When we think of maps, I guess a lot of us remember those big rollaway maps in our elementary school classrooms. You know the kind, they made a whizzing sound coming down which always signaled either immense boredom or intense curiosity. It was a roll of the dice. There was something about the colors and shapes that seemed to make a young mind wonder- or maybe wander, which was certainly my case!
My love for maps extended well beyond the classroom. I loved any kind of map I could get my hands on. Globes, atlases, the tricky fold out ones, theme park maps, museum maps, the Great Adventure Safari map, the New York City mass transit map; it truly didn’t matter. And I always learned something from those maps. For example, I remember discovering that American highways actually have a grid system that helps you know where you are, the lower the highway number, I 10, for example, the further south or west you were.
Another young discovery of mine is that all of the light posts in Central Park have a location marker on them that you can follow or use a map to plan with. I spent countless hours in the car with a Rand McNally atlas learning exits and town names and tracing red, blue and black roadways with my fingers. I admit it, I’m a map junkie.
As a teacher, my absolute favorite activity that I ever got to do was rent one of the world’s largest maps of Europe from National Geographic. My first graders and I kicked off our shoes and went exploring. We measured countries we had literature circles around England, we plotted a road trip from Germany to Italy using robots. We matched landmarks with countries. It was so much fun! They stopped renting those maps but I found out that they can be purchased now. Maps create a serious sense of logic out of what can seem like total chaos. They give order to our place on earth and help young minds start to see geographic connections as never before. Maps cater to both the linguist and mathematician mind set. They speak to current events and history. They restore order to nature as man interferes. Maps are the total package.
As a mom, I always seemed to be stuffing a map into my kids’ hands. Whether it was Disney or the Tokyo train system they go a map. Lead the way! My mother loves to tell a story about how my daughter, who was about 8 at the time, was able to take her to the Big Buddha while we were living in Japan. It took about 3 train transfers and you had to know how to walk through a department store to catch one of those transfers. My daughter had no problem. She totally had it down thanks to maps.
So, take out some maps! Have a treasure hunt, plot a trip using public transportation (which is completely underused in our country) and fall in love with maps! There is no doubt that maps contribute to being globally literate.
Recently, I was walking with my mom in old town Brussels. We were just taking in the scene and window shopping. Walking along, I saw a store window that I fell in love with. And if you’ve been following our page, it might look familiar. So, are you a map junkie like me? I hope so…
Oh, Krakow! You are one of the most under rated European destinations! How I love thee! My love story with Poland began when I was given Polish food as a child from my Polish family. It was very good and I happily ate all the pierogi while Happy Louie and his Polish Band played the Pennsylvania Polka to a frenzied mass of polka crazed people. Don’t believe me? Check out Jack Black’s amazing role the The Polka King!
Listen in to our conversation about Krakow on our podcast! Babcia and Yia Yia Travel The World is a great way to get all kinds of travel tips. Click here to listen to this episode and more!
Over the years, my Americanized, immigrant version of Poland expanded to understand the pride and heartbreak of a people who had been torn limb from limb time and time again. From the Vasas to the Nazis, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the breadbasket of Europe and really didn’t care about the people who were already there.
But just as the popular analogy tells us, like a phoenix, Poland rises from the ashes, dusts herself off, and bounces back better than ever. So, what makes Poland a traveler’s paradise? It has a little of everything, beaches and mountains, cities and rural countryside, museums and jazz clubs, castles and cooking classes. It is Europe’s best kept secret and I am about to tell you all about it!
Getting to your feet on the ground is pretty straight forward. Most touch down in Warsaw or Krakow and branch out from there. Poland is super welcoming.
Public Trains: While Polish trains work with the Eurail pass, they stand on their own. As with most train systems in Europe, they work very well and can get you to any city center efficiently. Trains are a definite plus when getting from city to city. Start here to explore all of your rail options.
Polish Uber: Uber is recently available in Poland mush to the dismay of traditional polish taxi drivers (who are very honest and sweet). One tap will get you from the airport to the main square for about $15.00.
Walking: All in all, the majority of destinations you plan on enjoying are well worth the walk. Consider your two feet or a couple of bicycles to be your best bet.
The Three Sisters
Just a bit smaller than Texas, Poland is one of the largest countries on the continent and, as with most things, balances it’s size well. It’s dotted with three large cities from north to south along the great Vistula River. Gdansk is on the northern coast and is ground zero for the solidarity movement and Poland’s immigration story. Warsaw, the capital, is right in the middle, is home to the uprising story of WWII, Marie Curie, and Poland’s great palace. Further south is Krakow. In some ways, Krakow is the cradle of Poland’s history with its stunning Wawel Castle. Krakow is filled with Polish culture and history.
