A couple weeks ago a friend contacted me about taking a spontaneous trip to Krakow, Poland. I don’t know if it’s just because November is considered ‘off-season’ or Ryanair was having a promo, but I found direct airfare there for only 5 euro and 30 euro back. Yes, FIVE EURO. I couldn’t pass up such a sweet deal, and before I knew it I was squished in the middle seat on a crowded plane bound for Poland.
I honestly did not know what to expect of Krakow, but thanks to Pinterest, Google, and constant Facebook messages with my travel buddy, we eventually hashed out a plan and were ready to take on the city. Thankfully our plans were flexible — we had a ‘must-do’ list, but quite a few things we did weren’t actually on the schedule until we arrived in Krakow and discovered what was available to us.
Although haunting memories of the Holocaust remain, Krakow has built itself up into a thriving city that respectfully remembers the not-so-distant past, and has grown though the WWII destruction into a successful, beautiful place to live. I was surprised, even in November, with the amount of tourists visiting, how full the restaurants were, and how organized the city seemed* to be.
*I’m saying this as an outsider who is in no means an expert of the city, but as a first-time observer.
Where to stay:
I could not believe the price of hotels in the area…and so close to the city center! If you’ve ever wanted to stay in a 5-star hotel, Krakow may be your place! The prices per night at a 5-star are comparative to a 3-star many other places in Europe.
My friend and I wanted to stay somewhere unique and beautiful, so we opted for an apartment instead of a hotel (also a great option). We stayed at the OLD | NEW Apartments, literally not even a block from the Old Town Market Square. The location could not have been more perfect, the apartment was bigger than expected, and our host was wonderful. I would highly recommend, and would definitely stay there again!
What to eat:
There was no shortage of delicious places to eat in Krakow. We were so busy going to see #allthethings, we only really had time for one main sit-down meal a day, but boy those meals were good. We noticed quite a few Italian, Indian, Japanese, and even vegan restaurants as we walked around the city, but hands down our favorite restaurant was Pierogarnia Krakowiacy.
If you visit Krakow but fail to try polish dumplings (pierogi), you didn’t do it right. We tried dumplings at two different restaurants just to get a feel for what was out there, but the yelp reviews and fellow bloggers were right: Pierogarnia is where the best dumplings are made. The first time we visited we went a little overboard and ordered five plates thinking each plate would have 4-5 dumplings, but it turned out each plate had 8-10 and we had definitely bitten off more than we could chew.
Out of all the flavors we tried, both sweet and savory, the apple cinnamon dumplings were our favorite. Think hot apple pie in a sweet dumpling form. The meal alone single-handedly beat the cold right out of us. Paired with a glass of hot mulled wine, I could see pierogi being a winter staple for many.
A word to the wise: try visiting Pierogarnia on a weekday, preferably Monday-Thursday, unless you’re good with fighting for a table with the locals. Thankfully we made friends with the nicest lady who let us join her at her table or else we’d be in the crowded aisles eating our dumplings standing up.
What to do:
As I’ve already stated, Krakow is rich with WWII and Holocaust history. We spent our four days going to all the major landmarks and historical museums, and honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you decide to walk everywhere like we did, you’ll run into several tour agents trying to get you to book a tour through their company for several local attractions, but honestly quite a few of them have horrible pricing, more than double what you would pay if you booked online or in advance.
Quite a few of the attractions (outside of Auschwitz and the salt mine) are very easily accessible by walking, so if you don’t mind putting a couple miles on your feet, Krakow can be very easy to navigate. After a bit of research, we found out there are actually several tour companies that offer Auschwitz and Wieliczka Salt Mine tours together in one very long, but comprehensive day. We booked this exact tour through Krakowtrip.com and was very pleased with the driver as well as the tour guides at Auschwitz and the salt mine.
Here’s a list of the places we visited:
It’s hard to put into writing the emotional and physical weight visiting Auschwitz places on you. It’s a crushing blow to learn in detail about everything 1.3million Jews had to suffer though as you walked by very real artifacts that meant so much to each one of them, and walked through the actual buildings where so many lost their lives due to torture, gas, starvation, and execution. Auschwitz is haunting. Auschwitz is devastating.
However, I believe visiting Auschwitz to pay respect to the 1.1 million that died and to see with your own eyes how cruel humanity can be is absolutely necessary. It should make you want to do better and be better as a human living and breathing on this planet.
Oskar Schindler’s Factory
Oskar Schindler was a German member of the Nazi party living and working in Krakow during the Holocaust. He saved the lives of 1,200 Jews by employing them to work at his enamelware and ammunitions factories. His Enameled Goods factory was turned into a beautiful museum in 2010 that showcases Krakow under Nazi Occupation from 1939-45. The museum is wonderfully done with visual, audible, and textual displays teaching visitors about the historical timeline of Krakow during the Holocaust.
Museum Admission Cost: 21 PLN / 5 EURO
We visited the Jewish quarter after dark (to be fair it got dark at 4pm, so we really didn’t have much of a choice but to visit at night, but it was absolutely beautiful. The Galicia Jewish Museum is located within the Jewish Quarter, and is worth a visit if you have the time to spare. It’s built as a gallery with large descriptions telling the true story about a diary that was found in Auschwitz of a girl, Rutka Laskier, that lived in the Ghetto and was later sent to the concentration camps.
Museum admission cost: 16 PLN / 4 EURO
Ghetto Heroes Square
It was nice visiting the Jewish Ghetto the day after going to the Galicia Museum, because we had a bit more history about the hardship of the Ghetto and what daily life was like there. In the middle of Heroes’ square, you’ll find 33 cast-iron and bronze chairs to commemorate the Jewish lives lost in WWII.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
I did not know what to expect before we visited Wieliczka Salt Mine, but I was absolutely blown away by how big it was. The salt mine is actually one of Poland’s top tourist attractions and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The mine has a very old history dating back to the 13th century, and is the products of many, many generations of hard work.
The tour itself was very informative and involved tons of walking FYI.
Admission cost: 55 PLN / 13 EURO
St. Mary’s Basilica
I had discovered St. Mary’s Basilica via Instagram several months ago, and was excited to be able to visit during our trip to Krakow. It has some incredible history and has the largest wooden altarpiece in the world, and is a great example of Polish gothic architecture. Every hour a trumpet sounds at the top of St. Mary’s tallest tower, playing the tune of Hejnał Mariacki, which is also known as the “Krakow Anthem.”
Admission Cost (with photo permission sticker): 15PLN / 3.50 EURO
Just to give you a bit of a time-frame, my friend and I were in Krakow for a combination of three full days. We walked an incredible amount while we were there, and I would highly recommend good walking shoes!
I would love to visit Krakow, as well as other Polish cities again in the future, so if I missed any ‘must-sees’ please let me know in the comments!