Earlier this year we went to Cracow (Poland) for around 4-5 days. They were 4 very busy days (we flew out on the 5th day), but no amount of time will ever suffice for me to spend in Cracow. I lived there first as an Erasmus student for about 6 months and then as a Master student for just under a year. But I hadn’t been back in ages and wanted to introduce my other half to the city that means so much to me.
February might not seem like the best time to visit a country like Poland, so I mentally braced myself for temperatures far below zero. We were however incredibly lucky with the weather: sunshine and blue skies for most of the time we were there, with temperatures ranging from zero to 10 degrees. Also no snow, except for the bit of remaining snow in Auschwitz.
The downside was the smog. I don’t recall it being that bad when I lived there, but it has definitely gotten worse in recent years. We had been wondering what that funny smell was, why our coats smelled like bonfire. But then we met up with some old friends of mine and found out it was in fact because of the smog. And from that point onwards we noticed it a lot more, especially in the mornings and evenings.
We flew in on Wednesday morning with Brussels Airlines and took one of the local busses into the city. The bus took us through some parts of the city that made me beyond nostalgic of my time there. The first thing we did after having arrived at the main bus and train station was buying two obwarzanki: o-shaped breads, similar to Turkish simit (in my opinion) that are sold everywhere in the city in varieties with cheese, salt, poppy seeds or sesame seeds. It’s one of the many foods I miss from Poland – super cheap and simple, but so good.
We stayed in an Airbnb, a10min walk more or less from the main train & bus station, 10min from the main square as well as from the Jewish quarter – so a pretty decent location. The apartment had a bit of a weird layout but did have everything we needed. It was situated on the 5th floor though with no elevator (we knew this when we booked) but then I guess climbing those stairs every day balanced out all the glorious food we ate.
On our first afternoon in Cracow we set off to explore the city centre and the Wawel hill. We walked through the Planty (the green belt around the city centre) to the Brama Florianska or St. Florians Gate. In front of this gate, outside the city walls, you can see the Barbican. We walked down Florianska street and the closer we got to the Rynek Główny, (the main square) the bigger the smile on my face got. I’m of course totally biased, but in my opinion it really is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and will forever feel like home to me. We admired the Kościół Mariacki, wandered through the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) and made our way across the square, down Grodzka street, Wawel-bound.
The sun was starting to set, which is the best time (and the best light) to explore the Wawel hill. Part of the castle is being restored at the moment, so my favourite courtyard wasn’t as photogenic as it used to be. After casting some views over the Wisla river we descended the hill and followed the western Planty northbound. This took us past the Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum, and we quickly popped into the Collegium Maius for a look around as well. A little bit further we found ourselves at one of my other favourite places for drinks (and hot chocolate, and cake,…): Bunkier Cafe. I had some of the mulled beer, topped with memories.
Time for dinner then after a long day of travelling and exploring the city centre. The location of this place is a bit random as you need to go through a university building, cut through a courtyard, head down some steps and you find yourself in a Polish chalet style restaurant: U Babci Maliny. We ordered some placek po węgiersku (potato pancakes with goulash) and gołąbki (a dish made from boiled cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of minced pork or beef, chopped onions, and rice or barley) to share. We even got some free pączki for dessert! And after this nice hot meal it was time to head back to our Airbnb, hit the pillow and catch some sleep, ready for another busy day!
We got up early on Thursday to catch a bus to Oswiecim/Auschwitz from the bus station. We wisely only bought a one-way ticket for the bus journey as there are multiple bus companies operating on that route and they don’t accept return tickets bought from other companies. You have to book your tickets for Auschwitz in advance online to ensure you can enter at your preferred time. We booked the tickets that allow you to walk around by yourself, without a guide. You get less information about certain places but you also don’t get herded around in massive groups.
