Kraków was once the capital of Poland, but today it is locally known as the cultural capital of Poland. Kraków is known for its love of art, food and music. With delicious food, amazing street performers and friendly people – it is hard not to fall in love instantly when walking through the town. I think one of the highlights was the many street performers – from middle-aged break-dancers (who were AMAZING), young trumpet players and everyone in between. Kraków, like most Eastern European cities, was greatly affected by WWII. In fact, before WWII the city had 90+ synagogues to serve the 80,000+ Jewish residents. Many of those synagogues were destroyed by Nazis in power, with some remaining as well as important Jewish architecture. We enjoyed our brief time here and we are so glad we didn’t skip it.
How We Got There and Around
We hopped on a 6-hour train from Warsaw to Kraków. The train ride was pleasant and fine. The Kraków train station was much bigger than we anticipated but easy to navigate.
One of the challenges we faced was how we were going to get to Auschwitz. We had planned on taking a train to Auschwitz and staying the night there before heading to Prague – HOWEVER – I realized later that we were supposed to pre-book our museum tickets beforehand. I looked it up and tickets of course were sold out. After some research we learned that it is actually hard to get tickets because most tourist companies pre-purchase them in bulk. We learned that we can arrive early in the morning, in hopes of getting an evening ticket, but nothing firm. We decided the best way to ensure we get into Auschwitz was to purchase a tour package through a tour company. We ended up walking on the main square, found a vendor and bought tickets for $30 each. It all worked out, and we didn’t need to buy a train ticket out of Kraków as we were getting a bus ride with our tour group (more to come about that on our next post).
Around Kraków we walked pretty much everywhere. We did take an Uber to our apartment for really cheap (like $3) and a taxi at some point, also really cheap. The city also offers a tram for public transportation, but we never really needed it.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the Old Jewish Quarter rather than the main square which we immensely enjoyed. The neighborhood was cute, quiet and full of character. It was only a 15-minute walk to the main square. Our AirBnb was perfect plus it was only steps away from the BEST ICE CREAM in Kraków.
Time with New Friends
We were extremely excited to meet friends of Steve’s cousin, Leah (of Minnesota). Jenny and Kate had just started their Eastern European trip the day prior to our arrival. We met them for dinner and ended up spending the majority of the next day sightseeing together. We loved spending our time with them, shared lots of laughs and great food. Thank you Jenny & Kate for making us part of your trip! Next time we are in Minnesota let’s have a reunion?
Our Favorite Foods
Well, I mentioned the ice cream… yum. But here are some highlights…
Pierogi – Duh… if you read our last post, you know, how much in love we are with these things. It goes without saying we had a lot of these and enjoyed them as much, if not more than Warsaw.
Sour Rye Soup – I am pretty sure this “soup” was just butter, but the staff assured me there was actual other items in there. They served it in a mug and it was delicious.
Bagelmama – This restaurant is in the Old Jewish Quarter, and we loved it so much we ate here twice. Did you know the bagel was created in Kraków – it’s a no brainer we had to get bagel sandwiches here.
What We Did
Wawel Royal Castle – The main attraction in Krakow is the castle. There are several exhibits to visit and tickets can be bought separately or in a package. By the time we arrived, we decided to visit just a few: the grounds, the tower, the Wawel Cathedral and the Dragons Den. The castle is known to have a large amount of art which disappointedly we didn’t get to view. The castle was built in the 13th-14th century for King Casimir III the Great of Poland.
The grounds of the castle were beautiful and made for an easy walk with some hills and slopes. The Tower had probably over 300 steps and gave fantastic views of the grounds. The tower was used to lock prisoners up, as well as to store armory. The Cathedral was a great visit as well. The cathedral was built in the 11th century and also has a royal crypt below. Karol Wojtyla (later to become Pope John Paul II) did his first mass there after becoming a priest. Our last stop was the Dragon Den, which was a stairway case to the cave. The cave is under the castle grounds, and houses the legend of the great Wawel Dragon. Just outside the cave is the Wawel Dargon statue. The statue actually spits fire at random times. We waited about 10 minutes and decided to move on.
Main Square – This medieval market square dates back to the 13th century. At that time the square was filled with merchants and more. It also hosted several royal ceremonies, down the road that connects the square to the castle. During WWII, the square was renamed Adolf Hitler-Platz. The Nazis even torn down the famous Adam Mickiewicz monument, which later was rebuilt and replaced. The square has also seen its share of political protests and disputes, including when Walentego Badlaka set himself on fire to protest the Katyn massacre.
The Cloth Hall – During Medieval times up to the 17th century, Cloth Halls were a popular place to sell various fabrics and other goods. The Kraków Cloth Hall sits in the middle of main square and has various souvenir booths in there selling goods today. We have read that in the past, state functions can take place here, such as balls, meetings, etc.
St. Mary’s Basilica – Located in the main square, this beautiful church was built in the 14th century and is famous for having the largest gothic altar piece in the world. It is also well known because of the special tradition that occurs on the hour – the trumpet signal called the Hejnał mariacki. We were lucky to be sitting in the square around 6:00PM when we heard the trumpet player and everyone looking at the church towers for any glimpse of trumpeter. We were surprised to read that Poland broadcasts the noon edition over Polish radio. The Hejnał mariacki has many legends – it was used to signal the alarm for opening/closing the gates at dawn/dusk, possibly to warn of fires and another legend indicating it was warning of the Mongol invasion. Whatever the reason, we enjoyed it. Inside the church, besides the amazing altar piece, the church had wonderful stained glass and other delicate and lovely features.
Town Hall Tower – The tower is the only remaining part of the old Town Hall. Steve and I paid to climb the steps. Inside is a small display of a torture chamber, claiming it was once used as one. The top of the tower gave beautiful views.
Remeh Synagogue – The synagogue with the accompanying cemetery dates back to 1557, and is only one of two active Jewish centers (considering there was over 90 pre-WWII). The synagogue is very small. The cemetery is fascinating. The graves pre-date 1800, when a new cemetery was built. During WWII, Nazi’s destroyed the cemetery and used the stone for paving roads, etc. Since then, there has been a lot of work to restore the cemetery. One thing we found interesting was the rocks people laid on the graves. I have read it is a way of keeping the soul down, or perhaps to signify the memories do not die (like flowers). We overheard a tour group’s guide, and he said that in the past people would travel very far to see graves (since they were usually out of the city) and so they would pick up the nearest stone to the grave to mark that they were there. Either way, I thought it was very lovely.
Old Synagogue – The oldest synagogue still standing in Poland, built in 1492. During WWII Nazis destroyed most of it to reuse the goods for other projects. Today, the synagogue serves as a museum for Jewish life. We went on a Sunday and it was free that day.
Oskar Schindler Factory Museum – Oskar Schindler is credited to saving 1,200 Jewish lives during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory, and the use of many, many, many brides to the SS Men. Perhaps you are familiar with the movie, Schindler’s List? Today, his factory serves as museum to talk about Krakow during 1930s to after WWII. I read mixed reviews about the museum, but Steve and I really enjoyed it. The exhibits and displays were excellent and we would recommend it to anyone traveling there.