I had no idea what to expect in Krakow. My polish food knowledge comes mostly from Chicago and I haven’t had many reports from fellow travelers. I came with an open mind, and what I found was a vibrant, very cool city full life and magic. Secret sparkling hidden cellar bars, laid-back hip coffee shops, bright murals and monolithic old world and medieval architecture, interesting youth in black and stripes mixed with the adults in a real community feeling. The old town center still feels like the vibrant heart of the city and Planty Park that rings Old Town seems always filled with locals having gatherings or traditional festivals or just chilling out and enjoying the summer, the air filled with buskers late into the evening. There are a lot of tourists in town center but not just tourist. I was surprised to find many of the best restaurants and bars hidden right in plain site along the square. It kind of has this German/Russian vibe, a bit like Prague but more vodka and less beer. English is common in the tourist center but walk 5 blocks in any direction and you’re probably going to encounter primarily Polish, which is a bit difficult for my American tongue. Very comfortable and livable. I feel really at home here. Not a lot of honking but a little impatience at intersections, but everyone stops for crosswalks. Direct but friendly and polite.
Unlike Warsaw and so many other European towns, Krakow was never bombed, so much of its original buildings are still around. Oh, and compared to most countries west of here, extremely affordable. After a month in Ireland, Poland is a dream financially.
The coronation route of Polish Kings begins at the St. Florian’s Church in the medieval suburb of Kleparz north of the Old Town gates, past the Barbican of Kraków, through the Florian Gate down Floriańska Street, through the square of Old Town, and on to the castle overlooking the Vistula river just north of Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. Our first apartment was right beside St. Florian’s Church so I like this route as a way to organize this post geographically.
Kleparz is a residential area just north of the city’s Old Town with lots of interesting restaurants and one of the city’s largest and oldest continuously operating fresh markets, Stary Kleparz. The center road of old town exits the Florian Gate and leads straight into Jan Matejko Square that ends at St. Florian’s Church. You can find some good Asian restaurants in this area (really all over Krakow) and the main train station is nearby making it a convenient location as home base to explore the town.
The Old Town of Krakow used to be surrounded by defensive walls and beyond that a moat. In the 1800’s, with the city extending beyond those borders, the walls were no longer seen as needed and torn down, and the moat filled. But with an inspired stroke of genius, these areas were not developed but turned into green spaces and parks for the city. Planty Park rings the entire Old Town with 5.2 acres of wooded space and paved bike paths mixed with smaller gardens and statues. It’s a really lovely space and the townspeople seem to be gathered there often involved in festivals and leisure. It’s a great town center that escapes the tourist crowds of the central square.
Stare Miasto is Krakow’s original center with lots of old buildings and churches. It managed to escape bombing in WW2 unlike Warsaw and most of its original buildings still exist. The square at the center is the largest in Europe and is always bustling with tourists and locals alike. I was surprised to find that many of the bars and restaurants frequented by locals are still inside of Old Town. So it hasn’t been entirely gentrified by the tourists yet. Though might be on its way.
St. Mary’s Basilica
Walking south of the square towards the castle.
Below the square you find more streets of old buildings filled with interesting bars and shops. The area begins to narrow down to a main lane in the southern most area where it connects with the Wawel Castle.
Wawel Royal Castle
Built by King Casimir III the Great in the 13th and 14th centuries and expanded over the following several hundreds of years this castle was the seat of power in Poland until it was moved to Warsaw in 1596. Some stone buildings on site date back to 970.
The largest castle in Poland, all major styles of European design can be found: medieval, renaissance and baroque. It was the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Pope John Paul II was also educated and rose to Cardinal in Krakow, highly celebrated in the city, you can find a large statue and museum of the Pope within the castle.
Moving to my second apartment between Old Town and The Jewish Quarter.
After a week in the Kleparz neighborhood in a fourth floor walkup two story penthouse styled in a 80’s Wall Street coke dream décor, Katy decided she wanted a bit of focused hiking time in a local mountain village called Zakopane and I decided to spend a little more time in Krakow. I was pretty familiar with Old Town and wanted to get to know the more locals hipster neighborhood of Kazimierz. So I found a little apartment just below Old Town and just above the Jewish Quarter (the apartments here were just a little bigger and cheaper than in the heart of Kazimierz proper). This area was very quiet with lots of coffeeshops and restaurants and only a block away from Kazimierz. It was easy to find my building because there was an enormous “Home” painted on the side. It rained almost the entire time I was there but it was a great spot to chill for a while.
Before WW2, Kazimierz was the bustling Jewish Quarter of Krakow. Poland was the European center of Jewish life with over 3 million Jews and 17,000 of which living in the Kazimierz neighborhood. During German occupation in WW2, the entire community was relocated to nearby ghettos across the river, and eventually shipped to nearby camps like Auschwitz or killed outright. The Nazis killed over 90% of the Jewish Polish community during their occupation. But I’ve tried to make a conscious choice not to dwell long on that part of Krakow’s history. I will save that for a later post.
Today, Kazimierz is the hip center of Krakow city life. Many of the local focused shops and eateries have moved to this neighborhood to avoid the tourist bustle in Old Town. You’ll find interesting graffiti, cool underground bars, and late night street food, thrift stores, and laid back coffeeshops. It’s a great vibe and a fun place to explore.
Many of the buildings in Krakow were built in a style that forms a large fortress like square, a heavy door in the front to gain access inside, then an open courtyard in the middle on which the windows face. All through Old Town, these squares were converted into different businesses, sometimes a wooded space with a coffeeshop, sometimes a paved area with bars around the interior first floor, or other types of spaces. It was always fun to peek into these long dark hallways from the street only to find the space open up into some magical place or live music playing.
Polish food is both what I expected and many things that I did not. You’ll find perogies everywhere, and for sure there’s a deep local love of that dish. Also borsch, but here it’s often hot and brothlike, savory with a deep smoky meat broth taste, either served in a mug or in bowl with dumplings. Lots of kielbasa but not exactly how I expected, sliced thin and served as a bar snack, chopped in soups, and sometimes served straight up on a plate, but no polish dogs around. Their wieners are more German. Lots of cabbage, beet, and potato dishes. Pork knuckle and roast meats. And a bunch of interesting soups made with sour rye flower, meat, and eggs. The food here is heavy and large portions. A guide we met explained during the occupation everyone was hungry so her parents generation made it a priority to overfeed everyone after independence.
I’m including a small selection here but I have too many photos from two weeks of eating in Poland so I’ll do a separate post just on Polish food.
Unlike Prague where beer is king, in Poland, it’s vodka. Good vodka. Our guide said that vodka isn’t taken as a daily drink to get drunk but is saved for special occasions. But that there are many many special occasions on which to drink. And they drink a lot of the stuff. There’s a whole range of regular potato and grain vodkas and some aged vodkas starting to make the scene. And then, as it was explained, grandpa always had the moonshine, saved for special and somber occasions, but grandma always had her collection of homemade flavored vodkas which are equally popular throughout town. I tried my best to sample them all.
J. A. Baczewski potato vodka seemed to be the town favorite, and for sure it was delicious, I ended up drinking a bottle of the stuff. Originally produced in Krakow, the makers fled the city during WW2. Though not technically a Polish vodka anymore, the town seems to prize this one for not only its fabulous taste but for its history.
Graffiti in Krakow
I often judge a city’s passion and sentiment by the quality of its street art, and Krakow is no slouch. You’ll find colorful murals and graffiti all over. Probably more tagging than I like to see and pretty sloppy anarcho-political stuff, but there seems to be an active underground scene.