Krakow is one city that casts a charm over all who visit. Duncan Rhodes experiences the allure of Poland’s ancient capital, with its myths, magicians and medieval architecture.
“Magiczny Krakow” (Magical Krakow) is how Poles refer to their ancient capital, and the epithet fits in more ways than one. Yes, there are tales of shoe-makers slaying dragons, alchemists riding around town on giant cockerels and devils lurking in the city’s warren of cellars, but you needn’t resort to using your imagination to experience the magic of this city… you’ll see it in the twin towers of St. Mary’s Basilica glazed by the setting sun, you’ll feel it in the candlelit cafes as you tuck into tasty szarlotka (apple pie) and grzaniec (mulled wine), and you’ll soak it in up in scenic squares and courtyards on hot summer’s days, cold beer in hand.
After surviving WWII pretty much intact – and despite growing a curious appendage called Nowa Huta during Communism – Krakow came out the other side of a turbulent 20th Century in surprisingly good shape. No wonder that by the early noughties the city, with its preserved medieval Old Town, had well and truly been ‘discovered’ by the West and flocks of tourists started to outnumber the pigeons (or should that be heroic knights?) on the Market Square. With Poland’s spiritual heart, Wawel Castle, sitting imperiously on the river Wisla, and both the Wieliczka Salt Mines and Auschwitz close at hand there’s little danger of them leaving any time soon. If you’re planning on jumping on the bandwagon (and this one is worth the ride!), then the best time to go is in spring or autumn when the city’s 200,000 odd academics gift the city a youthful energy and the nightlife is at its most frenetic; whilst for sheer snowy romance December and the Christmas markets are also plenty of fun.
Best of the Beaten Track
Krakow’s Old Town is full of wonderful sights and the curious will be rewarded for throwing away the guide book and poking their nose down seemingly uninviting alleyways and up inconspicuous stairwells. Of the city’s most celebrated cultural attractions I would opt for the sensational stained glass of Stanislaw Wyspianski over the altar of Veit Stoss (found at St. Francis’ and St. Mary’s Basilica respectively) – especially as the former is free to view! And I would say the National Museum, with its collection of 20 Century Polish art, just edges the Czartoryski, despite the latter’s crowd-pleasing collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts and one work of Da Vinci’s. This itinerary will also give you a chance to cast your eye over the open Blonia common (next to the National), a picturesque green swathe of the city and a favourite with keep-fitters.
Of course it would be downright rude to come to Krakow and not to pay your respects to the ancient seat of the nation, the Wawel Castle (…and for Hindus the resting place of one of seven chakra stones cast by Lord Shiva). In the crypt of the complex’s cathedral lie Poland’s kings and queens of old, and it’s also worth climbing the tower for a look at the Zygmunt bell. Be sure to make your way out of the castle via the dragon’s lair… you’ll emerge from this cavern at the bottom of Wawel hill where a bronze incarnation of the monster awaits. Text ‘SMOK’ to 7168 to make the beast belch fire!
And if dallying with giant lizards has fired your imagination then fan the flames at the recently opened Krakow Aquarium, where crocodile monitors and monocled cobras, rub scales with hundreds of species of marine and fresh-water fish.
For a long time Plac Nowy in Kazimierz held sway as the patch for Krakow’s arty kids to hang out and compare existential crisises, and, although you’ll find more of a cross section of characters inhabiting the area these days, there’s still plenty for aspiring Bohemians to wax lyrical about in the holy trinity of Alchemia, Singer and Mleczarnia. Sadly however it’s getting harder and harder to find such charismatic cafes amongst the depressingly formulaic ‘trendy’ bars that have sprung up around them.
These days if you want to be avant garde in Krakow you’re probably best crossing the river over to Podgorze, a much-maligned district (it was after all the site of the infamous Jewish Ghetto under the Nazis) that is undergoing a slow resurgence (Podgorze photos here!). Leading the cultural charge are the Starmach Gallery, Drukarnia Jazz Club (where you might even hear a concert of ‘new klezmer’ music) and a renovated and soon-to-be-open-to-the-public Schindler’s Factory. Whilst bolstering the bar scene are Miejsce and Rekawka Café. On a fine day take a walk, via Bednarksi Park, to the Kopiec Krakusa – a pagan burial mound dedicated to Prince Krak, which affords splendid views over the entire city.
