15 March 2018

A Weekend in Kraków, Poland

When I found an opening in my travel schedule for a weekend break in March, Kraków fit the bill perfectly. Attractive, easy to explore on foot and with plenty of history, culture and, of course, coffee to keep me busy for a weekend, the southern Polish city had long been on my list. I knew that travelling in early March meant there was a good chance of bad weather, but after a chilly first night, I was treated to beautiful sunshine and highs of 17C. Despite the variable weather, I packed for the weekend with my usual travel backpack. I took an afternoon flight from London, arriving in Kraków on Friday evening, and my return flight wasn't until Sunday evening, giving me a full 48 hours in the city — enough to visit some of the key sights and develop a taste for more. This is what I got up to.

With no luggage to collect, I walked straight from my plane to the train station at John Paul II Krakow-Balice International Airport. Tickets, which cost 9 zł (about £1.90), are available from the machine on the platform, and the journey to Kraków's Główny station takes about half an hour. I stayed at Home Hotel, a small hotel I chose primarily because of its price (about £45 per night) and proximity to the Stare Miasto (Old Town), the Kazimierz neighbourhood and Java Coffee Company. My room was small and basic but clean and comfortable, and the staff were very welcoming. The hotel is located on a quiet street, although there was some noise from other guest rooms both nights.

I stayed in my room just long enough to drop off my backpack and dig out my hat and gloves before heading back out into the cool, crisp night. I was ravenous and the cold weather made me crave comfort food. Luckily, I had come to the right place: the land of those delicious parcels of joy called pierogi. I strolled south through Kazimierz, the historic Jewish neighbourhood, which was lively on a Friday night, and enjoyed some of Kraków's varied and interesting street art on the way to dinner.

For dinner, I went to a cosy, homey restaurant called Marchewka z Groszkiem (carrots and peas) and found a small, candlelit table at the back. I had planned to have the titular carrot and pea soup, but they were all out and after confirming from the waitress that it would be a bad idea to order potato pancakes and pierogi, I just went for a portion of ten beef and pork pierogi. They came served with butter and bacon and were delicious and very filling. Not bad for 15 zł (£3.20). Afterwards, I stopped briefly at a relaxed neighbourhood bar called Alchemia, a few blocks further north, before heading for a spin around the 13th century Old Town square, Rynek Główny. My carb quotient for the day not quite complete, I picked up a still-warm pączek (doughnut) filled with rose jam at Gorace Pączki in the Old Town.

I went for breakfast at Blossom, a coffee shop, cocktail bar and all-day eatery with an impressive breakfast menu. I've highlighted some of Krakow's best coffee shops in this guide.

Whenever I visit a new city and especially when I'm short on time, I try to take a walking tour. This time, I took a free Walkative tour of Kraków's Old Town, which took about 2 1/2 hours. It was a beautiful morning for a walk, and we saw and learned a lot about the history of the city — there is some World War II history included, but the scope is a lot broader. From St Mary's Basilica and the Cloth Hall in the Rynek Główny, to the Franciscan Church (unassuming from the outside but with stunning stained glass), our cheerful guide Iza regaled us with facts and tales, sometimes asking whether we'd believed one of the myths and legends she had imparted.

We finished the tour at Wawel Castle, the fairytale castle perched on the hill above the Old Town. After a quick tour through the (free bits of the) cathedral, we looked down at the fire-breathing dragon perched on the banks of the Vistula River. I originally planned to spend the afternoon visiting the cathedral tower and the palace, but the latter is being renovated and it was too nice a day to be inside.

After two more coffees and a quick bite to eat at Karma, I went on another walk of my own, hunting out street art murals in the neighbourhoods just to the west of the Old Town. I then continued down to the river, walking past the castle, stopping to people-watch at Forum Przestrzenie, an industrial space turned bar and event space on the waterfront.