Understanding The Basics…
Eye contact: You know how you grab a waiter’s eye in a restaurant? A quick flick of the hand or a knowing look between the two of you. While this is a completely acceptable method of getting the service you are looking for, in some parts of Poland, this will get you the cold shoulder. Why? It looks pushy and makes the waitstaff feel like you don’t think they are doing a good job. In short, it comes across as rude. If you are in a bit of a rush, simply let your server know that you’ll need to leave with an hour or so. They will happily accommodate you. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the five star service!
Lively Churches: Poland is full of amazing churches, The history and architecture are a meld of national pride and overwhelming invaders making for an array of different styles and focuses. While all of these institutions are well worth the visit, be prepared that Mass will be held often as every one of these treasures is still an active parish. If it is, you have two choices: quietly skirt the sides and stay in the shadows as others worship or grab a pew and say a little prayer with everyone else. Either is just fine.
Street Performers: Krakow is full of amazing street performers. The main square has strolling folk music, kids that are breakdancing their heart out, student musicians and more. Summer concerts and performances are plentiful and well worth your time. Enjoy!
What To Do
Food Toursand Cooking Classes: Krakow is a food mecca! Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the next section for a sampler. It is totally worth checking in with a great local guide to get a true feel for all of the yummy choices that are yours for the taking. There’s great street food, communist Milk Bars, fabulous fusion and classic polish cuisine all within the old town. Add to that the fabulous Jewish district of Kazimierez and Krakow become hard to pass up for any true foodie.
Royal Mile: Krakow’s stunning main square sits in the middle of the old town’s Royal Way. Along this route are plenty of churches, museums, shops, art galleries, and restaurants all winding their way up to the crawn jewel, Wawel Hill.
Can’t Miss: Check our the DaVinci masterpiece Lady With Ermine at the newly refurbished Czartoryski Museum. The painting, which is a contemporary of Mona Lisa, is an incredible example of Davinci’s talent. The further story of theft and reclamation prove to be quite fascinating as well.
Royal Beginnings: At the end of the Royal Mile sits gorgeous Wawel Castle. The complex can take a full day to explore with numerous museums and the main cathedral. The cathedral holds the tomb of Poland’s most famous king: Kazimierez, a tribute to Chopin, and the bell tower is fun to climb and get a serious view of the city and it’s lifeline, the Vistula River. Be sure to seek out one of the seven chakras on Earth. The staff may not love it but it’s fun! Also, get down to the river bank and find Smok the fire breathing dragon.
Klezmer and Kazimierez: About a ten minute ride away from the old town (which is surrounded by the Planty park) is the old Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierez. Here on the square, you’ll find synagogues, mini museums, and restaurants that often have live traditional music called Klezmer music. You often hear this style with a heavy clarinet sound. From here, walk over the Bernatek footbridge and toward the old Jewish ghetto where you will find Schindler’s factory and the Eagle Over The Door Pharmacy.
The Main Square: Dominated by St. Mary’s Basilica (check out that blue ceiling and unbelievable alter piece), Krakow’s main square has quite few treasures to explore. Start at the cloth hall in the center. Go up for a lovely art museum, go down for an underground museum on the archeology of the city. Shop at ground level for all of those polish faves, and go out on the balcony for a lovely drink looking over the hustle and bustle of the square. Use the square as a jumping off point to explore the old town streets full of churches, shops, small museums and plenty of landmarks that relate to St. Pope John Paul II.
Taking on Polish cuisine…
Pierogi: Every culture has a filled dumpling and the Poles are no different! Pierogi (yes, that’s the plural) can be filled with sweet or savory choices. Order them all. Eat them all. You won’t regret it.
Zurek: A “sour” soup served in a bread bowl may sound like a great Winter treat (and it is) but don’t discount this wholesome soup in the Summer. It’s all good!
Zapiekanki: This is basically Polish french-bread pizza. and it’s great! Perfect for a grab and go lunch to eat in the Planty or at the riverside park under the castle.
Lody: Poles love their Summer ice cream! And it is good! Plan on enjoying ice cream as the city wakes up for its evening stroll.
Steak tartare: Slavic sushi. Tartare is high quality minced beef served with several seasonings and usually topped with a raw egg. Don’t be so fast to pass on this regional delicacy, consider it the escargot of Poland!