Experience & Events
Krakow’s cultural calendar gets fatter on a yearly basis and two relatively new additions worth travelling for are Unsound Festival and Photomonth (held every May). The former provides electronic music geeks with top samples of shoegazing sounds (as well as a cracking end of festival party); the latter is a whole month dedicated to photography, with participating cultural venues, plus a fair few bars and cafes, turning the city into a gigantic exhibition space. Recommended by us as one of the best festivals in 2010! If however you just fancy getting pissed with a whole load of students head over for Juwenalia…
Whereas it’s hard to avoid the feeling of being a tourist on a standard walking tour, a more energetic and engaging alternative can be to take to two wheels… the beach-cruising bikes of Cruising Krakow are ideal for taking in all the major sights whilst hearing some entertaining tales and trivia. Alternatively take a ride in an East German Trabant to the Communist district of Nowa Huta with the Crazy Guides gang. They’ll give you a history lesson you won’t want to sleep through! For a full range of options head over to this page on Krakow tours.
With frescoed ceilings, a rooftop terrace and a moodily-lit pool in the basement the Stary represents the cream of Krakow’s hotels. For something slightly more affordable the Grodek enjoys a quiet cul-de-sac location in the heart of the Old Town – and once put up former president Lech Walesa, and his twenty-strong retinue of moustache combers. For independent living talk to the aptly named Krakow Apartments. Finally, at the budget end of the price spectrum there are no shortage of quality youth hostels. Try Giraffe, Nathan’s Villa or Tom and Gregs.
Just outside the green belt of the Planty Gardens (the former moat which circle the Old Town), Nostalgia is a well-known ‘secret’ amongst ex-pats thanks to tasty steaks, delicious pierogi and professional service. Another upmarket great is Farina, a seafood restaurant with an intimate atmosphere that is perfect prelude to attempted knicker removal (in case you’re still in the wooing stages of your relationship).
At least one of your meals in Krakow should be taken at a milk bar, Communist-style lunch canteens where surly babcias (grandmothers) dish up stodgy Polski classics like barszcz, golabki, nalesniki and pickled cabbage. These much-loved institutions range from attractive rural-style restaurants like Babcia Malina’s to grotty 70s bars where huge helpings of grub can be exchanged for just a handful of zloty. The brave should try the nameless institution on ul. Czysta where even tramps are shocked at the bargain prices.
If you find yourself in Podgorze around lunchtime try the canteen Pokusa. The food is cooked by the students of Krakow’s School of Gastronomy… and nothing beats the smug feeling of tucking into haute cuisine on the cheap.
Krakow’s nightlife may lack the scope and diversity of Warsaw up the road, let alone London and Berlin, but for a wild weekend it might be harder to find a better party destination. The Old Town (allegedly) has the highest concentration of bars and clubs in the universe and with so many venues within stumbling distance of one another, low/no cover charges, liberal opening hours and the fabled-amongst-British-stag-parties ‘cheap beer and fit birds’ you’d have to be a miserable git of epic proportions not to have fun. Piekny Pies is the alcoholic’s choice of warming up points (and warming down points!), whilst Cien is currently the en vogue places to practice your pick up lines with the city’s pin ups. If you’re in a big group/indecisive, then head to Wielopole 15, where five different clubs appeal to a studenty crowd of beatniks and boozers. Refer back to the Hipsters Guide for recommended places to drink away from the circus of the Old Town! Where2b has all the info on the best midweek parties, whilst Mynight.pl publishes party pics and more nightlife naughtiness…
The economic crisis plus some stiff competition has put paid to some cheap airline routes, but you can still fly into Krakow from many a major city with Ryanair and Easyjet, whilst Wizzair fly to Katowice nearby. BA and LOT also operate. An express train links Krakow to Warsaw, whilst overnight train services to Prague and Budapest are handy for backpackers. Lviv (Ukraine) is also a train ride away. UK residents looking for holiday insurance before they go can book online with TravelInsurance.co.uk.
Cracow Life is your one-stop shop for all your travel needs, from restaurant reviews to hotel reservations – their online events listings also appear in lime-green map form so pick up a copy in the city. The City Spy and In Your Pocket guides are also valuable, and the Krakow Post has the latest local and regional news.
Krakow’s great novel still hasn’t been written (which could be something to do with the intoxicating distraction of the city’s nightlife), however you can still get in the Polish groove by reading the translated works of greats such as Gombrowicz, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sienkiewicz. Cracow Life has more book recommendations here! Films-wise there was of course Schindler’s List, part of which was shot in Kazimierz and Podgorze.
Soundtrack to the City
Krakow – Myslovitz and Marek Grechuta
Close Your Eyes – Smolik feat. Kasia Kurzawska
Kazimierz – Nigel Kennedy & Kroke
Soldier On – Don’t Ask Smingus
Drift Motion – New Century Classics
Bracka – Grzegorz Turnau
View Krakow City Break in a larger map