When one thinks of a quintessential European experience, the mind usually wanders across France, Italy, Switzerland, or perhaps, even the Netherlands. It’s this fixation for the stereotypical, Facebook friendly vacation that can invariably suck the joy out of travel. But if you look beyond the tour operator’s predictable itinerary, you will find that there is more to discover in Europe on the other side.
The unexplored side of Europe veers towards the Central and Eastern parts that promise a ‘new European experience’. And it’s fast becoming the preferred path for the millennial and post-millennial tribe. Armed with a smartphone, Internet on tap, multi-currency travel card and minimal baggage, this generation of digital natives is changing the rules of travel.
They prefer not to travel, but untravel. For them, it’s not about the tried and the tested, or packing in many cities within a week. It’s about not knowing where you would be the next morning. It’s about meeting new friends over a weekend drink and deciding to travel together next. It’s about visiting a new city, falling in love with its architecture and museums, and spending the next ten days hanging out there. Plans are always fickle, fluid and fabulous.
And that’s pretty much how we did Europe this winter with Kraków as our base city. Kraków, where? Now it is quite likely that you won’t be able to put a finger on it in the map. Probably, you haven’t heard about it. Yet.
Suffice to say that it’s the cultural capital of Poland, which was listed amongst the Top 10 travel destinations of 2016 by Lonely Planet. Kraków is the second largest city in Poland and one of its oldest. And this year Vogue has gone ahead and declared it as a hot travel destination for 2017. So you get the drift.
Kraków is refreshing. And it has the vibe. It is the emerging face for a new Europe that is rich in its arts & history, yet has a pulsating youthful energy about it. The nightlife here is electric. It’s a city that is historic, yet hip. Classical, yet chic. And it’s this juxtaposition that makes it so uniquely interesting.
So when we decided to set up base there for over a month during the freezing winter, with temperatures dropping till -20°C, little did we imagine that we would so effortlessly merge into the cultural milieu. We spent time with some of the friendliest young people you would come across in all of Europe, and incredibly generous local hosts, who were eager to share and learn, and went out of their way to make it all so special.
The vibrant culture of Kraków is largely thanks to a strong global student community from the many universities and institutions offering higher education in the field of science, technology, music and fine arts. So while the city is steeped in history, people have varying interests and are in sync with modern times. Many call Kraków the party capital of Europe. There is a dynamic and youthful vibe here with travellers from across the world. And a good time is always round the corner.
Located sharply on the southern side of the country, the city offers easy access to neighbouring Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. You can lazily roll over to Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava or Dresden and be back without much stress. Roads are fantastic and each of these cities is just about 4-6 hours away.
While in Kraków, here are a few things we recommend you should be doing:
1. Walk around Rynek Główny, Kraków’s Grand Square
Spread over 10 acres, this is officially the largest market square in all of Europe. In Kraków, it’s the hub of everyday life. We stayed just two blocks away, so every morning was an opportunity to head out there and take in the sights. Rynek Główny is surrounded by breathtakingly beautiful buildings – the 13th century Clock Tower, the 14th century brick gothic St. Mary’s Basilica, the 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall and the Church of St. Adalbert, all of which give a glimpse of Poland’s rich architectural legacy.
2. Gorge on some traditional Polish food
To experience Polish cuisine, head to what the locals call ‘Milk Bars’. These working class diners are relics of a bygone era, and an essential part of Poland’s culinary heritage. Treat yourself to some Pierogi (Polish style dumplings), Kotlet schabowy (pork cutlet), and Placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes served with beef). Most of the traditional Polish dishes are served with an accompaniment of creamy mashed potato and pickled dill. It probably isn’t for everyone, but we’ve grown to love it.
When you get weary of Pierogis and need a change, Kraków offers some excellent choices of restaurants & cafes. Over time, our preference grew by the day for the casual diner PINO, a rustic Italian restaurant located in a historic 19th century building just off the Grand Square. The menu here is a fusion of steaks, pastas and pizzas that use a variety of delicate meats, giblets, fish and seafood. The flavours are simple yet magical, with fresh regional ingredients presented with a dash of flair by their rock star Executive Chef, Krzysztof Salawa. Some of the other well known eateries here are Wesele, Pod Baranem, Starka and the lovely French restaurant Cyrano de Bergerac.
3. Discover the Old Town
The only way to soak in the charm of European cities is to walk. And Kraków offers free walking tours. The fact that there exists such a thing just shows the pride the locals take in their history, culture and the arts. The residents just love to showcase their beautiful city at any given opportunity. The tour lasts about two hours and takes you through the Jewish Quarter as well, which has now been restored as an art & cultural district. If walking isn’t your thing, hop on to a horse carriage for a ride. Starting at the Main Square, the ride takes you all the way up to the Wawel Castle and is an experience in itself. The sight of horse carriages on Kraków’s wet cobbled streets, with snow flakes drifting through the air makes for a picture perfect scene straight out of a fairy tale.