Exploring Second Cities…
Part of the charm of Poland are all of the individual towns that polka dot the landscape. Each little community has a little city center usually with a train station and plenty to keep you interested. Some of the top contenders are…
Poznan: Close to the German border, this tidy town has an interesting history and continues to enchant with its old town and educate with its Jewish quarter tour. It is also a great jumping off point for those who want to visit the Boleslawiec Polish Pottery factory or the Church of Peace: both are great stops if you have the time.
Wroclaw: This work-a-day college town might not seem like much to begin with but dig a little deeper and you’ll find an enchanting town ready to welcome visitors. Check out the over 300 little statues all over town that give personality to the wheres and whens you will encounter. Try out the food tours and enjoy all of the yummy treats followed by a shot of cherry vodka.
Torun: Smell the gingerbread in Copernicus’ hometown and wander the streets of this charming little college town. Torun is a great half way mark between Warsaw and Gdansk. Whther you are taking the train and spend the afternoon or you choose to spend the night, count Torun in and you won’t regret it!
Day Tripping From Krakow…
As you expand your horizons from greater Krakow, there are a couple of amazing spots to consider. Every popular guidebook will give you the 411 on the details for these particular places. These were among the family favorites.
Wadowice The birthplace of St. Pope John Paul II is the perfect day trip. Explore his home, parish church and charming square then visit Kalwaria Zebrzydowska monastery where he dedicated his life to the church.
WieliczkaSalt Mine Descend deep into this UNESCO heritage site for an experience like no other. Part art installation, part medieval history, this unexpected marvel of engineering tells the story of how miners of salt became prolific artists that celebrated the triumphs of their lives where they spent the majority of their time. A perfect morning trip from the city center.
Auschwitz Birkenau What can I say? The infamous moment in Polish existence is the Nazi invasion of September 1939. It is, by far, the saddest chapter of the Poles. The role that Auschwitz played in this atrocity can not be over stated and visiting will be quite emotional. But visit you must. I truly think that it is our duty as travelers to understand these moments in history so that we can better understand the times we live in now. You are already here. How could you not go?
The Great Outdoors
Poland offers plenty of other amazing opportunities away from the city center. Some of our favorites are:
Zakopane Just south of the Krakow region lie the Tatras mountains. Bordering both Poland and the Czech republic, it provides an amazing mountain escape from the “big city”. Central to that escape is the hamlet of Zakopane. This little resort town is a joy to visit with its apres-ski vibe.
Masuria Well overlooked, the lakes region to the north and east has long been a vacation stronghold for the polish people. With plenty of water fun, there’s tons to keep you interested in this lovely part of the country.
Sopot From the mountains and lakes to the beach! Sopot sits just beside beautiful Gdansk and is a Summer playground for locals and visitors alike. Check out the long pier and the fabulous restaurants as well as the local amber vendors that sell their beachcombing treasures.
The Ultimate Two Week Starter Kit:
Alrighty, you are ready to plan! Check out our handy dandy checklist to start customizing your own itinerary for the trip of a lifetime! Don’t forget to listen to our podcast with all of this information and more to make your trip to Krakow unforgettable.
Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks. You’ve booked your flight and you’ve made all your arrangements. You’re tickets are printed and you have an alarm on your phone to tell you when to pre-board. You are ready! Not so fast cowboy. You’ve gotta pack! Now, some of you might have rolled your bags out of the closet weeks ago while others of you just realized that you leave in 48 hours and haven’t packed a thing! No matter where you are in the packing process, there are a few items we all seem to grapple with and this list of travel gear is hear to help!
Let me confess, I do not use a carry on bag.
There. I said it. go ahead and judge! We know we MAY need certain items while flying and they would be helpful but are they really? On top of that, in the travel age of “everybody brings a carry on”, we have limits. I, personally, am a check bag kind of traveler. I do not find it appealing to sweat because I am lugging a bag all over the airport before I get on a plane. But we shall save that hot topic for another day. So, what do you take and what do you leave behind? Let’s sort out this mess.
I get it! You can do your hair the way you know how with your things so you will look good on Instagram! I’m with you! But the bottom line is that a hairdryer is bulky and heavy. On top of that, hairdryers are notorious for blowing a fuse or simply giving in. Besides, if you are staying at a hotel or B and B, they have one for you to use. The only place that I can think of that has no hairdryer is if you choose to rough it and you probably are okay without it anyway.
Take it? Never! Unless you are a hairdresser on the way to a trade show.
