Updated: Aug 29, 2019
A southern Polish city located near the Czech border, Kraków is undoubtedly one of the loveliest cities on earth. Spending a weekend in the heart of Kraków, Poland is the perfect way to unwind and enjoy the rich culture that Eastern Europe has to offer.
Catching an early morning Flixbus from Wrocław to Kraków, my friend Marta and I arrived in the bustling city for my second time in six years, for a three-day adventure. Though I recalled my first time visiting on a school trip back in high school (it was my second-favourite city, next to Paris), I was all the more excited to be enjoying it this time around. We had much less of a time constraint, and of course, the added bonus was that I was seeing the city alongside my Polish-speaking best friend.
Upon dropping our things off at the hotel that we would be spending the next two nights at [Ingo Aparthotel, a short 350 metres (1,150 feet) from the main square, or Rynek Główny], we quickly made our way over to the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Though it had been over half a decade and I had only spent an afternoon there in April of 2012, muscle memory led me through the square.
We entered into the area by passing alongside St. Mary's Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka, or Kościół Mariacki), a fourteenth century Polish Gothic church with thirteenth century foundations, that stands proudly adjacent to the Main Market Square. Together with the historic city centre that it carefully watches over (including the Cloth Hall that I will elaborate on in a moment), St. Mary's has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, thanks to its significance to the nation's history.
It is perhaps most famous for the bugle call, called the hejnał mariacki, that is played from the top of Saint Mary's taller tower every hour on the hour. When listening to it, you will notice that the melody cuts off mid-stream, a commemoration of a famous thirteenth century bugler who was shot in the throat while sounding the trumpeting alarm prior to a Mongol attack on the city. At noon, the hejnał is broadcast live by the Polish national Radio 1 Station, to be heard both across the country as well as abroad.
Once you have walked into the centre of the square, you will immediately spot the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall (Sukiennice). As aforementioned, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once a major centre of international trade. During the height of its existence, the hall was used not only as a place for merchants to discuss business and barter, but also as a hub to purchase a variety of exotic imports from the East, including spices, silk, leather, and wax. Local Polish merchants also sold and traded their goods here, with items such as textiles, lead, and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine (more on this mine later) being exported to faraway lands.
Today, visitors can wander along the bustling hall to purchase items from modern day vendors. However, the items you see today are mostly different; though you can find imported items among the stalls set up, you will discover a plethora of merchants selling jewellery made from local Baltic amber, typical souvenir items like magnets and keychains, beautiful Bolesławiec Polish pottery, and hand painted ornaments. Despite the fact that these are the majority of items being sold, there's something so exciting about wandering the same market hall — walking along the same worn stone floors and surrounded by the same vaulted ceiling and grand walls perforated by large archways leading out into the rynek — that housed similar vendors centuries ago. On the upper floor, you can find the Sukiennice Museum, a gallery containing the largest permanent exhibit of nineteenth-century Polish art. This is a division of the National Museum in Kraków.
A similarly lovely historical lens can be viewed when wandering around the buildings along the perimeter of the square, which encircle the central Cloth Hall. Because the market square is actually quite large (after all, it's the largest medieval market square in all of Europe), making your way around it takes a bit of time. In doing so, you'll understand why Kraków, the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, is such a popular tourist destination.
We thankfully visited during off-season, enjoying the perfect weather of late April prior to the intense heat and influx of summer tourism. For this reason, I was better able to see the city, one that dates back to the seventh century; this deeply engrained history is something that you can feel ebbing from its soothing atmosphere.
As you make your way around, you'll notice the plethora of restaurants available to stop and grab a bite to eat at, most of them featuring al fresco dining areas with a perfect view of many of the rynek's key sights. Without any pushback from me and after much deliberation, Marta suggested a restaurant called Hawełka, the oldest restaurant in the Main Market Square (having operated continuously since 1876). Naturally, being such a longstanding culinary hub in the city, I knew that the food had to be good.
