GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
Krakow, home of Polish kings and queens for half of millennium, is a city rich in historic details, art and architecture, whose history blends flawlessly with the present, allowing the citys legends and tradition to carry on to this day.
Vibrant with youth and energy, Krakow is the heart and soul of Poland, an atmosphere that can be felt in every one of the citys most visited sites, from its splendid Royal Renaissance Castle perched upon a hilltop to its esteemed 14th century Jagiellonian University.
Designated as one of the European Cities of Culture for the year 2000, Krakows numerous historic buildings and monuments contain more than 2.5 million works of art, which miraculously werent destroyed during World War II.
In addition to history, art and culture, Krakow is geographically rich, situated on the Vistula River, and not far from the beautiful Tatra and Pieniny Mountains of the South.
WHEN TO GO
Krakows climate is transitional, so there can always be unexpected surprises. The best time to visit is while it is pleasantly warm, mid-May to mid-June and mid-Sept. to mid-Oct. From mid-Autumn until mid-Spring it is colder and darker, however, cultural life in Krakow remains active throughout the year and you can still enjoy the citys sites. Winter, with short and long periods of snow, is a good time to go if you plan to ski in the Tatras, whose peaks stay snow-covered well into May.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
LOT Polish Airlines has a non-stop flight to Krakow from Newark, NJ. Fares usually start around $666, but watch for special fare deals. Call (800) 223-0593. Krakows Balice Airport is about 15 km. west of Krakow. Bus number 152 will take you to the train station. You need a bus ticket for yourself and one for each large suitcase you have (60 x 40 x 20 cm). Make sure that you stamp both ends of your bus tickets in the little machine attached to a pole on the bus. Ticket inspectors do target tourists, and the fines are high compared to the price of the tickets.
Tickets can be purchased from kiosks and other establishments -- look for "MPK bilety" (ticket). They can also be bought from the driver for exact change, but there will be a surcharge of approximately 20%. Ticket prices: For one trip, any duration, about $0.40; for a one-hour trip that allows vehicle changes, about $0.50.
Buses and trams are the best way to get around after walking. If you need to take a taxi, they are easy to find, and it is cheaper to seek one out yourself than have your hotel call one for you.
The central train station, Krakow Glowny, is a simple ten-minute walk from the Main Market Square.
MAJOR ATTRACTIONSOld Town
The Old Town of Krakow is surrounded by a tranquil green park called the Planty. Best explored on foot, the old towns 13th century quarter, called the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe and has survived undamaged to the present day.
In the center of the square is the 14th century Cloth Hall, originally built for the sale of cloth, where craftspeople sell their work and souvenirs from wooden stalls.
Also in the Main Square is the Gothic St. Marys Church, with an incredibly beautiful wooden altar carved by Weit Stoss. Allow some time to explore the church -- there are a lot of exquisite details to take in. (St. Marys Church, Rynek Glowny 4, Admission: 2.50 zl. Open 11:30 AM to 6:00 PM, Sunday 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM).Krakows old town boasts numerous other outstanding churches, most of which can be visited for free. I wandered into a couple of churches during services and was surprised to see that not only were they beautiful, they were packed with young people.
The town also has many monuments and interesting buildings, such as the opulent Slowacki Theatre built in 1893, which has a 900-seat auditorium. There are plenty of fascinating museums to visit, too, such as the National Gallery and the Czartoryski Museum which contains Leonardo da Vincis famous Lady with an Ermine. (National Gallery, 3 Maja 1, 5 zl. Open Tuesday and Thursday to Sunday 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM, Wed. 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Closed Monday; Czartoryski Museum, ul. Sw. Jana 19, 5 zl. Open 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM, Friday 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Closed Monday).Kazimierz
Kazimierz is Europes most culturally and architecturally important Jewish quarter after Venice. Founded by Kazimierz the Great across the river from Krakow in 1335, it is where Oscar Schindler had his home and factory, at ul. Lipowa 4, which can be looked in if you can persuade the guard (for about 5 zl).Wawel Hill
Wawel Castle, the seat of Royalty for 500 years, and probably the most important historical site in Poland, is built atop a limestone hill on the bend of the Vistula River.Tour the Royal Chambers and you will be richly rewarded with astonishing detail. On the ceiling are the carved faces of 30 of Krakows townspeople from the Renaissance era, which are said to represent the voices of the people. The Baroque and Renaissance furnishings, and the famous 13th century Flemish tapestries decorating the walls are remarkable and are the finest examples of Renaissance art in Poland.
The stunning combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture of Wawel Cathedral will take your breath away. The resting place for centuries of Polish kings and queens, the current cathedral is actually the third to be built upon Wawel Hill; its construction began in 1320.
Downstairs are the Royal Tombs, where the cold hand of death is more closely felt than upstairs in the ornately decorated cathedral. In addition, on Wawel Hill there are several exhibitions (some of which are changing exhibits) in the Treasury and Armory, and the Cathedral Museum.
