Kraków: Poland’s greatest treasure
If you are searching for a destination rich with history, beautiful architecture, delicious food and vibrant culture, look no further! Kraków is one of Poland’s oldest cities and offers a variety of notable things to do and see for travelers of all types.
Explore Old Town and Wawel Castle
The Old Town main square is arguably the most picturesque part of Kraków. Clean, white streets surrounded by stunning architecture and an assortment of horse-drawn carriages going by — it’s like something out of a fairytale!
The main square was originally used for commerce, and one can still shop for a variety of goods from vendors in the Cloth Hall in the center of the square. The square is lined with restaurants and cafes offering outdoor seating, and while you might pay a little more here than in other areas of Kraków, the prices are low compared to other European cities.
Wawel Castle is just minutes away from the main square and sits atop of Wawel Hill overlooking the Vistula River. An assortment of Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic architecture make up the castle grounds, which may be visited free of charge. The insides of the buildings — the State Rooms, the Crown Treasury, the cathedral and more — may be toured, but it is highly recommended to reserve tickets in advance if you wish to do so.
Eat pierogi, cheese and Obwarzanek
Sampling “pierogi” in Poland is a must! These delicious little dumplings come stuffed with potatoes, cheese, meat, sauerkraut or other vegetables. You can find them almost anywhere, but perhaps the best place is at one of Kraków’s milk bars. The milk bars began as government-subsidized cafes where workers could get a low-cost bite to eat. The meals were simple and cheap, using mostly dairy-based ingredients or potatoes and eggs. Today, you can still dine at milk bars in Poland offering a spin on these simple menu items at very low prices.
Try the “Gołka” cheese from a market or from street vendors — some serve it grilled with cranberry sauce on top! This rubbery, smoked, salted cheese is a treat. Also, try “Oscypek” cheese if you get the chance. It is similar but produced with sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk and is only available April through October.
“Obwarzanek”, also know as “the Kraków pretzel”, is a ring-shaped bread that is somewhat of a mix between a pretzel and a bagel, topped with salt, sesame seeds or poppy seeds. You’ll find them everywhere — in every cafe and on every street corner, which is good because they are delightful.
On a somber note, Kraków is an hour's drive from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest German Nazi concentration camp. Everyone should experience this place at least once in their lifetime and know that it will be an emotional, yet educational journey.
Renting a car is an option, but traveling to the memorial via public bus from Kraków is a simple and cheap alternative. Touring Auschwitz without a guide is free but requires a reservation as a limited number of people are permitted inside at one time. You may also reserve a guided tour for a fee, which can be done on the Auschwitz website. Pay close attention to the details — visitors without a guide are only allowed during certain hours, so plan your visit accordingly. Be sure to visit Birkenau as well, the extermination camp down the road from Auschwitz. A free shuttle bus runs in between the two sites several times each hour, and no ticket or guide is required to enter Birkenau.
Tour Wieliczka Salt Mine
Right on the outskirts of Kraków is one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines — Wieliczka Salt Mine. Excavation began in the 13th century and the mine was used for commercial salt mining until the 1990s. It is now an official Polish historical monument offering tours to visitors. Inside the 327-meter deep mine, visitors have a chance to see exhibits on the history of the mine, an underground lake, statues carved from rock salt and an extravagant subterranean chapel. The 2.2-mile guided tour took approximately two hours to complete, with an optional museum portion at the end. It’s quite incredible to get a glimpse of this underground world.
Between the charming sites, delicious cheap eats, history and abundance of experiences to be had, Poland’s greatest treasure always leaves visitors wanting to come back for more!
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