My trip to Poland finally came to an end in Krakow (or “Kraków”). Located in the south, it’s a vibrant city known for being an economic and cultural hub of the country, with its historic center boasting plenty of well-preserved churches and its famous Wawel Castle. It was beautiful and lively, and I couldn’t have asked for a better place to wrap up my Polish travels.
I stayed a total of five nights in Krakow, although I really only had two full days to explore it (due to a couple of day trips– Auschwitz and Zakopane— peppered in between). All the same, I saw a good amount- and then some- when I was in town, and overall got a lovely impression of it.
After a long, tiring train ride from Gdańsk (six-and-a-half hours, which had been my longest train journey to date), I finally made it to Krakow in the late afternoon. My hostel was a 15-minute walk from the station, and after some slight difficulties in trying to orient myself in the right direction, I made it to my hostel, where I checked in and got settled into my room. Although I’d been traveling for the entire day and was rather tired, nevertheless I got swept up in the hostel activities: it was rather a social hostel, with a communal dinner (which was great, along with the included breakfast!) and nightly games that *usually* involved drinking.
The hostel also took us out at night to bars and clubs, and I ended up going out that first night: we first went to a bar where I received a complementary beer-vodka shot (mind you, not my favorite combination) before we headed to a club where it played “Top 40” remixes. Fueled by the beer-vodka shot (as well as the four or so beers I’d consumed back at the hostel), I had a good time singing and dancing on the dark, hot dance floor. I left early with a couple of hostel-goers to return to the hostel, and we got back at a reasonable time (1h30) for me to shower, freshen up, and turn in for the night.
I started my visit of Krakow the following morning; my hostel was conveniently located close to the historic main square (Rynek Główny), right across the street from the Barbican fortress. Passing under the gates of the fortified walls, I arrived at the main square and was impressed with the largeness of the area. With the Cloth Hall off to one side and St. Mary’s Basilica on the other, the square was full of historic charm and tourist energy, the latter especially with the one hundred-something restaurants and cafes squished next to each other at all corners of it.
Once I took in the vastness of the Rynek Główny, I set off for the Wawel Castle, which was just another straight shot down the main road from the Barbican. Dating back to the fourteenth century, the Wawel Castle once housed Polish kings; it’s perched on a small hill that overlooks the city, and it’s known for its splendid cathedral, along with what are known as the “Lost Wawel” (an archaeological exhibition of old castle ruins) and the “Dragon’s Den” (a cave with an interesting legend of, evidently, a dragon). I would liked to have explored all three of the exhibitions, but it required paying separately for each. Granted, they weren’t pricey (7 zloty a pop), but I was on a budget, so I ended up choosing to pay for the cathedral, which turned out to be a good investment.
What has impressed me during my time in Poland was how richly decorated its churches, cathedrals, and basilicas were; it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though, just because the Poles are deeply religious (with 95 percent of them being Catholic). I found the extravagance of the churches’ interiors to be on-par with those I’ve seen in Spain, also a deeply-Catholic country. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside (although that didn’t stop me from *discretely* taking a snap or two), but I could take photos from the top of the bell tower, which offered pretty-good views of Krakow.
By the time I finished up the Wawel Cathedral (and overall, Wawel Castle), it was around time for lunch, so I headed back towards the historic main square, popping into a “milk bar” (bar mleczny). Such establishments date back to the nineteenth century, and are essentially cafeteria-styled restaurants which offer traditional Polish dishes at inexpensive prices. They attract the likes of students, the poor, the working class, and tourists- including myself. Krakow has a good amount of them, so I just went into the first one that I saw on the main street.
Super hungry, I ordered a ton of Polish dishes, including pierogies, beetroot soup, stuffed cabbage rolls, and beef tripe stew. I was overly ambitious, to say the least, as I could barely finish everything. The cabbage rolls were my favorite, though, and overall, it was a hearty lunch for a cool 28 zloty (7 euros).
I spent the afternoon in the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), situated south of the city past the Wawel Castle. I crossed the busy main street and entered the quieter neighborhood of Krakow, once home to a thriving Jewish community. The thing was, aside from seeing the synagogue (smaller than I’d thought) and a couple of Jewish-themed street art, I didn’t find the place super interesting. Perhaps I could’ve benefited more with a guided tour, but didn’t do so. Any case, I got to see what the place was all about.
Returned to my hostel afterwards, where I relaxed for the rest of the night. Just had a few beers with the hostel-goers in the common room and turned in early for the night; I would be waking up early the following morning to head to Auschwitz, so I didn’t want to go out and return late.
