I’ve recently caught the travelling bug and began to tick off places around the world that I want to visit. It began last June when I attended Glastonbury Festival for an unforgettable experience and continued with a trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. My latest trip was to Poland’s Krakow for three nights.
Poland was never a country that I thought about visiting until friends and work colleagues had said what a great time they had there. So when my friend Dani from the Travelling Jezebel said she was travelling around Eastern Europe, I jumped at the chance to visit the city.
Arriving at John Paul II Airport, I jumped into one of the official airport transfer taxis waiting outside to take me to the apartment we were staying in. The 20-minute trip cost 89 zł (around £19). While this wasn’t too bad a price, it could have been done a lot cheaper via Uber or by taking public transport.
Dani and I had booked to stay with Alina, Michal and their dog Chilli in a two-bedroom apartment located near the river just outside of Krakow’s Old Town and Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), so it was easy walking distance to the delights of the city. I was a little apprehensive about sharing an apartment with a complete stranger, thinking we would be living under one another’s feet, but Dani reassured me it would be fine and we knew we would hardly be there.
Krakow’s Old Town
Once we’d dropped off our bags, we set off towards the Old Town to get our bearings, take in some sights and find somewhere to eat. The Old Town was a hive of restaurants, bars and shops with beautiful architecture scattered around:
During our walk around the Old Town Square and its side streets, we wanted to find somewhere to eat. The first restaurant that piqued our interest was Staropolska Karczma, so we took a seat at a table underneath a branded umbrella outside. A waitress approached us with menus from a different restaurant, which made us think that despite the branded umbrellas and separate outdoor furniture, it was a dog-eat-dog business when it came to feeding visitors. This was echoed in the promoters positioned at the entrance to restaurants who tried to entice you in by offering discounts and freebies then not honouring them – something we realised was a regular occurrence across Krakow.
One such promoter from the restaurant Marmolada did manage to attract us inside with promises of half-price food and free desserts. We liked the European and Polish menu anyway and figured what was the harm in some extra incentive.
We chose a starter each agreeing to share the spoils between us – we opted for cabbage rolls and mushroom dumplings. The cabbage rolls were a mixture of rice and meat wrapped in cabbage with a red pepper and paprika sauce and kind of tasted like a potato and meat pasty. The mushroom dumplings were similar to ravioli and were quite a rich taste – I don’t think either of us could have eaten a whole plate of those to ourselves.
For the main course, I had herbed lamb chops with potato rosti and caramelised leeks while Dani had beef cheeks with potato puree and vegetables. We consumed the dishes in silence as we were taken in by how tasty the grub was, neither one of us leaving an empty plate!
Old Town Nightlife
With our stomachs sufficiently lined, we wanted to check out the local bars for a tipple or two. Our first port of call was Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa (Beer and Vodka), a chain of bars designed to throwback to Poland in the 1960s, after a recommendation from Dani who had visited one during her stay in Poznan and commented on there being a really fun atmosphere and cheap drinks available for as little as 4zł (approximately 80p).
Other bars we checked out around Krakow’s Old Town before sauntering to bed at 4 am included Bull Pub, a traditional pub, BaniaLuka, another bar with 4zł drinks and strong student vibe, and Teatro Cubano, a rum club that was filled with lots of people gyrating and dancing to Latin American music.
Krakow’s Wawel Castle
The next day, we wanted to take in more of the sights of Krakow by exploring Wawel Castle. The castle is free to explore the grounds, but if you want to see inside the building, there are separate charges depending on which room you wish to see – groups should make advanced reservations. There are daily limits to how many visitors can enter certain areas of the castle, so make sure you attend early to avoid disappointment. Also, Mondays and Sundays at certain times of the year offer free admission depending on availability.
Exhibitions are split into permanent and seasonal, with occasional temporary installations open to the public. The State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, the Lost Wawel and Oriental Art are open all year round, while Dragon’s Den, Sandomierska Tower and the outdoor guided tour of Wawel Architecture and Gardens are seasonal.
On our visit, the only area available to visit was the State Rooms, which we weren’t interested in seeing, but because the Dragon’s Den was open, we paid 4zł each to descend down the 135 steps of Thieves’ Tower into a cave, which according to legend is the den of the dragon of Wawel.
Upon exit of the cave, you can bear witness to the fire-breathing sculpture of the Wawel Dragon created by Bronisław Chromy in 1972.
Krakow’s Jewish Quarter
Our exit from Wawel Castle placed us by the river where we decided to stroll round to the Kazimierz – the Jewish Quarter. We had received lots of recommendations to visit this area of Krakow as it was brimming full of bars and restaurants offering both Polish and Jewish cuisines, as well as more beautiful architecture.
