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!
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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 Tours and 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.
- Wieliczka Salt 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
- 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.
- Fly in to Warsaw
- Explore Warsaw
- Malbork Castle
- Take the train to Krakow
- Explore Krakow
- Day trip to Auschwitz
- Take a day trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine
- Day trip to Wadowice or Czechehowa
- Overnight in Zakopane
- Finish in Krakow
- Fly out of Krakow