We placed ourselves at one of their outdoor tables with a view of the Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Church, and instantly began scanning the menu... Well, as with most of the trip, Marta scanned the Polish menu and read aloud the translated version of the items she knew that I would be most interested in. With eyes bigger than our stomachs, we ordered enough food to feed the Polish army: a cheese board with assorted fruits and breads, Antoni Hawełka’s porcini mushroom soup; one platter of pierogi stuffed with cabbage and mushrooms (topped with sautéed onions, as pictured on the left in the collage above) and another filled with potatoes and farmer's cheese; and a dessert of raspberry mousse topped with fresh seasonal fruits.
Though not a beer drinker — I hate the hoppy flavour — Marta convinced me to try Lech, a local Polish beer (though they served it in a Tyskie glass, pictured in the photo above that Marta took of me). However, her warmed citrus beer was made with Tyskie, and like mine, was also delicious! It turns out that I had just never found the 'right' beer for me; now, if ever there is an option for either of those beers when I'm out, I'll opt to drink a bottle of Lech or Tyskie. It instantly brings me back to that cool evening in Kraków's rynek with my best friend.
With regards to the food itself, everything that we ate that evening was so amazing, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. There's nothing that quite compares to fresh local food in Europe... especially pierogi, which are essentially my kryptonite.
We turned in after dinner, returning to our hotel room with full bellies to have an early night in anticipation of our adventure into the town of Wieliczka the next morning. I got it in my head that we could easily make the three hour walk from the front step of our hotel to the salt mines in time for the 11.30am group that we had booked. Why take a taxicab, when we could walk and savour the scenery?
Though I was easily able to get up with my alarm, as well as get myself dressed, fed, and out of the building by the time we had designated, it wasn't as easy to keep to the timeline we had when my attention was constantly being pulled down old streets, my gaze lingering on beautiful buildings' brick and plaster exteriors, and the desire to pop into every little shop selling handmade items. All of a sudden, I had the attention span of a dog spotting a squirrel.
The route we took brought us through what was once the Jewish Ghetto during World War II, one of the five major metropolitan Jewish Ghettos created by Nazi Germany in Poland. Established for the purpose of exploitation, terror, and the persecution of local Polish Jews, this area also served as a location where officers began to sort able-boded workers to send to labour camps from those they deemed unworthy to live. The latter would be sent to any number of death camps to be executed, taken along the railroad in train carts packed to the brim with terrified human beings, who were often unaware of the terrors that their future held.
This has always been a period of history that has equal parts horrified and fascinated me; that is, I find myself often thinking about how such seemingly unbelievable things happened in our not-so-distant past. To think that there are people who would act so monstrously seems unthinkable to me, especially knowing that they existed just less than fifty years before my own birth. Wandering through places like the Kraków Ghetto is sobering and serves as a reminder that our world isn't as perfect as we are sometimes led to believe, especially when influenced by the 'high' experienced while travelling.
We eventually reached the Wieliczka salt mine, after lagging about a half hour behind and needing to call a cab to bring us the remaining distance, to join our tour group on time. We took the guided Tourist Route tour, saving a bit of money thanks to their student discount (we paid 74 PLN instead of the regular 94 PLN fee for their high season). Although it was quite pricey, it's something that I've wanted to see for years, ever since my school group voted against going in favour of getting to sleep early six years prior. I was devastated!
Descending down into the depths of the mine from the surface was a bit nerve-racking; you have to push the thoughts of a potential cave-in from your mind in favour of focusing on the incredible underground exhibits, salt sculptures, and beautiful rooms and caverns that you are about to see. The longer you spend diverting your attention to the incredible things that you are witnessing first-hand, the easier this becomes. On that note however, a word to the wise: if you are feeling nervous or are afraid of heights, avoid peering down through the centre of the 350-step stairwell, leading down into the mine. You can see why in the image below, to the right. You're essentially peering down 135 metres (about 445 feet), toward the centre of the earth.
The guided tour through the mine lasts about three hours and consists of roughly three kilometres (nearly two miles) of wandering through corridors, with 800 steps to climb. 350 of these are the aforementioned descending steps needed to reach the beginning of the underground tour. The only way you can explore the mine is in the accompaniment of a guide, as it can become quite dangerous if you're unsafely wandering about on your own.
