Though I initially was not on the Krakow train when planning our Christmas trip, Reid convinced me it would be culturally, financially, and gastronomically worthwhile. And he was right! Krakow had a lot to offer, nicely rounded out by a general lack of tourists, really friendly inhabitants and a sleepy winter vibe (complete with a sundown time of 4pm). And that’s not even taking into account all of the deliciously cheap food the city had to offer. So, here are my favorite experiences from our week in Krakow in no particular order.
Okay, I lied about the no particular order. Let’s be honest here. Everyone knows one of the big draws of traveling to Poland and Czech Republic for me was the Christmas aura. Having missed two Christmases in a cold climate with cozy, familiar traditions, I basically demanded that we travel to snowy regions. It got to the point where Reid had a running joke talking about ‘Chwistmas’ like I was a five-year-old. Did I deserve it? Probably. And as the first Christmas market we saw outside of Spain, Krakow kicked us off to a great start!
This Christmas market was perfect: big enough to have a lot of unique offerings but not popular enough to be a pain in the ass to visit (ahem, Prague). The food they had on offer was perfect, from Hungarian langos to Polish pierogi, with a little gluhwein to wash it all down (mulled wine) served from large barrel shops. The atmosphere was heightened by the Christmas lights and a nearby stage from which school children sang Christmas carols our first night. It was so dreamy that we went back probably 6 or 7 times before I was ready to let go.
The Salt Mines
This was probably my favorite activity just because it was so unusual. The Salt Mines are about a half an hour outside of Krakow and have been used since the 13th century to mine ‘White Gold’. It consists of hundreds of kilometers of underground tunnels, though you can only visit about 10 of them.
There are different ‘journeys’ you can take through the mines. We had planned to do two but Reid’s day of sickness threw us off so we just did the Tourist Track (I forgive his immune system). We were able to see how the salt was transported through the tunnels throughout the centuries and, most interestingly, the various salt sculptures made by the workers.
Some of them are centuries old, but most were carved in the last 200 years. There is even a salt cathedral where mass and wedding ceremonies take place! It was all visually quite amazing. The tour itself was a bit strange – there wasn’t a lot of historical context and at the end you are sort of just left in the midst of various chambers deep underground, and you have to find the exit by yourself. The exit is a line of people waiting to be elevated back to the surface, but the elevator is quite terrifying. The ‘walls’ consist of grates that can open while in he elevator so you aren’t suppost to lean against them. I was clinging to the ground with my feet for dear life. They also fill 4 chambers each journey, so after they fills up your chamber, the elevator moves up one floor while they load the people below you. It’s about 300 feet of pure rickety terror from there, but it just added to the authenticity.
This chocolate wonderland came as a delightful surprise. After a usual hunger-fueled spat between Reid and I, I was so cranky that I had to have some ‘quiet’ time. We seemed to be walking randomly through the old town square, until I realized Reid was looking for some place. And where did he bring me? Wedel Chocolate. They are famous for their delicious chocolate and even better, their drinking chocolate. It’s like hot chocolate, but more chocolatey and less sweet and extra delicious. Obviously all of my sour feelings dissolved and I was reborn in chocolatey wonder (he’s seriously the best partner). The ‘lounge’ was huge, with many evening shoppers taking a warm break inside, enjoying chocolates and other desserts. Reid had the ‘original’ and I had the ‘milk chocolate’ as I was afraid of it being too bitter.
They were actually both delicious in completely different ways. I would recommend the Original to anyone heading there – you can’t beat the original formula! Unfortunately the history of this ‘Willy Wonka’ of Central Europe was a sad one – after surviving WWII, the communist Soviet Union seized the company and it was privatized in the 80’s and sold to PepsiCo. Typical PepsiCo, ruining everything. The poor Wedel family never owned it again.
One of our favorite places to eat, and potentially the place where Reid contracted food poisoning, was Chimera. It’s a small cafeteria occupied mostly by university students due to the deliciously cheap foods on offer. You choose 4 items (or 6 if you’re feeling gluttonous) and they load up your plate for about $3. We capped off our meal with a frosty Zywiec draught, the supposed best beer in Krakow.
I had read about peirogi in preparation for the trip but had no real idea what they tasted like. They were described as a a cross between a dumpling and gyoza, and I would agree that description. Only they were way more delicious than that! Our most memorable peirogi consumption was finding a peirogi restaurant. They had an entire vegetarian section so we decided to just go for the mixed vegetarian platter – 30 peirogis in all.
As you can see from the photo, it was a bit much. We only made it halfway through the platter before having to pack it up and take it home, but don’t let that fool you. They were perfectly cooked, perfectly drizzled with butter and parsley, and filled with all sorts of delicious combinations. My personal favorite was the ‘ruski’ or russian, the most traditional type of peirogi, and also the sun dried tomato. Yum!
Kazimierz Walking Tour
On our first full day in Krakow, Reid and I headed to Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. We were craving some hearty bagels and to keep in line with the cultural activities of the day, I had a cream cheese, salmon and capers bagel sammie. It was delicious (I highly recommend Bagel Mama if you’re in the area!). Next, we met up for a Free Walking Tour of Kazimierz which lasted a total of about three hours. We both really enjoyed it!
The woman who gave the tour was very knowledgeable and witty and she gave an excellent combination of historical context, anecdotal stories, sobering facts, and pointed out some famous spots where Schindler’s List was filmed. I would highly recommend any of their walking tours, they’re free and give you a great context for your stay! You can visit their website here: Free Walking Tour
We searched for this delicious coffee shop after reading great reviews about it. I’m also going through a freshly roasted coffee phase now that we’re using the AeroPress, so I was on the lookout for some local beans to take back to Spain. But that’s not even mentioning the biggest draw of Karma – the delicious vegetarian breakfasts! While the menu was in Polish, the woman behind the bar had to patience to recite the entire thing from memory in English. Reid had a big cup of hummus with rye toast and eggs and I had pancakes. It was all delicious, rounded off nicely with the best coffee (or kava) in Krakow. Yum.
I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Royal Castle in Krakow, mostly because it was a unique building and offered great views of the city from up on Wawel Hill.
It looks right over the heart of the small old town and houses all sorts of interesting things. We visited the old crypt, made extremely creepy by the chilD coffins, the chapel, and the bell tower, which was like a jungle gym. The stairs were actually built around the old rafters, meaning you had to sometimes duck under them or climb over them. But that also meant a close-up to century-old bells! We unfortunately couldn’t walk up the old tower and didn’t pay to see the actual rooms of the castle, but I enjoyed myself!
On our last day in Krakow, we made the hour-long journey out to Auschwitz. We caught the last tour of the day (at 1:30pm, since the sun sets at 3:30) which actually worked out nicely for us. As the crowds dwindled, the atmosphere turned from tourist attraction to somber, historical journey.
The tour was a sobering one, with a fantastic guide who was not afraid to show his lingering bitterness or disgust with what had happened at both camps. The images from that place certainly linger, from the piles of human hair cut off before women entered the gas chambers (sold by the Germans to well-known textile companies) to the piles of children’s’ small, leather shoes. There was a lot of suffering and heavy realizations to absorb in that place.
I loved Krakow and I would go back in a second to that sleepy and friendly town, bustling at the edges. I hope you enjoyed this snapshot of our time there!
Have you ever been to Krakow? What did you think?