As a kid, I took for granted the savory, buttery foods my grandmother used to serve me when I would visit her: pierogis, kielbasa, babka. As I got older I started to understand and learn that these foods had an origin in a place with a strange name, Poland, and this is the place where my grandparents came from. For the past few years I have been dreaming of a trip to Poland to learn about my ancestry, and I finally got the chance to go at the beginning of September to experience the rich culture and history of Krakow.
Before I went, I read a lot on the Internet and in guidebooks to try and prepare myself. More than any other country I’ve visited, the guidebooks said some things about Poland that were very misleading. It could be because Poland is up-and-coming on the tourist circuit or because people just don’t give Poland enough credit as a viable tourist destination. Once I was there I realized Krakow is so much more than a guidebook can ever really describe, and every false bit of information probably has to do with a misunderstanding of the culture. Below is a list of “real” information I discovered while visiting Krakow with Beppe.
The first experience once leaving Krakow-Balice airport will likely be navigating the public transport to try and get to the city center. I was a little worried about this because I had heard that the “roads aren’t very good” in Poland and the public transport isn’t very developed. This is totally untrue. There is an easy bus, number 208, that leaves from the airport and costs 4 zloty to get near the center. That’s less than one Euro for an almost 45-minute ride. The only real problem with the public transport in Krakow is it doesn’t show up on Google Maps. If you’re like me and you are bit nervous using public transport, you can also take a relatively cheap taxi.
In one of my guidebooks it claimed there aren’t many restaurants in Poland because people simply cannot afford to eat out that much. Needless to say I was surprised to find that there was an endless supply of restaurants in Krakow. The first night we were there we ate at a Polish restaurant, but there are many types of different food offerings in the city center area. The most popular form outside of Polish cuisine seemed to be Italian. On the second night we had a reservation at a place called Pod Aniolami, and on the third we night stumbled upon a place called Hamsa Hummus and Happiness which served Israeli food. No matter where you eat, be sure to also try some kind of vodka, as Polish people are famous for their inventive vodka creations. Our favorite was Zoladkowa Gorzka, a vodka infused with herbs.
In Krakow you will not be bothered by people trying to sell you things. Sure, there are tourist shops and kiosks, but nobody tries to shove their merchandise in your face. Several sources made it seem like people would be trying to rob me at every corner, but I never felt that way once. Also, the men in Krakow seemed to behave with a code of politeness that is uncommon of men in other countries. I hardly witnessed any harassment from men directed towards women while wandering the streets of Krakow. Lastly, people dress up nicely to go out, and not just to attend church on Sundays. My cab driver was wearing a full suit and tie and looked very well-groomed for the job.
Krakow is one of the cleanest places I have been! Especially near the city center there was hardly any trash on the streets at all.
In this country of 38.6 million, 98% of the people identify themselves as practicing Catholics. So, religion is a huge part of the culture in Krakow, but this doesn’t mean that the culture is stiff. We saw lots of people kissing on benches while strolling through Krakow’s parks, even though there is basically a church on every corner. (I’ll add that this viewpoint is a reflection of my American perspective on Catholicism). If you like beautiful old churches such as St. Mary’s Basilica which is built in Polish Gothic style, Krakow is a great place to travel to. You can even attend a mass on pretty much any day of the week; it seems like the doors of the churches are always open (even during weddings). In addition to churches, there are several Jewish synagogues in the Kazimierz area.
Speaking of Kazimierz, this was definitely the “hippest” area of the city with a vibe that felt very similar to Brooklyn, lots of cool restaurants and bars, and a central market area selling street food to late night party-goers. An interesting Polish favourite is Zapiekanka, an open-faced, toasted baguette with all sorts of toppings such as mushrooms and cheese. The Old Town area has lots of places for going out, too, but Kazimierz is a bit less touristy and definitely more attractive for the younger crowd. We spent our evening sipping creative cocktails at Nova Resto Bar.
Even though Krakow is newer to tourism, don’t expect it to be quiet. The Old Town area, as well as Auschwitz and Birkenau World Heritage Sites, were packed with tourists from all over the world.
Polish is a tough language for a non-speaker to try and decipher. Some useful basics are: Dzień dobry (good day), Cześć (hello), Dziękuję (thank you), and Do widzenia (goodbye). However, most of the younger people in the city speak English fairly fluently, and many of the signs, menus, and restaurant names are written in English.
Krakow has a huge variety of different architectural styles. Within the city limits Soviet, Art Deco, Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Medieval, and 18th Century Neoclassical architecture can be seen mixed together. The Kazimierz area, while not as glamorous in architecture as the rest of the city, is home to the Remuh Synagogue which was once nearly destroyed by a Nazi invasion.
Poland isn’t the worst place to have a minor health emergency. While there I had a small irritation on my right eye which I thought at first was a scratch. I was nervous because I was in a foreign country and an untreated scratch on the eye can result in loss of vision. I headed to the nearest Apteka (pharmacy), walked in, and asked for something to help. The pharmacist, who seemed more like a doctor, gave me a bottle of prescription-level eyedrops for only 11 zloty (about 2.5 Euros). “I use these on my kids,” she said. By the next day my eye was already feeling better.
Since I was so busy enjoying the beautiful streets (and weather) while I was in Krakow, I only made it to one museum which was the Museum of Contemporary Art Krakow (MOCAK). However, Krakow has many museums including the Archaeology Museum, the Historical Museum of Krakow, and the National Museum of Krakow, to name a few.
We stayed in a two person private room in a hostel called Hostel Deco that was about a twenty minute walk from the Old Town. I would highly recommend this hostel for any traveler going to Krakow. Each room was decorated in a different style with a tribute to someone from the art deco era (our room was dedicated to dancer Isadora Duncan). The staff at the front desk were extremely knowledgeable about the city and went out of their way to help us. If you want to be closer to the city center there were many hostels and hotels in that area as well.
If you are looking for a world-class European city with old-world charm, excellent food, and slightly less tourists than other big attractions in Europe, try Krakow! And, don’t believe a word the guides say before you go (except for this one of course).