However, when I returned to Krakow after Auschwitz, I headed back to Rynek Główny where I got a burger for dinner at this New Zealand-themed restaurant (weird, I know, but it was so tasty…and huge!) before heading to a vodka bar just a few doors down. Having stumbled upon it online, the vodka bar interested me to go in and see what it was all about. Plus, when in Poland, it’s sort of obligatory to try its Polish vodka!
Service was friendly and super helpful when it came to recommendations (especially when there were over one hundred different flavors to choose from). I started with three shots to taste before ordering a full flight of six shots to indulge in. My favorites would have to be the lemon chili and blackberry. In total, I took nine shots in that one sitting: I was quite drunk, but I kept it together surprisingly well- it helped that I paced myself and took sips of water in between each shot. An experience to be had, that’s for sure!
On my last full day in Krakow, I decided to pay for a half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is one of the oldest, biggest, and most popular salt mine visited in the world. It’s also the oldest to have been in operation, dating back from the thirteenth century until it ceased altogether in the early twenty-first century. I paid perhaps 25 euros for a pick-up shuttle and tour, which wasn’t too bad, albeit a bit pricey.
I took the tour in the morning around 9h15; the tour lasted about two hours, and the tour guide took us through rooms several hundred meters underground which had statues and carvings made almost entirely out of salt. There was also a very lovely chapel and a fluorescent blue lake which were probably the highlights of the visit. Frankly, I found the concept to be interesting, but felt slightly underwhelmed at it all. At least I can say now that I’ve visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine!
The tour ended around 11h30, and I took the shuttle back to Krakow city center, where I got burgers again, this time for lunch, before deciding to catch the tram over to Lake Zakrzówek, situated just a bit west of the city center; the hostel receptionist had recommended it to me, and considering that I had the afternoon free, I chose to check it out.
That said, I took the tram over, and from the stop I headed over to the natural park where the lake was located. Got a bit lost trying to find the lake, but after scaling a really steep slope (using hands and feet alike), I finally made it, with rewarding views to boot. Despite the overcast skies, the lake was so blue: I can imagine it being even more gorgeous when it’s summer and sunny!
After admiring the lake for a bit, I decided to head back to the tram stop from the park. However, I got lost (again!), and ended up doing a massive loop-around before I finally made it back to the tram stop. Caught it back to the city center, and from there I returned to my hostel where I rested for the evening, having dinner with the hostel-goers before I headed out again that day for a pub crawl. Considering that it would be my last night in Krakow (and the fact that I’d never done a pub crawl before), I was interested in trying it out.
Pub crawl started around 21h15; funny enough, I ran into an old friend (another assistant who happened to have arrived in Krakow that day), and we pretty much stuck together for the rest of the night, catching up on old times while also getting progressively drunk (of course…).
It turned out to be a fun night: we started out with what’s known as “Power Hour,” in which we paid a flat rate for unlimited drinks (aka pre-gaming). Lots of vodka cocktails were flowing, all of which were delicious and, well, got the job done, in terms of getting buzzed before heading to two more bars for drinks. Our final destination was the club (interestingly, the same club I’d gone to my first night with my hostel), where I sang and danced sans inhibition. Towards the end, though, my assistant friend got super drunk, so I had to take care of him a bit before we went our separate ways for the night; I returned to my hostel around 2h00, and was in bed around 3h00. Nothing too crazy happened that night, but nevertheless was a fun one to look back on.
The next morning was Easter Day, and also my final day in Krakow. After having a lovely Easter breakfast at my hostel, I checked out and headed over to the train station around noontime, where I caught a train over to the airport (took only 20 minutes). I took my flight back to Beauvais airport in the early afternoon, arriving back around 17h00. Had to take a shuttle back to Paris, and upon arriving took the train back to Normandy around 18h20. Arrived back at my flat in the early evening, tired but happy to have returned.
Overall, I would have to say that Poland has got to be one of my favorite countries to have visited in Europe. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much there was to see, from the big cities like Warsaw and Krakow to the port city of Gdańsk to the lush mountains in Zakopane. I got really lucky with the weather for most of the trip, as it turned out to be sunny, even hot, in April! Architecture was beautiful, food was hearty, and I even went under-budget on this trip, just because it was so cheap! Altogether, I’m happy to have made the visit over to Poland.
More adventures to come soon, so look out for them. Until then!