Warsaw may be the country’s official capital, but Krakow is arguably Poland’s capital of cool. On the surface Krakow appears poised – regal and gothic architecture reign supreme, providing a formidable European rival to other classic cultural city breaks such as Vienna and Prague. The city does, however, have another face just begging to be explored by travellers willing to take the time and delve a little deeper into the heart beating fast beneath the surface. A thriving student population, an ever-evolving and exciting Jewish district, fashionable foodie offerings tasty enough to satisfy even the pickiest gourmand, oh, and a buzzing nightlife – hooked yet? On a first visit to this split personality city, try these Top 5 tips on for size:
1. Quarry Swimming
It may be that when you first think of Krakow that it’s in its wintry form – blanked in snow. However, the city can be scorching when visiting in summer (and when I say scorching I mean it, think 40-degrees celsius). It’s important, therefore, to be in the know as to where the city’s best cooling off spots are. Sure, many head to the river in search of a cool breeze (there’s no bathing there though), and some to the swimming pools and nearby lakes, but true locals know that there’s only one super cool place to go within the city, and that’s Zakrzówek quarry. I know, I know, your mother always told you to stay away from quarries – mine too – but in Krakow it’s important to make an exception to the rule, or risk missing out on this azur beauty.
For the active types, it’s possible to wander there by foot depending on whereabouts in the city you’re coming from. But, despite being safe, the ‘unofficial’ routes cut through woodland – so for solos, it’s best to go by tram (18 to ‘Norymberska’) and be dropped off by the often well-populated entrance to the parkland where the quarry can be found. Don’t be led astray by locals cutting through the fence to bathe in the cool waters without paying an entrance fee -Zakrzówek is still a quarry and comes with the same risks as any other, so wandering off alone could result in you falling straight off a cliff edge to an unhappy end. Instead, head to one of the few manned swimming areas complete with lifeguard, such as the one linked to the scuba diving club, and soak in the refreshing waters with the piece of mind that someone’s watching out for you.
2. Eat Zapiekanka
Every city has its own drunken delicacy, and in Krakow, it’s Zapiekanka. The traditional variant is essentially half of a crispy baguette, open, topped with cheese, mushrooms and a damn good squirting of tomato ketchup. It’s essentially Poland’s slightly more elaborate version of cheese on toast, but man, is it good. Over time, the choice of toppings has continued to increase – now there’s everything from spinach and feta to chicken and bacon on offer – so those in search of a drunken munch have got even more options. Not one for a tipple? No worries, this naughty snack can be enjoyed just as well when completely sober, too. The best place to pick one up is in the centre of Plac Nowy in the Jewish District: all of the individual shops sit side by side in what was once an old butcher’s shop. Each has their own prices and toppings – and each, of course, varies in quality. So how can a Zapiekanka novice pick the right place? Well, when in doubt do what the locals do, and head to the hatch with the biggest line because that’s usually a safe bet for being one of the best.
By now you should know that I’m a fan of going on a free walking tour when first arriving in a new city – it’s a great way to orientate yourself and also, to meet other people if you so wish. The tours in Krakow go beyond these basics though, instead, offering highly valuable insights into this multifaceted city’s complex and interesting history. Start off with the Old Town Tour and get acquainted with Krakow’s grandeur – soaking up everything from the city’s main square and impressive castle, to experiencing the trumpet call from the Saint Mary’s Church’s top tower and hearing tales of knights and dragons.
Once you’re suitably impressed, I highly recommend delving deeper into the more painful side of the city’s history by joining the free tour of the Jewish Quarter. It’s emotionally difficult at times to take in, but it’s important to seek out a better understanding of what happened here – and Free Walking Tour’s guides do a great job of conveying a delicate subject and time in history in a highly educating way. Without the tour, you’d merely see the Jewish district of Kazimiertz in its current form – a bohemian hangout for hipsters and hedonists alike – and to do so, would do its previous inhabitants a disservice.
4. Street food hangouts
Like any city worth its salt these days, Krakow has its own streetfood scene – and its one good enough to compete with the likes of front runners such as Budapest. It will probably come as no surprise that the best street food spots can be found in the burgeoning Jewish District, which is becoming increasingly hipster by the day. Unlike other cities such as Budapest though, these street food spots aren’t quite on the radar of the everyday tourist yet – so make sure to enjoy them now before they appear in every travel guide under the sun (which they no doubt will do soon, because they are too good to stay secret for long). It’s easy to miss these noshing nooks if you aren’t looking the right places, so let me point you to two of my favourites.
The first is Skwer Judah – a square overlooked by an impressive street art mural and filled with funky -looking food trucks, including a big, red London bus! Grab a bite, pull up a deck chair, tuck in, and chill out (these aren’t orders by the way, but if you follow them you’re ensured to have a good time). A highlight is certainly the Belgian fries from Frytki Belgijskie – the Aubergine dip is to die for.
If you still haven’t had your fill, then wander a few streets down to another street food spot situated just behind the High Synagogue, on Jakuba street. A little smaller and lesser known, here it’s even more relaxed (if that’s possible) and visitors can delight in healthy hip options such as fresh acai bowls.
School history lessons may have you believing that you understand WW2 and all of the atrocities which took place during this time. A visit to Auschwitz will quickly make you feel that you have, until now, understood nothing at all. The ex-concentration and extermination camp of the Nazi regime lies around one and half hours from Krakow, and if you have time, it’s important make the journey to visit it (and you’ll need a whole day to do so). If concerned about whether the camp has now become a tourist attraction don’t be – the museum and memorial team have worked hard to make it respectful, while still allowing as many people as possible to visit. One way they have done this is to only allow visitors to enter the grounds accompanied by a guide, and another is to only allow photographs to be taken at specific points – both welcome rules. Although there are many tour companies offering to take you there, back and around for a price, I recommend to go solo to ensure avoiding any ounce of the ‘tourist feeling’. Get there instead by taking one of the local buses from depot and book a memorial tour guide time slot in advance online. The experience will affect different people in different ways – and don’t be surprised if you get emotionally caught of guard (I did). That being the case, ensure that you have low key plans for the evening when you return to allow you to digest your thoughts and emotions from the day properly.