Immerse yourself in the cultural, historical and culinary beauty of Krakow…
Expect to have a trip packed with emotional, historical and culinary activities once you’ve reached the cultural capital of Poland. They like to call it that because it is packed with cultural and architectural wonders at every step, no matter if you are looking for artsy hipster places (such as Bunkier Sztuki – The Art Bunker), which, one of the posh places in Krakow. For all culture lovers, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury (The International Center of Culture) is also a popular one, where you can notice the whole amazing architecture surrounding you everywhere in the city.
Here in Krakow, the city is organised in a way that everything you need (to see) is within walking distance. Strolls along the Vistula walks on the small streets or relaxing on the green grass in Platy park. If you are a bike enthusiast, don’t worry, you’ll fit right in, as the city is bicycle friendly with many locals riding their bikes.
But aside from all the beauties, it has to offer, you need to know that if you really pay attention, this city might teach you some valuable history lesson. Getting to know the past gives all of us a perspective on how precious life and peace without war is.
1. Chills and sorrow in Auschwitz Concentration Camp
This is one of most heartwrenching experiences during my stay in Poland. Our group (hosted by Krakow and Polish Tourism Organization ) arrived at Auschwitz, the German name of the city Oscwiecim, and was mentally prepared to find out about the history behind this war-torn destination.
Auschwitz – Birkenau, the place where over 1 million people, mostly Jews, have lost their lives between 1940-1945 is now turned into a museum for everyone that wants to come in and listen to the sharings/ stories of the guides. A small tip that might come in handy, avoid coming here on the weekend or during public holidays so you can get more space and time to walk around to reflect on everything that you learn about around you.
The tour starts at the gate (you’ve most likely seen it in pictures) that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei”, meaning that “Labour will set you free” and let me tell you that for 2 hours you will be overwhelmed with stories of the past that come to life right in front of your eyes, in the well-kept rooms of the camp. Be prepared to meet a guide that might actually have family in one of the concentration camps, making the whole experience all the more real and painful.
From huge piles of shoes, suitcases and combs to warehouses with wooden beds, crematories and walls full of pictures every part of the museum provides you with a window to the past. It walks you through the footsteps of these people as they arrive at the camp, separate into different groups and asked to dispose of their belongings in groups.
Needless to say that this is not the place for funny selfies and other public displays, as the memorial museum now commemorates the ones that lost their lives, so please be sensitive and considerate while inside the museum.
2. Cycle like a local in Krakow’s Old Town
Moving on to happier memories, cycling through the small and chic streets of Krakow gives you the opportunity to spend a day like one of the locals. The city is packed with bikes, some in a hurry to get to work, others, much like me, gazing in admiration at the 700-year-old main square, a place that hosts architectural masterpieces, such as Saint Mary Basilica, Cloth Hall and Sukiennice (The Gallery of Polish Art).
There is plenty to see in just a few days, so the bikes come in handy while moving from one place to another, but keep in mind that you must pay attention and cycle safely on the road.
There are even some attractions that are quite accessible by bike such as Wawel Castle (a definite must-see), the cycling track R10, if you are into lighthouses or even the road to a small village situated on the bank of Vistula – Tyniec. You just need to make sure you plan your trip beforehand.
3. Descend 800 steps into the Wieliczka Salt Mines
Talk about another trip to the past, the Wieliczka Salt Mine takes you back to the XIV century, when the salt mine was open and when salt was even more valuable than gold. In present times, the mine is a UNESCO site that welcomes tourists to different rooms, one more amazing than the other, each filled with sculptures, chandeliers made out of salt and even a representation of the Last Supper.
There are a few routes you can take in the mine, but the most popular ones are the Tourist Route (prepare to be amazed by the Chapel of St. Kinga) or the Miners’ Route, where you can get the authentic miner experience.
A bit dizzy and tired after going down 800 stairs to get to the mines, don’t let yourself be fooled when the guide encourages you to lick the salt walls and think of the thousand people that gave it a try before you.
4. Nowa Huta – Experiencing the life in the communist era
Situated next to Krakow, Nowa Huta or The Steel Polish City, because of its steel producing industry, is a true paradox: on one hand it is the pride of the communist party and on the other hand it is a symbol of the anti-communist movement in the 1980’s. The project started with the idea of creating an ideal city, but now it is a former socialist suburb of Krakow that lets you experience the communist era.
Like most of Poland’s historical places, it is now turned into a museum that you can visit and you can even get a feel of the communist times by sitting in the traditional designed furnished house all while watching a communist-era advertisement. One even gets to see up close a Cold War tank on the streets. All these spots are accessible either by bike or by tram.
5. Try the alcoholic delicacy of Poland – Vodka with Pickles
If you ever thought that Russians are the masters of vodka, you’ve yet to drink with a polish. In Poland, they like to get creative with their vodka, adding an awesome, I might add, flavour to their culinary culture.
Here you can find vodka with bison grass (a type of grass that bison enjoy, don’t let them tell you otherwise), vodka with herbs, vodka made out of oak and the list is long. But if you really want to drink vodka like a pole, add some pickles next to it.
Yes, you might have already guessed why they are using this pairing. It is thought that pickles will help you avoid a hangover the next day.
6. Join Free Walking Tours
Although I travel a lot and enjoy seeing a city at my own pace and interest, sometimes it is refreshing to learn from a local that knows the city by heart. Stories and quirky facts about the area which you might not discover/ dare to discover on your own. Luckily, Krakow is not short with options. You can find out more about one of these Krakow Free Walking tours.
Make sure you tip your guide, most of them are not paid for the tours!
Krakow might not be one of the most glamorous destinations all tourists embark on but once you get to know the habits and the people, you will fall in love with their culture.
Starting with the food, which is absolutely delicious, moving on to culture, architecture, friendly people, cool customs and truly moving historical monuments, Krakow is one of those places that will give you a warm feeling and make you want to return sometime soon.