Luckily for the visitor, Kraków is a marvellously walkable city, with almost all of its major attractions very close to the central Rynek area. So, no matter how much (or how little) time you have to see this glorious city, you will love every moment of it.
The whirlwind visit
First things first: let’s dump that baggage. Most people arrive in Kraków by train, and the main train station (Dworzec Główny) has a baggage check, and at zł.3.90 (less than 1 GBP) for the whole day, this is a bargain no matter how you look at it. Open from 5:30 AM to 11:00 PM and with English-speaking staff, we’ve never heard about anyone’s bag being lightened when left here. If you’re still uneasy, there are coin operated lockers with English instructions on them. If you’re arriving by bus, the train station is quite literally just next door, so just haul your bag across the road.
From the train station, it’s a quick 10-minute walk to the Rynek (Old Town Market Square). Follow the signs saying wejście do centrum – or just follow the massive crowd of people heading for the Rynek. You’ll go through an underpass, then come up into a lovely garden-like walking area, called the Planty. Just beyond all the lush green is a high wall, which surrounds the center of Kraków. Pull out your map and make a point of walking down ul. Św. Jana to number 19, which is the Czartoryski Museum. This outwardly modest place houses a masterpiece: Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Lady with an Ermine. Buy a ticket for 8 zł (about 2 GBP), check your backpack and head up to the second floor immediately. The painting is the sole exhibited piece in Room XI. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is constantly mobbed by delighted art-lovers, it’s quite possible to visit alone with the Lady. If you are fond of art, the Museum has much to impress you. I highly recommend the Italian Room (Number IX), which has an incredible collection of iconographic works, including the breathtaking Mary Magdalene series.
From the Museum exit, turn left and head into the largest Market Square in Europe, the Rynek. Make sure to be there on the hour, when the famous bugle-call will sound from the gothic Mariacki Church, in memory of the soldier who was shot in the throat while trying to warn the Polish troops of a Tartar invasion. If you’re lucky, the famous pasty-faced Kraków mime will be next to the Church, mercilessly teasing and terrorising innocently unaware passers-by (he has a fondness for women with large breasts, so be warned!).
Bang in the center of the Rynek is the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), a treasure trove of delight for the souvenir hunter. Dozens of stalls with amber, wood carvings, handstitched linen, glasswares and leather goods are nestled in here so if you’re interested in doing some shopping, it’s the ideal place to pick up some souvenirs – especially if you are in a hurry.
After a quick stroll around the Rynek, you’ll be ready to head back to catch your train/bus. Walk down ul. Floriańska to get an energy buzz from the youthful, cosmopolitan vibe of the bustling street. At the end, walk through St. Florian’s Gate and stroll through the Planty, back to the underground passage to the bus and train stations.
The long weekend adventure
If you have a couple of days, I recommend that you do all the things listed above, but with less haste. Take the time to explore the Rynek’s cafes and restaurants, linger at the Czartoryski Museum, comparison shop in the Sukiennice, or visit shops outside of the Rynek. Maybe take a tour in one of the horse drawn carriages that can be found in the center. Explore some of the city’s astounding churches, especially the Franciscan Church (pl. Wszystkich Świętych). Walk all the way to the front of the church, then turn around and look up at one of the incredible stained-glass picture windows I’ve ever seen, called Let It Be, an image of God emerging from the cosmic chaos. Designed by Stanisław Wyspiański, it takes my breath away every single time – but be sure to go on a brilliantly sunny day!
Weekend travellers also have the opportunity to visit Kazimierz (read our feature article about the area, starting on page 16), the Jewish part of the city.
Another unmissable treat is Wawel Castle. From the Rynek, walk south down ul. Grodzka, which ends at the street up to the castle (droga do zamku), which is perched high on a hill, overlooking both the city and the river. Since the castle is literally always crawling with tour bus groups, plan an early morning visit. The castle has a bit of everything: the Cathedral Museum, which houses a collection of sacred art; displays of tapestries, paintings and Oriental art; a sarcophogus of Queen Jadwiga; the “Lost Wawel” exhibition, which has a reconstruction of the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary; a chakra-rich wall (where you will see dozens of people lined up with their backs to it, deeply breathing in the good energy); and the fi re breathing (literally) dragon lurking outside his Dragon’s Lair on the river, which simultaneously delights and scares the bejesus out of little kids. The castle itself is an architectural wonder, and the fact that it exists at all is nothing short of a miracle: incredibly, it survived both World Wars almost unscathed.
