Kraków, Poland: Religion and Royalty dominate an idyllic and charming city

Dates: April 16th – April 18th

Distance walked: 37.22Km

Steps: 54,894

Temperature high: 22°C

Only a short hop from Berlin, we arrived at our accommodation in Poland on a warm, Monday afternoon. After hurriedly taking care of the necessary unpacking we eagerly took to the streets to discover what Kraków had to offer.

Poland boasts an achievement only shared by Ethiopia, the United States and Canada in that it is home to two of the original twelve UNESCO world heritage sites, one of which is the historic centre of Kraków, the old town. Located only a five minute walk south of our apartment, this is where we headed to spend our first evening in the city.

Before we entered Stare Miasto (‘old town’ in Polish) through Saint Florian’s Gate, we passed through the gorgeous Planty Park which encircles the area. The lushious green trees which populate the park rain down their yellow buds gently onto passers by, creating a picturesque setting around the outskirts of the old town.

A walk in the park provides some beautiful scenery

After passing through Saint Florian’s Gate and into the famed old town we were immediately taken in by pastel coloured buildings that line the quaint, compact streets. A deeply religious city, Kraków’s old town is filled with many impressive places of worship including the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church of Saint Wojciech and most famously of all, Saint Mary’s Basilica. Rising tall above the market square this two-towered, Polish-gothic building is an impressive icon synonymous with the city of Kraków.

Should you happen to be passing by on the hour you will be serenaded by a trumpeter playing out of the top window on the taller of the building’s two towers. The tune cuts off abruptly in the middle to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat whilst sounding an alarm before a Mongol attack on the city. We stumbled accross this sight and marvelled at the courageous performer lounging out the tower high above who signed off with a wave to gracious applause.

Thereafter, we sat down for dinner at an Italian restaurant in the sprawling main square and partook in some delicious, yet very inexpensive, Polish lemon vodka. As well as having a view of St Mary’s Basilica and the iconic centrepiece, the Kraków Cloth Hall, you will also notice the familliar sight of horses clad in jewels and colourful feathers passing by, towing brilliant white carriages around the city. This is a popular way for tourists to experience the old town in style by hopping in the back and being carted around the cobbled streets.

Don’t be surprised to turn a few heads if you choose to travel in one of these

Nearby the old town is Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Kraków. Now home to a resurgent Jewish population after being relocated by German forces during World War II. The area was left neglected and in disrepair under later communist rule however, after much work to restore it, the district is now a popular spot with locals and tourists alike offering a lively bar scene and showing off it’s heritage by attracting tourists from all over the world to the annual Jewish Cultural Festival. We stopped in at a few bars to get a taste of the nightlife before turning in for the evening.

Street art on show in trendy Kazimierz

An early rise the following morning helped us beat the rush to enjoy some Polish-style breakfast at one of it’s famed milk bars. First established in 1896 and popularised during later communist regimes due to the low-priced but hearty meals available to a working class nation, these establishments still exist today and are an excellent way to start the day.

Traditionally they offer, as the name suggests, mainly dairy based products however you can also get a variety of paninis or sample traditional Polish cuisine. We stopped in at Milkbar Tomasza on our second day and had a coffee and scrambled eggs each which was again very reasonably priced yet beautifully presented.

This breakfast and brunch bar is located within the old town and enjoys a good mix of locals and tourists. If you are planning on going then be wary that it’s a small establishment so if it’s a particularly busy morning or afternoon you may have a hang around outside for a while until a table frees up. That said, due to their regained popularity, plenty of alternative establishments are available throughout the city.

This simple dish tastes every bit as good as it looks

The second of Poland’s two previously mentioned original UNESCO world heritage sites lies in the town of Wieliczka, within the larger metropolitan area of Kraków. The Wieliczka Salt Mine has been graced by many notable names throughout history including famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pope John Paul II. All three have since been immortalised within the caverns with their own salt sculptures, you will see these sculptures and more as you delve through the underground caves.

A salt chandelier lights up a divine salt sculpture

In order to experience the marvels that lie below the town of Wieliczka, you will be required to join a guided tour which are priced around £15-20.

Lakes of dense brine, running salt water, chapels adorned with holy salt figurines and the legendary tale of Princess Kinga, affectionately known in these parts as the patron saint of salt miners, will all be discovered 135 metres underground if you choose, as we did, to journey the Tourist Route. You can however opt for the Miner’s Route where you will experience first hand what it takes to be a salt miner. Note that you are required to pay 10 złoty to take pictures during the tour, this works out to roughly £2 and definitely worth paying as you won’t want to forget some of the magnificent displays.

There’s not much to tell about our second evening in the city other than it was spent (over-) indulging in more Polish wódka bars within the old town so I’ll move on hastily to our last day.

We had originally planned to visit Auschwitz on our final day as the grounds are generally free to enter for visitors who do not wish to join a guided tour. However unfortunately we had overlooked the fact that during peak season (April-October) this option is not available and entry is dependent on joining a three and a half hour tour, of which there were none left in English. Always do your homework first folks.

Thankfully Kraków has a castle, the Wawel Royal Castle no less which sits proudly on Wawel Hill by the Vistula river and so we took the opportunity to visit these historic grounds.

In the morning we traversed Planty Park on our trip to the castle and had a light brunch at the lovely Bunkier Cafe. A large ‘bunker’ style cafe which raises it’s shutters in warmer weather for customers to enjoy an open air meal and a coffee in the scenic gardens. Another spot which I definitely recommend to visitors wishing to grab an exquisite breakfast or lunch on a sunny day.

A stylish bunker in an idyllic location

The best view of the castle is undoubtedly captured from the banks of the Vistula, a great spot to catch a breather and savour the charming scenery before climbing the winding Wawel Hill.

We wandered up the hill and through the courtyard where we were met with a stylish courtyard surrounded by Romanesque architecture. Visitors can take a tour through the museum where you will see a host of memorabilia and art owned by Polish monarchs of the past. However if you wish you can simply enjoy the exterior grounds for free where you can spot the Wawel Dragon, get an elevated view of the city or enter the lavishly decorated Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislas and Wenceslaus (or Wawel Cathedral for short).

Wawel Castle as seen from below

One last Polish experience we were recommended to try before leaving was pierogi, or dumplings. Przypiecek is a quiet little restaurant in the north-west of the old town which serves up various incarnations of the Polish classic at a fraction of the price of some places closer to the main market square.

It’s difficult to imagine this dish being presented in a manner that is not at least a little off-putting. However what pierogi lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in flavour, I’d recommend ordering a mixture as the portions are filling and some of the flavours will likely be an acquired taste to some palettes.

Alas as I type this final paragraph sitting aboard another plane on the runway of Kraków’s airport, we say goodbye to a beautiful and charming European city and journey forth to another. Up next is Brussels!

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