(Wawel Cathedral, free, Royal Tombs and Sigismund Tower, 6 zl., open 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM, Sunday 12:15 PM to 3:00 PM; Royal Chambers, 8 zl., Treasury and Armory, 8 zl, both open Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM, Friday 9:30 AM to 4:00 PM, Sunday 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. The number of visitors each day is limited, so get there early).
UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONSSigismunds Bell
While at Wawel Hill, climb to the top of Sigismunds Tower from inside the Cathedral. Duck beneath the thick wooden beams, follow the narrow stairs to touch Sigismunds Bell, which is said to give good luck. It is the largest bell in Poland and one so heavy (18 tons) that it takes eight strong people to ring it.Mystical Stones
Wawel is said to be one of the mystic energy centers of the world, for it contains a stone that is believed to bestow a sense of inner calm and relaxation on those who place themselves nearby. Located on the southwest wall of the inner castle courtyard, the spot was clear to me -- I saw groups of people pressing against it and the stains from years of people doing so.Dragons Den
Before you leave Wawel, check out the Dragons Den. Entering near the Thieves Tower, descend 135 steps into the dark, musty home of the legendary Krakow dragon. It is easy to imagine that the eerily lit cave with the sound of water dripping had once been the lair of a dragon. Emerged from the cave onto the bank of the Vistula by a fire-breathing bronze statue of the dragon.
(Sigismund Tower, see under "Major Attractions"; Dragons Den, open from May to September, from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM).Wieliczka Salt Mine
An absolutely incomparable site just 14 km. southeast of the city, Wieliczka Salt Mine has been on UNESCOs World Heritage List since 1978. I joined a tour of this 700 year-old working salt mine, visiting three of nine levels and 20 of more than 2000 chambers, including three chapels, the most famous being the Chapel of Saint Kinga, which is entirely made of salt, including the stairs, walls, chandeliers, ceiling and floor. Anyone who doubts this can just lick the wall.
There are 378 steps down to the first level of the tour, but it is well worth it. And when it is over, you ride back up in a slightly claustrophobic miners elevator. Those who need to descend by elevator can arrange this ahead of time and must pay a small lift charge. (Open 7:30 AM to 6:30 PM in summer (April 16 to October 15) and 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM the rest of the year. Tel. 48-12-278-73-02, ul. Danilowicza 10, Wieliczka. Adults 26 zl., discounted tickets 14 zl.).
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
Swimming is available at several outdoor pools June through August from about 10:00 to 6:00 PM for about $1.50 to $2.00 a person all day. Try Clepardia, ul. Mackiewicza 13; Krakowianka, ul. Zywiecka Boczna, or Wisla, ul. Reymonta 22. Also, an enormous new water park with pools and slides called Park Wodny is located on ul. Dobrego Pasterza 126, Tel. 48-12-413-73-99.For free, you can try your hand at rock-climbing on cliffs right in the city, west of Wawel Hill. Hiking can be done in the Tatra Mountains, about 100 km. South of Krakow.
There is river rafting trip through the Dunajec River Gorge in the Pieniny Mountains on a traditional, wooden raft, which can be done by day tour or by going there on your own. Ticket office is open from 8:30 to 5:00 PM, Tel: 48-18-262-97-21. $8 Adults, $4.50 Children.
There are numerous historical tours in the area worth checking out. From visits to Auchwitz/Birkenau to day trips to Warsaw, these are terrific opportunities to learn about Polish and Jewish history. The following three agencies jointly operate day tours from Krakow:Orbis
Rynek Glowny 41
Tel: 48-12-422-40-35 Intercrac
Tel: 48-12-422-58-40 Jan-Pol
in the Dom Turysty PTTK
15 ul. Westerplatte
Some of the tours they offer in English are:City sightseeing by coach, daily, 100 zl.Auchwitz-Birkenau, daily, 105 zl. Wieliczka Salt Mine, daily 110 zl.The Traces of Jewish Culture, Wednesday and Sunday, 100 zl Pieskowa Skala Castle, Thursday and Sunday, 180 zl. Zakopane, Wednesday and Saturday, 220 zl. Czestochowa, Tuesday and Friday, 220 zl. Dunajec River Gorge, Monday and Thursday, 350 zl. Warsaw, all but Monday, 380 zl.
Discounts of 25% are given to students on the Wieliczka and Auchwitz tours. Childrens discounts are 50% off, and a 10% discount is given for taking a second tour (except for students and children). Often these tour companies will pick you up at your hotel or at one of several convenient locations.
Another unique option is to visit The Jarden Jewish Book Shop in Kazimierz's Jewish quarter at ul. Szeroka 2. They offer Jewish heritage tours, including the Schindler's List Tour, which, for $15 per person includes the film's locations and other significant Jewish sites, and are operated daily in summer and at other times by request. Touring these places gave me a better sense of such an important part of Krakows history.If you prefer, this tour can be done independently by buying the Schindler's List Guidebook in the bookstore and touring on your own.
BEST ALTERNATIVESLanguage and Culture Courses
For Polish language courses, a great place to go is the highly esteemed Jagiellonian University, which offers a Summer School of Polish Language and Culture as well as one and two semester programs. Founded in 1364, it is the oldest University in Poland.
