Last October I went to Poland on a pleasure trip with the company I work for. Until 1609, Krakow was the capital of Poland and is currently the largest city in the country. It is one of the most important cultural cities of Central Europe and is therefore called the “Florence of Poland”. The comparison is a bit much for me, but it is an absolutely charming town. It is a real student city, so there's always something going on: many pleasant squares, cafés and restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
The center of town endured many wars but remained intact. The oldest building is the St. Andrew's Church from 1098, and there are still many buildings from the 13th century. Therefore, the center deserves to be on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The main square
The main square (Rynek Glowny) is one of the most beautiful market squares in Europe. Here you will find St. Mary's Church with its famous altar. This church was in fact designed by the Dutch architect Tielman. The Town Hall Tower, Cloth Hall and the Church of St. Adalbert are absolutely worthwhile.
There’s a beautiful legend about St Mary's Basilica (and I am big fan of cute legends).
Every hour a trumpeter plays a melody from the highest tower of St. Mary's Basilica that is suddenly interrupted. The 'Hejnal' used to be the signal to open or close the city gates and was played every morning and evening. According to legend, a tower guard saw the Tatars coming. He played his trumpet to warn everyone but was hit by an arrow and abruptly stopped his trumpet playing. Fortunately, the city gates were closed in time and averted the Tatar attack.
Since the 19th century the 'HEJNAL' is played every hour as a reminder. Since 1927, it is even played on Polish Radio each day at noon.
Wawel is a 228 m high hill on the banks of the Vistula. On the hill are some beautiful buildings such as the Wawel Cathedral and Wawel Castle. The current cathedral dates from the 14th century, and two cathedrals had already been destroyed at this site by then. The original castle was largely destroyed by fire, so the castle you see now has been significantly rebuilt throughout the centuries.
Below the hill you will find the dragon's cave where, according to a myth, a real dragon used to live.
The king of Krakow promised his throne and his daughter to those who would murder the dragon. The poor shoemaker, Skuba, took the challenge and came up with a clever plan. He slaughtered a sheep, stuffed it with sulfur and brought it to the dragon. The dragon caught on fire and jumped into the Vistula. The shoemaker married the princess and became the new king.
Where to stay & where to eat?
- There are many nice hotels in Krakow and even more restaurants. We stayed at the Metropolitan Boutique Hotel. It’s within walking distance of major attractions and yet in a quiet setting. The rooms are cozy and comfortable and there is a beautiful courtyard.
- Pimiento Restaurant is an absolute must. This Argentinian restaurant is beautifully decorated, the service is top notch and the food is fantastic. Since we were with a large group, they brought us samples of all the starters on the menu so we could try everything. From octopus to Polish pastries, it all tasted equally delicious. As a main course, obviously, everyone chose a nice piece of Argentinian beef. The bill was a bit of a shock, but we will all remember this great night.
- The Piano Rouge is situated at the main market and is very touristy, but only because of the interior is it worth a visit. In the basement you walk into a fairy tale, and it looks like a richly decorated cave. At 9 PM there is live piano music (questionable quality), and you can enter to have a drink (they serve delicious cocktails). If you eat there, definitely go for the goulash.
- For fine dining with a Mediterranean touch, please contact Trezo. Tiger shrimps and rack of lamb tasted excellent.
All these restaurants are within walking distance (max. 10 min.).
If you want to learn more about food in Krakow, check this one out.
During a visit to this region a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau is a must. Actually all these former concentration camps should be visited once. There are many, many books about the atrocities that took place here, so I will not go into to many details here.
Auschwitz is actually an umbrella term for several camps. Auschwitz I is the base camp. Auschwitz II, Birkenau, was the extermination camp and Auschwitz III, Monowitz, was a labor camp. The first part of the visit took us to Auschwitz I. You step inside the legendary gate with the inscription "Arbeit macht frei". The 'B' in Arbeit is written upside down. Our guide (who looked like a cartoon character out of some horror book) said that no one really knows why, but it was probably an act of defiance by the blacksmith. The barracks here are made of stone and one of the best known is the "hospital" where Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments. Our guide spoke passionatly and repeated several times that the camps appear on Polish soil, but that it was an "invention" of the Germans.
After an extensive tour we arrived at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. This camp was much more impressive in my opinion. Birkenau is a huge domain with the wooden barracks you know from the movies. Now they are surrounded by grass, but during the war it was one big puddle. Taking a look inside the barracks is highly impressive. Unbelievable in which degrading conditions people ended up here. The train stopped inside this camp after which an initial 'selection' was made. Most prisoners stayed only a few days because they killed a maximum of 4750 prisoners daily in the gas chambers. Afterwards the bodies were removed from the gas chambers, shaved, stripped of gold teeth and burned.
A visit to these camps is not a pleasure trip, but as I said before, everyone should visit here once.
Wieliczka salt mine
Another important landmark and protected Unesco world heritage is the Wieliczka salt mine. This is one of the oldest salt mines in the world and was first mentioned in 1044. The corridors of the mine are 300 km long and go up to 327 m deep. The tour takes you down 800 steps to a depth of approximately 130 meters. Then follows a few kilometers walk where you pass all kinds of sculptures that have been carved into the rock salt. There is a huge underground lake and the St. Kinga's Chapel is breathtaking. Looking for an original wedding location? This is the place-to-be. Thank God you can return with an elevator to the top because otherwise I'd probably still be down there.
To visit all these places you surely need three full days. It was a tiring trip, but totally worth it.
Small note: if you want to go shopping, look for another destination.
Do you want to read more about Krakow and other beautiful destinatinons in Poland? Read this Poland itinerary.
Did you visit Auschwitz and/or Birkenau? What are your impressions?