I get it! We all want to look nice but heels take up a lot of room. But, for the typical traveler who is out to enjoy the local sites and culture, there is really no room for high heels. Instead, there are lots of lovely sandals out there that can do double duty for day and night. See if that is a better option. Shoes should be just another part of your mix and match wardrobe. There are just two kinds of shoes I take, a pair of sneakers and sandals. I can think of a few isolated times when they need to go with you though.
If you are cruising, you may need formal wear (although that trend is not as prevalent as it used to be), you may have a specific event (a night at the Opera in Vienna or a family wedding), or you may be staying at a resort with certain activities that have a dress code. By all means, pack the heels! But for the day to day tourist, don’t waste you space.
Take it? Maybe. Just have a really good reason like your cousin, Agnetha’s wedding.
I get it! You are headed to London or perhaps, Bangkok- maybe Victoria Falls is written on your ticket. You’ve read your travel guide and it says rain. I say do not pack the umbrella!!! Believe me! The true need for an umbrella is overrated. In stead pack one or two pretty scarves that can double as a quick head cover as you duck in and out of museums on a rainy day. Scarves are usable on wet days, dry days, windy days, and cold days. They spruce up your outfit and fold down to next to nothing. If you really truly need an umbrella, buy one where you are. I’ve only done it twice in 20 years.
Take it? Nope. A few rain drops won’t hurt you.
I get it! But is this your vacation or is it another work day? We all talk about being unplugged but we adults are not very good at it. Americans have more leave time accrued than any other nation and we don’t use it! So, do you bring it? Well, if you really have no choice, then lug that thing along but even as someone who does do a little work on the road, I don’t bring mine. Why bother with that heavy bag which you don’t want to check in for fear of it going missing. I opt for two pieces of technology, my iPad and my phone. I can pretty much do whatever I have to with much lighter gear and still watch the newest Netflix releases if they ever drop (I’m talking to you The Crown!) And if I can’t? Well, I am on vacation after all!
Take it? Nope. Only a workaholic brings along their work.
Image by Pixaby
I get it! You are going on vacation! You want to sit back, relax and read that beach novel. I say, if that is what you are truly going to do, then by all means take that book. But, do not think for one minute, if you are traveling to Tokyo or Rio that a book will be read. You have too many other things to do! Books are heavy and you are not going to open them on the go. Instead, opt to read digitally (kindle, iPad) on the off chance that you have a few moments to spare on a train from Munich to Venice. One or two notable exceptions: always take your travel guides they are an indispensable part of your trip and grab something juicy for the ship or the beach if you are going nowhere else.
Take it? Maybe. Beach reads get to go but leave Fabio at home for anything else.
I get it! Once in a lifetime trips deserve once in a lifetime memories. So, do you need a camera? Well, I’ve been unsure for years about this one. So, I decided about 3 years ago to try a little experiment. I only took my iPhone and snapped all my photos on that. You know what? It worked! My pictures were clear, reasonable quality, and easy! So, for me, I’m a no go on the camera. I like not having extra gear. However, I do think there are some notable exceptions and the first one is safari. You need more than an iPhone for that! If you are an amateur photographer and it’s going to bring you joy to have a good camera and lens, you should bring them. Get those wonderful memories on film somehow!
Take it? Maybe. Only if you know what you’re doing with it and you know it will do a better job than your iPhone.
Travel sized products
I get it! You are about to stuff two weeks worth of stuff into a two day bag. Space is at a premium! Not so fast, unless you have pledged to the secret society of “I will never pay for checked luggage again”, there is an alternative. Okay, I’m seriously not trying to scare anybody but I take my own FULL SIZE products! Gasp! I do! I take them almost empty- with just enough for my trip. On the last day, I ditch them all and make room for all of the things I’ve brought along the way. Why do I need to pay $3.99 for 20 cents worth of shampoo of a brand I don’t even like? Again, I check my bag so, I don’t have to deal with the liquids restriction and with powders becoming restricted too, I don’t care to get involved with that nonsense either.
Now, you have a few other options, I’m talking to you carryoners. You can buy reusable bottles for a small price and use your own products or simply use whatever is in the hotel bath if you’re not picky. My new favorite alternative are bath bars like the ones from Ethique. They have shampoo, conditioner and body wash in non liquid, TSA happy bars. I love them.
Take it? Not me. I can pay to check my bag for the prices they charge for all those little plastic bottles which are not good for the environment anyway.
No one ever said, “I wish I had taken more”. So remember, you are going to have to lug all of that travel gear in your suitcase everywhere you go so pack wisely! Me? I prefer to leave room for all the treasures I find along the way!