Jagiellonian University, Polonia Institute, Summer School of Polish
Language and Culture
As Polands largest tourist destination, Krakow has many different lodging choices. In high season (May to September) it could be more difficult to find a room with a reasonable rate, so I highly recommend advance reservations. Most rooms can be booked by phone, fax or online.
Travelers of all budgets can find something they will like. One of the nicest places to stay is in the atmospheric Old Town, where traffic is minimal and most sites are only a few steps from your door.
The Jagiellonian University Guest House
The Hotel Saski
Some other suggestions: Upper Price Range (more than $60):
Letni Hotel AWF
PTSM Youth Hostel
Another option is to arrange for a private room through Waweltur, ul. Pawia 8, (Tel. 48-12-422-16-40, Tel./Fax 48-12-422-19-21), next door to the tourist office. Open Monday to Friday from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, Saturday 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
Polish food is very good, though it tends to be heavy with cream and focused on meat and dumplings. Krakow is loaded with good eating establishments, about 350 of them to be exact. For traditional Polish cuisine, and to feast where royalty once did, go to Wierzynek. Located on the Main Market Square at Rynek Glowny 15, it dates back to 1364 when Mikolaj Wierzynek prepared a sumptuous wedding feast for the granddaughter of King Kazimierz the Great. (Tel. 48-12-422-10-35. Open 11:00 - 23:00, Summer 12:00 to midnight.) For lighter fare, or for those on a tighter budget, there are many cafés, pizzerias and restaurants that serve a variety of food very inexpensively. At Restauracja U Pollera, at the Hotel Pollera, ul. Szpitalna 30, (Tel. 48-12-421-80-61) you can fill up on a heaping plate full of delicious Polish potato pancakes with mushrooms, grapefruit juice and tea for 20 zl. Prices on their other dishes just as good.
Vegetarians dont despair: despite the heavy influence of meat in the Polish diet there are vegetarian dishes available.
BEST CULTURAL ENTERTAINMENT
Some examples of Krakow's regular annual events include a Festival of Sailors Songs in January; an Organ Music Festival in March or April and an Easter Beethoven Festival; Krakow Spring Ballet performances and the famous Lajkonik Pageant, headed by the legendary figure of Lajkonik in May and June; and the prestigious Polish and International Short Film Festival in late May and early June. In July, there is the Summer Jazz Festival, and the Summer Festival of Opera & Operetta held in the Slowacki Theatre, as well as numerous other music and theatre festivals; October brings Eastern Europes oldest jazz festival, the All Souls Day Festival. The annual Competition of Nativity Scenes is held on the first Thursday of
December each year in the main square, and the Silent Film Festival is held for one week around mid-December.
Poland has a terrific array of handicrafts made by local artisans including embroidery, hand-painted wooden boxes and chests, paintings on glass, papercuts, and tapestries. Cepelia shops located throughout central Krakow sell them, but a fun place to go is Cloth Hall in the middle of the Main Market Square. There you will find every type of Polish craft and souvenirs as well.
Baltic amber is sold in many of the jewelry stalls in Cloth Hall, art galleries and Cepelia shops. Polish music is sold on CD at any of the music shops in town. There is a wide assortment of English language books about Krakow available at several bookshops right on the main square. Poland is also world-renowned for it's Poster Art and contemporary painting, exhibited in many art galleries located throughout the town. Local artists also sell their work along the city wall on Pijarska Street, where it is fun to just walk and look at the paintings, even if you dont buy any.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS Banks and ATMs
ATM's are called "Bankomats" in Poland. Using them is a fast and easy way to get Polish currency from your ATM card or credit card, especially when the lines at the exchange windows in the banks are long. Most major banks have ATMs and there are others that are operated by Euronet, the largest ATM network in Poland. The Polish currency is called a zloty.
Rotunda Orlik Club
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Basically, Krakow is a safe city. Just use your common sense, as you would at home. However, you should be extremely wary of thieves and pickpockets, especially when getting on or off public transportation. Somebody standing behind me while waiting to get off the train in Krakow furtively opened my backpack; luckily, though, I noticed and prevented him from stealing my cameras.
To prevent minor stomach upsets, avoid drinking Krakow's tap water. Even the Poles prefer bottled water, which is readily available for about $.60 US.
If you are in need of a doctor, Medicover, ul. Krotkal, Tel. 48-12-422-76-33 has an English-speaking staff of well-trained nurses and doctors. There is a list of hospitals, clinics, doctors and dentists in the bimonthly edition of Krakow in Your Pocket, or look in the phone book.
Although no vaccinations are required for Poland, the CDC advises you get vaccinated against Hepatitis A, which is still a problem in Poland due to poor sanitation. Krakows 220 pharmacies are called "Apteka" and they are easy to locate. For dental problems, call Dent America, Tel./Fax 48-12-421-89-48.
Polish National Tourist Office
In Krakow, I found additional guidebooks, such as Cracow by Jan K. Ostrowski, which is rich in information on Krakows history and sites, and The Golden Book of Cracow by Grzegorz Rudzinski, which has some beautiful photographs as well as information on the sites.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Poland
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