IF you don’t know your pierogi from your sauerkraut and you would like to visit a city steeped in history then Krakow in Poland is your go-to place.
Sarah Cooper visits the Rynek Glowny, St Mary’s Basilica and the old Jewish district of Kazimierz where the Heroes of the Ghetto installation lays bare a moving recollection of the abandoned furniture and belongings tossed aside when Jews were herded on the fateful trip bound for Auschwitz.
With ten universities and 120,000 students the historical Polish city of Krakow is a very student oriented hub.
It is full of little streets containing old pubs and museums for you to lose yourself in. Krakow is a city made up of various districts each of which has its own charm.
There are so many things to see and do here that trying to fit it all into a couple of days just won’t work.
To fully enjoy the experience of Krakow and the surrounding areas give yourself at least four days.
The town centre is a lovely place to walk around and get a feel of the place. It is called Stare Miasto, which literally translates to Old Town.
If you’re on a bus, blink and you’ll miss it as it’s so small. It’s surrounded by a ring of parks lined with trees to walk around and a road for the trams.
Once entering though the entire old town is like walking into the past with its tall buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.
It’s easy to lose yourself for hours as you walk around and admire the architecture.
Try entering through ul. Florianska in the north because you walk underneath an archway which made up part of the old wall surrounding the town.
Perhaps the most attractive street, though, is ul. Kanonicza – a stroll down here is like stepping back in time.
It runs south from the main square and ends at the end of Old Town opening onto Wawel Hill.
There’s a lovely literary café which is underground and was a popular place for writers to go during the Communist era.
At the centre of the town is the Rynek Glówny, which is the Main Square.
The square features the tower from the old Town Hall, St Mary’s Basilica and the giant Cloth Hall which houses a market.
Although the market is quite expensive and many of the goods can be found in shops located in the various streets that branch off the square, it’s still nice to browse their wares.
In December there is a traditional Christmas market on Rynek Glówny . You can browse stalls while sipping a cup of mulled wine and nibbling on some seasonal Polish goodies.
Alternatively you can enjoy the carol singers as you peruse the various baby cribs they have on display.
This is part of an annual competition they hold in Krakow where participants design and paint the prettiest cribs, which are then put on public display for everyone’s enjoyment.
There’s a lot of walking so make sure you take comfortable shoes and wrap up warm.
CITY OF KRAKOW
The City of Krakow Historical Museum is an absolute must-see. The museum is made up of various buildings spread around the city including Schindler’s Factory in the old Jewish ghetto.
The main building is in the main square and it has all the history on the city you would ever need to know.
There is a fascinating section on old maps of Krakow that detail how the city has expanded over time, but there’s something here for everyone.
Here you can get a great feel of what the city is all about.
OTHER PLACES TO GO
Located just south of Old Town is the old Jewish district Kazimierz, where up until the 1930s thousands of Jewish families lived and thrived.
There are many synagogues and Jewish museums to visit in this area.
Meanwhile up the River Vistula you can go to Schindler’s Factory and wander through what remains of the Krakow Jewish ghetto – known as Podgórze.
The entire place looks just the way it did during the war and a lot of the buildings are dilapidated.
There is a moving art piece in the main square called Plac Bohaterów Getta known as Heroes of The Ghetto.
The piece comprises of rows of empty chairs which symbolise the furniture and belongings that were tossed aside and left behind every time hundreds of Jews were rounded up and deported.
You can still see the wall around the ghetto which kept the Jews from going anywhere else in the city.
This part of the city is a real eye-opener.
Finding a place to stay is always a huge worry when taking a trip abroad, especially for a student.
It can take such a massive chunk out of your budget.
But luckily Poland is much cheaper than the UK and it’s easy to find a hostel in the city centre from £15 a night.
There are plenty of hostels right in the city centre and even more dotted around the outlying districts.
