Krakow Should Be on Everyone's Bucketlist
Poland is so underrated! I'd heard that it was a nice place to visit - nothing more, nothing less. No superlatives used or cautionary tales shared. I figured it was a place Europeans visited only after growing bored with the continent's usual hits. My motivation to spend a long weekend in Poland was for the same reason every Irish person in the US wants to visit Ireland.
My Dad's side of the family has celebrated "Polish Christmas Eve" for as long as I can remember, complete with pierogis, kluski, golabki, and all the other magic my Grandparents whipped up in the kitchen. I would eat pierogis and fist fulls of my Grandpa's incredible cookies (he is a pastry chef) until I couldn't move. We explored Ireland last year and I was anxious to check out the other half of my heritage. Krakow and the surrounding region have something for everyone, and so perhaps my biggest recommendation of 2017 thus far is to move this gem up on your list!
You can click on all the photos in the posts to enlarge them.
Krakow Is For You If...
1. You're On A Budget
The weakness of the Polish Zloty works in your favor. 1 Zloty = 25 cents/20 pence. The conversion couldn't be more straightforward so there is zero chance you're going to get confused and spend way too many zloty at once. We spent just over £100 in 4 days, not including accommodations, and that was without really trying to budget ourselves. I KNOW!
Dinner at a restaurant with table service: 2 entrees, 2 appetizers, 2 beers = £17. For a quick meal, a plate of pierogis is between 9 and 20 zloty depending where you go. Paczkis and other pastries are about 3 zloty each, which is 60 pence!!! A bag of delicious blood oranges at the grocery store was just over £1. Entry to Auschwitz for two of us with a guided tour was £18. I think this was our most affordable trip yet.
2. You Travel for Food
We've established the food is very affordable. It is also INSANELY delicious. So go ahead and stuff yourself silly. We certainly did. There are loads of wonderful to-go food options, amazing pastries, a square dedicated to food trucks, and typical authentic restaurants run by grandmothers. The street food is all very traditional so you can still enjoy a taste of Poland without needing a dinner reservation. We ate a paczki or two every morning, snacked on Krakow pretzels, and had a fabulous dinner in a cellar bar (of all places). See my post on what to eat and where to eat it in Krakow for more food fun.
3. You Like Medieval European City Breaks
Gorgeous churches, a castle, a river, Europe's largest market square, horse drawn carriages, beautiful streets to wander... If you enjoyed pretty Bruges you would love Krakow. Everything is so clean and well-kept and we weren't harassed by a single street vendor. No selfie stick salesmen! The medieval old town is so pretty with pastel buildings and it used to be surrounded by defensive walls. A park now surrounds the city, but a few bits of the wall remain. St. Florian's Gate from 1307 is a Gothic defensive tower on the north end of the old town. Formerly, it was connected to the city walls and via a bridge to the moated Barbican, a defensive outpost that is now a museum.
The Kazimierz neighborhood just south of the old town is excellent for finding great street food, restaurants, bars, clubs, and all that jazz. Continue a bit further south and you'll hit the Vistula River with running and biking trails, nice parks, and views of the castle.
4. You're Interested in WWII History & Communism
Virtually all of Poland was occupied during WWII and Krakow is one of the few cities that avoided extensive destruction. The Nazi governor Hans Frank set himself up in Wawel Castle and the Germans enjoyed the charms of the city while building concentration camps throughout the rest of the country. Krakow's Jewish population was decimated. Poland's leading academics and researchers from Jagiellonian University were arrested. Priests were forced underground. One of the young men to escape the regular round-ups later became Pope John Paul II.
There is a Jewish Museum open to visitors as well as Oskar Schindler's factory, now a popular museum. You can also visit the Jewish Ghetto (Podgorze) and Nowa Huta, a sort of ideal Communist town that was set up as an industrial center around 1950.
Most importantly, Auschwitz-Birkenau is easily reached by train or bus from Krakow. I know it's horrible. But you must go.
At times Krakow reminded me of Budapest. The painful past and scars of occupation are evident; as soon as you leave Krakow's fairy tale old town you're back to the 20th century. The locals do not share the charisma of the Italians and others close to the Mediterranean. You get the feeling they're perpetually annoyed or distrustful. The moment I realized this was very enlightening; I am perpetually annoyed! (OMG I am so Polish. I didn't even know.) The pieces of my personality were all falling into place. I even managed to irritate a nun and I don't even blame her for being annoyed with me.
