, and wanted to try them all, but I would have burst. Flavor varieties include meat, cheese, vegetables, dessert fruits, chocolates, etc. Almost like how Scottish will deep fry anything, Polish will put anything in their own brand of ravioli dumplings.
Lastly, you’ll need to try the ice cream. There are parlors all over, but my favorites were Argasinsoy just up the street from Big Market Square, and Tiffany Ice Cream in the northwest corner of Old Town just down the street from the Pink Panther Hostel. Don’t make the mistake that most of the other guests of the hostel made and think Lody is a chain. That’s just ice cream in Polish. Or perhaps gelato, since the better parlors are on par with Italy. Almost.
Now that I’ve mentioned everything else, the first thing to do in Krakow is a walking tour or two. Or perhaps half a dozen, as there are so many to choose from. Cracow Free Tours offer several, including an Old Town Tour, a Jewish Quarter Tour, a Polish Food Tour, a Communist Era Tour and a Secrets of Krakow by Night Tour. There is also a free walking tour available with Free City Tours and several more from Free Walking Tours. I learned from Prague that taking several tours in the same city is very beneficial to get all the data (if you have the time) and I went on nearly every tour I could find. One of them wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping, and it turned out to be the first tour I ever walked off from. But the rest were great. You’ll just have to do them yourself to get all the information. I’m certainly not going to ruin them for you with spoilers.
Overall, I think the best part of Krakow was the simple beauty of the whole city. Whether it’s exploring the festival in the Big Market Square (the largest open square in Europe), wandering through Planty Park (the large park surrounding the entirety of Old Town), jogging along the Vistula River early in the morning or watching a stunning sunset over the churches, the city is simply breathtaking. The final step is to go there and experience it for yourself.