With direct flights from Belfast, the Polish city of Krakow is the perfect destination for a city break.
Just three hours away we found the home of history a cheap and cheerful place with so much to see and do.
Here’s More2Life’s guide on how to spend a few days in this Eastern European gem:
WHAT TO SEE
Unlike Warsaw, which was reduced to rubble during World War II, much of Poland’s second city has retained much of its historic architecture, which is beautiful when you walk through the streets of the city, especially in the old town area.
As a starting point for a dander, check out the huge main square, Rynek Glowny. It is home to 40,000 square feet of cafes, museums, monuments, and some of the city’s most magnificent architecture, including the Gothic spiers of St. Mary’s Basilica. During these colder months, it’s picture postcard snow-dusted spires and the bustling Christmas market in full swing. It is rightly considered one of the biggest and best Christmas markets in Europe.
The medieval cloth hall of Sukiennice houses the stalls of local traders selling handicrafts that echo the oriental imports that were once sold under its roof when it was a major trading center. Expect to be wowed by beautiful handcrafted souvenirs to take home.
It would be so easy to sit in the square all day watching the world go by and many do so at the tables in the cafes and bars that spill out into the street.
Every day, every hour, a bugle call sounds from one of the towers of St. Mary’s Basilica. The tradition dates back to the time of the bugle announcing the closing of the city gates. The story goes that its abrupt end signifies and commemorates the death of the bugler from a Tatar arrow in 1241.
Beneath your feet you will find the Rynek Underground Museum which tells the story of the city’s beginnings and development.
Stroll around the Wawel Royal Castle, overlooking the Vistula River, which was one of the first Unesco World Heritage sites. This is where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried. Its 14th century cathedral houses the relics of Saint Stanislas, patron saint of the nation.
Considering how Poland suffered so much during World War II, there is so much historical significance tied to this brutal period. In particular the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Belzec. We did the Auschwitz-Birkenau day trip which takes about seven hours (about an hour each way) and costs £20-25 including lunch. There are many tour options to book online.
Although we all know the stories of the horrors of the Nazi genocide, hearing it from a local guide as you walk through a place where over a million people were killed is a sobering experience. You will see the belongings of some of those who were massacred – glasses, prosthetics, pots and pans, suitcases, shoes and even hair. The tour also takes you to one of the gas chambers.
When you think about the atrocities that are still taking place in neighboring Ukraine today, it makes the message to never forget even more important.
In Krakow, the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) is a 15-minute walk from the square. The community here thrived for over 500 years and was home to nearly 70,000 people at the start of World War II. When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, they deported 52,000 Jews to concentration camps.
The neighborhood is now home to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum, the story of which was so brilliantly told by Liam Neeson on the big screen in 1993. A visit to the museum should be on your bucket list. TO DO. It includes Schindler’s office and the testimonies of the people he saved.
As you stroll through the neighborhood, also expect to find a range of galleries, quirky boutiques, vintage clothing stores and plenty of bars and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets.
Also be sure to book a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. You can get a bus from the city center for around £1 and it takes 40 minutes.
Built on nine levels, this 700-year-old mine reaches a depth of 327 meters (1,073 feet). You’ll have to walk hundreds of steps downhill to peek at more than 20 rooms, but there’s an elevator to get back to the surface.
There are several chapels, including the magnificent St Kinga’s Chapel with intricately carved statues, an altar and a ceiling decorated with salt crystal chandeliers. There is also a statue of John Paul II. Entrance and guided tours from £20 (www.wieliczka-saltmine.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Our base was Hotel Indigo Krakow in the Old Town, which is in a beautiful 19th century building and next to the Florian Gate, the largest gate in the city.
The design of the four-star boutique hotel, which mixes Polish art with contemporary style, was inspired by three painters of the country from different centuries and this heritage has been subtly brought into its rooms and public areas. Kleparz Old Market is opposite the hotel and it is within walking distance to Krakow’s Main Square, St. Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, Main Shopping Street (Florianska), Castle of Wawel and the Jewish quarter.
The bedrooms have a real wow factor with beds that will engulf you and excellent rain showers in the bathrooms.
In addition to serving great food for dinner, their breakfasts at Bistro Filipa 18 are superb, especially the Eggs Benedict. And check out the library in the hotel lobby as it’s a lovely space to relax with a cup of tea and a book.
You can also enjoy the Finnish sauna or the gym.
n Hotel Indigo–Krakow Old Town, Sw. Philip18
Email: [email protected]
FOOD AND DRINK
It’s a city of pints and pierogi (filled dumplings). Expect to pay around £1.50 to £3 for a pint of beer (plus niche craft beers are the most expensive) and wash it down with a plate of pierogi. Much like Asian dumplings, there is a range of toppings to choose from. We found you could get an 8-10 trim for 5-8 pounds.
The booming craft beer scene in Krakow has spawned numerous micro-breweries and beer bars across the city, with everything from dark stouts and ales to American IPAs and Polish house brews on the menu. .
Our favorite pub was the Multi Qlti Tap Bar which has over two dozen draft beers and countless other bottles. Order a flight of beer to sample a variety of what’s on offer. Omerta in the Jewish Quarter, which has one of the largest beer selections in the city, and House of Beer, which offers excellent choices of Polish, Belgian, Lithuanian and German brews, are also worth a visit.
In Poland, locals and tourists love vodka. A must visit has to be Wodka Bar, a few minutes from the main square. This small cafe and bar offers flights of flavored vodka including flavors such as chilli, chocolate, salted caramel and earl grey. Our favorite was the salted caramel. A flight of six costs around £8.50.
For cheap drinks in the historic heart, head to the BaniaLuka bar, just off the square, which offers pints and shots from £1.30.
If you fancy a curry, there are quite a few good Indian restaurants in the center. We dined at the Indian restaurant Royal Curry which offers main courses for around £6. Highly recommended would be the special curry chicken royal. The plate was two separate curries – one with roasted spinach and ginger garlic paste and another with chicken tikka in a tomato sauce. Wash it down with a Cobra beer.
For a more refined ambience, you should book at the Filipa 18 restaurant at the Indigo Hotel which offers its own nine-course tasting menus for £52. The walls are adorned with graphic posters by young Krakow artists from the Polish Poster School, giving the restaurant a warm and unique character. The menu specializes in a modern take on traditional Polish cuisine, using natural, local ingredients from Stary Kleparz, Krakow’s oldest market.
Under the expert direction of chef de cuisine Marcin Soltys, the tasting menu includes a magnificent mushroom pâté with parsley, tomato and pesto sauce (known as Treasures of Stary Kleparz), a terrific trout tartare, a wonderful mousse soap of white asparagus with marinated apple and the highlight of the meal was the spatzle pasta with pulled duck and white truffle.
In addition to a pre-dessert of cherry raspberry and kafir ice cream, sweet lovers will not be disappointed by the sour cream cheese and fruit donut and the chocolate cupcake.
HOW TO GET HERE
easyJet flies from Belfast to John Paul II Airport in Krakow up to twice a week, with prices from £39.99 pp (one way, including tax and based on two people on the same booking) . Visit www.easyjet.com
There is a bus from the airport to town which takes you there in 30 minutes, or take a taxi for around £20.
For more information on what to see and do, check out visitkrakow.com, poland.travel/en