Kraków, Poland. I can remember it like it was yesterday, except that it was more like two years ago. Since then, friends have asked me what to see in Krakòw? I never remember this trip as a list of places I went to see. I remember it as a vivid travel experience that I very much needed in my life at the moment, but also something I anticipated for my whole life.
I still haven’t forgotten all of the friendly faces I encountered, the stunning buildings at every corner, and every single dish of food I ate.
Let’s give some context. Why am I considering this trip a cultural and gastronomical pilgrimage when none of my ancestors were even Polish? I primarily grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA). There is something special about NEPA, which I am not saying is exclusive to there, because I also know this to be true in Pittsburgh, too, but the European immigrants really made their cultural mark on the area. This is indisputable. The main groups of immigrants were Italian and Polish.
What does this mean? That we have awesome food, haha. You might think I am joking, but it is true. Ask anyone from NEPA. In the summer, there are church bazaars where you can get delicious handmade buttery and fried Polish goodies (pierogi, halušky, potato pancakes…). You can easily find pierogi in the freezer section of the grocery store, and it’s always been one of my favorite foods. So while I am not Polish, I grew up exposed to the cuisine, the music, and even the language a bit. It always felt something that was part of who I am.
Fast forward back to May 2016. I had just moved to Brighton, UK and haven’t traveled anywhere for a few months and was itching to go anywhere. I went to search flights and kept seeing Kraków as an option. I didn’t even know where in Poland it was or anything about it. All I knew is that Poland was the land where I can eat more pierogi. So I booked a ticket for four days and without much notice, I was off.
Old Town/Stare Miasto
The image above is shot from the tower in St Mary’s Basilica. This is the Cloth Hall in the Main Market Square of the Old Town. This is one of the busiest areas full of tourists and locals as it is the center of Kraków.
There is a museum below the Cloth Hall called Rynek Underground. It is a very popular attraction and tickets should be purchased in advance as they only let a limited number of people per hour.
*Travel Tip* I did not book my tickets in advance as this was a last minute trip, so I missed out on a few attractions and I was there right before the high season so make sure you plan ahead! *additional note* A friend of mine traveled here in November and experienced the same issue, so book ahead.
I loved wandering around the square and old town admiring all of the buildings and their colorful details. Also in the square is St. Mary’s Basilica. You have to purchase a ticket to go inside, but I promise you, it is worth it! In the above picture you can see the outside, it looks very casual, maybe nothing inside, and bam (see photo below).
I did not edit these photos, I wanted to try and preserve the colors to show you. I did, however, take them crooked… I wasn’t 100% sure on the photo policy and was trying to be a bit sly because this worker came up to me and kept saying something in Polish and sounded angry until I put my camera away, but other people were taking pictures? I have no idea what happened and I felt so silly I just put it away. Anyway, go see it with your own eyes, it is an incredible church. St. Mary’s Basilica is definitely in my top 5 churches I have seen in Europe.
In the Old Town of Kraków, there are so many beautiful buildings to see, old streets to wander, the Barbican and old defense walls, and so many places to enjoy (cheap!) authentic food (I have my food and drink recommendations at the end of the article).
Kazimierz is a neighborhood south of Old Town once you cross the Vistula river. It was once a community of Christians and Jewish, but during WWII Jewish families were moved to Podgórze. In Kazimierz, you can see an old synagog and Jewish cemetery. There are tours in the area, but I ran out of time if you’ve done any of them, feel free to comment and share your experiences and recommendations below.
Also in this neighborhood is housed craft beer bars, food trucks, and night market. It is a great area for wandering around browsing various independent shops and places to hang out. Ursa Maior (pictured above) is a great spot for craft beer. The staff was knowledgeable and local beers were delicious. If you are hanging out here in the evening, go to the night market to grab some awesome late night street food.
It should come as no surprise that one of my personal favorite areas was Wawel Hill where you can find the Wawel Castle and Cathedral, along with amazing views of Kraków.
*Travel Tip* Check the website before visiting as some exhibits are only open during part of the year.
I went to Wawel Hill very early just before the exhibits opened so I could grab some quite pictures. It was stunning this time of the year, in spite of the rain I dealt with. In the picture above you can see the Cathedral. I did the audio tour which really surprised me. I learned a lot about the history of Kraków.
