Of all the places I’m visiting during my three months in Eastern Europe, Kraków is the only one I’ve been to previously. I stayed in Kraków for two nights during my Contiki tour almost exactly three years before. I loved Kraków so much during my first visit that it was one of the reasons I was drawn back to discover more of this area of the world.
I arrived in the late afternoon and headed out in the evening in search of food. I specifically wanted a kebab in order to try and recreate a photo from last time.
I remembered the main square being a highlight, but I wasn’t counting on being quite so filled with joy at seeing it. I walked around the semi-familiar streets as if recalling them from a dream I’d had long ago, eating my kebab in the twilight, discovering different buskers around each corner, many with large, enthusiastic crowds surrounding them. Children played under sprinklers in the main square, locals and tourists both young and old ate ice cream, and the buildings of the Old Town glowed magically in the evening light. I think the best way to describe my feelings at that moment would be satisfied and content.
After the main square, there are three top places to visit in Kraków, all of which I saw with my Contiki tour three years previously. I’d highly recommend them all.
1. Wawel Castle. The castle area is cool, but the best part there for me was exiting through the dragon’s lair, a spiral staircase that goes down into the cliff, ending in a cave tunnel deep underground which eventually brings you out to the riverside. As you go down the stairs you can feel the temperature drop lower and lower as you head under the ground. You emerge next to the dragon statue by the river which breathes real fire at intervals throughout the day.
2. Auschwitz-Birkenau. This one has to be done as a day trip but it is definitely worth it. It didn’t feel as depressing to be there as I thought it would, but some aspects of it were quite confronting. By the time I got to Auschwitz with the Contiki tour I was feeling a bit overexposed to World War II (Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna etc), and after visiting I felt like I never needed to hear anything more about the Holocaust. But eventually it became interesting to me again and having seen the actual camp itself made everything I’ve heard about it since seem even more real and striking.
3. Wieliczka Salt Mine. This turned out to be one of the main highlights of the trip for me and is still one of my favourite locations of all time. I never knew that salt could be used to create such amazing spectacles.
This time in Kraków I wanted to see some of the lesser known attractions. I was rewarded with great views, few tourists, and amazingly delicious and affordable food. This is how it went:
1. Kościuszko Mound. From an aerial viewpoint it kinda looks like a big green poo, but it provides a full 360 degree panoramic view of Kraków and its surrounding areas. The mound was erected in the early 1800s as a dedication to Polish military hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. You can learn all about him and his military efforts (and also some other random famous Polish people that I think they just threw in because they could) in the museum adjoining the mound. It has some displays made up of little toy soldiers and most of the information is available in English. Entrance to the mound and museum is through a joint ticket for $5.
2. Zakrzówek. Once a quarry, this large area became a lake when an underground reservoir was pierced. The depth varies between 7 and 21m and while it’s technically prohibited to swim the pool attracts a large number of locals during the summer months and I did see a few people swimming. You can even take a scuba diving course to see the strange things under the surface of the water such as vehicles, sunken boats and old quarry change rooms.
3. Kazimierz and Schindler’s Factory. The area of Kazimierz was once the centre of Kraków’s Jewish life after they were expelled from the main city centuries ago. Now the streets are lined with interesting boutique shops and delicious cheap food in the Plac Nowy. Across the river is the factory which was run by Oskar Schindler, made famous by the film Schindler’s List. The factory is now home to two museums: a Contemporary Art Museum and a branch of Kraków’s Historical Museum.
My final day in Kraków started of sunny and warm but ended up super windy and I raced the rain clouds back to my hostel just in time. Then I went to catch my bus to Lviv, leaving Poland behind and entering new territory in Ukraine. My bus arrived 5 hours late, but it did arrive eventually.