This trip to Krakow was my 1st acquaintance with Poland and I couldn't have imagined a better one! Poland's former capital is one of elegance: from the authentic charm of the Old City, to the peaceful escapism of the Vistula River, to the hipster vibes of the former Jewish district. Never have I witnessed such a religious place, from the countless churches to the priests and nuns everywhere, yet the city is the most approachable. Its relatively small size means you can do everything by foot and you'll never feel lost. Add a low cost of living to this and you got yourself the perfect - alternative - getaway!
Visit of the Wawel Hill
The hill that proudly overlooks Krakow is inextricably linked to its history. It's a very pleasant area to discover - and a very popular one - which brings together three main sights. First there is the Wawel Castle. Built in the 16th century in Renaissance style, Krakow's castle is one of the biggest courts of Europe (at the time more than 1,000 people could live there). Nowadays its rooms can be visited for its incredible treasures (such as an exceptional collection of gold infused tapestries from Brussels) but be aware that you'll have to queue to get your tickets and that it will take you a while to go through the castle's many rooms. Second is the Wawel Cathedral, one of Poland's most important churches. It was first erected in the 14th century, but over the centuries chapels were added to its body, which explains the cathedral's eclectic mix of styles: Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance. It is here that most coronations and burials of kings of Poland took place. Finally, there is the view from the hill upon the surroundings. The fortifications of the Wawel Castle offer an epic panorama over the Vistula River, also referred to as the Queen of the Polish rivers, as well as the former Jewish quarter...
Wandering through Kazimierz
The Jewish district in the South of the Old City is known as Kazimierz and is particularly fascinating. For many centuries, it was actually an independent state, with a separate government, until integrating Krakow in the 19th century. Like the rest of the city, this neighborhood remained untouched during World War II because the Nazis installed the 'General Government' from central and southern Poland in Krakow. However, Kazimierz saw many horrors during that time as over 65,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation. It is because of its preserved character that Steven Spielberg came to Krakow's Jewish district to film his 'Schlinder's List' in 1993.
Nowadays Kazimierz has become one of the most hip places of the city, with countless cafés and restaurants, as well as a very particular vibe that speaks to hipsters like me. A great place to have lunch is Hummus Amamamusi (Beera Meiselsa 4). You've probably guessed it already, this is where you'll get a taste of the best hummus in town in a small, unpretentious place, for a very affordable price. The only question is whether you'll go for the classic version or one of their many special flavors. After you've had lunch, you're ready for a little shopping and for this you have to be at Józefa Street! Beyond the cracked facades of this artistic street, you'll find many vintage shops and unique boutiques. Look out for the addresses that sell Polish design such as Unikke Design (nr 6) for jewelry, and Marka (nr 5) for tableware and other pretty stuff. At the east end of Józefa Street, near the Old Synagogue, you can stop for coffee or tea at Cheder (nr 36) while flipping through some books about Jewish culture. End your exploration of the neighborhood by paying a visit to the Pauline Church on the Rock. Not only does it boast a lovely garden, its location near the Vistula River is also very pleasant.
Chilling on the banks of the Vistula River
The Queen of the Polish rivers got its name for its extreme length, coming all the way from the Tatra Moutains. A city with a river always has that little extra charm and this is also true for Krakow. Take your time as you walk along the meanders of the Vistula River, the same place many locals go to walk their dog or do some roller skating, and stop for drinks and people watching at Forum Przestrzenie (Marii Konopnickiej 28). Located inside a remarquable, former communist hotel, this place serves great cocktails and, most importantly, it boasts the best urban beach in town. Summer vibes guaranteed!
Stay at Radisson Blu Hotel | Straszewskiego 17, 31-101 Kraków
When it comes to hotels, I'm all about location. And the Radisson Blu Hotel in Krakow has the best of them, right on the border of the historic city center! This 5-star hotel has everything you might expect, plus a few nice surprises. If you book a Business Class room, you get free access to a fine selection of movies (I saw 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Phantom Thread' in there) as well as access to the so-called 'Pillow Menu'. Using their mobile app, you can order a specific pillow for you to sleep with, such as the 'Anti-Aging' of the 'Good night' pillow. Absolutely delightful! As for the breakfast buffet, it's very extensive and its daily changes will make you want to try everything.
Dinner at Szara Gęś w Kuchni | Rynek Główny 17, 31-008 Kraków
Krakow's relatively low cost of living means you get access to exceptional restaurants for a very decent price. That is how we pushed the doors of Szara Gęś w Kuchni, a gastronomic restaurant that's all about traditional Polish cuisine with a modern twist. The name of the restaurant means 'Grey Goose' and this isn't just a reference to their logo or the animal gracing the walls. It's actually a reminder of Poland's long tradition of having goose on the menu, one that got lost over the years but that Szara Gęś w Kuchni aims at bringing back. Don't worry, if you're not up for this specialty, there are still delicious plates for you to choice from (that can even be made vegetarian if you ask for it). Complement your meal with a local wine and awe at the amazing architecture of the 14th century building the restaurant is housed in. Definitely a night to remember!