First we visited Auschwitz I which has been turned into a museum. Some of the baracks we had almost entirely to ourselves, while other ones almost got taken over by all the different tour groups. It’s a shame really because it almost makes you not want to enter. Some baracks are dedicated to the Holocaust in specific countries and it is very interesting to get their take, for example the Netherlands or Russia. After visiting this part we ate our lunch on a bench outside (in February!) and took the connecting bus to Auschwitz II/Birkenau.
Here we ditched the crowds (or tried at least) by taking a right and walked towards the far corner of the camp to get a better idea of the scale of the place. The snow only added to the desolate atmosphere. We then made our way to the back of the camp to see the ruins of the old gas chambers and the monument that has been erected beside it. There aren’t words to descirbe how I felt seeing the remnants of such horror. But seeing visitors act so carelessly and even disrespectful is really infuriating. So I’d like to call on everyone who considers visiting Auschwitz in the future to show the utmost respect to the place.
Once we made it back to Cracow we decided that some good food and drinks were in order after such a long and emotionally draining day. I had spotted on Google Maps that there was a pierogarnia (restaurant dedicated to pierogi – Polish dumplings) around the corner from our Airbnb so we headed there for our first stop. The place turned out to be tiny – about 5 seats – so more of a take-away place. But there was only two of us we stayed. Plus, you could draw on little pieces of paper and stick them to the wall so that was kinda quirky. Scrumptious pierogi though, so absolutely worth it! Afterwards we visited three of my favourite bars from when I was a student in Cracow: Święta Krowa (though unfortunately they no longer serve the amazing hot chocolate they used to), Nowa Prowincja (lovely artistic bar, and hot chocolate = check!) and Zakątek Cafe & Wine (I used to go here for their delicious sandwiches and what was called ‘divine’ tea but couldn’t see it on the menu anymore). On our way home over the square we waited for the Hejnał or St. Mary’s Trumpet Call. It is a traditional, five-note Polish anthem, played every hour on the hour, four times in succession in each of the four cardinal directions, by a trumpeter on the highest tower of the city’s Saint Mary’s Church (thanks Wikipedia).
The next morning, after some well-deserved sleep, we caught a bus on the other side of town to neighbouring Wieliczka. In Wieliczka you can find the very impressive salt mines, with beautiful sculptures carved out by the miners. We followed the tour guide, admired the sculptures and licked the walls (as you do). After treating ourselves to some soup aw returned to the world of daylight, ready for further explorations.
We took the bus back to Cracow and had a mooch around Kazimierz, the Jewish district. I introduced my other half to the best zapiekanka in town (Place Nowy, Kazimierz) and had coffee and cake in Singer, another favourite. Yet another place I always take people to is the ‘new’ Jewish cemetery for a quiet stroll. We made our way over to the other side of the river and wandered over to the former Schindler’s List factory, now a museum. It stated outside that tickets for the day had sold out but upon enquiry inside we were still sold two tickets. We had about 2 hours at that point until the museum closed and I do recommend you to spend more time there if you can, it is such an interesting place! After another packed day we met up with two friends of mine from my Erasmus year in Cracow and went for dinner at Pod Wawelem.
On Saturday we took our time for a grand breakfast (I tend to get slightly too enthusiastic at bakeries). We went for a walk in Kazimierz through the little streets we skipped the day before and picked up a few souvenirs along the way. Back to the city centre for lunch at Chimera, and then we met up with Polish friends of my other half who were also in town that weekend. First we went to Café Camelot for a pitstop, then we visited the Gallery of the 19th-Century Polish Art in the Sukiennice. We went for a drink at Botanica café, and then tried to find a burger place that had space for 4 people and a toilet (which was harder than it might seem). We settled for Bobby Burger and then went back to our Airbnb for some drinks.
We had an early start on Sunday, with the leftovers from the breakfast the day before. We crossed the city centre for the last time to catch the bus to the airport. As sad as it makes me to leave Cracow, I was a tiny bit relieved as well as the smog was starting to get to us. It was very busy at the airport but luckily we found a quiet spot and a very good reason to spend our last złoty’s: on pierogi, of course!