Krakow: a mini guide

The city of Krakow in Southern Poland is a popular destination, particularly for those wanting to add a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau to their itinerary. However, the city is much, much more than just a gateway to a famous (and unmissable) memorial. Here’s a quick taster of what there is to do and see…
The essentials – top five
Market Square – Krakow is one of the oldest cities in Poland and at its heart is the medieval market square (the Rynek Główny) where you will find three of the city’s top attractions. There’s the 14th century, Gothic St Mary’s Basilica and the central Cloth Hall, packed with stalls selling everything from amber jewellery to lacework and wood carvings. Right beneath your feet, there’s also the new(ish) Rynek Underground museum, where you can find out about the city’s rich history amidst exhibits which include touchscreens, holograms, projections and documentary films.
Wawel Royal Castle – Permanent exhibitions at the medieval Wawel Castle (one of the largest castles in Poland) include the state rooms, royal private apartments, crown treasury and armoury, and the royal gardens. There are also seasonal exhibitions, dependent on the time of year, including the Dragon’s Den, a legendary cave in the western slope of Wawel Hill (April – October). You can also enjoy stunning views of the city andthe Vistula River from the Sandomierska Tower.
Visit a famous salt mine – Located in Wieliczka (and 135 metres underground), the Wieliczka salt Mine is a a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must visit if you’re in Krakow. Attractions include an underground lake, dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral carved out of rock salt by the miners.
Auschwitz-Birkenau – Popular for its tragic history, the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and memorial is actually located in Oswiecim, about 66 kilometres (37 miles) west of Krakow (but there are plenty of ways to get there from Krakow, if you have the time).

The memorial and museum consists of two German concentration camps – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I was the main camp and, at first glance, seems like nothing more than a well kept military base. Here you will find the main exhibitions, housed in the thick, brick buildings. Just a few kilometres away is Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest part of the complex.  Expect to see rows upon rows of one storey prison barracks extending into the bleak distance, as well as the remains of the crematoriums and gas chambers, destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover their atrocities. Perhaps most harrowing of all, however, is the entrance – the death gate, through which trains transported prisoners to the camp for their final hours. Auschwitz-Birkenau is not an easy visit but one which will stay with you forever.

A horse and carriage ride – Book yourself onto one of the city’s famous, antique horse-drawn carriages, which queue at the market square. A perfect way to relax and see this stunning city at its best – and in a little bit of old style luxury too.

The Budget or Broke Recommendation

Eat at a milk bar (bar mleczny in Polish). OK, not exactly free, and the decor can be quite austere, but it’s still great value and offers locally sourced food as well as a real feel of the old postwar city. According to the Guardian, milk bars “started life in 1896 in Warsaw and became very popular in the depression era. But they really took off across socialist postwar Poland in the guise of workers’ canteens – government-subsidised cafes where workers could get a good, nutritious and affordable meal. They sold traditional Polish staples, and snacks such as cheese cutlets – good meat was hard to come by in the 1950s – along with other dairy products, hence the moniker.” While the number of milk bars are decreasing, Milkbar Tomasza and Bar Gornik in Krakow are still on the go and worth a visit.

Local cuisine

Renowned for its simplicity, and lack of colour, Polish food may not always look great but it’s certainly hearty. Bigos is a tradional winter stew, usually made from fresh and pickled cabbage as well as  sausage, onion, mushrooms and garlic. Kotlet Schabowy is a delicious, breaded and fried pork cutlet, usually served with mash and pickled cabbage. For those with a sweet tooth, you can’t go wrong with Naleśniki, crepes filled with soft cheese and topped with blueberries, cream and sugar.

Gift ideas

Ciuciu, a pint sized shop on Grodzka Street, specialises in personalised hard candies made with patterns, flavours and colours of your choice – and you get to see the product being made from start to finish. Or, for something a little bit more “vintage”, take a browse around a local flea market, where you might pick up a bargain or just enjoy a wander around, soaking up the atmosphere.

Image of St Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka) by Flickr user Francisco Anzola and used under the Creative Commons licence

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