With twenty chambers to visit, you're introduced to this magnificent world all thanks to the Princess Kinga. As legend goes, this salt mine would not have existed without this Hungarian princess, who married Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, the young princess requested that her father, Béla IV of Hungary, provide her with a lump of salt; at the time, salt was prize-worthy in Poland. Conceding, her father brought her to a salt mine in Máramaros, where she tossed in her engagement ring. Upon arriving in Kraków for her wedding, she asked local Polish miners to dig deep into the earth until they came upon a rock. Of course, in doing so, they found a lump of salt that when split it in two, contained the princess's precious engagement ring. This was the site of Wieliczka. Consequently, thanks to this tale, the later canonized Saint Kinga has become the patron saint of salt miners both in and around the Polish capital. You can read more about this awe-inspiring site in my detailed post on Wieliczka Salt Mine, which can be found here.
Thankfully, you exit the salt mine via an elevator, meaning that you don't have to climb up hundreds upon hundreds of steps to ascend into the light of day once again. To travel back into central Kraków, we walked through the town of Wieliczka toward the local train station, which would bring us back to a more reasonable walking distance from our hotel (that is, compared to the endeavour of walking over three hours like we did that morning).
As we made our way toward Wieliczka's train station, we were able to see a bit of the town itself, above ground. With the warmth of mid-spring settling over Europe, the trees and flora of Poland were in full bloom. Everything boasted a vibrant lushness that we couldn't help but linger a while to admire before continuing on our way. Several times, we found ourselves taking a seat on a park bench to admire the picturesque area surrounding us (two shots I took while in the town are pictured in the collage directly below).
When we finally got back to Kraków's main square, we were famished. That evening, we waltzed into the first restaurant we found, where something caught our eye. With a craving for calories to bring our energy levels back up for an evening of city exploration, we went all out for the second night in a row: tomato bisque with croutons, a fruit and cheese platter, heaping plate of creamy pasta, and another platter of pierogi. Once again, we sat al fresco to enjoy the evening breeze sweeping through the square after a hot afternoon, taking in the sights around us.
The history, the shops, the tourists and locals enjoying the same view that we were in that very moment... everything seemed so relaxed. As I often do when travelling with those I'm closest with, I felt like I didn't ever want this trip to end. In that moment, I felt like I would have been perfectly content sitting on the outdoor patio, eating pierogi and sipping beer with my best friend for the rest of my life. I'm sure I eventually would have grown tired of it, but it felt so wonderful right then and there.
Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from our dining spot, paid for our meal, and went for a walk along the network of streets stretching out like veins from the heart of the marketplace. We spent over an hour admiring the storefronts of shops that had closed while we had been eating dinner, window shopping. We entered one of the only touristy souvenir stores that were still open, to see the handmade goods that they had inside.
Thankfully, the vast majority of cafés were still open to the people milling about, looking for a coffee or sweet treat to end their day. Naturally, we migrated over to the nearest one, chatting up the shopkeeper while he scooped our ice cream with talk of local finds we had yet to discover and about our own home city of Toronto.
As we walked back to our hotel eating our ice creams, the sun had fully dipped below the horizon to make way for a bright moon. With a sky as clear as it was that evening, we could make out the dark craters in its surface and see the pale finger-like stratifications curving around the nearly-full orb. Yet again, I was filled with a peacefulness that I could have stayed wrapped up in forever, never wanting it to be disturbed.
But alas, our night had ended.
The next morning, after a full breakfast at our hotel, we walked over to Wawel Castle. In doing so, we passed by the beautiful and historic Jagiellonian University. The oldest university in Poland, the second oldest university in Central Europe, and one of the oldest surviving universities in the world, this institution was founded in 1364 by King Casimir III the Great. With such high importance to not just the nation, but the entire world's history (with such notable alumni as Nicolaus Copernicus and Pope John Paul II), we lingered within the university's public gardens and admired the façades of its many old buildings for an hour or two before continuing on.
