After a few days in Bucharest we caught an overnight train to Budapest. We arrived at 4am and navigated 5km with our backpacks through the darkened streets to the Bus Station, bound for Krakow.
Krakow is one of my three favourite cities in the world. Everyone we met who had visited the cultural capital of Poland has raved about it, yet even with so much hype built the city still exceeded our expectations. Our walk from the bus station to our hostel took us through the bustling CBD and emerged into the magnificent old town. Remarkably undamaged by the second world war (unlike much of Poland), Krakow boasts the largest medieval town square in Europe; over 9 acres of sprawling markets, restaurants and architecture with more than 800 years of history.
After staying in hotels in Dubai and Bucharest, Krakow was also going to be our first taste of true hostel life. Ash and I both have pretty great memories of hostelling during our own respective past backpacking trips, but this time we are a little closer to 30 than 18 and were nervous to see if we could still keep up with the kids. We decided to jump right into it and booked one of the biggest party hostels in Eastern Europe, the Little Havana Party Hostel. With pub crawls every night and staff coming into each dorm room at 9pm to deliver free shots to guests, this would be the perfect test. Fortunately we quickly met like minded travellers in our dorm and despite the fact we were almost 10 years older than them, the four of us joined the pub crawl and we went out to experience Saturday night in Krakow. As a university town Krakow has some fantastic bars and clubs, and we like to think we held our own partying.
We awoke the following day surprisingly bright eyed and joined another free walking tour. In the unseasonably warm sunshine we explored one of the oldest universities in Europe, visited the controversial Pope’s window, and learned why the mighty city of Krakow lost its position as capital of Poland to Warsaw. Spoiler: In the 16th Century the King was dabbling in alchemy (as you do) and managed to burn down the palace. The Royal Court ‘temporarily’ moved to Warsaw while the Krakow palace was being rebuilt, and was then too lazy to ever move back. A damn shame if you ask me (and our somewhat biased guide), because Krakow is infinitely better than the Polish capital.
The tour ended in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which is now a happening hipster district with a checkered and interesting past dating back to the 14th Century. After the local Jews were forced from Kazimierz to the Krakow ghetto in 1940, the neighborhood was largely neglected under respective Nazi and Soviet occupying authorities. This led to the previously wealthy district being used for social housing, and developing a reputation for a high crime rate and drug use into the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
The area began to revitalise in the 90’s, thanks in part to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List being shot largely in the district. Today Kazimierz is the most exciting area in Krakow, with a Brooklyn-like bohemian atmosphere fuelled by its countless cafes, bars and live music venues. Most importantly, Kazimierz is easily the home of the best Zapiekanka in the world. Zapiekanka is a Polish street food, consisting of an open-faced sandwich made from a baguette, sauteed mushrooms, cheese and any other toppings you can think of. In the middle of the market square of Kazimierz there is a rotunda with dozens of tuckshop style windows, each of which boasts of having the most ‘authentic’ Zapiekanka. A good tip is to join the line with the most locals, and while we only tried one we can personally attest to how good they are. Apparently the locals favour this massive feast often during a night out in Kazimierz, using a 3:1 ratio (3 beers then 1 Zapiekanka)- which seems like a lot because these things are massive.
On our third day in Krakow we travelled to Auschwitz, an incredibly powerful experience which Ash describes here. Upon returning we felt haunted and fragile, so were in desperate need of comfort food. We found refuge in a deliciously overpriced tourist restaurant in the main old town square, and then (still freezing from the tour) went on a quest for mulled wine. We found some in a tiny, romantic bar down a side street, where we sat in silence, reflecting and people watching. We were inches away from a couple on a blind date, and though our Polish was non-existent the language of nervousness and adorable awkwardness is universal. We eventually left the bar, physically and emotionally warmed, and made our way back to the hostel contemplating the extremes of human nature.
Inspired by our Kazimierz tour (and Ash’s total World War 2 nerdiness), we bought tickets for a tour of Oskar Schindler’s factory. We had even watched Schindler’s List the night before in preparation, and were excited to see how the movie compared to the real story. As it turns out the factory is quite some distance from where we were staying, and despite walking for over 15km the preceding day we hadn’t yet mastered the Krakow public transport system. We made an executive decision to catch a taxi or uber to the factory on the other side of town. Unfortunately we had forgotten that ordering an uber requires an internet connection, which we didn’t have, and after being unsuccessful in hailing down any of the 50 taxis I waved at (maybe taxis need to be pre-booked in Krakow – or I was just super unlucky) we resigned ourselves to the fact that it wasn’t going happen. With a suddenly free day we simply wandered the streets, getting lost in the old town and surrounding suburbs.
Krakow Verdict: It’s hard to fit Krakow into only a few days. The city has so much to offer; both historical and modern that we could never do it justice. Krakow is a vibrant, bustling metropolis with a history dating back over 1000 years. It has everything you could want in a European city, and we’ve already made plans to come back during this trip.