Exploring the Old City
As mentioned earlier, Krakow has been remarkably preserved and its historic city center with its many ancient buildings is sure to have you transported to a different era! First stop on your Sunday stroll through the old city is Rynek Glowny, Krakow's main market square. Dating back to the 13th century, it's Europe's biggest medieval square! It used to be the administrative, commercial and religious center of the city and you can still see proof of that today. First the Town Hall was located on Rynek Glowny, although today only its tower remains. Second the Cloth Hall (or Sukiennice) was the city's main center of trading and is considered by some historians to be the oldest shopping center in the world. With its distinct Renaissance architecture, it's one Krakow's most famous architectural gems.
Last but not least, the Church of St. Mary is where religious life took place and it did so in the most sumptuous decor. The brick structure in Gothic style does not prepare you for the magic happening inside, one that is augmented by the unique, wooden altar depicting Virgin Mary's life. The church's twin spires are true symbols of the city and have two famous legends linked to them. The first legend tells the story of two brothers that each constructed one tower and how one of them ended up killing the other to make sure he would outdo him (only to end up killing himself afterwards). The second legend tells the story of the guard that played the trumpet in one of the towers to warn people of fires or approaching enemies and how he got shot by an arrow when doing so during one of the Tartar invasions. To this day, every hour a trumpet call is played by a real man and abruptly stopped to honor his sacrifice.
Lunch at Camelot Café | Świętego Tomasza 17, 33-332 Kraków
Hidden in a small, cobbled street perpendicular to the Royal Way, you'll find the charming terrace of Camelot Café. Their menu has everything you might crave for: baguettes, paninis, salads, but also dumplings (a local specialty) and breakfast things such as scrambled eggs and French toast (because these are always a good idea). When it's warm outside, the best place to enjoy your meal and a delicious, fresh juice is the shadowy, floral terrace in front. Still you should definitely have a look inside: what used to be a brothel was turned into the most enchanting place, complete with crooked floors and low-arched ceilings.
Exploring the Old City (continued)
With more than 20 churches, Krakow is sometimes called the second Rome. Now I know you might think visiting more than a couple of churches during one city trip would get you close to an overdose, but these are so unique you'll want to reconsider your position for Krakow. By the way, you'll quickly notice most churches are of Gothic style on the outside but decorated in Baroque style on the inside. The explanation for this is quite fascinating: in the 17th century, Krakow was invaded by the Swedish (yes, the city got invaded a lot) and because they were protestants, they emptied all the churches. So later on these were redecorated and this time the Baroque style was prevalent, hence the discrepancy between outside and inside.
My personal favorite is the Franciscan Church (pl. Wszystkich Świętych 5). Originally built in the 14th century, it was redecorated around 1900 in the most mesmerizing way. Entering the intimate, dark space, you discover wall paintings all around depicting vegetal themes, such as poppies, lilies and sunflowers, in honor of St. Francis, the patron of nature. This overload of patterns is complemented with unique, Art Nouveau stained glass by Stanislaw Wyspianski, the Gaudí of the North, at both ends. Equally opulent but in a totally different way is the Church of St. Anne (św. Anny 11). A fine example of Polish Baroque architecture, the church features massive columns guarding the entrance, whereas the inside is a true feast for eyes composed of intricate ceilings, countless statues and soft, pastel colors. The Church of St. Anne serves as collegiate church and it is worth visiting the Collegium Maius and its lovely courtyard located nearby. This is the oldest remaining building of the Krakow University, which in turn is one of the oldest universities in Europe!
If you're looking for a place to take a break and have some refreshments or some coffee, stop at Bona (ul. Kanonicza 11). Their lemonades with freshly cut fruits are delicious and you won't resist having a slice of cake to go with it. The café slash bookstore is located in the oldest street of Krakow and it's just a few steps away from the Romanesque Church of St. Andrew (Grodzka 54) with its distinct pulpit in the shape of a boat and lots of golden details, as well as the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (Grodzka 52A) with its remarkable entrance featuring statues of the apostles.
Whether throughout the day or at the end of the afternoon, have a stroll in Planty Park, the green oasis that surrounds the Old City. Having a park perfectly encompass the historic center is a pretty unique feature for a city and this is thanks to the fact that is was made on the location of the ancient city walls. Because of the multiple invasions by Mongols (indeed, more invasions), these were erected in the 13th century. A few hundred years later, in the 19th century, these were turned down and replaced by lovely gardens and pathways.
Dinner at Pod Nosem | Kanonicza 22, 31-002 Kraków
In the same street where you found Bona (one of Krakow's finest), beneath the Wawel Hill, you'll find Pod Nosem, the perfect place to end your Polish getaway. Inside a historic house, their rewarded chef serves traditional Polish cuisine but revisited through light and original dishes. Their selection of wines comes from around the world and the menu changes monthly to highlight seasonal products. This is again a place that offers fine, local cuisine but for a decent price considering Belgian standards.
There are direct flights taking you from Brussels to Krakow in just 2 hours. The Krakow Card is a great bargain since it gives you free access to many cultural places. For more information on Poland, you can visit the website of the Polish Tourism Organisation. Oh and don't forget they don't have the euro in Poland!