When I started working in Belgium in January of 2014, I didn’t really know any of my local co-workers that well. Sure, I had seen some of them previously at meetings or visits, but there wasn’t really one that I considered a true friend.
That is, until I met Anna, who started working the same day as me. Maybe it started as a friendship of convenience for the both of us, but throughout the years we became fairly close. In fact, I would probably consider her (besides the manfriend) my closest friend and ally in this tiny country. Anna is originally from Poland and makes frequent visits back home. Naturally, I take advantage of this situation and sometimes go with her to her home town of Krakow.
First off, if you’ve never been to Poland, I highly suggest it. The country is one of my favorites- whether the residents want to admit it or not, the scene is slightly hipster, but it has much history and beauty to back it up. The Polish are not on the euro, they are on the zloty, which is roughly 1/4 the value. And with that exchange rate, the trip in itself is well worth the time.
(So far) I have only made my way to Krakow for weekend trips. Even so, I feel I have found some of the great gems of the city. Here are my top 5 suggested things to do in or around Krakow, Poland.
One of the hippest places I visited in Krakow, Forum has a summer bar called Lato that has a laid back vibe, yet a crowded scene. The building itself is an abandoned hotel that cannot be renovated, so instead of letting it sit unused, the Pols make it cool. Tiny stores and a restaurant fill up the bottom floor, and you can shop for clothes, food, furniture, and recycled/upcycled goods (like Anna herself sells). Beers are sold by the bottle, or you can snag a coffee if you are there in the middle of the day. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Polish– most of the younger patrons speak English, though they will be happy to hear you struggle if you’d like to give it a try. Piwo (pee-vo) is beer, proszę (pro-sha) is please, and dziękuję (gin-queer) is thank you. That’ll be enough to get you by the first hour. Or at least the first round.
THE SALT MINES
I personally think the salt mines are one of the coolest things about the city. Although, the fact that we waited in line for over an hour in the blistering heat makes me believe we are not the only ones with this train of thought. The Wieliczka salt mines are one of the largest tourist attractions in the whole country and are also on the UNESCO’s World Culture and Natural Heritage List.
If you do go down to the salt mines, be prepared to walk. And walk. And for a small change of pace, walk some more. But also be prepared to be amazed with what has been created out of blocks of salt. Not only are there monuments and statues made out of salt, there is a whole church down there. In fact, screw the church… there’s a whole BALLROOM down 135 meters (443 feet!) below the city. The tour, which took about 3+ hours and comprised around 20 different rooms, cost roughly 19 euro/21 dollars. It was well worth it, especially to escape the grueling hot Polish summer! While it was over 32°C (90°F) above ground, in the mines it was closer to 14°C (57°F). And that, in itself, is worth the money.
Oh, and the salt mines are also very near the Graduation Tower, a place of “inhalation therapy,” which isn’t as trippy as it sounds. There is natural brine mist that forms at the tower and gives off a similar feel to that of the coast. The brine supposedly (can you tell I don’t buy into this stuff?) is a good treatment for respiratory problems and to clear your lungs of the dust we regularly breathe.
It’s an absolutely horrible and harrowing place, but I recommend making a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau if you feel you can stomach it. The camps are only about a 40 minute bus ride from Krakow, but when you are there it feels like you have been transported to another place and time. An estimated 2.5 million prisoners, both Jewish and Polish alike, were sent to this area to be worked to the bone and then fated to death. A tour guide will first bring you around Auschwitz, pointing out specifically terrible rooms or scenarios. There will be rooms where you are not allowed to take photos. There will be other places where you simply do not feel like taking photos. In the afternoon they will take you to Birkenau, the camp known for the gas chambers and being “The Death Factory.”
These are places they teach you about in history books, but visiting the camps bring it all to life and put your humanity into perspective.
Another place that captures the history of World War II is the Schindler Museum, located in the industrial part of the city of Krakow. Schindler’s old factory that once molded enameled pots and goods has now been turned into a museum that showcases the lives and experiences of those who lived during the Nazi occupation of Poland. As far as museums go, this one is top notch. I personally spent hours inside, reading every fact and figure, watching interview clips, and absorbing the information on the interactive displays. The museum consists of mainly three parts- a screening room, a space for temporary displays, and the permanent showcases. The museum is open every day (and free on Mondays), and you can buy tickets for 19 zlotys. If you know you want to check this out, I’d recommend reserving tickets online ahead of time at the City of Krakow Historical Museum’s website, www.mhk.pl.
I know this last subject is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s seriously the best thing to do. If you’re into fine-yet inexpensive dining, I suggest you check out Twoj Kucharz. The restaurant is located in a strange area of town that looks abandoned, but it has a constantly rotating menu and a well-informed wait staff. That night Jeroen (the manfriend) and I both had appetizers, main courses, desserts, and wine pairings for all of the above for 55 euro total. The main market in the center of town is constantly buzzing with bargaining and activity, Wawel’s Royal Castle/Cathedral has beautiful architecture, the Jewish Quarter has the best bars and night life, and St. Mary’s Church has a trumpet player who will play out all four windows of the tower and stop mid-song to represent another trumpet player who was killed while performing during a Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. Go watch the sunset on Krak’s Mound, the resting place of Krakow’s founder King Kraus. Or if that’s too busy, Kisciuszko Mound also has a great view overlooking the city.
THE TRAVELIN’ SONG: What’s Up? (4 Non Blondes). This song has nothing to do with Poland itself, but the first time I was in Krakow there was a street performer singing this song. And it was so good/fun that I never fully got over it.
BUDGET: 3 day weekend trip with co-worker friends; approximately $400 spent for airfare, lodging, food, and activities.
TIP FOR TRAVELERS: Poland’s currency, the Zloty, is roughly 1/4 the amount of the euro or the dollar. So, for quick math, if you’re spending 20 Zloty, you’re spending roughly $5.
DEFINITELY CHECK OUT: Auschwitz. It’s about a 40 minute ride outside of Krakow, and an absolute horrible piece of history. But, it is a must-see to keep your humanity in check.