Krakow is the second city of Poland with a population of 750,000. It is also one of the oldest cities in Poland having been founded in the 7th century. It has always been at the centre of academic and cultural life in Poland, having seen a golden age during the Renaissance but sadly owing to its position in centre of Europe has also seen more than its fair share of warring. It has been partitioned by the Duchy of Lithuania, Russia, Prussia, and most recently Germany in WW2 when central Krakow was turned into a Jewish Ghetto by the Nazis. The atrocities committed in and around Krakow were demonstrated in graphic detail in the film “Schindlers List”.
The centre of the city is Wawel Hill from where the city grew from the outset and where you can now find Wawel Castle, one of the main sights, along with the Old Town, and Town Square. The centre of Krakow was one of the earliest recipients of UNESCO World Heritage status in 1978. It is said that the Old Town alone has six thousand historic sites and two million works of art, plus fine examples of Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture. This also applies to the former Jewish district of Kazmierz, whose community were the leaders of the Renaissance in Krakow. Alongside the beauty of the older parts is the stark modernism of the communist era which was central to the cultural conversion taking place at the time.
Krakow is a beautifully green city. There are parks and gardens all over the place, in particular Planty Park, the Botanical Garden, and Park Krakowski. You’ll also find one of the highest densities of Catholic places of worship outside Rome with some 120 churches.
Getting to Krakow
The first place to look should be LOT, the Polish National Airline, which has several departures a day from London Heathrow direct to Krakow. If you live in the UK regions Ryanair and Easyjet operate direct flights from Liverpool, Leeds, East Midlands, Luton, Bristol and Bournemouth.
You may want to travel across Europe by train to experience Krakow as part of a rail tour. In this case you need to contact Great Rail Journeys (01904 734173),or Treyn Holidays. If you would rather book your own trains your best bet is to contact the Deutsche Bahn Rail centre on 08718 80 80 66.
Arriving in Krakow
Head straight for the railway station near Terminal 1 where you can transfer to central Krakow in 18 minutes. There’s a free shuttle bus between the terminals so there’s no need to drag luggage all the way if you land at T2. Trains run from 05:00 right up to 22:50. You can buy tickets on board (about 10 Zloty) but also from automated ticket machines in the terminal and the station itself. If you happen to miss the last train take the night bus 902. The day buses 208 and 292 happen to be the cheapest method for getting into the centre at about 3 Zloty. Taxis can cost from 70 Zloty. At the time of writing the conversion rate is 5.2 Zlotys to the Pound.
Getting around in Krakow
Much of central Krakow has been pedestrianised making any form of transport redundant if you’re a tourist. You can take a double-decker bus tour these days which in our view is a total waste of time and money. Bike hire is possible if you want to get around. If you happen to arrive by car, find a parking lot and leave it there, it will otherwise be a hindrance.
Things to do in Krakow
Krakow certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. It is a wonderful, cultural city, that has retained all its former glory in its buildings, churches and architecture offering visitors and residents alike a buzzing social scene, concerts in abundance, delicious, wholesome cuisine, a wonderful café culture and an exciting base from which to explore the greater Krakow area and southern Poland.
One of the most enjoyable days out from Krakow is a trip to a UNESCO World Heritage site, located less than 10 miles from the city – the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The total mine stretches for 9 km. from east to west and incorporates 2,000 caves.
It is the oldest mine in Poland and still actively worked. Despite descending some 700 steps to the deepest point accessible to tourists, over the course of a two-hour tour, the journey is well worth the effort. You get to see some of its lakes, its salt stalactites, statues hewn in salt, 3 of its fantastic chapels, where miners worshipped and the biggest underground church in the world, dedicated to Blessed Kinga. This magnificent church is 54 metres long and 16 metres wide and everything in it is hewn from salt; the altar, the floor, the ceiling, the depictions of the Last Supper and the Nativity and all the statues, including the last to be hewn, a statue of Pope John Paul 11 in 1999. It also has a number of huge chandeliers, made from salt crystals. Services are still conducted in the church and it is also used for weddings, while other chambers within the mine can be hired out for parties, concerts, sports events and conferences.
Polish food is tasty and wholesome and for visitors from the West certainly restaurants offer good value for money. In many restaurants you can enjoy a main course for as little as €5.00. On our first evening in a 3 star hotel, arranged for us by www.excitingpoland.com, in the Old Jewish quarter of Krakow, we enjoyed a main course, 2 local beers and a cup of tea, all for €6.00 each. And dare I say the Poles know how to make a good cup of tea – that is with boiling water and not just hot water, as you often get in mainland Europe!
They know how to party too and Krakow’s Market Square, in the old historical centre is home to over 100 pubs, many located in the basements of historical buildings. Local Polish beers like Zywiec and Tyskie are both light and refreshing and exceptionally cheap at just over €1.00 per half-litre.
No wonder Krakow has become a popular Stag party destination. However, it seems that some venues are not as welcoming as they used to be due to excessive drinking and they are trying to find alternative activities to drinking for such groups during the daytime.
Zakopane, on the other hand is actively encouraging Stag parties. It is located some 60 km. from Krakow, in the picturesque Tatra Mountains, which abounds with possibilities for outdoor activities during the day, both summer and winter. You can choose from trekking and hill climbing to paragliding and mountain biking in summer or skiing, snowboarding or even a snow safari in winter. Zakopane also knows how to party and has its own Highlander style of music, serves food in abundance and parties till dawn. There’s Vodka and beer aplenty – though I wouldn’t advise it before going to the slopes!
Of course, if it’s open for Stag parties, why not for Hen parties too? It has all the requirements, though is not necessarily suitable for the high-heeled variety, but with the added bonus of good value shopping in the huge market area at the bottom of Krupowki Street is certainly a contender in the Hen party destination stakes.
When you do visit Krakow make sure to take a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, situated about 40 miles west of Krakow. It is a must – in order to more fully comprehend the suffering that was imposed on so many of our European neighbours such a short time ago in history. This is not what you would call a pleasurable tourist day out, but one made in solidarity with victims from 21 countries that suffered at such brutal hands.
Since 1979 Auschwitz has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site – a place of universal significance, which indeed it is. It will touch you deeply, especially as you view the heaps and heaps of children’s shoes that belonged to some of the children that lost their lives in this fatal camp.
It is also interesting to see Nova Huta, the first Communist town, built around the beginning of the 1950s as a model from which subsequent Soviet towns would follow. All the buildings are typically grey, communist blocks, built in a regimented, orderly manner without a trace of individuality about them. At the height of the Communist era up to 300,000 people worked in the enormous Lenin Steelworks in Nova Huta; people from all over Poland came to Nova Huta for work in the Steelworks and were housed in the newly built Communist town. Now about 5,000 people work there, and it is owned by an Indian company. Besides the Steelworks there is little industry left in the area and Nova Huta itself is inhabited mainly by old people, many of whom have lived all their lives in this area of Krakow.
The diversification within Krakow and its surrounding areas are just some of what gives this city its unique ‘wow’ factor, and why up to 3 million tourists passed through Krakow-Balice airport in 2007, and up to 8 million visitors are expected during 2010.
Where to stay in Krakow
***** Hotel Copernicus
Located in a Renaissance building on beautifully restored Kanonicza Street, the oldest in ancient town of Krakow, the Copernicus takes its name from the Polish astronomer who studied there.
***** Grand Hotel
For more than a century The Grand has offered comfort to a host of illustrious Guests, guaranteeing them a private and relaxed atmosphere.
***** Pałac Bonerowski
Centrally situated on Krakow’s Main Market Square, this 5-star hotel delivers magnificent and elegant accommodation with high-quality facilities and service.