Wawel Castle and Cathedral have a lot of cultural and historical significance in Poland, as it was the residence of the kings for many years until the capital was moved to Warsaw. The above photo is the castle, while not as visually striking as others I have seen, it is the details that make it.
Inside houses an art museum, the main feature is a very impressive tapestry collection which is also the only original interior decoration from the castle. I recommend the Royal Private Apartment tour (guided) while skipping the State Rooms (self-guided). The State Rooms are almost identical to the Apartments, so it felt redundant doing both.
This is a view from Sandomierska Tower, from here you can see the castle and cathedral. Sadly this is a seasonal attraction but if you have a chance go check out the great views of Kraków.
I spent half a day doing the tour for Auschwitz-Birkenau. I highly suggest if you are in Kraków to plan a visit. Like many others, I have learned about the Holocaust in school, seen documentaries and movies, but actually being in the camp and seeing it with my own eyes was different. You are allowed to take photos but I personally didn’t feel very comfortable, this is one of two that I took. Visiting Auschwitz is a very personal and emotional experience for probably almost everyone who goes. I know that sounds generic, but it’s true. My good friend Dani from Travelling Jezebel wrote a very appropriate article about how not to act while visiting Auschwitz.
On a purely logistical note, you must visit the site on a tour, and it is a bit outside of Kraków. The English tours tend to book up fast and logistics of getting there without a car is a hassle. I used the company Prime Tours Krakow and I highly recommend them (no I did not get paid to say that and I did pay for my tour). A minibus picked me up right in front of my hostel and I was on a small private tour of about 10 people opposed to other groups of about 30, and I didn’t have to wait in any lines at the site. Everything was taken care of and simple. I do recommend to pack a lunch as food is really limited and overpriced but the tour is long with a lot of walking.
Trying new foods is probably my absolute favorite part of traveling. That being said, I have no idea why I don’t write more about all of the things I eat…and I definitely don’t know why I don’t take better pictures of it! I listed a few of the places I ate at below that I recommend checking out.
Bar Grodzki (Grodzka 47) Every travel site I read recommended this mleczny (milk bar), and so I was apprehensive that it would be a tourist trap, yes there are tourists there, yes the menus are in Polish and English, but do not let this keep you from trying a few dishes. It is a family run bar with insanely cheap (10-20zł/plate) home-cooked meals. [pierogies in the bottom right photo are from here]
U Babci Maliny (Polska Akademia Umiejętności, Sławkowska 17) This one is a little tricky to find as it is hidden through a courtyard under the Polish Skills Academy. I had a potato pancakes dish here and I still think about how good it was. Be prepared for a large plate of food, these are not small portions.
Marchewka z Groszkiem (Mostowa 2) I can’t entirely remember how I read about this restaurant, but I did somewhere and passed by it in between meals. I wasn’t exactly hungry but I wanted a break, and an opportunity to try a new dish. They allowed me to order a half portion of their stuffed cabbage. When I say this is one of the most delicious plates I have ever had… I am not kidding. Everything about it was perfect and I will be finding an excuse to go back one day. [stuffed cabbage in the bottom left photo is from here]
Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa (Św. Jana 3-5) While this may be a bit of a chain, it was still a cool place to stop in and have the vodka and śledź bar experience. It is only 4zł for drinks and 8zł for small plates (photo top right of the soup!).
As usual, I added all of the places and even more I didn’t mention into a google map that can easily be saved and accessed while you are out sightseeing!
This trip still stays in my mind as a major turning point in my life. I was going through a bit of a personal rough patch and started closing myself off to anyone I would meet. I wasn’t traveling as much. I basically wasn’t myself anymore. This was my first solo travel trip to a country where I absolutely don’t speak the language unless it’s the name of dishes. Of course, it was terrifying, but deep down I needed that push into the next chapter of my life. This trip reminded me to keep my heart open to people, to adventure, to life in general. I met so many wonderful human beings who made that trip so special. A few weeks after this trip I went to a wedding in Slovenia, and this is when I met my current husband. I don’t know if my time in Kraków made that possible definitively, but upon some self-reflection, I can see how it prepared me emotionally to let people back into my life.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventure to Kraków, and would love to hear about your experiences here or other places in Poland that are great to visit.
Owner of wanderinghelene.com. Anthropologist, content creator, castle explorer, coffee drinker, and lover of markets and very old places!