A Memorable Weekend in Krakow, Poland

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We spent a chilly weekend getting to know Krakow and its intricate history. Once a home to royalty, Krakow is a well-preserved medieval city located on the bank of the Vistula River in southern Poland. Yes, Krakow boasts great food, trendy cafes, historical charm, and a castle that rivals most fairy tales, but I challenge you to dig a little deeper. So stay with me for a little history.

The city of Krakow has always played an integral role in Polish history and was truly at the epicenter of Poland’s economic, political, and cultural growth throughout the 14th century. By the 1600’s Krakow’s economy began to decline and Warsaw was appointed Poland’s new capital. The Swedish Wars in the 17th century left the country in further devastation. Between 1795 and 1918 Poland was under complete Austrian control. Its independence as a free nation was short lived, as Poland was quickly overtaken by the Germans at the beginning of WWII and Krakow was transformed into Nazi headquarters.

Hans Frank, Germany’s Governer of Poland, took up residence in Wawel Castle and Krakow’s main square was swiftly renamed after Adolf Hitler. Krakow’s thriving Jewish community, accounting for a fourth of the city’s population, was confined to a brutal, overcrowded ghetto. Those who survived were deported to concentration camps, most notably Auschwitz, as an integral part of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” to eradicate all Jews. Six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered during the Holocaust, 1.5 million at Auschwitz alone.

Krakow was liberated in 1945 by Soviet forces. The city was preserved better than most during WWII due to its stronghold by the Germans. Under Soviet control, Krakow was transformed from an intellectual center to a bleek industrialized city. After 44 years of Communism, Poland was once again freed in 1989.

Poland has weathered one storm after another throughout its turbulent history. Krakow will always carry scars of Nazi occupation and the brutal devastation of WWII, but a visit to Krakow reflects a very human story of both suffering and strength. The Kazimierz district, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, is lively with Jewish restaurants, colorful murals, and traditional Klezmer music. Jewish synagogues and prayer houses are undergoing renovations and Jewish heritage is once again being recognized, commemorated, and celebrated. Over the past 30 years, Poland has regained its footing and its economy is now booming at a remarkable rate.

Our visit to Krakow was a bit of a whirlwind compressed into a long weekend. We left the kids with their grandparents and embarked on a snowy drive through Slovakia’s lower Tatra Mountains. We joined up with a free walking tour of the Jewish district, literally arriving in Krakow with five minutes to spare. The tour was a great introduction to Krakow’s history and it was nice to be guided around a new city. Walking the cobblestone streets and imagining the once vibrant Jewish community was haunting. From houses of prayer to poignant memorials and the Jewish ghetto walls, the tour covered a great deal in a short time frame.

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The tour ended in the historic Jewish ghetto and we made our way back across the whimsical “Lover’s bridge” to PURO hotel. I don’t usually gush about accommodations, but this hotel was fantastic. It is conveniently located in the Jewish district, but easily walkable to the charming Old Town. Nice contemporary design, high-tech, environmentally friendly, amazing breakfast, and all the free coffee and tea you could ever want for a very reasonable price (even better when booked with points). I would not hesitate to stay at another PURO hotel if we ever make our way back to Poland again.

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Once we could again feel our toes and were suitably caffeinated we headed out for dinner. Krakow has a great food scene and it was nice to enjoy a leisurely meal without the kids. We ate Jewish Polish cuisine at Ariel, which felt like a combination of an art museum and grandma’s house. Matzoh ball soup and a plate of perogies made for a perfect combination on a cold night.

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On day two, we headed to Krakow’s Old Town and enjoyed the walk up to Wawel Royal Castle. Completed in the 14th century on a limestone hill, this massive complex served as the royal residence to Polish kings for centuries. Wawel Castle is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and national symbol. The grounds are free to enter and lovely to roam. We toured the state rooms and were blown away by the display of opulence. From the intricately carved wooden ceilings, marble tiled floors, and Flemish tapestries to an original throne, Poland’s magnificent past was truly brought to life.

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We walked down Wawel Hill into town to explore Rynek Glowny Central Square. The square dates back to the 13th century and ranks as one of the largest medieval squares in all of Europe. The main attraction inside the square is the iconic Cloth Hall, which has been a major hub for Eastern European trade for centuries. At one time the market stalls were filled with goods like spices, leather, silk, and salt from the nearby Wieliczka salt mine. Today, you will find a mix of handmade goods and souvenirs, including Polish dolls, wooden chess sets, and amber jewelry.