5. You're Catholic or Enjoy Gorgeous Churches
Speaking of nuns... Krakow can hold its own against Rome. I cannot express the depth of my surprise as I uncovered one thing after another while researching if there were any cool Catholic things to check out. There are over 120 active Catholic churches. That is a huge amount. Then there are the ridiculous number of saints to have come out of this area. Including the most beloved modern saint. Where to even begin?
St. John Paul II. He lived in Krakow for 30-40ish years. I just wanted one or two cool things to go see. WELL. There is no end to this category. There are statues of him everywhere, an altar with his portrait in every church, plaques on all the buildings and churches he blessed, or set foot in, or slept in, or something (mostly described in Polish. I have no idea). It is very clear that he is loved and treasured to this day. His relics are on display and perfectly accessible in the castle of all places. We went to mass at St. Florian's, his first parish in Krakow (90% sure on that). Mass was packed.
He was a major player in resisting the occupation of Poland from the very early days, even before becoming a priest, and so his status as a patriot goes a long way for those who may not necessarily identify with the church. George Weigel wrote an excellent biography that I highly recommend, and I'm so glad I read (part of) this book before visiting.
Amazing churches. Many decorated in the baroque style, so unlike anything else I've seen. Best of all, since they are all functioning churches, they are free and open! They are not museums. They are packed with people doing church things, like all day Adoration in every single church, or mass almost every hour in every single church.
Do not miss St. Mary's Basilica in the main market square, St. Francis of Assisi, or Corpus Christi in Kazimierz. Sneaky iPhone photos of church interiors always turn out horribly, but I snap them for the memories.
St. Francis of Assisi Basilica: it's across from the bishop's residence (where John Paul II stayed) and attached to Krakow's Franciscan Monastery. It contains the only certified copy of the Shroud of Turin which was consecrated by JPII (I didn't even know this existed) and it contains the miraculous image of Our Lady of Sorrows which dates to 1440, and which received a papal crown in the early 1900s. AND this is where St. Maximilian Kolbe was a monk before being sent to Auschwitz. AND we saw the cell where he died. It now contains a gigantic candle put there by JPII on a papal visit. SO MANY THINGS. Are you starting to get a sense of how overwhelming this can be for someone who cares about these things? I feel like Jerry Seinfeld yelling at you all.
Moving on. Wawel Cathedral is gorgeous (how many times can I say this) and is located within the castle. St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr (one of Poland's many patron saints) is buried there along with royalty. You can also visit the Skalka Shrine in another church which marks the spot where this saint was martyred.
Whatever, I can't list for you all the things in these churches. If you travel here and even care about this, email me and I'll send you my notes.
And finally, full circle, back to the nun that I annoyed. She is one of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, the order of nuns who run the Sanctuary of Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki. It's an easy tram ride from Krakow's main square. St. Faustina, then a humble Polish nun, received many visions while living at this convent in Krakow and she wrote quite a bit of her famed diary here. She is buried in the shrine's chapel directly beneath the original image of the Divine Mercy. We visited the shrine on Friday afternoon so we could participate in the chaplet, and it was very moving. Even reliving it by writing this is a bit overwhelming.
If all this isn't enough reason to make a pilgrimage to Krakow, there is so much more within a couple hours drive or train ride. The Jasna Góra Monastery holds the original image of Our Lady of Częstochowa. Some say it's the 3rd largest Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. You can visit Wadowice where John Paul II was born. Kalwaria Zebrzydowska is a sort of outdoor hiking adventure that follows the Way of the Cross and the life of Our Lady. It's also UNESCO listed. I'm not even done with this category but I'm stopping because I've been working on this post for two days and I think you get the picture.
OH and the mountains south of Krakow are supposed to be fabulous! We should have stayed for a couple weeks.
If you've made it this far and you aren't Catholic, just stick with #1-4 above and you'll still fall head over heels for Krakow. This 4 day trip was one of the best European city breaks of our travels and I can't wait to go back.