Finally, don’t forget that in the summer numerous festivals descend on Kraków, and I’m keeping my fi ngers crossed that your visit falls at the same time as some of them – what a great way to experience the city’s culture and energy! Take note of a few in particular. From June 27 to July 6, the Jewish Culture Festival will be held in Kazimierz, highlighting Jewish film, music, cuisine and culture (www.jewishfestival.pl). There is also the Summer Jazz Festival from July 6 to August 3 (www.cracjazz.pl) and the 12th Summer Opera Festival from June 15 to July 11 (www.opera.krakow.pl).
Drowning that thirst Undoubtedly, all that shopping and culture will leave you parched; now it’s time to get refreshed and watered. What would you like? One of my personal favourites (especially in the summer) is Kawiarnia Czekolada (ul. Bracka 4), which is the most charming courtyard café in the city and has some of the best art on the inside walls. The hot chocolate and caffeine-injected drinks are wonderful, and the list of alcohol is long enough to keep you in the courtyard for maaaany hours. Indulge in their ice cream while you’re planted there. This is a perfect place to bring kids.
For the more middle-aged crowd and families, Siesta (ul. Stolarska 6) is the logical choice: what attracted me is that it is unlike most other cafés in town, which seem to be firmly divided down generational borders (in other words, some cafés are “young and hip” while others are “sophisticated and elegant.”), Siesta breaks with convention. It depends on its staff and beverages to attract a steady and versatile group of all-agers... including kids!
And book-lovers must peek in to Massolit Books & Café (ul. Felicjanek 4), the best place to go when it’s time to buy a new English book for your travels. Stacks and stacks of books totter overhead, waiting to dramatically fling themselves off the shelves and take you with them. Never fear, we’ve never seen anyone beaned by a book here. Lovely Cappuccino.
Maybe caffeine and sweets just won’t do it, and if you’d kill for a decent glass of wine before getting back on public transportation, Kraków delivers wine and atmosphere in spades. The most obvious drinking choice is to sit down at one of the numerous outdoor cafe tables around the Rynek and order a Polish beer, glass of chilled wine, or Żubrowka with apple juice and enjoy the best people-watching in Poland. But if you long for air-conditioning or a proper table, then Kraków’s inside bars are worth visiting.
Bodega Marques (ul. Sławkowska 12) is a wine bar connoisseur’s dream: its selection of hundreds and hundreds of wines makes it a sure-fire winner. The night we were there smooth jazz was playing over the speakers and the whole vibe was elegant but laidback. If you feel intimidated by the list and don’t want to look a goof in front of your stylish date, ask the very informed staff for suggestions – and then agree with them.
Another very popular wine bar is Salt & Co (ul. Straszewskiego 17, at the Radisson Hotel). If you can’t get all the way to Wieliczka Salt Mine, drown your sorrows in a bar that is the next best thing. With a wall made of salt from the mine itself, this very elegant bar attracts more than Wieliczka-lovers, as an average night here sees businessmen smoking the fi ne cigars available and their leggy companions sipping fruity cocktails.
Staying with the hotel bar venue, try QUBE (ul. Powiśle 7, at the Sheraton Hotel). Undoubtedly the best skylight in the city hangs over this elegant bar, so look up and enjoy the stars as you get wined and dined in style. With an amazing cocktail list and effi cient service, this is more than a hotel bar, it’s an unmissable experience. Adding to the undoubted charm is QUBE’s unique method of serving vodka: they pout nit out - clear and cool - into a glass made of ice. Drink fast, or your glass will melt all over the table... and what a waste of good alcohol that would be!
For a more alternative drinking experience, head over to Stalowe Magnolie (ul. Św. Jana 15). Don’t be put off by the entrance. You have to ring a doorbell and once inside, you may well think that you’ve inadvertently stumbled into a French boudoir straight out of Moulin Rouge and you’d be forgiven for looking around wildly for a Nicole Kidman lookalike. Ignore all of this and focus on the goal (no, not Nicole Kidman in a corset): the truly amazing music, excellent drinks and friendly atmosphere. This is one bar that even people who don’t like bars will like - very, very much.
Indulge in great cuisine
In terms of food: like any good, cosmopolitan city, Kraków offers a selection of cuisine from all over the world. Since this is Poland, giving Polish food a try is a must.
One recommendation is to go to Morskie Oko (pl. Szczepański 8) which specialises in amazing traditional mountain Polish food. With its long wooden tables and benches, it attracts a more rowdy crowd, and the live mountain music encourages the fl ow of beer. Get your stomach ready for some serious mountain-style alcohol consumption with the fantastic placek (potato pancake) topped with spicy meat sauce, herring in brine and top it all off with Polish apple pie (szarlotka).