After spending a considerable amount of time the night before finding somewhere to eat, we wanted to find somewhere before heading back to change. Like the Old Town, there were many promoters enticing you to eat with them and once we’d settled on Ptaszyl, a charming place in a square of the Jewish Quarter, we were given a 10% discount voucher – this confirmed our choice of restaurant as who doesn’t like a bit of discount, right? However, much like Marmolada, this was false advertising and we were not discounted any money off the bill.
For the starter, I had pancakes stuffed with spinach and cheddar cheese in a herb sauce, which were incredibly tasty and generously portioned.
For my main course, I ordered corn chicken sous vide risotto with pesto and rocket because I have made many risottos at home but had never had one from a restaurant. However, I didn’t exactly get what I had ordered due to a mix-up. The first dish brought out was sweet chicken with mashed potato (or so I thought). I’m not normally someone who will make a complaint at a restaurant but I can’t stand mashed potato so explained the mix-up to our waitress. After a short wait, a second dish was brought out that was basically the same but the mashed potato was replaced with plain risotto rice. I decided to eat it anyway and cut into the meat to realise that it wasn’t chicken it was duck, which tasted good and was considerably more expensive than what I had ordered.
Despite the mix-up with the mains and ignoring the discount voucher, the food was delicious, service was good and we both enjoyed ourselves.
Alchemia – One of the World’s Best Bars
Once we were sufficiently stuffed, we headed to Alchemia – a shabby-chic cocktail bar voted as one of the world’s best. Neither of us actually had a cocktail, opting for a beer for Dani and a bison grass vodka and lemonade for myself. We ended up sinking quite a few in there as it had a great atmosphere and it was playing music we liked. It is definitely worth a visit if you’re planning a trip to Krakow.
Hamsa – the Happiness and Hummus Restaurant
We returned to the Jewish Quarter for lunch the next day before our trip to Auschwitz because we’d eyed up an Israeli cuisine restaurant that we wanted to try called Hamsa. The self-proclaimed hummus and happiness restaurant served an array of Middle Eastern delights, including shish kebab, burek, harira and my favourite dish, tagine.
Our choice was to share a platter of mezze, which included three dishes of our choice, laffa bread, vegetables and olives for 45,40zł (just less than £10). Our three mezze included hummus from Maghreb with spicy harissa paste, falafel and babaganoush. It was the perfect lunch for those who like to eat light but well and try a number of things.
Before I move on to talk about our trip to Auschwitz on the final day, I thought it made more sense to tell you about the final night as once again it was spent in the Jewish Quarter. With an early morning flight the next day, we decided to have a low-key night and just go out for some food.
We chose to eat at Miodova – a Michelin-starred restaurant serving a variety of cuisines. I had spicy rooster broth with king boletus (basically, chicken and mushroom broth) for my starter followed by local trout fillets from Ojców served with beets flavoured kopytka (potato dumplings) and goat’s cheese with herbed potatoes. The service here was impeccable and the waiters were really accommodating when we decided to move indoors as it had begun to rain.
Upon our arrival in Krakow, we realised that you needed to give 24-hours notice to take a trip to Auschwitz. You could make the trip yourself by train but it is a considerable journey and you weren’t guaranteed entrance by just turning up, plus there were limited trains to the former concentration camps. We managed to find a tour operator that would take us there on an unguided tour. Trips to Auschwitz are a full-day experience so make sure you plan appropriately.
Our tour allowed us to visit both Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. For me, it was a really bizarre experience wandering somewhere where so much killing had taken place. Before we were allowed to roam around the camps, our driver had explained that there are two rules that must be followed: no flash photography and no photographs to be taken in certain areas, such as the gas chambers.
As we made our way around the camps, many people were flouting these rules, which honestly sickened me. I couldn’t wrap my head around why people would want to take photos; were they going to sit at home and show these to family and friends or share them on Facebook? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.
One example was a couple taking a photograph of a white rose in between the wire fence at Birkenau. When we had walked passed, I thought that the white rose was left in commemoration by somebody but as we made our way back, I saw the couple take the rose out, meaning they had brought it so they could take an “emotional” shot probably for Instagram or another form of social media.
Another example, which I couldn’t hide my distaste for, was two people who were taking pictures of the equipment used to place people inside an incinerator. This was in the gas chamber where there were signs everywhere asking people not to take photographs, plus many of the people in attendance were clearly upset as the horrific actions of what took place in that building dawned on them. At the end of the tour, I was emotionally and physically exhausted from the tour and the ignorance I had witnessed during my time there. Despite
At the end of the tour, I was emotionally and physically exhausted from the tour and the ignorance I had witnessed during my time there. Despite the trip being difficult for me, more so when you see it still going on in today’s society in Chechnya, I don’t think I could visited Krakow without going to Auschwitz.
Have you been to Krakow? Let me know about your trip in the comments below.
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