A Dragon, a King, and a Pope walk onto a trendy IT campus…Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, I know. In reality it’s a quick run-down of the history of Krakow, from way, way back, all the way to present day.
Krakow is a city of fewer than 1 million residents, but it is a bustling tech and IT hub for Poland. It is also a tourist magnet, capturing the attention of a wide variety of people. Those who visit to party, to eat, to learn and to explore are leaving happy and willing to return again.
We spent two weeks living in an apartment complex, north of the city and threw ourselves into the Krakowian way of life. We quickly learned how to catch a bus – tickets are for the amount of time spent traveling, and the trams – you can use the same ticket as the bus, as long as it’s for the same trip
Often, we made our way into the center of town, Rynek Glowny. This is a huge market square, which hosts an indoor market for souvenirs, and enough space outside for many smaller fresh goods markets. You’ll also notice the massive church in the corner.
It is sounded by horses pulling carriages and is then encircled by a ring of restaurants, with enough seating outside to fulfill the needs of many a people-watcher. It was our main starting point for most days, due to its central location and handy amenities.
Then we got down to business….
One of my favorite things about traveling in Europe is the ease at which you can usually find a ‘free’ walking tour. The premise of these is that you go along for the walk, with a guide and often about 20 other visitors. You learn some interesting stuff, you see some sights and at the end, you offer the guide a round of applause and pay them a tip of your choosing. For us, this is an affordable way to get a quick understanding of the city we are visiting.
We often make these walking tours the first thing we do in a new city. They give you a light touch of a wide variety of places, from there you can choose which places you want to see more of. They’re usually run by locals, who love pointing out their favorite cafes and bars. Finding out where the locals eat, makes for cheaper food and an authentic experience.
Krakow has a host of free walking tours and we loved our first one so much that we went back for more!
Old City Tour
This one took us through the heart of the Old City and introduced us to Krakow’s turbulent history. Like much of Europe, Poland’s borders have grown, shrunk, and grown again. They’ve been under the rule of a few different groups and had a couple languages, but they are finally independent now! We explored the castle, the cathedral, and the main market square.
Jewish City Tour
The Jews were present in Poland and Kraków since the very beginning. In the Kazimierz district, Jewish history, culture, and learning blossomed. By the end of the 1930s, the Jewish community of Kraków constituted about 25% of the city’s population. This vibrant and diverse community was almost totally destroyed during the Second World War.
Today’s Kazimierz is a unique place. It evokes feelings of sorrow, of joy, and of possibility. Now its the home to artist, funky hospitality and plenty of great street art…
Street art Tour
Kraków is filled with bigger and smaller works of art, left by the street artist right in front of your eyes. Some of them are legal, but some of them were created in protest and often the street art changes – what you can find on one day might not be there the next. Much of the art is outside of the Old Town of Kraków – the districts of Kazimierz and Podgórze are definitely more street art friendly.
Paid tours too…
After exhausting the tips only free tours, we even went ahead and joined a paid walking tour which was all about the Polish diet, and of course, we got to sample lots of food on the way.
Unlike our other tours, this one was all about chatting, eating, drinking and having a good time. There was only a small group of us, which was a treat. Being a small group made it easy to wander the city, and meant there was always lots of food to try.
First, we tried soup, before heading to the markets and trying pickles and saurkraut. While we waited for our polish sausages to be cooked we tried three kinds of white cheese that are all produced locally. Then we got the call that the meat was ready. We tried three samples of sausage, including one made of horse meat. It was certainly a strong flavor!
Then we were off for Perogi. We had already tried some Perogi both locally made and in our very own kitchen, but we were still delighted to try different flavors including ‘Russian’ (cheese and onion) and ‘summer’ (blueberries and cream!).
Then it was on to sweets. Popes cream cake and poppy seed cake was the order of the day. Yum!
And then…the most important part – Vodka! Just a little one, don’t panic….
Doing our own tour
While the tours we went on were very thorough, there were still other places we wanted to explore. We had to pick between paying to enter the castle or the Schindler factory. This time my Princess vibes won out. We wandered the grounds before exploring the castle church.
Castles, dragons, and towers – oh my!
We wandered the grounds before exploring the castle church which was like nothing else we’ve seen before. The castle was repeatedly vandalised over the years and was even the site of an explosion when an alchemist got a little excited. There are 5 sections of the castle which each require a ticket but you can wander the grounds for free.
Chilling at the Popes church
Pope John Paul II spent a huge amount of time in Krakow and is deeply respected. Wander around and you’ll see statues, pictures, portraits, and references aplenty!
Across from where the Pope stayed, there is a cathedral, Francusz Kanska. Here, we even found a replica of the infamous Turin shroud!
Outside the city
While in Krakow, you’re an easy drive away from both the Wieliczka salt mines and Auschwitz concentration camp. Our budget only reached to us seeing one of these, so of course, we went to Auschwitz.
Heading in as tourists it feels important to leave as a witness and to talk about our experiences. Visiting both Camps I and II was heartbreaking. However, well worth the trip for those who have even the tiniest bit of interest.
It’s often the simplest things in life that strike a chord, in this case seeing shoes and family water jugs owned by the victims drove home the harsh reality that these were ordinary people like you and me.
The best part about Europe and cities like Krakow is how easy it is to move. After two weeks we were ready to go exploring…Off to Budapest!