For something a bit quieter, head to Chłopskie Jadło (ul. Św. Jana 3). An indisputable Kraków institution, this place serves up truly amazing traditional Polish fare in a setting that is modelled on a peasant’s kitchen. Start with the smalec piled high on the thick-crust homemade bread followed by the pierogi. Unmissable – but reservations are non-negotiable.
Those on a budget will appreciate the fare at Pierogarnia (ul. Sławkowska 32); after all, what’s more Polish than pierogi? If you’ve somehow managed to avoid trying them so far into your visit, make this your fi rst point of call. Hand-made right in front of you, the pierogi here are as fresh as they can be. With a nice selection of fi llings and sauces – from meat to fruit and bacon bits to cream – there’s something here to satisfy every taste.
And for a truly unique Polish meal, go to Wierzynek (Rynek Główny 15). In 1364, the fi rst European Peace Conference took place in Kraków, and Michołaj Wierzynek hosted the magnifi cent feast that followed (it was immortalised by Jan Matejko in his painting Uczta u Wierzynka). Today, it is a mandatory dining stop for kings, queens, presidents and fi lm stars.
Maybe you’ve been to the Jewish Culture Festival and have discovered a taste for Jewish cuisine; in that case, head to Klezmer Hois (ul. Szeroka 6) for something a bit different. In the heart of the Jewish Kazimierz area is a hotel, restaurant and venue for klezmer bands to perform live every night. If you’re up for a full-on Jewish experience this summer, Klezmer Hois is the place to go.
Continuing on with the idea of festivals, maybe you have been to the Galicia Multicultural Festival (see our article, starting on page 22 for more details), and are now craving some authentic Austro-Hungarian cuisine. If so, then Pod Złotą Pipą (ul. Floriańska 30, tel. +48 (12) 421-9466, www.pipa.com.pl) is your port-of-call.
Located smack near the Main Square that formed the fi rst part of what was historically called the Royal Route, it’s no coincidence, therefore, that this rather unique place recreates an ambience in its ancient cellars. Its atmosphere harkens back to the days of Kaiser Franz Josef I, combining the features of an elegant, quiet restaurant with a well trodden pub. His is the regal portrait that beckons you invitingly into an atmosphere enjoyed as much by a general of his Imperial Army as by some of us who aspire to “attack” Krakow’s pleasures with perhaps a certain “martial” gusto. Befi tting its innate culture, it is perhaps the only place in the world where chess is played with pawns that are shot glasses - you actually drink down your opponent pawn by pawn! And its Austro-Hungarian inspired menu allows one to keep it simple or get more sophisticated; do try the Duck in Sherry Sauce.
For those hankering for Italian, then the best place in town is Leonardo (ul. Szpitalna 20/22). As befi ts a restaurant bearing the great artist’s name, the aesthetic side of the experience is paramount: from the decor to the presentation of the food, your eyes will be stunned. With a Polish and Italian menu, you’ll be hard-pressed deciding what to choose, but we can recommend the angel-hair pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and duck with plums.
Now, how about some quirky cuisine? Maybe you’d like to have your dinner somewhere that has a story, or some odd décor.
First up is Orient Express (ul. Stolarska 13). Major points go to this restaurant for the decor, which perfectly resembles a vintage steam train, complete with luggage scattered abou). With a menu that offers a pan-European selection of dishes, you can eat here and pretend that you’re going almost anywhere.
And fi nally, art-lovers will love Wentzl (Rynek Główny 19). With its great view of the Rynek, this place boasts one heck of a great location for you to sip your wine and refl ect on the Virgin Mary with Child mural facade out front. The artist was a student at Kraków’s Art Academy and had a taste for the restaurant’s food and drink – which he was unable to pay for. His mural was in lieu of cash, and is a major attraction today.
The seasoned veteran
So: you’ve explored every inch of the Rynek, bought loads of amber, seen Kazimierz, seen the dragons, done a pub crawl, an art crawl, grooved at the Jazz Festival and sampled everything from French to Polish cuisine, chased with everything from beer to vodka.
Now you want to see beyond the city borders and you have another few days to do it. If you want to have someone else make all ticket reservations, go to Orbis Travel (conveniently located in the Rynek, at number 41). They will arrange day trips to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Wieliczka Salt Mine and longer trips Zakopane, even helping with hotel reservations. All three of these places are highly recommended, as they are all unmissable in their own ways.Kraków is a city with so much to offer, and with its vibrant atmosphere, it’s a memorable place to spend any amount of time – from a few hours to two weeks.
Enjoy your time here, and I hope that you head home with lots of amber, some unforgettable experiences – and not too much of a hangover.