I am cautious of basing evidence on anecdotes, but something that has always struck me about Kraków is its apparent association with Auschwitz. Several friends have remarked to me that they would be reluctant to visit Kraków because they are ambivalent about ‘having’ to go to Auschwitz as well, as if avoiding the notorious death and extermination camps in Oświęcim would reflect poorly on their own sense of moral conscience. School trips, both those with which I have been involved, and those organised by my former teaching colleagues, have ‘used’ Kraków as a mere base to travel to Auschwitz, the ‘star’ attraction of Poland. Even those who have been to Kraków have returned somewhat disappointed that they did not allocate more time for the city, focusing most of their time and attention on Auschwitz instead. It is indisputable that Auschwitz is (and should be) an important place for individuals with diverse concerns and interests about the Holocaust – or 20th century history more broadly – to visit and commemorate the lives of those grotesquely and inexplicably imprisoned and killed there. As a centre of pilgrimage, few places worldwide can compete with Auschwitz in terms of visitor numbers and – admittedly immeasurably – determination to attend.
However, Kraków is so much more than a convenient (but also beautiful) stop-off point for people to stay when visiting Auschwitz. It contains one of the most impressive medieval centres in Europe, an enormous indoor market, and numerous churches of differing ages and architectural styles. Kazimierz, the former Jewish district, is a vibrant and constantly revitalising neighbourhood where Jewish culture is increasingly being celebrated by non-Jews (and some reckon that Jewish population figures are rising here too). A 30-minute tram ride to the east, visitors can see Nowa Huta, an enormous Socialist-Realist suburb, offering its own intrigue. Wawel is a great castle in a country of great castles and arguably Poland’s most important symbol of national identity. Wawel also contains a cathedral and Renaissance architecture that would not look out of place in Verona or Ferrara. South of the River Wisła (Vistula) is Oskar Schindler’s factory, immortalised by Steven Spielberg’s film. Several easy day-trips of diverse content are also possible from Kraków, including Poland’s largest winter resort town of Zakopane, other medieval cities such as Tarnów, and just 20 minutes or so by train the mines of Wieliczka with their chapels and sculptures made from salt. In fact, Auschwitz is nearly 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Kraków, which should enable those reluctant to visit the death camps to see Kraków as a tourist destination in its own right, and not intrinsically linked.
St Mary’s Basilica
Streets of the Old Town
Sukiennice (Cloth Hall)
Maly Rynek (Small Market Square)
Time to explore Kraków’s appeal a bit further, then. The Stare Miasto (old city) is the best place to start, centring on the enormous Sukiennice (cloth hall) within the Rynek Główny (Main Square). Most of the stalls inside the cloth hall are rather underwhelming, selling a variety of souvenirs, although Poland is famous for its wonderful amber. However, the sheer scale of the cloth hall is quite unexpected, and its condition belies its nearly 500 years of age (the original version was even older and reckoned by some as the oldest shopping mall in the world). Size and beauty seem quite important in Kraków more broadly: the Rynek is one of the largest and best-preserved medieval market squares in Europe, and at one corner stands St Mary’s Basilica with its two uneven towers, whose disparity has been mythologised as a competition between two brothers to build the taller and more beautiful tower, ultimately resulting in the murder of one brother by the other. Every hour a bugle player performs the city anthem (hejnał), but is cut short abruptly, symbolising the 13th-century Mongol invasion of the city and the arrow that pierced the unfortunate bugle player’s throat. The interior of St Mary’s Basilica is incredibly ornate and well worth the small entrance fee.
St Adalbert’s Church
Town Hall Tower and Sukiennice
The Rynek Główny is also home to several other noteworthy structures, including the beautiful Town Hall Tower; the tiny Church of St Adalbert, which is almost 1,000 years old; and a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, a romantic poet who never actually visited the city and appeared to self-identify as Lithuanian rather than Polish. Nevertheless, he is revered in Poland too, and his statue enjoys pride of place opposite the Sukiennice. The Rynek is also surrounded by elegant, colourful town houses and represents the city’s focal point with the sheer tourist numbers to match. Visitors can take a horse-and-carriage or segway tour, or simply sit back with a delicious Polish cake – sernik (cheesecake), kremówka (cream cake) and szarlotka (apple cake) are particularly popular – and a cup of coffee or tea.
