In times when travel opportunities are risky and limited, I appreciate each memory from my past travels even more. I love to explore new places, I find it enriching, even when it’s just a short, one day trip somewhere not too far from home. One of my fairly recent trips was one to Cracow, about a year ago now. I went there hoping to document it on the blog and took dozens of photos, but then life got busy and I never actually got round to posting the trip. Until now, that is.
Cracow, or Kraków in Polish, is one of the main Polish cities. A former capital (1038-1596), it’s amongst the few Polish towns recognised by foreigners, at least in Europe. It tends to be a cheap weekend breakaway destination for western Europe and it’s believed that most visitors, at least from the younger generations, only see the inside of the pubs in the city centre. And although there’s nothing wrong in choosing to unwind in that fashion, it’s a shame that the pretty town isn’t that well known for its sightseeing value.
Getting to Cracow from my home town took about an hour on the couch. I arrived at the city’s main train & coach station, joint with a shopping centre. From there, it’s only a short walk to the old town and the market square, one of the most picturesque locations.
The market square is known for three main features. St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall, and the pigeons.
St Mary’s Basilica is a gothic church which dates back to the 14th century, particularly famous for its carved wooden altarpiece. A trumpet signal is played from the top of the taller of the two towers on every hour. The tune breaks off in mid-stream, to commemorate a famous 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before an attack on the city.
The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice in Polish) was originally a gothic building as well, until it was destroyed by fire in the 16th century and rebuild in renaissance style. It’s always been home to trade – merchants met there to exchange experiences and goods. The hall saw a variety of exotic imports from the east – spices, silk, leather and wax – while Cracow itself exported textiles, lead and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Currently, the hall is filled with souvenir and artwork shops.
Last but not least, the market square has always been full of pigeons. As cool as they look in photos, they’re considered vermin and feeding them has been strictly prohibited in the last years, but the population of pigeons hasn’t shrunk at all.
If you fancy sightseeing Cracow in style, you may consider taking a tour starting in the market square in one of the fancy horse carriages.
If you follow the crowd from the main market square, you’ll walk towards the second of the famous landmarks in Cracow – Wawel Hill with the Wawel Castle and Cathedral. During your walk there (which is only a few minutes long), leading through the Cracow’s Old Town, you’ll pass a few interesting, contemporary locations. The two I’d recommend visiting is the world’s smallest sweets factory and – if you’re a Harry Potter fan like I am – the Leaky Cauldron.
The Leaky Cauldron is a small cafe with interior decor straight from the Harry Potter universe. Located in a basement with natural stone walls, it looks like a real dungeon. The paintings on the wall scream and laugh when you walk past them and you can truly feel like you’re in a magical world. The menu features items such as the famous Butterbeer and whilst placing your order at the bar, instead of a table number you’ll use the name of a wizard whose picture is hanging by your table.
Ciuciu, the sweets factory, claims to be the smallest sweets factory in the world. You can not only buy the goodies, made with all natural ingredients and using old fashioned methods, but you can also watch them being made. Great attraction for children, but adults will be amused as well – can confirm!
The Wawel Castle, located on the Wawel Hill, was a residence of Polish kings for centuries. It represents architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. Beside the Castle, the complex features the Wawel Cathedral, where Polish monarchs were crowned and buried. You can visit the Castle and the Cathedral for a fee (be prepared for a lengthy tour).
At the foot of the Wawel Hill, by the Vistula River bank, stands a dragon statue. The Dragon of Wawel Hill first appeared in Polish chronicles in the 13th century and it’s one of the country’s most famous myths. The metal statue commemorates the tale and is a popular tourist attraction, breathing real fire every 5 or so minutes.
When you’re in Cracow, you’ll likely see these big, round savoury pretzels sold in the streets. They’re one of the symbols of Cracow and I definitely recommend trying one. You’ll find them with a variety of toppings, most popular being onion, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and salt.
A short walk away from the Castle along the Vistula River bank, there’s another church – Saint Michael the Archangel and Saint Stanislaus the Bishop and Martyr Basilica, a romanesque building erected in the 11th century.
From there, it’s a stone’s throw to Kazimierz – the district of Cracow where historically Polish and Jewish cultures coexisted. After the Second World War, when Jewish population in Cracow was almost nonexistent, the district was neglected by the communist authorities. Nowadays however, it’s home to an annual Jewish Culture Festival. Fun fact – Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning film, Schindler’s List, was largely filmed in Kazimierz.
One of the synagogues – Old Synagogue, named so due to being the oldest synagogue building in Poland – was converted to a Jewish culture museum.
On the way back to the train station, walking through the Old Town again, I went past the Barbican. Next to St Florian’s Gate connecting the Old Town with the rest of the city you can admire (or buy) impressive paintings – the display has been a characteristic part of the Old Town ever since I remember.
Last but not least, I walked past Juliusz Slowacki Theatre. The building, erected at the end of the 19th century, was modeled after some of the best European baroque and eclectic theatres such as the Palais Garnier in Paris.
Check out my other adventures too!