Why Krakow is a Kracker
Polish hotspot named best city break destination and I just had to see what all the fuss was about.
Krakow has just been rated the best place for a city break in Europe, beating off stiff competition from big hitters such as Rome and Paris to come out on top in the annual Which? survey.
I had never been before so as soon as this news reached me, I had to go and find out for myself just how good it was.
A Ryanair flight and some quick Googling to find the best place to stay in Krakow and I was ready to head off on a winter jolly. This trip was a three-pronged attacked really – I’d never been to Poland so it was a new place to pin on my world map. I’ve also been itching to go to an overseas Christmas market and I knew there was one in Krakow. Thirdly, I badly needed a change of scene. Mid-December is not usually a good time for me to jet off on a break – there’s Christmas shopping to be done, deadlines to be met before anything resembling time off over the holidays but two days couldn’t hurt, right?
I arrived in Krakow dressed for the weather and prepared for biting cold temperatures. How delighted I was to land in the city and find it bathed in glorious sunshine and although it wasn’t exactly balmy, it was very pleasant with only the Christmas decorations reminding me it was December. It could have easily been early October as I reached into my hand luggage for the sunglasses that I optimistically packed ‘just in case’. My driver told me that this was unusually nice weather for the time of year so I felt chuffed to have lucked out with the elements. A quick freshen up, dump the bags and I was ready to go explore the newly crowned best city break destination.
Krakow is an impressive and atmospheric city that will welcome you with open arms. The locals seem proud of their home turf and happy to show it off to inquisitive tourists. I was certainly made to feel very welcome by the hospitable citizens I encountered on my short trip.
This Polish gem is great for history buffs, culture vultures, foodies and generally anyone looking for a few days away visiting legendary castles, churches and all manner of historical landmarks. The stunning main square is the showpiece of the Old Town and an ideal spot to do a bit of people watching or simply soak up the atmosphere. Krakow’s buildings are a glorious mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, giving the city an air of elegance and majesty, despite some of its past being pretty tragic and harrowing.
Krakow was also the home of the late Pope John Paul II who lived here as a student and as a young priest. As such, Krakow attracts a lot of pilgrims, eager for a glimpse into his life before he became Pope.
So, having only 48 hours in Krakow to cram in as much as I could, I set about ticking off some of the city highlights. I knew I’d never be able to see and do everything Krakow has to offer and I also wanted to take things at my own pace. I hate rushing and my default speed setting is slow and relaxed. I was surprised at how much of Krakow I managed to see in such a short time but even if I had only meandered around the Old Town and the wonderful main square, I think I would have got enough of a flavour to form an opinion.
Let me show you some of the best things to do in Krakow if you’re on a tight schedule…
I was lucky to be in Krakow in December when the Christmas market was in full swing. I can only imagine how vast and serene the Square might be outside the festive season. For now though it was packed with lovely stalls, traditional food cabins and bedecked in beautiful Christmas lights and decorations. The market stalls sold hand-made arts and crafts – some of which wouldn’t look out of place in a pricey department store. Krakow Christmas market was more about impressive artisan goods than cheap tat. Surrounding the market was a wall of nice bars and restaurants with outside dining areas, encased in glass or Perspex covers and warmed by patio heaters. I took advantage of the opportunity to stay outdoors, enjoying the magical scenes of happy revellers under the hypnotic lights from the giant Christmas tree.
It’s worth mentioning that eating and drinking in Krakow isn’t hugely expensive. I chose to wine and dine in the heart of the main square and its immediate surrounds yet still found it very reasonable and better value than some of the pricier European cities I have been to. Like most places, if you venture a few streets back away from the busy touristy thoroughfares you’ll definitely get more zing for your Zloty.
There’s a good selection of traditional Polish and Eastern European fayre but there’s also Italian, Indian and British food being served up in many of the restaurants in Krakow. Steak houses are popular too.
Something you cannot fail to notice here is Cloth Hall which is the beautiful centrepiece of the square and an iconic landmark of Krakow. This building which dates back to the 14th century was once the original trading post for the merchants of a by-gone era. Today it houses an art gallery and museum but along the ground floor corridor there are stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs.
The mighty Cloth Hall looked so beautiful against the twilight, December sky and I long admired its beauty when I stopped in the square for a coffee or a glass of wine. A view I shall miss as I enjoy a festive tipple back home.