Church of St Peter and Paul
Surrounding the Old City are the concentric rings of the city fortifications, which meet at the Barbican to the north, and the Planty Park, a pleasant place to enjoy a lody (ice cream) from one of the many parlours located around the city. To the south is Kazimierz, a charmingly shabby neighbourhood that is fighting its own gentrification battles, but draws in tourists seeking some of the city’s Jewish history and culture (there are at least four active synagogues plus several synagogue-museums here), as well as numerous restaurants and bars offering less convention and lower prices than in the old town. Two popular places to find street food are Plac Nowy (New Square), which is the polar opposite of Rynek Główny in aesthetic appeal but is home to numerous holes in the wall where one can buy a zapiekanka (essentially an open baguette smothered in cheese and a choice of toppings), and św. Wawrzyńca, which has several food stalls offering cuisine from across Europe. If you prefer to eat inside, an excellent place for inexpensive pierogi (Polish dumplings) is Pierożki u Vincenta, a restaurant painted in Van Gogh style and offering both sweet and savoury pierogi, although be aware that not all flavours are available every day. I can particularly recommend chicken and spinach (which comes with garlic sauce) and cherry (which comes with sour cream – a Polish staple). The bars of Kazimierz are buzzy but not overcrowded, and have their own distinctions; Singer, for instance, provides a sewing machine at each table. Poles are rightly proud of their vodka (or wodka), which comes in an array of flavours; I would particularly recommend fig. Perhaps Kazimierz’s best museum is the Stara Synagoga (Old Synagogue) where one can learn about Jewish practices and history as well as the changing dynamics of Kraków’s Jewish community.
Across the River Wisła is Podgórze, a largely industrial district famous for Schindler’s Factory (which was unfortunately closed when I visited). Although Kazimierz represented the cultural heart of Kraków’s Jewish community, the city’s Jewish population was forced into Podgórze by the Nazis in 1941, creating a squalid Jewish ghetto. A memorial to the victims is present at Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), where chairs are ‘scattered’ to represent the abandonment of belongings and ultimate absence of people during World War II. Although this was the most organised and systematic form of scattering I have ever seen, it was easy to feel the poignancy of the place. Somewhat reflecting the work of Schindler in saving Jews from the concentration camps, the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz protected many of the Ghetto’s families by clandestinely supplying medicine and food and allowed his pharmacy, Apteka Pod Orłem (Under the Eagle) to operate as a social centre for the resistance movement. The pharmacy is now a museum.
Empty Chairs Memorial
Returning north of the Wisła is Wawel Castle, which dates from the 14th century. The Castle is today a complex of museums and a cathedral, each of which requires a separate ticket. Perhaps the finest exhibit is to be found in the Crown Treasury and Armoury, but even a walk through the grounds provides a glimpse of Polish national identity. Much of the Castle was designed by Italian architects and it can be easy to forget that you are in Poland. The Castle is in phenomenally good condition and ought to form a component of any trip to Kraków.
Finally, I will mention Nowa Huta. Trams can be caught from the centre of Kraków, and tickets are bought from kiosks or machines at tram platforms. Stations are listed within the tram, so it is not difficult to identify the correct stop. Do not go to Nowa Huta expecting the same architectural beauty as central Kraków: as a socialist-realist town, it may reasonably be described as ‘functional’, but it represents an intriguing place in its juxtaposition to Kraków. A utopian project, the district was intended to house the growing industrial population of the city and was designed to minimise fire and nuclear damage as well as defend itself from any invasion. Although many of the prospective buildings were never constructed, one noteworthy site is the Kościół Arka Pana (Lord’s Ark Church). The church resembles Noah’s Ark and was constructed by local volunteers from 1967 until 1977 without any state support: after all, the residents’ adherence to Catholicism stood in stark contrast to communist secularism. Such religiosity is one of the few things that ties Nowa Huta to central Kraków, but a visit to this district enables visitors to understand some of the city’s history under communism and Cracovian life beyond the centre.
I am certain that Kraków is one of the most beautiful – but also atmospheric and characterful – cities I have visited anywhere in the world. It represents excellent value, and although it is becoming increasingly popular with international tourists, it is still far quieter than Prague or Vienna, perhaps the most comparable Central European cities in terms of architecture and international fame. Do not hesitate: it will reward you.
Worth noting is that a newly reopened railway line serves the airport from the main station (Główny), and trains are clean, comfortable and fast (but without the high fares one might expect elsewhere). Kraków is also easily served by long-distance train or bus, and other southern Polish cities such as Katowice have international airports that are well-connected to Kraków.
Dzień dobry: Good morning/good afternoon
Do widzenia: Goodbye
Dziękuję: Thank you
Rozumiem: I understand
Nie rozumiem: I do not understand