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Like many European cities, Krakow’s Christmas Market is a major winter highlight. The square was filled with local artisans selling goods from festive stalls with plenty of Polish gastronomic specialities. My personal wintertime essential is a mug of good mulled wine- definitely one of the best ways to warm up during the holiday season!

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After a morning of exploring, we settled in for lunch at the family-run restaurant Pod Aniolami, just a few minutes from the main square. The food was excellent and the decor was so charming. We also found the perfect little coffee house for booklovers on our way back to Kazimierz. Cytat Cafe is brimming with books and wonderfully cozy. Definitely a little treasure worth checking out!

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Next on the agenda was a tour of Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, an interactive museum covering Krakow’s history during WWII. The bulk of the exhibit chronicled the devastating impact of Nazi occupation on Poland. It was an interesting and moving exhibit, but we left wanting more on Oskar Schindler and the factory itself. Only a small portion of the museum was actually dedicated to Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews. Another very interesting little museum is the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, which was the only business allowed to continue operation within the ghetto. The pharmacy, run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, provided essential medical care, funds, food, and a safe meeting place to exchange information for Jews within the ghetto. The pharmacy also clandestinely helped Jews escape the ghetto to avoid deportation.

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For dinner, we wandered back to the Kazimierz district for some modern Israeli cuisine at Hamsa. With a slogan “make hummus not war”, the restaurant was very lively and the food was exceptional. We started with a mezze platter in the shape of a beautiful hamsa, an open palm symbolizing protection. The portions were generous and the mains were just as delicious as the starters.

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We turned in early for a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our big day to follow. We checked out early and made the hour drive from Krakow to Oświęcim Poland to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The site of the largest mass murder in human history, Auschwitz was the principal and most notorious concentration and extermination camp opened by German Nazis in 1940. Nearly 1.5 million people were murdered. Mostly Jews, but also Poles, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war. Most were gassed on arrival. Many others died of starvation, disease, brutality, execution, or horrific and inhumane medical experimentation.

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Walking through the iron gates, standing in a gas chamber and bearing witness to such horrific atrocities was a difficult and somber experience. One that I am still processing today. What I know for certain is that I will be an ambassador for kindness and equality. I will stand up for injustice. I will model to my children the importance of fairness. Let us challenge anti-semitism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and bigotry of all kinds. The Holocaust will not be forgotten.

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General Recommendations and Ticketing:

We traveled to Krakow “off-season” and while the town wasn’t overly crowded, pre-booking is still quite important for many of the sites. We toured Auschwitz with Craco Local Tours, as there weren’t any more English tours available directly through Auschwitz. We felt very fortunate to have an extremely knowledgeable guide and would definitely recommend a guided tour for others. It is possible to visit Auschwitz independently if you wish to take in the site at your own pace; however, time slots are limited to certain hours of the day and you still need to schedule in advance. Admission without a guide is free. Tickets can be reserved up to three months in advance with or without a guide. The standard tour is 3.5 hours and covers Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps. There is a free shuttle bus between the two camps that runs every ten minutes. Our visit to Auschwitz was emotionally difficult, but a very important part of our trip. I highly recommend taking the time to visit Auschwitz to all who visit Krakow.

If you wish to tour Schindler’s factory, it is also recommended to reserve a time slot prior to your visit. There is an option to purchase a combined ticket for Schindler’s Factory and the Pharmacy Under the Eagle if you plan on touring both. We arrived early in the day to purchase tickets at Wawel Castle, but tickets are also available on Krakow’s central museum website for advance purchase. There are a wide variety of free and paid walking tours available throughout Krakow depending on your time and interest. A visit to the Wieliczka salt mine also looks fascinating and is one of the top tourist attractions in Poland. Another intriguing day trip option is to explore the picturesque mountain town of Zakopane, less than two hours from Krakow. If you are looking to combine a visit to Krakow with another Central European city, Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest are all within a six hour radius.

All in all, we had a very interesting weekend in Krakow. Without the kids, we were able to delve more deeply into the region’s complex history, join up on walking tours, and take advantage of more leisurely dining. Krakow may not be the first city you think of when dreaming of travel destinations, but it truly has a lot to offer and for good value. It’s a small enough city not to be overwhelming, but there is definitely plenty to see, do, and eat. I think it’s fair to say history lovers and foodies alike will be intrigued by what this fascinating city has to offer.

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