Soon after, we found ourselves climbing up the steps leading to the top of the hill, in order to enter Wawel Royal Castle and its courtyard.
Built between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Wawel Castle was built atop Wawel Hill, under the orders of King Casimir III the Great — the same king who initiated the construction of the aforementioned Jagiellonian University. This beautiful royal residency contains a number of structures situated around its Italian-styled main courtyard; as a result of it’s magnificent historic and cultural significance as one of the largest castles in Poland (and its representation of nearly all European architectural styles between the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods), it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Centre of Kraków in 1978.
Though it remained the residence of Polish kings and queens for centuries, it now serves as both a historic site and premier art museum, encompassing ten curatorial departments responsible for collections of paintings. In terms of visiting the chambers within the castle to truly experience a taste of Poland’s royal history, one can wander through the state rooms, private royal apartments, an exhibition on "The Lost Wawel,” an exhibition on Oriental art, the royal gardens, and the legendary dragon's den (more on that tale in a bit). Depending on what you wish to see, you can purchase an admission ticket to see everything on the grounds, or pay to only see specific exhibits and chambers.
You also have the opportunity to enter the Roman Catholic Wawel Cathedral (the common, shorter version of its full name, the "Royal Archcathedral Basilica of Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus on the Wawel Hill"). This stunning cathedral has stood for nearly a millennia and boasts Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. In addition to its breath-taking vaulted ceilings, stunning sculptures, gilded alter, and serene atmosphere, it is also the final resting place of many members of the Polish royal family, Polish saints, and famous locals (such as military leaders, poets, and statesmen). Regardless of one's religious affiliation — or lack thereof — Wawel Cathedral offers visitors a chance to step back into Poland's marvellous history.
After meandering through both the castle and cathedral, I would highly recommend taking the time to admire the courtyard itself. There are so many beautiful sights to see; both times I've visited have been in the spring, where (as in the photo below) deep green vines climb along the bricked façades, colourful tulips spring up from the earth in full bloom, and the trees visible along the vicinity are in full bloom.
When you are finished at the top of Wawel Hill, descend the steps you took to come up and make your way over to the statue depicting the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) along the Vistula River. As I did so with Marta, she told me about the legend of the local dragon, filling me in on its intriguing history prior to arriving at the monument itself.
Supposedly, the famous Wawel Dragon lived in a cave at the foot of the hill, along the banks of the Vistula River. Naturally, the presence of this creature terrified local villagers, the result of it burning their houses to a crisp and devouring their young daughters. To solve this problem, the king offered his own daughter, Princess Wanda’s, hand in marriage to any man who could slay the dragon and save the town. Man after man attempted to kill the Wawel Dragon, only to become yet another snack for the hungry beast. The death toll slowly increased as brave men — knights, military heroes, and others highly trained in combat — stepped forward to save their locals and marry into the royal family.
None succeeded, until a young cobbler cleverly stuffed the corpse of lamb full of sulphur, for the dragon to eat. The hungry dragon swooped in and devoured the lamb, left near the mouth of his cave as bait. It wasn’t long before the dragon's thirst became unbearable from ingesting so much sulphur, leaving it with no choice but to drink from the Vistula River. He drank and drank and drank… he drank so much that he exploded from the uncontainable volume of water in his belly, and died. Of course, the grateful king married his daughter to the young cobbler, and everyone lived happily ever after.
When we reached the monument, a large bronze statue sitting on a boulder of limestone, I found the statue of the Wawel Dragon to one side of me and the Vistula River that played a part in slaying the dragon on the other. Behind the statue (which breathes fire every five minutes, by the way!) lies the cave that he once lived in, accessible when paying admission as part of the castle’s entry fees.
This was an ideal way to end our trip. It was from Wawel Castle that we made our way back to the train station, ending our time in Poland's illustrious city of Kraków. Though I've already visited the city twice, I would happily return time and time again to delve into Kraków's history even further. I have seen quite a bit of this city, yet still feel like I have only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.
There's no doubt that Marta and I will return again one day, to uncover even more of Poland.
To read more of our posts on Poland, click here.