Krakow is a small gem of a city in the south of Poland which is increasingly attracting visitors. There is no shortage of things to do in Krakow: it is the perfect combination of past and present. On the one hand it boasts a historic centre which miraculously escaped bombing in the Second World War, making it one of a kind. At the same time, you can’t help but be struck by the city’s desire for a new life, for change.
Ready to read all about 5 sights you simply cannot miss on a weekend in Krakow?
5 things to do in Krakow
Visit the Main Market Square
You cannot miss this square, partly because it lies at the very heart of Krakow, partly because it is enormous. This is in fact the largest medieval square in all Europe. And it’s a gem, particularly in the evening: the lights in the bars and restaurants around the square gradually come on, the white carriages line up waiting to take tourists on a tour of the city, and all around is peace and tranquillity. Don’t miss St Mary’s Basilica, the Market of Tissues and the tower of the old Town Council building (if you climb to the top, a breath-taking view awaits);
Get lost in the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter
In the years leading up to the Second World War, the Jewish population living in Krakow numbered 60,000 to 80,000. Many were expelled from the city before what would eventually become one of Poland’s largest ghettos was actually built; many others were deported to concentration camps during Nazi occupation. We know all too well about the tragic events that followed. Take a little time to lose yourself in the streets of this neighbourhood; every single brick, every street corner, is steeped in history, and the traces of the past combine with the desire to renew and revive the city. Make sure you visit the Jewish cemetery; you might be lucky enough to visit it under a heavy snowfall, like I was. In that muffled silence, broken only by the crunching sound your footsteps make in the snow, you won’t be able to avoid reflecting on the terrible tragedy which took place here, on the very ground you are walking on.
Descend into the bowels of the earth at the Wieliczka Salt Mines
An absolutely unmissable sight if you are in the area. There’s no need to go through one of the tourist agencies offering package tours to the Salt Mines on every corner of Krakow’s streets; getting to Wieliczka under your own steam couldn’t be easier, as is buying a ticket at the gate and choosing whether you prefer the Tourist Route or the Miner’s Route. The explanations and anecdotes of the guides whisk you away on a journey back in time. Perhaps it’s the unmistakeable smell of the salt which wafts up, delicate but beneficial when breathed in. Perhaps it’s the taste of the salt left on your fingertips by just touching the walls (I saw some kids actually licking the rock salt walls in the galleries, but that’s altogether a different story).
Perhaps it’s the sight that awaits you when you walk into a church carved completely out of a salt quarry, the Santa Kinga Chapel, complete with chandeliers, altars, sculptures and steps hewn from the salt rock. Or perhaps it’s the thrill of hearing Giuseppe Verdi’s aria, Va’ Pensiero (you’ll forgive my thinly-veiled flag waving, but he was from the Parma area, just like me) down in the underbelly of the earth, 101 metres below sea level. But the place Poles call “Poland’s underground salt Cathedral” will surprise you more than you might expect, and stimulate your senses even more so.0
[For more information, check out the article about the Salt Mines]
Remembering history at Auschwitz and Birkenau
It’s a good idea to dedicate a whole day to these two destinations. Visiting these camps is a very powerful experience; reading about it in history books and novels, or watching a film about them, doesn’t even graze the surface. Think carefully, and ask yourself some tough questions: dig deep before deciding, and swallow any pointless pride when asking yourself if you are ready for a tour like this. It is an experience that might strike an unexpected chord; it will force you to take on board images and stories that are often unacceptable. It will call for the utmost respect, and, more than anything else, it will ensure you will never forget again.
[For more information and advice, please read the relevant article]
Try Polish cuisine
If travelling means throwing yourself headlong into another culture, trying the local dishes is an experience not to be missed even if, as in this case, Polish cuisine is not exactly world renowned. During winter, try out the soups; they are the stars of the Polish food scene. Dozens of different soups are available, and usually they are served inside a small loaf of bread with the top cut off. Another dish well worth trying (and perhaps Poland’s most typical dish) is pierogi, a kind of pasta which closely resembles Italian ravioli, filled with a variety of stuffings. You can savour pierogi wherever you go, both as a street food delicacy when you are out and about, or in the city’s hippest restaurants; regardless, they won’t set you back much. Remember that Krakow is home to a Pierogi Festival in August, which even features workshops and cooking competitions.
“For me, travelling means always being on the move, and enjoying every single moment. I could never go without that feeling.”