15:00 I followed the river round to Podgórze, the south-of-the-river neighbourhood where the Jewish Ghetto was once located. The architecture was striking and there was lots of street art to see; with more time, I would have liked to take a guided walk in this neighbourhood too. My next destination was Kazimierz, just across the Vistula from Podgórze. I had a coffee shop to visit and there was a lot going on in the area, from street food markets to live music, and even more murals.

For dinner, I walked to a hip, industrial-chic area northwest of the Old Town, which centres around the tobacco factory turned foodie hub and cultural centre, Tytano. I had a casual dinner at gourmet sandwich joint Meat & Go, where the porchetta sandwich was only 23 zł (£4.85), but huge and tasty. There are more formal restaurants, like Cargo, too and I had planned to go for a post-dinner drink at a sleek, cool bar called Lastriko but wasn't feeling well.

My original plan was to go for a morning run around the Planty, the verdant park that wraps around the Old Town, but I still wasn't feeling well enough. Instead, I went for a brisk walk back to the Podgórze area. I planned to have breakfast at BAL, but Google Maps took me to the (closed) MOCAK museum cafe instead (enter the industrial estate from Przemysłowa, and BAL is ahead of you and to the right). I ordered coffee (a flat white that looked the part but didn't seem to be made with speciality coffee) and breakfast, but the breakfast didn't arrive before I had to leave for my museum appointment. Other people's meals looked lovely, however.

I booked my ticket for the Museum of the History of Kraków, located in Oskar Schindler's Factory, online but it didn't seem to matter as despite the queue, everyone was able to get in, booking or none. I paid 29 zł (about £6) for a ticket for both this and the neighbouring MOCAK. As for the historical museum, it was detailed, informative, interesting and sobering. You don't really need a guide, as most displays have English translations, but it might help you get even more out of your visit.

Just next door, the MOCAK is well worth a wander for an hour or so. The modern art gallery has a large collection of Polish art and it is well presented and enjoyable to walk through. Don't miss the famous Kunst macht frei (art will make you free) sign in the permanent collection — particularly thought-provoking after hearing about Auschwitz and the other concentration camps near Kraków.

Having missed breakfast, I needed a filling lunch and so it was definitely pierogi o'clock. I stopped at Restauracja Polakowski, a cheap and cheerful self-service restaurant in Kazimierz. My eight pierogi cost 12 zł (£2.50), and this time I opted for the ruskie style with potato and cottage cheese. I had the choice of butter or bacon on top, but the crunchy, crispy bacon pieces were so tasty before, I couldn't quite keep my meal vegetarian.

I spent the afternoon walking and people-watching in the Old Town. I climbed the 70m town hall tower, a steep climb with very old, if not original, steps. There's a nice view of the city from the top — worth the 10 zł (£2.10) fee. I wasn't able to go into the main section of St Mary's Basilica, the Rynek Główny church with two towers of uneven heights, as I had used up all my cash and you can't pay for the 10 zł ticket with card. Instead, I had a quick peek through the prayer entrance, and the church's bold, bright interiors are indeed impressive. I could use my credit card everywhere else (apart from tipping my walking tour guide), so you may find you can avoid having to withdraw any złoty altogether.

After buying one of the hoopla-ring-shaped breads called obwarzanki krakowskie from one of the  many vendors around the Old Town and basking in the sunshine a little longer, I visited one final coffee shop and then eventually made my way back to the station, to return to the airport. I hope I'll be back again soon, although a trip to Warsaw may be on the cards first.

It turned out to be a very cheap weekend: I spent just over £200 on flights with BA and my hotel. I then spent about £60 on everything else — food, drink, sightseeing, transport and coffee. I ended up doing no shopping at all, mainly because most of the shops I found were in the Old Town and very touristy. If you have an extra day, you could consider taking a half-day trip to the nearby Wieliczka salt mine, or to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I visited a different concentration camp on a school history trip two decades ago, and although it was a tough experience, it was an important one.

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