Even staying slightly out of the city is a viable option as the buses are easy to come across and cheap at 2.80PLN – roughly 50p – for 20 minutes.
Tickets are purchased from a vending machine in the middle of the bus instead of from the driver.
The currency in Poland is the zloty (PLN) and the cost of living is much cheaper than in the UK, meaning you can take £220 worth of spending money and have almost 1000PLN to play with.
The weather in Krakow will be cold and wintry with an average temperature of 3 degrees Celsius in November and a low of -3 degrees in December so bundling up is recommended. Scarves, gloves and hats will be essentials for a winter trip.
One of the things I was very aware of before going was that I couldn’t go to Krakow without taking the trip to see Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I didn’t regret it either. Although the journey takes a while (it’s a three-hour round trip by bus) it is worth it.
You go straight from Krakow City Centre to the car park of Auschwitz and can book an English tour easily.
It’s only 30PLN for a student which amounts to about £5 and lasts about three and a half hours. It can be really busy in the afternoon so try and get there early and then it won’t eat up your whole day!
The tour consists of seeing some exhibitions in the barracks at Auschwitz and going into the first crematoria building.
You also go into what was referred to as the prison block where inmates of the extermination camp were held in cells. You then board a shuttle bus to Birkenau to walk along the railway tracks, see the destroyed crematoria buildings and go into some barracks to see the living conditions.
I found it quite emotional, but also a little strange to imagine this was happening only 70 years ago.
They really love their dumplings in Krakow and you probably won’t find a Polish restaurant without them on the menu.
They call them pierogi and they are delicious. I sampled a sauerkraut, onion and potato version but the Polish also make sweet dumplings filled with fruit too.
They really fill you up. A meal in a restaurant will set you back around 40PLN per person (around £8).
For the more authentic (and much cheaper) traditional food it’s better to go off the beaten track and eat away from the main square.
If you want to find a really good polish restaurant then try out Babcia Malina. It looks like an old Polish farmhouse and the food is delicious – get your traditional stuff here.
If you want to brave the elements eat outside, many of the restaurants with outdoor seating areas offer blankets and heating lamps for you to get cosy under.
You can’t go to Poland without having some of the wodka! A single shot will set you back around 5PLN (roughly £1) and there is a variety of flavours to try.
The honey vodka is so smooth and sweet and just slips down the throat; you can barely taste the alcohol!
Another really sweet one is the cherry vodka Wisnówka, which the locals supplement with grapefruit juice to reduce the sweetness.
It’s highly recommended to get a tray of different flavours and try them all!
With such a high student population Krakow has many pubs and clubs on offer too, with some located in medieval basements with high vaulted ceilings.
It’s really quite an experience to spend the entire night completely underground.
There is a high concentration along the streets ul. Florianska and ul. Swenska. Check them out.
Top 10 Poland facts
Poland is the the 9th largest country in Europe.
l amongst all the members of the European Union, the residents of Poland marry the youngest.
90% of Poles have completed at least secondary education.
Polish born astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first person to propose that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Wroclaw hosts an annual city-wide medieval festival, including jousts, horse archery, medieval dances and other activities.
Przystanek Woodstock is the biggest open-air festival in Europe–an annual free rock music festival in Poland, inspired by and named for the Woodstock Festival.
Pizza in Poland does not contain tomato sauce. The waiters bring sauce to the table in a pitcher, and you pour it on top. Sometimes the sauce is just ketchup.
In Poland, bananas are peeled from the blossom end, not from the stem end.
Some Polish beer is 10% alcohol.
Polish toilet paper is made of crepe.
Currency: Polish Zloty (PLN)
Conversion rate: £1 = 4.90PLN
Flight time from Edinburgh: 2 hours
Time zone: Central European Time
Climate: Oceanic – ranges from -5 degrees Celsius in January to 24 degrees C in July
Administration: Krakow is divided into 18 districts
Governance: Jacek Majchrowski is the current President of Krakow