Another imposing structure on the main square, the striking brick church and Gothic spires of St. Mary’s Basilica are also instantly recognisable on the city skyline. Despite being a place of holy worship with one of the most richly decorated, ornate interiors, St. Mary’s isn’t without legend and folklore. One of the stories I was told by my tour guide was how the mis-matched heights of the two towers stem from a row between two architects who worked on them (one tower each). Apparently as one tower began to overshadow the other, building envy ensued and the jealous party murdered the other, then promptly threw himself from the taller tower as his remorse set in. There’s also the tale of the trumpeting watchman which lives on today. Every hour, on the hour, a trumpet call can be heard across the square. This ritual stems from the story that a watchman in the tower saw a horde of Tatar invaders charging towards the city and instead of racing down all the stairs to warn the citizens of the impending attack, he blasted a tune on his trumpet as an alert to Krakowians that they were in danger. Sadly, the brave trumpeter took an arrow to the throat, cutting short his warning song before he could finish. Today the melody still ends abruptly to honour the watchman who died at his post.
Shopping in Krakow
Another surprise was the choice of good shops to satisfy my love of retail therapy. Again, prices here were much cheaper than our shops in the UK and I treated myself to one or two things that would have cost a lot more back home. Around the Old Town you will find lots of quaint boutiques, tempting chocolatiers and bakeries, cosmetics stores, perfumeries, jewellers and familiar high street names. For make-up and beauty lovers, a rummage around Sephora is a must. Slightly further away but only a 10-15-minute walk was the mall, Galeria Krakowska. If you get a rainy day, this is a great place to spend a couple of hours…and a few Zloty. This bright, indoor shopping centre houses some top brands and stores such as H&M, Betty Barclay, C&A, L’Occitane, Swarovski and Peek & Cloppenburg. I was also delighted to find a Bath & Body Works – a store I’ve only ever found in the USA and I’ve been known to stock up on my favourite shower gels and all manner of potions and lotions. You can guess the rest…
Tour of the Jewish Quarter and Ghetto
To more serious and sombre pursuits now but an important part of Krakow’s history which shouldn’t be missed. As you know, I only had a very short time in which to see as much of Krakow as I could. I took a buggy tour with a local guide who took me to the Jewish Quarter and a tour of the key places of huge significance to the city – Synagogues, Ghetto Heroes’ Square and various locations used in the film, Schindler’s List. Yes, I knew my history and knew full well the abhorrent and horrific treatment the Jewish community endured at the hands of the Nazis following Germany’s invasion of Poland but nothing could prepare me for how I would feel when I was here. I listened intently to my tour guide who graphically and explicitly retold the story of Krakow’s Jews and the extent of their suffering. I felt intense sadness and heartache on the tour and an uneasy feeling stayed with me for most of the day if I’m honest. All the stories he shared and the places I saw stand as a stark reminder of the absolute horrors of WWII, how the Jewish people suffered and how none of it should happen ever, ever again. It was a sobering and unsettling experience for me.
Conversely, there is a lively community at the heart of Kazimierz and today and you’ll find some hip and trendy places to eat and drink.
So now you know what you can get up to during your visit and this is just a small suggestion of things to do in Krakow. If you’re wondering where to stay, there’s a fantastic choice of hotels and apartments to suit every pocket. You can pick up reasonably priced city break packages to Krakow with EasyJet and cheap flights with Ryanair.
I settled on the Betmanowska Residence in the heart of the Old Town and literally a stone’s throw from the heart of the action on the main square. For location, this place was just perfect. I would recommend staying in the Old Town for convenience and easy access to the city’s main attractions but especially for the main square and its treasure trove of bars and restaurants. If like me, time is tight but you want to get a look at the city highlights, don’t hesitate to jump on a buggy tour or an open-top bus so that you can see as much as you can in a short space of time. You won’t be able to explore all the highlights or attractions in any great detail but at least you can see them and earmark the ones you want to come back to on your next trip or when you have the time.
Is Krakow the best European city break destination? It’s definitely up there as one of the best trips I’ve been on for history, architecture and all-round character. I would agree it has a charm about it and if value for money is important, this place is certainly easy on the purse. I loved it and would go back. I had a fantastic time and the beauty of the Old Town has left a lasting impression but for me, personally, it still has a bit of competition for the no.1 spot in my heart.
I would struggle to pick one winner from my favourite cities around the world but Krakow…you were indeed my Christmas cracker!
I love travel. I’ve been fascinated by other countries and cultures since my first foreign trip in 1985 and I’ve had serious wanderlust ever since.I also love to write about where I’ve been and tripsology lets me indulge that passion. I’m thrilled to be a regular contributor and editor. When I’m not writing I also run my own PR and publicity company.