4. Visit the Wawel Castle
The magnificent Wawel Castle sits atop the Wawel Hill, a short walk from Grand Square. The towering structure is visible from pretty much any point in Kraków. The panoramic view of the city from the castle is simply awe-inspiring. Wawel Castle is associated with many tales and legends, most important of them being that of the Dragon of Wawel Hill. The Dragon was believed to dwell in a cave near the castle, and its statue at the bottom of the castle stands as a reminder of the many mythical tales from Polish folklore.
5. Soak in the atmospherics of Kazimierz
The former Jewish District of Kraków is a world of its own. It was the hub of Jewish life in Kraków for more than 500 years, only to be destroyed during World War II. The district was in ruins till the 1990’s and has seen a remarkable revival in the last two decades, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic Schindler’s List, which was set here. The renewed interest in its history led to restoration since early 2000 and the district is now an eclectic mix of historical venues like the Jewish Museum and the Corpus Christi Church alongside art galleries, curio shops, street musicians, Jewish cafes, eateries and bars. Kazimierz of today is an attempt by the next generation Jewish community to bring about a cultural revival of sorts, and lift the palpable gloom and hangover of the war era. It has a quirky, bohemian vibe to it with a nightlife that is a notch edgier and hipper. The annual Jewish Cultural Festival here every summer attracts Jews and tourists from all over the world.
6. Pub crawl to explore the best Polish bars
Be it the Old Town or the Jewish Quarter, Kraków is sprinkled with old-style Polish bars complete with wooden décor, quaint lights and vintage charm. And they serve some stellar liquor. Our favourites were the quintessential Polish Wodka and the Tyskie Tank Beer. In winters you cannot do without ‘grzane piwo’, which is hot beer spiced with ginger syrup and a mix of cinnamon, clove and other mulling spices. The other local favourite is grzaniec galicyjski, a kind of mulled wine a.k.a. grzane wino, which is available just about everywhere. Both are signature beverages from this part of the world. Join one of the many pub crawls as it’s the best way to cut out the touristy trappings and party with the locals. Depending on what’s hot each night, the crawl covers about half a dozen pubs and offers some great value deals. Here you invariably end up making some great new friends and plan your next travel destination.
7. Go Clubbing
Once the sun goes down, the true spirit of Kraków comes alive. The city boasts of an amazing number of clubs with an eclectic variety of music. We’ve been to several party hubs across Europe and without a shred of doubt, Kraków by night ranks right up there with Amsterdam and Prague. The liveliness and youthful vibe here is hard to match. During weekends, partygoers throng the streets till 6 in the morning. Most of the clubs are around the Grand Square or a short walk from it and you would really be spoilt for choice. Our picks would be Shakers and Lokal, two clubs known for their electronic music mixes, and Prozac, where the party never ends. Our absolute favourite however, would have to be Teatro Cubano, a salsa club that brings the warmth of Spain to the cold climes of Kraków. Truly, an amalgam of sorts.
8. Travel around Kraków
There are several places of interest around Kraków, both from a historic perspective as well as leisure and fun. The Auschwitz concentration camp of World War II located at Oświęcim is about 50 kms west of Kraków. A grim reminder of the holocaust, the air is heavy here and the sheer magnitude of devastation that affected more than a million lives can leave you shaken. The Auschwitz tour can be done over a day and it takes less than 2 hours by road from Kraków.
The resort town of Zakopane is again, about 2 hours away. A breathtakingly beautiful ski resort and a popular winter sport destination, this is where the rich & famous have their chalets. The mountain views around here are simply spectacular and temperatures at this time go down to -20°C. The cable car trip to Mount Kasprowy, sledging and skating are activities that you can indulge in here. And carry back some local produce, cheese and crafts.
A world heritage site, the famous Wieleczka salt mines are a 30-minute drive from Kraków. The mines here have produced table salt for over 700 years from the 13th century till 2007, when they had to close down due to flooding. Located underground with intricate chambers, tunnels and chapels, it has statues and chandeliers carved out of rock salt. The mines are a marvel, making for an unusual venue for concerts, art exhibitions and plays.
Kraków, to say the least, is an evolved cosmos of well-preserved heritage in a modern milieu. It is fascinating, friendly and fresh. A sanctuary for the global wandering soul. This is a place where you go with no expectations, but come back with a backpack full of surprises. So move your imagination for a change, and go visit. You are sure to find your story there. If you want to make some plans, Poland’s official travel website here is a good starting point. And for insider tips, you could always write in to us.